Travelling in the Georgian Caucasus: Kazbegi and Svaneti

Georgia is a mountainous land.  There’s a low, flattish strip running from the Black Sea in the west to the Azerbaijan border in the south-east, but everywhere else is high ground with the mighty Caucasus mountains forming the country’s northern border with Russia.  Visiting at the end of March we weren’t sure whether the snow would have melted and how accessible the mountains would be but we wanted to try to get to them.

Snowy mountains

Into the mountains! There was still a lot of snow as we crossed the Jvari pass before dropping down a little into Kazbegi

From Sighnaghi we returned to Tbilisi and took another marshrutka along the Georgian Military Highway to Stepantsminda, also known as Kazbegi.  This small town is home to one of the most famous views in the country and if you look at any tourism material about Georgia you’ll almost certainly see a picture of the small monastery perched on a ridge with a towering mountain behind it.  We’d booked rooms in a guesthouse before arriving, saw that it was marked on our offline map and confidently struck out from the bus stop in the centre of town for what looked to be about a five minute walk.

Cloudy Kazbegi view

View from our guesthouse, Homestay Lela and Mari. We originally thought that Mt Kazbek was the snowy section to the right of the monastery, and then we saw the peak poking out from the clouds above!

Suffice to say, the guesthouse wasn’t where the map said, and after knocking on the door of a random lady, walking up and down the street for 20 minutes, bothering several other passersby and three phone calls to the guesthouse who spoke limited English, we were a little nervous about all the trouble we’d caused when our host Gela pulled up next to us in his car. No need to worry! He brushed off our apologies, drove 30 seconds to the house (just round the corner from where the map said it was), presented us with plates full of biscuits and sweets and offered us coffee or tea.  We gratefully accepted a coffee and he confidently added ‘chacha?’  Not wishing to be rude we tentatively accepted a glass of the local firewater, distilled from the second pressing of the grapes, which with Gela’s hospitality swiftly became three and then five shots so that when we later set out to explore the town we were all a little giggly!

Kazbegi

Kazbegi (clockwise from top): the River Terek runs through the town; Soviet era mural adorning the end of a building in the centre; parts of the town are looking a bit run down including this now defunct cable car station

The following morning I woke quite early, peeped around the curtain to see what the weather was like and my jaw dropped.  Mt Kazbek had emerged from the clouds and the pink light of the sunrise was making its way down the peak towards the Gergeti monastery.  We oohed and aahed, taking lots of (almost identical) photos until Gela bundled us all into the car and we sped off up the hill.  We weren’t entirely clear on where we were going but shortly arrived at a small monastery above the town opposite Mt Kazbek. As we got out of the car we saw a young monk hurrying across the snow covered grounds to ring the bell and a few minutes later we were standing at the back of the tiny colourfully frescoed church listening to the monks’ morning prayer chants. Gela gave us each a candle to light and place in front of one of the icons and I said a small thank you to the world for such a magical start to the day.

On our second morning in Kazbegi, Andrew got his camera set up to take a time-lapse of the sunrise.

After breakfast we set off to hike up to the Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) monastery which we’d been admiring from below since the previous afternoon. We refused the many offers of ‘taxi?’ as we walked through the town, crossed the river and passed through the opposite village of Gergeti. The hike was steep but not difficult and with a few pauses to catch our breath admire the spectacular view we made it up to the monastery in about an hour from the valley floor.

Cows beside the path

Cows beside the path as we pass through Gergeti village on the way to the monastery

Having seen no other tourists on the walk up it was a bit of a shock to find several groups armed with selfie sticks spilling out of cars at the monastery. The church itself is small and architecturally nothing special, it’s really the location that counts here. Even historically, when enemies threatened, the Georgians brought their sacred treasures from Mtskheta and put them in the monastery for safe keeping.

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Andrew, Jo and I in front of the postcard perfect view of Gergeti Tsminda Sameba church

Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery

The Gergeti Tsminda Sameba monastery really does have a stunning location

Thermal pool near Kazbegi

On our second day in Kazbegi we walked along the valley to the village of Pansheti. On the way we passed this swimming pool fed from a mineral spring

Overnight train to Zugdidi at Tbilisi station

We took the afternoon marshrutka back to Tbilisi in time to catch the overnight train to Zugdidi. We love sleeping in the rocking motion of a slow train but this one would have been a bit more comfortable if they’d turned the heating down a few notches

We arrived in Zugdidi in north-western Georgia at 6am after an uncomfortably hot overnight train journey.  From there it was a three hour marshrutka ride up increasingly twisty roads with increasingly stunning views to Mestia, the main town of the Svaneti region.  The Svaneti region of the Caucasus has its own distinct culture, food, traditions and even language, and the Svan people are very proud that they’ve never been ruled by outsiders.  The most obvious and distinctive part of their culture are the defensive towers.

