The road that took me from Tbilisi to Kazbergi followed an old connection used by invaders and traders to the kingdom of Georgia for eons. Till late 18th century, with Russian firmly ankled in Georgia as protectorate of the country east side while the west was still under the Persian empire (Iran)’s suzerain, they started to enhance the known path that linked Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, Russia. Over the course of 70 years, they would build a miracle in the Russian empire that time – spending 4 millions euro of then money to construct a straight north-south road cutting across the Caucasus mountain range, stretching over 200km with sprawling tunnels at 2000m above the sea level. It’s heavily used during its construction to aid a number of military actions by the Empire, and so it is named Georgian Military Road.
We set off fresh in the morning from Tbilisi with a new driver, this one with very good English and full of stories. We headed north to Mtskheta direction. I heard this old capital was really charming and hard to miss, especially to see the precious relics of St Nino’s grapevine cross. I missed it. That’s me traveling without a very good plan as you might have noticed by now. Just north of Mtskheta, we entered the Georgian Military Road. The road is crowded and winding. As Georgians said hey didn’t produce many good drivers, I glued my eyes to the road as we ascended. 40’ outside of Tbilisi and you started seeing mountains and mountains, all so lush in the midst of summer.
We passed Zhinvali dam and it instantly reminded me of the Vietnamese’s Hoa Binh Hydropower Dam. The massive Agragvi river was stopped and tamed to served mankind. During the low season, you could still see the roof of the old village church. As we followed the road up, we reached Ananuri fort, a beautiful Orthodox Church reaching out and overlooking the reservoir. It’s certainly one of the famous attractions on this road. Here I thought I saw some cat-woman! A beautiful alone Russian in her lycra suits is climbing up the watch tower. A few more followed suit.
A little more up hill, we passed just another “tourist attraction” where the Black and White Agragvi merged. Once upon a time, there were 2 beautiful sisters, one with white hair and one with black hair. They both fell in love for one man. The lucky chap thought carefully himself and chose the white hair sister. The other sister, heart-broken, took her life to the east branch of the river. The river cried over her death and turned black. Knowing her sister’s death, the white hair lady sobbed, running to the west branch of the river and let herself in. The river cried and turn white. Then on, the 2 branches of Agravi River kept their color till they met. They would go side by side for a while before fully merging into each other. Somehow on the day that I visited, the 2 sisters intertwined fairly early and all I can see is a grayish fiery river. You can google it to see some impressive scene.
By then, I started getting more interest in some friendly companies along the road than the scenary itself. Moo Moo, beeee beee. Cutest craps on the road that couldn’t be bother about our presence (I meant big fast car). Then something appeared – the half-moon shape cast in-situ Russian tunnels. These tunnel are for used in winter when the main road are covered in snow and ice. Before we reached the highest point of the road -almost 2400 m above sea level Jvari pass – there is another massive tourist attraction that I was told to stop and see. The Friendship Monument, build in the late 80s to commemorate 200 years Russia – Georgian ‘friendship’, filled with mosaic-style propaganda painting of the history between the 2 countries. It covered a nice square where the best view of the valley can be attained. I was convinced to fly over the valley so I took my breath and jumped off the hill…. On a paraglide. As we glided up and down the hill-side, I saw lots of mountains, a too perfect looking pond with turquoise color water, roads, tunnels, people, etc. We glided down and waved at the Ukraine competitor paragliding company. At the end, I was glad it only lasted like 20’.
My driver woke me up as we passed Jvari and headed down to Gudauri, the famous ski resort of the country. European has started to go to Gudauri for skiing – imagine Alp – like conditions and Georgian price. I’d go back here for skiing. Maybe take a helicopter ride to save the 3 hour drive. We kept heading north and north and north and finally reach Stepantsminda, the trekking centre! Think of it like Kathmandu for those who wanted to see the Himalaya, this place is for people who wanted to scale Mount Kazbek, 5,047m above sea level, a mere 3,300m ascend from Stepantminsda. The town was busy at mid-day as day trippers like me made our lunch stop before checking out the area. I opted for the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, a rustic looking boutique hotel on top of the hill which apparently served very very good khachapuri. The hotel is gorgeous (I’d stay here next time) and has the unblock view of Gergetti Trinity Church with Mount Kazbek at its background. It has an indoor heated pools and all room facing mountain. Top notch Georgian and international wine and well, very good food. The view is to die for! I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to get on those mad old Lady car to get up to the Church in the afternoon, this view (with a glass of wine) was sufficiently good. After 2 glasses of wine and to avoid all hells break loose too early in the day, I climbed on a ,million year-old Lada machine and climbed 500m off-road to the church. I recalled the mirror of its were broken and one door was broken. We saw people pushing a car on the way. We saw some fiery muddy river flushing down (Flash flood danger!!!!!!). It was steamy hot inside but I dare not open the window. Dirt and mud splattered to the window as I held über tight to the side handle to avoid banging my head to the roof. At some point, it was so steep I couldn’t see the road. And yet, moo moo cows were wondering around laughing at us humans. All these, in addition to 75$, saved me from at least an hour and a half treacherous trek up.
The church, built in 14th century (its bell tower built later), was tiny and as beautiful as any Eastern Orthodox churches I have seen in this country, much older though. Adorned cupola, Nicholas-Cage-like St Nino with her make-shift cross, St George on his horse slaying a dragon/serpent with his long spear.
I sat there for a little, taking in the blaring sun and feeling humble to Mother Nature.