Ushguli, Georgia

Ștefan Cândea
Mestia is the last settlement our car has access to. From here on we rent a Jeep for the next 45 km – and yet the ride takes about three hours. We want to reach Ushguli, one of the highest villages in Europe – and one of the oldest, most isolated ones. We gain access by means of a wider foot path, wide enough for a car to pass. On the road I gain a deeper insight on what a truly isolated region it actually is. Mestia is severed from the rest of the country by snow three months a year and from Ushguli six-seven months a year. Mestia can be reached by helicopter in case of emergency, but Ushguli, home to almost 50 families live, is unreachable. We’re at over 2000 metres altitude at the foot of the highest summit in Georgia – Shkhara (over 5.000 metres).

The concern the police manifested for us the day before wasn’t random. In this region, both the army and the police are bound to take care of tourists. They constantly patrol the zone and take a thorough interest in who goes where and for how long. Even the local policeman of Ushguli, a middle-aged local wearing a sort of American uniform, blue cap and sunglasses, followed me into a shop to check if the saleswoman had given me the change correctly. According to the locals, six years ago, the region was virtually unworkable because of a clan – from a village near Mestia – who controlled it. The Aprasidze family would run unlawful operations against tourists, but also locals. In 2004, after the Rose Revolution, the newly elected president Saak'ashvili gave a personal order for the clan to be annihilated through an operation of wide scope. The leader of the gang – the father and his four sons together with a Russian fellow villager – barricaded themselves in the fortified family tower as the custom was in times of dire straits. Except that in the past there were no missiles and helicopters. This law enforcement operation required 12 helicopters and several hundred officers. The Ombudsman defined the operation as a serious breach of human rights.

And yet, after two members of the clan were killed and the rest imprisoned, tourists started to slowly appear in the region. Foreigners, of course, because the region is listed in Lonely Planet. Going up towards Ushguli in the wilderness, navigating through cows and semi-wild boar families, an army SUV finds a spot to pass us up. A long-haired Japanese wearing a red Gore-Tex, knees to his chin, glued to a mountain bike the same colour as his jacket stoically makes his way through the militaries. He is lucky. We learn the militaries convey all the tourists to make sure nothing happens to them. They even accept do it for free by means of a military plane (between Mestia and Kutaisi) when they have available places; otherwise, such a journey normally lasts 5 hours by car.