When we mentioned about Ushguli, the first question that people asked us was, “where is that?”. We admitted it, we’ve never heard of it before too, until we accidentally found Georgia from another Google search about something else. A little bit info about Georgia, it’s located in between borders of Asia and Europe. It is called Eurasia. Georgia also has its own nickname, “The Balcony of Europe”. There are a lot of flying routes that you can take to get to Georgia. For ours, we had multiple stopovers; Kuala Lumpur – Colombo, Sri Lanka – Dubai, UAE – Baku, Azerbaijan – Tbilisi, Georgia.
Usghuli is located in the Svaneti region, which is the Far North of Georgia. Getting here won’t be that easy. Which made sense why many travelers skipped Ushguli in the end, and chose Kazbegi instead. We heard that the local told us, if you can’t be in Ushguli, Kazbegi is good enough. We’ve been to both, and honestly, we think they just want to make you feel a bit better, because they are totally different from one another. Each places has its own uniqueness and beauty. Here are 7 stories and tips that we can share from our trip to Ushguli:
1. A VERY TIME-CONSUMING JOURNEY
As mentioned before, many travelers preferred to skip Ushguli because they weren’t quite sure if it’s worth the hassle. We had several doubts too, at first. Especially after we read about an internal conflicts that was happening at the border of Far North Georgia. But now, we’re glad that we decided to ignore that and continued to plan for our Ushguli trip.
When we traveled to Georgia on July 2016, the most efficient way to get to Ushguli was by:
- 9 hours of an overnight train ride from Tbilisi – Zugdidi.
- 4 hours of mashrutkas ride from Zugdidi – Mestia
- 3 hours of another mashrutkas ride from Mesti – Ushguli
Another way that you can try is to fly from Tbilisi to Mestia. A new airport in Mestia, Queen Tamar Airport has recently opened. Flight from Tbilisi are available 4 times a week. Ticket price is 65 GEL one way. Price includes free transfer from Tbilisi, M.S. Rustaveli and back. You can book the flights through local travel agencies Vanilla Sky Agency (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Guesthouse PeakMazeri (email@example.com). The flight will take you 1 hour from Tbilisi to Mestia. If we got the chance to repeat the trip again, we would still do the train ride. The journey was a priceless experience.
2. HOW TO GET THERE?
You can either book the train ticket online or simply walk-in to the counter at Tbilisi train station. We booked online to avoid any unwanted things to happen. You can visit the Georgian Railway website, register your username and password, and you’re good to go! Here, you can look at the overall train schedule for all of the routes. The question here, which routes are the best for you to get to Ushguli?
This was one of the questions that we had when we did the travel planning for Georgia. Honestly, it was the most complex trip we’ve ever planned before Africa come to the picture. There weren’t many blogs or travel website that have many information about how to get around Georgia, including the Lonely Planet forums. We had to study every train routes in Georgia, just to know that Zugdidi was my best choice. The train ticket can be purchased online 40 days before your travel date. Don’t forget to print your ticket, because this will be your official ticket.
The journey from Tbilisi to Zugdidi will take 9 hours. We took the overnight train because we wanted to rest from our day trip to Armenia earlier that day. Before you want to buy your ticket, make sure you’re aware of the type of Class that you want to buy. The cheapest on is the 3rd class, 17 Lari. We bought the Sleeper Class, complete with bed, pillow and blanket for 42 Lari, 38 Lari if you walk-in.
3. THE THRILLING JOURNEY OF ZUGDIDI-MESTIA
We reached the Zugdidi train station at 630am. Once we hopped off the train, we saw a lot of local Georgian men were standing at the parking area. They were taxi drivers and mashrutkas drivers. Taxis are more comfortable, but pricey. If you’re traveling with a group, taxi would be the best option because you’re paying per car, not per person. The taxi rate can be between 120-150 Lari per car. For mashrutkas ride, the rate is 20 Lari per person.
Most travelers will prefer to seat at the back side of mashrutkas. But, we would recommend you to take the front seat, next to the driver. That’s where the real fun begins, as long as you don’t get motion sickness easily. The road to Mestia reminded us of the Yungas Road in Bolivia, but with bigger lanes, probably better quality in terms of the road and safety. When we were there, the road were still unpaved, no road barriers but still doable. However, you still can see clearly, how close the mashrutkas tires to the side of the cliff.
What’s more thrilling, when we started to see that the mashrutkas slowly strayed away from the main road. At first, we thought it was normal. Until we’ve heard something that can be anybody’s nightmare. The mashrutkas driver was snoring, while driving! We quickly reached the steering wheel and got the mashrutkas back to the road again. Our drastic action woke him up and he grabbed the wheel from us. So, if you want to sit in the front seat, do not ever fall asleep. Chances you might face the same situation as ours is there.
