‘I’ve been drinking all day!’ exclaimed the chain-smoking taxi driver sticking his head out of the window to draw deeply on his third cigarette, ‘You know, Georgia is the land and home of the best wine in the world!’ We soon discovered that there was no reason to doubt this, but also that this inebriated taxi man who had collected us at Tbilisi Airport in the dead of night was not alone in speeding with wild abandon along the roads and tracks of this country…
Situated in the mighty Caucasus Mountains on a narrow bridge of land between the Black and Caspian Seas and occupying a unique geopolitical space betwixt Europe and Asia, not quite east or west, a visit to this conundrum of a country had been on my mind for thirty-odd years. Back in the late-80s working on a kibbutz in Israel, I had listened wide-eyed to tall stories told to me by Georgian Jews of remote mountain villages with enigmatic stone towers and rustic houses with ornate wooden balconies that were surrounded by picture-perfect alpine meadows in summer and cut off for months in deep-freezer winters. A place where boozy banquets went on for days, gun-totting bandits on horseback terrorised neighbourhoods, and few outsiders dared set foot. Add to this that Georgia is the land of the fabled ‘golden fleece’ that supposedly saw Jason and his Argonauts gallantly sally forth across the Black Sea in their quest to find it, my heart was firmly set on one day travelling to this out-of-the-ordinary country.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s subsequent independence in 1991, and the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 which set it firmly on a pro-Western footing, made a visit there seem finally possible. Despite simmering post-communist civil conflicts that included secessionist wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in 2008 I was busy drawing up plans to finally visit, only to be thwarted by the unexpected outbreak of the Russo-Georgian War.
Those plans languished on the back-burner for the best part of a decade before the post-Soviet anarchy and mayhem subsided sufficiently for Martin and I to decide that the time was ripe to finally book tickets to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, where we now find ourselves one early-July night hurting through the streets in a death-wish taxi!
Tbilisi is our base for the start and finish of our treks in the northeast and northwest of the country. Because of its location on the crossroads between Europe and Asia and its proximity to lucrative east-west trade routes – it was a trading post along the Silk Road – it has been a point of contention between various global powers for centuries. Its diverse history is reflected in its eclectic architecture: a mix of medieval, classical, Middle Eastern, Art Nouveau, Stalinist and Modernist structures.
Today, this city with its leafy Paris-style boulevards is in the throes of a renaissance having undergone a rapid transformation in the wake of the Rose Revolution. Many old buildings have been swept away to be replaced by the sparkling Modernist architecture favoured by Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. This includes the tubular steel Rike Park Concert Hall and Exhibition Centre, which gleams above the bank of the Mtkvari River, and the Bridge of Peace spanning it, amusingly dubbed the ‘Always Ultra’ due to its shape! It hasn’t yet cast off its era as a former republic of the Soviet Union which is reflected in buildings such as the post-constructivist eighteen-storey Bank of Georgia headquarters.
But scratch the surface and you will soon discover a palimpsest of ancient architecture. The predominantly brick-built old city of Tbilisi – Abanotubani - topped by the imposing Narikala Fortress, contains a warren of narrow cobbled streets lined with attractive Azeri teahouses. The city’s name means ‘warm location’ due to its hot sulphur springs, which prompted the construction of Persian bathhouses with facades of ornate coloured tiles which are still in use, and a visit to one is a must after a tiring trek.
The city is cosmopolitan and always has been: an Orthodox church, a mosque and a synagogue stand cheek by jowl in one road, and you can savour the flavours of many parts of the world in the wonderful Georgian cuisine served in attractive street-side restaurants, bars and cafes. As our taxi driver pointed out, Georgia prides itself on being the oldest known location of cultivated vines, and in recent years it has resurrected the 8,000-year-old kvevri method of production which involves storing wine, often underground, in clay vessels. Georgian wines are gaining increased attention from international connoisseurs and the Saperavi grape quickly becomes a firm favourite of ours. There are no shortage of shops in Tbilisi to purchase a bottle, and it is a delight to discover that tasting before you buy seems to be compulsory!
The juxtaposition between old and new in this happening city with its avant-guard heart makes for breath-taking vistas, and none more spectacular than that at sunset from the terrace of the Funicular Complex atop Mount Mtatsminda.
