Kazbegi and Kakheti

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The final few days of my time in Georgia were spent in Kazbegi and Telavi pursuing two radically contrasting activities. I returned to the Great Caucasus Mountain Range to hike on the slopes of Mount Kazbek, a dormant volcano famed for its snow-capped cone and picturesque church perched on top of a hillock. I intended to complete an exhausting though technically straightforward 8-hour return hike to a spectacular viewpoint below the summit of Mount Kazbek and adjacent one of its glacial tongues. “Spectacular” views were certainly in order, though “perilous”, “off-the-beaten-track” (literally) and “lucky” equally defined my (mis)adventure. Spooked to the core by the ordeal on Mount Kazbek, I was relieved to descend to the lowlands and indulge in the hedonistic pleasures of Georgia’s Wine Country. Staying in Telavi was a peaceful end to my journey in Georgia, as I was educated about the nation’s most prized product.

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Kazbegi is located on the unnervingly named Georgian Military Highway, which is the primary thoroughfare that slices through the Great Caucasus Mountain Range connecting Georgia to the Russian Federation. Until I journeyed to Kazbegi by shared taxi, I was yet to experience the almost cherished reputation Georgians have as some of the worst drivers in the world. My driver, evidently, wanted to rectify that situation. With a level of absolute reckless abandonment I had never previously witnessed behind a wheel, my driver nonchalantly clocked 150km/hr on windy, mountainous roads. His deluded and selfishly risky overtaking manoeuvres routinely occurred at locations with insufficient sightlines, on a road plied by flotillas of heavy vehicles bound for Tbilisi or Moscow. Nevertheless and somewhat surprisingly, we arrived safely in Kazbegi in the early afternoon. Kazbegi is visited by many tourists on very long day trips from Tbilisi, intent on photographing Georgia’s most iconic image of Tsminda Sameba Church in the foreground of the megalithic Mount Kazbek. After the tourist hordes leave in the afternoon, Kazbegi is a quaint Georgian village utterly humbled by the dramatic, barren cliffs it is surrounded by. With excellent hiking in the area, I opted to check-in to a local hostel to stay for a couple of nights. I met a bunch of interesting characters at the hostel, including German friends Ida, Inga and Marina, who I travelled with for a few days.

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With the threat of unsavoury weather and mindful of the early evening darkness, I departed my hostel at 9:00am in order to safely complete an up-and-back hike to a viewpoint of Mount Kazbek’s icy peak. The first section was along a steep and rocky but very well-trodden trail to Tsminda Sameba Church in the cold, early morning shadow of Mount Kazbek. The church is pretty enough, but grossly overrun predominately by Eastern Orthodox religious tourists, so I didn’t loiter. I continued up the gruellingly steep trail past grazing horses and straggling hikers, satisfied with my pace but surprised by the seemingly slow progress. At 1:00pm, I arrived at a plateau with phenomenal views of the cone and a glacial tongue, replete with a pretty waterfall.

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After luncheoning in this spot, I continued on the trail… or at least what I thought was the correct trail as I followed two hikers ahead of me. I was surprised and a little uneasy that I was thrice required to leap over gaps in the rock (I still shudder to write about this!), but I persevered; driven by a relentless desire to achieve ever more spectacular views of the landscape. The trail mostly disappeared, as I was confronted by an imposing slope of scree. Yet the hikers ahead of me showed no signs of abating, and with intermittent cairns loosely marking the route, I foolishly scrambled further up. Eventually, the two hikers stopped and waited for me to catch up. They explained how their GPS suggested that we had somehow gone off trail, and that we actually should have been close to the glacier we were now high above. We hiked a little further up to a vantage point to survey the situation. We were surprised to find our ascent blocked by a tuft of slippery ice jutting out of the scree. It was at this point that we finally turned around and noticed innumerable ice faces glistening in the sunlight.

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For 45 minutes, I had unwittingly hiked on a glacier completely obscured by scree – at least in one direction. Looking downwards, it was much clearer that I found myself in a totally inappropriate environment for me to be scrambling over. The gaps I had previously jumped over were obviously ice crevices. After a long summer on a blazing summer day, any footstep I took on the scree could easily have been on a gap in the ice. I’ve experienced plenty of prickly encounters while travelling, but this was the first time I felt like I was in a genuinely dangerous situation. The other two hikers decided to tread across to the exposed glacier and descend directly on the ice. Choosing between two appalling options, I preferred to utilise the route I had just taken. The cairns became much more difficult to spot though, as they were no longer against the blue sky. I definitely lost the “trail” I had taken on the ascent, but miraculously made it off the glacier and onto the much more sturdy main trail after an absolutely harrowing 45 minute ordeal. If there are any deities in existence, I was most certainly grateful in that moment. Since I only had 2.5 hours left of daylight, I hiked down the mountain in frenetic style and jogged where possible, desperate to pack away my boots permanently for this trip. I returned to the hostel at 6:30pm, where an experienced French trekker informed me that a couple of Polish tourists had died on the slopes recently. He said that in Western Europe, such an environment would definitely be closed to hikers after the summer heat. Quite a stressful adventure… worth the story though?

