Georgia is a land of tourists and travellers. It kindly surprises you by its prices, friendly people and plenty of wonderful treks. The text below describes three hikes in the north of the country. Some of them can be found on the first pages of Lonely Planet, one may be not known even by the locals. Why? Because it doesn’t exist! But about that later.
The first destination of all tourists is the village of Stepancminda, and the taxi drivers know that well enough. We didn’t have a clue about how much does a marshrutka cost so 30 lari per person for a two-hour drive seemed reasonable and we got into a car. When the taxi drive bought gas for 10 lari, it was clear to us that the business paid off for him.
The driver stopped at several interesting places on the way. At the overlook of Zhinvali dam with its turquoise water, at the castle Ananuri – it’s not possible to miss, the old military route goes just around it. We were there early in the morning, souvenir merchants were building their booths and we had a unique opportunity to explore the old castle with its church. The entry is free and we could go to the highest tower. But only at our own risk, over several floors and missing planks. Just welcome to Georgia that would like to become a member of the European Union, but doesn‘t realise what freedom in its thinking and approach it would lose. The funny fact is that not everyone is clear about whether Georgia belongs to Europe or Asia. Georgians consider themselves as Europeans, but I have a suspicion that Europe doesn‘t think so.
Stepancminda also called Kazbegi by the locals, is located at an altitude of 1740 m and is situated 150 km away from Tbilisi. As soon as we got out of one taxi, another driver lured us to the Gergeti Trinity Church. But we wanted to try the miracles of Georgian cuisine first. We were looking forward to khachapuri – pancake filled with cheese, which we enjoyed in a small restaurant overlooking Kazbek.
The Kazbek Volcano with its height of 5047 m is the third highest mountain in Georgia. You can usually see the peak only in the morning, as it is hidden in the clouds later. We were lucky to admire the mountain on the way to the Holy Trinity Church (2170 m above sea level). There are several options how to get there, the easiest way is to use one of the local taxis, which we rejected, despite the taxi drivers’ comments that it is “damn far”, and with the backpacks on, we walked up on the hillside.
The church on the top is famous from photographs, it is one of the most visited places in Georgia and, as a result, its surrounding is devastated. Traffic jam, ruined environment and, above all, a crowd of tourists in flip flops or heels, which is overwhelmed only by the number of taxi drivers. Just as we were up there, they were already offering us a way down.
We don’t dare to climb Kazbek – we have neither the equipment nor a good shape or experience.
Exhausted from the previous sleepless night on the plane, we felt asleep before sunset. Lesson learned from today is clear – lactose intolerant people should not eat khachapuri.
A Highway to the Glacier
We woke up to a windy morning, and in spite of a breakfast overlooking Kazbek, we saw only clouds. The mountain was hidden for the rest of our visit. We didn‘t stay long, an 8-hour-long hike to the Gergeti glacier has been waiting for us. Before going to the Glacier we tried a bivouac trick for the first time. We stored all things unnecessary for the hike in a bivouac and the guys hid it in bushes near the trail.
It was Sunday, and lots of tourists had chosen the same program as we did. Most of them came from Poland – due to the boom of cheap flights, but we also met tourists from Israel or Russia.
Almost two hours later, we crossed the Arsha pass saddle (2940 m above sea level), the clouds clung to the mountains and it rained a bit. We refilled water in the base camp (starting point for climbers heading for Kazbek), and then, after another two hours, we came to the Gergeti mainland glacier (3260 m above sea level) and the waterfall flowing from the mountains. We didn’t dare to walk on the glacier, it was time to go back.
For the night, we chose a place near a natural pool about three kilometres south from Stepancminda. The swimming pool is in the middle of a swamp, so we had to come back several times and look for a way where we can cross with a dry foot, but eventually, we succeeded. Our unspoken wishes that the mineral water might be hot did not come true, but the cold water was a relief for our feet as well.
Up to the border with South Ossetia
We planned to do a trek in the Truso gorge on the next day. The boys enjoyed a cold bath in the pool in the morning and then we headed to the nearest village from where we wanted to get to the village called Kvemo Okrokana.
There is only one path that leads to the valley. After about 2 kilometres, we applied the bivouac trick again and continued with much lighter backpacks. We enjoyed mineral springs, beautiful mountains and amazing peace. We met herds of cows, donkeys, and one Georgian guy with horses, who tried to offer us something. Even though we didn’t understand each other, the guys shaked hands after a while and they laughed from ear to ear. It seemed a bit daring in a country where a handshake can be deemed as a contract conclusion. What if I was just exchanged for a herd of sheep? Fortunately, this was really just about a horse ride, which the boys refused.
We came to a village where the time has stopped. There were only two houses and ten people. At the end of the journey, there is a monastery and a few hundred yards behind it the Zakagori fortress, which is situated already in the separatist South Ossetia. To continue the hike you need a permit that is not difficult to get, but we didn’t arrange it for this journey. Customs officers stop you at the border with South Ossetia and will not let you pass without the necessary papers. We admired the Zakagori fortress from a distance and headed back. We wanted to choose the way along the other side of the river to swim a small pond in the rock we have seen on the road, but after a while, a local shepherd screams: “Cobaka, Cobaka, au, au!”. And at that moment we could already see a pack of dogs that sniffed us and we obediently returned to the other side of the river.
In the evening we camped in Kvemo Okrokana in the garden of one local. We drank tea, and ate bread and tomatoes together. He wasn’t a Georgian but a proud Ossetian. He let us sleep under a half-broken tower that was built by his grandfather’s grandfather.
There is a huge number of old towers in Georgia. These were defensive towers from the 9th to 13th centuries, which served families to defend against invaders, avalanches and bloodthirst.
If there is no path on Google maps, there is no path!
We decided to spend the last day in the northern part of the country in the Khada Valley and started our hike from a small village Seturni. Our group of four confused backpackers was noticed by an old lady that helped us to find a way. After a quick chat with us, she didn’t let us go without two huge pies, alias pancakes filled with mashed potatoes.
From a distance, our journey looked like a walk with a slight climb. It is important to note that today’s trek has always been just theoretically described, or someone has connected a few points on a map.
Going down the hill was quite ok, the grass was tall and a herd of sheep would survive here. The first problems occurred when we wanted to get to the other side of the valley. There was a small stream, but finally, we could get to the other side and start climbing. Slowly. There was no path there, and what looked like a dry grass from a distance were actually two-meter-tall bushes and thorns. The biggest problem were spiders which sat in their webs at the level of our faces. When, after two and a half hours, we finally got to the top, no one wanted to continue to the tower where we planned to take a lunch break.
For a break, we decided to go to an old church where there were only a few trees in the neighbourhood.
The church dates back to the 4th century and also looked ancient. The frescoes that were to be the main attraction of the building were hardly recognisable, and I thought that the walls inside the church only hold thanks to God’s will.
Later, we found out that the stones on which we enjoyed a picnic were not just ordinary stones. The engraved crosses and names clearly indicated that we have just eaten on somebody‘s grave. So we slowly rose and moved to the river.
There are around sixty old towers in the Khada Valley, we did not have an opportunity to explore all of them, but we were happy with today’s experience and we felt asleep with the sunset.