After a nights stop over in Tbilisi we were off to attempt to reach Kazbegi in northern Georgia for the second time. After a (very) failed attempt to cross from the Russian side a few weeks ago we were determined not to let this part of the world thwart our overland route dreams. Once again Mother Nature had a different idea…again.
From Didube terminal in Tbilisi’s north we knew there was a marshutka (minivan) heading our way, but on arrival we were told by the first guy we ran into there was no minivan because there was too much snow. One piece of advice, always take these guys information with a grain of salt. Unless you’re heading their way (in this case Batumi) it’s usually BS. Wading further into the station we’re dragged to a private minivan where they try to charge us 150GEL to get to Kazbegi even though they were already heading to Vladikavkaz (on the Russian side)….obviously the road WAS open. Next we tried the cash desk who sent us around the corner with Matt finally tracking down the elusive marshutka. Turns out yes they were still running to Kazbegi and for just 10GEL each. Like we said, grain of salt.
A few hours on the road and we start to pass through some villages reminiscent of those around Lac Annecy in France. As we really started to hit the snow about 85km from Kazbegi we began to see lines of trucks parked up on the side of the road and apprehension crept in.
Arriving in Gudauri we pull up behind about 30 other cars, some who seem to have been waiting awhile, as we’re told the road to Kazbegi is (surprise!) closed. But our driver seems adamant we’re getting there so we wait it out for over two hours (no wonder there’s a port-a-loo just up the road!) and sure enough the road is soon declared open at 3pm, though nobody can go anywhere because everybody tries to drive at once subsequently blocking the newly opened road. Idiots.
By 4pm we’ve come over the pass and blue skies open up before us. The views down the snow filled valley are spectacular. Finally reaching Kazbegi we snap a quick pic at the sign pointing to Vladikavkaz, the closest we’ll get to closing the 20km untravelled gap, and head off on foot to our accommodation. A few seconds later a car pulls up, the window goes down and a young woman wearing sunglasses announces
“Hello, I am Emma!”
With a booking at Emma Guesthouse she saves us the uphill icy hike with all our gear, checks us in and makes us coffee. Emma’s real name is Pikria and the guesthouse is named after her late mother. Head out for a bite to eat we find what appears to be the only restaurant open, Shorena’s. Sitting down we order our favourite, khinkali, and are promptly shut down by the rude, abrupt waiter. Seems khinkali is too cheap for them to serve to tourists but we stand our ground and are eventually served a steaming plate of 10. The homemade white wine we order to go with it makes up for our cheap food when they’ve charge us a ridiculous 20GEL.
Bridging the gap between Russia and Georgia wasn’t our only reason for heading this far north. With the promise of another day on the slopes it also turned out one of Sarah’s ex workmates happened to be here the same weekend from Dubai so we arranged to meet him…and his 10 mates who just happened to be on a stag do.
Ooops! Lucky she can drink!
With snow showers still passing through we weren’t sure we’d even make it back to Gudari but our trusty driver turns up on time at 9am and soon enough we’re into bluebird skies as we summit the pass. Gear can be easily rented at Carpe Diem so we had our driver drop us here and the lift is just a short walk away. Meeting up with Ed and his mates we find them settled into a small hut at the bottom of a run enjoying some midday beers. It’s not long before the bartender has us all drinking chacha (local spirits) through a funnel and when we try to hit the slopes again it’s a bit of a mess. Getting a few runs in the wind picks up, a few of the top chairs have closed and we call it a day and head for Time Out bar at the bottom of the hill where more beers are followed by a shot of some unidentified local brew at a whopping 80%. At 7:30pm our taxi collects us and we head back to Kazbegi having enjoyed another top day on the Georgian slopes with top people.
The next day is spent mainly enjoying our cozy room and Pikria’s hospitality. Breakfast and dinner are both laid on thick and we struggle to finish it every time. After a lazy day we head out to attempt to hike to the Gergeti Trinity Church which looks down over town and the Devdoraki Glaicer. With the recent snowfalls it was a tough effort just to get to the monastery and with deep snow and no visible path to follow the glacier is a no go. Still the views from the monastery of both town and the towering Mt Kazbeg behind it (Georgia’s third highest) are worth the hike. We spend some time taking in the views and checking out the incense filled dark interior before sliding our way back down the snow covered track.
Having passed a small green local looking restaurant named Mkinvari on the way up we stop in on the way back and are glad we did. Catering less towards ripping off tourists when we order khinkali (yes we’re slightly addicted) the English speaking owner is more than happy to oblige. We’re soon invited to drink wine with three elder gentlemen on the next table from Dagestan, Borjomi and Tbiliisi as it’s Red Army day.
A couple of glasses later they’ve ordered a plate of khachipuri and some local cheese to our table on the house. More wine follows and we’re joined by a girl from Estonia, four Ukrainians and an Indian couple, most of whom we’d seen in Shorena’s a few days earlier. Turns out everybody had the same opinion as us. The waiter was rude, he told people things were out of season when they weren’t, added extra items to the bill and in general treated his customers like shit. Even though Mkinvari was more basic, the welcome was much warmer and we’d all recommend you skip Shorena’s in favour of Mkinvari.
With all the hard work of getting to Kazbegi at this time of year it should come as no surprise that when we tried to leave we were again snowed in. No problem as Pikria is happy to put us up for another night and keep in touch with the marshutka driver to find out when the road reopens. After a one day delay the road opens at midday and we’re picked up at the guesthouse and make our way for the final time back to Tbilisi.
Despite the effort of getting here in winter we’d highly recommend a visit, especially if you like mountains! The summer hiking must be amazing.
Thanks for reading, if you have any questions or comments feel free to drop us a line below. You can also check out more of our travel pics on Flickr!
Tips for Kazbegi and Gudauri
- There’s a marshutka that runs directly to Kazbegi from Didube terminal. When you walk through the marketplace don’t turn right at the road, instead cross over and go straight through the small alley. You’ll see a load of minvans, just ask any of the drivers for the one to Kazbegi, it will most likely have a sign in English on the front window. Cost is 10GEL per person…and you DON’T have to pay extra for your bag…no matter what they say.
- We stayed at Emma Guesthouse (via Booking.com). Breakfast and dinner were great and varied for the four nights we stayed. Emma is lovely, speaks English, can organise a taxi to Gudauri and have the marshutka back to Tbilisi pick you up from the guesthouse when you’re leaving.
- We rented our boards, boots and bindings at Carpe Diem hotel which we found to have a pretty good selection of sizes. Just make sure they give you what you ask for…Sarah had to ask three times for a 39 boot, not a 40, and Matt was given a huge board even when pointing at one that was more suitable. Quality is hit and miss – Sarah’s boots and Rossignol board were good, Matt’s Northwave boots and Niedecker rocker board weren’t.
- It is possible to rent (really bad) goggles but you can’t rent clothes. If, like us, you’ve left your gear at home there’s a huge second hand clothes market near Didube station. We got two pairs of good used ski pants for USD$10 each.
- We organised a taxi through Pikria at Emma Guesthouse. It cost 90GEL to be picked up at 9am and come back at 7:30pm (usually the return time is 4-5pm which may be cheaper). Our driver Khvicha was a young friendly guy who’d we recommend.