Georgia (II) – The Church in the Clouds (Kazbegi)

And Then The Clouds Parted / Wednesday 4th April 2018

I woke up on this first morning at Kazbegi well before the 6.30AM sunrise. It looked very cloudy and the mountains could barely be seen. I popped out onto the balcony – very cold, so I lolled in bed waiting for the sun to come up and hoped for the clouds to clear. By this time Shobs was up too, and wrapped in dressing gowns, we waited.

The light was slowly changing, the clouds a grey-indigo, and it seemed like the sun was struggling to be seen just behind the peaks.

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As the clouds blew past we caught glimpses of the silhouetted Gergeti Trinity Church which was almost directly in front of us. And then, the clouds suddenly parted, framing the church on the mountaintop, backlit by the rising sun, Mount Kazbegi behind it. It was brilliant and probably lasted all of 5 seconds, maybe less. But for me, this was The Image of the trip – and I was quite sure I wouldn’t get anything more sublime and dramatic all at once…

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It was freezing and I got inside to warm up before going out on the balcony again – don’t know how many  shots I took, experimenting with various white balance settings etc. etc. – most won’t see the light of day. The snow was coming down now, though there was some hint of a blue sky behind the clouds – I wondered how cold it would be going up to the church on the mountain.

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Gergeti Trinity Church

After a big buffet breakfast (which had large chunks of honeycomb on offer…cradle of honey after all), and some snowy photos from the veranda of the hotel, it was time to go.

Given the weather and the fact that it would be a two to three hour trek up, we opted for the 4WD. Our driver was a very serious chap, who didn’t crack a smile even when chatting in Georgian with Nino.

The mountain views as we drove up, seemingly into the clouds, were quite magnificent. We stopped some distance away from the church – the view was spectacular; it seemed like we were above the clouds at some point. Shobs (aka the fit one) decided to walk the last stretch to the church with Nino, while I (already winded by the altitude climbing the stairs at the hotel…at least I’d like to think it was the altitude and not extreme unfitness) opted to go up in the 4WD with the silent, serious driver. When we got to the top, I said my madlobas (thank you), and he grunted, scrunched down in the seat and settled in for a nap. The strong silent type?

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The air was crisply clean and it felt quite salubrious being on that mountain. There still was a bit of a slightly slippery trek up to the church itself. We had to don black tie-around skirts and it was ‘scarfs up’ to enter the chapel. We were in luck – the morning service was going on, with the priest doing a reading in Georgian – the cadence and tone sounded very much like Sanskrit in a Hindu temple; this just strengthened my belief in all of us being more alike than we’d like to think. It was nice and warm in the church, standing next to the heating grille – and I wouldn’t have minded remaining there for a while – it was all so peaceful and good.

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It had stopped snowing earlier, and the sky was a brilliant blue with some very white cotton candy clouds. Nino pointed out our hotel from the ramparts of the church. There was a dog sunning itself on the wall (of the church, not the hotel), and a couple sitting on the edge…a sweaty palm moment for me.

_0ST7275We decided on the 4WD on the way down – just as well, as the track was slushy and we would’ve had to share the narrow slippery track with bumper-to-bumper 4WD traffic. At one point, we were at a standstill – one of the vehicles ahead of us had stopped for one of its passengers to ‘go potty’ in the bushes. Sigh.

We did a proper loo stop once we got down to the village, and changed some money too. It was at the money changers that Shobs noticed I’d torn the sleeve of my jacket. I couldn’t figure out when or how this had happened – till a bit later, when I felt the edges of the tear…the jacket was burnt! It must have happened while I was feeling warm and fuzzy standing next to heater in the church. Yikes! Lucky we left when we did!!

A Walk in the Village & Kazbegi’s Easter Island

It was a nice stroll through Kazbegi village. Most of the little shops seemed to be selling some sort of food and drink, or were rentals for skiing/hiking gear. The church looked tiny again, way up on the mountain. Interestingly, as people in the village walked past the tiny, faraway church they still crossed themselves, some even knelt. One young chap knelt in the middle of the carpark – it took me a couple of seconds to realise why.

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From Kazbegi Village

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We drove a short way out of Kazbegi to a little village called Snos Tskhali – a very little village. One minute we were there and next minute we were not. Besides a lookout fortress built in the 16th century, the main attraction was slightly newer – a field of large sculptured stone heads – of famous Georgian poets and artists. Very Easter Island-ish.


The Perfect Khinkhali Has 17 Folds

Lunch today was at the home of a local Kazbegi-an. It turned out to be our strong, silent driver’s home! We had to work for our lunch – khinkhali-making time. Our guide’s wife expertly showed us how to make this wantan-like dumpling. The secret is to have enough filling but not too much that it’s bursting at the seams. And then make those accordion folds – apparently the perfect dumpling has 17 folds. I think Shobs and I did manage the 17 folds but I don’t think they’d qualify as the perfect khinkhali. Oh well, they tasted good anyway.

Wine was served by a young guy who looked very familiar – we’d seen him this morning as we left the hotel – he was guiding another group of visitors…and was Strong Silent Man’s son! SSM didn’t look like he was much older than 40. We found out that Georgians marry young, especially in the more rural areas, because – as Gogita said (translated by Nino) – once you meet someone, you might as well get married because there really is nothing to do in the village. Well, the only other thing to do, according to Gogita, is to drink – and in the rural areas it’s usually a men-only affair. The traditional feasts or supra last all day and involve many bottles of alcohol (the hard stuff, not just wine) per person. Nino added that this is why Georgian men have huge bellies – and hastened to add that our Gogita is thin by Georgian standards.

Gogita will be 39 this year – and before he turns 39, he’ll be a grandfather! He got married at 19, and his 19-year old daughter is having her first child soon. He proudly showed us photos of his gorgeous wife and daughter, and his very handsome twin 10-year old sons.

Nino had her own stories too. Right from the time we met yesterday, I thought she resembled Jodie Foster. We asked her today if any of her other guests had told her this – they hadn’t. The other thing that struck both Shobs and me was that she looked very fit and had the gait of an athlete – or a boxer – very light on her feet. (Drumroll…) – she was Georgia’s bodybuilding national champion in 2015! Unfortunately, sporting accomplishments don’t pay the bills in Georgia and thus this job – which, fortunately for us and all her other guests, she loves.

The sun was out now but it was still freezing. When we got back to the car, Gogita whips IMG_9387out a hip flask from next to his seat – complete with 2 little qvevri-shaped shot glasses (well not glass since they were made of clay). And so we were introduced to chacha aka Georgian vodka/grappa. Gogita makes his own chacha, as well as his own wine (about 300 litres a year – from 300 kilos of grapes!). Makes sense I guess, as chacha is made from the last fraction when distilling wine. It looked quite samsu-ish and I suppose would qualify as moonshine – but all completely legal in Georgia. It actually tasted very good with a sweetish aftertaste – and did the job of warming us up.

By now too, we were getting quite good with our Georgian…though one of us frequently got mixed up with our gamarjoba (hello), gamoz (bon appetit) and gaumarjos (cheers and also the return greeting when someone says hello to you).

It was back to the hotel after this – some welcome ‘free time’ to loll, edit and just chat before calling it a night (but not before another good dinner, complete with fireplace). It looked like it was going to be a clear day tomorrow – fingers crossed.

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