June 26, 2019: Into the Caucasus
After a great few days in Tbilisi and surroundings, I woke up and headed to the famed Caucasus Mountains. This will most likely be the highlight of my time in Georgia. While there are numerous destinations in the mountains, the most famous is Kazbeki. The road to Kazbeki is the famed Georgia Military Road- a historic pass through the mountains and Georgia’s only non-disputed land border crossing with Russia.
To get there, I caught a minibus from Didube Station on the north end of Tbilisi. The ride normally takes 3 hours but you can pay double ($3.50/10 lari) more to have two sightseeing breaks. I opted for the stops. Our driver was fast. There was a time when I thought these guys were insane. Now I’m used to it and could probably drive like them if my life depended on it.
An hour in we reached a large reservoir. It was very pretty. Perched above the reservoir was a monastery. That was our first stop. We walked in and it was crowded with other tourists. A choir of women added to the spiritual atmosphere. After 10 minutes we were back on the road.
The Georgia Military Road started to climb fast through a steep canyon. It switched back and back. Our drive made some bold passes into the opposing traffic to get around truck traffic. The next valley to the west of us was in South Ossetia, a disputed territory that Russia seized by force in 2006.
Another hour in we stopped at the most beautiful viewpoint on top of an enormous cliff. From here we could see the entire valley. A number of trinket and fruit salespeople were here as were an insane number of paragliders. What a thrill it must be to glide here! The Soviets built a weird diorama dated 1983.
We kept climbing. Up and up until we reached Javin Pass (elevation). On the backside, the road followed the River Bidara downhill. Remnants of derelict Soviet avalanche-proof snow tunnels were abundant but the current road veered around them. I wonder why.
30 minutes of downhill later, we reached the town of Kazbeki (the technical name is Stepaminsta but all the tourists and drivers call it Kazbeki). Towering above the town is Mount Kazbek, a 16,500 ft behemoth.
In town, I first found a travel agent called Mountain Freaks which I had researched online. They run day tours to some of the surrounding areas. I signed up for a day tour to the Truso Valley. After making sure I could get a minibus back to Tbilisi after the tour returned, I found a guesthouse and booked it for one night.
I got a late lunch at a nearby cafe. It was fun by a cute grandma. When not making my meals, she was playing with her 4 grandchildren. It was very cute.
With a full belly, I embarked on a hike to the famed monastery on the lower slopes of Mount Kazbek. The hike up took an hour of steep uphill. Just before the top I ran into a group of 3 horses. They were very interested in my bread and were pushing up against me to get it. I got a few selfies with them and even got another tourist to take pictures of me with the horses. Eventually the horses got more aggressive and I was a bit scared, so I threw a piece of bread as far as I could, which got the horses to run away from me. I then walked the rest of the way to the monastery.
This monastery has a very strict dress cove. Normally in Georgian Orthodox churches women have to cover their heads and everyone must cover their knees. However at this one, women couldn’t wear pants- they had to wear a long skirt or dress. Also they did not allow photography. A bitter monk kept an eye on everyone to make sure we were following the rules.
It appeared that rain was coming, so I walked back down the mountain as quickly as possible. It rained a little bit but it didn’t impede my progress.
After a long nap, I headed up to the Rooms Hotel- a redone Soviet resort- for dinner. I met a lady from New York and her Polish friend. We talked travel and had a lovely conversation that lasted a couple hours. I then went back to the guesthouse and chatted with a group of Austrians. These were some of the few not well-traveled tourists in Georgia. One guy’s sister was the adventurous one and brought a group along with her. The sister was asleep so I only talked to the other people. They were nice and all but didn’t “get it” like the others I met. “Fuck Africa, go to Italy already” they told me.
Day 5: The Truso Valley
After a quick breakfast, I was on the 9:15 Mountain Freaks shuttle to the Truso Valley. The ride took 30 minutes. The last part was on a very rough dirt road. The driver dropped us off at a bridge over a river and said he would be back at 4pm. Until then, we were on our own.
I started walking with two off-duty Israeli soldiers. The road continued along the roaring river through a narrow canyon. After an hour of walking, the canyon opened up into a splendid valley.
We eventually reached a mineral spring. The Israelis wanted to go swimming so I continued up-valley alone. Along the way a convoy of European Union monitors passed me. My guess is that they were monitoring the South Ossetian frontier, which was not far away. While Georgia really wants to be part of the EU, I see a few problems. First, accepting Georgia into the EU would put the EU in direct conflict with Russia regarding South Ossetia and Azbakhia which are considered part of Georgia according to most of the world. Secondly, Georgia is very poor and would be a huge recipient of aid. They might be the poorest country in the EU. Finally, Georgia is not contiguous with any other EU country – in fact it is not technically even in Europe. Only time will tell, but I am personally not optimistic about Georgia’s chances of being accepted unless the EU feels the need to stand up to Russia.
Six miles from the drop off, I reached a small farm that was being occupied by the Georgian military as a checkpoint. The South Ossetian boundary was very near. The guard said I could go no further but did let me climb the nearby hill to visit the ruined Zakagori Fortress.
From the ancient structure, I got some amazing views of the valley. I marveled in the solitude.
On the way back, I was lost in my thoughts. While I have always had a decent sense of my personal goals, my career aspirations are quite murky. I wish it wasn’t like this- especially since I am about to start business school and their main advice is to know what you want to do. I see a potential fork coming in my life . Will I be able to balance my sense of adventure and my relationships with the people I love? I desperately hope there is a middle path.
The van came at 4 as promised and took us back. I told the Israelis that I would take the minibus back with them. They went to get their bags but I found a faster minibus that was leaving immediately. I took it. I felt bad reneging on a commitment- even though it was a very minor one- but the extra hour in Tbilisi would help me a lot logistically. I am certain they will be fine.
Back in Tiblisi, I checked back into Mark’s Hostel, got dinner and went to bed. I walked nearly 14 miles and earned my rest. Tomorrow, I would head to Gori, the home of Stalin.
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