Friday, May 2, 2014

Kazbegi and the Georgian Military Highway

My plan all along was to do a trip to the Kazbegi region of Georgia. This is a high, mountainous region just south of the Russian border, accessible from Tbilisi only by the infamous Georgian Military Highway. Kazbegi (and it's main destination, the picturesque village of Stepantsminda) is stunning and the highway is known for being one of the world's more scenic and dangerous drives. 

You can take a marshrutka from Tbilisi for 10 lari (about $6) for the 3 hour drive, which is what i had planned go do, but then one of the guys from the hostel and i talked about hiring a car to take us there so we could stop and take photos along the way. He wanted to go up for the day and i planned to spend the night. This morning however he was sound asleep following what apparently was an all night Georgian supra (feast and marathon eating and drinking event filled with numerous toasts) but i still wanted to go and was rather taken with the idea of taking a car, so i went by myself with Nik (a young student who works at the hostel), who borrowed his dad's 1980s Renault to drive me up there. I paid him 150 lari for the trip and the. For him it was about 5-6 hours of driving, so i thought the price was fair.

Taking a car turned out to be terrific. We were able to stop along the way to visit churches and stop so i could photograph the stunning scenery and flocks of sheep. The skies were blue and the weather was warm as we left Tbilisi. I thought, "i don't see what the beg deal is about this Georgian Military Highway being dangerous." 

Of course, as we climbed higher into the mountains, the road turned into a series of hairpin turns on the narrow two-lane, clinging to the side of the steep mountain sides...and then it clouded over, began to rain and thunder and then and we passed by large patches of ice, it began to snow. Not the best conditions for driving, as one multi car accident we passed demonstrated, complete with an overturned semi.

As we finally reached Stepantsminda, the snow gave way to rain. Wet and foggy though it was, the town was beautiful: a proper mountain village in the middle of glacier capped mountains, with cattle and sheep roaming the streets like dogs. 

About 2500 people live here and there isn't much. A couple hostels, a couple restaurants, a few tiny markets selling bread, vodka, dairy, and sweets, farmland, and forrest. The reason people come here is for the hiking - and mostly to hike up to the Tsmind Sameba Church, although it is possible to hike up to the glaciers, which are not far away.

It was cold and wet when we arrived so rather than leaving me to my own devices, Nik, rolled down his window and asked a stern and study looking man if he knew of a place i could stay. The man apparently said i could stay with him and his wife, because soon i was in their small, cozy home. The couple- Lela and Rezo - speak only Georgian and Russian so we are relying on my very limited Russian and a lot of sign language. Their house is modest and cozy, warmed with a wood burning stove in the living room. It appears that i am taking their room and they are sleeping in the living room. I am paying them about the equivalent of $15 dollars for the night and breakfast. There is no internet, of course - even the electricity is intermittent, but i shall write this now on my ipad and post it at the next opportunity.

After i settled in at their place, i went walking through the town to nowhere in  particular, though i did stop in at the tiny museum which had cows grazing out front.

I ended up at a crowded restaurant on the main square and ended up eating with four travellers from Poland, who were very friendly and with whom i shared my first taste of 'cha cha' or Georgian vodka, more similar to a grappa than vodka. It doesn't go down smoothly and once swallowed it makes its presence felt. It was good to try, but i don't think i'll be making a habit of it.

After sitting by the stove reading for a while i went to bed early, for a bit of blogging before bed. Tomorrow morning i have a car scheduled to take me up the mountain to the church after church.

A very cozy end to a very good day.

1 comment:

Betty-Lou said...

Did you, at any point during the drive into the mountains, think "Betty-Lou would hate this"?