Note: this ‘classic text’ is the original long version of a text that was watered down for a short article (here), describing a trip to the mountains of Georgia in the eventful fall of 2004. This classic text was written then, and appears now for the first time here. It was a totally new part of the country for me, which probably accounts for the detailed nature of the piece. It was also a beautiful day.
The snow will start falling in just a few weeks, but for now everything in Georgia’s northern mountain region of Kazbegi is drenched in sunlight. The air here, at around two and a half thousand meters above sea level, is so clear as to be almost intoxicating. Just over the little stone wall where the three ruddy young men are pitching hay for winter, Vano the farmer informs me that tomorrow will be dog fighting day in the village of Kobi.
“It’s beautiful here,” he grins, “but there’s not so much to do for entertainment. So we put money down and bet that ‘my dog is better than your dog.’ And then we beat them until they fight each other. The one who survives is the winner.”
Vano’s comrade, Giorgi, mildly discloses that the sport can have unintended side effects. Once, he recalls, a man was bitten by one of the combatants and died when the doctor’s shot failed to work. He had had to go for medical help to the Russian town of Vladikavkaz, just north of here, because it is too far south to his own country’s capital, Tbilisi. In winter, the Kazbegi villages and the road south through the mountains are almost completely snowed under. The villagers here are a pretty tough bunch.
This road, which connects Tbilisi with Russia, is known as the Georgian Military Highway. Throughout history, it has been a strategic route for various conquerors and dueling armies. Considering the proximity of modern conflicts, one might expect that Kazbegi – wedged as it is between Chechnya and North and South Ossetia – might be a volatile region. The reality is exactly opposite. The largely unpopulated swathes of mountains and glacial lakes, dotted with tiny villages and flecked with grazing sheep, make for an oasis of tranquility in a sometimes turbulent neighborhood.
This is not to say that getting there is easy. My guide, agronomist-turned-interpreter Tariel Tabashidze, has brought me there with the help of his brother, Avtandil and his 13 year-old beaten-up white Lada Niva. “This is the very car we rented out to the BBC reporter Andrew Harding, so he could visit Chechnya ten years ago,” he says proudly. “And we’re going to need it today, believe me.” The stoic Avtandil just nods in agreement.
Indeed, on the first stretch of highway after Tbilisi, the highway is spacious and well-paved. An enormous sign stretching across the road – courtesy of the new president – urges anyone who feels their rights have been violated by the police to call a hotline number.
As the mountains rise, however, the highway gradually diminishes, giving way to crater-sized potholes and deep cracks. Further up, at the snaking Jvari Pass (or, “Pass of the Cross”), the road gives up completely, disintegrating into rock and dirt. The stones fly and clank against the body of our tough Russian workhorse, and the road disappears in clouds of dust. This is where the region of Kazbegi – known cumulatively as Khevi – begins. The area is perfect for avalanches and falling rocks. It also has many tunnels dug into the side of the mountain, for when the heavy Caucasus snows defeat the highway completely. These tunnels would be more useful, I learn, if only wandering cows did not fall asleep inside them.
After the Jvari Pass, the landscape becomes more and more barren as the trees thin out, leaving behind mountainsides of burnt gold. “What’s that?” I yell, through the wind and roar of the engine, pointing at a strange development in the hillside to the left. “Uh huh!” says Tariel. “Let’s stop.”
What we find is water cascading in thin sheets down a bubbling rock face, strangely yellow and hard, its surface shot through with tiny serrations like a medieval knight’s chain mail. It could have been from Mars, for all I knew.
“This rock is full of too much iron,” Tariel informs me. “Now come over here”- he points to a little enclosure on the other side of the road – and bring your bottle.”
Over there, a little spring coming from under the road is channeled through a tap, and soon I am drinking this rust-colored water with too much iron. It has a very strange taste, not like sulfur, but rather remarkably sweet.
Above this miraculous little spring at the top of the world sits an old woman knitting a thick white Kazbegi hat. Laid out next to her are colorful traditional hats, baby-sized socks, old apples, candles and candies made from grapes. She must be from one of the villages, though there aren’t any in sight. I buy one of the hats for not very much money, It is circular and comes down straight over the ears and it’s covered with crosses (Georgia was the second country to accept Christianity, after Armenia).
“Here you find snow that never melts,” says Tariel reverently, pointing to clefts in the mountainside where slivers of white stubbornly persist. “Even in the summer sun, the snow stays frozen to the rock. Maybe it’s part of the rock now.”
My guide is happy today, because I’ve given him the first excuse to come back to these mountains in six years. He remembers them fondly, as every Georgian does (the national beer is also named after Kazbegi), but is sad to see that the village life is ebbing. “I remember before that the villages used to be bigger, with more life and shops. Now we can’t even find a restaurant open,” Tariel sighs.
Indeed, as we get closer to Kazbegi town and Russia beyond the road gently drops into a valley clustered with little villages. But things are not completely depressing – as I find with a group of laughing children, happily confused at the sight of us. Compared with the modern world’s lethargic, uninterested kids seeking only to play video games and watch TV, these children of the mountains seem more full of life, more innocent, in general, happier. Seeing them is like going back in time, to a simpler and more natural way of life that is all but forgotten in our hectic modern world.
