The Enguri, a discreet river located on the edge of Europe in Georgia, is little known by outsiders. Its waters don’t pass through any major town and just bypass Zugdidi, the main city in the region of Samegrelo. Yet, despite its relative solitude, this is a river of great geopolitical significance, one that serves as a backdrop for Georgia’s tumultuous contemporary history and that stands as a symbol of the painful division between the mainland and the breakaway province of Abkhazia, whose independence is only recognised by Russia and a few other states.
The source of the Enguri lies a few hours hike up from the village of Ushguli at the bottom of the Shkhara glacier on Mount Shkhara, the country’s highest peak. Standing at 5,193 metres, this mountain is also the third-highest summit of the Greater Caucasus, a range dominated by Mount Elbrus, which rises 5,642 metres above sea level. Running for 213 kilometres, the Enguri flows down these mountainous slopes, across the marshy plain of Samegrelo and finally into the Black Sea.
Located at 2,100 metres above sea level, Ushguli is considered one of the highest permanently inhabited settlements in Europe and has lately, and perhaps surprisingly, become a popular destination. Tourists from China, Japan, Russia, the USA, Europe and Israel cross paths in its muddy streets and almost every house has been turned into a guesthouse, many of which also function as restaurants, markets and wi-fi cafes, as advertised on boards outside.
The tourists come for the views – a high green valley dominated by the icy cliffs of Mount Shkhara – as well as for Ushguli’s peculiar architectural heritage. As in other villages in Svaneti, the region in northwest Georgia that borders Russia, stone houses stand side by side with medieval defence towers, around 30 of which are scattered throughout Ushguli. They were originally built to protect the villagers from invaders and from vendettas between rival clans. It’s thanks to the presence of the towers, some of which were built a millennium ago, that Ushguli was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
The village of Ushguli is the first village crossed by the Enguri River. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its medieval defensive towers
In the village of Ieli, many of the local Svan people use bulls to work their fields