Updated: Mar 31, 2019
Braving the Buses
The heat got too much eventually and I had to escape the city. Five days of searing temperatures, over 40 degrees every day; Tbilisi was a furnace, and I sought sanctuary in the mountains. Kazbegi (now Stepantsminda) is the most obvious, and easiest to access, mountain town. Luckily, the mountains are all around you in Tbilisi, and you're out of the city in minutes on a 'marshrutka'. These little white buses are everywhere in Georgia - and the Caucasus and near east in general - and they are often the only option for getting from 'a' to 'b' if you don't have your own transport. They are quick, cheap, and frequent. On the downside, they are hot, cramped, and often downright dangerous. Drivers - especially the younger ones - seem to think they are formula one racing drivers, and will frequently attempt to pull off the most outrageous overtaking manoeuvres, on blind corners and bends, below the crests of hills and so on - always on single lane roads, and often they pull out of them half way through, realising they are about to take themselves and their passengers to the great motorway in the sky as an onrushing truck comes hurtling towards them. As a passenger, you sit there, praying not to be held up by long vehicles and Sunday drivers. You always are.
Didube bus station on a swealteringly hot day in Tbilisi is a bad place to be. Hundreds of buses, all with Georgian signs, you have to spend half an hour just locating your bus. You get to your bus and there's already 20 people waiting for the next bus, on which there are only 12 seats. No shade, no seats. Exhaust fumes, noise, and heat. No choice but to wait, with 25kg on your back. Eventually, after what seems an eternity, two buses arrive and you board, trying to locate a seat near the front and near the window. Some poor unfortunates, a group of Czechs, get lumbered with the back row, which has multiple disadvantages; first, you are normally crammed in, four or five on the back row, with bags further impinging on your movements. There is no chance of fresh air, no windows open nearby. You are raised up, so can't see out of the windows properly, without craning your neck at a 90 degree angle. And then when you get going, whenever you go over a bump or pothole, you feel it three times worse than anywhere else on the bus. To ratchet up the overall discomfort of the experience, the driver turns the radio up to top volume and dreadful Russian and American pop blares for the entirity of the journey. This works on the stress levels to such a degree that when we stop half way to Kazbegi for a break, I get out and buy myself a packet of cigarrettes, and chain-smoke three. I calm down when I get back in and try to concentrate on the road. The Georgian Military Highway, as dramatic as any road in Georgia, the road that skirts the rebel region of South Ossetia, snakes up into the mountains to Kazbegi towards the Russian border (now closed), past some stunning scenery such as Jvari and Ananuri monastaries (guess what - situated on hilltops), and the sparkling, turquoise, Zhinvali reservoir.
Into the Caucasus
It ascends to around 2400m, (20th highest road in Europe) taking you through some stunning scenery, especially around the Jvari Cross Pass eerily deserted and impressive. It finally descends into the Tergi Valley in which Kazbegi is situated, a wide, U-shaped valley, with mountains rising steeply on either side. Green pastures, streams, roaming cows and donkeys, and the superb 5000m Upper Caucasus chain appearing as if from nowhere, a great natural barrier between Georgia and Russia. We have to stop several times on the way because the bus is over-heating - the driver keeps going to streams and filling up bottles, tipping them into the thirsty engine. I'm not the only one struggling with the heat. We arrive after four hours. I instantly like it and know I will stay here a few days. A few old babcias (grandmothers) try to accost me as I leave the bus but I fend them off - it's usually better to find a place for yourself than be hassled into going somewhere with someone; I gaze up and there it is, the famous Tsminda Sameba Church, on a promontary high above the village at 2170 metres, standing sentinel over it for hundreds of years. A symbol of Georgia.
And behind it, the impressive 5047m bulk of Mount Kazbeg, the highest peak in Georgia. With a zoom lens and some trick photography, you can take pictures that make it look like it's within touching distance, but it's actually a very strenuous three-day hike distant. Much though I'd have loved to climb it, I was ill-equipped ad frankly not fit for the task. The homestay is lovely - rustic, rural and very good value: 30 lari a night full board ($15). We are treated to khinkali and khachapuri with some home made red wine. The table is groaning with salads, cheese and bread. Cakes, several types, and jams and biscuits too.
The hostess is not happy until we are absolutely stuffed. I waddle to bed after a pleasant evening chatting to fellow travellers, full to the gunwhales and inebriated on the inexpensive but tasty wine. I make a mental note of investigating Georgian wines further. (I'd heard on the grapevine they were good). Hick.
Taxi to the Russian border
I get woken by the mooing of the owner's cow at dawn. Roll over and sleep till ten, the sleep of the dead. The kind of sleep you can only get in the country. And the first time on the trip I've needed a blanket for warmth at night. Massive breakfast - table again in danger of collapsing under the weight of plates of cheese, tomatoes, khachapuri, eggs, cold cuts cherries. I feel like I've stepped into The Famous Five. Lashings of everything. Replete for the day (at least till lunch), I decide to go to the Russian border by jeep. Haggling proves useless, the driver wants 40 lari (15 pounds) and stubbornly refuses to budge. It's a sellers' market though, as there are no buses. The 15km or so to the border winds through some spectacular countryside, the Darial Gorge has inspired some great writers like Gogol and Pushkin.
