The road to Kazbegi runs north from Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi along the old Georgian Military Highway, whose famously steep and dangerous curves snake their way through the stunning mountain terrain of the Great Caucasus Mountains. We are traveling adjacent to the Russian border on an ancient route that has been the primary means of transport between Georgia and Russia for centuries.
The cold and bitter December air has taken a sharp bite of the mountain vista and it seems as though winter has thrown a grey and dusty cloak over everything around us, making the six 5,000-meter peaks of the Caucasus Mountains seem even more magnificent against the vivid blue sky.
The beauty of this winter landscape does nothing to detract my attention from the dangerous road we are traversing. Like most drivers in Georgia, our driver’s loose and easy driving style means taking every hairpin at pell-mell velocity; the bald tires of our all-terrain vehicle slip in protest against the loose rocks and gravel covering the road.
The driver seems unconcerned by my obvious fright or reluctance to release my white-knuckled hold on the ‘holy shit’ handle above my window. I beg the driver to slow down just a little, but he turns a deaf ear to my pleas. Our Georgian host, Data, turns to me and says, “Carrie, don’t worry. This is how everyone drives in Georgia. You’ll get used to it.” I think not, but I won’t be here long enough to determine if there’s any truth to his statement.
Ancient churches, picturesque towns and cobblestone streets are just some of the things you will encounter every day when you travel Georgia.
The journey has taken us almost two hours on rough gravel roadways. We have already passed through the former Georgian capital city of Mtskheta and saw the Fortress Ananuri before crossing the Rocky Ridge in Darial Gorge.
It isn’t long before we catch Mount Kazbegi (Mkinvartsveri) – the third highest peak in the Caucasus Mountain Range – directly within our sights, but our final destination, the peaceful mountain settlement of Gergeti, doesn’t emerge from the blue-black shadows of its embrace until almost an hour later.
Mount Kazbegi is literally made from the stuff of legends. The ancient Greeks believed that this was the very mountain that Prometheus was chained to as punishment for stealing fire from the Gods.
This area later became the site of an Orthodox hermitage, which was located in a cave called Betlemi. The cave was used to protect many sacred relics, including Abraham’s tent and the manger of Jesus. Many Christians today still believe that the manger of Christ is still hidden here somewhere in this mountain range.
Legends and stories aside, it would be hard for anyone to enter this area in Georgia without feeling slightly overwhelmed by the sheer force of nature and history combined here. Legends say that these mountains have been touched by gods, and when you see the massive carving set into the side of a mountain as you enter the tiny village of Kazbegi, it’s hard not to notice that there might be an element of truth to these ancient legends. A small village located in the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region of north-eastern Georgia, Kazbegi belongs to Khevi province. It is also known as Gergeti on the western side of the river Chkheri. The town is officially named Stepantsminda, and it’s located just 10km south of the Russian border.
Our first stop in Kazbegi is at the local public school. I’m here as a guest of the Georgian Ministry of Education and today’s excursion is providing me a window into one of the many housing options that the Ministry offers ESL teachers when they move to Georgia to teach through TLG, a program that places native English teachers at public schools all over the country in order to improve English language proficiency throughout Georgia.
The beauty of this program is that no two experiences are exactly alike; I’ve already visited a teacher that lives in a luxurious apartment in the capital city of Tbilisi, and another who lives in Gergeti, Georgia’s famous wine district and a popular Georgian summer vacation destination. Today’s excursion is about as remote of a location as anyone can get in the program and I am eager to see the school and meet Wayne, a TLG teacher who has been living here for the past six months.
We pull up in front of the school. A squat complex with zero personality, the school’s cracked and grimy cement walls and unpolished windows stand in stark contrast to the mountain backdrop behind it. Goats and cattle wander through the schoolyard here and there munching contentedly on the dry grass. My eyes spend very little time lingering on the cracked asphalt surface of the front schoolyard and instead sweep up, up, up along blue mountain peaks and craggy cliffs until the sun hits my eyes and I have to look away from the glare.
As we enter the school on this early Saturday afternoon, local children are being instructed in Georgian dance, and we pause for a few minutes to watch their mastery of the dance unfold before touring the rest of the school.
The classrooms are clean, but austere, and I don’t see much in the way of teaching resources. Teachers would obviously need to be creative with their lessons, but Wayne seems more than capable of meeting the demands of his job. He speaks with enthusiasm when he talks about the school and his life in Gergeti. It’s obvious that he has made a home here.
A quiet man, Wayne spends most of his time reading, hiking and learning Georgian, one of the oldest and most difficult languages in the world. He and his host mother, who is also his co-worker at school, have invited us to their home for a visit and a bite to eat.
While Wayne talks about his day to day life in Kazbegi, his host mother Elena gets things ready for our first Georgian supra, a treat that any visitor to Georgia should look forward to with relish. A lavish feast that includes a dozen or more dishes and copious amounts of Georgian wine and vodka, the Georgian supra is a core element of Georgia national culture.
The food is served quickly, and everyone proceeds to gobble down an assortment of meat and vegetable kinkhali, spiced cauliflower salad, thick white slabs of strong suluguni cheese, homemade katchapuri and some lovely pickled side dishes. We eat and drink and eat some more and several hours pass by before we realize that we don’t have much time left to our day and we still haven’t seen the main attraction in Kazbegi.
As our charming hostess leads us out into her backyard for a final view of where we are headed, we thank her for her hospitality. We jump into our truck, buckle up and just as the engine catches, Elena leans in the window a bit to point at some carvings that have been carved into the mountainside in front of us. “Do you see that?” she asks. “This is an old Georgian proverb and it means that guests are from God. This has truly been a special afternoon for me because you have blessed my home with your presence.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 for my tale of visiting Kazbegi’s Holy Trinity Church, a 14th century church located in one of Georiga’s most remote regions.