When I see a mountain, I’m not gripped by the desire to conquer it. I hope instead, that the mountain will conquer me. That walking on its slopes, I’ll hear my own heartbeat. That in its open meadows, my thoughts will flow. That in its magnanimity, I’ll realize just how tiny a place I occupy. That it will reveal myself, honest and unmasked, to me.
And so it was with the Caucasus mountains of Kazbegi in northeast Georgia.
Among the wildflowers of summer and mist-laden valleys I wandered, not knowing what I was searching for, yet finding it in the raw beauty that encompassed me.
I found comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one drawn by the inexplicable notion of solitude. 700 years ago, a monk seeking solitude in these very mountains, built the Gergeti Trinity Church in the daunting backdrop of Mount Kazbeg, and it is in his conviction that I found mine.
We walked in the rain, through the clouds, up steep paths, balancing on small rocks, seeking shelter under stray bushes; we walked till the church of Gergeti appeared in all its glory. For a few minutes, the skies cleared out and the sun shined upon us, as though the mountains themselves wanted to throw us a warm welcome.
But it wasn’t the church, beautiful and mysterious though it was, that called out to me. It was the wilderness, raw and pristine, surrendering itself to the snow-capped ranges. It was being here, wild and free, among all things wild and free, that let me feel like me.
Living for a week in the little village of Stepantsminda was like tearing into a postcard and awkwardly inserting myself in. Old stone houses, little windows peeking from above, elderly women dressed all in black (the traditional color of orthodox christianity) going about their chores, the men gathered with other men, life went on in the village as though the immense beauty surrounding them wasn’t distracting at all. But who am I to comment? Just an outsider trying to peek in.
And peek in I did. I found the shy warmth of the locals and a fascinating disinterest in the world, yet abundant joy for the little things in life and good food.
They say that when “god” was distributing land to the people of the world, Georgians were busy having a feast and forgot to put in an appearance. By the time they arrived, there was no land left, so they decided to invite god to join their feast. God had such a merry time that he gave them the land he had kept for himself – and so Georgia came to be.
I got invited for my own feast one morning, when I shyly peeped through the little door of the bakery in my neighborhood. The aroma of puri aka Georgian bread being baked in an ancient stone oven can still leave me feeling heady.
We cycled to Sno Valley, and I had to pinch myself to believe it was real.
Then an Orthodox monk invited us to his church in the mountains, and put all reality into perspective. To be fair, he spoke in Georgian and I don’t understand it, but some conversations are best without the burden of words.
Reminders of Georgia’s Soviet past and complicated relationship with Russia are everywhere. Like these goods trucks lining the roads all the way to the Russian border.
But despite the past and the uncertainty that looms ahead, the people of the Caucasus choose to live a blissful life, far from civilization like we know it. Why shouldn’t they?
And on my part, I continue to wander (all the way to the Russian border!), greedy for more beauty, more solitude, more answers and more perspective. For my soul is free and that’s all I ever need.
If you find yourself in Georgia, do yourself a favor and go to Kazbegi aka Stepantsminda. A martshrutka (mini bus) takes 3-4 hours from Tbilisi and leaves frequently from Didube station. Stay at Gogi Alibegashvili, a family-run guesthouse with comfortable rooms, private bathrooms and a balcony with uninterrupted views of Mount Kazbeg; 30 lari (12$) per person per night. Splurge at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, for an indulgent stay in a stunning boutique hotel (or atleast go for a meal on their terrace). Rent bicycles and warm jackets for hiking in the town centre.