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I cut my time in the mountains understandably short and travelled with Germans Ida, Iva and Marina (I did have some difficulties at first differentiating their names!) to Telavi, the beating heart of Kakheti. Kakheti is one of the historic regions of Georgia, fabled as the nation’s most important wine-producing territory. Since wine is utterly synonymous with Georgian culture (viticulture originated in the Caucasuses… the age old debate though is whether the Georgians or Armenians invented it), I decided that Kakheti was an obligatory destination of an extended visit to the country.

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Although only 200km apart, the journey from Kazbegi to Telavi was frustratingly arduous and convoluted as we needed to transfer through Tbilisi. After arriving in Telavi in the late afternoon, we spent an hour attempting to locate our remarkably cheap Airbnb apartment. Once the apartment was finally located through employing the assistance of a cavalcade of locals, it was debatable whether there was any “value” in the basement level prices. At risk of sounding pretentious, the newly opened Airbnb was clearly established with minimal understanding of Western expectations. Hidden within a ground level corner of a forlorn building, the narrow apartment consisted of 2 steel bunks with remarkably springy bases, walls of papier-mâché and a tiny bathroom with a squat-toilet and a cold water shower head literally above it. Needless to say, no one in the group was terribly impressed, although there were varying degrees of dejection. We took solace at least in our prominent view of the courtyard – strewn with weeds, rubbish and disused furniture. We resolved to drink so much of the local nectar that night that our standards would be completely numbed! Many bottles of wine and shots of chacha later, our objective was achieved.

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We visited Shumi, a small winery just outside of Telavi, to learn about and sample Georgia’s foremost passion. The winery features old relics of Georgian wine production, displays for Georgia’s unique production method, and very quirky, almost whimsical garden to taste the offerings. The Georgians claim vociferously that their ancestors were the first people to produce wine, and indeed traces have been found in Georgia that date back at least 8,000 years. Today, a quarter of the world’s 2,000 species of grapes are Georgian. The traditional method of production has remained essentially unchanged throughout this period. Georgians ferment the grape juice along with the skins, pips and even stalks in large clay urns called qvevri, which are buried in the ground. Due to the presence of skins, “white” wines tend to take on an amber colour. Puritans favour qvevri wine, as it does not contain the additives common in wines today (such as yeast or sugar). While qvevri wine is still produced by thousands of families (many households, including the guesthouse we stayed at on our second night in Telavi, produce their own wine in their backyards and sheds), European-style wines now dominate the market because of the method required is more conducive to mass production. Consequently, qvevri wines are not generally exported, so it is a real privilege to be able to sample them in Georgia. I am no wine aficionado, but they certainly taste very different to European-style wines. Semi-sweet red wines made from saperavi grapes were my drink of choice in Georgia; typically, fruity and robustly flavourful. With white wine drinking Germans Ida, Iva and Marina, we generally stuck to drinking Tsinandali, a white speciality of the Telavi region.

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Georgian cuisine continued to impress in Kazbegi and Telavi, as I focused on sampling traditional specialties I had yet to tick off. I particularly enjoyed ojakhuri, a favourite of any animal flesh aficionado, which consists of veal, potatoes and tomatoes served on a sizzling plate bathed in oil. Georgia also boasts a plethora of delicious stews, including shkmeruli, chakapuli and ostri. Shkmeruli is basically chicken swimming in garlic. Chakapuli consists of veal in a tomato, plum and tarragon sauce, although mine was unfortunately spoiled by the presence of coriander. Ostri, a rich and spicy tomato based beef stew, certainly hit the spot after my frightful episode on the mountain; pure comfort food. Spicy fried potatoes are ubiquitously popular throughout Georgia. They are best accompanied by tqmeli, a deletable and chunky plum sauce (more like a chutney) that comes either green (tangy) or red (sweetish). So much better than fries with tomato sauce. On my final night in Georgia, I finally located a dish I desperately wanted to try: grilled trout pomegranate sauce. The trout itself was rather average, but the tangy sauce was really spectacular.

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While the other countries of the South Caucasus have their appeals, Georgia is clearly the premium destination in the region. I spent 17 days in Georgia, more than half my time in the Caucasuses, yet I was still forced to skip many intriguing sites. Georgia boasts some of the most incredible mountain landscapes I have ever seen, a fascinating and underrated capital city, a rich cultural heritage and unique cuisine. Georgia definitely has the flavour of being the next “it” destination like Sri Lanka or Cuba, so be quick!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Georgia photos

This featured blog entry was written by Liamps from the blog Liam's Globo Trip.
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By Liamps

Posted Sun, Apr 28, 2019 | Georgia | Comments