Kazbegi: A Heavenly Place For Pilgrims, Hikers And Skiers
My Austrian friend Katie, was in Tbilisi over the weekend and wanted to see some nature, so I proposed that we went together to the Greater Caucasus and stayed overnight in the small mountain town Kazbegi near the border to Russia.
Nestled in the heart of Caucasus mountains, next door to wilderness and away from the hustle and glitz of city life is perhaps the most picturesque place in Georgia – Kazbegi. It is a small mountain town with tiny shops, cafes and few guesthouses. It has jaw-dropping vistas. Known for its wide open spaces, you can soak in the mountain views from all over this scenic area. The place takes its name from a local novelist Alexander Kazbegi, who lived there in the 19th century.
It sounds remote and mysterious. In fact it’s the most accessible part, Kazbegi is about three hours north of Tbilisi. So on Sunday afternoon we hopped on a minibus and headed to our desired destination.
The drive was great, we were driving north, up the mountains and drove by many small villages and dramatic landscape. They were very cool, tiny hamlets with old brick houses, cows, pigs, children running around, and all this in a very beautiful mountainous setting. The road was winding and spectacular, really nice views of the gorges, glaciers and woods.
The sun was setting behind the snowy peaks of the Caucasus when we rolled into Kazbegi. It was now the first week in December and Old Man Winter was already tightening his icy grip on the mountains. It snowed a few days before we got there so it was gorgeous and we actually got a glimpse of the top of Mount Kazbeg which is often obscured by heavy mist. Mt Kazbeg visible through its veil of clouds, loomed large and ominous over the town. Soaring in height to 16, 512 feet (5,033 m) the famous mountain is the third highest mountain in the Caucasus located in Georgia. Its snow- covered dome has inspired writers for centuries. Skiers from all over the world travel to Kazbegi in order to take advantage of Mt Kazbeg’s pristine slopes. But mostly, the mountain presents itself as mystery when dense fog and clouds made it a gleaming sight to see and you could hardly resist the temptation to unveil it.
Through the bus window we could watch the sun and shadows play on the jagged Caucasus mountains. The twin peaks of Mount Kazbeg were in sun for a few minutes, shining in a white coating. It was difficult to decide just where to look, for the unequaled beauty of this place encompasses a complete vista. Little by little the clouds were blown away and The Holy Trinity Church became visible standing on top of a steep heel against the background of the majestic snow-covered Mt .Kazbeg. The sunset has smitten into scarlet gold the dome of the church and the air was tinged with dusky crimson. This fourteenth-century cross cupola church is a revered landmark of the region and major lure for travelers. The most important aspect for tourists is the location of the church and the views from there. From Kazbegi it takes three hours to hike up to the church, but the whole environment is so amazing that it’s really worth the long walk. So Kazbegi is a place where lots of tourists and pilgrims come to go hiking to the famous church.
The minibus dropped us off in front of Nazi’s house, the most popular guesthouse in Kazbegi. It is an adorable guesthouse with stunning views over the magnificent Caucasus mountain range. Nazi came to greet us happily when we came through her house’s street. Several travelers were there already. The feeling in the house itself, big and comfortable, was pleasant. Nazi asked us to put our luggage in our rooms, and come to the dining hall to eat supper. It was a great idea, since we did not eat anything since the fresh khachapuri (cheese pie) in the morning. We sat near the flickering fire place to keep warm. Full plates of fresh chadi (corn bread), nadugi (curd mixed with mint), hot kharcho ( rice soup with meat, highly seasoned with spices and cayenne pepper) and other delicacies were put on the table. We spent a long time over supper tasting the dishes and being cheerful with our landlady in the warm dusky room.
It was an exquisite evening, outside the window we could see the soft flakes falling thickly and steadily, each bough and branch was ridged with a white fur. From the garden came a screech of an owl. The muffled dream barks of a dog could be heard from afar. After a hearty supper we got ready for bed and went fast asleep.
When we woke up the next morning our first goal was to hike up the hill to visit the church. Appetizing and fragrant smells wafted from the kitchen, Nazi was rustling up some delicious food for us. Nazi is a wonderful person, she cooks and takes prodigiously good care of the many people who come here to stay.
