Life in Europe’s Highest Village

At an altitude of 2,200 meters above sea level, the remote village of Ushguli in Georgia’s Svaneti mountains is known as the highest permanently inhabited settlement in Europe. The village stands at the foot of Mt Shkhara (5,200m), one of the highest summits in the Caucasus. Unlike many other mountain villages, Ushguli is still home to up to 70 families, and even boasts a public school and an outpatient clinic. Its superb location and the unique lifestyle of its inhabitants have made it a popular and interesting destination.

Ushguli has naturally been the focus of much attention from local, regional and national authorities. The rehabilitation of the road from Mestia (Svaneti’s administrative center) to Ushguli has already begun, and is expected to solve most of the problems the local population faces. And the private sector, too, has been very active in this unique region. MagtiCom most notably implemented a unique project in the village called “MagtiSat Digital Broadcasting in Every House of Ushguli,” whereby it provided a digital satellite television signal to each household via SES’s satellite. The project was implemented during Georgia’s terrestrial digital switchover in 2015, and was initiated by SES, a leading satellite operator which provides satellite communications services to broadcasters, content and internet service providers, mobile and fixed network operators, governments and institutions around the world. Georgia’s terrestrial switchover was not an easy process, especially in the country’s numerous mountain regions, but thanks to this unique, one-off project, SES and MagtiSat managed to ‘digitize’ the remote mountainous village of Ushguli in just a couple of days.

Georgia was committed to its digital switchover. Through a decision of the International Telecommunications Union and the EU, the process was to be completed during 2015,not only in Georgia, but across Europe as a whole. Switching to digital television broadcasting was yet another step towards Georgia’s development and its overall digitization, but a significant milestone had already been reached in early 2012 with the launch of MagtiSat, Georgia’s first-ever domestic digital satellite television company. The establishment of MagtiSat was the result of a long-term agreement between the Georgian telecommunications company MagtiCom, and SES, one of the world’s largest satellite operators.

“Ushguli has recently seen significant development,” says Beso Charkseliani, the local governor’s representative in Ushguli. “The rehabilitation of the road is particularly valuable. The road from Mestia to Ushguli is only 45 kilometers, but because of the road’s extremely bad condition, it takes over 2 hours to drive. This is a huge problem for us. Rehabilitation works have already begun, and we hope they will be finished soon. A good road will really help the local population: communication between Ushguli and the rest of the world will be simplified and it will also help efforts to improve access to medical services”.

“Education and healthcare have really improved in the village,” Charkseliani adds. “We have a public school, but we don’t have teachers of mathematics, physics or sports. An outpatient clinic was opened recently, but the services it can provide are insufficient and much needs to be improved. Providing a full first-aid service is not possible up here. Introducing modern technologies is essential for the local population. The MagtiCom-SES project was a very important moment in the history of Ushguli. All the necessary equipment for digital satellite broadcasting and installations were provided by MagtiSat and the population of Ushguli will enjoy a 25-channel package free of charge forever”.

Young people are most aware of the need for modern telecommunications systems in the village. 28-year-old Bakar Nijaradze works in the fields with his family every day. Agriculture, as well as tourism, is their main source of income.

“It’s summer now and the village is full of people, joy and happiness. But in winter it’s completely different, as there aren’t so many people around. People stay at home throughout most of the day, watching TV and waiting for summer. TV and satellite broadcasting is very important for the village. Thanks to television, we don’t lose contact with the world,” he says.

The local population learns a lot from the information they receive via TV. They discover new hospitality standards and improve existing ones, watch how developed resorts welcome tourists and try to do the same, and find out more about the needs and requirements of foreign visitors. As a result, young people in Ushguli are increasingly interested in tourism. They are deeply involved in the ongoing development of the sector in the village, do their best to ensure the high standards of guest houses, and try hard to offer tourists a perfect service.

Having analyzed Ushguli’s potential and existing opportunities, 22-year-old Rusudan Ratiani decided to obtain a degree in Tourism. After graduating from the State Teaching University in Gori, she returned to her village and now runs a guest house with her parents, five sisters and two brothers.

“Tourism is developing very fast in Svaneti, and so I decided to study for a degree in this field,” she says. “Tourists particularly like our early medieval stone towers, our local cuisine and our handicrafts. The number of tourists increases every year. Tourism has become the main source of income for local people as it’s hard to find any other employment in Ushguli. And there isn’t much we can do for entertainment- we mostly watch TV when we have spare time. I love music and often watch musical programs and sing with my siblings. TV is also our main source for information,” she adds.

Laerti Charkseliani, 40, lives in Ushguli with his wife and two children. Their café is one of the best in Ushguli, and is often full of tourists. Charkseliani attributes the rise in the number of tourists to the rehabilitation of the road to Mestia and developed telecommunication in Ushguli.

“Ushguli honestly deserves attention. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is clearly experiencing development, but much more is needed. People always say ‘the summer is good, but what to do in winter?’ The local population mostly stays at home and watches TV in winter. There is nothing else to do. I’m glad that we have free TV broadcasting. It’s nice that someone cares about us and that every family can now watch television. Telecommunications are really moving forward, and this is essential for the development of our tourism potential,” Charkseliani explains.

This is how people live in Ushguli. The village welcomes tourists in summer, and watches TV in winter. But the most important thing is that they don’t lose hope… hope that everything will change for the better, that all their plans will be successful, and that the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe will be developed as much as it deserves.

In 2015, the Georgian mobile and telecommunications company MagtiCom, with the support of global satellite operator SES, launched a project called “MagtiSat Digital Broadcasting in Every House of Ushguli”. MagtiSat provided a digital satellite television signal to each household via SES’s ASTRA 5B satellite at 31.5 degrees East. All the necessary equipment for digital satellite broadcasting and installations were provided by MagtiSat free of charge. As a result, the village of Ushguli is now 100% digital, and each family can enjoy the superior quality of a satellite signal thanks to a 25-channel “G” package free of charge forever.

Nana Mgebrishvili

07 August 2017 17:25