“Hello, my friend!” Tazo our driver greeted us with such enthusiasm that it was impossible not to like him at first sight. As we found out throughout the day, he knows a smattering of English, ending every sentence with ‘my friend’. His driving skills are unparalleled, so much so that we had a headache by the end of the day trip into the Caucasus mountains.
The road out of Tbilisi is scenic, but absolute shite in many places. There are many times though, when the landscape alone makes it worth it and this is possibly one of those times.
The Georgian military highway is the only route out of Tbilisi into Russia and Azerbaijan, and follows the route of traders and invaders throughout the centuries through the high Caucasus. Touted as one of the most scenic – but dangerous drives – in the world, it’s easy to see why: harsh winters have reduced parts of the road to nothing more than potholes and the narrow width along hairpin turns would faze any driver.
But it’s also unbelievably gorgeous as it winds through isolated villages paralleling the Zhinvali Reservoir, the Ananuri Fortress, and the Gudauri ski resort near the highest point of the road called the Jvari pass before descending into Kazbegi, where most tourist journeys end, in the small village of Stepantsminda.
From then on, it’s a matter of playing Russian roulette (with not quite the same stakes) with the weather, to see if Gergeti Trinity church is accessible from Stepantsminda. Winter and heavy snowfall rule that option out almost immediately, despite the sunny skies, impassable even for 4WD vehicles which are normally used for that 6km trek uphill. TC and I had hoped to hike up, but that was pretty much a negative.
Kvintsa, our guide with Colour Tour Georgia, says Kazbegi is likened to a bride who shyly hides her face from visitors as it’s often shrouded in fog and clouds. Our disappointment and desperation must have been obvious, because the guide suggested that we could visit a neighbouring church on the other side of the mountain but we chose not to in the end, opting to see Gergeti church from the terrace of the very posh Kazbegi Rooms hotel.
Then it was back through the same road to Tbilisi – but with a stopover at a supermarket in Gudauri for lunch. Gvantsa and Tazo were brutally accommodating, eschewing their own proper meals that made us feel quite bad about it.
TC, however, slept most of his way through the journey, prompting concerned stares from everyone.