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May 18th 2019
Published: May 18th 2019
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Monday 13 May - Got an early start from Gori, heading east then turning north towards the Russian border, up the Georgian Military Highway.

The GMH has history, and is still a major North/Russia - South link across the Caucasus.

It follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders through the ages. Its maximum altitude is at the Jvari Pass, where it reaches 2,379 metres (7,815 feet). The 1914 edition of Baedeker's Russia describes the Georgian Military Road as 'one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world', and although we can't claim to have driven many mountain roads we can agree, the 2nd, northern half, was a lovely drive indeed.

Pliny the Elderly mentioned the route, and Russian troops first travelled it in 1769. And by 1783 a Russian general was able to go to Tiflis/Tbilisi in a horse drawn carriage. The GMH in its present form was begun by the Russian military in 1799. At one stage during the mid 1800s it was described as the "Russian Simplon" (reference to Alps crossing ).

The importance of the Georgian Military Road as a through route has diminished in recent years, primarily due to delays at the border crossing between Russia and Georgia, landslides and border closures.

However, since 2013, when Russia finally agreed to re-open its side of the border as a result of Armenian demands, the road has once again become an important transport artery, mainly for trailer lorries linking Armenia to Russia - though we hope they have a better border crossing down there than either of the two we used.

Soon after we turned northwards we stopped at Ananuri Fortress overlooking the Zhinvali Reservoir on the Aragvi River. The fortress belonged to the dukes of Aragvi who ruled from the 13th C. There are two 17th C churches inside the fortress, the larger of which, the Assumption Church, is covered with wonderful stone carving, including a large cross on each wall.

Inside had vivid 17th and 18th C frescoes including the Last Judgement.

Next stopping point was the imposing Russia-Georgia Friendship Memorial, built in 1983 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Treaty of Georglevsk. It is a large, round, stone and concrete structure overlooking Devil's Valley. The inner side is covered in a tiled mural depicting scenes from Russian and Georgian history.

A series of hairpins led up to Gudauri, home to some of Georgia's best downhill ski runs, .... and an Eidelweiss hotel. Well, doesn't every "alpine village" have to have one!

At the Jvari Pass, Jvari = Cross, the name taken from a cross placed here by King David the Builder of earlier blog fame. Up here the road is notorious for avalanches and various avalanche bypass tunnels are available at places where snow was blocking the road.


Not long before our destination we passed Obi-Wan's home village of Kanobi 😊

The town of Kazbegi (Stepantsminda ) is the last before the Russian border just 10 km further north. We don't usually comment much on our accommodation, but the Wooden Hotel Kazbegi is worthy of a line or two. Up on the steep side of town this has clearly been a "self build". It appears the 2 young members of the family have used land at the rear of their plot to lay a concrete slab, and then, currently, build a 4 bedroom "hotel" on half of it. Built from a wood/metal framework the construction is then almost entirely of varnished chipboard. Each room had full mod cons - heating, TV, real quality shower/toilet fittings etc, and all 4 rooms had a balcony looking across the valley towards Gergeti Church and Mount Kazbek beyond at 5047m (3rd highest in Georgia ).

Alexander Kazbegi, 1848-93, studied in Tbilisi, St Petersburg and Moscow then decided to become a shepherd. Later he wrote plays and novels that made him famous.

Mount Kazbek is an extinct volcano. First conquered by 3 climbers of the London Alpine Club in 1868. There is a cave at 4000m where a hermit once resided who looked after Christ's manger amd Abraham's tent! The ascent is now considered to be technically straightforward and takes 3 to 4 days from the village.

Tuesday we took the long steady trek up to the Tsminda Sameba church which is on the skyline between us and the mountain. ....

Now what is it with the weather on our trips? We shouldn't complain really, we've had hardly any rain to affect us. But at this time of year the temps here should be in upper teens/low 20s. So why have we been enduring mid to upper 20s on this last week. It's been pushing 30+ in Tbilisi this week and makes walking about tiring.

Rant over - the walk up was very pleasant, though getting to the church was a relief. What an opportunity for an enterprising Georgian to open some sort of a mobile cafe up there in the car park!

We took the route less steep, rather than straight up, following a stream valley that then opened onto a steep meadow hazed with a covering of alpine flowers - primulas, gentians, pulsatilla and many more. Also on the way up were many green-backed lizards, and a mass hatching of butterflies.

The church is something of a symbol of Georgia and is used constantly on tourism info. Its beauty, piety and fierce determination to be built on such a lofty, isolated perch are all emblematic of the country and its people.

As we left the village below we seemed to be adopted by the same dog who followed/led us all the way up. We met him at the top, and came across him again on our way down.

