What a day! I am absolutely exhausted, but Dad and I are up trying to sort out and book another day trip for Sunday, and it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds! We’re choosing between a few different places, but leaning towards the Kakheti region in the east of Georgia, the birthplace of wine (supposedly).
The photo above is one I took of Mount Kazbegi, the highest peak in Georgia, and our final destination on today’s trip. But we saw a lot more before arriving to the mountain.
We met George, our guide, in the hotel lobby this morning at nine to start our day trip into the north of Georgia. George, appropriately named for the country in which he tours, immediately started chatting with us in basic English all about the country and the plans for the day as we drove out of Tbilisi. Today was the perfect day to get out of the city; temperatures were supposed to reach almost 40 degrees down here, whereas in the mountains, it’s on average ten degrees cooler.
It didn’t take long before we were out of the city and driving along a beautiful road through the Georgian hills. We passed by Mtskheta, the old capital of the country, and a spot we plan to visit early next week. George explained that they don’t consider anything ancient unless it was built before the 10th Century A.D., which is obviously unbelievable to think about coming from Canada. As Dad pointed out, anywhere that they have to clarify A.D. or B.C. is a pretty crazy old place.
George told us that Georgia has been successfully invaded over 20 times, and was a part of almost every major empire throughout history, including the Roman, Greek, Mongol, Turkish, Persian, Russian, and Soviet empires. In the last 3000 years of history, they have only had one century of independance. It seemed quite clear that to George, as many to the rest of Georgians, the most difficult part of all these invasions was the preservation of religion. Georgia is a very proud Christian country, home to the Georgian Orthodox Church. Other than the original invasion by Russia, most invading authorities came with their own religion, often Islam, so Georgians are incredibly proud of preserving their religion and religious sites. It seemed almost as though the Russians were the preferred empire – Georgia even asked for their protection from the Turks – until the Soviet Union came around and wasn’t so accepting of such a Christian country.
Our first stop was what Georgie called a Castle, but what looked more like a fortified monastery to me, overlooking a beautiful clear blue lake. The castle belonged to a family who ruled the region until one of the invasions when they were not only overthrown, but burned alive in their own chapel. That part was pretty morbid, but looking past that, the castle was beautiful. The buildings are so distinct here, particularly with their pointy rooftops, and I can’t get enough of them. This one was especially beautiful overlooking the lake. We climbed to the very top of one of the towers through tiny dark stairs, but were surprised to find there wasn’t much of a view from the top – it must have been used more defensively.
Next we continued our drive up the Georgian Military Road into the Caucasus Moutains. The Georgian Military Road was built in order for Russian troops to drive down into Tbilisi to help protect the Georgians from invading Muslims, namely the Turks and Persians. It heads straight (obviously not completely straight – we were winding up and down through the mountain ranges) from Russia down across the mountains and into Tbilisi. Considering that tanks and other military vehicles had to drive along that road, it’s amazing it wasn’t in better shape, but then again, maybe that’s why. It was really sad to hear Georgie talk about how the Georgians turned to the Russians for help, and ended up being completely controled by them. They were under Russian control for 300 years most recently, and even since gaining independence, they can’t seem to shake Russian control. In 2008, Russia invaded again and claimed territory in South Ossettia, as well as in Abkhazia, North West on the Black Sea. The town George grew up in is in that region, but all Georgians were expelled, so he’s not allowed to go back. It was because of America, he said, that Georgia was able to maintain its independence, so they’re quite grateful to the United States.
The biggest obstacle to navigate, other than construction a few times, were massive heards of cows that seemed to love standing in the middle of the road rather than off to the side. I can’t count the number of times we had to swerve around a cow, and we even had to stop completley three or four times and honk at the cows to make them wander off the road. I thought it was hilarious, but George didn’t find it so charming.
A few times we stopped to drink fresh mountain water running down the slopes and into little water falls. The first time it was regular water, fresh and clean, but the second time, it was something else entirely. Georgia is famous for its natural mineral water that comes out of special parts of the mountains made of specific minerals. It’s supposed to be incredibly good for you to drink and bathe in. It tastes quiet metal-y – sort of like sparkling water that has gone flat. I really liked it, but Dad and George weren’t the biggest fans of the flavour.
