As you might notice from the sudden spurt of posts, I had quite a busy weekend! The feather in its cap was my trip to Kazbegi (which is now technically known as Stepantsminda, though I’ll be like everyone else and continue to refer to it as Kazbegi). Kazbegi was one of the places I most wanted to visit while I was in Georgia, and it’s definitely worth the long and scary drive. This time I can’t offer the sort of travel advice I usually do, since the excursion was planned and paid for by my employer (I can advise that you travel this way if possible). I packed my jumbo purse (which is actually small by Georgian standards) with the travel basics: a headscarf, a jacket, some sunscreen, a bottle of water, and a container of homemade cookies, and set off early in the morning to our gathering point. Though I was rather sleepy from spending the previous day at the Made in Georgia exhibition and then staying up to watch Eurovision, I was excited to take my first trip up into the mountains.
I’d never travelled the Georgian Military Highway before, but I’m enough of a Russian literature nerd that I was very excited to see this famous road. The Georgian Military Highway has historically been the link from Russia (in particular the hub of Vladikavkaz) into Georgia and the rest of the South Caucasus. It figures prominently in many works of 19th century Russian literature, and is a particularly common setting with writers who were exiled to the region or served in the military here (oh those swashbuckling Romantics!). This trip made the stories of Pushkin and Lermontov come alive in a new way, and I’m antsy to re-read Герой нашего времени (Geroj nashego vremeni–A Hero of Our Time) again—it’s always been one of my favorites. “I was [in my own, modern way] travelling post from Tiflis…”. (Just in case you don’t catch the reference, that’s the first line of A Hero of Our Time).
But enough with my literary musings and on to my excursion! Our first stop was at the fortress of Ananuri, overlooking the Aragvi river and Zhinvali Reservoir. The scenery was absolutely majestic. In America, I think of mountains as being one of two varieties: either craggy (like the Rockies and other mountains in the West) or green and rolling (like the Appalachians). Up the Georgian Military Highway, the Caucasus were both craggy and green—a very impressive landscape. We continued on through Gudauri and stopped for a picnic brunch with an impressive view. After our picnic lunch, the switchbacks started as we crossed through the Jvari Pass (I think) and I was glad to be in one of the few marshrutkas I’ve ever seen with seatbelts. The views were stunning, and there were a number of interesting things to see along the roadside, including a crumbling tunnel (must be a Soviet relic), and some iron-heavy springs leading to a patch of Mars-like landscape.
At last we arrived in the town of Stepantsminda/Kazbegi and saw the Tsminda Sameba church, our destination, perched on the mountain behind us. We walked up to the summit, though it is also possible to drive if you’re in a car that handles mud and bumps well. I think the walk was worth it—the track goes through some virgin birch forest, and offers beautiful views in all directions. My favorite part of the walk was at the very top, reaching the alpine meadow full of cows, and seeing the picturesque dirt track leading to the church.
The church itself was not one of the most impressive specimens of Georgian architecture that I’ve seen—it’s the views of the area’s natural beauty that make the hike worth your while. Mount Kazbegi itself was shrouded in clouds, but the scenery of the whole area and the vista of the North Caucasus range was phenomenal. Relaxing on the church grounds at the top of a cliff with mountains all around was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had in Georgia yet.
Side note: this church is one of the most conservative I’ve visited in regards to “proper” attire—a friend was asked to take off her glasses before entering.
I returned to Tbilisi tired, hungry, and a little sunburnt (the sunscreen doesn’t help much from within the purse, as it turns out), but very happy.