Ushguli and Mestia, 23rd-25th October, 2012
Hitchhiking the pot-holed, tire-mown dirt-track to the “highest village in Europe” – or so it proclaims itself – was quite some adventure. Ushguli sits atop a 2,200m high plateau, (or at least 2,000m, depending on your sources), in a remote part of the Svaneti region in the North-West of Georgia. The area is famous for its beauty, unique culture and the Svan towers dotted about the landscape, used for harbouring villagers during times of conflict.
There’s almost no traffic at all from Lentekhi. We wait patiently by the roadside – Alfie nose-deep in a book, Emée strumming her guitar and me learning Russian on my MP3 course – for well over an hour before I glance up to see a small blue campervan bumbling along the road towards us: hippies! They’re kind of full already and we’re a lot of people with a lot of bags, but still we squish in and continue our journey together with our new friends Lisa and Tom.
After Lentekhi, the road peters out into a dirt track with more dips and dives than flat parts. The camper lurches, bumps and struggles up the worst ‘road’ I’ve ever seen – in fact it isn’t a road at all. The map told us Ushguli was only 80km and we expected to reach it in a couple of hours. After 3-4 hours we pass a car coming the opposite way. The driver immediately jumps out, demanding with an American accent to know how long the drive took from Lentekhi. “Is the road like this the whole way?” he wants to know. He’s driving a car with Georgian plates, obviously a hired vehicle. Tom, on the other hand, knows their camper well and swerves and dodges the craters with professional zeal. He’s for sure the best driver who could have taken us, save for locals. The American tells us we’ll be another thee or four hours before we reach the village. I don’t believe him, but I’m about to be proved wrong.
We arrive at Ushguli very late. Tom and Lisa, ready to flop into bed themselves, drop us outside the first ‘hotel’ we find. There are potentially others further inside the village, but after the eight hour drive up the mountain, we just want to sleep. We bargain the price with the elderly man who opens the door, using a series of mimes; gesticulations; drawings and the few basic words we know, managing to effectively get one person in for free. There’s a glacier not far from the village and sleeping outside seems unthinkable.
There are also others staying in the ‘hotel’, actually more like a pension: a group of three guys and a woman from the U.S. We decided to eat dinner together and they take us to the village restaurant, putting paid to the lies told by the old man running the pension that there’s nothing to eat in the village apart from his wife’s soup, which she would warm up for us for only the price we saved bartering the room.
The restaurant is also the only bar in the village, largely full of drunk Georgians conversing loudly between toasts. Toasting is a big part of Georgian culture and drinking is traditionally more like a ceremony than a party, with a toast master and various rules and customs. After some minutes, a very drunk man staggers over to us – “Hey, where’re y’all from?” he drawls, a big grin spread across his face. He introduces himself, a young guy from Denver whose name sadly escapes me. He’s come to Ushguli to spend the winter studying reactions to climate change. I am thoroughly fascinated by this information and am dying to ply him with questions. “I’m drunk!” he tells us. Apparently he’s been living here with the villagers for some weeks and they simply will not allow him to be sober. He soon stumbles merrily out of the door and off to his bed, sadly never to be seen again, a thousand questions left unspoken.
After a big exhausted sleep, Alfie and I wander the village, leaving Emée to play her trumpet to the mountains. We gape at towers, coo at animals and offer meek “hello”s to villagers as they carry on about their way. I feel like a big fat shiny tourist, which no doubt I am.
A small doorway pronounces itself an ‘Ethnographic Museum’ and a woman hurries to open it when she sees us walking by. Alfie is reluctant to go in, fearing high prices, but it’s not too much. We peek inside the dimly lit room as another, older woman wanders around the edge selecting random objects and brandishing them for our inspection. She points at the loom – “Ahhh!” we say. She points at an elaborately decorated chair – “Ooooh!” we exclaim.
Another group of four travellers from Slovakia, some Georgians, Tom, Lisa and ourselves sit in a large circle, drinking heavily. I want to drink beer, but I’m not allowed. Whenerver I try I’m strongly, almost forcefully, encouraged to try the Georgian wine instead. It’s a cloudy yellow-green and tastes to me kind of how it looks: like wee. But this is nothing in comparison to the chacha, the strong homemade Georgian brandy, and when that arrives the drunkenness is accelerated.
We were planning on leaving today, on hitching a little way down the mountain to the slightly less remote village of Mestia. I get chatting to the Slovakian guy next to me, who tells me their group are paying for an excursion from Mestia and they have three spare seats in their car – maybe they can take us if we give a bit of money for the petrol. The toast master is actually their driver. I watch him earnestly make another toast with an empty glass, a signal to us all that we should down our drinks in one. He looks very, very drunk. “Great, thanks!”
“To Slovakia, France, Germany, Italy, England – we are all neighbours!” … “To family!” … “To parents!” … “To the women!” … “To the men!” … “To friends!” … “To peace!” … “To the dead!”
As the bright sunny day wears on, the toasting speeches become more elaborate… “Our family is waiting for us. May the roads be good and we will reach our home safe!” … “This thanks and this cheers is not enough, and will never be enough, but we can still do it!”
Finally, it’s time to leave – but there’s a problem. The guy who promised the car seats to us also promised them to two Polish guys at the next table. We are all far too drunk to decide what to do about this, but somehow I end up climbing into the car with all of the other Slavic travellers, leaving Emée and Alfie to attempt to hitchhike their way down.
I’m driven to the guesthouse where the others are staying. The alcohol in my veins has withered into a dull tired lethargy and strong desire for water. I erect my tent in the garden one terrace up from the others and crawl into my sleeping-bag to hide from the cold, feeling extremely unsociable.
I am reunited with my comrades the following day, after their own sleepless night camping on concrete outside tourist information. “This place is shit”, they announce at our rendezvous on the bridge. Mestia is apparently an out of season ski-resort, a clone-town not quite yet constructed, in a mock-historical style. We are under-impressed.
It takes more or less forever to hitch a ride out of town. Plenty of people are stopping, but they all want exorbitant amounts of money to take us to where they’re going anyway. Finally a small car full of friendly Georgians stops and takes us approximately 2km out of town, from where we wait another age for another 3km lift. In this manner we inch our way halfway down the mountain, before giving in and climbing into a mashutka bound for Zugdidi.