Awakening before dawn in our guesthouse in Mestia, I see that it has snowed in the night. The air had been very still, and in the misty light, every rooftop, tree and fence is outlined with a sparkling trim of purest white, piled with exquisite fragility atop every form, down to the smallest twig. Electrical wires, sagging gracefully from pole to pole, became fat white ribbons, snowflakes delicately placed a hand’s width high and narrow as the wire itself, a fine tracery that the slightest air current would surely destroy.
We set off for Ushguli in a four-wheel drive van driven by the proprietor of our guest house. The streets of the town are largely empty at this early hour, and puddles of water that formed in the road catch the light of our headlamps, glazing the pavement with dazzling rosy light. The thrum of the vehicle’s motor stirs the local hounds into a snarling frenzy, and they chase us away, into the countryside, barking at our rear tires until they are satisfied that we are not turning back.
Leaving the town, the road we find is narrow and snow-packed, occasionally dissolving into troughs of dark slushy mud. It hews closely to the contours of the valley of the river Inguri, a zig-zagging rivulet of ruts, broken by random streams of trickling melt water. These washouts and bumps, intermittent obstacles to traverse, either slow us down, or completely stop us as the driver pauses to consider what has been placed before him. Then, skillfully playing the gear train and steering wheel, he creeps us across, jolting and rocking, and we go on. Continuing in this manner, we expect to travel the 40 km to Ushguli in three or four hours. Sometimes, crossing a bad spot, we get out and push, our feet braced deep in the wet snow, and our muscles straining to help the tire treads, spinning like rubber galaxies in a universe of ice, bite into a fresh surface and find traction.
As we round a bend, we can see ahead of us a small creek cutting across the road, dredging a deep furrow in the road surface, and flowing around some rough boulders. Carefully inching forward, we are almost across, and our driver is about to gun it for the momentum needed to climb out of the depression. But the front tire abruptly slips off a boulder, striking our undercarriage with the troubling grinding sound of unyielding rock against steel. We lurch to a complete stop, and the engine dies. The driver tries repeatedly, but cannot restart it. Struck by the boulder, the fuel line has been crimped.
He phones ahead to the next village, and in a few minutes, another vehicle arrives with three men, followed by a fourth riding bareback on a brown horse. After much discussion and head-wagging over the open engine compartment, the driver finally crawls under the vehicle to inspect the damage.
It is decided to make another phone call, this time to driver’s relative who lives in Mestia, for him to come and take us up the rest of the way. Then we admire the spectacle of our broken-down vehicle being towed by a team of four oxen, two horned males in front leading two cows, up the mountain road to Kala, the next village, where the new driver will meet us.
We walk ahead of the oxen. We pass some abandoned houses, yawning wrecks with shutters askew and crumbling plaster. As the attraction of a modern way of life grew strong, I suppose, people had simply discarded these buildings for better living conditions elsewhere. It was not hard to imagine, considering the isolation that must be felt in the dead of winter in an inaccessible place like this. A particularly fine rendition of Stalin’s face is scratched into the plaster of one of the houses.
Soon after that, we say goodbye to the first driver, and climb into the jeep of the second. As if to further signal a new chapter in this adventure, after a few bends, the character of the road, too, changes. It becomes narrower, a bit more raw, more treacherous. It has even more of an unfinished quality than the previous stretch, with a sheer wall of rock to our left, and a perilous drop to our right. As the sun begins to peek out intermittently from behind its blind of clouds, we see an otherworldly vista unfold before us, mountains in ghostly shrouds of snow, bristling with black trees, against cloud-dappled skies of the deepest blue.
We arrive in Ushguli late in the afternoon, nestled in its high, remote mountain valley, unreachable by any road at all before the 1930s, and still apparently untroubled by the passing of time. It sits encircled by gentle white slopes of snow-covered fields that rise gradually up to the dominating peaks that surround it. We have scarcely an hour of daylight left to explore the Svan defensive towers, the characteristic structures of the place, and get a sense of this extraordinary settlement. A UNESCO world heritage site, it is cited as the highest settlement in Europe that is inhabited the year round.
We wander among the thousand-year old structures of the lower village, some dating from the 8th century, occasionally encountering a skinny cow or a sad-looking horse, but no people. Walls composed of irregular flat gray stone, home to rusty orange lichens and dry tussocks of fine grass, surround us. The quiet is broken by an occasional cock-crow, barking dog, or the mooing of a discontented cow. A small pack of hungry-looking, semi-wild dogs take note of our presence, and we keep wary of them, at the same time trying to make as many photographs as we can in the waning light.
Eventually, we rejoin the driver on the main road further up in the small group of villages. We are cold and hungry, breakfast having been our only meal that day. He proposes taking us to the house of some people he knows, and so we slip, stumble and climb up the crude rocky trail that passes for a village street. Along the way, we come to a small group of children, heading home from the local school, accompanied by a big Caucasian sheep dog. They are led by a pair of small boys, who greet us proudly in English. I greet them back, congratulating them, and they smile and continue scurrying down the trail to the lower part of the village.
We come to a house, and a woman responds to our knock, peering at us from a window. She invites us into a warm steamy kitchen, where she is already preparing the khachapuri for her family’s evening meal. We are given places at the table.
Her father-in-law, some seventy years old, enters the room at the sound of guests arriving (“A guest is a gift from God,” goes the old Georgian saying), bringing with him a bottle of home-made brandy. He informs us that, during Soviet times, he had been an airplane pilot based in Kiev, and he now teaches Russian to children at the local school. As we eat, he toasts with us three times (thrice is the custom, he tells us), to family, to friendship, and that there may be no war in Donetsk, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
Later in the night, back in Mestia, we reunite with the first driver over supper at his guest house. The women of the house serve us plates of seriously good homemade food and a pitcher of chilled white wine. Between glasses drunk down and the inevitable, but heartfelt, toasts to friendship and the like, he tells us with pride, “It was useful to have that breakdown, so now you see how my neighbors respect me and come to help me when I need it.”