The legend of Mt. Kazbeg, the jewel of the eastern Caucasus range – and one of Europe’s highest peaks – centers around Amirani, Georgian mythology’s answer to the Prometheus myth. As I reached the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church, however, the 16,500-foot summit of Kazbeg towering above me, the words of a different legend came to mind: The haze condensing around me wasn’t quite purple, but I felt as much like Jimi in that moment as I ever will.
I turned my back on the haunting monastery and looked down on the town of Stepantsminda, whose metal-roofed houses looked as small as grains of sand beneath the jagged mountain peaks. Even the four-story, 156-room hotel where I’m staying was barely perceptible – and I wasn’t even half as high as you can get around these parts. It’s strange how you can feel so much bigger than yourself and also, so insignificant at the same time.
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Not that I’ve never felt this way before. From the Alps to the Andes, and from the volcanoes of East Java, Indonesia to the bear-filled slopes of the Sierra Nevada, it’s no secret that I love to get as high as Hendrix, albeit it in a different way. Still, as I sat in the shadows of Mt. Kazbeg and breathed the cold mountain air in as deeply as I could, I knew that I had never been anyplace else like this. The best mountains are like the best lovers: No matter how many you’ve had before, or how good they’ve been, it always feels like the first time.
The point is that I cannot comprehend why Georgia is not the most popular country in the world for travelers – I can only assume, once word gets out, that it will be. I say this only having visited Tbilisi, the national capital, and now the region around Mt. Kazbeg: I’m just five days into a trip that will last almost two weeks and span two more countries. It’s a trip that’s only going to give me a small sample of everything the Caucasus has to offer, and will leave me feeling as satisfied that I decided to come here as I am devastated I don’t have longer.
My stay in mountainous eastern Georgia is certainly a microcosm of this larger truth. To be sure, although I supplemented my hike up to Gergeti Trinity Church with a day trip to the epic Juta Valley and the village of Sno (whose name I can only assume seems more apt in winter), I turned down more than a dozen other activities due to the length of my stay, ranging from scenic camping, to days-long trekking, to scaling Mt. Kazberg itself – with a guide, of course.
Oh well, here’s to next time!
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