Tbilisi to the Top of the World and Back

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2005)

Although it deserves much longer, the journey from Tbilisi up along the Georgian Military Highway to the top of the world and back can be made in a single day, provided that the weather is warm and the skies are clear.

This road, which connects Tbilisi with Russia, has always been a strategic route for various commercial groups, conquerors and marauding armies – hence its name. To this day, the historic association of the road is preserved in the occasional stone watchtowers lurking in the foliage to either side. However, while the Caucasus region has always been populated by a cacophony of ethnic groups, sparring provinces, languages and cultures, today there is no lack of peace to be found in the mountain folds steadily climbing to the border town of Kazbegi, and the enormous mountain for which it is named.

One might expect that Kazbegi – wedged as it is between Chechnya and North and South Ossetia – might be a volatile region. The reality is exactly opposite. The largely unpopulated swathes of mountains and glacial lakes, dotted with tiny villages and flecked with grazing sheep, make for an oasis of tranquility in a sometimes turbulent neighborhood.

On the first stretch of highway after Tbilisi, the road remains spacious and well-paved. An enormous sign stretching across the road – courtesy of new president, alleged “pro-Western reformer” Mikheil Saakashvili – urges anyone who feels their rights have been violated by the police to call a hotline number.

Up from the dazzling reservoir of Zhinvali, with its unperturbed blue waters and occasional fishing skiff far below, the first item of note one encounters is Ananuri- a magnificent 17th-century castle and church complex set above a lake, decorated with intricate stone carvings and all the works – turreted walls, narrow towers and an underground dungeon, all great for clambering over in the clear mountain air.

As the mountains rise after Ananuri, the highway gradually diminishes, giving way to crater-sized potholes and deep cracks. Looking back over the ribboning road beneath reveals continually breathtaking sites of little villages tucked into the folds of mountains and snaking rivers. Further up, at the snaking Jvari Pass (or, “Pass of the Cross”), the road gives up completely, disintegrating into rock and dirt. The stones fly and clank against the body of our tough Russian workhorse, and the road disappears in clouds of dust. This is where the region of Kazbegi – known cumulatively as Khevi – begins. The area is perfect for avalanches and falling rocks. It also has many tunnels dug into the side of the mountain, for when the heavy Caucasus snows defeat the highway completely. These tunnels would be quite useful, if only wandering cows did not tend to fall asleep inside them.

Just after the pass comes a geological oddity: a whole stretch of mountainside doused in a rich orange hue, water cascading in thin sheets down its bubbling rock face, strangely hard its surface shot through with tiny serrations like a medieval knight’s chain mail. Apparently due to a heavy iron concentration, the mineral water is surprisingly sweet and can be bottled from a little spigot under an overhanging on the opposite side of the road. Oftentimes, an elderly woman from one of the nearby villages comes to keep the spring company, darning colorful traditional socks and hats to sell to people driving through. Further along, the mountains continue to both sides, the lowlands between them dotted with little villages in which one comes across delinquent cows, herds of curious children, tiny shops emerging from stone walls and greenhouses for coaxing vegetation up in this cool mountain climate.

Continuing on to Kazbegi town, one is treated to fantastic views to the left of snow-covered Mt. Kazbek, at 5,047 meters one of the highest in the Caucasus – and below it, on another peak, the sublime mountaintop church of Tsminda Sameba. In previous centuries, this unassailable church would become the temporary repository of Georgia’s most sacred religious treasures from Tbilisi and the low lying areas, whenever foreign invasions threatened.

The sidewalks of Kazbegi in autumn are filled with leaves of bronze and orange, rustling in the shadows of lofty trees and cluttered in the yards of elegant old houses. Townspeople gather around the two or three kiosks, where dried fish hang in the sun. A few miles beyond the town lies the Russian border, situated at a particularly breathtaking turn in the cliff, alongside a rocky stream.

Turning back towards Tbilisi, the beauty of the mountains in the fading glow of sunlight soothes and, when yet another spectacular Caucasus sunset draws near, is most richly captured at one special place along the road: the enormous multicolored clifftop mosaic monument to Georgia’s national heroes, straight out of Soviet times, carving up the gusting mountain air and rejoicing into the chasms and tawny folds of hillside deep below.