The narrow road sits on a shelf above the fast-running river which is full of glacial melt. The towering snow-covered peaks shimmer above us in the crystal clear, blinding white light. Hot still - at least 25 degrees. The road abruptly ends at some incongruous administrative building just as the valley starts to climb up to what looks like a truly outstanding pass climbing up to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. Out of bounds, no traffic beyond this point. Sad, because the Russian Caucasus must be absurdly beautiful. To our right, the ruins of Queen Tamar's Castle - a cruel beauty who was famed for chopping off her lovers' heads. To our right, a huge building site: the beginnings of a massive new monastary complex, situated here to show anyone coming over the border how important the Church is here no doubt. Shame no one is coming over the border. A priest looks pleased to see us and gladly shows us around his nascent complex.
The priest is enthusiastic about it all though and seems confident that when its all done, tourists will flock here from miles around. Architects' plans show an ambitious place with several surrounding hotels, restaurants and other tourist facilities. I wonder if Sakishvilli couldn't spend his probably limited funds on other projects, but it turns out this is all bought and paid for by the Church. At least someone in this country has money to spare. I go on a walk up to the spectacularly-situated Gveleti waterfall, a 30 minute walk up the west side of the valley 5km back in the direction of Kazbegi. It's stunning. From a distance, you see the mist coming off it and a rainbow forms. Close up, the 150 m fall produces moisture in the air which is deliciously cooling after the sweaty climb, and with the backdrop of the Dariali Gorge to admire, I sit and take it in for half an hour, taking copious pictures. Our taxi driver is getting a bit anxious to leave when we get back down to the road (on to the next set of tourists), so we speed back to Kazbegi in the lime green Lada Niva. Well worth the trip. I decide to have a relaxing afternoon, so sit out on my balcony of the apartment with Kapuscinski's Imperium, soaking up the rays. I have to converse with my landlady in Russian, which is very tricky considering I know about 100 Russian words. Most of the time I say "Harrashoa" (good) and that seems to do the trick.
Tsminda Sameba - Church with a View
Next day, I decide to tackle the climb up to Tsminda Sameba Church. My lovely landlady Nino packs me some sandwiches and I set off up the hill through the village of Gergeti, opposite Kazbegi. It's not that far to the church - just 600m or so (the church is at 2200m but Kazbegi is at 1600) but it's steep, it's through a forest and so there are loads of insects, and it's still very hot. The climb up is only marginally interesting, but when I get up to the little monastary, which is on an open plain on the top of the hill, I just stop for several minutes to take it all in. It's spectacularly sited and utterly breathtaking.
So close is it to Georgian hearts that, when the Soviets decided to build a cable car up here from the village in 1988, the construction lasted barely a year; locals tore it all down, furious that their symbol of beauty and piety had been tainted in this way. There are still signs of mangled metal and concrete dotted around in Kazbegi, but thankfully not near the church. After taking pictures of it from every angle, I lay down and just admired it for while, wishing I had a set of oil paints (and artistic ability) to capture the beauty. The path continued up past the church towards a glacier, and I followed it for an hour or so, but then fog came down and I decided to turn back. Coming back under the cloud, the church was framed by amazing white whisps and the stunning mountain backdrop on the other side of the valley.
There was nobody else around to destroy the peace. I sat down on a hillock and stayed there for a very long time. If I see anything in my life again which so seamlessly blends natural with man made beauty, I will die a happy man. Inside, the church is like most others in Georgia, but quite simply decorated, just a few icons, probably not much different from when it was built in the 12th century. A haven of peace and tranquility, on a par with some of the most remote Buddhist temples I've been to in the Himalayas. On descending, I walked back along the valley in search of a natural spring and swimming pool I'd been told about. After about half an hour's walk, I found it - an incongruous outdoor pool with water rushing into it, nobody about. I swam - cool but extremely refreshing after the climb.
The gloaming; dark clouds had now descended from the mountains and the sun was gone. Pure atmosphere, only the tinkle of a few cow bells. I wanted to stay for weeks, for ever. But I'd run out of money (ed. there being no cashpoints, I had to go back to Tbilisi) and I needed to see more of the country before I went to Baku. These are mountains that can inspire poetry and art, and you can feel god here even if you aren't religious; it's extremely spiritual and cleansing. If the heart of Georgia is anywhere, it is surely here. Next day - marshrutka back to Tbilisi. Calmed, I hardly noticed the journey this time.
Like this? Then like us on our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram. Also, sign up to our website above so you don't miss any future posts!
This blog is part of a series. Please see the previous/next parts here: