When I woke this morning, the overcast sky clarified my thinking. Do a day trip to Ushguli! An overnight that involved staying at Berdia’s brother’s hostel would be too complicated. It turned out to be the right decision.
I met Jenna and her husband (the Chinese couple) down in the main square with a minibus driver who appeared at the guesthouse, presumably at the bequest of the owner. He was hoping for more passengers so we waited a while. I had a cup of tea but around 10 I pushed it. We arranged a price (150GEL) and set out.
For about a half hour we cruised along a paved road. Then, that stopped and we were on a potholed track that went on and on for another 2 hours. I can’t say it was incredibly scenic at first. Mostly we were winding through a series of valleys and gorges. Also it was raining off and on. At a few points I was able to take a photo or two of a village and there was certainly plenty of cascading water. And oxen.
Finally the vistas opened up and the first of Ushguli settlements appeared: Murqmeli. It was immediately impressive.
Farming is done the traditional way.
Then we got off at Chazhashi.
The idea was to explore and see if we could find the museum. No luck. The place was nearly deserted. We rousted a guard from his nap who pretended to be interested and then went back to sleep.
We were able to marvel at the unique Svan towers up close. These sturdy 9th-century constructions were designed to protect villagers from their enemies whether foreign or from the next village.
We drove a little farther to Chvibiani where the driver parked at the entrance and we sat down for lunch in a local inn. The highlight of the dining room was this magnificent carved Svan “Man’s Chair”.
Then Jenna and I set out to explore the village despite the light rain and an extremely muddy track. No matter. We were entranced. There’s just no place even remotely similar and it’s so remote! Notwithstanding the ordeal to get here and the ancient, crumbling buildings, Chvibiani was clearly the most developed village with a sprinkling of guesthouses and notional “streets”.
Besides the towering peaks on all sides, what was there to see? Pust churches! The church with a screaming mouth.
There were very, very few people around as we walked to the highest village, Zhibiai and the 12th century Samaria church.
For a few brief moments, the clouds parted to enchant us with a glimpse of the beauty and strangeness of Svaneti.
For the descent it rained steadily.
So given the rain, the mud and the uncertainties of transport, I’m glad I didn’t try to stay a night but still it’s a magical place, not least for the unbearably dramatic backdrop of steep mountains that rose at a 90 degree angle, with cows grazing on the green carpet. Then the snow- capped peaks to top it all off. And the black-clad women, gnarly old men and farm animals everywhere. It was worth crossing Europe to see.