Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Feeding a Mountain Soul in Kazbegi


I hope taking so long to write this post has built the suspense up for my dear 30-ish readers, so without further ado, here is an account of my adventures in Kazbegi, Georgia.

Kazbegi from above
I have always been of two souls- half city and half mountains. There is something that just feels so right with me being in the mountains, living slow and natural and honest, but it also scares me thinking that I wouldn't be able to access everything I'm used to, especially after last summer in DC, going to school in Charlottesville (fairly big city), and now living in St. Petersburg. I guess it's something I'll have to consider more as I get closer to graduation, but of course there are more jobs to be found in the big city. I think living so long in Yorktown where I so often felt hopeless and trapped in the suburbs without the "urb" has scared me away from being able to just relax and melt into a life in the countryside. The good news is that Georgia is about the size of South Carolina! It's quite easy to travel even from one end of the country to the other so you can go from Tbilisi into the mountains in less than 3 hours by marshrutka as Kaley and I did!

It's difficult to explain Kazbegi, impossible to do it justice, but I'll try. From hot mid/high-80 degree Tbilisi, we drove the bumpy road north. I was squeezed between a young Belorussian girl going to visit friends and a Georgian priest who talked on his cell phone half the trip. It rained on and off, and my head was higher than the windows, but I contorted my back and neck so I could see out the windows occasionally to catch glimpses of high, winding mountain roads and snow capped mountains. During the trip I re-read the beginning of Mikhail Lermontov's "Hero of Our Time"- one of my favorite novels and a big part of the reason I love the Caucasus so much. It was mind blowing to read descriptions of the very same mountains I was climbing- then in an ox-drawn carriage, now in a rickety mini-bus, but both stunned by the towering peaks and intrigued by the foreignness of the people, language, and customs.
We found the marshrutka in Didube (see my previous Georgia post for a detailed description), Tbilisi's transportation hub, in the morning and came back in the evening for the journey. When we first scoped it out in the a.m. we met a man who gave us a business card for a guesthouse in Kazbegi run by his brother. I politely pocketed the card and forgot about it, since we already had a Lonely Planet-advised game plan for finding a guesthouse. When we returned to Didube later, the man found us again and said his brother would meet us off the marshrutka. This time we had to forcefully decline. I finally conceded to call him if we had any trouble finding our planned guesthouse, that he would be our backup plan. Turns out his persistence led to one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
When we arrived in Kazbegi, we hopped off the marshrutka into a light drizzle and much colder air than in the lowlands of the capital. Waiting for us there was, of course, the brother whom we had told not to come. I am certain my Russian had been clear and firm on the point that this hostel was not our first choice, but these guys didn't let up! We managed to bargain the cost down to 15 lari (about $9- which we later learned was the lowest price they had ever taken in travelers for!) a night including breakfast. The weather was getting worse, he had a new, clean Jeep standing by, and the Belarussian girl intimated that we wouldn't find a better price in town, so we finally agreed and let ourselves be swept off to the guesthouse. I will spare you the details of the house and the people, honestly, it kills me not to describe you ever blade of grass as is embedded in my memory, but I know my reader better than that and I doubt half of you even made it this far, so I'll get to the juicy bits.
The reason this was such a stunning experience is two fold: firstly, the backdrop was straight out of a fairytale. Warm days, cool nights, an idyllic town full of horses, goats, sheep, and herding dogs nestled in the cradle of the mighty Caucasus the way a cracked egg sits in the nest of gooey bread and cheese in an Adjarian khachapuri. Secondly, the people were and are phenomenal. Every person we met, without exception, opened their homes and hearts to us. Everyone wanted to feed us and talk to us and just communicate. In such a small, insulated town there is not much to do other than "guesting" and having foreigners, especially outside the tourist season as we were, was an exciting event. This was proven on the first night when a steady stream of neighbors, cousins (they all seemed to be related somehow), and friends dropped in to either talk to us if they knew some Russian or more likely just sit on the couch across from us and stare with a nervous smile as Kaley and I scarfed down a delicious dinner. Our hosts, Nata and Mito, treated us not like hotel guests but like family staying from out of town. We had our own section of the three-building complex with our rooms and a bathroom, but the living room and kitchen were shared with the family. They have two sons and several other children who frequent the house, the most adorable puppy in the world, Nagaz, 40-ish sheep, and a horse. Nata makes fresh bread and gets butter from her neighbor, she wishes they would buy a cow because a cow is a sign of a good household, she teaches Georgian at the local school as well as running the guesthouse. She was so patient with Kaley and I as we stuttered out Georgian phrases, and we were able to converse comfortably in Russian. The people in that community were overflowing with warmth and light and kindness. They interest in us was genuine, not just surface curiosity, and made us feel so welcomed and wanted I can still feel the imprint of their love on me.
We had 3 days packed with adventure, so here's a breakdown of the events:

