“Socks are key. Dry socks in fact. They’re the most important thing you need to pack,” my guide Giorgi says nonchalantly. “You should never go hiking without an extra pair.”
I nod approvingly but can’t offer much else. We’re barreling down a narrow, unpaved mountain road toward the village of Juta near the Georgia-Russia border.
I want to get involved in the discussion over the merits of proper hiking footwear, but I’m too busy picturing the ways our 4x4 can get stuck in one of the massive potholes or slip and fall into the gorge below.
Sensing my silent unease, Giorgi is quick to reassure. “We’re almost there. Trust me, the views are definitely worth it.”
Climbing Mount Kazbek
Giorgi works as an outdoor entertainment guide at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, which sits on a mountainside 1,800 meters above sea level (about 5,900 feet) in Stepantsminda, the capital of Georgia’s Kazbegi region.
It was originally built as a sanatorium in the 1980s when the country was still part of the Soviet Union, serving as a retreat for elites.
Abandoned for years, it was renovated by Adjara Group Hospitality and reopened its doors to guests in July 2012.
The hotel’s most impressive feature isn’t man-made. Sit in any of its communal areas, especially its vast outdoor terrace, and you have a front row seat to the glory of mother nature.
Mount Kazbek, the third-highest peak in Georgia, reigns supreme with a snow-capped summit that pierces the clouds. Under its watchful eye, the Gergeti Trinity Church stands at an elevation of 2,170 meters (7,120 feet), a popular destination for pilgrims and mountain trekkers alike.
We arrive in Juta by mid-morning, just in time to beat the crowds of day trekkers who flock to the region from the capital Tbilisi and nearby cities. The village is completely cut off during winter months, so when it’s accessible, its popularity spikes.
After an initial steep climb, we arrive at the 5th Season mountain house. It’s a popular spot with hikers returning from their trek. It’s known for local dishes such as kuserbo – shredded fried potato mixed with salty mountain cheese.
“It tastes amazing here, especially after we come back from the pond,” says Giorgi.
Going to Georgia? 9 things to see in this rugged nation
Expansive natural landscape
He’s referring to a glacier pond that sits at the bottom of Mount Chiukhi nearly five kilometers away through a gloriously green river valley flanked by towering mountains.
The views are mesmerizing – pristine nature unspoiled by human development.
At the pond, we’re joined by hikers from around the world, a testament to Georgia’s position at the intersection of east and west. A group of daring Ukrainians braves the freezing waters and goes for a refreshing dip.
Sitting next to them, a group of Russians and Turks enjoys the summit views while snacking on local cherries.
“This entire country is the size of South Carolina but there’s a ton of stuff to do,” says Tim, a visitor from Colorado on a two-week cycle tour of the Caucasus. “There are new mountain and cycle trails and of course old school hiking. Plus, the food is amazing and the people are the most welcoming I’ve ever come across.”
Jordan Trail – a trek through history via ancient villages and wild wadis
He’s right, Georgia is unique. It has great nature and good food coupled with generous hospitality. On top of this, it’s only slowly becoming a tourism hotspot, so there’s still a romantic sense of discovery about the place.
With my mind pondering the country’s tourism potential I manage to slip knee-deep into a gushing river at the bottom of the hill. Giorgi helps me out but can’t help beaming with glee.
“No worries my friend, you can have my dry socks.”