The next day we left for Ushguli. The Gabliani’s found us a driver (they know everybody in town) and after a cursory check of the car we took off. Today’s driver didn’t know English either – so, once again, we were back to talking with our hands. Ushguli is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – it is the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe, at about 2100m. The 47 km or so took us over two hours – it’s a road for jeeps only, and it is spectacular. We drove past rivers, mountains, valleys, meadows, tiny little homesteads and a Svan tower here and there. I’d go so far as to say that it might well be the most beautiful 50km stretch of road that I have been on. The reason was probably our speed – when you drive along at 20km/h you get to see the countryside – when you whizz through at 120km/h, whether its Monument Valley in the USA or the Icefields Parkway in Canada, you just miss so much.
There is very little going on in Ushguli. Many people walk to the Shkara Glacier – the village sits right at the feet of Mt Shkara, a 5000m high monster that is the highest mountain in Georgia. We arrived when clouds were rolling in (and a helicopter was flying out – possibly the President?), and the kids did not feel up to a 5 hour long hike. So instead, we found a restaurant (the only restaurant in town actually) and ordered kubda. Svaneti has its own special dishes – kubda is a bread baked with meat inside – not for everyone. The kids ordered chips and we also had a salad. We then found our guesthouse – most guesthouses are very old, but ours was new, with four rooms and three shared bathrooms. Our room was surprisingly good for such a remote place – comfortable and warm. We asked about horse riding, and our hostess (with very poor English) said that she would arrange a horse for us. About 20 minutes later, there was a horse, standing by itself outside the gate with no saddle or reins. We explained to our hostess that we would need it to be saddled up, and I wanted someone to guide us. The hostess called out, and her husband appeared, dressed in military fatigues – turns out that he is a soldier, and that the main employer in Ushguli is the military, while running a guesthouse comes in a close second. He spoke some English, and within a few minutes the horse was saddled and ready to go. All three kids took turns to ride as we made our way through the muddy streets and then onto the grasslands outside the village. The horse ride was a huge success!
Later, we explored the area on our own and went back for dinner. The most interesting parts of the guesthouse were the computer and the TV. Neither were hooked up to power – there didn’t seem to be any power outlet for them, so that sat there in the lounge looking impressive.
It then began to storm – an electrical storm that cut out all power and didn’t stop for hours. We ate dinner by candlelight with another group of (much older) Swiss and German hikers. The storm was incredible – massive claps of thunder, sheets of lightning, drumming rain – and it carried on for hours.
Ushguli is a popular day trip from Mestia – but that does mean a 4 hour round trip drive at least, and in bad weather it would be much longer, so we were glad to stay over and see what it felt like to stay in “Europe’s highest permanently inhabited spot”.
PS: These days I help plan great family trips to destinations on five continents!