Further on, we notice an unusual sort of shop – a literal hole in the wall, with a window full of outdated Russian goods, reading ‘Magazia’ in colorful Georgian script. I ask them to stop.
“Watch out!” says 70 year-old Makhvala Sargishvili, sitting inside this kiosk of sorts. “My dog is very bad, you must not go there.” From somewhere behind we hear growling. I decide it’s better to leave it at getting a snack. They’re out of chocolate.
“Life is not so bad here, but not so good, either,” Makhvala informs us. “Ever since the Russians closed the border, I am not able to buy my goods.”
What the old woman is referring to, we find, has been causing a real dilemma for the locals of the area. The Russian reaction to the Beslan tragedy was to shut the nearby border for “security reasons” – meaning that Georgian farmers could not export their produce, and that local shops could not import their wares. Owing to its proximity to Russia, the Kazbegi region has always had a stronger day-to-day connection to the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz than to Tbilisi. The dilapidated kiosks along the road feature mainly Russian products.
Although the border closure has affected everyone, I find that the people suffering most are not even from here. Just as the Beslan crisis was breaking, 25 Armenian bus travelers were stranded on the Georgian side of the border, which is where they remained. Now, they are forced to wash in the adjacent river and sleep sitting up inside an overcrowded bus. The unhappy group includes old ladies, young mothers and small children who should be in school now.
“We feel like animals,” complains Isak Ogosian, the group’s bearded spokesman. “We have been stuck here for 32 days. Despite our pleas, nobody helps us.”
With little remaining money and supplies, the Armenians subsist only with a little help from local Georgians. While Georgian media had paid them a visit early on in the saga, nothing substantial had been done to ameliorate their situation. The mountain chasms falling into the river – in any other situation, hopelessly breathtaking – had become a sort of prison.
The late afternoon sun reflecting from the mountain gorge is spectacular, but few here are able to enjoy it. A girl tries to sleep in the rusty old bus, while one old woman prepares some variety of borscht in a metal pan. A little boy kicks one of the many crushed cans littering the ground, as if it were a football. Off to one side, a dark-haired teenager snoring in a sleeping bag appears to be in a sleeping competition with a mangy, dozing dog opposite him. When the group can’t get the boy to wake up, Isak bows and forms the shape of a cross on his back with some grass, sending the rest of the people into hysterics. It’s a rare uproarious moment for a powerless group of forgotten travelers. But with nowhere to go and not enough money to go back, it looks like they are going to have to sit and wait until Putin decides to open the border again – which might be in one day, or one month.
And so, it’s with a little sadness that we leave the Armenians, trapped in paradise as another warm autumn day slowly turns into another crisp mountain evening. Leaving the border, we head back towards Kazbegi town, tracing the route of the Tergi River. As we drive, long shadows spread stealthily through the folds of the Dariali Gorge, named long ago by the Persians as the ‘Dar-i-Alan,’ or, ‘Gate of the Alans,’ as the ancient ancestors of today’s Ossetians were known.
The beauty of the mountains in the fading glow of sunlight lifts my spirits somewhat, as we roll into Kazbegi town. Up here, autumn has come early and the sidewalks are filled with fallen leaves of bronze and orange, in the embrace of lofty trees and besides elegant old houses. Townspeople gather around the two or three kiosks standing next to a man selling apples that overflow from the back of an old Russian car. Dried fish hang in the sun. In solitary splendor off in the distance stands the region’s seminal landmark – the snow-covered Mt. Kazbek, at 5,047 meters one of the highest in the Caucasus – and before it, the sublime mountaintop church of Tsminda Sameba. In previous centuries, this unassailable church would become the temporary repository of Georgia’s most sacred religious treasures from Tbilisi and the low lying areas, whenever foreign invasions threatened.
Like all civilizations with a vast history (Georgia’s goes back 3,500 years), Georgia has an ancient tradition of myths. Mt. Kazbek, actually an extinct volcano that erupted out of the shifting Caucasus mountain plates, has been immortalized as the place where the legendary Georgian hero Amirani was imprisoned: just like the Greek hero Prometheus, Amirani stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. Later on, with the arrival of Christianity in the 4th century, the magical associations expanded. Probably because no one had ever climbed to its top, Kazbek was said to contain the manger of Jesus, the tent of Abraham, and a golden cradle rocked by a dove of blinding purity. Since Kazbek was venerated for these spiritual associations, it was forbidden to climb it. The first people to transgress this rule were the celebrated British team of Freshfield, Tucker and Moore in 1868. Nowadays, many climbers, both local and foreign, tackle the snow-peaked old volcano every year.
As we roll back down to Tbilisi through the clouds and tight mountain defiles, I feel an enormous sense of contentment. We’re on the verge of yet another spectacular Caucasus sunset and, surveying the hills and valleys below, through fresh gusts of wind, from the edge of a clifftop mosaic monument to Georgia’s national heroes, I’m starting to understand why the Georgians are so proud of their country and their heritage. Even despite the generally poor economic situation and turbulent recent history, this pride is clearly evident.