In 1988 the Soviets constructed a cable car access up to the church but the locals felt this was inappropriate and it didn't last long. So, until last December the only access was by walking or by hiring a 4x4 taxi in the village that would climb a rough dirt track to the top. But a new road has been built meaning any Dick, Bill or Harriet can drive a normal car up to the top. We saw dozens of taxi drivers in the village touting for business which we guess must have diminished drastically - though coaches can't get up the road - hairpins too tight - so that retains some business for them. Though - we drove up the new road the following day and it's already not looking good. Insufficient stabilisation of the side banks is allowing a lot of debris to drop onto the road, and at one stage lack of underpinning had allowed a quarter width of the road to break off and drop away for a few hundred metres of length reducing that stretch to single lane.

Wednesday we did a less tiring walk - moved 7km closer to the Russian border (by car!) then walked a side valley to the Gveti waterfall. Found a dead snake on the way, showing they are about (Pip checked later - some sort of venomous viper 😕).

We also power washed the car. We didn't want them thinking we had been off road as it was against the rental agreement - though not sure how to class those border crossings.

Then took the car, plus our picnic back up to the meadow below the church for the afternoon. That evening we went up to the 'exclusive ' Rooms Hotel ' for a few hours splitting our time between pre and post dinner drinks on their enormous terrace with a view across to Mt Kazbek, and a meal inside.

Thursday we headed back south towards Tbilisi. Stopped at Mtskheta for the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral - there are 33 letters in Georgian alphabet, 5 vowels. Our Free Walking Tour guide said there is a Georgian word that starts with 12 constanants!

The town has been Georgia's spiritual heart since Christianity was established here in 327. It was the capital of most of Eastern Georgia from 3rd to 5th C. The cathedral is often the setting for important ceremonies of the Orthodox Church.

The current building dates to the 11th C and, allegedly, Christ's robe is buried beneath the nave. Brought here from Jerusalem by Elioz, a Jew, his sister took it from him and immediately died in a passion of faith. They couldn't prise the robe from her hands so it was buried with her. The actual burial site location was forgotten. During later renovations a wooden column standing in the centre of the building could not be moved. After an all night vigil by St Neno, the column, miraculously, moved of its own accord to the robe's burial site. The column subsequently caused many 'miracles' and was known as the 'Life-giving Column'........allegedly.

The present building dates from 1010-1029, with a defensive wall built around it in 1787.

Across the valley then to our final Georgian countryside site, Jvari Monastery, another perched high up. To many Georgians the holiest of holies - how many of these 'most important' sites can they have in one country? The site is where a simple wooden cross was erected in the 4th C, with a church in the 6th C. The views were great again, particularly down to Mtskheta and the colour mixing river confluence too.

We arrived at Avis, dropped off the car, 1875km, just 125 av per day.

Tbilisi, capital city, much more manic of course. And there are some real boy racer chancers here too treating the main road arteries as race tracks.

On our way to a Free Walking Tour we stopped by and stepped into a modern, large, Public Service Hall, and the place was heaving. Best we could tell it was a one stop shop for all things governmental - marriage licences, business registrations, death notification, land registry, passports...... and who knows what else. Lots of groups of numbered tables, chairs, booths. Lots of technology. Play area for the kids. Banks and a cafe, and many photo booths. What a great idea. We have seen others, also in modern buildings, on our travels - Gori, Borjomi - but this was the first we had entered.

On a similar theme, all across the country we have seen hundreds of pedestal units , a bit like reverse ATMs, where you can conduct business eg pay rates, fees, fines, ....

There is lots of building work going on in Tbilisi, and several major roads in the city. Not exactly built for pedestrians. We took a Free Walking Tour, as we do. Over 4 hours! ! Kate, American, was a preppy Floridian who seemed to excel at stretching a single sentence into a whole paragraph.

Most of the major sites covered - churches, monasteries, Peace Bridge, Sulphur Baths, and old-city centre natural waterfall complete with amazing chirping frogs.

Friday, May 17, was also National Family Values Day here, though some of our friends may also recognise it as International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Back in 2012 when the local LGBT+ community held celebrations in honour of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia the religious right here urged their followers to break up the celebrations by violent means, and it all got very messy indeed. That group then started the National Family Values Day and the local LGBT+ community have subsequently kept a low profile here on May 17, celebrating instead on an alternative date in June.

Today, Saturday, we just went in the cable car to the 'Mother Georgia' statue and the Botanical Gardens, which were were OK but a bit plain. And then a further wander around town. Tomorrow, our last full day will be similar but above the city on the other side.

Some final observations
Georgia is really nice, especially out in the countryside , and particularly up in the mountains. Well worth a visit.

They are building themselves serious problems with the amount of smoking - everywhere. Far more than we have seen for many countries. That is if the boy racers and mad overtakers live long enough for smoking to kill them!

There are police EVERYWHERE. On the roads, in cars, street corners. ...and lots of brand new police stations in towns and villages. Talk about visible policing!

Currently watching Eurovision Song Contest on Georgian TV. Jeez, missing Graham Norton's commentary.

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