The Georgian Military Highway (map) links Tbilisi with Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, and is the main route between the Caucasus and Russia. Consequently, it has been an important historical route for both trade and military purposes, and will have played a critical role in Russian and Soviet interest in this region. The Embracing Georgia tour, organised by the Envoy Hostel, follows this scenic route as far as Stepantsminda (Kazbegi) in northern Georgia, with several stops at the significant points of historical and cultural significance.
Having only arrived in Tbilisi the previous night, I would have preferred a long lie and leisurely start to the day, however at 9 am we were boarding the minibus for what would surely be an excellent day trip into the northern part of Georgia.
The Zhinvali Dam, built in 1986, provides hydroelectric power and is located around 60 miles north of Tbilisi. The Highway meanders along the banks of the reservoir until reaching Ananuri Fortress, which dates from the 13th century and was once home to the Duchy of Aragvi. The complex is comprised of two castles, of which the upper one is well preserved, and two churches. As we explored the complex, our guide explained the history and significance of the various buildings. The large tower provided living quarters The Church of the Assumption (Ghvtismshobeli), which dates from 1689, has decorative facades and some impressive frescoes that survived the fire of 1739. The site was strategic location and the scene of numerous battles throughout history, including the massacre of the Aragvi clan in 1739. I would have preferred a bit more time to explore the surroundings, especially as there were a lot of tourists visiting at the time. The best views of the fortress are from the road bridge, with the mountains and Zhinvali reservoir as the backdrop. This is the image that features on the cover of the 2012 edition of the Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan Lonely Planet guide. It’s currently on the UNESCO Tentative list, and will undoubtedly gain greater exposure if inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
The Tetri Aragvi (White Aragvi) on the left converges with the Shavi Aragvi (Black Aragvi) on the right, just south of Pasanauri. Apparently, the black colour is due to limestone deposits, and even after the two rivers converge, the colours remain separate for a while before finally mixing. Very impressive, and certainly worth stopping at if you’re travelling the Georgian Military Highway.
We continued north following the Tetri Aragvi river valley; the numerous curves and switchbacks between the towns of Pasanauri and Gugauri providing increasingly spectacular views of this beautiful country. Whilst the historical relations between Georgia and Russia have not been particularly amicable, especially in recent years, The Russian Georgian Friendship Monument, an impressive mural set on an observation platform, is located just off the Highway between Gugauri and the Jvari pass. It’s not in the best condition, although I guess restoration of this particular monument is not high on the list of priorities. It’s definitely worth stopping though – if only for the breathtaking views.
Russian Georgian Friendship Monument
The Jvari pass is the highest point of this route at an altitude of 2379 m, and from here we continued the short distance towards Stepantsminda, passing long lines of trucks waiting to cross the Georgian – Russian border. Delays here seem all to common.
We arrived in Stepantsminda around 2 pm and were dropped off at the guest house which had prepared a homemade lunch for our group. It was fantastic; an endless supply of delicious Georgian food complemented with homemade red wine and (drinkable) chacha. Georgian cuisine is very vegetarian friendly, especially when compared to the meat based diet that I’m used to in Eastern Europe. One of my favourite dishes was badrijani nigvzit, grilled aubergine with walnut paste which is served cold; it might not sound the most appetising, but has an absolutely amazing flavour. After the soup, fresh bread, chicken, salads, and khachapuri, we had the opportunity to make our own khinkali. Well, we added the meat or vegetable filling to the pre-cut dough and then folded them – which was fairly easy. Khinkali are one of the traditional Georgia dishes; found in almost every restaurant, they are extremely popular as they’re both filling and cheap. After a late night coupled with an early(ish) departure that morning, I lacked the enthusiasm to take part in the optional hike to the Gergeti Trinity Church (Gergeti Sameba) – even more so after the ridiculous quantity of food consumed. Fortunately there was a 4×4 to take the lazy half of the group to the top!
This 14th century church is situated on a plateau overlooking the town, and is surrounded by mountains – the Georgian’s certainly know how to choose a location to build a church. The mountains of this region are very popular with hikers, so you’ll easily find accommodation options in the town, although many people were camping on the plateau. Whilst we had a quick look at the church, the majority of our time was spent enjoying the scenic views, although unfortunately Mount Kazbek was obscured by clouds. After our guide had managed to locate everyone, we descended the mountain to meet our minibus in Stepantsminda and began the three hour journey back to Tbilisi.
The Embracing Georgia Tour was an excellent day trip, and provided an opportunity to see Kazbegi and the main sites associated with the Georgian Military Highway. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is staying in Tbilisi, and perhaps doesn’t have the time to explore this scenic region of Georgia.