There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Stepantsminda (Kazbegi) and Tsminda Sameba: Part 9 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

In the morning we left Gudauri and joined the trucks grinding their way up the Jvari (Holy Cross) Pass, named after the cross placed at the top by King David the Builder, the 12th century king who united Georgia and did so much to build a national consciousness.

Morning in Gudauri

On the way we stopped at a semi-circular cod historic painting.
Semi-circular cod historic painting, southern side of Jvari Pass
A regrettable relic of Soviet times, it does little to enhance the natural panorama of the deep valley of the Aragvi. We had been following the Aragvi since Mtskheta but now the pass was taking us into valley of the River Tergi. We were crossing a watershed of sorts, because although both rivers eventually flow into the Caspian Sea, the Aragvi flows south from the Caucasus through Georgia and Azerbaijan, while the Tergi flows north into Russia (where it is called the Terek) and passes through Ingushetia and Chechnya on its way to the sea.
The Aragvi Valley

The top of the pass is interesting, but we had a busy morning ahead and left that for later.

In the next hour and a half we saw two or three villages where rare areas of flat land had allowed settlements to develop. Eventually we dropped down to the small town of Stepantsminda which sits at 1750m (5710ft) in the Tergi valley 15km south of the Russian border. It is undoubtedly a beautiful spot, but it is so isolated you wonder why enough people to fill a small town chose to live here .

Our Journey through Azerbaijan and Georgia

Stepantsminda (St Stephens) was called Kazbegi from 1925-2006 after a feudal chief who sided with the Russians during Georgian revolts in the early 19th century.  Presumably it was his loyalty to Russia rather than to the Tsar that influenced the Soviet decision to rename the town. The name ‘Kazbegi’ is still in general use, not I suspect out of respect for the Soviet Union or nostalgia for a clan of long-vanished warlords, but because of Mt Kazbek, the snow-capped rocky giant, whose 5047m (16,516ft) bulk towers above the town and is quite difficult to ignore. Often in mist, the summit was, briefly, visible from the square.

Mt Kazbek from the main square, Stepantsminda
Mt Kazbek was the mountain to which the Titan Prometheus was chained as a punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving the secret to mortal men. Various hermits and holy men have added to the mountain’s legend. If you know which cave to look in you can find Christ's manger and Abraham's tent (perhaps it should be reunited with his cooking pot which we saw in the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul).

Reaching the summit is (I read) an arduous though not technically difficult three day climb. Dinara has been there - it involved crampons and ropes - so I made a note to do that next time we were here, and in the meantime we psyched ourselves up for a gentler challenge.

The 14th century Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity) Church was built on a bare hilltop 430m above Stepantsminda in the shadow of Mt Kazbek. The church and its bell tower can be seen in the picture of Mt Kazbek above, on top of the ridge above the town. Building a church up there requires determination and bloody-mindedness, which along with hospitality make up the three most obvious traits in the Georgian national character. In times of trouble the treasures of Mskheta Cathedral and even St Nino's Cross found their way to Tsminda Sameba.

In Soviet times a cable car was built to take tourists from Stepantsminda to the church. This was unpopular with the locals – it is not the Georgian way of doing things. The cable car no longer exists - had it been running we might not have had the determination to walk there, and that would have been a shame.

We set off through Gergeti
Alex drove us to Gergeti, which could be called a suburb of Kazbegi, or an adjacent village, at the foot of the hill. From there Dinara led the way on paths between the fields. There are two routes to Tsminda Sameba, one goes straight up the side of the hill, the other zigzags along a rough road. After a look at the steep path we chose the road, a longer but easier route, the 430m climb being accomplished in 5km of walking.

Lynne toils upwards from Gergeti to the road...
The road is passable by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Locals operate taxis and the drivers have vehemently opposed upgrading the road - if any car could drive up there they would have no business. As we plodded upwards a couple of taxis stopped to see if there was any trade, one driver being unnecessarily rude about our determination to walk. A few tourist vehicles went past and a kind local offered a lift.

...and then up the road to Tsminda Sameba

The path was not steep, but it did go relentlessly upwards. The temperature was in the high twenties, but we were shaded by trees through which we caught occasional glimpses of Mt Kazbek, though the summit had speared a patch of cloud and had no intention of releasing it.

Mt Kazbek disappears into the clouds
I asked Dinara how far Tsiminda Sameba was about the tree line, I did not fancy climbing in the full glare of the sun. ‘The trees go almost to the end,’ she said reassuringly.
Lynne and Dinara pause for breath on the road to Tsminda Sameba
After an hour and twenty minutes Lynne was looking at her watch and deciding she could take another twenty minutes but no more. I was expecting to emerge from the woods and see the church perched high above us for the sort of sting in the tail so beloved of some of my walking companions at home (I mean you, Francis).

Suddenly we popped out of the trees and there, four hundred metres away across a grassy meadow, and a little below us, was Tsminda Sameba. Lynne was elated, I felt slightly cheated of the sting in the tail (and if I also felt a little relieved I said nothing). The cloud on top of Mt Kazbek had now gathered some friends and we finished the first half of the walk in cool and overcast conditions. There were even a few spots of rain, though not enough to make us break out our waterproofs.

