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 tragic beauty of Georgia’s Truso Valley

The hike alongside the Terek river into the Truso valley is breathtaking. The lush green valley, surrounded by soaring snow-capped peaks, has a beguiling natural beauty that is lent added mystique by ancient defensive towers and small Ossetian villages that dot the landscape of this spectacular region. Accompanied only by the sound of the river, the sense of peace and tranquility were overwhelming, but the abandoned and ruined village of Ketrisi tells a different story about the history of this area.

Walk too far down the valley and you’ll probably find yourself having a conversation with the Georgian military. Here, at the head of the valley, lies the breakaway region of South Ossetia. A separatist movement seeking independence from Georgia emerged in the region during late 1980s, but it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgian independence in 1991 that poured fuel on the fire and led to conflict. Thousands fled their homes to escape the fighting and South Ossetia declared independence.

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Periodic fighting continued until 2008, when a nationalist Georgian president decided to subdue South Ossetia once and for all. The end result was the invasion of Georgia by Russian troops and the rapid defeat of the Georgian military. Russian forces remain in South Ossetia and the border between it and Georgia remains a militarised zone. This is inconvenient for walkers and a disaster for the region’s inhabitants, who have been forced to leave their homes and livelihoods behind.

The eerie crumbling villages of the region are all that remain of once thriving mountain communities, although one or two homes seemed to be inhabited, and there is a newly reconstructed and fully functioning monastery in the valley. The entrance to the Truso valley is about 20km south of Stepantsminda and, the moment I left the main road, I found myself bouncing down rough tracks towards the tiny semi-inhabited village of Kvemo Okrokana.

The vast, open valley narrows to a virtually impassable point at the Truso Gorge, and my map said the route to the valley on the other side was a winding road over a big hill. It quickly became clear that this road was impassable. Large rocks had tumbled down the hillside blocking the route, and it looked like it hadn’t been used for some time. The reason for this only became clear when I discovered a new ‘road’ had been blasted out of the hillside above the river linking Kvemo Okrokana with the inner valley.

I left the 4×4 at the entrance to the village and walked along this road into the dramatic landscape of the gorge. From here it’s around 12km to the end of the valley, and I was very conscious that it would also be 12km back. I put that thought to the back of my mind and marvelled as the landscape unfolded. The walk through the gorge is around 4km long, and just as I was beginning to wonder if it ever ended I crossed a bridge into the inner valley.

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia

Zakagori fortress, Truso Valley, Kazbegi, Georgia ©caucasus-trekking.com

It was like entering a strange and forgotten land. A feeling reinforced by the white, pink and yellow travertines, limestone deposits formed by natural mineral springs, dotting the ground. It’s a remarkable sight. I continued down the valley towards Ketrisi village, passing herds of cows and mineral springs. The view down the valley was magnificent, in the distance was Zakagori, a ruined fortress. As I walked though, the weather began to look ominous.

I was just past Ketrisi when large raindrops began to fall. I took shelter until it stopped and carried on my way. A few minutes later the heavens opened and rain turned to really quite large hailstones. The temperature plunged alarmingly. Time to turn tail and head back, the only problem being that the car was 10km away. I was pretty wet by the time I reentered the gorge, but here I had some luck – a 4×4 stopped and offered me a lift. I’ve rarely been more grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Stepantsminda, in the heart of the mighty Caucasus mountains

As well as being one of Georgia’s most iconic landscapes, the Kazbegi region in the high Caucasus mountain range is a place of myth and legend. On the slopes of the mighty 5,047 metre Mount Kazbek, Georgian legend collides with Greek mythology at the site where the Titan Prometheus was imprisoned for eternity as punishment for teaching humanity the secret of fire. A harsh punishment for sure, but the views must have been spectacular.

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

This is a land of extraordinary landscapes and breathtaking panoramas. Thankfully you don’t have to go in search of Prometheus to get them. It is also a place where, despite the ever growing encroachment of modern life, you can feel like you’ve stepped back in time – by a few centuries. I woke on my first day in Stepantsminda, a village also known as Kazbegi, stood on the balcony of my mountainside homestay and took in the view. In the field opposite, a man milked a cow by hand.

I strolled to the kitchen, where the family’s grandmother was preparing a breakfast of homemade flatbread, butter, salty cheese, fresh eggs and homegrown vegetables. A horse wandered past the window. The Kazbegi rush hour was as far removed from Tblisi’s as it’s possible to get. I was planning to hike to the area’s most famous site, the wondrously picturesque Gergeti Trinity Church, but grandmother forced so much food on me that I had to go for a lie down.

An hour later I was walking through the streets of one half of the village – the Georgian Military Highway cuts through the village – accompanied by views of mountains on all sides. A dog decided to tag along, but was scared off by a group of cows that wandered into the main street. So far I’d not seen a single person or, for that matter, any vehicles. The trail to the church began in earnest, and I was soon climbing upwards alongside a small river guarded by a ruined ancient defensive tower.

As I climbed higher, every step I took seemed to reveal more fabulous views and the tops of snow covered mountains appeared, Kazbek included. It was hot work and I’d forgotten to bring water with me. I told myself there’d be drinks at the church (I was wrong). These small troubles faded as the ever-expanding landscape revealed itself. A few people passed me on the way down the trail, and soon the Gergeti Trinity Church was just above me.

The church dates from the 14th century and sits at an elevation of 2,170 meters. Even though it has one of the most dramatic locations of any religious building on earth, this severely restricted the number of visitors. Until, that is, they built a paved road up the mountainside in 2018. This has scarred the landscape and massively increased visitor numbers. When I got to the church there were around twenty 4x4s parked nearby and a gaggle of tourists.

The interior of the church, like many in Georgia, was fairly disappointing, but the views over the valley and village below were utterly stunning. Up here it’s easy to forget all the troubles of the world, but if you hiked 10km north you’d reach the Russian border. It was through Stepantsminda that the Russian military invaded Georgia in 2008, and Russian troops are still stationed nearby in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. All the more remarkable that many of the tourists at the church were Russian.

Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Gergeti Trinity Church, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

Stepantsminda, Kazbegi region, Caucasus mountains, Georgia

I made my way back down the mountain and stopped in the village to have a cold beer while taking in the views across the valley. I could see my destination for the evening perched on the hillside. In this tiny village sits the remarkable Rooms Hotel, home to one of the best dining experiences in Georgia – which comes accompanied by dramatic views back towards Mount Kazbek. It’s the perfect place to watch the sun set before tucking into delicious food.

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?