So you wanna do something new and different but still not go too crazy? You like road trips and want a piece of some never-seen-anything-like-this landscapes? Go to Georgia, in the heart of the Caucasus. It’s not Europe, but it’s not really Asia either. It’s something in between. And the nature is a mix of New Zealand and Switzerland.
Your trip to Georgia probably starts in Tbilisi, the one and a half millennium old capital. From here you can go in three directions; east to the wine districts of Kakheti, west to the coastal cities at the Black Sea, or north to the Caucasus. I will take you up north all the way to the Kazbegi National Park in the heart of the Caucasus.
Kazbegi is the perfect destination if you like nature and trekking. The roads are in good shape, but you will need a 4WD not to get stuck in the off-road terrain later on (we got stuck anyway). The good news is that you don’t have to drive far to get a taste of some breathtaking landscapes, literally speaking.
The route to Kazbegi is considered one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world. It’s a thrilling experience for sure.
You will be travelling along the Georgian Military Road, described in the 1914 edition of Baedeker’s Russia as “one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world'”. It cuts right through the Caucasus and take you all the way to Kazbegi. Don’t worry about the ongoing conflicts in some regions, you won’t notice a thing. Just make sure you don’t divert from the road and cross into the semi-autonomous South Ossetian. It might get a very long coffee break.
About an hour of drive from Tbilisi you will reach Mtshketa. It’s one of the oldest cities in Georgia and an UNESCO world heritage site. The town gravitates around the beautiful Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which looks more like a fortress than a church. Get lost in the alleys, buy some home made candy, and have coffee with the locals.
Monochromatic shades of grey and green make up the city atmosphere. The piazza in the city center reminds me of a Salvador Dalí painting. Surreal and mystic, but welcoming in the same time. And the small market sell you home made food and candy. What more can you ask for?
Half way you’ll pass the Ananuri Lake. Make a stop at the old fortress complex at side of the road for a nice view. And don’t miss the inscription at the side of the church. Georgian letters are unique in their appearance and their exact origin has never been established. It’s said to be one of the hardest language in the world to learn. I don’t doubt it.
You’ll reach the Kazbegi region in about three hours. But take it easy, the drive is half the fun. Down the valleys and up above the clouds on the brink of steep mountains. You’ll drive into tunnels with no idea what to expect on the other side.
It’s the kind of landscape you didn’t think existed. In same way, it’s a world of contrasts. You’ll pass rusty pipelines, abandoned caravan sites, and heavy trucks. The traffic is sometimes intense as it’s the main road to Russia. And don’t get surprise if you meet a gang of cows strolling on the highway.
The base camp in Kazbegi is a small town called Stepantsminda. It’s not much to do there, but you can get a feel for the daily life by lodging at a local family. I checked in at a local guesthouse with spacious rooms and a large terrace overlooking the mountains. The couple running the hotel don’t know much English but the babushka of the two will cook you a tasty breakfast. Georgian style.
The Gergeti Trinity Church is a solitary 14th century chapel built at 2,200 meters height. It can only be reached by a steep three hour trek by foot from Stepantsminda, or by a 4WD car on a very, very bad road. We took the car, got stuck halfway and had to walk the last kilometer. But, believe me, it’s worth every step to reach the plateau at the top. The view is absolutely breathtaking.
Why do you build a church at such a remote and difficult place? To prove your faith in God? Or to simply separate the wheat from the chaff and reward the few who make it to the top (that is, you). Maybe it’s Georgia’s own Tower of Babel; the closer to God, the more divine. I asked the priest inside the chapel. He just shook his head and smile. The English language didn’t make it here.
You won’t get closer to Mount Kazbek unless you climb the mountain. But that’s fine. This is it. Mother nature at her best. A 360-degrees panorama of scenic alp landscapes. Deep green valleys all around you. Snowy black peaks. The wind is warm and the air so fresh you almost get high. You’ll literally walk on clouds. Even the cows looks happy.
All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.
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