Here we will write about how we got to Svanetia taking the most challenging but most beautiful road from Lentekhi to Ushguli and about our first impressions of Ushguli.
On a warm and sunny August morning in August 2017, a month-long trip from Berlin to Georgia through the Balkans and Turkey laid behind us. Ahead of us, there was a 75 km long ascent up the almost non-existent path to Upper Svaneti, an ultimate goal of our road trip.
After Lentekhi, the road was getting more beautiful every second. The whitewater river in the lush green valley, the authentic villages after Lentekhi, bathing in streams that literally crossed the road, mountain meadows of flowers and the glaciers closer to Ushguli – this was the biggest highlight of our whole trip.
Meanwhile, the road from Lentekhi to Ushguli was also getting worse and worse. But here it was – a real 4×4 challenge that we’ve got our Land Rover Gnu for. We came to Ushguli quite late, around 18:00, having left Kutaisi around 9:00 – and having made a few small stops on our way.
On the way we met 4 Land Rover Discoveries with Polish license plates – Podróże 4×4
The evening in Ushguli is probably the most beautiful time of the day. The cold air comes down from the mountains when night falls. The towers, the houses and the barns hide the village in their shadows. There are some empty meadows around the village and we chose one next to the river where a dirt road leads up to the glaciers for our campsite.
Now I should probably say a couple of words about Ushguli and Svanetia and why this place was so special and attractive to us. First of all Ushguli is the highest village of Europe. Situated on the Great Caucasian Range, the village used to be cut off from the rest of the world for 7 months a year till the 1930th. Due to the absence of roads and the difficult access, Svanetia managed to preserve a lot of its historic cultural artefacts – like icons dating to 9-12th centuries, old Bibles and a big part of its cultural tradition. And then it is so incredibly beautiful.
You may read more about Svanetia in National Geographic. There is a good documentary about the old Svanetia – “Salt for Svanetia” (1930) by Michail Kalatozov, a Georgian born director who later moved to Moscow and even got a Palme d’Or for one of his films (“The Cranes are flying”). The most interesting fact is that he had to move to Moscow because of his Documentary about Svanetia – the Svans did not quite like it and promised to murder him if their ways should ever cross again.
I am a bit uncertain about what was so wrong about it from their point of view. Following the good tradition of first praising and only criticizing afterwards, the film speaks well of the Svans as hard-working and admires their struggle against nature for survival. Then it actually shows pregnant women being thrown out of their homes to give birth in the street, since giving birth is considered to be “filthy”. Then there is a Svan wake: all the possible respects are paid to the dead ones, money and animals are being sacrificed.
But I mean if they were ok with keeping all these rights and even proud of their ways why were they so mad at Kalatozov for filming it? Maybe they were not fond of the film’s ending: The film unexpectedly ends with muscular Soviet workers building a road to the mainland in order to end old prejudices and to open up the great communist future for Svanetia. A point that I like is that the road is being built from Svanetia to the mainland and the Svans liberate themselves according to the film. The whole thing means they were not enlightened by force by the Russian Soviets but made their own rational choice – how they suddenly came to the World Revolution from burying money with the dead ones remains not quite clear.
Nowadays you may still feel the wilderness of Svanetia in Ushguli. But it was already commodified a little. To my surprise (I have heard some 20 years ago it was dangerous even for Georgians to be here) the place was full of travellers from all over the world. Lots of houses rent out rooms, supply hungry hikers with Georgian meals and some provide taxi services offering to drive visitors wherever they would like – to the Glacier or even to the next town – Mestia which has a better road and a frequent bus connection to the Georgian ‘mainland’.