Second-hand luxury cars, abandoned villages, and Caucasian giants
As a guide of ClimbBigMountains, I am always thrilled when I can take you guys to this secret 5000er, to mystical Mount Kazbek. There are tons of reasons why Kazbek is an awesome destination, from easy accessibility to its exotic Post-Soviet charm, but I won’t go into them now. We wrote about that already here.
Instead, I prefer to show you how I see it, what it means to me.
Do you agree that pictures say a lot more than words? Well for me they do, so now forget about wordy adventure reports. Instead, here’s a photo essay of Georgia that will speak for itself.
I love taking photos and by now I have collected just enough shots with my analogue camera to feel tempted to display some of them. If you already climbed the peak, they will help you to recall this awesome adventure.
Alternatively, if you are just considering to bag it next season, the photos will help you to imagine this not too far yet pretty exotic place. As a matter of fact, you should just prepare yourself that your guide might take you to an abandoned Ossetian village as a post-summit adventure.
A Photo Report from Kazbek and Around – A Cultural Climber’s Perspective
It’s been a fair amount of occasions that I have taken climbers like you on the most well-known passage of Georgia, the military road going through a 2,400m-high valley from Tbilisi to Kazbegi (officially: Stepantsminda).
It is fair to add, up until 5 years ago this road had seen more flocks of sheep than asphalt, but thanks to the recent opening of a new border crossing to Russia and a growing popularity, it has become a comfortable 3-hour-long drive at the end of our journey to the mountain.
Tbilisi is a cool city because it will tell you two parallel stories: you get a glimpse at what the old Czarist-Soviet frontier looked like and what modern Georgian independence efforts brought about.
Practically, on any street you can bump into a Lada parked in front of a modern government building designed by a world-famous architect, and then going two blocks away, you can easily find a half-naked old fella selling watermelon and home-made brandy from his 150-year-old basement store.
The caricaturist of The New Yorker would simply kill to see all this: everything happens out in the open, on the streets of Tbilisi. Second (or third, or fourth)-hand luxury cars cruise the streets up and down, Russian wedding-style music is in the air all around, and the old wise brothers all sit in front of their stores to discuss the big questions of life, women, and politics, and to play a bit of board games.
But, make no mistake, you’ll find the usual things too: young couples kissing, hugging, and taking selfies.
After leaving the city, the first things that will strike you are the hidden towers, churches, and fortresses.
Then, climbing up to 2,400m along the Gudauri ski-resort most probably you’ll be puzzled by a weird installation which is supposed to be the memorial of Georgian-Russian friendship. If you don’t get what the heck is a 30m-wide stone UFO with colorful mosaic decoration doing on top of a ridge, probably you haven’t spent enough time on the Soviet frontier.
5 years ago, only like 2-3 cheap Nivas were stationing on the main square of Kazbegi (Stepantsminda), to take climbers who want a short-cut of 400m elevation gain up till the church. Nowadays, on a busier August-September morning, you can pick from about 35 Mitsubishi Delicas waiting for business.
The town is in progress: recently a luxury hotel has been built, more and more restaurants have opened up on the main square, and asphalt roads have also spread significantly.
Gergeti church (2,100m) is where tourists and climbers part their ways. The way leading up to the church dating back to the 13th century is a pebbly dirt-road in the first part, then a steep mountain path. At the end of the 1980s a cabin-lift was built but the locals felt easy accessibility harmed the solemnity of the site, so after the collapse of the Soviet regime, they destroyed it.
Leaving the church behind, you’ll start your trek to Kazbek. You’ll pass cows and rhododendrons and arrive to a valley at 3,000m from where you’ll finally get a glimpse at the itinerary of the upcoming days. Rocky paths, glacier, a meteorological station, and the cloudy peak.
I was glad to have brought along my camping blanket (click to see how to choose one) because it got quite chilly at the meteo station.
They say, if you are lucky with the weather you can even catch sight of the chains of Prometheus as he’s struggling with the ferocious eagle.
The Gergeti glacier is an integral part of climbing Kazbek. You will cross it several times and march on it for hours on your summit day. The first time you set foot on it, the glacier will appear friendly and easy – you can even conquer it in your summer trekking shoes and shorts.
But then, make no mistake, it will show you its majesty as you get closer and closer to the summit.
Let me say a bit about the Caucasus still, as I guess that’s your main interest about Georgia. Geologically speaking, it is a young mountain range. Proof to this is that the volcano that Kazbek once was last erupted only 3,000 years ago.
Thanks to tectonic movements and rich water resources, you will bump into myriads of crystal-clear springs wherever you go. And god, it will feel so good to finally get out of your boots after this amazing but exhausting climb.
And what can you do after you have bagged the 5000er? Well, you can dive into the amazing history of the Georgian countryside.
Typically, people seldom leave the military road that’s heading up North from Tbilisi. Most of the surrounding area is forgotten: take Truso valley on the west, for example. It is, or rather, used to be home to numerous Ossetian villages, but thanks to recent battles nearby (in South Ossetia), a lack of infrastructure, and chilly weather, there is nothing left but ghost-towns.
If you do venture into the valley, you will find yourself on ample fields where you would sooner expect dinosaurs walking out of the woods than a bus to honk and stop next to you.
In short, Gerogia is an amazing place to climb and explore. Unknown, exotic, yet fairly accessible and navigable. If you have a bit of the adventure spirit, I suggest you put it on your bucket list.