Days 1559-66, 6-13 Sept ‘18, Kazbegi, Flying, Metro Madness.
If someone poses the question “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?”, the usual response, albeit ill-considered, is “No! of course not”. But if you think about it for a second... “It depends” is a much more inclusive thing to say. In fact, if you’re snugged into a tandem paragliding rig then then only possible answer is Yes! But let’s put first things first.
Roughly a week ago we finally left the confines of the city and hit the road (The Georgian Military Road to be precise) in order to enjoy the fresh air and open spaces on a day tour to the 14th century Church of the Holy Trinity / Gergeti Monastery.
We walked to our chosen tour operator’s office and were bundled into the Mercedes people-mover along with a couple of folks from Russia, a couple from Lebanon and our Georgian guide - a veritable United Nations. It took seemingly forever to drive out of Tbilisi - in our 7th floor eyrie in the centre of town we have been insulated from the sprawling suburbs. We eventually made it to our first stop for a well deserved leg stretch and a stunning view of the aqua green waters of the picturesque Zhinvali Water Reservoir. Next stop was the Ananuri Castle on the Aragvi River. We are definitely not blazing any trails on this day trip - in fact, I’m fairly sure the route to Kazbegi is trodden by every single tourist to Georgia... and it seemed to us like they were all at Ananuri Castle at once on the day we visited. Ananuri served as the residence of the Aragvi princes from the XIII century. The castle was the scene of numerous battles and served as a shelter for the local population during the wars. Ananuri is apparently considered one of the most beautiful historical monuments of Georgia - so sayeth the tour itinerary. It was nice - however crawling with tourists - and we were just another couple of ants in the sugar bowl. On a very positive note however - the tour wasn’t expensive and entry to the castle ruins is free - which contributes to crowds obviously. We hoofed it quick smart to get ahead of a large tour bus that seemed to be swamping us at each stop.
Once we left Ananuri we started to climb into the Greater Caucasus Range and when we reached 2200 metres above sea level we found ourselves at the Gudauri Ski resort. Not a skerrick of snow at this time of year so looked a bit bare. Getting more and more popular with the Georgian population during the winter months. At this time of year Gudauri is also a famous paragliding spot. Hmmmm… there’s a thought. It’s been around 25 years since I learned to parachute and these days our idea of huge fun is hot air ballooning. Could we? Should we? Good price… so why not? Just like hot air ballooning I said to myself (and James). Minus the hot air and the balloon. But the planets were not aligned at midday – the thermals were not behaving and it was going to be a two hour wait by the time the current customers could be landed in the canyon and driven back. Ahhh well – on the way back we were promised.
We had waited about 45 minutes before the call was made to continue on so next stop was the small town of Stepantsminda. Aside from being a bit of a mouthful, hardly anyone calls it that. The town sits in the shadows of Mount Kazbegi – thus the town is ‘Kazbegi’. The main attraction here is the Church of the Holy Trinity – the Gergeti Monastery that is located at an altitude of 2170 meters. The monastery was built in the XIV century in the shape of a cross-domed church. Due to its location on the top of a steep mountain, surrounded by very harsh nature, the church became the symbol of preservation of the Georgian relics: in times of wars and raids, precious and holy relics of Georgia, including the Cross of Saint Nina (the woman who brought Christianity to Georgia), were hidden here. For the fit and fabulous hiking types, it’s possible to hike up to the monastery. For thrifty individuals who’ve even packed their lunch, its possible to jump in a jeep and get hauled up the mountain. The seats were reclined in such a way that we felt like astronauts preparing for launch. After the trip our innards felt shaken and stirred – in fact we have new sympathy for scrambled eggs. But hey – better than hiking.
The views were the highlight of the trip and we were incredibly lucky to see Mt Kazbeg without it’s habitual cloak of clouds – Wow! The church… quaint – the views, priceless!
Back to town and we enjoyed our lunch and were back in the people mover by 4.15 pm. The return trip began and by 5 pm we were at the take off spot again (deja vu all over, again) and James decided to join me on the paragliding adventure – so cool! Fortunately we’d stashed a bit of ‘just in case’ cash on us for the day trip so coughed up and before we knew it we were literally jumping off a cliff. Once trussed up I literally only took two steps before my pilot had us soaring thousands of feet in the air with just the swoosh of the canopy above us. James needed a bit of a run to take off – but soon he was soaring near me and getting amazing thermals carrying him and his pilot to incredible altitudes. It was all over just too soon.
We were incredibly happy and relaxed after our adventure and that kept us going during the very long drive back to town - all up over 11 hours daytripping and adventuring and, even with the paragliding add-on, an economical day out relatively speaking. And that’s one of the things we love about Georgia.
The rest of the week was not a let down so much as a recovery period - but we’ve been back into extreme activities in the last couple of days with our first outing on Tbilisi’s metro - woo hoo! Almost as good as paragliding... though probably not as safe. We felt like a new walking route and decided to check out a Medical Clinic almost 4 kms away. We kid you not. With our forthcoming huge adventure to the boonies of the Mekong River in Viet Nam (due late November), we’ve done our research and the only vaccination missing from our arsenal of protection is Japanese Encephalitis. Not worth getting for 2 days trotting about markets in a city - but apparently worthwhile if you’re going to be in rural/river/random jungly bits - so that describes our 3 months in Asia pretty well. We priced the shots in Dublin (holy guacamole Batman!) and figured they would have to be cheaper here - so we tootled off to an international clinic here. Let’s just say it was another couple of hundred Euro dearer than Dublin and leave it at that. An appointment has now been made for the Travel Clinic in Dublin. Yay shots.
The upshot of this massive walk - including navigating around a gigantic roundabout - was that we were tuckered out and the clouds were just starting to spit... fortunately, and somewhat planned, there was a metro station just around the corner. We bought our plastic card (2 lari / €0.70) and loaded it with 8 lari (€2.70) - that’s us sorted for 16 rides on the metro woo hoo! And we’d not even reached the escalator. Imagine a regular escalator. It goes at a regular speed. You don’t need all or even many brain cells paying attention to get on and off. This is not that escalator. Triple the speed. Time your entry with the precision of an Olympian. Stand safely holding on for the approximate 2 minute duration of the speedy trip at least 10 stories into the bowels of the earth... prepare... brace... focus... and... and NOW! DISMOUNT! And that was the beginning. Then we got on the metro itself. Like a bullet train. Except very rattly and Soviet inspired. We were hanging on for grim life (death?) Not just hoping it would stop, but rather, that it could. We were exhilarated to walk out into pouring rain - another tick in the bucket list of extreme sports - and so very, very economical. Next day trip? Wine tasting or a cave city... sedate indeed.