Day 43: Stunning mountaintop church
Kazbegi Travel Blog› entry 63 of 260 › view all entries
May 18th, 2010 – by: Biedjee
I checked out of my hostel and took a marshrutka to the northern border of the country. While most of the border region is closed for visitors (especially after the 5-day war with Russia of 2008), the Georgian Military Highway thankfully remains open. Well, it is a dead-end these days, as the border with Russia is firmly shut (not that I had any desire to go there, at the other side of the mountain lies Chechnya, not the most stable region either). So the end of the line is the small town of Kazbegi.
Like the buses in Turkey the marshrutkas in Georgia are pretty much the lifeline of the country. Apart from a means of public transport they also double as postal and freight transport between the villages along the route.
The ride to Kazbegi constitutes as both one of the most scenic and one of the most scary journeys I have ever made. The views as we crossed the 2379m high Jvari Pass were breathtaking. At the same time, the road was in a very bad condition and the driver had to swerve around pot holes all the time. He constantly did this at the valley side, the left side of the road, so not only was he constantly driving on the wrong side of the road around blind corners, he also drove dangerously close to the steep drop. As I looked down to the valley floor hundreds of metres below, I wondered how many marshrutkas would have dropped off the ledge through the years. I decided I didn't want to know.
We made it to Kazbegi safely though. As the marshrutka pulled up at the tiny bus station (basically a small square at the edge of town) I was greeted by Reza, the owner of a guesthouse. Dodo had phoned ahead from Tbilisi to tell him I was on my way. I figured his guesthouse would be as good as any, so I went with him.
The town of Kazbegi is actually called Stepantsminda, but everybody still knows it as Kazbegi, after Georgia's most famous writer Alexander Kazbegi. The reason why I was here was the small Tsminda Sameba church. Not that the church in itself is all that interesting (I lost count of how many churches I had visited this past week), but its setting certainly is. Perched high up on the mountain, in the shadow of the mighty Mount Kazbek, the highest mountain in the country, this church is one of the best known icons in Georgia.
The walk up wasn't even so far. It only took about an hour and a half to walk up along the steep road to the top (yes, you can also take a car, but where's the fun in that?). On the way up I didn't come across many other people. Apart from the odd car it was just me and some cows on this road.
It was not an easy walk, the track was pretty steep in sections, and I was glad I had opted for the longer walk along the car tracks, rather than the shortcut which involves a 500 metre steep climb. The panoramic views all around were absolutely stunning. The mountain range at the other side of the valley reminded me a bit of the Remarkables in New Zealand, whereas on this side the snowcapped Mt Kazbek, a 5047 metre high extinct volcano, looms overhead like a guardian. Quite a fitting image, considering the mountain marks the now-closed border between Georgia and Russia.
The 14th century Tsminda Sameba church itself is a very pretty little church with a separate bell tower. There is a small, still working monastery up here as well, which was currently being renovated. Fortunately the presence of builders at the site did not deter from the calm and serenity of this beautiful place.
As often when I visit a building at such a remote location I wonder just how did they get it up there? And not only that, imagine having to walk up there every week for Sunday prayer!
Once down in Kazbegi I treated myself to some cold beer and snacks. I think I deserved it. I was back just on time, because no sooner was I back in the guesthouse and it started raining.
On the way down I'd bumped into an Austrian girl, Verena, who had also been staying at Dodo's in Tbilisi.
We had some very interesting conversations over dinner. She's a psychology teacher, so inevitably we had to discuss and analyse my reasoning for travelling. Somehow she wouldn't accept “because I like it” as a reason.
Dinner was a bit of a disappointment. Georgian home-style cooking is renowned and I'd been looking forward to this.
At night it was bitterly cold. At first I had welcomed the cold after the humid 28 degrees in Tbilisi, but I soon regretted this. I was lying in bed wearing my thermal pyjamas, underneath two blankets and still I was cold. If this was any indication for the cold that awaits me in the Himalayas, then I might need some warmer clothes.
The next morning all the clouds had lifted and Mt Kazbek was finally visible in all its glory. Verena and I had breakfast together (a very strange menu consisting of bread, cheese, pasta and french fries - I guess you could do with the extra calories when you're hiking in this region).
Verena set off to climb up to the Tsminda Sameba and I took the 10 o'clock Marshrutka back to Tbilisi.
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