Sunday, September 6, 2015

In the Land of the Svans, Part 2

Sunset on one of the four villages of Ushguli. Photo taken on film by Michelle
Lying at the end of a long, bumpy, unpaved road from Mestia is the village of Ushguli. Actually, Ushguli is comprised of four villages: Zhibiani, Chvibiani, Chazhashi, and Murqmeli. The villages lie at the foot of Georgia's highest mountain, Mount Shkhara, and at 2200 meters (7,217 feet) above sea level, Ushguli is Europe's highest inhabited village. (However, having been at elevations of 15,000 feet above sea level earlier this year, during our trip to Parque Nacionale Lauca in Chile, we weren't too phased by the elevation.)

A visit to Ushguli is definitely recommended if you're in Svaneti. There are a few ways to see Ushguli. The most popular is to do it as a day trip from Mestia. You would leave in a van with people from your guesthouse at around 9 am, get into Ushguli at 12 pm, and then have 4 hours to wander around before getting back on the bus at 4 pm. I would not recommend this, as you would practically be rushing around trying to see everything in this time frame. You may not think there's a lot to see in a small mountain village (or four), but everyone on our bus was running to and from the sites, trying to see everything in that small time frame.

The other ways to see and get to Ushguli are:

1) Take a van from your guesthouse, but stay there overnight and find a ride the next day (or however long you want to stay there). This is what we did. We had a lovely time and we really enjoyed our hosts and our guesthouse experience. We were also able to explore the mountain and the villages at our own pace, without feeling pressed for time. The only downside was that the ride back to Mestia was pretty expensive!

2) Hike from Mestia to Ushguli and camp and/or stay in guesthouses in villages along the way. This is what the folks from Uncornered Market did. We also spoke with a guy from India who had just finished hiking to Ushguli from Mestia and stayed in guesthouses along the way. The hike takes 4 days. If you like camping, hiking, and have time, I think this is a great and unique way to see this region. You would also explore lots of villages that people who go on day trips and people like us bypass. As with option 1, though, you would have the issue of finding transportation back to Mestia.

3) Cycle or ride your motorbike/4x4 car to Ushguli. (We would not recommend taking a regular car as there are some parts of the road that a regular car would not be able to pass.) We did pass two men who were cycling to Ushguli. Our van driver snickered at them and said in Russian, "Good luck cycling to Ushguli!" But we saw them in the cafe in Ushguli later in the afternoon. We also saw two people on motorbikes coming in as well. So these options are definitely doable and you wouldn't be reliant on anyone for transportation. You would also have the advantage of exploring Ushguli at your own pace.

So, what did we do there? Well, after dropping our bags off at our guesthouse, we walked through the villages towards Mount Shkhara. It's a beautiful walk, and you are rewarded with majestic views of the mountains, pretty flowers, and grazing cows. Very bucolic.

Cows on mountainside by Mt. Shkhara, Usguli, Svaneti, Georgia. Taken on film by Michelle
Orange poppies, daisies, and wildflowers on the trail to Mt. Shkhara. Photo by Mitya

Bird on hillside, against backdrop of Svan tower and mountains. Photo taken by Mitya
Cows grazing on the mountainside. Photo by Mitya
After about an hour or so on this trail, you are rewarded with this beautiful view:

Panorama of Mt. Shkhara and Caucasus Mountain range. Photo by Mitya
We ran into the people in our van on this trail, and they were all running back to catch the van. No stopping to smell the roses for them!

You can keep hiking on this trail for another few hours, but we decided to turn back and visit the villages.

I love the detail of the stones in this photo. Taken by Mitya
Two of the four villages of Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Cow grazing by a Svan Tower. Photo by Mitya
Teaching Svan children how to ride a horse in Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Sunset in Ushguli. Photo by Mitya

While we were walking around, a cow started to approach me. I froze up, not knowing what to do, and then, it licked my camera lens!

Once the sun set, we came back to our guesthouse and were treated to a huge dinner by our host, which included khachapuri (a Georgian cheese pie). They had some very cool midcentury modern furniture, and I loved how they stored their books:

Georgian books at the guesthouse of Nina Nijaradze, Ushguli. Photo by Michelle
 In the morning, we were treated again to a large and generous meal for breakfast. We were told by the hotel owner's son that his grandmother made the cheese!

Our breakfast at the guesthouse of Nina Nijaradze. Photo by Mitya
The neighbor of the family we stayed with also owns a Svan tower, so we were given a tour of it as well!

Svan tower we visited, Ushguli. Photo by Michelle.
The day before, we spoke to the owner of the Ethnography museum, who encouraged us to come inside. We told him we would come back the next day, although now I regret not going in when the owner was there, because the man who opened up the museum for us the next day was quite grouchy and didn't even try to explain what the various objects in the museum were. Oh, well.

Before heading back to Mestia, we took one last walk around the village, and saw this:

Svan child on horse, Ushguli. Photo by Mitya
Overall, we had a great stay in Ushguli and I would highly recommend anyone coming here to stay at least one night. If you'd like to stay at the same guesthouse where we stayed, our host's name is Nina Nijaradze and their phone number is +995595854749. He speaks Russian fluently and his son speaks some English. We paid 50 GEL (approximately $25 USD) for a one night stay, including meals.

Related posts:
In the Land of the Svans, Part 1
The Road to Svaneti

Useful resources:
Uncornered Market blog
WikiTravel on Ushguli
WikiTravel on Svaneti (has details about hikes in the region as well as the hike from Mestia to Ushguli)