We’re not much of mountain people. Neither Veronica nor I are interested in skiing, we don’t get into home brewing moonshine and nor are we any good at growing beards. So the idea of heading up to the mountains might seem a bit strange. But when researching Georgia, the town of Stepantsminda and the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church kept popping up as one of the things that had to be seen when visiting the country.
Situated only two and a half hours north of Tbilisi in the Caucasus Mountains it’s a slow but increasingly mesmerising drive up the Georgian Military Highway to get there. Kindly, Georgia had also served up another amazing sight en-route, the riverside fortress of Ananuri. Consisting of two 17th-century churches joined by a crenellated wall, the castle complex has the wonderful backdrop of the Jinvali Water Reservoir to partly thank for its allure. In addition to the sublime fresco paintings and stone carvings inside, there are also great views from the towers. Despite its beauty, we didn’t let it delay us too much and were soon continuing our climb back up the winding highway to our destination.
After getting attuned to the questionable driving antics of many of the locals and numerous trucks, due to it being one of the only border crossings between Georgia and Russia, we finally arrived in the town of Stepantsminda. To be honest, the town is scruffy but there’s no denying the beauty of the setting that it’s in.
It took me a while to realise that Stepantsminda and Kazbegi are used interchangeably when describing the general area. Situated in the town are a large number of guesthouses, of varying quality, an equally large number of cafes/restaurants, also of varying quality, some supermarkets, a bank and a petrol station. Pretty much all you need really. What it could probably do with less of, is the large number of taxi touts cajoling tourists to use their services to get up to Gergeti Trinity Church.
I fell in love with the scenery around the Church up on the hill. So much so, that I went and visited it no less than four times in the three days we were there! From the centre of town it takes about 2 hours to hike to the top at 2,170 metres above sea level. Rather than take the forest-route that a lot of people opt for, in my opinion the valley-route is much nicer due to it being less steep and also passing a lovely stone tower. This route is accessible through the town of Gergeti passing Café Gergeti and then walking under the boom gate which prevents access to the car park (you can also park here for 3 GEL, which I did one of the times I went up the mountain). Simply keep the burbling stream on your immediate left which will take you around the stone tower and keep climbing. It’s impossible to get lost, unless your Veronica, in which case attaching a GPS to her might be a wise idea.
If you’re not too keen to hike up, then you can also take a taxi/minivan thing where the driver careens at breakneck speed up the mountain charging 50 GEL (close to NZ$30) for the pleasure of risking your life. The first option of trekking up to the hill is definitely much less hair raising, but just as likely to raise your heart beat to insane levels given the steepness of the climb. Take your pick.
Regardless of how one arrives, it is best to get up early to avoid the hundreds of other people wanting to see this beautiful sight. The other thing you need to do, is to be prepared to head up at a moment’s notice as the weather is extremely fickle. The entire three days we were there it rained, but we had one brief spell where the weather first thing in the morning was reasonably clear, enabling some OK photos to be taken.
Make sure you allocate at least an hour to take photos and visit the church (trousers for men, hair covered for woman), as you’ll forever be finding another angle from which the scenery just looks that teensy weeny bit better!
Sometimes you also need to look behind you to make sure you’re not missing out on anything special. In this case, all the good weather happened to be over Mount Kazbegi, 180 degrees in the opposite direction from where Gergeti Trinity Church was.
Just up the road, a different perspective may even provide better views.
It certainly isn’t a bad place to wake up to first thing in the morning.
On the opposite hill from the church, beside the car park, is a lonely track heading almost at right angles upwards. This intrigued me as to where it might head and I planned to get on that trail and find out. The answer, after about 50 minutes of running/fast trekking and scrambling, was towards Gergeti Glacier and somewhere in the direction of the 5,047 metre high Mount Kazbegi. I only made it to 2,950 metres (7.7 km return with 700 metres of elevation gain in 1 hour 20 mins) but lacking proper equipment and knowing my limitations in alpine conditions, decided that that this would be enough for one day.
Taking advantage of a couple of other hikers, I had a quick photo op and then bombed down the mountain in similar fashion to the taxi drivers do the GTC (Gergeti Trinity Church) run scaring the other folk on the trails along the way. Now that’s my idea of fun!
While the rain was still coming down, I was keen to visit another natural feature in the area, the Gveleti Waterfalls. This is a short drive of about 6km up the Georgian Militiary Highway from Stapantsminda towards the Russian Border which is only about a further 5km from the destiation, On the way you’ll pass some lovely scenery as you travel alongside the raging River Terek and go through quite a scary tunnel with no lights on. With numerous potholes and tons of trucks you certainly want to be paying attention.
Google Maps isn’t too great at locating the Waterfalls and especially the turnoff which is just after the bridge over the River Tibistskali. There’s also a sign for Gveleti with a line through it which means you’ve come a bit too far (and from there a bridge over the River Terek and tunnel up ahead which takes you closer to Mother Russia). I ended up parking just before the bridge and walked back to find the turnoff and from there it’s probably a 750 metre walk to the Small Gveleti Waterfall.
Having seen the small waterfall, simply double back on yourself and look out for the sign pointing to the left to the big waterfall which takes you over a small footbridge.
After the river crossing it’s probably another 400 metres or so to the Big Waterfall. The rocks are pretty slippery and there’s a bit of scrambling but nothing too hard that should prevent anyone from getting right up to the waterfall. Per usual, it’s all uphill of course! Truth be told, it’s a bit of an effort to get to both waterfalls, of which the big one is the better by far. As waterfalls go they’re OK, but nothing over the top, although on a clearer day I imagine they’d be a lot nicer. In the rain, I’m still glad that I visited.
Despite the weather we managed to get out and about and really enjoy our time in the natural beauty of the area around Stepantsminda. It’s also awakened a desire to do some proper mountain trekking sometime in the future. That’ll all have to wait though, as we’re now headed to the birthplace of the man responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people.