The old man tries to speak to me in Russian – I try to respond. My minimal Slovene glossary come in handy now. He asks me where I am from. I answer Daniya. He says something about Daniya and gori (mountain). I laugh and make the motion of flat. He gives up and leaves me to my own thoughts. I sit quietly and rest while looking down upon the village of Kazbegi. I sit at Tsminda Sameba, the church that represents Georgia in every tourist brochure. Mt Kazbeg is on the West site of the church and the village at the East, – right under my feet. 14 kilometres to the north lies Russia. I am in the heart of the Caucasus Mountains. On the border between Europe and Asia.
The drive to Kazbegi
As I arrived to Didube bus station the day before, a Georgian soldier looked curiously at me and asked in Russian if I was going to Kazbegi alone. I told him da. From then on he took it upon himself to act as my protector in much the same way as he was for his own children. He gave me candy, he explained the time of departure, he gave me more candy. At 11 o’clock, just as the soldier had said the marshrutka left Didube station heading for Kazbegi.
Except from a young Latvian couple I found myself the only tourist in a minibus cramped with Georgians. Women with children, middle-aged men and a very old woman who complained a lot. All of them had bags and sacks full of tomatoes, onions and corn, and even a large old television was squeezed in to the back seat. How there came to be room for all of us, I still don’t know.
I had hoped to sleep on the way, but quickly discovered that the trip itself was an unforgettable experience. The Georgian Military Highway runs through mountains and valleys and passes the beautiful setting of Ananuri out to the Zhinvali Reservoir, an extraordinarily beautiful greyish-blue lake. If I could I would have stopped there for an hour or two or even a day, relaxing at the side of the lake. But the marshrutka went on, further into the depths of the Caucasus mountains. After stopping in many of the small villages on the way, leaving behind people with onions, tomatoes and even the television, we finally arrived in Kazbegi.
The mountains here are as a wall surrounding the eastern side, standing majestically over the village. To the west is Mount Kazbek with its 5047m peak and in the streets stand a lonely cow, dashing its tail lazily in an attempt to fight off the flies.
Day 1: Tsminda Sameba
I live at Nasi’s place, mostly sitting on the veranda enjoying the view. She is a wonderful person who cooks and takes prodigiously good care of the many people who come here to stay a night or two. It therefore often happens that many decide to hang on and stay for a week or more. I would love to do that too, but unfortunately my time is limited and I still hope to get a glimpse of the summer back home.
This morning, bright and early at 7.30 while the morning sky was still clear and as the first light of sun hit the walls of the valley I started on a hiking trip to the famously situated church Tsminda Sameba. I was so fortunate as to be accompanied by a Polish guy who knew the way well. He had come to Kazbegi to climb the peak of Mount Kazbek but had had to give up because of the altitude. Now he had decided to join the rest of the group as they were descending, helping them with their bags and gear.
As we walked upwards the weather got hot and the road seemed to be steeper. Half way up and while taking pictures of Mount Kazbeg from afar, a horseman came along on the path behind us. It happened to be Robert, the hired help for the mountain climbers. He was on his way with two extra horses in order to meet the climbers and help them carry their backpacks for the last part of their descending Mt Kazbek. After a bit of greetings in Russian between the Polish mountain climber and the Georgian horseman, I was placed on one of the horses and we began the last part of our trip towards the church on horseback.
Me, myself and horses
I am not a rider and it has been 10 years since I was last time mounted on the back of a horse. To be quite frank it always comes as a shock to me that horses are so big and in particular that there is such a long way down. While holding the tongue straight in my mouth (as we say where I come from) I tried to focus on getting the horse to do just a bit of what I wanted it to do. It was a golden and rather social horse and far from comparable to any of the horses from the riding school I had once attended when I was still in my pre-teens. While they had all been old and grey and barely moving, this one was extremely lively, pretty annoyed with its terrified rider and constantly turning around. When we lacked behind which most often occurred due to my terrible riding skills the horse started to gallop so it could once again have its head closely linked to the bottom of the horse ahead. I’ve never galloped before in my life and could do nothing but hold on tightly and pray that the horse knew what it was doing, because the scenery as well was quite different from that of an indoor riding school.
While I was holding on tightly to the saddle of the golden horse, we came within view of Tsminda Sameba. The sky was still blue and Mount Kazbek was majestically rising to our right, while the view to our left was that of the valley and the mountain wall behind it. As Robert had no problems with my lack of controlling the golden horse, we continued further than the church, moving towards the glacier and Mt Kazbek, riding on a small pass on the side of the mountain.
After a while and as I could feel that our party of three was slowing down because of me, I chose to get off and thank Robert for the “lift”. Then I slowly went back down, enjoying the view of a single church on a mountain top with snow covered mountains as the backdrop. Now I sit at the church next to the old Georgian man who is spying on the village of Kazbegi down below with a pair of binoculars. I suppose it is time for me to descend to Nasi’s for a good Georgian lunch.
Day two: The Russian border
Nasi’s is peaceful and the people who have come all the way to this outpost are of such different yet fascinating nature. While the Polish guy was reunited with his group, I spent the following day walking alongside a young American guy all the way to the border.
We were greeted at the beginning with a stunning view of Mount Kazbek, before our journey took us through what seemed a canyon or valley. Following the road for ages, I was stunned by the sheer beauty of this place. I can honestly admit that I have never seen anything like it.
We hitched a hike for the last part of the journey and managed to reach the Georgian side of the border where a lonely Georgian soldier stood. Such a strange feeling to know that on the other side only a few kilometres north lay Mother Russia. Big and looming. I could almost feel the pressure from that old superpower and the entire place felt so very dark and dramatic.
While the soldier was not pleased with the idea of appearing in our pictures, he was willing to step aside so we could take pictures in front of the border post. Looking at these pictures, I cannot help seeing myself as some silly tourist standing there laughing at a place so ominous.
We were fortunately also able to catch a ride back to Kazbegi, or my feet would have given up.
Day Three: Back to Tbilisi
I was planning to take the marshrutka back to Tbilisi when a German couple who’d hired a driver to return offered me the extra seat. Happy for the chance to stop on the way and see some more of the Georgian Military Highway I gratefully accepted.
On our way back we stopped at several beautiful stops such as an old ruin which the local sheep had taken a liking to thanks to the shade it offered. We also stopped at Jvari pass where the minerals in the water which springs from the earth colours the rock red. Thus, in the middle of the lush green of the Caucasus mountains are splotches of an intense red.
Finally we made it to Ananuri, which I’d fancied seeing since driving by on the way to Kazbegi. Ananuri is an old castle complex which lies in all its glory at the Aragvi River and out to the Zhinvali Reservoir. It used to be the seat of the Dukes of Aragvi who ruled the area from the 13th century onwards. The castle was built in the 17th century.
However, it was immensely hot and terrible to walk around sightseeing. I was wet with sweat when we finally got into the car. Not that the car offered any reprieve from the baking sun, since there was no air-con available. In fact it was quite the metal bucket we were driving around in. For most of the journey one of us had to hold the door of the right side passenger seat closed with our hands, because otherwise it would open up.
Fortunately, the car made it back to Tbilisi in one piece and I returned to my former lodgings for a well deserved rest.