Ushguli is an area of four small villages and some 200 people that stands more than 2,000 meters high in the Caucasian Mountains of Georgia. Snowbound for six months of the year, the region is now a Unesco World Heritage site for its preserved medieval buildings that form defensive towers.
Georgia – Been There

Georgia's heart is up a mountain

Photo by Luis Dafos

Georgia – Been There Georgia's heart is up a mountain

Ten years ago, only the crazy went to the Georgian province of Svaneti.

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

Assuming you survived the hairpin turns up Georgia's crumbling mountain roads, you had a more-than-reasonable chance of being abducted by local bandits, caught up in one of the region's ubiquitous blood feuds, or robbed and left for dead. But that was then.

Now, Svaneti's capital, Mestia, is accessible by newly-paved roads and – sometimes – by plane (there is technically an airport; the flight schedules run on “Georgian time”). There's a new ski resort, here, and plenty of wifi; traditional Svan houses have been redesigned as Swiss-style chalets: perfect for the tourists that come in search of boutique hotels.

But in Ushguli, little has changed.

A three-hour, four-wheel drive from Mestia, Svaneti's highest village rejects the renovations that have reshaped the provincial capital. Here, goats wander ruined towers; piglets and sheep nose through wildflowers.

I head to the local ethnographic museum – marked only by a handwritten sign in a private house. The museum's owner, an old man called Roland Chelidze, beckons me inside. He has set aside his parlour and terrace for the museum: a collection of farming and hunting tools from mountain eras past, the memorabilia of some of the early climbers to scale the nearby glacier.

Then he takes out the pandauri. This, he grins, is real Svan culture. He warbles out a wild, atonal song – it's about love, he tells me, and death. It's a song they all know.

In the corner, his teenage granddaughter – visiting from school in Tbilisi, I learn – stands watching, playing with her phone. Roland invites her to join us and sing. It's her culture too, after all.

She rolls her eyes and goes back to texting.

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