Why are there so many watchtowers? That’s what I keep thinking as I pick my way along the muddy, disorderly, old-world laneways of Ushguli in the mountainous Svaneti region of Georgia.
There’s a watchtower attached to every house. They dominate the village, rising up above the stone houses, the stone fences, the stone sheds; it gives the place a cold, menacing, hostile atmosphere.
I can see the need for a watchtower here and there. Makes sense to have a handy lookout point from which to keep an eye on your flocks of sheep, and they surely act as a deterrent against potential evil-doers.
But a watchtower on each house, each farm?
Does that mean they couldn’t trust the other houses? That it was every house for themselves? Were there a few instances of sentries falling asleep on the job? Sheep stolen in suspicious circumstances while a neighbour was on watch?
Or were the houses warring against each other, extended families engaged in brutal internecine feuds, that kind of thing?
It turns out it is their bucolic nature, their isolation, their diffuseness, their lack of population density, which encouraged the Svans (the people of the Svaneti region) to fortify their homes.
Walled cities just wouldn’t work.
The watchtowers date to the 9th to 12th Centuries CE, coinciding with the Golden Age of the Kingdom of Georgia.
The Svans became known as ferocious fighters. Their lands were one of the few in the Caucasus (and Eurasia for that matter) to escape the wanton destruction inflicted by Genghis Khan’s armies when they swept across the continents in the early 13th Century.
Was it the rugged terrain of the Caucasus Mountains that deterred Genghis’ armies? Or was it the thought of tackling the fierce Svans? Perhaps a little of both?
Perhaps there wasn’t enough to be gained in this mountainous region to make it worth the effort?
The settlement of Ushguli is comprised of four small villages and a number of outlying farms. It has a population of around 200.
Ushguli, which claims to be the highest inhabited town in Europe, has an average elevation of 2,100 metres. Which means, to be perfectly blunt, that the highest inhabited town in Europe is not all that high.
Asia’s highest inhabited town, by contrast, sits at 4,870 metres elevation (that’s Wenquan, in China).
South America’s highest inhabited town (La Rinconada in Peru), which is also the highest inhabited town in the world, sits at 5,100 metres elevation .
Even Africa’s highest town (Mizma, Ethiopia, at 3,500 metres elevation) and North America’s highest town (Raíces, Mexico, at 3,531 metres elevation) thrash Ushguli for height.
Europe needs to lift its game.
I’ve seen a few tourist agencies describing Ushguli not just as Europe’s highest village, but also Europe’s most remote village. I can understand the desire to describe it so, but the opening of Mestia airport (a two hour drive from Ushguli) in 2010, surely discredits any such claims.
To be fair, Ushguli does retain the atmosphere of a remote, isolated, old-world village, despite the opening of the airport. And that’s because the region only opened up to tourism in the early 2000s. Prior to that it was genuinely remote, and it’s going to take awhile for that remote, isolated, old-world atmosphere to wear away.
But wear away it will.
The road to Ushguli is currently 4WD-only, and it takes a full two hours to drive the 40 kilometres to Mestia – which should give you an indication of the quality of the road in its current state – but a new road is already under construction (the first ten kilometres has already been laid).
Thankfully the new road is unlikely to be completed anytime soon; there are some narrow ravines the existing road clings to by the tips of its fingernails that will require some serious blasting work to widen. My guess is that the blasting work alone will push completion of the new road back by a couple of years.
But it is still only a matter of time. Ushguli is bolstering its ties with the modern world on a daily basis. It won’t be long before this relic of the old-world, this reminder of hostile medieval times, this romantic, isolated, remote, alpine village, becomes just another tourist town.
Get there ASAP is what I am saying.
Practical information and how to reach Ushguli:
Ushguli is 40km (a two-hour drive) from the hiking/skiing/traveller town of Mestia. I wouldn’t say it is impossible to get between the two in a 2WD car, but the road is rough, steep, and slippery, and a regular car is going to bottom-out on the stream crossings and struggle in the mud. More transport info here.
Come early in the morning (or, even better, stay overnight) to see the town before the midday influx of tourists.
Read more on Ushguli and the Upper Svaneti region in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.