Step into the Fairy Tale: On the Northern Border

Just as the flat, dry plains of Khakheti start to ripple into the northern mountains of the Caucasus, there is a little string of towns in the Pankisi Gorge that look different than the rest of Georgia.  Suddenly there are no grape arbors and no pigs wandering the lanes…the omnipresent churches disappear.  For the past 200 years, this area has been a settlement for Chechens, seeing as the border with Chechnya is only a few kilometers north.  It became a home for many refugees and their families during the conflict…and it remains probably the safest place in the world to experience Chechen culture.  Of course, we had to go.

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We hopped off the little bus across the street from the pretty little mosque in Duisi.  From the little I could read on the internet, I knew this was the main community of Georgian Chechens and there is even an active group of female Sufis, all grandmothers, who practice their traditional ecstatic ceremonies every Friday.  Well, it was Sunday, but the leader of that group just happened to be sitting on the benches in front of the mosque and greeted us warmly.  Walking through the village, every single person, young and old, greeted us in the same way.  Every. Single. One.  Then, we stopped in one yard to see all the handmade hats that were sitting in the sun drying…which ended with a neighbor woman, her son and nephew inviting us in for coffee, food, a piano performance, and friendship.  For two and a half hours, we sat with them, learning about their lives, about the new English school where the boys learn, about Sunni tradition in the Chechen style.  When we left, they gave us gifts of homemade plum sauce and spices…and hugs and a whole new concept of what “Chechen” means, a happy ending beyond the bad news.

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Back on the road, we got to Akhmeda and asked about buses or the road to our next destination.  And everyone looked at us like we were crazy…but just started pointing to the west.  At the edge of town, we sat a long while without seeing any cars and the ones that did pass kept shaking their heads at us.  Finally, a car with Russian plates stopped and picked us up.  They were another young couple from Saint Petersburg, spending two weeks driving around Georgia on their holiday.  And we were all about to learn why people kept giving us crazy looks.  The “highway” clearly marked on the map and on their GPS?  Ya…that is a single lane rocky track that winds for 60-some kilometers through the first wall of mountains as we cross into Mtskheta province.  It was a wild ride, but we did find an abandoned fortress church and several gorgeous valleys hidden away from the world up there.

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At long last, we arrived at the Georgian Military Highway, where we turned north for a few more kilometers to reach Ananuri.  We treated our drivers to dinner and wine for the superb job on the impossible road all afternoon.  We parted ways and Sangbyeong and I walked below the hulking form of Ananuri Fortress to camp wild along the banks of the Zhinvali Reservoir.  In the morning, we discovered that the resident pack of stray dogs had adopted us and were sleeping around our tent, keeping watch.  We waited until we heard the church bell tolling, calling the locals to prayer, then headed up to look around ourselves.  The fortress was built by a paranoid and vicious ruler who gouged out the eyes of his own brother, but the location has kept it well preserved over time and one can easily imagine heroes and villains populating its towers.

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As the stalls selling handicrafts and snacks in front fo the fortress opened for the day, we were offered a place in a marshrutka heading to Kazbegi, our intended destination.  And the driver meant ‘a’ place…so Sangbyeong had to ride in the back with the luggage, but, consequently, he had the best views in the mountain passes to come.  Jvari Pass, in particular, is on the spine of the Caucasus that is the traditional separation of Europe and Asia and was marked with a funky painted overlook structure that stared down into impossibly green valleys through the light drizzle.

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Not long after, we take another wide curve between the teeth of two mountains, and there is Kazbegi.  The town is officially called Stephantsminda, but everyone just calls it by its older name, which is takes from impressive Mount Kazbeg that looms in the background.  This village and its neighboring Gergeti are cupped by sheer mountainsides in every direction, the lower areas lush from the nearly constant rainfall and the higher climes a stark black and brown stone.  Clouds form right overhead (and sometimes right around you) in the mornings and evenings, shrouding the surrounding peaks and casting a surreal, diffused light over the winding streets.  We found the quirkily named HQ of Nova Sujashvili guesthouse and checked into the dorm room which has commanding views of Kazbeg, before setting off to explore.

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The next morning, we ate the homecooked breakfast of the hostel owner, Nana, before heading up to climb to the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church.  It is a symbol of Georgia itself, this church perched high on a rocky outcrop, with the snowy slopes of Kazbeg framing it to the northwest.  There are many pathways up, so we chose the longer route up, with the plan of coming down the shorter, steeper way.  First, we cut through Gergeti village, where smiling residents point the way.  Next, we wove through a fairy tale woods…red toadstools, flawless flowers, the sound of the rushing river, mysterious cottages hidden in the trees…it all added to the magic.

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And then you come over the final rise and the church is there, across a wide green valley, more sublime than any photo can capture.  Covered in a fine patina of red and gold lichen, this church has been the safe house of many Georgian religious treasures.  Whenever invaders came or conflicts broke out, monks would travel with their monastery’s relics to this church in its protected location.  It is said that Christ’s manger, Abraham’s tent, and the bones of a hundred saints have passed through its doors.  Inside, the church is dim and infused with the scent of incense and the glow of its gold icons in the candlelight.  No photos allowed.  We spent an hour at the top before heading back to the village down the steep path.

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The last thing I wished for was a really clear view of the mountain…our entire stay it had been partly or totally covered in the constant sea of clouds.  On our last morning, I popped awake early after a night of violent storms…and Kazbeg stared down at me through the window.  Alone, I hopped out of bed and half ran through the village to the clearings for animal pasture, where I had an unimpeded view of the new snow cover glimmering in the sunlight.  According to the mythology, this is the mountain that Prometheus was chained to for his punishment…its rocks and snows witness to legend.  I can believe it.

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Thirty minutes later, as if it had said its goodbye too, it was back under the clouds as we rode away from town, headed back to the capitol.

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