Some of the people traditionally most opposed to the idea that the Caucasus is in Europe were French alpinists. Mount Elbrus is generally now recognised as the highest European mountain, and five other peaks, including three in Georgia, are taller than Mont Blanc, the only mountain from outside the Caucasus range to make the top 10. One of these Georgian giants is Mount Kazbek, which towers above the Terek River valley and a small town called Stepantsminda, commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi.
To reach this region from Tbilisi it’s necessary to take the Georgian Military Highway, whose high passes were the Russian Empire’s overland route into Georgia and Armenia. Charles King’s history of the Caucasus, The Ghost of Freedom, describes postal caravans, heavily militarised and including everyone from diplomats to curious foreign tourists, which formed in Vladikavkaz to take mail south. The poet, Alexander Pushkin, was one visitor who joined such a convoy.
We travelled in the opposite direction, rounding hair-pin bends in a shared taxi, until we left wooded mountains close to Tbilisi and climbed toward the high peaks. The road has a reputation for danger and, even on a dry, clear day during the summer there were breath-taking moments: risky overtaking manoeuvres, herds of cattle wandering across the carriageway and roadworks which reduced its surface to miles of undulating gravel.
Close to Kazbegi we encountered a queue of trucks stretching for some miles, destined for the Russian border a short distance ahead. They had number plates from countries across the former Soviet Union and beyond, but a high proportion seemed to be from Ukraine, and Georgian officials were working their way slowly down the line. Our driver swung his car out into the middle of the road and roared past the lot, on into the town.
In Tbilisi, the image of Gergeti Trinity Church, set against the bulk of Kazbek and its snowy cone, is ubiquitous on postcards, fridge magnets and other tourist tat. It’s impossible, though, for those images to capture the scale of the landscape, viewed in person from Kazbegi.
Anonymous foothills, rising just above the tree-line, were high; more so alpine meadows and craggy peaks. The church sat on a promontory of mountain grass and scree, far above Gergeti village, which itself looked down a steep hillside toward Kazbegi, in the distance. And Kazbek, beyond yet more layers of climbing highlands, loured behind cloud, impossibly high, sometimes silhouetted against the sun and sometimes invisible beyond a long tongue of dirty white glacier.
The most popular excursion from Stepantsminda is to Gergeti Church. It’s a 6km trek up steep paths and a rutted jeep track, although many people prefer to roar past walkers at high speed in an endless stream of Lada Nivas. When we set out, the church was obscured entirely but, as we climbed, the cloud lifted and its movement throughout the day meant the views were constantly changing.
Georgia’s Orthodox tradition shares with other branches of eastern Christianity a love of building churches in remote and inaccessible locations. At 2,210 metres above sea level, Tsminda Sameba, or Holy Trinity, is the archetypal example. Perhaps the idea of constructing religious buildings in such high, difficult places was so monks and priests would be closer to God, or maybe it was for more practical, defensive reasons. Supposedly holy relics were taken to the 14th century church at Gergeti for safe-keeping, at times of extreme danger to Georgia.
Just across a dipping meadow behind the complex, lies a ridge leading up toward Kazbek’s glacier and, eventually, its peak. Greek myth says that Prometheus, who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, was chained to a mountain in the Caucasus range, as punishment. The story echoes a Georgian legend about Amirani, who was imprisoned on Kazbek after challenging God. Georgia’s tourist board (among others) are adamant that Kazbek is therefore the mountain of Prometheus. There is a tradition among Georgians that the peak is holy and its snowy cone is a perfect setting for the myth.
The path along the ridge provided some solitude after crowds of walkers we’d encountered on the way to Gergeti Church. We trekked much further than initially planned, past the high pastures and almost to the bottom of the glacier, which lay just beyond another outcrop and the noisy rush of a mountain stream. Almost 3,000 metres above sea level, the climb was getting difficult and Holy Trinity lay far below, while Kazbegi was tiny, 20 kilometres in the distance.
It took several more hours before we made it back to the town’s main square, named after its celebrated resident, the Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi. We drank a well-deserved beer beneath his statue, in early evening mizzle.
Stepantsminda’s fortunes declined and then recovered again, after the USSR’s collapse. The streets sloping down toward the Terek River were still filled with abandoned houses and disused sanatoria, dating from the town’s heyday as a Soviet retreat, but new businesses were opening and we stayed in a stylish hotel, dominating one side of the valley. There were a clutch of restaurants and bars around the main square, as well as the usual assortment of small-town, post-Soviet mini-marts, one strangely called ‘Google Supermarket’ and (probably) infringing copyright by using the tech giant’s logo!
The town is a few miles from the Russian border and many of its visitors were from Russia, yet there were still hints of Georgia’s recent politics. One night we ate in an otherwise friendly and exceptionally jolly bar, packed with Israelis and Russians, which displayed a Banderite, Ukrainian nationalist symbol. There were other similar curiosities around culture and language.
Of course Stepantsminda's history is bound closely to its northern neighbour. The Alexander Kazbegi museum draws upon the author’s life, which took him to Moscow and St Petersburg, before he wrote a novel, The Patricide, about a bandit called Koba. The Georgian Bolshevik Iosif Jugashvili, later known to the world as Josef Stalin, adopted the name as his revolutionary pseudonym.
The lore and identity of the Caucasus is famously shaped by its highlands and its highlanders. This wild southern borderland is a fixture in the Russian imagination as well, infusing the literary works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and others. No trip to Georgia would be complete without visiting the mountains and Kazbegi is a spectacularly evocative destination in the High Caucasus.
In Tbilisi take the metro to Dedubi Plaza where there is a bus-station. Marshrutki and shared taxis leave for Kazbegi from here.
The Rooms Hotel Kazbegi is its only international standard accommodation, though there are plenty of B & Bs.
Shared taxis and marshrutki back to Tbilisi leave from Alexander Kazbegi Square. A tai should cost 80 lari, otherwise you may be getting ripped off.