A Spiritual Experience

Between the Black and Caspian Sea, high up in the Greater Caucasus Mountains stands the Georgian Military Highway. There, on the side of the road with my thumb stuck out, I’m hoping to hitch a ride to the hiker’s paradise of Kazbegi, about 15  south of the Russian border. From the ski-resort town of Guduari (where I’ve been snowboarding for the past two days) to this hiking utopia, it’s just 32 kilometres to the north, over the 2,400 meters of Jvari Pass, the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. 

Trucks bound for Vladikavkaz, (the closest town north of the Georgian border) roar past, crunching gravel and ice under their heavy loads, leaving a whirlwind of frigid air in their wake. At an elevation of 2,196 meters, Guduari is bitterly cold for a desert dweller such as myself but with snowcapped mountains all around, I’m still in awe that a frozen world like this is less than a 3-hour flight from my home in the desert oasis of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates.

Like another desert dweller, three times already I’ve been denied but not by my followers – by marshutki (mini-bus) drivers. While my Cyrillic is rusty (it’s been 15 years since I lived in Ukraine), I’m pretty sure the cardboard signs in the dashboard windows read ‘Kazbegi.’ Only one logical conclusion to be drawn on this cold April Fool’s morning in the mountains of Georgia – the joke’s on me, the Amerikanski with a skateboard strapped to his backpack.

With a smile and a shrug of the shoulders, I hit the road, reckoning if I came here for hiking, there’s no time like the present. Besides, I figure if no one stops and I end up walking the whole way, I’ll truthfully be able to say I walked from Asia to Europe – bragging rights of Forest Gump proportions, no doubt. But just five minutes into hitchhiking, past the shawarma stand and chain smoking ‘taxi’ driver who offered to take me to Kazbegi for 65 Lari (27 USD), a black delivery van rolls to a stop just for me, thankfully dispelling my delusions of grandeur of walking the Earth like Cain from Kung-Fu.

Whether it was the lopsided grin on my face or the skateboard on my back, questioning the kindness of strangers is a luxury in which I cannot currently indulge, so I hop in quickly before the delivery driver changes his mind. From my rudimentary recollection of Russian (at this point probably worse than my dad’s limited Spanish), I work it out from my ride that he’s only going as far as the edge of Guduari but that once I summit Jvari Pass, it’ll be all downhill from there to Kazbegi, on my skateboard, of course.

The excitement of the first ride, of the open road, raises my spirits as the sun’s rays to light up the highest elevations with the promise of spring – snow, and ice sparkling; a faint aroma of earth in the air, hinting at winter’s demise. Trudging the road upward and onward and feeling like a character from a Jack Kerouac novel, I soon hear the steady whir of a fast approaching vehicle before I actually see it coming around a hairpin turn. I turn, smile and extend my arm, palm open, intimating geniality, hoping to make eye contact with the driver. I do. It works. I’m in. The second ride scored – this time in a warm Mercedes with Giorgi from Tbilisi on his way to Moscow.

As the treeless alpine zone whirls by at 160 kilometres per hour outside, I entertain Giorgi with my broken Russian, trying to explain what the hell a 45-year-old American is doing in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia for Spring Break. What I want to say is that the call of the wild, of hiking from mountain hamlets through lush, green valleys framed by snowy peaks to rustic stone villages with medieval tower houses, of experiencing unspoiled, raw nature first hand before this rural way of life is wiped out forever is a call that cannot go unanswered. What actually comes out of my mouth in Russian is more like: Me here, I like because of it beautiful.

Beautiful is what I expected to see crossing into Europe from Asia over Jvari Pass but the Dariali Gorge is enshrouded in clouds, blurring the winter-scape into a white void of near zero visibility. The coconut scented car freshener, dangling from the rear view mirror is my only point of reference as Giorgi guns his Mercedes around hulking 18 wheelers and through Soviet Era tunnels, dark as night and full of potholes. While it would have been a good story, I’m beyond grateful I don’t have to skate through this totalitarian landscape all alone; it would have been the longest 32 kilometres of my life.

Like the valley itself, Kazbegi is enveloped in dense fog. The moedani, the main square, along the Georgian Military Highway seems surreal, like a scene from a horror movie. Dark figures move towards me muttering place names as I say my goodbyes to Giorgi – taxi drivers scalping fares to destinations far and near; neon signs blinking in red Cyrillic for a bar, a casino, a money exchange; the doughy aroma of khinkhali (Georgian dumplings) infused with the acrid smell of cheap cigarettes hangs thickly in the moist air; the giant looming Caucuses peeking through the clouds and the silhouette of a church steeple on a nearby mountain top. Where’s the howl of the werewolf? I wonder as I make my way up the cobblestone hill towards Anano Guesthouse on Vaja-Pshavela Street.