After a decent breakfast we started on a hiking trip to the famously situated church. We were so fortunate as to be accompanied by a local guy who knew the way very well. The rising sun was lightening up the snowy peaks so they turned gold. The cocks of Kazbegi were proclaiming to mankind in general that it was time to be up and doing. Over the low tin roofs and jagged chimney stacks of the 19th century houses rose blue spirals of smoke. The laboring men sallied forth to work. Some afoot, others on their carts, puffing their pipes and singing local songs. The economy of Kazbegi is based on its artworks, agriculture and tourism among other resources. Among the most peculiar resources travelers can discover in Kazbegi, there is the production of traditional rugs, bags, sheepskin hats , wool socks and scarves, which is impossible for tourists not to want to acquire as a memory of their visit.
From Kazbegi down in the valley, a well-marked trail that leads up to the Trinity Church was completely covered with snow. Snow in this region tends to be dry, powdery and deep. Thankfully foreign ski –mountaineers had begun their track up Mt Kazbegi the previous day, so we had their tracks to follow in the snow. As we walked upwards, the weather got warm and the road seemed to be steeper. Suddenly we saw a rabbit making its long leaps toward its home, white as the snow around; but for its sudden springs in the air, it would hardly have been distinguished from the earth’s covering. We watched the snowflakes descending on to the ground, on the huge cobble-stones they glowed for a minute, then faded, on ice they lay fuzzy white and did not melt. We gazed at the birch branches bending under the weight of the snow. From afar they looked like the paws of some animal. We heard cracking of twigs and the sound of cycles falling from the roofs. Across the snowy glen, where the flakes still fell thickly, we saw medlar trees with clusters of sweet brown fruits. Blackbirds were having a fine old feast taking no notice of us.
Crossing the bridge and walking up through Gergeti village on the steep trail through deep snow was not very easy and so was the rest of the walk up, but we fought hard to keep going, distracted by the spectacular views that were unfolding. On the way we met a group of skiers who warmly welcomed us. Fresh snow crunched under our rubber boots, the air was full of myriad glittering particles of ice, which melted into a dazzling vapor.
Gergeti village itself is very old and with its windy alleyways and ramshackle wooden houses it looks quite medieval. The yards were covered with shimmering white shroud and the stacks of hay were barely visible in the sea of snow. We spotted a group of local guys under a huge, snow-laden tree, they had a camp fire and it was great fun roasting chestnuts and potatoes in the embers and watching the wonderful effects of the firelight on the snowy trees and bushes. The severe frost has turned all the trees of Gergeti village into a silver wood. Every branch received a crystal cloak, as if the whole village was made of glass. This glistening load bent down the boughs like those of a weeping willow, and when the wind stirred the wood, the icicles struck together and rang like the silver bells in a fairy story.
Winter in Kazbegi is truly magical. After a blanket of fresh snow the landscape turns into a scenic wonderland, especially in the pine and birch woods of the upper elevations.
We continued up through the pinewoods and on the way we were rewarded with lookouts over the deep ravines, steep slopes and vast snow-pillowed meadows. The morning sun was just so perfectly positioned to cast a magical glow over everything. .. the scenery was absolutely splendid and I realized how much I love being in nature breathing that pure oxygen. The smell of the snow… there is nothing to describe it! It was a keen lung-shriveling aroma; I could feel it enter my very core, it filled me up, imbued me totally. Just as the great expanse of sea gives off its own perfume, so the vast acres of that snow-covered land had their own particular essence.
Mt Kazbeg loomed in the distance, partially shrouded by the scudding clouds. This mountain is not only a magnificent sight, it is also a topic of several amazing myths, legends and stories. One legend has it that Amirani ( the Georgian Prometheus ) was chained in a cave on Mt Kazbeg for giving mortals the gift of fire. The anchorite tradition, spread and elaborated by numerous hermits who have chosen these austere mountains as their retreat, holds that a palace of ice sits on the summit of Mt Kazbeg and contains the tomb of Christ, the tent of Abraham, the manger were Jesus was born, and untold riches. Only the pure in spirit could see these things and return alive. Tourists are drawn by the legend and the medieval charm haunting this land that endured centuries of invasion.