After a day exploring and sightseeing in Tbilisi, we depart for the north-eastern Kazbegi region by private taxi through the outskirts of the city with its hot, fumy air, beyond the brooding Soviet-era apartment blocks lined up like rows of rotten teeth to where the Caucasus Mountains beckon. The aged Toyota taxi doesn’t have one panel that hasn’t been remodelled and the journey is another hair-raising experience, as the somewhat laconic driver with a mouthful of golden teeth breaks every conceivable road rule in the book. The seat belts are broken and my anal nerve almost fails on several occasions as, fag in mouth, he overtakes heavily laden trucks on blind corners, regularly speeds along at over 80km per hour on bumpy uneven roads, and dodges cattle and sheep which roam at will throughout the country. Georgia is dominated by massive mountain ranges with a limited road network that can make an inch on the map equal to two hours in a car. The road clings to the spiralling hillside as we climb higher into the jagged teeth of the mountains past the Gudauri Ski Resort after which it really deteriorates; the potholes could quite easily swallow one of the sheep wandering by the roadside!
I am relieved when we finally arrive at the Anano Guesthouse, our accommodation in Stepantsminda, 157 kilometres to the north of Tbilisi. Built on the Georgian Military Highway, an arterial route connecting Vladikavaz in North Ossetia (Russian Federation) with Tbilisi, it’s a small town of ancient stone and wooden houses in various states of dilapidation cheek by jowl with brand new three storey villas built by ‘new money’, the fruits of international tourism. Straddling the banks of the Terek River at an elevation of 1,740 metres above sea level, the village is named after a Georgian Orthodox monk named Stephan who constructed a hermitage here. During Soviet times it was known as Kazbegi, and is still informally referred to by this name. Hemmed in by enormous, jagged snow-capped mountains on all sides, Stepantsminda is one of the fastest growing tourist hubs for trekking and climbing due to its proximity to Mount Kazbek (5,337m) a dormant stratovolcano which lies immediately to the west of it.
The main tourist attraction is the fourteenth century Gergeti Trinity Church (Tsminda Sameba in Georgian) which sits above Stepantsminda and the neighbouring village of Gergeti on the right bank of the river Chkheri at an elevation of 2,170 metres. Christianity arrived in Georgia early – its people were converted in the fourth century and have clung on to their faith fiercely ever since. This holy Christian site is dwarfed by the enormous conical hulk of Mount Kazbek in whose shadow it sits and has become something of a symbol for modern Georgia, overshadowed as it is by its larger neighbours, Russia, Iran and Turkey. The history of Georgia is all about invasions, yet this resilient little country has somehow defiantly survived with its own language, alphabet and Christian culture.
We have a bird’s eye view of this famous church from the balcony of our guesthouse and at dawn it cuts a truly formidable figure silhouetted against the snows of Mount Kazbek blushing rose pink in the rising sun. A late-afternoon visit is promptly arranged with our host, Georgi, who will drive us there to avoid a steep 430 metre climb. His battered white Lada, which looks as if it was driven hard all the way from Togliatti, Russia thirty odd years ago, seems barely large enough to contain the three of us. One glance at Martin suggests he is thinking the same as me: ‘how on earth is this old vehicle going to make it up to the church?!’
Our concern is soon set aside as we begin to power our way up the dusty, deeply rutted, unmade track, for this Lada is a souped-up 4X4 which passes a labouring convoy of brand new Polish-registered Toyota Land Cruisers with ease! ‘This car can go like a mouse,’ says Georgi laughing, ‘in between the holes!’ Fancying himself to be Georgia’s very own Lewis Hamilton, he prides himself on passing every other vehicle in a cloud of dust, while we politely endure Georgia’s version of the ‘African massage’; every bone in my body is jarred by the constant pitching and rolling, and by the time we emerge from the wooded track onto the broad grassy hillside below the church, we are coated in a thin film of red dust!
The Gergeti Trinity Church is the only cross-cupola church in Khevi province and it cuts an imposing sight perched atop a grassy knoll. During incursions by Tbilisi Persians in the eighteenth century, precious relics from Mtskheta, including Saint Nino’s Cross, were brought here for safekeeping and it is perceived as something of a national treasure by Georgians who were banned from holding services in it during Soviet times. As we make our way up the steep cobbled pathway to the church and its separate bell tower, I can feel the effects of the altitude in my slightly laboured breathing.
