With the numerous vacation days in early May and the fast approach of summer many volunteers will be traveling throughout Georgia. Batumi, Svaneti, and Kazbegi are top locations for everyone’s itineraries. I’ll provide a description of the last one, and why you should get out of Kazbegi to explore the lesser known routes around the city.
Stepantsminda, more commonly known as Kazbegi, is the best destination for tourists who want to see the Greater Caucasus but lack the time or resolve for a transnational trip from Tbilisi to Svaneti. If you’ve been in Georgia in the spring or summer you’ve most likely already been to Kazbegi. But the majority of tourists only stay in Kazbegi, walk up to Tsminda Sameba, listen to a concert in the park outside Gergeti, drink a few beers at a café, and then call it a trip.
Kazbegi is a three to four hour drive from Tbilisi’s Didube bus station. Step out of the metro and you’ll see someone holding a sign reading Kazbegi or hear someone shouting it. If nobody makes this obvious simply walk around, look for a group of tourists with over-sized rucksacks, and follow them—chances are they’re going your direction.
As soon as foreigners step off a marshrutka in Kazbegi half a dozen taxi drivers and guesthouse proprietors angle for their money. This might be annoying, but there are hardly any rip-offs in Kazbegi to the degree of tourist-heavy countries like India or Thailand. Most of the guesthouses include half-board and a Western-style bathroom for around 20-30 lari per night. Be sure to check out a few options and indicate your willingness to walk away if the price is too high. Often guesthouse proprietors will offer you a discount if you scoff at the initial offer. Roll your eyes and say, dzalian dzviria. You’ll want at least half-board as dining options are limited in town.
The mountains of Georgia are like oil paintings—and as such they only reveal their full splendor as you move closer to them and stand upon them (well, the simile breaks down at that point). Mount Kazbek is a rather bland, symmetrical mountain, frequently obscured behind clouds. It’s a good jumping off point. But you can only see a fraction of region’s beauty from the city square, and the most impressive views are several valleys away.
So get out of Kazbegi. South of Kazbegi is a road juncture at a large village named Achkhoti which leads eastward into Sno Valley. The final stop on this road is Juta—consisting of about a dozen houses on a hill overlooking the river valley. You can ride a taxi to Juta if the road isn’t blocked with mud or snow. Otherwise, you can walk there and soak in the splendor of Sno Valley village-to-village, which will save you the 75-100 lari fare. Be prepared to walk back to Achkhoti unless you’ve made prior arrangements with a taxi driver to pick you up.
There are three or four guesthouses in Juta. The one with the best amenities is operated by a German-speaking man named Soso. By chance I stayed there with a Berliner who told me that Soso’s German is impeccable. His house is near the top. You’ll be greeted with fresh khatchapuri from Soso’s wife. The dining room of their guesthouse features a long table for supras and wide windows overlooking the village. Other guesthouses are cheaper but lack a Western-style bathroom.
(Unfortunately, Juta’s beauty has diminished somewhat due to the installation of grotesque overhead pipelines which Soso himself lamented, along with the construction of a massive lodge at the entrance of the village. It’s only a matter of time before McDonald’s opens a franchise, so visit soon.)
From Juta there are numerous hiking opportunities. To the north-east, following the river, you can hike toward Russia and eventually reach a cluster of steep rocky peaks (named Roshkakhorkhi) without any sign of human habitation spare the lonely border patrol hut near the riverbed. Make sure you check in with the border guards if you’re passing through the valley.
If you’re an experienced trekker you can cross the mountains north of Roshkakhorkhi at Sadzelisghele, a mountain pass at 3,000 meters. Bring a windbreaker. Then you can walk down the shepherd’s path to Roshka, another village where you’ll find at least one available guesthouse. This route will take you through the edges of wild, untamed Khevsureti, which compared to Svaneti and Tusheti receives few tourists due to its inaccessibility. The entire route requires about eight hours. It’s rarely utilized by anyone without a horse. By why make a poor animal do all the leg-work for you?
Alternatively, if you hike out of Juta heading south-east you’ll immediately spot a sharp-peaked mountain named Chaukhi. Although significantly shorter than Mount Kazbek, it’s a striking sight nestled in between the terminal points of several valleys. Reaching the base of Chaukhi demands a two or three hour hike. You can continue past Chaukhi and reach a few lakes. Go farther still and you’ll complete a less strenuous path to Roshka than going through the aforementioned Sadzelisghele.
Hike from Juta to Roshka using either of these routes and you’ll wonder why you wasted your time walking up to Tsminda Sameba and looking at a view you see on every postcard. Remember: the best views are never the most popular.
Another option for getting out of Kazbegi is north. The Georgian Military Highway continues for about ten kilometers before reaching the Russian border in the Dariali Gorge. Tamari Fortress is nearby, as well as Gveleti waterfall. It’s worth nothing that as far as border crossings go, this one is among the most interesting and beautiful in the world. The Dariali Gorge served as one of two strongholds for the Gates of Alexander to protect the Hellenistic empire from southbound barbarians. And it inspired several Russian poets and writers whose names I lack the interest to look up.
But a more rewarding challenge at the Dariali Gorge is hiking east up the Khdistskali River into the Khde Gorge. I’ve never met anyone who traveled this route or had any awareness of it. Five kilometers up the river you’ll see an unnamed waterfall on your right. Continue farther about ten kilometers and you’ll find yourself surrounded by Mount Shani, Kurostveri (the jagged ridge along Kazbegi’s eastern limits), and Kvibishi Glacier. It’s an isolated location with no roads. Bring plenty of trail mix and brace yourself for blisters.
If you wish to explore Kazbegi I encourage you to purchase a few trekking maps at a tourist agency in Tbilisi. Georgia’s best map supplier is Geoland. Most available guidebooks are out-dated or vague, including Lonely Planet Caucasus, which lacks adequate maps outside of Tbilisi. Georgia is better enjoyed with a “winging it” attitude anyway. Just follow roads and rivers and see where they go. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to escape the tourist crowds.
Note: I found many discrepancies in the names of various peaks, glaciers, and passes. Further exacerbating this problem is the lack of anything on the internet about these specific locations. Even Geoland uses different names between the trekking maps and regional maps for the same places.