After talking to local guys from Tbilisi, reading some articles and seeing some pictures about stunning mountains and beautiful nature in Georgia, there was only one way to go. Didube bus station is partly a bus station and partly a market. It can be a bit confusing, especially when all the mini buses use just Georgian writing. Luckily my mini bus going to Kazbegi was the only one with English sign inside. At the time of boarding the old Mercedes Sprinter mini bus I didn’t have a clue how terrible the ride was gonna be for me…
As I figured out few minutes later, all “marshrutka” drivers were crazy. Specifically our driver wanted to be in the finish as fast as possible no matter what. There even was one passenger who had to get out of the mini bus and went to throw up, because that devil driver was going way too fast on those icy roads of Georgian military highway. This old mountain road which crosses Caucasus Mountains and connects Georgia and Russia is definitely not a highway as stated in the name. Instead of that it is a 200 kilometres of extremely steep hills with lots of turns and dark tunnels reaching a 2,400 meters above the sea level in Jvari Pass. At the time of reaching Jvari Pass I was already regretting taking a 10 Lari (4,50eur) marshrutka ride and not taking the personal driver, since I am a bit scared of drivers like that.
On the way to my destination Stepantsminda, formerly called Kazbegi, while my heart was in my pants, I had some breath-taking views from the mini bus and saw amazing huge mountains covered in powder. On the other hand I saw also a dark side of these mountains, a truck trailer stuck on the side of the road and filled and covered by snow probably even from the last year. There were high snow barriers besides the road as a plow was paving the way in the snow.
As told by our devil driver to arrive at 11:30 am, we actually made it even 20 minutes before. Finally after getting out of the cursed mini bus I stopped regretting the torture I had to suffer on the way there. It wasn’t because we finished, but because of the magnificent white mountains and blue sky surrounding the village of Stepantsminda. Those were my first great impressions about that stunning village which was just about to become one of the most amazing places I have ever visited.
As being pretty cold and hungry I started to look for a bar, as suddenly I saw some backpacker going inside a small house with a sign, which looked like a bar. Inside I found that guy who threw up on the way to the village drinking hot tea, shaking and just sitting so quietly like his days were already counted. Soon I ended up alone talking to a very friendly owner in Russian and Slovakian… I asked for a shot of some local alcohol to make me warmer. He offered me a Chacha, homemade alcohol from grapes, which he would leave 3 months in whole nuts so the colour was brown, not clear. He poured himself a drink also and we said “nazdarovie” and had a drink. Then he offered to make a brunch for me. Of course, I agreed and in a while I got a Hachapuri, typical cheese cake waiting for me. That bar was truly amazing, owner really nice, but it was time to leave warm bar for colder mountains.
I decided to take a tour with another nice man who approached me with his offer earlier that day. He took me for a drive in his Lada Niva, typical Russian 4×4 jeep, to visit various places nearby. After a 15-minute drive we ended up near Georgian-Russian boarders. We couldn’t go any further, so we went to visit a nearby Dariali monastery of the Archangels St. Michael and Gabriel. Typical Georgian style church made of stones from stone mines close to the place. On the way back we had to pass “dangerous zone” again, which was basically no road just gravel and stones on which our Lada Niva was flying like a jet.
Then my driver (sorry, but I forgot his name) took me into a mountain and we started to climb a small icy hill. For our Lada it was a bit of a fight, but we were going higher and higher until we got to a point where even a mighty Lada Niva couldn’t continue. So he told me to hike, while showing me directions, to see some waterfalls. I knew he was a nice man, but just in case I also took my backpack, since all my documents were there and I didn’t want to end up without backpack and driver alone in the wilderness. I had a short, about half an hour of hiking, but eventually I got pretty cold. I saw a small icy waterfall and decided not to go higher.
Once I got back down, my driver was still there, so that was a relief. We left an icy mountain road and got back onto a Georgian military highway going back to our starting point, Stepantsminda. There was one amazing view point where we had to stop. Those views there were magnificent, amazing and breath taking. All together with snow and bright sun was just spectacular.
Once we returned into a village, I went on discovering the place. Stepantsminda offers a unique perspective of Mt. Kazbeg. This Georgian glacier with the height of 5,033 meters above the sea level, is the third highest mountain in Georgia. Under the mountain Kazbeg, in elevation of 2,170 meters is situated a Gergeti Trinity Church, still an active church of Georgian Orthodox religion. Church is 6,4 km away from the village and at the time of my visit I was told it is too much snow over there, so I decided not to hike there. On one hand it was a good choice because I didn’t have many clothes with me, on the other hand I am a bit sad now that I didn’t go up. I will save that for summer I guess.
While wandering around the village, pretty much all I saw was cows. Yes, some cars, some people, lots of snow, stunning mountains, but mostly cows all over the place. I took a lot of pictures, but in 75% are cows as well. In one case I couldn’t even get to a bar, because there were 3 cows just chilling in front of the stairs to the bar. I think I only met one shepherd in the whole village.
As finally I made up my mind and decided to stay overnight I went back to Kvinvari bar, my first stop, where the owner called his friend Vasili who offered me an accommodation. I paid 13 Euros for dinner, breakfast, room, hot water and even Wi-Fi. So after a rich and delicious dinner I headed 100 meters down the street to another bar called Shorena, situated on the main and only square in the village. I spent there the rest of the night. Since being the only guest there, 3 bartenders were taking care of me. Opening hours in that case totally depended on me. I tried some local spirits like Chacha or Tiflis and spent about 3 hours just talking and talking and talking about my travels and adventures.
At Vasili’s house I spent a great night until he knocked on my door in the morning saying “come to breakfast”, in strong Russian accent. Pretty similar food from last night dinner, but still very good and tasty. I said good bye to Vasili and left my mountain lodge in order to get back to Tbilisi. Being aware of the fact that mini bus drivers are crazy, it was necessary to have last short of Chacha before we left. Thankfully the journey back to Tbilisi seemed faster in time terminology, but slower in speed and my prayers were answered.
Actually it was very difficult to write about the unique felling you get there. Mountains, people, cows and that’s it. There is no timetable, except for the minibus. Life in the winter just stopped over there and that was an amazing thing. That terrifying journey there was definitely worth it. How often you get to drink homemade alcohol with the owner of an amazing bar under the third highest mountain in Georgia while the sun is shining, riding in a Lada Niva in dangerous zones near Russian borders, while admiring the views and scenery, or talking to strangers in language which you have never learned? My Georgian adventure was just the first trip of the year and already I must admit I put the bar very high. There are countries, which once visited, there is no need to come back. Georgia is definitely a country to return.