We enter the church compound through the dark interior of the bell tower. In order to visit the church, women must cover their heads and be wearing a skirt; men must not be clad in shorts, so garments are provided. No photography is permitted inside. I enter though the ancient wooden doorway with its carved stone surround. Thin lances of light are cast down into the dark interior from the cupola creating an eerie half-light, and as my eyes adjust to the gloom I can see the opulent gold leaf of the numerous icons set ablaze by scores of flickering candles. In a corner, a bearded Orthodox monk is quietly reading a prayer book and the smell of burning beeswax hangs heavily in the air.
Outside we sit on the sun warmed slabs of the church terrace with its jaw-dropping view over Stepantsminda which is laid out like an architect’s model far below. Huge pillows of soft white cloud drift languidly over the face of the enormous snow-streaked mountains opposite and chords of watery sunlight trace intricate patterns across their runnelled face. This is our first real look at the mighty Caucasus Mountains. According to Greek mythology, as a punishment for teaching mankind how to make fire, the Titan Prometheus was chained to a mountainside in these mountains for all eternity. Being a land renowned for its myth and legend, Georgian folklore has its own version of the Prometheus story in the shape of the dragon-slayer, Amirani, who challenged God to a contest. God threw a staff into the ground which grew roots so deep that Arimani was unable to pull it out. As a punishment for his foolishness he was imprisoned in a cave 4,000 meters high on the icy slopes of Mount Kazbek, the huge mountain that glowers over this little church. This story somehow doesn’t seem too fantastical in such a fairy-tale environment.
All too soon we are being driven at breakneck speed down the mountainside in Georgi’s Lada, and by the time we miraculously arrive in one piece in the town square, a rather large glass of Saperavi wine is needed to calm the nerves!
Dust catches in the back of my throat as a beat up old van passes by on the powder dry unmade track leading deep into the remote Truso Valley. As the dust settles, above the road I can see a derelict square tower tapering skywards like a broken tooth. The vehicle which has just passed by the virtually abandoned old settlement of Kvemo Okrokana must be one of the shepherds who use the pastures to graze their sheep and cattle in this valley in the summer months, for few people inhabit the old villages hereabouts anymore. The Soviets finally achieved what even the formidable Persian army had failed to do for centuries: destroy and disperse the mountain people. In the 1940s and 1950s they were forcibly moved to lower valleys where they could be controlled and few have since returned.
We have been dropped at this semi-deserted settlement by minibus from Stepantsminda to undertake a 22 km return walk up this valley. It is a beautiful summer’s morning and the sunlight is dancing off the chalky grey water of the Tergi River which roars below us in the narrow Kasari Canyon. The deep green interlocking spurs of the mountains appear to soar for miles above us and the trackside is fringed with brightly coloured meadow flowers which nod in the gentle breeze.
After several kilometres we come to a makeshift bridge which crosses over a small tributary of the river. Coming down the track towards us is a large flock of sheep being driven by a man who is leading a white horse and brandishing an enormous stick which he uses to good effect to keep the flock in order. Their bells clank loudly over the roar of the river as they hurry by. However, one animal becomes detached from the flock and misses the bridge. Faced with the rushing torrent it bleats forlornly on the bank of the tributary, reluctant to take the plunge. A man in a car who is bringing up the rear hops out and grabs hold of the terrified animal; he smiles at us as he throws it into the river. Thankfully the sheep emerges unscathed the other side and runs off to join the rest of the flock. Life is hard for both man and beast in these mountain communities!
A little further on the canyon ends abruptly and opens out into a broad boulder-strewn meadow. The road sweeps round to the right below a line of white and tan outcrops which are travertine formations. These sinter deposits are a reminder that the Caucasus Mountains are still geologically active and the presence of hot springs here in this valley and also in Tbilisi, hint at the volcanic forces still at work deep below the Earth’s crust. The water issues forth from mineral springs and flows like syrup down over sheets of pearly white rock shimmering in the sunlight, creating intricate lace-like patterns. Tiny concentric pools contain spherical pebbles named rock pearls, and in places the travertine takes on a visually striking ruddy hue due to the presence of iron carbonate. Upslope from the travertine outcrop we encounter an ornate stone cross bristling with orange lichen, which apparently marks a grave, and on the other side of the river can see the Abano Mineral Lake staring at us like a ghoulish aqua eye rimmed with blood red veins.
