16.06.2017 - 17.06.2017 15 °C
Day 23 & 24 Friday June 16 & Saturday June 17 2017
Kazbegi & environs
- Unusually we are staying 3 nights and 2 full days in the same place! Time to relax, do some sightseeing & get some exercise - the mild kind. But if you are serious walkers or climbers then more arduous activity is also available here. The hiking season lasts from June to Mid September.
- Breakfast at Rooms Hotel is quite a spread. The best we've had so far on this trip. But a group of Japanese guests still insist on bringing to the table their own pots of instant noodles. Yes, yes every man to his own taste and all that. And yes we bring in our coffee pot when the brew on offer is inadequate.
- We have lived in Japan so understand better than many, the idiosyncrasies of this wonderful nation. But even we are challenged to understand why, half way up a mountain, in the isolated Sno Valley, some of the same group need to wear face masks! ?
- Day 1 - the weather forecast suggests rain in the afternoon. So rather than climb up to the iconic Tsminda Sameba, majestically perched on the top of a green (low ) mountain on the opposite side of the valley, we decide to do some vehicle based sightseeing.
- First we drive as far North as we can, some 10 km or so to the Russian border. On the last bend in Georgia is a modern church built according to traditional design. It is the last and first sight at the border crossing. The border itself is a rather insignificant affair considering it is an entrance point to the world's largest country ( in terms of landmass ) . But there are clear signs that facilities are being updated and enlarged. It's yet another work in progress.
- Next we detour off the Military Highway to park up for a 30 minute hike to the Gveleti Waterfall. We've seen greater wonders, but it is good to get some much needed exercise. At altitude in excess of 2000m it is obvious how out of condition we have become after only 3 weeks of being on the road & sat in a car.
- On our way back to Kazbegi we turn off at a small village called Tsdo, interesting for its elevated & strategic position. The views are amazing, even on a dull overcast day. Like many villages of a similar size, it looks somewhat run down and devoid of life. But look hard and there is evidence of habitation. We do see a couple of old villagers. The population here is likely to be quite elderly.
- South East of Kazbegi lies our final destination - Sno Valley and the village of Juta. The drive from the main road down the valley to Juta is very rough. A 4 wheel drive is essential. Juta is obviously a hikers' centre and times are changing. New accommodation is being constructed to service the growing 'active' tourist industry. From here we walk some 40 minutes up to the first mountain refuge located at 2340 m. There is a restaurant here and basic accommodation for those climbers and hikers preparing to scale the higher slopes that lie beyond and above. Camping is also allowed.
- We do not have the equipment, time or fitness level to contemplate going further. In any case the cloud is closing in and the weather beginning to deteriorate. However if this is the type of holiday you are looking for, it is definitely worth checking out online details. The next climbing refuge after Juta is the Bethlemi hut at 3653m - there is accommodation for 50 or so people and in peak season you need to book ahead. It sounds like it gets quite busy up there!
- Another delicious supper in the hotel lounge, more glasses of Georgian red wine. At an altitude of 1800 m it has a potent effect.
- Day 2 - at 8 a.m. the hotel is shrouded in low loud. But as AG reminds - in the mountains you should never judge a whole day by what you see in the early morning. And very often meteorologists do no better. True to form by mid morning the sun is out and good views from the Tsminda Sameba Church look feasible.
- For this is where we are heading today. This small church has become the symbol of Georgia to the outside world. Its hilltop setting at nearly 2200m with the mighty Mt Kazbek rising up behind, is incomparably photogenic. For more professional photos of this gorgeous church take a look on google - Tsminda Sameba Church, Kazbegi. We know our photos do not compare.
- There are many routes up to the church. But it seems pointless to walk from our hotel. A better option is to drive to the village of Gergeti ( @ 1800 m ) park up the truck and walk the rest of the way. Then if time & energy permit you can walk a further 1000 m ascent to the Gergeti Glacier. Guide books warn that the return church / glacier walk will take around 8 hours. So start early!
- As regards paths up to Tsminda Sameba church, the best option is to head for the old stone tower in Gergeti village, turn right some 200m beyond it and head upwards. The ascent takes about 45 minutes. The descent is no quicker because it demands concentration every step of the way.
- Within the Tsminda Sameba church no photography is allowed. The two small windows hardly illuminate. Eyes are drawn instead to the candles that the pious leave burning and the many religious works of art that adorn the walls.
- By the way there is strict dress control in Georgian churches. Men must uncover their heads, ladies must cover them. Men must wear long trousers and women have to wear long skirts or borrow the garments provided outside every church.
