The Russian word for the Caucasus is Kavkaz (Кавказ). It’s a beautiful word, and it has an almost mythical ring to it—like Xanadu or Timbuktu. It’s one of those places that causes people’s eyes to glaze over when they talk about it, the way men’s eyes do in movies when they’re talking wistfully about a beautiful woman they once knew.
I get it now. Now that I’ve seen these mountains, I get it. It’s one of the few places in the world I’ve been to that is almost painfully beautiful to me (and it’s not like I’ve never seen mountains before).
The Caucasus are the tallest mountains in Europe, beating the Alps by a few thousand feet (see Mt. Elbrus versus Mt. Blanc). The word Caucasian—the English word we in America generally use to refer to a lighter-skinned person—comes from these mountains. That’s funny because the people that actually are from the Caucasus (like Chechens, Avars, Circassians, Ossetians, Georgians, etc.) are generally dark-haired and olive-skinned—very different from the “white” people we American English speakers associate with the word. So how did the word Caucasian come to represent lighter-skinned people? According to EtymOnline, the term was “applied to the ‘white’ race 1795 (in German) by German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach, because its supposed ancestral homeland lay there; since abandoned as a historical/anthropological term.”
Anyway, back to the mountains. The easiest way to access the Caucasus from Tbilisi is to drive the Georgian Military Highway. This is probably the single most spectacular road I’ve ever seen. These mountains are steep. The fact that this road has been around since the 1800s and is still a one-to-two lane, mostly unpaved road shows just how difficult it must be to maintain the thing, let alone improve it. While driving it, you get the feeling that it’s only barely clinging onto existence. If it were unused and neglected for a year, I don’t doubt that the mountains would reclaim it entirely.
I hopped in a marshrutka (mini bus) for the three-hour ride from Tbilisi to Kazbegi, a small town about 10 miles south of the Georgia-Russia border. The Caucasus line the whole northern border of Georgia, but going to Kazbegi via the Georgian Military Road is the fastest way to access the mountains from Tbilisi. The drive north from Tbilisi is pretty standard for the first hour or so, but then you get to the proper mountains. I really don’t know how to describe the drive after that; spectacular is the best word I can come up with. The road slowly makes its way up to a pass at 7,800+ feet before descending a couple thousand feet to Kazbegi, the last town before the Russian border (which is closed to most foreigners).
For the month or so before I went to Kazbegi, I kept checking the weather forecast for the town. It was always partly cloudy. Every single day. I wanted to wait for a day of totally clear weather before making the trip, but I eventually ran out of time and had to go on a partly cloudy day. When I stepped out of the marshrutka in Kazbegi, I was happy to see that the sun was indeed shining, though there were a lot of clouds around. The high mountains east of Kazbegi and the low mountains to the west were visible, but the tall mountains to the west unfortunately remained covered in clouds for the whole day. This was a shame, as it meant that Mt. Kazbek, a spectacular mountain and one of the taller and more famous mountains in the range, was completely obscured. Oh well. Life goes on.
My goal for the day was to hike up to Gergeti Trinity Church (AKA Tsminda Sameba). This church is spectacularly situated on a small mountain between Mt. Kazbek and the town of Kazbegi, and it is an unofficial symbol of Georgia. I set off walking from the square in the center of town down a road, across a river, and through the village of Gergeti. From Gergeti, I left the road and followed a very steep trail up the mountain. The view got better the higher I got, but I was also breathing very heavily. It had been a year since I’d climbed any mountains or been higher in elevation than a couple thousand feet. I arrived at the top of the small mountain and the church after about 45 minutes of hiking—not bad, considering it takes most people 1.5–3 hours. It was nice to know that I still have at least some of my former mountaineering prowess left.
The view from the church is another one of those things that I can’t really put into words. It might be the single most beautiful place I’ve ever been. The mountains around were bright green. There were dozens of cows roaming around. The view down into Kazbegi and across the valley to the 4000-meter peaks on the other side was breathtaking. Gergeti Trinity Chruch itself, however, is rather unspectacular as far as Georgian churches go. Dating from the 14th century, it’s far older than any other structure still used in the United States, but here it’s just another beautiful old church in a country that is overflowing with beautiful old churches.
I had a picnic lunch there at the church and then walked around the surrounding mountainside taking pictures. Mt. Kazbek was unfortunately still covered in clouds, but the mountains in the other directions were not. I stayed up there for as long as I could, just taking it all in, before hiking back down to Kazbegi. I ended up having to wait for two hours for the next marshrutka to Tbilisi, but I eventually made it back home.
Enough words. These photos should speak for themselves, but know that they, like all photos, fail to capture the true beauty of the place.
The rest of the photos here were all taken from the marshrutka on the ride back to Tbilisi. It’s hard to get good photos on a phone from a moving vehicle when you’re not sitting next to a window. These are the best I could do.