An army truck rumbles by on the track and the Georgian soldiers inside wave cheerily at us. This is a reminder that the border with the disputed region of South Ossetia is not that far away, and as we continue along the track the full majesty of the Truso Valley is revealed. In the distance lie the jagged snowy ridges of the High Caucasus along the South Ossetian border. The Tergi River occupies the broad valley bottom and has braided into a maze of chalky turquoise channels. Handsome brown cows graze contentedly in the lush meadows dotted with a mind-blowing variety of colourful flowers. This is a wild land once inhabited by fierce tribes who engaged in blood feuds with their neighbours, hence the medieval watchtowers that were built for defence which dominate the skyline above the all-but-abandoned villages. At the head of the valley are two monasteries, one occupied by monks, the other by nuns, and beyond this, the ruins of the Zakagori fortress perched atop a grassy knoll above the Georgian border post. The scene is picture postcard perfect.
Past an outcrop of very red travertine the whiff of sulphur assaults our nostrils and we encounter a small rusty coloured stream with highly acidic water that is issuing from a pipe as a small geyser. We then enter the village of Ketrisi which occupies the ground above a sweeping bend in the river. The houses are in various stages of dilapidation, and most are unroofed with their timber trusses poking skywards like the exposed ribcages of dead things. Only one or two families live here now and their scruffily clad children eye us suspiciously as we walk past. A lone dog with its head down begins to shadow us as we pass by one of the houses which makes me feel decidedly uneasy, and I am relieved when an old woman clad in a headscarf and long apron who is working in a nearby field calls it off. She returns our thanks with a wave and a smile. Across the river we can see several blue tarpaulin tents below a pretty well-preserved tower in the middle of another abandoned village. A horseman is riding slowly along the river bank towards some cattle and we surmise that these are probably the temporary shelters for the shepherds who come here in the summer months.
Once past the village the river turns sharply to the right and the nun’s monastery and ruined fortress dramatically float into view. Higher upslope above the track is the monk’s monastery with its mauve roof which harmonises with the colour of the round headed rampion that pepper the fields in front of it.
The nun’s monastery is a little further on, tucked away behind a rustic stone hedge, and consists of an abandoned tower, a small church and an accommodation block built of stone with wooden balconies, a terracotta roof and a small courtyard. A large bell hangs from one of the balconies and a collection of crosses are sited in the overgrown grounds of the church which has been recently rebuilt having been destroyed during Soviet times. A nun clad head to toe in black is sweeping off the steps leading into the main building while another is leaning out of a window gazing towards the mountains. I imagine how challenging it must be for these women in the depth of winter when up to two metres of snow might lie in this valley and few people venture to visit. The solitude must be immense, but at least they are not entirely cut off from the outside world or without amenities, for several solar panels and a satellite dish are clearly visible .
We walk further along the deeply rutted dusty track towards the border post to take some images of the Zakagori fortress and unable to proceed further due to the political situation, we return the way that we came. We arrive back at Kvemo Okrokana an hour and a half later and are collected by minibus for the 45 minute journey back to Stepantsminda. Having worked up an appetite and a thirst, we dine on kharcho, khachapuri and khinkali, washed down with a bottle of fine Saperavi wine, and begin to plan the next leg of our trip, a multi-day trek involving wild camping across the Chaukhi Massif...
To get to Stepantsminda from Tbilisi, it is possible to hire a pre-arranged private taxi at a cost of about 70 euro which is very expensive by Georgian standards, or to use a marshrutka (a kind of minibus taxi) which leave the Didube bus station roughly every hour and cost around 3 euro. Private car drivers will ask around for people going to Stepantsminda, at a fare of around 7 euro per person, and will leave when their car is full (usually 6 people).
We used local tour company Mountain Freaks based in Stepantsminda for our day trip to the Truso Valley which cost about 10 euro each. It is possible to hire a taxi from Stepantsminda to take you there and collect you/or wait, but you need to be prepared to haggle hard to get a fair price.
Do pack insect repellent. The horse-flies in the Truso Valley are troublesome and will bite through thin clothing!
The Stepantsminda area including the Truso Valley is covered by the GeoLand Trekking Map 4 (1:500000 scale) available for purchase at the GeoLand office shop in Tbilisi and online from Standfords (£9.99).
We stayed at the Abano Guesthouse (listed on Booking.com) in a comfortable double en suite room; breakfast was an optional extra at 3 euro each. The cost was about 19 euro per night and the trip up to the Gergeti Church an additional 7 euro. Local restaurants we ate at include Cafe 5047m and Cafe Khevi.
Read the next blog of our wild camping trek across the Chaukhi Massif and watch the film of our visit to Georgia which features some of the places mentioned in this blog: