We're off to Russia... or maybe not

Kazbegi Travel Blog

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People I met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia)

Thankfully Georgia is experiencing a relatively mild start to its winter period, thus we had the opportunity to take a two day trip into the caucuses mountains, with Kazbegi our chosen destination. Located on the Georgian Military Highway, the small village is only a stone throw away from the Russian border. Situated in a valley and encompassed by towering snow capped mountains, it really does possess a fairytale setting. The area is also famous for Tsminda Sameba Church, which sits on a ridge at 2200m. The stone building is perched on a hill that overlooks the settlement, but is itself dwarfed by the stunning Mount Kazbek, which dominates the scenery at a staggering 5047m (16,655ft).

On route from Tbilisi we decided to break the trip by stopping at Ananuri fortress, which in itself was quite worth the journey. The complex contains two fabulous churches, with ornate decorations on the exterior and grand frescoes in the interior. On the Western fortress wall there is a very hefty watchtower that we opted to climb, and this afforded striking views of the complex. Maybe the best view actually came from a neighbouring hill though, as you could not only see the fortress and churches, but also the surrounding scenery, which included the Zhinvali reservoir.

As it was a Sunday morning there was a mass in the 17th Century Assumption Church, so we stood and listened to the people singing and watched the Father wafting incense around, before walking to a derelict Church that was down by the waters edge.
Walking back up to the main road, we agonisingly saw a marshrutka go flying by, which meant that we were going to have to wait an hour for the next one to pass by.

I decided to climb the hill again to get the spectacular birds eye view, whilst Julia started making some ham and cheese sandwiches. What happened next was quite amusing, as Julia was mobbed by four dogs jumping all over her and trying to get the food. I ran back down the hill to help her, only to be cut off by a flock of sheep taking up the whole road! Thankfully the dogs were friendly, if not a little pushy, but when we put all the food back into the bag this calmed them somewhat, and they stopped jumping up at us.

The stretch of road from Ananuri to Kazbegi was quite breathtaking, as we travelled along the floor of the valley and then up and over the Jvari (Cross) Pass (2379m - 7850ft), before descending into Kazbegi (1750m - 5775ft).
Julia somehow chose sleep over the scintillating scenery, which was comprised of towering mountains, ski villages and small forts clinging to cliff edges.

Getting out of the marshrutka sent an instant chill through me, as the icy wind ripped between my inadequate layers of clothing. With every inch of skin covered as best as possible, we scurried across the bridge that spanned the Tergi River and joined Kazbegi to Gergeti, which is allegedly a separate village, although you could have fooled me.

Having had a taste of Stalin and the Bolsheviks yesterday, we decided that today we would go to a Nazi home stay, really! I half expected the roof to have a swastika and Adolf to be sitting in a rocking chair, so i was quite disappointed to find a middle aged couple ran the place.
In fact Nazi home stay had nothing to do with the Germans, it was just the womans name who owned the house, which was probably for the best. Maybe i looked a bit stupid having given her a raised arm salute and shouting sieg hiel when entering, but how was i to know she wasn't some SS escapee? - ok i didn't really do that, I'm not that stupid!

Accommodation and half board was settled at 25GEL ($15) each and after a quick cup of tea, we headed back into the cold to go and see Tsminda Sameba Church. The walk took around 45 minutes and involved a 500m ascent, which left us quite breathless by the top. Even though it was only 15.45 when we got our first glimpse of the Church, the sun was frustratingly disappearing behind the mountains, so sadly my photos don't do full justice to the setting.

The Church and bell tower sit majestically on a hill top, which is itself ringed in by jaw dropping mountains on all sides, most of which had a dusting of snow on them. On the exterior stone walls were some nice carvings, although the fighting dinosaurs seemed a little peculiar to say the least. The Church was warmed by a wood fired heater, and this gave the interior a snug feel when combined with the honey scented candles.

Not wanting to get caught in the dark we decided that we should make our way back down, with one final stop at a cross that marked the spot where St Nino had stopped to pray. Here were two Police cars that we had also seen parked by the Church and a group of four men and three children. As i took a couple of photos we were invited to join the guys for a drink and ended up knocking back a couple of vodkas and toasting Georgia and friendship.
To be drinking with the police chief of the region was another one of those highly random moments that i adore so much, and to cap it off they gave us a lift back to Gergeti.

Back in Nazi's den (i must stop teasing this poor woman, but i just can't help it!) Kitty the dog came to jump all over us, as we tried to sit down at the kitchen table. The hyperactive little sweetheart finally sat down in her basket and within minutes we were served a delicious Dinner of soup, chicken and salad. It was surprising that the house had central heating, as nowhere else in Georgia had, so this made for a pleasant and comforting evening in the house.

Monday was a glorious day, with blue skies and barely a cloud in sight. Having eaten a filling breakfast we took to the bitterly cold streets around 09.
00, and began to make our way to the Russian border. Today wasn't a new country day though, as the border is firmly slammed shut between the two nations, we were actually in search of Tamar's Castle. Seeing Mount Kazbek and Tsminda Sameba Church in all their glory with the morning sun beating down on them, really was quite inspiring. For a brief second i contemplated heading back up there, but the look on Julia's face at the suggestion had me clutching for my groin, it REALLY wasn't worth it!

The section of the Georgian Military Highway that we had chosen to walk along is known as the Dariali Gorge, and it is said to have inspired the likes of Pushkin and Lermontov, so my mouth was watering at the thought of what we might see today. We had also chosen this route, as the alternative was a 9 hour trek to a glacier, and this just didn't seem appealing after the recent strife i had found myself in when heading into the unknown.

It took around 3 hours to reach Tamar's Castle, and whilst the gorge was scenic, in my opinion it certainly wasn't stunning. I wonder what Pushkin would have made of Taroko Gorge in Taiwan or Tiger Leaping Gorge in China? Maybe today the Tergi River was lower, or there was less snow on the mountains, or the addition of a road had taken away some splendor from back then, but it just didn't appeal to me like some places do. To round it off, Tamar's Castle was a disappointing mish mash of stones on the opposite bank, which i could have easily gone without seeing. Reaching a barrier in the road signaled the end of our trip, so we made a u-turn and walked back to Kazbegi.

A little before 15.00 we got back in sight of Mount Kazbek, which certainly has a mystical charm to it.
As there wasn't a marshrutka until 17.00, we sat at Nazi's and drank some tea and ate some sandwiches. Before leaving town we decided to pay a quick visit to the Church where Alexander Kazbegi's Mum and Dad are buried and dates back to 1809. Leaving the place we were collared by a taxi driver who agreed to take us back to Tbilisi for the same price as the marshrutka (10GEL), as he needed to go regardless. It was nice to travel in a bit of style and it looked like the highest mountains had a fresh coating of snow on them, as we watched them from the comfort of the car.

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photo by: HelenP