The village of Ushguli (უშგული in Georgian), in the high Caucasus, is considered the highest continuously inhabited settlement in Europe, lieing at about 2,100 m of altitude on the foothill of Shkhara (5,201 m), the highest mountain of Georgia. Like other communities of the Svaneti, here as well the most representative arctitectures are the medieval towers that gained to the region the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ushguli, that is in the truth composed by 4 different settlements, use to be isolated for 6 months a year because of snow till recent times and is still one of the remotest places to visit in Georgia. Enough to think: “I want to get there!“
At the time of my visit, in September 2018, the trip to the village was relatively easy. Tourism increased amazingly fast in the Svaneti and Mestia, the capital of the region that I described extensively on the post “Birdwatching among the towers of Svaneti and the fantastic sceneries of Caucasus” (link), has become a must for people that visit Georgia, offering a lot of different option to get to Ushguli, going from modern 4×4 vehicles, to much more “old fashion” and cheaper marshrutka (= minivan) that reached daily the village. I was also at the end of summer, so the warm season had allowed to arrange in the best way the route: I guess that in spring the situation could be at least more complicate because of thaw, heavy rains and resulting mudslides.
My trip therefore started from Mestia (მესტია) and I decided to travel by marshrutka: the young driver was ready for every situation, with a safe condom to use at an eventual meeting with pleasant turist ladies but also with some useful assistances by heavenly nomenklatura.
Climbing the slopes of the valley of Mulkhra river, nearby Chvabiani (ჩვაბიანი), the marshrutka stopped to offer the possibility to take some photos: with finally the sun, the mountains were magnificent as well as the small villages with their own towers!
On a patch of thistles, I spotted also some butterflies: a Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) and two Silver-spotted Skippers (Hesperia comma).
After the pass from which you could reach the Tetnuldi Ski Resort, the road descended to the valley of Enguri river and the asphalt turned first into cement and than into gravel.
I stopped also to visit a solitary tower built on the river bank that was called the “tower of love” because of the legend of a couple of lovers that decided to live there in order to stay together despite the prohibition of families.
The route got worse and worse, approaching Ushguli, with a lot of roardworks on the sides, but also with breathtaking gorges and views into the Enguri stream.
At the end the valley opened into some lovely pastures with horses and the first towered villages appeared: Murkmeli (მურყმელი) and Chazhashi (ჩაჟაში).
Finally the main village of Ushguli, with the fantastic view of Shkhara glaciers in behind!
Here tourism had arrived as well, with tens of tourists from all the world and new guest-houses emerging like mushrooms among the old stone buildings and towers, but the mix was still acceptable.
There was no asphalt on the streets: the gravel and the stones mixed there with the poo of the many vagrant domestic animals.
In the garden of my guest-house I spotted the first and the last butterflies in Ushguli: a Red Admiral and an attractive Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa), while a Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus) soared in front of the snows of Shkhara.
I walked to the end of the village where, on the top of a hill, was built in IX-X century the Lamaria Monastery.
The slopes of the hill were covered by number of tombs, with their funny photographic tombstones…
…but also by stunning autumn-flowering yellow crocuses Crocus scharojanii and few other flowers.
There I found a sample of “sombre supra“, a burial feast typical of Georgia called kelekhi, with a lot of people and a couple of priests come from away.
The main church of the monastery, dedicated to the Assumption of the Mother of God, where ladies have to strictly to cover eventual visible legs, trousers and head, was very simple and bare from outside…
…but rich in XII century frescoes and innumerable icons inside!
Unfortunately, like in some other sacred monuments in Georgia, here as well the beautiful paintings were threated by the stupidity of ignorant tourists, mainly Russian or Georgian (judging by the used alphabet) that liked to write their names or messages on orrible graffiti.
In the grass around the monastery I spotted some stunning Red-fronted Serins (Serinus pusillus).
On the foothill of Lamaria there was the tiny Jgrag church of Saint George, with nice carved wooden portal.