Knocking on the glass-paned door of the Anano Guesthouse, a three-story stone abode with a pitched roof and a spiral staircase out front, I hold my breath, not knowing what to expect. Through the paned glass, I spy a large, round woman in brightly coloured pajamas waddling her way to the door, her head covered modestly. My first thought is, ‘Is her name going to be Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa or Po?’ Despite her resemblance to one of the Teletubbies, I’m wrong on all accounts. Within the first five minutes of my arrival, I get straightened out and their life stories.

Turns out, her name is neither Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa or Po but Rahma (translated from Arabic it means Mercy, she explains pedantically) and she, like me, is but a guest. From Morocco, she lives and works in Sharjah as an events coordinator and is here with her daughter and her best friend Hanan, a large Egyptian doctora who also brought her daughter along. As they were both married to the same man at different times (but never knew each other until they were both divorced) their girls are actually half sisters. They glance up from their iPhones at me, briefly acknowledging my presence as the satellite TV blares a morning recitation of the Quran direct from Saudi.

Directly after a lunch of locally foraged mushrooms in a creamy tarragon sauce at the Rooms Hotel, a contemporarily reloaded former Soviet turbaza (group holiday residence), the fog begins to lift and spectacular Mt. Kazbek, a 5,047 metre extinct volcano, shimmers into view. According to legend, this is the same sacred peak to which Prometheus was chained for stealing fire from the gods, where Amirani, a Georgian contemporary of the former, suffered a similar punishment for challenging God’s omnipotence. A place where you’ll find the Betlemi cave, 4,000 meters up the hallowed mount, which has supposedly been the refuge for several religious artifacts from Christianity – everything from the manger of Jesus Christ himself to Abraham’s tent and even a golden cradle rocked by doves that would blind anyone who laid eyes upon it like the lost Ark of the Covenant reportedly could. Given local taboos surrounding it with such legend and mystique, it’s no wonder that no one dared summit the mountain until 1868 and that they were foreigners – Freshfield, Tucker and Moore from the London Alpine Club – who did it first.

First on my hiking list is not this holy mountain (although it is now), but Tsminda Sameba Church, the most iconic, most recognizable symbol of Georgia, if not the very soul of the nation. Built in the 14th century at an elevation of 2,200 meters above Kazbegi, this Holy Trinity Church, with its isolated setting high on a mountain top and its stunning backdrop of Mt. Kazbek, has come to symbolize the indomitable spirit of a people who have been invaded for millennia and yet have retained their culture, language and customs, letting each successive wave of interlopers – Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and Russians – enrich rather than dilute their proud sense of identity.

Identifying my future needs for the 1.5 – 2-hour hike up to the Holy Trinity Church (7.2km round trip), I stuff my jacket pockets with the warm, homemade bread from lunch‬ – adding it to the khachapuri (potato bread) already stuffed in there from my breakfast at the guest house in Guduari. While man cannot survive on bread alone, I wouldn’t mind trying here. To wash it down, I fill up my water bottle directly from the tap in a copper lined bathroom of the Rooms Hotel. Full of glaciers and natural springs, the water on tap in Georgia is remarkably clean and safe for drinking straight from the spigot.

Though cobblestone streets, lined with stone houses and framed by the spindly trees of winter, past brown cows grazing quiet side streets, I descend the hill towards the Tergi River. Kazbegi, (also known as Stepantsminda) was named after local boy Alexander Kazbegi who, having studied in Tbilisi, St. Petersburg and Moscow, renounced the outside world of the bourgeoisie and his expensive education to pursue the much more proletarian life of herding sheep in his hometown. It was here, many years later, in this bucolic setting (his Walden Pond) that he wrote the plays and novels that made him famous and a hometown hero (there’s a museum dedicated to this life near the moedani, the town square). This is the effect this quaint, mountain hamlet has on me too – it makes me want to get back to nature, herd sheep and write poetry.

The poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost springs to mind as I take one myself across the rusted suspension bridge into Gergeti Village. Here at its muddy entrance (but a burg of Kazbegi), the elevation starts out at 1,735m and by the time Tsminda Sameba Church (also known as Gergeti Trinity Church), rises into view the altitude is 2,170m – a 435 metre differential.

Indifferent to the differential, I wander upwards, through the winding alleyways of the quiet township – keeping the silhouette of the church in sight, breathing in deeply the fresh mountain air; the starchy aroma of baking bread drifting from stone cottages, chimneys puffing out gray smoke. Lost in the reverie of romanticism, a large, mud-splattered Caucasian dog, suddenly rubs up against my leg, nearly knocking me over just to say hello. In the spirit of Georgian hospitality, he joins me on my hike through the village, past brown pastures that soon give way to forests of pine.