Lynne is elated
Tsminda Sameba (the dismantled cable car station is below the bell tower)
The church stands on a knoll, so in the end there was a stinglet in the tail.

The stinglet in the tale, Tsminda Sameba
Lynne and Dinara picked up the headscarves and wrap-around skirts that can be found at the entrance of all Georgian churches. I was wearing shorts so I put a skirt around my waist, which is the usual procedure. 'Not good enough,' said the young man guarding the church. Dinara asked him nicely and gave him a big smile. Few young men could withstand her precisely calibrated blend of charm and determination; the guardian crumbled immediately. 'Alright,' he said, 'just for a minute or two.' Then he turned away so as not to see my transgression.

The most remarkable thing about Tsminda Sameba is that it is where it is; the contents of the church, a couple of icons and a lot of stone walls, can be more than adequately perused in 'a minute or two.'

Stepansminda and Gergeti
The remarkable thing about Tsminda Sameba is that it is where it is - all the building material had to be hauled up from down there
The carvings on the outside are more interesting, incorporating pagan motifs resembling Celtic or Viking designs....

Carvings Tsimnda Sameba
 The trouble with a walk where the whole outward journey is upwards is that you think you have done all the hard work when you get to the top. Going down was certainly easier, but it still had to be done, required an hour's solid effort and some pain in the knees. I was glad to get back to Gergeti and see Alex parked beside the road.

Dinara leads us back down into Gergeti
He drove us back into Stepanstminda. We had no idea that this tiny mountain town could be hiding an area of post-Soviet industrial dereliction, but leaving the tarmac road at the north end of town that was what we drove through until we reached a large house hemmed in by empty and rusting factories.

The 'house restaurant' was busy - we arrived at the same time as a couple of full minibuses. Everyone else disappeared into a large room while we sat round a small table in the family's living room. Over the next five minutes it was loaded and then overloaded with goodies. There was bread and cheese, salad, aubergine with garlic and walnut paste, aubergine purée, khachapuri and dumplings (rural dumplings, Dinara told us, as the meat was mixed with herbs, unlike yesterday’s urban dumplings). There was far more than four people could eat. Lynne and I made sure we tasted everything, but it would have been a superhuman task to have finished anything. It had to be this way; a table any less laden when have contravened the Georgian rules of hospitality.
A table disappearing under a mountain of food, 'home restaurant' Stepantsminda
Alex (driver) Lynne and Dinara

After lunch we drove north to the Russian border following the spectacular valley of the Tergi which, even in the dry season, is a considerable torrent. In Tsarist times ambitious young Georgians migrating to St Petersburg to be at the heart of Russian intellectual life were said to 'cross the Tergi'. Many of them came home, re-crossed the Tergi and worked for Georgian independence.
The Valley of the Tergi near the Russian border

As we made our way back we stopped at a remarkable piece of geology that we had unaccountably missed on the way up. A sheet of pearly limestone covered a slab of mountainside fifty metres wide and stretching up as far as we could see. The whole surface is covered with running water less than a centimetre deep, continuously depositing more limestone.
A sheet of limestone covered with running water, near Stepantsminda
It looked like wet ice and I expected it to be slippery, but it actually provided a very firm grip for the soles of my trainers. Once I got my head round this distinctly counter-intuitive fact I found I could walk up even the steepest sections without difficulty.

A sheet of limestone covered with running water, near Stepantsminda
Once I had convinced myself it was not slippery walking up it was easy
Over the road is a spring which, it was suggested, was the water forming the limestone, but the limestone was cream and the stones around the spring were stained red. The water tasted strongly of iron, so I suspect that, unlikely as it may have looked, this water was from a different source.

We stopped at the top of the Jvari Pass where a more recent, and rather small, cross has replaced David the Builder’s original.

The top of the Jvari Pass
Nearby are the graves of a group of German soldiers, prisoners of war who died here while working in the Georgian military highway. The inscription (in German, so we could do our own translating) suggested they had been kept working here after the Second World War had finished and after they should have been sent home; the Soviet Union did not always observe the niceties of the Geneva convention.

The graves of German soldiers, Jvari Pass
 Back at Gudauri we really did have the hotel to ourselves this time, and they laid on the usual overlarge meal and another litre of 'homemade wine'. We spent an hour or more chatting with Dinara who is formidably well informed and not just about the things a guide should know. Capable of talking with confidence about subjects as diverse as mountaineering and James Joyce, she was one of the youngest and least experienced guides we have ever had but she was one of the best. She had an excellent command of English and was very quick at picking up on what we wanted. Having graduated from Tbilisi's most elite university with a degree in international relations, she was working as a guide while looking for the right master’s degree course. She wanted to study abroad and had looked at English universities but had been put off by the extraordinary high cost. I could go on at length here about British education policy, the current bout of xenophobia and the growing fantasy that foreigners exist only to take advantage of us. Dinara is the sort of very bright young lady that British universities should be offering scholarships not putting off with exorbitant fees and paranoid bureaucracy.

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