57121 road to ushguli

I awaken before dawn in our guesthouse in Mestia, I see that it has snowed in the night. The air is 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 between poles, have become 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.

The silence of the laden air is further dampened by low-hanging clouds, still wet and heavy with their storehold of clumped snowflakes. The air seems so artificially still that I put a fingertip into each ear and massage them gently, a vain attempt to clear my hearing by dislodging the apparent bubble of air in my head. Then, across the mass of cold air, the sound of a faraway rooster crowing re-orients my perceptions.

We set off for Ushguli in a four-wheel drive jeep driven by the proprietor of our guest house. The streets are largely empty at this early hour, and puddles of water in the road catch the light of our headlamps, glazing the pavement with dazzling rosy light. The thrum of the motor stirs the local hounds into a snarling frenzy, and they chase us off 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 mud. It hews closely to the contours of the valley, a zig-zagging rivulet of ruts, broken by random streams of trickling melt water. These washouts and bumps 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, we creep across, jolting and rocking, and go on. We expect to travel the 40 km to Ushguli in three or four hours. Sometimes, crossing a bad spot, we would have to get out and push, and we brace our feet deep in the wet snow, 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.

“Saakashvili built this road,” the driver informs us, referring to the ousted former president. “Back then, everything was possible. Now nothing happens.”

As we round a bend, we can see ahead a small creek cutting across the road, dredging a deep furrow in the road surface, and flowing around some boulders. Carefully inching forward, we are almost across, and 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 grinding sound of unyielding rock against steel. We lurch to a complete stop, and the engine dies. The driver tries repeatedly, but can not 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 phone up a relative of his who lives in Ushguli, who will come down and take us up the rest of the way. Then we admire the spectacle of our broken-down jeep being towed by a team of four oxen up the road to the next village, where the new driver will meet us.

We trudge on ahead of the oxen, passing some abandoned houses, yawning wrecks with shutters askew and crumbling plaster. As the attraction of modern living 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. We find a rather fine rendition of Stalin’s face 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, more raw, more treacherous. It seems even more unfinished 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 mountain valley, apparently untroubled by the passing of time. It sits encircled by gentle white slopes of snow-covered pasture 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, characteristic 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, 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 the 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 are 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 to take 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, perhaps heading home from the local school. They are lead by a pair of small boys, who greet us proudly in English. I greet them back, 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 was 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 informs us), to family, to friendship, and that there may be no war in Donetsk, Abkhazia, or 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.”

This essay was first published in Hungarian on the inestimable blog „Poemas del río Wang“.

A version of this essay was also published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 8th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“

The following filecasts are connected geographically:

57063 tbilisi metro, sounds from the Tbilisi metro
57072 marks, collection of Tbilisi walls
57080 sentinel, includes a field recording from Tbilisi
57092 mountain of song, music along the road to Mestia
57121 road to ushguli, from Mestia to Ushguli in winter
57167 roof of the world, sounds at the Jvari Pass
57275 lost recordings, suggestive missed opportunities