Visiting Ancient Ushguli, Georgia's Village in the Clouds
14 September, 2017
Visiting Ancient Ushguli, Georgia's Village in the Clouds
Ushguli, highest Georgian village located in Svaneti has been featured by Cntraveler, luxury and lifestyle travel magazine. Recognized as the Upper Svaneti UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ushguli is one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe.

Author of the article is Benjamin Kemper, food and travel writer. According to the article, a visit to Tusheti means the equestrian adventure of the one’s life.

Here is what the article says:

As globalization and development creep in, an ancient community asks
itself what’s gained—and lost.

When their horse let out a wheeze and keeled over dead in the snow, Aluda and Gegi Charkseliani knew they were in trouble. The nearest hospital was still ten miles away, and a friend writhing in abdominal pain between them in the saddle needed a doctor badly. Waist-deep in snow, the teenagers were terrified, left without a lifeline in the silent wilderness of the Caucasus. But then instinct kicked in: They had to keep moving. “At least the wolves won’t attack us—the horse carcass will keep them busy,” the cousins reasoned, as they took turns piggybacking Matro, their friend, down the mountain to safety.

There are no ambulances in Ushguli, Georgia, the highest continually inhabited settlement in Europe, at 7,000 feet. Here, against the snowy backdrop of Mount Shkhara, the third-tallest mountain in Europe, medieval stone towers stand at attention like an immovable brigade. Cool, thin air whips across the hills. The nearest town, located 30 miles away, is cut off by snow from October to April, which puts the Charkselianis and 30 other local families in virtual isolation for most of the year.

Out of meat? Hunt for wild boar. Have appendicitis? Prepare for the equestrian adventure of your life.

Yet in spite of Ushguli’s harsh climate, the Svans, a predominantly green-eyed Georgian tribe of Orthodox Christians with direct links to ancient Mesopotamia, have dwelled in this Tolkien-esque valley in the sky since at least the first millennium BC. Strabo, the great geographer of the Roman Empire, called the Svans “a mighty people, foremost in courage and power.” Secluded in their mountain nooks, they basked in relative autonomy while invaders from Turkey, Persia, and beyond ravaged the neighboring lowland regions in back-to-back wars.

When enemies did venture into Svan territory, they found battle-ready villages guarded by formidable blockades of stone tower-houses, many of which are still standing—more than one thousand years later. "There used to be 300 towers in Ushguli alone," Mevluti Charkseliani, the owner of the local Ethnographic Museum, told me over tea in his living room. "But today just 30, protected by UNESCO, remain fully intact—still the highest concentration in the region, and the village’s biggest draw." (Charkseliani is a name you hear often in Ushguli; Aluda is Mevluti’s son and Gegi is Mevluti's nephew.)

Georgia’s recent tourism boom—the number of international arrivals has doubled in the last five years—has brought Ushguli a glut of summer vacationers, who descend on the town by the selfie-snapping jeep-load each morning. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. Until former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s nation-wide crackdown on crime in the mid-2000s, travel here was infrequent.

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Ushguli once had 300 stone tower-houses, but today, just 30 remain

Like visitors to the Amish country, many who arrive in Ushguli today hope to glimpse a culture on the edge of time, before it’s “too late.” Most will scurry up a restored tower; visit the museum; and savor the succulent, meat-filled Svan flatbread called kubdari. Some will rent horses and ride along the Enguri River to the foot of Mount Shkhara. But with so much to see in Georgia—and no registered hotels in the village—few will spend the night.

For a place largely unvisited for centuries (the wheel and automobile arrived within 20 years of each other), it’s still unclear what’s to be lost and gained from slapdash tourism. With globalization comes homogenization, and the distinctive Svans, with their polyphonic folk songs, pagan celebrations, and pantheon of nature gods, stand to lose much of what has made them, well, them.

“We’re especially worried about our language, because the younger generation is starting to forget it,” said Mevluti, who speaks exclusively in Svan to his children. With local schools taught in Georgian, the future of the Svans’ unwritten mother tongue, which has been spoken throughout these mountain valleys for 4,000 years, is in jeopardy.

For now, it seems, there’s no looking back. The muddy track from Ushguli to Mestia, where Aluda, Gegi, and Matro nearly froze to death in 2012, is lined with signs and construction tape, slated to be paved by 2022. Once unreachable but for a few brief months each year, Ushguli will soon be on the tour bus circuit, tilting the social balance further toward commercialism and away from the traditional Svan way of life. But the cleared road will also mean peace of mind for a community that deserves it. Jobs will be created, buildings will be repaired, and teenagers won’t have to risk hypothermia for standard medical care. When asked about this inevitable tradeoff, Mevluti paused before speaking. “We’re not scared of change in Ushguli—what we’re scared of is loss.”

Related stories:

Life in the clouds: Ushguli, highest village in Europe

Climbing in the Caucasus: postcard views from the towers of Ushguli, Georgia – The Guardian

The Surreal World from the Eyes of an Ushguli Artist
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