I quietly donned my warmest clothes and stepped out onto the balcony. It was 5 a.m.. The black sky was softening, but it was still very cold and rain fell on my outstretched hand. No matter; I had already resolved to go. More than a decade ago, an image in a travel magazine had captivated me: a mysterious church poised at the edge of an alpine meadow and dwarfed by foreboding peaks rising perpendicular behind it. That was the Georgia I longed to see, and dumb luck had deposited me a short hike away!
The drive north from Tbilisi had been long and wet but beautiful. This was the main route to Georgia’s highest mountains and to Russia. Wooden stalls lined the road, proffering souvenirs of fruit, honey, bread, wine and beer to returning Russian tourists. We paused at Ananuri to roam inside the old castle walls, admiring the almost Celtic braided cross and dense Georgian inscriptions on the walls of the 17th century Church of the Mother of God. From there, the highway ascended to the ski resort town of Gaudari before cresting the pass at Jvari.
This was fiercely beautiful country. The Caucasus Mountains crowded around us, range upon range severe, treeless peaks riven by plunging, green valleys. We reached Stepantsminda at dusk. As we hunted for our homestay, the clouds briefly parted. High above the valley, the silhouette of a church hunched eerily beneath the big, yellow moon. Was that it? Could it really be that close?
I ambled down the narrow road past unlit houses, trying to avoid the rain-splattered cow pies. I had only a vague idea where the trail began. Providentially, my path intersected with two stereotypical female German hikers: well-prepared, tall, fit and standoffish. They knew the way and permitted me to follow them but conversation wasn’t part of the deal. Ten minutes later we reached the trailhead and began to climb through a forest of pine and birch. Lord were they fast! I was nearly running to match their giraffe strides. But I wanted to walk on my own, as I knew they did. I could have just slowed down and let them disappear up the trail, but I’m too dumb male for that. Instead, I darted up a shortcut between the trail’s long switchbacks.
I had intended to spend a few days hiking in Stepantsminda, Georgia’s de facto trekking center. But Nori and the boys had been shocked by the temperature drop from Tbilisi. Logan was still recovering from a very high fever and the other boys were all sniffling and shivering in our unheated room. After months on the move, Nori had reached her limit and had tears in her eyes.
“This isn’t fun! Moving every day. Staying in places like this. We are NOT equipped for cold weather at all. It wasn’t a good idea to come all the way up here with sick kids. We should have stayed in Tbilisi!”
I thought she was being overdramatic. It wasn’t that cold and she knows how much I love hiking. If she didn’t like the homestay, we could shift to a nicer hotel. But she thought I was being selfish, and to a certain extent, I was. I had a visceral need to get up in the mountains. We withdrew to separate corners of the room. Frustrated, I eventually agreed to leave by noon the next day. So I had the morning to hike. Better start early.
Once Nori had pulled herself together, we drove back into the little town and found a delightful little family-run restaurant. We ordered sliced sausages, mushrooms stuffed with salty cheese and giant kinkali (Georgian xiao long bao). The boys ate very well, and the fruity house red was surprisingly delicious. By the end of the meal, Nori’s spirits had improved so much that she suggested we watch the World Cup at Shorena’s Bar across the street. But they hadn’t improved enough to let me stay another day.
What a pleasure it was to walk through the cool, misty woods on my own! I walked briskly, challenging myself to maintain the German speed-walkers’ pace for the rest of the climb. By now the sun’s rays were lancing over the mountains that ringed Stepantsminda. Patches of blue sky appeared and disappeared behind the scudding clouds. The rain had stopped completely. My chest was heaving, my muscles were full of blood and I felt incredibly happy. And then, rounding what turned out to be the last switchback, a huge mountain appeared, solitary and swaddled in glaciers.
This was Mt. Kazbek (5,047m), the country’s third-highest mountain. Its Georgian name, Mkinvartsveri, means Glacier Peak. Georgian traditions claim that this was the “rock in the Caucasus” where Greek legends say the titan Prometheus was shackled for bringing fire to man. Every day, an eagle would appear to munch on Prometheus’ liver; each night it, would grow back. Punishments were fairly severe those days.
Twenty minutes later, the trail emerged from the trees and a fierce wind had me scrambling for my jacket. A skein of boggy SUV tracks weaved down through a broad meadow filled with wildflowers. There sat Gergeti Trinity Church atop a green knoll, a simple Georgian Orthodox structure made magical by its setting. As I walked towards it, I kept stopping to take photos of the church, the wall of mountains behind it and of Mt. Kazbek. But it was impossible to capture the scale and majesty of the place on film. Wait! Who were those two ladies I saw walking across the church’s stone-paved courtyard? Could the German Olympians have beaten me to the top?
No, they were two affable Austrians who happily chatted while we took turns snapping photos of each other. The taller one had flown into Tbilisi to meet the shorter one, who had cycled here from Istanbul! I was amazed by her fearlessness: she had crossed the whole of Turkey and most of Georgia alone, unaided and seemingly without much planning. But she wasn’t done yet.
“My plan is to continue through Azerbaijian, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but I’m really worried about the heat!”
I remembered well the searing temperatures we endured on the desert highway between Bukhara, Khiva (inspiration for our fourth son’s name) and Nukus in western Uzbekistan. And we had been in a car, not pedalling a bike.
After a very quick tour of the church and its adjoining bell tower (most of the doors were closed and the gruff, black-robed priest took no interest in us) I started back down the mountain via a steeper trail. Far below, the metal-roofed homes of Stepantsminda were clearly visible; I was even able to pick out our guesthouse. As I descended, I did something I normally never do on a hike: I used my mobile phone. My parents were delighted to hear from me. I described the area and recounted our first week in Georgia. I also talked about Nori’s flagging morale. My Mom had Nori’s back:
“Remember son, she’s the one bearing most of the burden of looking after the sick boys. And it’s a lot of work to always be moving from place to place. Men never think about those things. I know, because I’ve lived with your father for fifty years. You guys have been traveling for five months, and not to easy places either. I understand how she could be exhausted!”
My family was still asleep when I returned to the homestay at 7 a.m. Though I was still disappointed to be leaving Stepantsminda so soon, I knew it was the right thing to do. The weather was beautiful on the drive back, so we stopped frequently to take photos of the glorious mountains. And instead of continuing on to Yerevan, Armenia – a further five hours south – we returned to Tbilisi, let the boys have McDonald’s for dinner and got to bed early.