Our next stop was to this absolutely incredible lookout overlooking the Caucasus mountains. When we’d first set out, the mountains were looking pretty spectacular, but the farther we drove the bigger and more beautiful they got. It was also so much cooler up there than in the city, and the air felt so fresh and clean. Everywhere I looked there was a more spectacular view to take in – I could have stayed up there all day. We climbed a little ways out from the lookout to get a better view, and it was the greatest feeling – it felt like all of the sudden you were a part of it all. It was really special.
Reluctantly, we got back into the car and headed for Kazbegi. The drive continued to be stunning, interrupted now and then by cows or sheep crossing the road. I couldn’t believe how many herds just set up camp right in the middle of this winding military road – it felt very intentional. We came upon a huge, never-ending line of trucks on the side of the road, which George explained were waiting to cross the Russian border. Under Putin, Russians can enter Georgia but Georgians can’t enter Russia, so commercial trucks going in between can face a lot of difficulties. I couldn’t believe how long this line of trucks was – a lot of them had just parked and were out chatting with other truck drivers to pass the time as we cruised by.
As we approached Kazzbegi, George explained that of all the times he’s been to Mount Kazbegi, which is a lot considering his job is to lead tours tehre, he’d only seen the top of the mountain twice because it’s always covered in clouds. Sure enough, as we pulled into the Kazbegi village, George couldn’t contain his excitement at being able to see the peak. Mount Kazbegi is enormous and beautiful, overlooking the small town of Kazbegi, just 10km from the Russian border. Just below its peak sits the famous Trinity Cathedral, perched on top of another massive hill overlooking the town. Together, the sight is breathtaking.
To get up to the monastery, we had to switch into a 4wd. Off-roading up a massive hill on one of the worst roads I’ve ever seen might not have been the best idea for someone recovering from a concussion and whip lash, but man, was it ever worth it. The drive up was the bumpiest ride of the life, and had me wondering a few times how we would ever make it up and then back down again. The scariest times were when we needed to pass another car going the other direction. I held on for dear life as our driver somehow manipulated the vehicle up this crazy road.
The top was incredible, and so worth the drive. On one side you could see the most amazing view of Mount Kazbegi in all its glory, and then turning around you’d get to see the Monastery sitting on hilltop. There seriously wasn’t anywhere to look that wasn’t completely spectacular.
After taking it all in, we climbed up to the Monastery to take a look. It was ancient (though not quite ancient enough to make George’s cut – I think he said it was 12th Century?) and beautiful and so so special. I had to cover my legs and hair in order to enter, and Dad had to wear full pants – no shorts allowed! It was weird to see the Church dictating what men can and cannot wear, even if it’s just an aversion to calfs. Women aren’t allowed to wear pants, but luckily they have all sorts of scarves and wraps available so that you can enter the monastery. There were no photos allowed, but it was incredible inside. The walls were all stone and decorated with beautiful colourful paintings of saints and golden little haning basket things that were all over the place. There was a main alter in the middle, and several circular stands full of candles people had lit. It had that distinct smell inside that you only find in churches where candles are burning – I love it.
It was hard to eventually leave, but after taking it all in and turning around and around to make sure I got last looks of everything, we headed back down the terrifying road in our 4wd back into Kazbegi.
We got lunch at a litte cafe serving traditional Georgian food. George is currently fasting as per his religion; apparently in Georgian Orthodox, they “fast” for a period of 42 days where they don’t eat meat or drink wine. It sounds a bit like a less intense version of Ramadan to me, but I’m sure it’s completley different and I could get into a lot of trouble for saying that. Dad and I shared this special cheese bread dish specific to Georgia along with famous Georgian barbecue. I also tried a local beer called Kazbegi – it was nice and refreshing, but nothing noteworthy. It was all delicious, and a perfect way to end the day.
After a long drive back into town, I’m absolutely exhausted. Dad and I floated around in the pool a bit when we got back to cool off, and now we’re just relaxing with some of Georgia’s famous wine before bed.