Published: July 13th 2009July 3rd 2009
Lunch with a view
Stopping at Gudauri for a lunch of puri (bread), cheese and fruit.
Taking the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi and hiking in the Nature Reserve
Stretching from Tbilisi to Russia via some of the most mountainous terrain on earth, the Highway has existed as a route since before the 1st century BC but was only a basic track. In 1783 the Russians converted it into a carriage road via a hurculean effort requiring more than 800 soldiers. In 1829 Pushkin and many other Russian writers such as Gorky and Tolstoy followed this route to Tbilisi. In 1883, following the opening of the railway via the Caspian coast, the road lost much of its' importance. The border was closed during the recent 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. However the Russians did not attempt to use this route for their attacks, as it is very easily defended with deep, twisting gorges surrounded by high walls. In fact, during the Bolshevik invasion of Georgia in the early 1900's, 6 soldiers and one machine gun, strategically placed, were able to hold off a large invading force.
Leaving from Tbilisi, the first site we stopped at was Annauri, where several spectacular and historic churches perch above Zhinvali Reservoir. The carvings on the exterior are ornate
Hillside, red from mineral waters
Irakli on the hillside, which was easily climbed despite the water flow due to the small, rough, calcified ridges deposited by the rich minteral waters.
and represent both Christian and pagan symbols. For instance, the deer was considered by pagans to be a very important spiritual symbol. Its antlers are in heaven, its hooves in the underworld and its body here on earth. Not to mention its importance in providing meat, hide, and bone for the survival of early peoples.
Next stop, Gudauri, popular ski resort and home of the Georgian ski championships. We had a picnic lunch over looking the river ravine with several snow capped peaks close by. From here, it wasn’t too far to Jvaris Ughelt or Cross Pass at 2,379 meters and 127 km from Tbilisi. Open only from May to November, it is the highest point on the Military Highway. There are many good historical descriptions, especially by Lermontov and Dumas, of the difficulties in getting over the pass in bad weather. Descending into the Bidara Valley of the Tergi River, we stopped at yet another mineral water spring. Here, the rocks are stained red by the minerals in the spring water. These minerals also have built up tiny ridges of calcification that are almost invisible to the eye, rough to the touch, which force the water to ripple
The water is delicious!
The spring in the pass. Despite the red calcifications, the water actually tastes great!
in an eye catching way. Almost like a shimmer over the rock face, it was mesmerizing to watch. Of course we filled up all our empty water bottles. Georgia is rich in natural spring waters and everywhere you turn is another famous variety.
From here, we traveled further down the valley, over some of the most difficult road surfaces I’ve experienced yet. Not just your garden variety potholes (big enough to swallow a Volkswagen) but enormous potholes, crumbling cliff faces, long stretches with no asphalt or cement road surface at along, all combined with hair pin curves, slide areas and of course, the ever-present insane drivers. Bad weather combined with copious traffic and heavy trucks equals worse-than-average road conditions. At least the suicidal pedestrians were absent.
We traveled at a top speed of about 15 mph, which means that it took about 3-4 hrs total to travel to our destination, Kazbegi, 155 km from Tbilisi.
It was well worth the effort. The Kazbegi mountain, the highest in Georgia at over 5047m, dominates the town of Stephantsminda (St. Stephen, the suffix -tsminda means “holy”) and beyond that, the village of Gergeti. The mountain is named after Alexander Kazbegi,
Town, village, mountain
The town of Stephanstminda, the village of Gergeti, and the Kazbegi mountain
(1848-93), a local noble who became a beloved pastoral poet, living as a shepherd for 7 years while composing his poetry. We stayed at the Hotel Stephantsminda, a Western Style hotel with fabulous views from our small balcony which overlooked the turbulent river. The next day, we hiked through the Kazbegi Nature Reserve. Established in 1976, it lies at the divide between the Central and Eastern Caucasian ranges, and is home to almost 1500 plant species and a number of important bird and animal families. Wild flowers were every where as we hiked about 2 miles up to the Trinity Church, on a peak overlooking the town and part way up the mountain. There are also many fine birch groves and of course, a spring along the way to refresh thirsty hikers. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever hiked, and the weather was perfect: warm with a slight breeze.
Trinity church was built in the 14th century, and is amazingly large considering it’s remote location, at 2,170m. There are monks living here, construction is ongoing to expand their living quarters, and miraculously-they are using solar panels! There is also a bubbling mineral spring and we
Hiking amongst the wildflowers
On the way up to Trinity church, thousands of wildflowers in brilliant colors and numerous varieties.
were happy to reach the top and drink its’ sweet and cool waters. Just knowing that there are places in the world, remote from the worlds' trials, tribulations and angst, where people devote themselves to the study and knowledge of God, helps me to remember that what seems so urgent and critical today-probably isn't.
The monks have been here, praying, during numerous invasions, wars, plagues, recessions and depressions, births, deaths, political systems and governments coming and going...yet the one constant is the praise and worship of God. They were here before I was born and will be there long after I die. It seemed a place of timelessness, a place set apart, holy and spiritual, and yet still here, present in the world. A model of what Christians are called to be-a people set apart, in the world but not of it. I found it mystical and inspiring, a place and memory I will treasure forever.
The next day, we drove towards the border with Russia. The wild river, rushing between steeply carved cliffs, has formed a very narrow valley. It seemed as though no one would consider living here, ever. But, we rounded a sharp curve and there
Located on one of the hillsides of Mt. Kazbegi
was an amazing structure rising from the valley floor: A complete monastic complex under construction! I was astounded! Even more astounding is the educated and erudite priest who spoke passionately about the project and gave us a tour. With my husband translating for me, the priest showed us an architect's picture of the completed complex: Cathedral, large quarters for monks, and hotel for visitors! The complex is being built mostly of local materials, including beautiful green and red marble and granite like stones. They have set up a mini-industrial complex, complete with a huge saw and production line, for cutting these stones into slabs for the interiors. Any American interior decorator would swoon over the rich green and red marbling-right now, granite kitchen counter tops are all the rage in the US. One wonders if there could be a viable business selling these slabs after the complex is completed.
Another amazing experience here was seeing Georgia's largest icon. During the 1990's, the teenage artist had a dream wherein he saw the icon, complete. After receiving the blessing of the Patriarch, he commenced work, and finished it within 9 months, a production schedule unheard of for such a large, multi-media,
complex work. The sheep (made of real wool) represents Georgia, and the Crusader's Cross flag symbolizes the flame of a candle, burning for Georgia. Of special interest is that Georgia's current flag closely matches this 'flame' yet at the time this icon was created, Georgia's national flag was totally different.
So the artist, along with his dream of the icon, invisioned as a flame the current flag of Georgia. Coincidence? I think not.
There are more photos below