A visit to the Great Caucasus Range is a highlight of any trip to Georgia, and driving the Georgian Military Highway through the mountains is one of the most scenic routes in the country. Not that gazing out of the window to appreciate the scenery is advisable when there are lunatic drivers, massive trucks, hairpin bends and vertical drops off the side of the road. To say parts of the drive were hair-raising would be understatement, but the journey and destination were worth every sphincter-clenching moment.
The mountains, valleys and sheer gorges of this region are the stuff of legend, and it’s easy to see the appeal. To get there though I first had to brave Tbilisi’s horrendous rush hour traffic. Once out of the city the driving is no less dangerous, but it comes with the advantage that there are far fewer vehicles on the road. The route north follows the Kura or Mtkvari River along an uninspiring valley floor before the road starts to wind through dense forests as you approach the medieval fortress of Ananuri.
I say “uninspiring”, but on this section of road I witnessed an extraordinary event that should have resulted in the death of a pig and possibly several humans. I still can’t fully explain what happened, but needless to say an enormous pig walked into the road just as a van was overtaking a car as a truck and several other vehicles were coming from the opposite direction. The probability of everyone (especially the pig) surviving must have been infinitesimally small. Yet that’s what happened.
This was my introduction to the ever-present danger of animals on Georgian roads. It turns out that the cows of this region have a death wish, and since crashing into a cow is unlikely to end well for anyone, they are best avoided. That though is easier said than done. They gather in groups on the road, oblivious to the traffic. The number of times I almost hit a cow, or saw someone else almost hit one, was in double figures by the time I arrived in Stepantsminda, my final destination.
My growing sense of isolation as I drove further into the mountains came to an abrupt end when I suddenly arrived at the Ananuri Fortress. Out of nowhere there were tour buses filled with Chinese tourists, minivans filled with Indian tourists and plenty of cars with Russian licence plates. People were wandering across the road taking photos. In imitation of Georgian cows they seemed oblivious to oncoming traffic. I parked when I finally found a space, and went to explore the fortress.
Dating from the 17th century, Ananuri Fortress sits picturesquely and peacefully high above the blue waters of the Zhinvali Reservoir. Don’t let this idyllic location fool you though, this place has seen many battles and sieges, not to mention the presence of suicidal cows in the surrounding area. That said, there’s not a lot to see, although the interior of the main church was atmospheric and the views are wonderful. Keen to continue into the mountains I set off again.
The road becomes much more vertiginous beyond Ananuri until it reaches the highest point on the route, the Jvari Pass at an altitude of 2,379 meters (7,815 feet). Along the way the landscape changes significantly, snow capped mountains became the backdrop for the rest of the route. At the Jvari Pass sits one of the more extraordinary sights in the mountains, a colourful and seemingly non-ironic monument to Soviet Russian and Georgian friendship. Its location on the edge of a cliff is spectacular.
The road descends dramatically from the Jvari Pass into a valley that seems to stretch to the horizon, only ending at the towering peak of Mount Kazbek. It’s an utterly beguiling landscape and I was glad I’d braved the roads, reckless drivers and bonkers cows to make it to Stepantsminda, or Kazbegi as it is also known. Why are do so many things in Georgia have two names?