Day 1: Arrive to Kazbegi, eat bread and butter and cheese and tomatoes and cucumbers until we're sick, get to know Nata, watch Georgian television, practice English with David (Nata's oldest son), and get carefully inspected by about 10 neighbors.

Yard of the Guesthouse

Day 2: Hike to Gergeti Monastery (meet a gang of motorcyclists who are traveling around the world- of course the Georgian of the group invites us to travel a bit with them and we politely decline), make the 2.5 hour hike up the long way through foot-deep mud, pastures, and a graveyard. This trip also saw the birth of our slogan "If cows can do it, we can do it!" because as we huffed and puffed up the mountain we saw cows grazing nonchalantly and their patties marked even the steepest sections of trail, so those mountain cows became our inspiration. In the afternoon, discover Nagaz and love him silly, then convince David and his cousin David to give us a ride on their horses. Unfortunately, our David's horse was grazing somewhere in the mountains unknown to him at the time, so we rented another horse from another friend/cousin (I forget exactly how much, but really cheap), and the two David's took us up to a recently built quaint church called Ilya where most locals go to worship. We laid in the open, grassy fields for a while, before galloping back down the mountain!
Cows doing it

Reached Gergeti!

Day 3: Mito drives us to the small small village of Juta (60 people), from which we hike the Sno Valley. We hike three hours in one direction, through the valley and towards the foot of an old volcano which is all covered in ice, then turn back and hike the other direction for about an hour and a half where we get less than a kilometer from the Russian border with Ingushetia! I SO regret that we didn't have our passports with us, otherwise we would have crossed the border and back over for a little mini-trip and passport-stamp gathering adventure. Next time I'll come prepared. After hiking we come back to Kazbegi, where we discover "Google Market" and some of the town. A veritable feast awaits us at Nata and Mito's and we chow down on bean stew, khachapuri, veggies, and Georgian homemade vodka "cha cha". After dinner, a cousin invites us to take one last horseback ride through the mountains at sunset. My heart nearly breaks at such a beautiful moment. So many emotions flood our minds as we do our utmost to stay up late and squeeze the last drops out of Kazbegi despite being exhausted after the last two days of hiking.

Mito wanted a "fotki-motki" before the Sno Valley hike

Ice cascade
(I was at the bottom of it, but it's kind of an optical illusion, looks like it goes up and down, doesn't it?) 

I was not impressed by the sudden hail storm

That's the Russian border station

Market Google
Amazing feast

Day 4: We say goodbye to everyone (especially the ball of sunshine Nagaz), strap on our giant backpacks, and head towards the city center to catch a marshrutka. A van pulls up next to us almost immediately, driving is one of the cousins who we only briefly met, but he offers us a ride to the center and we accept. The ride is silent except for soft strains of pop music on the radio as our friendly driver doesn't speak Russian or English, but the kindness he afforded us was enough to fill the space between us. We leave.

Nagaz being adorable
I left Kazbegi with a heavy heart. It was physically painful to leave that place, that magical, suspended realm between the harsh reality of my life in America and the hurried confusion of my life in St. Petersburg...I feel there is still so much to learn from those mountains and I know that one day I'll uncover more of their secrets.

PS- Don't forget to check my Facebook in the album "If Cows Can Do It, We Can Do It" (now the title makes sense, right?) for all my Georgia pictures!

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