Ushguli, is the mythical place everyone seems to be heading. At 2,200 metres it is the highest inhabited community in Europe and its tough inhabitants endure 6 months of what I imagine to be a cruel winter. We the intrepid cycle the 50km from Mestia, others hike for 3 days on mountain trails. The majority of backpackers however come here in Marshrutkas (beaten-up old ford transit minibuses) or nimbler 4×4 Mitsubishi Delica taxis, locals pass in sturdy Ladas, whilst the Toyota Landcruisers are the choice of the many Israelis touring their ancestors homeland.(The Jewish community is one of the oldest in Georgia, tracing their migration into the country during the 6th century BC. Most now however live in Israel.) The German guy on the old steel road bike didn’t make it.
However you get to Ushguli it’s a rugged road requiring endurance and nerve, but you will be rewarded. The track winds it way up river turning your legs to jelly. There are rock falls and water and at points the drop to the river below tests your nerve. Ioan had his first fall, more a low speed lie down to avoid crashing into the torrent below.
Scenes on the road from Mestia to Ushguli (50km)
Wild Camping Caucasus Style
When you get there you are greeted with a community not much changed for 100’s, if not 1000’s, of years. Grimy stone Svan towers loom defensively in the foreground, whilst the breathtaking backdrop Shkhara (5,068 metres), the highest mountain in Georgia , dwarfs us all with her glacial wall. Young boys career down stone paths on strong horses, summer meadows are hand scythed, women milk their cows, pigs wander smiling through the slippy streets. There is shit everywhere. Any visitors arriving desperate for the loo can simultaneously relieve themselves and disavowal any romantic notions of this land by using one of the wooden, encrusted squat facilities that hang precariously over the river.
Our arrival in Ushguli coincided with that of a group of older walkers who have jumped out of their carriages a few kms down the road. We all enter the community expectant and we are greeted by a young lad and his horse pointing to a collection of sorry towers and urging us to visit his family guesthouse. ‘No, no. We are going to Ushguli,’ we tell him. ‘But this is Ushguli!’ he announces emphatically. And he is right, his lower village is one of the 4 hamlets that constitutes ‘Ushguli’; it’s just that his is less developed so we move on. I’m tired and angry by this point. Angry that people still shit in rivers (common practice in these parts), ashamed to be part of this touristic pilgrimage which seems to have had little impact on the living standards of this community. Our bag of rubbish swings from my back pannier, an appendage that i never know where to deposit. Hello human I’ve come to visit and here is my contribution to your waste problem!
In the ‘real’ Ushguli I breakdown, exhausted. I take a moment to sit alone on the verge of the road, it is alive with flowers and insects. I look up to see horses grazing high on the mountainside, men and women in fenced patchwork enclosures harvest shoulder high meadows, glacial strips of silver carry gold, quartz and untold preciousness from the sacred mountain. It is beautiful and feels a long, long way from anywhere no matter how you get here.
We rested in Ushguli a couple of nights regaining our strength for the next stage of this Caucasus adventure. Rather than go back on the road we came, we would push on – up over the pass – and then drop down back into civilization at Lentekhi, 75km away. It was a magical ride that required all our strength, stamina and determination and that was just to tolerate the enormous horse-flies that plagued us at the top.
From Ushguli to Lentekhi (75km)
We met fellow cycle tourists and concluded we are a strange tribe. We pitched camp beside raging rivers, as there was no other flat land when darkness caught us, and had an uneasy night as the rain fell.
Ioan foraged for wild strawberries and blackberries, whils I marvelled at all the wild flowers and herbs. I still don’t trust my own knowledge enough to properly forage for the medicinal and culinary delights that surrounded us, but I will get better.
As civilization returned we rode through deserted villages with abandoned old houses full of detail and craftmanship and day dreamed about the sustainble communities you could build here. Georgian monuments stood proud and Soviet squares were reclaimed by nature. We passed one garden where a huge new statue of Stalin paid homage to the Georgian born son. Apparently he is having a bit of a revival in some parts.
All in all the road to Ushguli lived up to its reputation as a damn fine cycling adventure.