It became more tiring to trudge straight up the slope in the snow but we made it fun with chatter and joking until we suddenly emerged from the woods to see the clouds breaking and light pouring over the tiny church as if God was peeling back the clouds for a look.
Now that, sitting here, I attempt to describe the extraordinary grandeur and magnificence of that sight language seems to fail me. Straight before us rose twin peaks of Mt Kazbeg towering in awful white solemnity behind the silhouette of the famous Trinity Church. The church itself is fascinating, but even more fascinating is the setting. Crowning a conical hill that shoots up into the very blue of heaven, make the approach to the church one of thrilling interest.
It was intensely exciting, we exulted and the warm surge of excitement passed through us. Katie exclaimed “what a heavenly place!” Up above the mountain peaks, eagles circled in majestic flight across the narrow strip of emerald-green sky. I have never seen such astounding beauty in my life, Katie and I could not help clicking away with our cameras.
Georgians knew how to situate their churches – they have an uncanny knack for picking the spots with the greatest views, and which allow them to be seen for miles around, and which also usually involve an exhausting hike to get to.
I kept thinking about how difficult it must have been to build this church in the 14th century, on top of a steep mountain. There are no quarries and cart-roads, where could they have brought the stones from? They obviously carried the stones along the rocks and over the crevices and as for the lime you can imagine from what distance they must have carried it! And not only that, imagine having to walk up there every week for Sunday prayer!
At last we reached the summit and magnificent scenery opened out before us. Moments of pure magic…It was a breathtaking experience for us to ascend a 2,170 meters hill in deep snow and the sense of achievement when we finally reached the top of the hill was exhilarating despite the bitterly cold wind. The summit affords unrivalled views of the snow covered pinnacles of the Caucasus mountains . It was fantastic to stand there and look up to the higher slopes and peaks where there are ice- blue glaciers. Wreaths of white mist have dissipated and Kazbegi became visible laying in the valley below. The frost had congealed the snow on the ground and the whole town glimmered in the sunlight. Indeed, it is a place where nature and heaven meets to offer you one of the most peaceful and pleasing settings. The wind swirled around us until we entered the warm, incense filled sanctity of the church where some slender, yellow candles were burning. The church is very modest inside but that’s fine considering the atmosphere. Semi-darkness prevailed there and only several candles and a beam of light from the steeple lit the interior. The icons and murals were absolutely lovely. While we were there a service was being conducted at the church. A man’s choir was standing near the altar chanting and their voices were so nice and beautiful, so we stayed a couple of minutes more in order to hear it. It was a wonderful chance to immerse ourselves in some amazing and ethereal harmonies. Indeed, chants are prayers, that are meant to elevate the soul closer to the heaven. I felt that here I could have stayed
more and more to hear the wonderful singing. Their sweet voices floated over the walls of a 14th century church and wafted down the snowy slopes that tower over Kazbegi.
Despite its remote location, the Holy Trinity Church is still incredibly popular with pilgrims from all over the world. For the traveler, the gorgeous setting, its isolation and consequent peace, together with its unique structures, make the church worthy of a pilgrimage. There are monks living here, construction is ongoing to expand their living quarters in order to accommodate the increasing number of monks who flock here. As you ascend the hill where the church is situated, and look up to the higher slopes and snow-capped peaks of these austere mountains, you can understand why a monk looking to chastise the flesh and hone the spirit would have chosen such a place. Just knowing that there are places in the world, remote from the world’s trials, tribulations and anguish, where people devote themselves to the study and knowledge of God, helps me to remember that apart from God every activity is merely a passing whiff of insignificance. The monks have been here, praying, during numerous invasions, wars, calamities, victories and defeats, births, deaths, political systems and governments coming and going… yet the one constant is the praise and worship of God. They were here before I was born and will be there long after I die. It seemed a place of timelessness, a place set apart, holy and spiritual, and yet still here, present in the world. A model of what Christians are called to be – a people set apart, in the world but not of it. I found it mystical and inspiring, a place and memory I will treasure for ever.
From the church we continued for half an hour over the nearby mountain ridge from where we discovered magnificent overlooks over mysterious caves, grottoes and great defiles of gorges and I wondered “Do we really have to come back down to earth?”