Mestia

Mestia and its distinctive defensive towers

We’d seen an example of a Svan tower at the Ethnographic Museum in Tbilisi but here we were able to go inside and climb up to the top even sticking our head through the roof hatch in one case! Some levels had stone floors and others wood but each was small and had bare stone walls.  The tradition of the towers dates back to the Middle Ages and each family had its own attached to the main living hall to be used for protection of the owners and their animals in case of attack from invaders or raiders.  Some of the towers were also used for signalling with fires being lit in a chain down the valley to warn of an impending attack. The excellent museum in Mestia had an exhibit of photographs taken by Italian Vittorio Sella in the 1890s and the town’s architecture is still recognisable 125 years later.

Svan towers (clockwise from left): the tower entrance is part way up the side to aid with defence; Jo climbing up one of the ladders, stone slabs would be used to close these holes in case of attack; only the top floor of the tower has windows

Although Mestia is at roughly the same altitude as Kazbegi, around 1500m, the sunny spring weather that we’d experienced in the eastern mountains didn’t quite seem to have arrived here yet.  There was still snow on the ground and on our second day we were more or less snowed in as the fluffy flakes fell continuously from early morning to late evening.  We ventured out for a walk to the cathedral (locked) and for lunch at a local cafe but mostly we just holed up in our guesthouse around the cosy wood burning stove.

Holed up in the guesthouse on a snowy day in Mestia

Fortunately by the following morning the sun had appeared and was starting to lift the clouds from the mountains.  We’d arranged a trip to Ushguli, a UNESCO listed village further into the mountains with Vakho, our guesthouse owner’s brother.  Also joining us were a Korean woman and a Japanese man who we’d met in town.  It’s a rough road passable only by 4WD vehicles even in the summer and the 47km (29 miles) takes over 2 hours to drive.  We reached a point where no other vehicles had driven and were cruising along downhill when suddenly a Russian made jeep flew around the corner ahead of us. CRUNCH! There was nowhere for us to go and the front corner and headlight unit of our Mitsubishi was caved in by the impact.

Crash on the snowy road to Ushguli

Luckily no-one was hurt and the engine wasn’t damaged so after a short while we were back on our way though Vakho was understandably upset at the damage which would likely cost him significantly more to fix than the 200GEL that we were paying him for the day’s excursion. There’s no car insurance here and the other vehicle’s owner didn’t seem to be overly concerned about helping out though technically it was his fault as he was driving uphill.

The previous day’s snow made the view from the road to Ushguli even prettier

The community of Ushguli stands at the foot of Mt Shkhara, Georgia’s highest peak, and is made up of five villages, one of which was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996 as an “exceptional example of mountain scenery with medieval-type villages and tower-houses”. At an altitude of between 2060 and 2200m it also lays claim to being the highest permanently (i.e. year round) inhabited settlement in Europe. It must be a difficult place to live, bitterly cold in the winter (it was bad enough in late March), two hours on a bad road to the nearest small town, and five or more to anything bigger, the people must be hardy and self-sufficient in ways that are difficult for us to imagine.

The villages of Ushguli, in the foreground UNESCO listed Chazhashi, with Chvibiani behind

One Svan culinary specialty is the kubdari, similar to the cheese-filled khachapuri found in the rest of Georgia, but stuffed with seasoned meat.  In Ushguli we got an impromptu cooking lesson from a cafe owner as we watched her make pies for our lunch. I suspect that getting the filling to stay neatly inside the dough is not nearly as easy as she made it look. Once made, the kubdari were cooked on top of and then inside the traditional wood-fired stove which is the heart of every Svan home and kitchen.

Making kubdari in Ushguli

Cafe owner making kubdari, Svan meat pie, in Ushguli

After lunch, Vakho and the cafe owner scrambled the security guard and museum keeper to open the small ethnographic museum up for us. Located in a fat tower in Chazhashi, it houses treasures from Ushguli’s seven churches including gold and silver chalices, icons and crosses as well as jewellery and drinking horns.

Ushguli ethnographic museum

Emerging from the museum we trudged through the snow a little further along the street when we heard loud barking and saw an enormous Caucasian shepherd dog bearing down on us. A woman shouted at him but we beat a hasty retreat all the same. The dogs in the streets of both Ushguli and Mestia are quite intimidating. Not so bad if it’s a cute waddling sausage dog, but others are descended from the mountain dogs bred to protect the sheep from wolves and bears and could do quite a bit of damage if they felt so inclined. Locals told us that they are generally safe as the dogs have learnt that tourists will give them food but I didn’t enjoy having a pack follow us around especially as we had no intention of feeding them.

Our tour group in Ushguli (left to right): Julie, Andrew, Jo, Masato, Hyunja

Feral dogs aside, the mountains were a highlight of the trip for all of us and we vowed to return in the summer for some hiking!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What is 28 + 22 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is: