A trip to Stepantsminda (more commonly Kazbegi)

After  a year away I returned today to the high country north of Tbilisi, to the region of Kazbegi and the Town of Stepantsminda. While only 109km in a direct line from the capital Tbilisi, it is 155km of often torturous winding road using the Georgian Military Highway that ascends a high mountain pass before descending to a still quite high 1740m village location.

It is not until you pass the Church fortress of Ananuri that the real winding road starts. But a stop at Ananuri and its overpriced souvenir stands and food outlets is always something everyone on a tour seems to do. It’s also possible with the help of your guide, to get some locally (home) distilled ChaCha, or Georgian brandy often at up to 60% proof.

Tourist stalls - Ananuri
Tourist stalls – Ananuri
Fortified walls and church - Ananuri
Fortified walls and church – Ananuri

The road follows the river far into the towering hills, passing through small villages and hamlets, one with an odd, slowly rusting collection of old cars behind a fence and lining the road.

Vintage cars wait to be discovered
Vintage car – just needs some TLC
Vintage cars wait to be discovered
Vintage cars wait to be discovered

Across the road is an abandoned Soviet era holiday housing block where favoured workers could come and enjoy a relaxing period away from the daily grind.

Abandoned Soviet era holiday flats - georgia
Abandoned Soviet era holiday flats

The highway steadily climbs through a series of twists and turns with an array of traffic ranging from top of the range Mercedes to 40 year old Russian built Lada and the ever present lumbering truck either struggling its way higher towards the Russian border, or enduring a brake screeching slow descent on its way to Tbilisi or perhaps even further south the Armenia.

Another must-stop, and this was my second visit here, is the Russian-Georgian Friendship Memorial built by the Russians during Soviet times. I think there is something of an incongruity there! Last visit was warm and sunny, while this time I was the only idiot wearing a t-shirt in the cold conditions with pockets of winter snow still clinging to the landscape.

I rather suspect the memorial has been renovated since my last visit as the tiled mural seemed to be in better condition than last time. That said, people do not stop here to look at the memorial – it is the scenery that totally overpowers.

Optional tour via horse or 4-wheeler....
Optional tour via horse or 4-wheeler….
Russian -Georgian Memorial
Views to die for….going for a walk away from the monument is worthwhile

The road climbs and soon reaches it’s highest point at Cross Pass (any guesses as to why it is called that?) and the engine of the tour guide’s car starts to rattle even more in protest at the lack of oxygen.

The run down the other side reveals different scenery – a more mountainous feel despite the altitude being only 2000 metres.

A popular bottled water brand in Georgia is called SNO, and surprisingly it comes from a village called Sno. A tiny outpost in a mostly treeless environment that other than the small bottling plant (the water is so good I don’t think it is even subject to any treatment) there is a cluster of homes, a church, and ancient watch tower (complete with its own spring) and a statue to the soldiers who kept the region safe in the distant history. Oh and some odd faces carved into granite, a bit like small version of the Easter Island statues.

sno view
Most of Sno through a tower window opening
Sno tower
Defensive and signaling watch tower in Sno

Finally to Kasbegi, so named because of the mountain nearby and a famous author writing about it. The quaint village  of Stepantsminda has almost trebled in population in recent years to 6,000 people. Such is what tourism will do for a town. Why tourism, nothing more than the Gergeti Trinity Church.

But it is the church, well really views of the church in is magnificently splendid isolation that really attract people. Don’t get me wrong, the church is nice, but so are many others in Georgia, and there are no shortage of them (in fact there is a revival in church building going on). Oh and the views of the mountains surrounding the town are pretty damned fine as well.

mountain morning
Morning before the weather changed to rain. Mountain to the west.
screed slope
Screed slope, walking back in the afternoon
Accommodation in the foreground ... nameless 'hill' in the background
Accommodation in the foreground … nameless ‘hill’ in the background

As the weather was not the greatest my traveling companions and I decided to take a 4WD taxi to the summit rather than walk up (a 2 hour journey on foot and a 25 minute ride in the vehicle). Note the fare was 40GEL A$20). Some taxis try to charge 70 GEL or more.

It was still raining on our arrival and after climbing higher on a ridge in blustery conditions, only a few dozen photos were ruined with water on the camera lens before the weather cleared.

Upwards trail - bent lower trunks due to weight of snow
Upwards trail
Admiring the view
Admiring the view
Climbing higher
Climbing higher
The church is its isolation
The church is its isolation. Taken from 2,400 metres
Spectacular scenery
Spectacular scenery
Mt Kazbegi broods,,,
Mt Kazbegi broods,,,
Framed against the sky
Framed against the sky
Pure water spring atop the mountain
Pure water spring atop the mountain

After lunch in a sheltered sunny corner or the courtyard of the church, we descended via the path (many walk the road which is  4km longer, but less steep and a lot less interesting) that asses through sections of forest and steep fields and wound our way back into the outer village, along the narrow paths and rough unmade streets that eventually brought us back to the village proper.

Flowers on the descent
Flowers on the descent
branches arch
Arch of branches on the descent

The following day saw many new things as the photos here show.

Outdoor Church
Outdoor Church
Traditional architecture
Traditional architecture. Pipes are for gas
Typical street
Typical street

The journey back the following day held its own interesting views as well….

Trucks waiting to get into Russia. Piles of rubbish likes the road. These HUNDREDS of trucks had arrived the night before and waited for small number access to the Russian border checkpoint.
Patterns from mineral rich waters
Calcified patterns from mineral rich waters
Tunnel used when too much snow and risk of avalanche closes the exposed road section. Mineral waters on right
Food stall that is open in summer - and accommodation
Food stall that is open in summer – and accommodation!
Sheep herding on the main highway
Sheep herding on the main highway. Shepherds are walking them up for summer in the mountains.
Herding on the main highway
Herding on the main highway
What you lookin at?!
black sheep
Our tour guide with a black sheep – that makes two..

Our fun and informative travel guide was Big George


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