On the Georgian Military Road

September 22-23, 2014: Up in the northwest part of Georgia lies the Zhinvali Reservoir, a long narrow, somewhat V-shaped lake at the meeting point of three rivers. The Aragvi River feeds the left branch. The Pashavis Aragvi River feeds the right branch. Power generated from a dam at the base of the reservoir feeds Tbilisi and much of Georgia.

Yesterday we followed a road up the right arm of the reservoir, eventually ending up in Shatili (see previous post). Today we would be heading along the left arm, over Jvari Pass and onward through the Caucasus mountains almost to the border of Russia. This is the Georgian Military Road.

Historically, this was a route used by invaders and traders. The Russian military began construction of the Georgian Military Road in 1799. It runs about 200 kilometres between Vladikavkaz (Russia) and Tbilisi.

Up near the top end of the reservoir, we reached the first highlight of the drive, the Ananuri Fortress. This compact fortification overlooking the reservoir dates to the 16th and 17th centuries and houses a pair of fortresses and two churches surrounded by a high wall. Attacks and fires were a common occurrence for the region’s rulers, the Dukes of Aragvi, and the fortress was in use until the early 19th Century. We stopped here for a wander through the fortress, snapping dozens of photos along the way.

Further upstream we passed through the Gudauri ski resort. Unlike Canadian resorts we are used to, like Whistler and Mount Washington, this one seemed barren and totally exposed to the elements with hotels and guest houses perched at 2196 metres, well above the tree line. It was chilly but snow was probably still a month or two away.

From Gudauri, it’s only another 30 km or so up and over Jvari (Cross) Pass and through the Tergi (Terek) River Valley to the town of Stepantsminda (Kazbegi), our overnight stop. Although they were doing construction on parts of the road, much of it was recently paved and in excellent condition. The best driving road we found during our time in Georgia.

Visibility was poor as we reached Jvari Pass, the highest point at 2379 m. On the other side, we found shepherds with big flocks of sheep grazing the mountain slopes and a number of old snow tunnels reminiscent of the Soviet-era. It seemed peculiar to me that they built two roads side by side, one through the tunnels and one around the tunnels. One for good weather, one for bad, I suppose.

As we snaked our way down the far side, a Russian driver sped past us just as we were crossing a small bridge. I’m not sure if he noticed the sharp curve at the far end. He took it at a speed much too fast to navigate the corner safely, nearly lost it, skidding through a large pile of gravel at the side of the road. It looked like he was about to roll, but lucky for him, he managed to bring his vehicle under control and continued on his speedy way.

The Tergi River valley was spectacular, even in the clouds. And even more so the next day when we retraced our steps under brilliant blue skies. The Tergi flows northwards into Russia and the territories of Chechnya and Dagestan before heading to the Caspian Sea.

All too soon we approached Stepantsminda (Kazbegi), a popular tourist destination ringed by mountains and less than 15 kilometres from the Russian border. It had been a long day’s drive and we were famished by this point as we never did stop for lunch, only munching on snacks as we drove. After checking in to our hotel, we crossed the parking lot to the nearest restaurant. It was packed with diners enjoying the hearty mountain fare. With happy bellies, we turned in early.

Like they say, “early to bed, early to rise.” We were certainly up early. The sun hadn’t crested the eastern mountains when we hopped in the Pajero before breakfast and headed uphill to see the reason we’d come this far.

You can’t miss Mt. Kazbegi (Mt. Kazbek), the third highest peak in Georgia at 5033 m, towering over the valley. Correction, let me restate that. You might miss Mt. Kazbegi if the weather is uncooperative. Luckily for us, the morning looked promising. Perched high on a knoll overlooking the town is the Gergeti Trinity Church. Seen from the village below, with the sun highlighting only Mt. Kazbegi, it looks magical. This view evokes Georgia like none other.

A lot of people hike up to this 14th Century Georgian orthodox church, which takes about three hours. Or you can hire a four-by-four taxi for the 30-minute trip up a twisty back road. We decided to self drive, of course. It was rough going, but nothing worse than anything we’d seen thus far.

Up on a plateau between the church and Mt. Kazbegi, we came across a horde of backpackers who had spent the night in tents. A cold and windy night by the looks of things. There is no protection up here from the winds that whip across this wide open space. Once again, we found ourselves pretty much the only ones wandering around the church and the grounds and taking photos from different vantage points. Even the tenters were only just starting to rise and fire up their stoves to make a hot drink. Just as we were ready to leave, the first of the hikers approached from the village below.

Back in Stepantsminda, we had breakfast and checked out of our hotel for the return drive down the Georgian Military Road. Heading in this direction, we followed one of the same routes that the Red Army used when they invaded Georgia in 1921 and set up Soviet rule that would last the next 70 years.

Back in the Tergi River valley, we came across villages reachable only by cable car, watchtowers scattered in the hills and a huge grouping of large transport trucks lined up along the side of the road heading north towards the border to Russia. I lost count around 80. Presumably, this was a holding area for the volume of truck traffic carrying goods to Russia, seeming to counter what I had read about the diminishing importance of this road as a through route. We passed another similar line-up further along, also heading north. There didn’t seem to be much truck traffic heading south.

Part of the fun of this drive are the quirky roadside attractions we found along the way. There was an old, mostly demolished building with a colourful mural painted on the one side that was still standing. We found an old tank rusting at the side of the road and stopped to watch a backwards farm truck trundle down the road with the cab located behind the box. A large round observation monument complete with colourful murals would have provided views over the Aragvi valley if it hadn’t been socked in. Another mostly abandoned observation platform was built in the shape of a Georgian cross. Not far from Ananuri Fortress is a monument that seems to commemorate the fortress and the Georgian warriors standing at attention with spears at the ready against unseen attackers.

We also stopped at an area where we’d seen a tour bus stop the previous day on our way up because we were curious what they had all been looking at. Turns out it was the confluence of two rivers. One whitish and one blackish. Even after the rivers joined together, the water maintained the separate colours in the strong current for a good distance before finally mingling together. We didn’t know it at the time, but these were the Tetri Aragvi (White Aragvi) and Shavi Aragvi (Black Aragvi) rivers. Aptly named.

Back below the Zhingvali Reservoir, the Georgian Military Road entered a wide agricultural valley. Here we stopped at one of the innumerable produce stands lining the highway to pick up some snacks for the next leg of our journey. Suitably stocked, we were headed next to Gori, birthplace of Georgia’s most infamous son.

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