On logs, dry stone walls and slate roofs I noticed an amazing number of Black Redstarts with different extensions of red on belly, flanks and rump. They were probably all attributable to the nominal subspecies Phoenicurus ochruros ochruros, but with individuals particularly similar to semirufus of Middle East.
Another remarkable trait of the village was the number of domestic animals left free to move everywhere: goats, pigs, horses, cows, dogs…
There weren’t many local people around: few old ladies and some childrens with amazing riding skills.
In the gardens of the village I noticed also some birds, including Bee-eaters, House Martins, White Wagtails, Dunnocks, Caucasian Chiffchaffs, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and a single Reed Warbler on migration.
With the last spots of light of the afternoon, the powerul towers and the Shkhara snows in the background the village of Ushguli were just gorgeous!
They were my last sightings of sun, because unfortunately the forecast for tomorrow was particularly bad.
The day after I started at dawn to walk to the Shkhara glacier: it was my last chance to look for Caucasian specialities, but a fresh breeze and some scattered raindrops didn’t leave a lot of hope.
From a house a pied dog came to me. I already knew this kind of behaviour, after many experiences with stray dogs in South America, so I rejected it. But the dog was particularly hardheaded and began to follow me at distance. It was the first of maybe 6-7 dogs that, even if rejected all of them, chased me during most of the day…
The path went almost in flat along the valley, following the right side of Enguri stream. here I noticed quite a few flowers, first in pastures and wet meadows, later in a birch woodland.
The birding was rather slow: the most exciting observation was a glimpse of a pair of Caucasian Black Grouse (Tetrao mlokosiewiczi) on an unattainable grassy hillside. But I had also a single Garganey on the stream, 2 Golden Eagles, Steppe Buzzard, Goshawk, Water and Tree Pipit, Yellow, White and Grey Wagtail, Dunnock, Robin, European Stonechat, Caucasian Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Great Tit and Goldfinch.
I haven’t seen any sign of presence of mammals, even if I scanned a lot the high pastures on mountain sides looking for Western Turs.
Instead I noticed some tadpoles in a pond (possibly Rana macrocnemis?) and a couple of squashed toads Bufotes variabilis.
In the last quarter of the trail, the route climbed a huge scree till the tongue of Shkhara glacier.
The Enguri stream had digged a deep cave under the ice, coming up from the glacier.
The colours and patterns of ice were particularly attractive, with hundreds of tinges from pearly grey to golden, to deep blue.
Another interesting pattern, for almost abstract photos, was that one of jurassic shales, rather frequent along the valley.
On the way back, I met the first hikers, most of them in thick groups. It was a luck to have decided to leave so early in the morning: I enjoyed all the climb and the view of the glacier in exclusive, before the arrival of crowd!
Further back, I was stopped for a good half an hour, together with some other tourists, by an heavy thunderstorm under the rickety tends of an improvised “bar“, at the base of climb to the glacier. At the tables, hardly heltered from the rain, but not from the gusts of wind, was possible to get a hot tea or a coffee, served by an old lady in slippers and heavy socks.
When the rain finished, despite the lack of light, I managed to have a much better view of one of the many White-throated Dippers (Cinclus cinclus caucasicus) that populated the Enguri clear waters.
Unexspected were the crazy behaviours of a foal, acting like the Ferrari prancing horse and the view of a tiny Four-spot Orb-weaver (Araneus cf. quadratus).
Coming back to the Lamaria Monastery area, I tried once again to locate the Red-fronted Serins that I couln’t photograph well the day before, but once again I failed with my efforts and some rain began again. Nearby a herd of piglets, I spotted only some Northern Wheatears and Whinchats and many White Wagtails of the very pale and white subspecies dukhunensis.
I was probably lucky to find heavy rain only the last day of my visit in Svaneti, because the drive back to Mestia had been yet an adventure, with waterfalls getting bigger and the ground mudder… I can’t imagine how can it be to drive along that road in intermediate seasons, when the narrow path is truly threated by the roadside mountain and river!