The Georgian Military Highway is the only route whereby Georgians and Russians can visit each other’s countries. Early 19th century paintings show Russian military personnel travelling by horseback up a narrow track through the towering Tergi gorge. During the 20th century, German prisoners rebuilt the road and a cemetery is dedicated to them at the top of the Jvari Pass at 2378m. We drove over the pass on our way to Kasbegi as the water from surrounding snow melt poured off the Kharuli range.
In 1984 the Soviet regime built a huge monument to commemorate Georgian Russian relations. It’s ironic that the disputed border of Samachablo or South Ossetia, as the Russians and the rest of the world refer to the northern province, is on the western side of the Highway. This area was taken from Georgia by Russia in a 5 day war in 2008 and remains a restricted zone for Georgians. Huge trucks lumbered up over the pass en route to Russia, snaking down through tunnels constructed as an alternative to the road still blocked by snow drifts.
Kazbegi is nestled into the valley below the towering might of 5033m Mt Kazbegi. Gela our intrepid bus driver dropped us further on at Gergeti, where we transferred to three battered 4×4 wheel drive vehicles with equally battered drivers. Off we zoomed up a narrow dirt track to the Gergeti Holy Trinity church, which perches at 2170m on a hill above the town with a stunning view to the mountains behind. The skill of the taciturn drivers was evident as we hair-pin blended our way up the hill. The wind whipped around us as we walked up the last incline to the 14th century church. Here we were required to cover or in the case of men, uncover our heads and don a makeshift wrap around skirt to cover our legs.
Inside, the chill was only lightened by the faded frescoes over 600 years old. The stone church is the only cross cupola church in Georgia and has weathered blizzards and avalanches. It was a storage place for religious relics during times of danger in the past and was reputed to house St Nino’s cross. It remains a testament to Georgian resilience.
Our next destination was to visit the Russian border 15 km further north at Lasri via the Gevleti waterfalls. Our drivers turned off at Gergeti and headed again up the mountain on narrow rutted dirt tracks. Several times we thought we were about to be thrown down into the ravines below. We set off on foot through highland meadows dotted with giant buttercups and purple violets, ancient ferns unfurling their fronds in the sunlight. The sound of the waterfall drew us on until we reached a great pool where the glacial water gushed down over ancient volcanic rock. It was a welcome break.
Our journey continued up the Dariali Gorge with its sheer 1800m granite walls till we reached Lasri and the Monastery of Holy Archangels, sitting right at the border of Russia in defiance of the border guards. Our intrepid driver crossed himself as he got out of his car, sat on the memorial stone outside the church and lit up a smoke.
The drivers’ rugged good humour was a great antidote to their rugged environment. We returned to Kazbegi and tried a Khachapuri Kubdari, a lamb filled pocket bread from the local bakery. The lamb must have also had a rugged life, as it was our least favourite Khachapuri. The photo below shows our picnic with Holy Trinity Church a tiny speck on the horizon in front of Mt Kasbegi.