Hard mountain life and wild nature in Ushguli (Georgia)

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.

Always safer to use a condom if you meet unknown girl
Always safer to use a condom if you meet an unknown girl…
Useful assistances from the Sky
Useful assistances from the Sky

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!

Mount Ushba (4,710 m)
Mount Ushba (4,710 m)
Zhamushi village
Zhamushi village
Mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m)
Mount Tetnuldi (4,858 m)

On a patch of thistles, I spotted also some butterflies: a Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) and two Silver-spotted Skippers (Hesperia comma).

Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)
Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)
Silver-spotted Skipper (Hesperia comma)
Silver-spotted Skipper (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.

The road along Enguri river
The road along Enguri river

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.

"Tower of love", Bogreshi
“Tower of love”, Bogreshi

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.

Bulldozer cleaning the road from a slide
Bulldozer cleaning the road from a slide
Rough road along the Enguri stream
Rough road along 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).

Murkmeli
Murkmeli
Chazhashi
Chazhashi
Chazhashi
Chazhashi

Finally the main village of Ushguli, with the fantastic view of Shkhara glaciers in behind!

Ushguli with the mount Shkhara in the back
Ushguli with the mount Shkhara in the back

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.

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Ushguli
Ushguli

There was no asphalt on the streets: the gravel and the stones mixed there with the poo of the many vagrant domestic animals.

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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.

Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa)
Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa)
Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)

I walked to the end of the village where, on the top of a hill, was built in IX-X century  the Lamaria Monastery.

Lamaria Monastery
Lamaria Monastery

The slopes of the hill were covered by number of tombs, with their funny photographic tombstones…

A tomb
A tomb

…but also by stunning autumn-flowering yellow crocuses Crocus scharojanii and few other flowers.

Crocus scharojanii
Crocus scharojanii
Thyme sp. (Thymus sp.)
Thyme sp. (Thymus sp.)
Crocus scharojanii
Crocus scharojanii
Eyebright sp. (Euphrasia sp.)
Eyebright sp. (Euphrasia sp.)

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.

Kelekhi
Kelekhi
Orthodox priest
Orthodox priest
Kelekhi
Kelekhi
Old orthodox priest
Another old orthodox priest

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…

Bells
Bells
Lamaria church (church of the Assumption of the Mother of God)
Lamaria church (church of the Assumption of the Mother of God)

…but rich in XII century frescoes and innumerable icons inside!

Entry chapel
Entry chapel
Icons mix
Icons mix
Absidal painting with Christ Pantocrator
Apsidal frescoes with Christ Pantocrator

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.

Faint drawn faces, but also graffiti of some idiotss
Faint drawn faces, but also graffiti of some idiots

In the grass around the monastery I spotted some stunning Red-fronted Serins (Serinus pusillus).

Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus)
Red-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus)

On the foothill of Lamaria there was the tiny Jgrag church of Saint George, with nice carved wooden portal.

Church Jgrag
Church Jgrag
Jgrag church portal
Jgrag church 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.

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros ochruros)

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros ochruros)

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros ochruros)
Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros ochruros)

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.

Svan old lady

Svan old lady
Svan old lady
Riding little girl
Little girl riding a horse
Sewing lady
Sewing lady
Riding kids
Riding kids

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.

Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus fuscus)
Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus fuscus)
House Martin (Delichon urbicum)
House Martin (Delichon urbicum)
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba dukhunensis)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba dukhunensis)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)

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!

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Chvibiani Church
Chvibiani Church

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They were my last sightings of sun, because unfortunately the forecast for tomorrow was particularly bad.

The village in the evening
The village in the evening

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 first stray dog to chase me
The first stray dog to chase me

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.

Bellflower sp. (Campanula sp.)
Bellflower sp. (Campanula sp.)
Matricaria sp.
Matricaria sp.
Symphytum caucasicum
Rough Comfrey (Symphytum asperum)
Stachys macrantha
Stachys cf. macrantha
Trifolium sp.
Trifolium sp.
Epilobium cf. colchicum
Epilobium cf. colchicum
Physcia sp. on Betula cf. pendula
Physcia sp. on Betula cf. pendula

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.

Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)
European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)
Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus)
Caucasian Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)
Caucasian Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta coutellii)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Caucasian Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus sindianus lorenzii)
Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos homeyeri)
Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos homeyeri)

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.

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Instead I noticed some tadpoles in a pond (possibly Rana macrocnemis?) and a couple of squashed toads Bufotes variabilis.

Bufotes (Bufo) variabilis
Bufotes (Bufo) variabilis

In the last quarter of the trail, the route climbed a huge scree till the tongue of Shkhara glacier.

Shkhara glacier

Shkhara glacier
Shkhara glacier

The Enguri stream had digged a deep cave under the ice, coming up from the glacier.

Shkhara glacier
Shkhara glacier
The cave under the glacier
The cave under the Shkhara glacier

The colours and patterns of ice were particularly attractive, with hundreds of tinges from pearly grey to golden, to deep blue.

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Another interesting pattern, for almost abstract photos, was that one of jurassic shales, rather frequent along the valley.

Jurassic shales
Jurassic shales

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.

White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus caucasicus)

White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus caucasicus)

White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus caucasicus)
White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus caucasicus)

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).

Prancing horse
Prancing horse
Four-spot Orb-weaver (Araneus cf. quadratus)
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.

Piglets
Piglets
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba dukhunensis)
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba 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!

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Luca Boscain

2 thoughts on “Hard mountain life and wild nature in Ushguli (Georgia)

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