Georgia: Highway to the Caucasus
Retracing the seminal route that has shaped the history of Georgia and its neighbours for many centuries
At 9am on a weekday, the Didube bus station in Tbilisi was bustling much like any Indian bus station. There were taxis and marshrutkas (minibuses) all around, with luggage heaped on their carriers. Drivers and vendors walked among the crowd, cajoling travellers in broken English. Everything was on offer, from fruits, coffee beans, prayer beads and long slender churchkhelas (strings of candied nuts) to tours to Kazbegi in the north, Kakheti in the east and Batumi in the far west.
Two friends and I had landed in Georgia’s capital just a few hours earlier. We had planned the trip on a whim, and just had smidgens of information passed on by a Georgian co-passenger on the flight in. She suggested two possible itineraries: north to the Caucasus Mountains towards Kazbegi or east to the vineyards of Telavi.
We immediately picked the former. The Caucasus Mountains have always held a strange allure for me—a legendary region that finds prominent mention in history but features almost nowhere in modern guidebooks. As soon as a driver approached us with cries of “Kazbeg, Kazbeg," we negotiated the fare and hopped into his taxi. As we drove out of Tbilisi, the view changed rapidly, from city outskirts full of construction projects to more rural scenes. Coniferous trees lined the road, punctuated by tiny bus stops where children played in the summer sun. A train track ran parallel to the road. We drove under old concrete bridges that seemed to belong to the Soviet era, their stark grey a contrast to the bright green of giant watermelons sold at roadside stalls. We tried to chat with the driver, but his English was limited. So we relied on our co-passengers, a pair of Ukrainians, to translate our questions into Russian, a language that nearly everybody in Georgia speaks and understands.
That was just the beginning of the Russian connection. We were travelling on the Georgian Military Highway, built in the late 18th century, when Georgia was the south-west frontier of Russia and its protectorate. The Russians used it for military purposes, but the route had existed long before they built the road. Traders and invaders alike used it to traverse the Caucasus Mountains that stand at the crossroads of Asia and Europe.
In the long Caucasian war during the first half of the 19th century, control of this highway played a dominant role in Russia’s annexation of large parts. Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time, first published in 1840, starts with the narrator raving about the view along this highway: “I was travelling post from Tiflis (old name for Tbilisi).... What a glorious place that valley is! On every hand are inaccessible mountains, steep, yellow slopes scored by water channels, and reddish rocks draped with green ivy and crowned with clusters of plane trees. Yonder, at an immense height, is the golden fringe of snow. Down below rolls the river Aragva (now spelt Aragvi)...which stretches out like a thread of silver, its waters glistening like a snake with flashing scales."
As we drove down this highway, which runs 200kms from Tbilisi in Georgia to Vladikavkaz in Russia, I was amazed by how little the view had changed from Lermontov’s description, especially higher up in the mountains. The difference is that there are now Azeri oil filling stations with enviable views and signboards showing distances to places like Yerevan and Tehran. The latter made me marvel at the seminal position this country and the highway have held over the years, connecting two distinctively different cultures and their shared turbulent histories.
The Aragvi river flowed along the right, and we stopped at a bend in the road to take in the sight of the majestic Zhinvali water reservoir, built where the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers meet. Its waters reflected the emerald hue of the hills surrounding it. A little further, to the right, was the 17th century Ananuri fortress complex. With its two churches, brown walls built from large carved stones and towers with conical tops, it could well have been the site for a miniature King’s Landing from The Game Of Thrones. Quite fittingly, the fortress has witnessed several battles.
The highway ascended rapidly after Ananuri, and we drove past green pastures and honey farms with neat rows of bee boxes. Jars of this honey, along with the Georgian spirit chacha, and home-made cheese, were on sale at the Friendship Monument, where we stopped. But more delicious than these goodies was the irony that the structure represented. It was erected by the Soviets in the early 1980s to mark 200 years of the treaty that had made Georgia a Russian protectorate. In 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a bitter war, and massive parts of Georgia’s territory (not very far from the same monument) proclaimed themselves breakaway nations, not recognized worldwide even today. The monument itself is a bizarre circular outgrowth of concrete built at a beautiful vantage point. Within are vivid murals illustrating Russian and Georgian history over the years. There are small balconies that afford views of the surrounding mountains, the last remnants of snow still peppered among the otherwise lush green slopes.
Beyond the monument, the road climbed more steeply to the winter resort town of Gudauri, located at an elevation of 2,196m. Here the mountains were truly majestic. It being summer, the town seemed empty and we drove on to Stepantsminda (the official name for Kazbegi, though the latter is more commonly used). I took deep breaths of the crisp, unpolluted mountain air. With a population of a few thousands, the town is the last major settlement on the Georgian side of the military highway. It is located on the bank of a tributary of Aragvi, with the massive 5,047m-high Mount Kazbek looming over it on the other side of the river. The shorter hills close by looked like stepping stones to the massive peak. The spires of a church rose up on one of them, standing out against the snow-clad range. This was Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Church near Gergeti, a neighbouring village across the river. The 30-minute drive to the 14th century church, located at an altitude of 2,170m, in an old Russian-made Lada Niva 4x4, felt like an adventure.
Later that evening, as we sat at the beautiful Cafe 5047m in Kazbegi, gorging on home-made local food, someone mentioned that Russia was hardly 20kms away. It made me ponder how far I had come. In front of me were some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, and just a little further lay one of the world’s most conflict-ridden zones. It reminded me of another beautiful place like this back home in India, with heartbreaking scenery and soul-crushing conflict. Why do the two go hand in hand so often, I wondered.
Eat vegetarian in Georgia
Georgia’s rich culinary tradition features a surprisingly large number of vegetarian dishes
Made from soft, leavened dough, filled with lots of cheese and butter. Best eaten fresh out of the oven. May sometimes contain egg, so ask for an option without (also makes you wonder about the origins of the word ‘puri’ as you eat).
Georgian dumplings with a thick outer layer filled with potato, cheese, mushroom, or all of these together. Served with a generous dollop of butter on top. Non-vegetarian versions with meat stuffings are also available.
Staple Georgian dish made from boiled kidney beans and lots of vegetables and spices. Surprising similar to good old ‘rajma’.
A vegetable stew, predominantly featuring eggplant, known as the Georgian ratatouille.
A string of walnuts (and sometimes other nuts like almonds and hazelnuts) candied in thickened fruit juice. Don’t let the sausage-like appearance deter you.
Fruit extract dried into sheets and folded into a roll. Available in vibrant reds, oranges and violets, depending on the fruits they are made from. Reminded me of grandma’s ‘aam papad’.