Return along the Georgian Military Highway

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.

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Watchtower, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Great Patriotic War Memorial, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Cow, Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

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.

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Kazbegi, Georgia

Basilica, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Basilica, Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

Sioni village, Kazbegi, Georgia

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.

The Georgian Military Highway, into the Caucasus Mountains

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.

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument, Georgian Military Highway

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

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.

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument, Georgian Military Highway

Medieval fortress of Ananuri, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

Georgian Military Highway, Georgia

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?