Some frosty adventures—and sloppy disasters—while backpacking in Kazbegi, Georgia.
Kazbegi is a town in the northeast of Georgia, about 3 hours’ driving from Tbilisi. The town’s actual name is Stepantsminda, as it was before Those Meddling Soviets rolled in/dominated/renamed it Kazbegi. Unfortunately, no ordinary non-Georgian human is able to easily pronounce “Stepantsminda”, so “Kazbegi” is here to stay!
The town is located along the Georgian Military Highway, a road connecting Vladikavaz, Russia and Tbilisi, Georgia. You can probably guess who liked to use this road back in the day (hint: not the Georgians). Nowadays, the highway is mostly a clusterfuck of shipping trucks waiting to be admitted to either country along the side of the road , and a handful of passenger cars trying to avoid the spectacular amount of potholes scattered throughout the roads.
We arrived in Kazbegi in the middle of March, which is an… interesting time to visit.
… that is to say, there were hardly any people there, everything was closed, and the mountains were still snow-covered. Luckily, I am a certifiable introvert, and Sebastiaan is regularly asocial, so we were fine with having mostly cows and stray dogs for company in town.
Hiking from Kazbegi to Gergeti Trinity Church
The most famous sight in Kazbegi is Gergeti Trinity Church, also known as Tsminda Sameba (… like many other churches in Georgia, much confusion).
In the days of yore, valuables from Mtskheta would be sent all the way to this church for safekeeping in times of danger. The church sits in a definitively epic location, overlooking the towns of Kazbegi and Gergeti, with Mount Kazbek, one of the tallest mountains in Georgia, as a backdrop. If you’ve seen postcards or photographs of monasteries and mountains in Georgia, this church is likely the one you saw.
Interestingly (but not surprisingly), for being one of the most famous buildings in Georgia, there was no particularly clear path up to the church. The description in the Georgia Lonely Planet was something along the lines of: walk to the town below, climb through some fences, climb up some steep-ass hills, walk on car tracks for a smidge, climb up some more steep-ass hills, look for paths, then BAM! Church success!
Even if we were able to remember the 20 steps of directions outlined in the guide (which, of course, we didn’t), the likelihood of the path being visible with all of the snow cover on the mountains reduced our chances of successful navigation to -10. It was not unlike our day out in Mestia, except this time, we had no spirit dogs to guide us.
Luckily, there are only so many ways you can go to reach something on the top of a hill: up, up, and also up. So, up we went! After about an hour and a half of
death-defying mountain climbing struggling up what were indeed some steep-ass hillsides, and several minutes of scratching our heads in a forest near the top, wondering why we still couldn’t see the damned church yet hadn’t yet reached the top, Sebastiaan saw it peeking over the top of a hill.
The church itself was not the most spectacular that we’ve seen on our travels thus far—Gelati monastery still wins the prize for now. Aside from a few intriguing icon paintings of what looked like saints holding Jesus’ decapitated head (if we’ve misinterpreted this image, feel free to clarify), and the fact that the church seemed to be hooked up with some kind of central heating system, there was nothing particularly memorable about the inside.
The view from the top, however, was spectacular.
Epic views no matter which way you looked. We the only visitors at the site for a period of time–the benefits of traveling in Georgia in the off-season.
The way down was almost as graceful as the way up. Despite having spotted what may have been the actual path to the top, we decided that it was, in fact, a good idea to attempt going down the snow- and ice-covered slope that we had climbed up. It turned out to be just as good an idea as it sounds (meaning, not at all), and we had to sled down on the only material we had available: our pants.
No pants were terminally harmed in the sledding of the mountain (only greatly discolored), and we did manage to make it down the mountain unscathed, though we somehow ended up on a different path than the one we came up. At least we’re consistently inconsistent!
After resolving the problem of our very, very soggy bottoms, we moved on to the next location: Truso Valley.
From Kazbegi to Truso Valley
Truso valley is another spot not-to-be-missed along the Georgian Military Highway. Reports say that a taxi there and back should cost around 100 GEL. A guy working at Soul Kazbegi, the super-chill guesthouse where we were staying, said you could haggle it down to somewhere between 30-70 GEL. Do keep in mind we’re talking off-season prices here.
In our case, though, we just gave Georgi a couple of lari and he drove us there in the guesthouse jeep, dropping us off at a path going into the valley.
Want to hitchhike to Truso Valley? Hail a car going in the direction of Jvari pass, which you’ll drive through on the way to Kazbegi from anywhere in the south. Say you’re going to Truso, or have them stop before Jvari pass, where all of the trucks are lined up and waiting.
After trudging and hopping through icy puddles and slush–note to self: invest in actual walking shoes–we came out to the actual valley and just… hot damn.
Aside from super sweet views–cue the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, plz–the valley is also dotted with small villages, most of which are abandoned. We considered colonizing one of them, but alas, we couldn’t think of a worthy name, aside from “R-burg” (the initial of both of our last names) or “Our-burg” (an even worse option/play on “R-burg”). Colonial efforts postponed until further creativity strikes.
