Friday, 30 October 2015

Driving the Georgian Military Highway

There are few roads in the world more spectacular than the Georgian Military Highway. Join Chris Raven and Simon Raven as they descend the GMH from the Russian border to the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi on a road trip of a lifetime.

Dramatic landscape on the Georgian Military Highway, Caucasus Mountains.
Photo by Chris Raven
Extract from the book: Black Sea Circuit

By Chris Raven, Simon Raven

A dusty, unpaved stretch of the Georgian Military Highway winds through the Dariali Gorge the “Gate of the Alans”.

Pumped full of adrenalin, Si squeezes past a truck from Azerbaijan on a narrow shelf below a 1,800 metre vertical wall of granite. I try to remove the thought from my mind of rocks smashing through the windows, or a landslide forcing us into the steep valley below. This dramatic and ancient trade route is considered to be one of the most romantic places in the Caucasus, with both Lermontov and Pushkin drawing inspiration from the region. Concentrating on the road, Si reminds me to keep my eyes peeled for lammergeyers “bearded vultures” and griffon vultures nesting on the cliffs. In this remote region of Georgia there are plans to construct a new hydropower plant that would generate electricity to be used locally in winter and exported in the summer to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. If not built with care the threat of environmental disaster seems like a terrifying possibility.

After half an hour of negotiating switchback corners and hairpin bends, we cross the Tergi Bridge and arrive in the northeastern Georgian settlement of Kazbegi (1,797m). In the distance I can see the 14th century Holy Trinity Tsminda Sameba Church perched on the adjacent hilltop. The setting sun kisses the jagged horizon and silhouettes a group of hikers making their way up the mountain. In the main square we are immediately surrounded by a group of hard-faced local men touting rooms. A guy appears suddenly at my window. He has flecks of grey in his wiry bushy hair and deep lines embedded in his face. Wearing a brown woollen tank top over a checked shirt, he has the manner of a mountain warrior and despite his age he looks as strong as an ox. I notice his teeth are yellow and decaying and his lips are dry and cracked. The smell of tobacco drifts inside the car.
  ‘You want room?’ he asks, the corner of his mouth curling upwards in a slight smirk.
  I shake my head. ‘No, we go to Tbilisi. Can we buy car insurance here?’
  He drops his smile and raises his bushy, out of control eyebrows. ‘What?’ he growls, fixing his stare.
  ‘We need to buy insurance, for the car,’ Si adds, knocking his fists together to demonstrate a collision.
  The tout mutters something under his breath to the sun-dried gentlemen standing around him.
  ‘No room?’
  ‘No,’ I smile.
  Exhaling a deep sigh, he turns sharply away and marches over to a young traveller struggling up the hill with his rucksack. Si swings the Volvo over to a nearby petrol station. I ask the guy working the pump about car insurance, but we are both suddenly distracted by the surreal sight of a camel walking along the road. A man with long white hair runs alongside the animal and barks orders at its backside. I turn back to the petrol pump attendant, who looks equally puzzled. He shrugs his shoulders and suggests we try in the capital city of Tbilisi.

We glide through the green mountains on a smooth tarmac road with the menacing 5,047m Mt Kazbek looming above us. A turn off for Sno Valley zips by as we approach the small settlements of Sioni and Kobi in the Tergi Valley. Rocks stained red by the sweet mineral waters interrupts the alpine meadows. We head towards the 2,379m Jvari Ughelt “Cross Pass”, the highest section of the GMH. Driving through deep water in an unlit tunnel, I grip the seat with my Gluteus maximus when two large trucks narrowly squeeze past. Sweeping from left to right, we observe crosses on sharp bends that suggest not all those who have driven this scenic highway have survived. In the winter months this section of the road is notorious for avalanches, and I try to imagine how beautiful it must look up here with the mountains covered in a thick blanket of snow. Devil’s Valley glows in the evening light, and we make a pit stop at a scenic viewpoint balanced on a cliff edge. An unfriendly local guy wearing a big floppy hat sells honey and handcrafted souvenirs. Si photographs the enormous colourful abstract mural above the stone arches, depicting a medieval scene of a princess with a small redheaded boy at her feet and white royal battle horses. Since crossing the border we have been zapped to a region of eastern Georgia in the Southern Caucasus, known in Greco-Roman times as the kingdom of Iberia - home of the Caucasian Iberians. During Classical Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Iberia was a major state in the Caucasus. It later united with Colchis to its west, forming the nucleus of the medieval Kingdom of Georgia.

With nightfall rapidly approaching, we begin the familiar hunt for somewhere safe to park. Arriving at the mountain ski village of Gudauri, on the southern slopes of The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, Si spots a sharp turn off below a luxury ski lodge. He sweeps the Volvo onto a grass verge and kills the lights.

Soft rays of morning sunlight creep slowly across the mountains and reveal our dramatic location. Si coasts the Volvo down the hill to a small supermarket with a cafĂ©, and I gaze dreamily at the poster in the window of a frothy cappuccino. With wild hair and pasta shell eyes I greet the friendly girl behind the counter. She has a very different appearance to the people we have seen living in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. Her nose is slightly crooked and she has thick wavy black hair and olive skin. Si returns from a trucker’s wash with a skip in his step. We sip our cappuccinos and watch the supermarket employees arrive for work. The boss appears to be overly enthusiastic and orders a young lad to quickly mop the floors. He doesn’t immediately jump into action and he shakes his head and trudges through a staff exit door. We listen to the employees chatter away and I’m intrigued to hear that the Georgian language sounds softer and more musical in contrast to their Russian neighbours. The guy operating the till eagerly teaches us how to say hello “gamarjoba” and thank you “gmadlobt”.

High on caffeine, Si checks out the road atlas as I set to work at driving the remainder of the Georgian Military Highway. Traversing the Tetri Aragvi River, a warm westerly wind blows through my window and massages my freshly shaven skin. Losing myself in the drive, I power the Volvo through sweeping corners as we descend 500m to the deserted village of Kvesheti in the green Khada valley. We follow the Mtiuleti Aragvi River for 40km, from Pasanauri to the Ananuri fort that is located on a hill above the turquoise Zhinvali Reservoir. Joining Si on the battlements, we look out towards the Pankisi Gorge. This region is home to the Kists, an ethnic group described by the 19th century Georgian poet Vasha Pshavela as “a vengeful yet honourable people, who were locked in blood feuds with their neighbours but would respect the laws of hospitality, even unto death.” Feeling in highspirits after traveling this awe-inspiring route through the Caucasus Mountains, I begin to feel excited about the prospect of arriving in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi; the beating heart of the southern Caucasus where East meets West.

BLACK SEA CIRCUIT by Chris Raven & Simon Raven.

UK travel writers go on a quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea in a twenty year old Volvo.

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

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