Pining for some company of my own, I sheepishly confide in my newfound canine companion (this is what happens when you travel alone, you end up talking to dogs). Past quivering aspens and fertile farmland, I confess to him that because I’ve traveled to 55 countries and lived abroad for the past 15 years or so, I consider myself, somewhat unabashedly, to be a pretty worldly guy. Without a glimmer of recognition nor even a break in his stride, he hardly seems impressed. That my goal in life is to visit every country on Earth before I die, he’s decidedly nonplussed – which actually makes it a bit easier for me to come clean that only since landing in Georgia, have I learned there are 5 countries in Eurasia I had never even heard of before and as such, weren’t on my list of places to visit before I meet my demise: namely, the breakaway republics of Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ingushetia, South Ossetia and the Dagestan Republic.

A group of Georgian teenagers, brimming with life, laughter and youthful enthusiasm appears around a bend in the muddy road. Their vitality, their sheer numbers proves irresistible for my canine companion and he breaks away from me – my confession entirely has forgotten, if ever even registered. Alone again soon enough, the wind nips at my nose, my cheeks, reddening them to the point where it looks like I just took a couple of shots of chacha super (Georgian moonshine). Trying to keep the draught to a minimum, I cover my face with my pashmina scarf, pulling my hoodie tight.

The steady drone of a tightly cranking engine, a small cylinder 4×4 as far as I can tell, distracts my attention from my numbing extremities, from the slippery mud on the road – nearly planting me face first in a freezing puddle of snow, ice and mud. The droning engine grows louder now, gaining altitude. I regain my balance and step up to the high ground by the side of the road next to the quivering aspens but not quite high nor soon enough. As the Lada Niva(a Russian off-road vehicle, diminutive in size but not in power) charges by it splatter me and my tan corduroy pants with cold black slush.

Christened by the cold, black slush of the sacred mountain, I trot it out till the road finally opens up and spreads out before me. Perched just above the treeline in the alpine zone, I catch my first glimpse of Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Church. It stands alone, divinely framed by snow-covered mountains, billowy clouds and fractured blue skies – a humble David among the proud Goliaths of the Greater Caucasus.

Immediately, I understand why the Georgians considered the cable car line from Kazbegi and the station built right next to the church by the Russians in 1988 to be so offensive. Just strictly from an ascetic point of view, to add anything to such a scene, but one brushstroke more would have defiled this masterpiece. Spiritually speaking, the union of God, nature, and man, the holy trinity would have been desecrated as well. Faced with such blasphemy, the Georgians took matters into their own hands and destroyed the communist attempt to convert the church into an amusement park ride for Russian tourists.

While Russian tourists are still among the majority here, there are other travelers such as myself. Travelers and tourists but pilgrims of sorts nevertheless hike up here as I have to pay homage to this rather unorthodox, orthodox church. I could be wrong, but maybe all the Orthodox churches from the 14th century built of stone on high and lonesome mountaintops such as this have dinosaurs (or are they dragons?) carved on their bell towers but somehow, I doubt it.

My doubt meets faith inside the dark but surprisingly warm chapel. Near the heavy wooden door, a cast iron furnace can barely contain the fire inside, roaring with fury against the long, cold winter. Votive candles flicker under icons of saints martyred by means most foul – crucified, beheaded, broken on the wheel and burned alive. Incense sticks, the sweet myrrh of Bethlehem, glow red under these death masks, pungent tributes in smoke, spiraling into the darkness overhead.
Peering upwards, following the flow of the spiraling smoke up towards the ancient dome, I start to feel faint – the heady atmosphere of death and divinity makes the church feel like it’s spinning around me. From behind me, a voice whisper I should sit before I fall. Heeding this advice, I take a seat on a wooden stool next to the roaring furnace. My head begins to clear, maybe it’s the altitude I think, before turning my attention to the voice, the guardian of the church on the mount who insisted I sit.

His name is Lazare. In Hebrew, it means ‘assistance of God’ and although he looks the part with his spindly beard, his hair pulled into a short ponytail and black cassock, he confesses that he’s not yet taken his tonsure, his monastic vows. He’s waiting for a sign to know he’s ready to pledge chastity, poverty, and obedience for a lifetime of servitude. As a novice, he’s been assigned the thankless (but sometimes entertaining) task of making sure tourists like me respect the traditions of the church, women covering and men baring their heads upon entering.

Entering into a conversation with an Orthodox monk, albeit one in training is not an everyday occurrence in the Persian Gulf where I live. Even though this is rare where I reside, living in the desert of Arabia has afforded me this chance to travel, to hike, to explore the world before my time comes to leave it. Whether it was the altitude, the glory of nature I just experienced or the faith of those who built this sacred church, I feel an overwhelming sense of wonder, of gratitude for the opportunity to stand on such hallowed ground and chat with a man of the cloth about the nature of the holy trinity, the duality of man and the divine plan written all around us. ■

Words + Photos by: Baxter Jackson