After skulking around trying to find the least-soggy-path to the village pictured above, and attempting to avoid a seemingly occupied house armed with one very angry dog, we came across another small collection of houses in various dilapidated and defeated states… and… wait… a human?
We decided to continue walking on, and as we got closer, the human in the distance noticed us. As we walked down the path and got even closer, we noticed that the human had a very large gun. We kept walking towards him anyway, trying to be nonchalant as we casually strolled towards a man in an army uniform armed with a Kalashnikov.
Eventually, we reached him, he stopped us, and after several attempts at failed communication in a variety of languages, Army bro pointed ahead of us, shook his head, and said “Russia.” We got the idea–Truso Valley is very close to South Ossetia, which is a disputed area, and to the Russian border. We tried to casually saunter back to where we came from, but he wouldn’t let us go yet, motioning for us to wait while he radioed other army bros to come. The next guy showed, who conveniently also didn’t speak English or Russian.
Army bro #2: *Point* “No. Russia.”
We acknowledged this startling reveal in the saga, and tried again to saunter off. Nope, more waiting must occur. Army bro #3 shows. Man explains situation to him. He stares and says nothing. We try to wander off. No, we must wait. Finally, one last man shows, who does speak some English.
Armybro #4: “Hello what can I help you with?”
Us: “Erm, just walking and trying to get to that town thing over there.”
Armybro #4: “No. Cannot go. Russia.”
Us: “Ah, yes, your friends said… um, can we go now?”
And, finally satisfied, Army bro #1 let us return from whence we came.
Want more tales from Georgia? How about that time we were led by spirit dogs through Mestia’s mountains?
Hitchhiking from Truso Valley to our graves
The sun was setting, and it was time to head back to Kazbegi from the valley. After making the slushy several-kilometer slog back to the main highway, we stood on the side of the road with our thumbs out, shivering as the sky got darker and our clothes transitioned from wet to frozen. Many a Russian license plate passed us, their drivers alternating between signaling “no” and giving us long, deliberate, and wholly cold stares (or so they seemed, in our moment of frozen desperation).
After a time, a man in a camoflauge army outfit came over to us. “Where do you want to go?” he asked in Russian. I told him we wanted to go to Kazbegi, and he grinned and said he would take us.
We followed him to a tiny old car, where a large, grumpy-looking man was sitting in the drivers’ seat. A smaller, jollier man was sitting in the backseat, brandishing a pocket knife and clutching several bags and bottles. Camo Man (as I will now call him) had him scoot over so we could all squish into the back seat and get on our way.
Mini Knife Man (MKM) immediately started animatedly babbling in Russian, unconcerned by the fact that I only seemed to understand about 30% of what he was saying. He began pulling bread and meat out of his bag, crafting makeshift sandwiches and pressing them on us. Once satisfied that we were fed enough bread, he held up one of the bottles, a 1.5L reused soda bottle filled with clear liquid, and a crushed, clearly loved plastic cup.
“Vodka?” he asked us, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. We declined at first, but being in Georgia, after more insistence we caved. So began our downhill spiral.
What was supposed to be a 20-minute hitchhike turned into one of our most rambunctious and silly voyages to date. We consumed the entirety of the 1.5 liters of chacha in the short trip *shudder* while discussing everything from luxury cars MKM wanted to own—Lamborghini! Ferrari! Maserati!—to the supposed penis sizes of the men in the car—Camo Man: half a meter. Mini Knife Man: 3 cm—to how beautiful it was to be able to all communicate despite being absolute shit at each others languages.
A real heart-to-heart.
By the time we got to Kazbegi, we were all extraordinarily wasted. Camo Man wanted to drop us off at our guesthouse but couldn’t understand where it was, so we ended up driving a few meters, stopping for more shots and toasts, and driving a bit more, much to the
misery delight of our driver.
When we finally did reach the guesthouse and topple out of the car, they refused to take any kind of money or payment for the ride/food/copious drinks. I did manage to slip the driver a pack of cigarettes as thanks, which he begrudgingly appreciated.
Wholly sloppy and filled with giggles, Sebastiaan and I staggered back to the guesthouse (where we received more shots–Georgians, Y U trying to kill us?), buzzed not just from the booze but also from how ridiculously generous and friendly the people we met were. Georgians, we solemly-but-not-soberly agreed sometime before we blacked out/passed out, were definitely The Bestest and Most Hospitable People Evar.
The next morning/afternoon/night
I won’t go into the dirty details, aside from saying that they are definitely spectacularly dirty. Let’s just say that we definitely missed our marshrutka the next day, were not capable of standing or speaking until about 17:00, and definitely did NOT appreciate Georgian hospitality anymore.
And, of course, we both vowed to never drink ever, ever again.