A Winter Hike in Kazbegi
I made the trip up north following the Georgian Military Highway, from Tblisi to Stepantsminda. Stepandsminda, or more commonly known by its old name Kazbegi, is a small town with few visitors in winter. The highlight of the area is the Gergeti Trinity Church, a small but formidable church high up the mountains, overlooking the town.
This was in February 2013, at an elevation of around 2000 metres. And the area looks like this.
From the capital of Georgia, Tblisi, is it a 3 hour ride by marshrutka from the Didube bus station. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I decided to make the trip out to Stepantsminda. When I arrived, the whole valley landscape was covered in white.
A marshrutka very similar to this one brought me to Stepantsminda. Along the way, I was remarking to myself how many Georgian men, the driver in this case, have gruff sounding voices. The driver could probably do a very impressive rendition of Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World.
The sign points to Gergeti, written in English and in the Georgian script, Mkhedruli. In summer, I read that many tourists visit as the area is good for hikes, and even horse-riding, as evident on this sign. But right now, in the thick of winter, I could very well have been the only tourist in town on that day.
It is a small town really. This is the main street, and not many people are out walking, even though it was a relatively nice and sunny afternoon.
Stepantsminda is located on the eastern bank of the Tergi River. The main road crosses the river once in the middle of town and continues north towards the Russian border, about 15 km away. On the other side of the river, is an even smaller settlement, Gergeti Village, which is more like an extension of Stepantsminda. This was where I stayed. Beyond Gergeti Village, is the trail that would lead to the church.
This was my basic room in the house, but one I was thankful for. Warmth. I was the only one there, so the owner was nice enough to set the heating going, just for one person. And this involved burning wood and putting it into the stove. With a grateful “gmadlobt” I proceeded to unpack and warm myself up.
One interesting thing was that I was told to leave the tap running, even when I left the house. This was presumably to keep the water pipes from freezing. It is altogether different from back home, where we are constantly reminded not to waste water.
There was still light, so I decided to have a gander around town. First up is the statue of Alexander Kazbegi. He was a local Georgian writer, whose work was to be a major influence on Stalin later on. Before Stepantsminda, the town was called Kazbegi, named after his grandfather, who had helped the Russians keep control of the area after a revolt. But now, the town is called Stepantsminda, since 2006, after Saint Stephan a Georgian orthodox monk.
This was the front facade of the unfortunately closed Kazbegi Museum, photo taken through the grills. I thought it would be open based on the opening times. Maybe it was a “closed for winter” thing, or maybe it was just during a really bad snowed in period, and they declared the museum closed. Whatever it was, I didn’t get to visit the museum.
I ventured even further into the residential areas of town, and got rewarded with a group of cows. I am not entirely sure of why the pipes are running so high above ground. Possibly to keep them from freezing.
This handsome cow had 4 little icicles dangling off its mouth. It was that cold!
There was a foot bridge spanning the river. This one did not look too safe, and I was not sure if it was even still in use.
I took a photo of this useful map of Stepantsminda, for anyone who might be interested.
And here is the view from Stepantsminda, looking up toward the Gergeti Trinity Church. The church and its bell tower are two separate structures. In the foreground, Tergi Bridge crosses the river, and a road branches off after the bridge to the west going through Gergeti Village. The highest peak is the 5000m Mount Kazbeg.
Icicles greeted me the next morning on the clothesline outside my room. I packed some food and water, preparing for the hike to the church. It was a 2 to 3 hour hike, I read. And driving up was possible too. Some time ago, the Soviets built a cable car station at the top that linked the church to the town. Apparently the locals were not too happy about making their holy church a place for mass tourism, and they proceeded to tear down the cable car. Hence, driving or hiking are the only two ways up.
The next morning, I took breakfast and made my way uphill along the main track to the Gergeti church. Ten minutes into the walk, I turned around and had this view, scanning the entire town of Stepantsminda down below. So far so good.
Soon after, the main track ended off, and with the aid of the Maps Me app, I began following the trailhead. Above is a map of the area, taken from OpenStreetMap. It’s all in Mkhedruli, so let me try to orientate you to the map. The River Tergi runs through the centre. And the main populated area on the right of the river is Stepantsminda. The other path of grey is the village of Gergeti, and the road continues west and uphill towards the Gergeti Trinity Church which is on the leftmost part of the map. The dotted black line is the former Soviet cable car line which started Stepantsminda and ended at the church. My trail followed mostly the road (I think), but I might have gone off the trail quite a bit, since there was nothing to distinguish the trail from the non-trail areas. it was all white!
I did not meet anyone else throughout the entire hike. And the visible road soon gave way to the all white landscape, which left me quite unsure of where I was going.
This was taken halfway up the trail, before the zig-zagging portion. I could see both Stepantsminda in the background and Gergeti Village to the left in the foreground.
The road soon widened and became more visible, a respite from trying to guess where the trail was. This was the zig-zagging portion of the road, built in this way for vehicles to climb up the slope. Since I was on foot, I simply bypassed the road and bashed straight up.
Carrying on, I made a beeline for the church, instead of following the vehicular track which looped west and around back to the church. This area was tough, since I was thigh deep in the snow. At one point, I just needed a break, and took this selfie in the process.
From then on, there were some tracks, so some other hikers must have made their way here recently.
I cut through the wooded area….
…before the “trail” opened up and the treeline began to clear. I was reaching the summit.
Here’s a photo I like. I placed my backpack for perspective, and took a photo of the surroundings. Another break, so I was fiddling around with the items in my bag, and to my delight, found the last remaining bit of chocolate I had bought and eaten a couple of days ago. You cannot imagine the thrill you can get upon finding that you still have that last piece of chocolate! Energized, I carried on in good spirits.
I was rewarded with this view, and the last stretch to the church.
Picking up the pace, I hurried towards the church.
The last bit, looking up before arriving.
And finally, reaching the Gergeti Trinity Church. I was the only one there on the day. It was worth it!
The standalone belltower. It was locked, as was the church. I am sure that in the summer, there are people manning the area.
A helpful sign. If you are headed there, do note that you need to be covered up when accessing the church.
The main entrance, inaccessible to me. No photographs allowed inside.
Here is a donation box, in case anyone is curious how Donation For Church is written in the Georgian languange.
I took a peek through grills into a small chamber on the other side of the main entrance and saw some benches. A waiting area perhaps.
A representation of the Virgin and Child. As is in most of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Georgian Orthodox Church is big on iconography, and paintings and pictures like these are common.
Just below the main church, there is another small building. This is a photo of the roof of that building, complete with solar panel. This would be where the monks rest. Right now though, there isn’t anyone else here.
There is an elaborate water fountain about 50 meters away from the church.
From this photo, the water fountain is straight ahead. But look to the left and you see some unfinished construction. I suspect it was part of the cable car station that was dismantled. A little further back there are some installations and an unused shack which I was pretty sure was part of the cable car station.
A close up of the “construction”
Here’s a panoramic view of the surroundings from the church. After that, I made my way down. Coming down was quick, and adrenaline was high. Partly because I was half rolling down the slope and not getting injured doing so as the ground was thick with snow! I reached the base in half and hour before packing up and taking the marshrutka back to Tblisi.
Here’s me ending off with some advice. Definitely make the trip to Stepantsminda (Kazbegi) if you are in Georgia. If you do have to go in winter, make sure you are relatively fit, as the hike can be tiring. Also bring some waterproof pants and hiking shoes, don’t be like me!