Sunday 9 September 2012

Into the Mountains

I arrive at Didube: part transport hub, part market, all chaos. Dozens of cars and marshrutki (minibuses that serve as the main form of public transport in the Caucasus) are parked around the place in no apparent order; countless stalls sell everything from food and drink to toys and brooms; the noise of honking horns fills the air; hundreds of Georgians haggle, socialize, smoke, drink and eat. There is, however, no sign of an information desk or ticket office. With my blond hair, vest top, shorts and backpack I stand out as a foreigner, and am soon approached by an energetic Georgian man who asks me in Russian where I want to go. I tell him "Kazbegi" and he tries to convince me to take a taxi. When I insist that I want a marshrutka, he tries to lead me to two nearby marshrutki, to Batumi and Kutaisi respectively, telling me that these are better destinations. After repeating "Kazbegi" several times, he finally gives in and leads me across the madness of the square to a marshrutka with "KAZBEGI" written on the front: one of very few to have its destination written in the Latin alphabet. The marshrutki have a very sophisticated system of seat reservation: putting a personal possession onto a seat, and leaving it there while waiting outside of the stuffy vehicle. I appear to have arrived just in time, and place my bag on the last available seat. Just a few minutes before the scheduled departure, however, a fat Georgian woman appears. The driver is trying to tell me something in a muddled combination of Russian, Georgian and English. By the time I realize what he's proposing, it's too late for me to protest. A small wooden chair is produced and placed in between two of the marshrutka's proper seats. I have the most uncomfortable journey of my life.

Didube: Tbilisi's main transport hub
The ordeal was worth it though: my destination was absolutely incredible. Kazbegi (which for some reason had its official name changed to Stepantsminda, but is still widely known by its old name) is a traditional Georgian village nestled among the awe-inspiring Caucasus mountains. I actually stayed in the smaller, neighbouring village of Gergeti. My accommodation was a guesthouse run by a lovely old Georgian woman called Nazi (ironically, most of the guests were either Polish or Israeli). In Caucasian villages there are very few real hotels or hostels, so the usual form of accommodation is guesthouses or homestays, whereby one basically stays in a local's home and is provided with authentic homecooked meals. I imagine that this tradition is a result of the region's historical importance as a trade route on the silk road, and I felt as though by taking lodgings in a local household I was following in the footsteps of the countless Russians, Turks, Persians and others who have traversed the Caucasus in days gone by. This particular guesthouse was actually one of the bigger ones: my room had ten beds packed into it, and there were at least four other guest rooms. Amenities were fairly basic, with two tiny shower cubicles and two tiny toilet cubicles serving everyone, and no sign of any hot water. However, with three hearty meals a day included in the price of 35 lari (about £13), one could hardly complain. 

My guesthouse
Neither Kazbegi nor Gergeti has a lot to offer visitors in the villages themselves, rather simply serving as places to stay while exploring and enjoying the fantastic surroundings. Overlooking the villages is the Tsminda Sameba church, an especially holy site for Georgian Orthodox Christians, and just beyond that is Mount Kazbek, the highest peak in the area (and third highest in Georgia) at 5047m. I passed a few wonderful days here, walking around and enjoying the unbelievable views and magical atmosphere. I don't hesitate to say that this is one of the most beautiful places that I've ever been. As such, rather than waste any more words, I'll just leave you with some of my photos.


Small church behind Kazbegi

Mount Kazbek
Tsminda Sameba, which overlooks Gergeti and Kazbegi
View of Gergeti and Kazbegi from Tsminda Sameba
OK so I have an admission to make. When going to visit Tsminda Sameba,
I cheated somewhat... halfway up the mountain, I had stopped to admire
the view, when this monstrosity of a vehicle pulled up next to me; the guy
driving it (a monk in traditional attire, with a full beard) must have thought
I was hitchhiking, because he beckoned for me to get in. Neither him nor
his friend spoke a word of English or Russian, but they did give me a lift
all the way to the summit!

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