It’s odd how things look when you approach them from a different angle. The Georgian Military Highway is one of those routes you really need to travel in both directions. The landscapes on my return journey from a few days relaxing and walking in and around Stepantsminda, seemed even more spectacular than when I first braved this legendary road into the High Caucasus Mountains. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the drive, but it was punctuated by magnificent views, historic sights and death dealing cows.
I took one last look at the glorious Mount Kazbek, the “diamond shining … in its wealth of endless snow” of the imaginings of Russian novelist Mikhail Lermontov, and set off along the snake-like Military Highway that stretched ahead for 200 km. I was headed towards the famed Georgian wine region of Kakheti. The map indicated a useable road that cut across from the Military Highway to the area close to Alaverdi Monastery, one of Georgia’s most beloved religious sites.
First though, there was the simple matter of descending through Lermontov’s “massive amphitheater of mountains”. This route has been used for over 2,000 years, whether by Silk Road traders or invading armies. The route we know today was constructed in the 19th century by a Tsarist Russia determined to expand and control its empire in the Caucasus. Russian armies and weapons flowed along it, but it also made this romantic and mysterious region accessible to less militaristic adventurers.
Lermontov was only one artistic soul to seek out the area’s glories. Tolstoy, Pushkin and Gorky would also lionise this region. It’s hard to blame them, even if their version of it is somewhat romanticised – this is, after all, an extraordinary place. Only a dozen or so kilometres outside Stepantsminda, the village of Sioni sits beneath precipitous mountains and is home to a 10th century basilica as well as an ancient watchtower – perched on top of a rocky outcrop with sweeping vistas over the valley.
The village is also home to a fascinating memorial to those from this area who died in the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union’s name for the conflict we know as the Second World War. Hitler’s advance into the Soviet Union never reached Georgia, it came close but the mighty Caucasus were a daunting obstacle. Two things struck me about the memorial: it was in a perilously dilapidated condition, and it had a prominent image of Joseph Stalin.
There are very few places left on earth where Stalin is an acceptable public figure, and certainly few where you can still find statues and memorials to a man who oversaw the deaths of tens of millions. I’m not sure Georgian’s admire Stalin, but there is a sense of pride in the local boy who managed to rise high enough to run the Soviet Empire. I was intending to go to Gori, his birthplace, where there is a bizarre museum dedicated to Stalin, but this was an insight into the nation’s relationship with Uncle Joe.
I headed south, stopping occasionally to take in the beautiful views and passing some of the sights I’d seen on my way to Stepantsminda. There was more death defying driving from Georgian drivers tired of life, and plenty of cows lurking in or by the side of the roads waiting for their moment to terrify passing motorists. Every journey in Georgia was a pleasure to survive. Just after the Zhinvali Hydroelectric Dam I turned off the Military Highway and headed east towards Kakheti and wine country.