Kazbegi is most people's destination on the Georgian Military Highway: a spectacularly located town just a few kilometres south of the Russian border, with the snowy peak of Mt Kazbek towering to the west, behind the famous hill-top silhouette of Tsminda Sameba Church.
Kazbegi (155 km), the principal town of Khevi, with a population of (6000) is located on the banks of the Tergi (Terek) River at an altitude of 1,850 meters. Formerly known as Stepantsminda after a monk named Stephen who constructed a monastery here, the town's past name (it was recently renamed back to Stepantsminda) derives from a 19th-century princely family, Kazi Век, who controlled the territory.
Kazbegi is also the birthplace of the great 19th-century Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi (1848-1893). His statue (unveiled in 1960) holds the place of honor in the central square beside the river. His house (Kazbegi House Museum) is a short distance farther along Stalin Street. Formerly the Ethnographic Museum, it is now devoted solely to the life and work of the writer. His grave is on the grounds. Next to the house is the family church, Mtavarangelosi (the Archangel), now the town church, having been reconsecrated in 1989. Behind Kazbegi's house is the new Ethnographic Museum containing artifacts from Khevi and outlying regions. For fervent alpinists, Kazbegi also boasts a small museum of alpinism at 24 Vazha Pshavela Street named after the great climber Kazalikashvili. Neighbors have the key and will open the door for you.
Kazbegi is the quintessential alpine village, providing the comforts of civilization that mountaineers expect from a base camp, while exuding a kind of civic confirmation of your prejudice that more exciting things are happening elsewhere, namely in the mountain peaks, grottoes, and ice fields a mere day's hike away. How can it be otherwise when you consider all the legends and religious beliefs associated with Mt. Mkinvari and the region? One legend has it that Amirani (the Georgian Prometheus) was chained in a cave on Mt. Mkinvari as punishment for giving mortals the gift of fire. The anchorite tradition, spread and elaborated by the numerous hermits who have chosen these austere mountains as their retreat, holds that a palace of ice sits on the summit of Mt. Mkinvari and contains the tomb of Christ, the tent of Abraham, the manger where Jesus was born, and untold riches. Only the pure in spirit could see these things and return alive. Whatever the state of their souls, Messrs. Freshfield, Tucker, and Moore of the London Alpine Club managed a southeast ascent in June 1868. They were followed by the great female Russian alpinist Maria Preobrazhenskaya who, beginning in 1900, made the ascent nine times.
Qualified guides can take you on excursions to the Gergeti glacier, the foothills of Mt. Mkinvari, and possibly even the cave of Betlemi (4,100 meters up the side of Mkinvari) that is mentioned in ancient Georgian chronicles as a place where treasures are hidden.
Continuing from Kazbegi north along the Georgian Military Highway, you cross the Tergi River and proceed approximately two km to the beginning of the famous Darial Gorge, a 15-km gash in the earth that is somber and oneiric.
Just before the village of Gveleti, the road crosses the Tergi again over the Gveleti Bridge (164 km). Off to the left on an elevated bank across the river are the ruins of Tamara's Castle (169 km). Thought to have been built in the 12th century by King David the Builder (1089-1125), more legend than fact is attached to this structure. The Queen Tamara supposed to have lived here has nothing to do with Georgia's beloved Queen Tamara (1184-1213), King David the Builder's great-granddaughter. This Queen Tamara was an evil temptress who, upon getting handsome travelers into her bed, spent but one night of pleasure with them before having them beheaded and thrown into the river.
The road continues over the Eshmalis Khidi (Devil's Bridge), which is the border between Georgia and North Ossetia (172 km). It also marks the end of the Darial Gorge. It was in this general vicinity that the Caucasian Gales (Porta Caucasia) mentioned by Pliny were supposedly constructed. The name Darial itself comes from the old Persian Dar-y-Alan (Gate of the Alans) for this was the beginning of the territory of the ancient Alans, descendants of the Sarmates and ancestors of the present-day Ossetes.
ALEXANDER KAZBEGI MUSEUM
Alexander Kazbegi (1848–93) made the unusual decision to become a shepherd after studying in Tbilisi, St Petersburg and Moscow. Later he worked as a journalist and wrote the novels and plays that made him famous. At the end of his life he suffered from insanity. He died in Tbilisi, but his coffin was carried back to Kazbegi. His museum is a five-minute walk north from the main square. You first come to a church, dated 1809–11, with a striking relief of two lions with a chain above its door. The church is a very simple basilica with a few nice external carvings and a separate gate-tower. To its east and west are two structures that look like bell towers but are actually the tombs of Alexander’s father and mother. The writer’s own grave lies under a large stone sculpture near the fence. He asked to be buried where he could see Mt Kazbek. The museum (admission 1 GEL; Stalinis qucha; 10am-5pm) is in Kazbegi’s house, to the left of the church; this is a large stone building with a veranda and attractive garden. Downstairs are manuscripts, photos of Kazbegi and his three brothers, and stills from films of his stories, and upstairs is his furniture and some clothes.
SLEEPING & EATING
Kazbegi is very well supplied with homestays (those mentioned here are just a selection), all of which provide meals of basic but tasty Georgian food. Many are closed outside the main season (May to early November).
GETTING THERE & AWAY
Marshrutkas to Kazbegi (three hours) leave Didube bus station in Tbilisi every one or two hours from 9am to 5pm. From Kazbegi to Tbilisi, departures are timetabled at 8am, 9am, 10am and 11am, and 1.30pm, 3pm and 5pm. A taxi to or from Tbilisi can cost anywhere between 50 and 80 GEL.