- Note the shape of the crosses decorating the church roof - with a slight drooping of the horizontal arms. This is called the Grapevine Cross also known as the Georgian cross or St Nino's Cross. It is a major symbol of Georgian Orthodox Church and dates from 4C when Christianity became the official religion of Georgia.
- By the time we leave the church, the Saturday crowds are arriving - mostly Georgians or Russians and many young people among them. The foot attire of some of the walkers is concerning - Espadrilles, strappy sandals and plimsoles are just not appropriate.
- So the tips are: aim to arrive at the church early, especially at weekends, follow the northerly path and wear suitable shoes. Oh and take water. There are no facilities up on top. Just a couple of portaloos and a shop selling candles and religious memorabilia.
- Disconcertingly maps show a cable car connection to the church. Once up there, we thankfully see no evidence of this type of access. We hope that neither is it planned for the future. What sacrilege!
- Fortunately locals felt the same. They have dismantled the cable car that the Soviet authorities built in 1988. Today from one aspect of the church you can still see the remnants of the cable car reception area. But with care, you can take photographs that hide this 20C architectural scar. And from a distance across the valley the church still looks perfect.
- The Georgians certainly did not build their ancient churches with the aim of attracting large congregations! By now we have seen many that are located in elevated places far from human habitation. They would have offered peaceful sanctuary to their religious residents, would have been used as safe storage for Georgia's ancient religious artefacts during turbulent times of foreign invasion. And to the ordinary Georgians living within view ( & Georgian churches were built to be visible for miles around) they would have been and still are, a constant physical reminder that their God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Awesome.
- It has already been mentioned that at the Rooms hotel there is a young, wealthy, hip clientele. There is a bar open 24hrs and there has been rumour of a weekend influx of Russians who drink heavily and party late. Fortunately this is not the case this Saturday - maybe it is a particular problem when there is a National holiday over the border. Kazbegi is only about 45 km from Vladikavkaz, the capital city of Northern Ossetia ( part of Russia ) with a population of 300000. There is unlikely to be anything similar to the Rooms Hotel concept in Vladikavkaz.
- When we checked in a couple of days ago, no mention was made to us of the 24 hr casino on site. Perhaps dressed in our casual travel gear and arriving by a Toyota truck, we did not look as if gambling was either within our budget or on our mind.
- The gambling facilities of the hotel are not obviously advertised. There is no signage pointing the way. The casino lies behind an obscure wooden door adjacent to the lift shaft. It could be a store cupboard. But on the other side of the door is a room or rather a hall of equal size to the lobby lounge. Male & female croupiers stand at a variety of gambling tables, awaiting their clientele. There is a bank ( of course ) and a section of one man bandit machines to rob you of small change (or more if you stay too long). Staff Heavies stand at strategic exit points. Well, well, well. Now it is apparent what some of the clientele get up to - some come here to appreciate Georgian mountain scenery, maybe do some hiking & climbing, or pay respect in one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Others relax by the indoor pool on their various devices, have a massage and indulge in their worship of Mammon.
- And why the attraction? Since 2009 gambling has been banned almost everywhere in Russia except for 4 designated zones. And none of those zones is close to Vladikavkaz. Ah, the roulette chip has just dropped.
- If you do not fancy staying in Rooms Hotel, the residential area nearby and with similar panoramic views, seems to be developing into a district of home stays, pensions and B&Bs.
The Lela & Mari Homestay on Booking.com comes highly recommended by a couple of Brits we meet up at Tsminda Sameba.
- With shifting cloud and variegated sunshine, the view from our bedroom and balcony is constantly mutating. Behind the cloud cover stands the summit of Mt Kazbek. At 5033m it is higher than Mont Blanc by over 200m ( a significant difference at that altitude ). It is one of the highest mountains in Caucasus Mtn range on the border of Georgia and North Ossetia ( Republic of Russia ). A British mountaineering team were the first to get to its summit in 1868.
- Mt Mkinvari is the Georgian name; it means Ice Mountain. A very apt name since it is flanked on all sides by large glaciers. And as our photographs show there is still much snow cover.
- How ironic that after hours of observation, it is only when the sun leaves the valley that the mountain reveals herself in perfect clarity. On this mid June day the sun disappears behind the Mt Kazbek 's summit at 7.15 p.m. It only actually sets a good 2 hours later. We are hopeful that we will see her again tomorrow morning - the weather forecast is good and the sun will be at the right angle for a decent photo. Our fingers are crossed.