My normal method of travel involves just showing up somewhere and exploring. However, one of the friends I made in თბილისი (Tbilisi) wanted to go on a day trip labeled ‘Kazbegi’. So I decided to be a good little tourist go on a group tour.
The marshrutka (from Russian: маршру́тка; it’s basically a large van or small bus) was supposed to pick us up at 0915. Apparently, traffic was particularly bad that Monday morning, and the tour company employees came out to talk to us around 0930. We then walked down the road a little (this was not in the original plan) and got picked up at an alternate location. I didn’t mind, but there were a few people with luggage because they were flying out after the tour, and one person brought a kid and stroller. It was a little tricky getting their stuff over the few cobblestone sections.
We headed out of the city, and eventually hit the საქართველოს სამხედრო გზა (Georgian Military Road) going north. Traveling on this road is amazing. It winds through the mountains and hits 2,379 meters (7,815 feet) at its highest point. This was also the first time I felt cool in months as I’ve been in ‘warm’ countries.
The first stop did not disappoint from a scenery perspective. We were on the side of a mountain looking down on a lake that looked like it might have been artificial as there was a huge mound of dirt on the lower end of the canyon. There were also a couple shops, a bathroom, and some wool outfits with accompanying sword/gun we could wear in a cheesy attempt to look like a local for Instagram. If I ever make it out there to stay for longer than a day, I’ll be sure to wear an actual outfit for my pictures so…I stick my nose up at you, fake costumes.
The next stop was at a small church. While I only took pictures of the typical ‘churchy’ things, there were also a lot of defensive structures. The church is surrounded by a wall (that’s now in varying states of functionality), and a tower that’s entrance is a very narrow passage between it and a church wall. No armored (or fat) people are getting through there.
Then we came to a place that reminded me of Pamukkale, Turkey. This time, the mineral being deposited is orange, and makes the water taste like soda water. There’s no carbonation, it just tastes like it.
This is also around the time we started seeing the tunnels on running parallel to the road on the mountain side. These tunnels are at sections of the road where the uncovered area is closer to the edge. In winter when the roads are covered in snow and ice, these tunnels are vital to ensure vehicles can both make it up the mountains as well as prevent them slipping off, and having a very bad day.
We continued on to the town of სტეფანწმინდა (Stepantsminda). This place is pretty close to the Russian border, and is very touristic. There are a lot of hotels and restaurants. We ducked into one of the latter to place our lunch orders. We were going to continue our tour while they prepared the food.
Then we all jumped into some 4x4s (all terrain vehicles), and went up the dirt roads to…. A church overlooking the town. It’s a very plain church that consists of a lot of rocks, and no real decoration. It doesn’t need any as the view is spectacular: very green mountains, rivers, maybe a couple flocks of sheep, and the town that doesn’t have any structures near the church. It’s pretty isolated, and would take a couple hours to walk up to so I can’t imagine it’s used to hold services. We wandered around for about half an hour taking copious pictures.
When the selfies were done, we went back down to the town for lunch. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but Georgian food is fantastic! A lot of it is vegetarian as well; non-meat eaters rejoice.
After lunch, we started the long trek back. We stopped a couple more times along the way. Once, at the friendship monument which is a large semi-circle wall covered in art, and overlooking more stunning views of mountains, valleys, waterfalls…. The scenery on this trip did not disappoint.
The whole trip (minus lunch) cost me less than $30. That was money well spent even for my cheap ass. I also feel obliged to mention some sections of the road were destroyed which meant a very bumpy ride in some spots. The long winters with all the snow and ice make it nearly impossible to keep the road comfortably traverseable. It definitely took its toll on my old, grumpy self too. By the time we got back to Tbilisi, I was very ready to walk around. Also, if you get carsick easily, this trip is going to be hell for you. I was mostly ok, but I know not everyone will be.
Anyway, I hope this has been helpful and/or entertaining. I know most of my friends in the US would have a hard time placing Georgia on a globe (hell, some of them have a hard time with the US state of Georgia), but this place is so worth visiting. See you guys next post.