The country of Georgia is located in the South Caucasus. Along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. We spent a few days based in Tbilisi, its capital city, and took several day trips into other areas of the country. This blog covers our 100-mile, 3+-hour journey to the northeast Caucasus Mountain town of Kazbegi.
The Military Highway
The Military Highway is a major route through the Caucasus from Georgia to Russia. Russia built it during its 18th– and 19th-century occupation to facilitate its control of Georgia. It has a series of hairpin turns as it spans mountain passes and culminates in the 7,800 foot Jvari Pass. It passes several historic town, incredible mountain scenery and, in the winter, some of the best skiing in the Caucasus Mountains.
By the time we reached the town of Pasanauri we came upon the interminable line of trucks that were carrying goods from all across Asia who were waiting to cross the border into Russia We were told that the lines can approach 10 km in length and take up to several weeks to even get to the border. But before they reach the border, they have to traverse miles of steep, mountain roads with hairpin turns that result in many accidents. This, however, will hopefully be alleviated by 2026 when a 13-mile tunnel is expected to open.
Here are some of the stops and historic sites along the way.
A short drive from Tbilisi is Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities in Georgia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is where the patron Saint Nino converted the local kingdom to Christianity in 327 AD. For more on the historic churches here, see our trip to Gori blog.
The hydroelectric dam was built in the 1980s to capture water from an underground river and snowmelt from surrounding mountains. Today it serves as a recreation spot with swimming fishing, boating, and an access to lovely views.
About 45 miles from Tbilisi is a 16th century fortress surrounded by accessible battlements and watchtowers up to 30-feet tall.
It also has a secret passage down to Zhinivali Lake. Two classic Georgian-style 17th-century churches are in the fortress. The exterior walls of the larger Assumption Church have beautifully carved crosses. The front wall also has two lovely carved angels and intricate written inscriptions. Its interior, while relatively plain, have some pretty, generally faded frescos.
The popular ski resort is home to hotels, restaurants and quest houses, but very few homes. It is also near the Georgia-Russia Friendship Monument which was built in 1983 to commemorate the 1783 agreement by which Russia would help Georgia drive the Iranians out of the county. While the Russians did indeed do that, they did not leave. The Russians-designed images on one half the monument portrays the Russian Revolution, culture, agriculture, industry and its technological prowess as with images of its first astronaut an pace capsule. The Georgina half portrays dancing and wine before shifting to images of guns, red flags (as is Russia’s), a bear (a Russian symbol), mothers guarding babies where the men were at war, and other such symbolism. The supposedly beautiful view from the monument was covered with a dense fog when we were there.
The Jvari Pass is the highest place on the Military Highway at about 11,000 feet is surrounded by tall peaks. During our visit it was blanketed in clouds while the little ground that we did see as covered with snow. But then, just after we crossed the pass the sky opened to beautiful vistas of snow-capped peaks and lush green valleys with wisps of clouds that provided atmosphere–exactly the type of vistas we had hoped for. This said, the temperatures and the winds were not exactly what we had hoped for.
Kazbegi is a valley town at a 5,800 foot elevation. It was ours and most people’s northern destination. Located a mere 15K from the Russian border, it is home to a hilltop church.
Tsminda Sameba Church
The 16th century church and bell tower overlooks four small villages that have effectively merged into one, all in the shadow of 15,300-foot Mt. Kazbek and its even taller neighbor, Mt. Shkhara.
We had originally planned to hike up to the church. But between the cold and damp, and the elevation gain of more than 3,000 feet with no time for acclimation for the altitude and weather, we were thankful that our tour company also had a four-wheel-drive van waiting to drive us to church and its beautiful views.
Military Highway Restaurant
Our tour stopped at the Gamokvabuli Restaurant in Pasanauri for lunch. We had a brief lesson in and attempts at making khninkali (pork soup dumplings) before sitting down for yet another huge lunch. In addition to meat and cheese khninkali, we had three types of khachapuri (cheese pies). One was stuffed with imeretian soft cheese, one with lobiani (beans and bean paste) and one with pkhlovani (spinach and beetroot leaves). We also had badrijani nigvzit (fried eggplant around creamy walnut paste), mtsvadi (meat grilled on a skewer), kharchothick (curry), ostri (spicy beef stew), and more. Another great meal provided by our tour company Envoy Tours.