While Georgia continues to contend with separatist regimes in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there are parts of its northern border with Russia that are both accessible, safe and among the prime attractions in the country. Nestled in the Caucasus mountains are several picturesque towns and villages that have much to offer to the outdoor enthusiast. One such town, Kazbegi, is spectacularly located just 11 kms south of the Russian border with the snowy peak of Mt. Kazbek towering above it.
Getting to Kazbegi is part of the attraction.The Georgian Military Road, the historic name for the route from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz (Russia) passes through some of the most dramatic alpine scenery that the Caucasus have to offer. The 208 km route follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders throughout the ages but the modern road was built by the Russian military in 1799 to facilitate troop movements.
The scenery is interesting even before the road gets into the Caucasus. The road skirts the large Zhinvali Reservoir and passes by Ananuri, a church that is located along its banks. Since we were on a through minibus, we were unable to stop and admire them. Being well into October, the hillsides along the road were blazing red, green and gold making it a visual delight. The road then climbs over several switchbacks entering the more remote and deserted mountain regions. The highest point on the road is the Jvari Cross Pass (7815 feet) and the road then descends into the Tergi valley as it approaches the Russian border. Kazbegi is the last town on the Georgian side and is a favorite with independent travelers to Georgia.
The tourist season was coming to a close for this town and as soon as we got off at the bus station we were mobbed by several old women (and a particularly persistent old man) who were keen to take us to their homes and host us. But we had made arrangements to stay at the curiously named Guesthouse Nazi and fended off their advances. From the bus station, the guesthouse is a short walk across a river and uphill into Gergeti village and even as we entered we knew we had picked the right place. From the porch was a grand view of the surrounding mountains!
Nazi (pronounced Nasee), our host, spoke good English and informed us that she started the guesthouse several years ago when jobs in the area began to dry up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She was Georgian but held Russian citizenship and was able to travel freely between the two countries despite mutual tensions. Her guesthouse was a favorite with the backpacker crowd and ironically (given her name) Israelis formed a significant part of her guests. They were the first to arrive at the start of the season in April and the last ones here before the season closed in winter. She spoke fondly of them and how she has an open invitation from several of them to stay with them in Israel when she visits.
The only other guest during our stay here was Kathy, an American who is a teacher at the International School in Yerevan. She had come to Tbilisi on work and was visiting Kazbegi for the weekend. We found it fascinating that she had spent the last few years teaching at International Schools in different parts of the world. Next morning, Nazi helped arrange a taxi for the three of us to tour the sights in the area. North of Kazbegi the Georgian Military Highway runs along the Tergi River 11km to the Russian border on a road that snakes through the Dariali Gorge. Heading north, we made stops along the way for short hikes to the somewhat unimaginatively named Small Waterfall and Big Waterfall. Just being outdoors on a sunny, clear morning with granite cliffs towering high all around in the distance was fantastic. We saw several vultures (species unidentified) riding the thermals over the canyons and perching on the high cliffs.
Further north, located right at the border with Russia, is a new church and monastery complex that was opened exactly a year ago in the presence of Georgian Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II and President Mikheil Saakashvili. Commenting on the significance of the location, the Patriarch expressed hope that it could even serve as a venue for "talks between the heads of state". But according to Kathy, after the years of suppression of religious activity under Soviet rule this was just Georgia's way of sticking it to the Russians.
Being on top of a hill, it affords a nice vantage point from which to view the border post. There was some commercial traffic going across and we noticed several trucks with Russian plates coming through. Beyond is the Russian province of Dagestan and Chechnya is not far away. This was as close to Russia as we were going to get to on this trip. People familiar with our travels would know by now that there isn't an international border that when we come to it, we don't wish to cross! But in this case, even if we had a visa for Russia (which we don't), we would have been unable to cross since this border is not open to foreigners. We left with a slight longing in our hearts!
Post lunch we tackled the most popular hike in the region, the climb to the 14th-century Tsminda Sameba (Trinity) Church that lies high above Kazbegi. The image of the church silhouetted against Mt. Kazbek, is among the most familiar iconic images of the country. (It is in fact featured on the cover of the Lonely Planet guide covering all three Caucasus countries).
The initial part of the trail passes through the Gergeti village and we were spotted on the path by the taxi driver who had earlier taken us to Dariali. He insisted on giving us a ride for a short distance up to his home at the top of the village. The house was still under construction and he was planning to turn into a guesthouse. He said that he had 25 years of experience in the tourist business having worked at the Rooms Inn (large soviet era hotel still functioning). The remainder of the gently graded trail took us through meadows with grazing cows and nicely wooded hills that made for a very pleasant afternoon walk. As we reached the bare plateau at the very top, we could see the striking Tsminda Sameba church at a distance framed by the mountains beyond.
Women entering the church were required not only to cover their heads (common in these parts, so don't leave home without a scarf) but also wear a skirt! Fortunately they have some free-size skirts available to wear over your pants that you can borrow temporarily for the visit. Sitting behind the church and enjoying the panoramic view of Kazbegi and Gergeti villages was an excellent way to spend the afternoon hours.
As luck would have it, just as we were just leaving, a car heading down stopped and a couple inside asked us if we would like a lift to the village. Sure, we said and hopped on. The affianced Georgian couple were from Tbilisi and were visiting Kazbegi for the weekend. During the short ride down we talked about Georgia and about our trip and even before it was time for us to get off, we had invitations to attend their late November wedding. Pity we will not be around in Georgia at that time!
Google Maps Link
Where is the photo of M in skirts and with a head scarf :) From, on Nov 2, 2012 at 08:57PM