When you’re on your way to Ushguli from Tbilisi, don’t plan any kinds of activities. Let it be free and casual and use the free time to commute without any rush. The Georgians are very laidback people, “being in a rush” is not really in their life vocabularies. If they’re hungry, they are gladly to stop by at one of the cafes alongside of the highway to Mestia, without consulting with any of their passengers.
4. THE MESTIA-USHGULI JOURNEY
Once you’ve reached Mestia, you will have few options:
- Ride the same mashrutkas that got you to Mestia from Zugdidi.
- Ride the different mashrutkas if the earlier one freaked you out. You can find a lot of mashrutkas drivers in the Seti Square. You can find taxi drivers there too. Negotiate with them for the best price. No meters will be used.
- Stay in Mestia for the night, take a day trip tour to Ushguli. You can visit the Visitor Information Center in Seti Square for more information.
After the snoring incident, we definitely won’t take the same mashrutkas again to Ushguli. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff he’s going to pull off this time. As we reached the Seti Square and tried to find another driver, we heard an English couple that got off from the same mashrutkas were talking about getting to Ushguli. We’ve talked and turned out that we will be staying at the same guesthouse. So, we decided to share the taxi and split the rate between four of us. The taxi rate to Ushguli was 150 Lari per car.
5. REACHING USHGULI
We’ve stayed in Gamarjoba Guesthouse. From the last time we’ve checked, Gamarjoba Guesthouse was still not in Booking.com. You have to contact them via email to arrange for your stay and your meals requirement. Most of the villagers here use their house and rent the rooms to the visitors. It won’t be a problem for you to find which guesthouse that you want to stay. But the issue is, how many rooms are left? The guesthouse won’t have a lot of rooms. The Gamarjoba Guesthouse only has 4 rooms for its guests.
Our first day in Ushguli was pretty much free and easy. Wandered around the village, interacted with the local people, tried to make friends with a group of mountain goats that used the same path and many more. Yes, you will be sharing the road with other farm animals such as cows, goats, chickens, horses and pigs. Being raised in a concrete jungle, this experience is definitely the one to be remembered. We’ve also tried to climb the tower, located in the heart of Ushguli village. It is the only tower that survived the attack by the Soviet Union. It managed to make us felt like Rapunzel for a second there.
Don’t forget to try their Ice Cream Coffee (It’s called Latte in our modern world) too! It was so delicious that we drank 2 cups of coffee in one time.
6. WANT SOME ADVENTURES?
If you’re at the bridge, which is the hub point for mashrutkas and taxi drivers, you will be approached by a few local teenagers asking about doing a horseback riding. We weren’t really sure how much was it because we booked the ride with Gamarjoba Guesthouse. They charged 40 Lari for one horse. If you want to a hire a guide for the horseback riding, that’s another 80 Lari to add; 40 Lari for the second horse and 40 Lari for the guide rate. We would recommend you to use the guide because there will be a track where we need to pass the poison ivy areas. They will know better on how to avoid your skin from touching the poisonous plant.
Other than the horseback riding, you also can do a trekking to Shkhara Glacier. By foot, you will reach to the base of the glacier in 4 hours. There are other several treks that you can do here, but unfortunately, it’s for multi-day hike. There were several hiking enthusiasts that we found along the way that hiked to Ushguli from Mestia. When the night time comes, they will either set up a tent at the side of the road or stayed in one of the villager’s house by invitation.
7. GETTING HOME TO ZUGDIDI
Don’t head to Zugdidi from Ushguli in one day, that would be our advice to you. We were lucky enough to reach Zugdidi 15 minutes before the train departure time. There were several dramas that could lead us to miss the train. If you’re taking the last train back to Tbilisi from Zugdidi (920pm), you need to leave Ushguli before 2pm. We checked out Gamarjoba Guesthouse at 11 am, but only managed to get a mashrutkas after a lot of negotiations were being done and a group of tourists happen to be heading back to Mestia. None of the mashrutkas drivers were willing to leave Ushguli with an empty bus, even though we were willing to pay them extra. It is better to stay Mestia for one night and leave to Zugdidi the next day.
Another drama that we faced once we reached Mestia was getting to Zugdidi on time. We found a taxi driver within 5 minutes after reaching Mestia. However, he wanted to stop at his place first for some evening tea session. We declined his offer in the nicest way possible, but he insisted because it’s his routine to have his daily tea session. The session took 45 minutes to finish and what concerned us the most was his driving styles. Half way to Zugdidi, we can smell something was burning. We had no idea what it was, until we felt a burning heat came from the bottom side of the handbrake. Did he forget to release his handbrake? We couldn’t tell and we let destiny to decide on our fate, lol!