Gt Caucasus, Svaneti, Georgia
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
We are off to the remote valley junction which nestles Ushguli, probably Georgia’s most fascinating mountain village and claimed to be the highest inhabited village in Europe. The drive is long and consistently beautiful, heading east up above the Mestia valley then down into the long Enguri valley which we climb, in a deep gorge, until it debouches into the high, grassy bowl of Ushguli. We are met by a marvellous spectacle of a series of stone-built hamlets sitting comfortably in their fields above a vigorous stream, one of them on the divide of the stream into two upper valleys; the main village climbs above the main (northern) valley to a knoll crowned by a tower and wall and the roof of a little chapel. Towers are the theme here - around 30 of them, slender and austere, dating from the C10 onwards, bristling out of the hamlets. There were more before the Soviet Army did their bit.
We are going to explore Ushguli at leisure after our walk, so we drive on up through a narrows of the main Enguri valley, to start walking at the base of a long, wide, level valley of extreme beauty between high, grassy slopes. (I suspect we would normally walk from the village, but my slowness on previous walks makes our guides cautious, as time is limited because of the long drive back.)
The vast ice-and-rock ridges around Mt Shkhara, at 5,193m Georgia’s highest mountain, dominate our view. Various ice-falls and glaciers tumble off it, the Shkhara Glacier, at our valley-head, being the main one. It is clean white at its top, and very dirty by the time it reaches its base.
The trudge up the track is walking heaven, a gentle, steady climb on ground so easy you are free to drink in the visual joy all about.
We reach the beginning of a steeper, rocky climb over the crushed base of the retreating glacier, with an overlay of dumped boulders and debris. First up is an area of twisted dwarf birch, in bright Autumnal yellow, which opens out to stretch of wide, stony slope with water tricking down it. Hints of the glacier, which had disappeared from sight, show themselves. The track become a puff up steeper, broken rock; at its crest we find we are close under the now-huge walls of the glacier. A final clamber over crazed detritus has us as close as is safe - Giorgi sensibly warns us to stay back.
Glaciers always amaze me, though I can’t put my finger on quite what is so gripping, and they tend not to be conventionally beautiful close up.
A steep wall of ice towers above us, hard to assimilate but perhaps 100ft high. Collapsed slabs choke what looks like a huge ice cave – the freezing stream which surges out around them is too big to wade. This glacier is even dirtier than the Gergeti above Kasbegi. It is hard to see any ice through most of the surface, and the top of the glacier, when later viewed from further back, is jumbled rock. Trickles trickle and drips drip off it; there is a constant scuttle of grit and rattle of pebbles. On the rim high above, big stones wait to crash down – I wouldn’t want to be nearby when they come.
We spend a happy half hour contemplating this grubby glory – and some of the best-ever impromptu sculptures, single-stone piles way above even a giant’s reach. How were they made?
The walk back is a delight. Not much to report, as we retrace our steps (the usual course with glacier visits). The valley is just as beautiful viewed from above, with its wide sward dotted with ponies, its bright, wooded, snowy-ridged flanks and the icy peaks of the Svaneti Range towering behind.
We lunch on tangy cabbage soup in a hut half way down, then walk down the gorgeous lower wide mid-valley. A horseman drives cattle down behind us, joined by what looks like a mounted soldier, we assume a border-guard moonlighting. Beyond the narrower lower valley, we cross the river and climb to the tower and C12 Lamaria church in a walled enclosure on the knoll just above Ushguli. The church is a dark little glory, its walls all faded frescoes, including a soft-faced Christ above the altar. It is so solid and small-windowed that it evokes, again, an Ethiopian rock church.
Through the low door in the southern wall, the long valley falls slowly away, with the Ushguli hamlets, all towers and decrepitude, nestled below. We walk slowly down through the hamlets, revelling in the extraordinary atmosphere of this (unfortunately?) World Heritage Site. The only places I’ve seen which are remotely like it (Reggie’s talked often of the villages of the Yemen) are the tower-villages of Greece’s Mani Peninsula (and, on a grander scale, Italy’s San Gimignano), and the cause seems to be the same: blood-feuding. Given the rigours of life up here, with months snow, building these must have been an exhausting diversion from the busy activity of keeping one step ahead of the elements. Wonderful.