The road-trippers that we are, one of the things we wanted to do while in Georgia was to drive the famous “military road” with a length of 212 kilometers that spans the entire country of Georgia. It has been a popular highway in some form or another for thousands of years due to its strategic and economic importance. In fact, today one of its most important missions is to keep the trucks moving between Armenia and Russsia. The first mention of the military road is found in the ancient Greek Strabo’s geography. The road has continually been in use and has benefited from many road improvements throughout the centuries, being used continually by invading armies, traders, and caravans. The road spans the stunning Jvari Pass at an elevation of 2,379 meters. Today, alongside the unending line of truck transport, the other main usage is for tourists, both local and foreign who come for skiing in the winter and gorgeous views all year round.
Not having any idea how long it would take to drive the 212 kilometers to the Russian border, we started off right after breakfast on a bright and sunny day. The first part of our drive, leaving Tbilisi, is on a super highway that currently goes all the way from Istanbul to Baku. Like most other super highways, most the views were much better once the “military road” split away and was merely a two-lane highway climbing into the Caucasus mountains. Of course the road also became less maitained and we quickly encountered potholes, dips, landslides and plenty of other road damage. Even though there was some of this, mainly around the towns, the road was overall smoother than we had expected.
To say the road is scenic is an understatement. Driving along the military road, one of the first sites we came to was the castle Ananuri, perched overlooking the Aragvi River. Not surprisingly, since it is only a little over 60 kilometers from Tbilisi, it is a great day trip and there are food and handicraft vendors staged at the parking lot ready to take your money before you head down to the fortress. We loved gawking at the Soviet hats and military memorabilia, the traditional Georgian clothes you could dress up and get your photo taken in, and of course the hand-knitted wares the village women spend their winters knitting to make some extra money. I always am in the market for warm, thick socks! Of course, most of the locals were just sitting and chatting with their beers.
It is evident how important the road is to the people who live along it. From village to village, the townsfolk had set up stalls to sell local goods. In one town you could buy hammocks, in another handmade baskets. There were towns that sold specialty breads, wooden tools, local berries and roots, and one enterprising town sold car products all packaged up and ready for use. Somewhat comically, the stands are side by side as you drive through their town with the women, all coiffed and looking like models, trying to call to you to pull over. The bread town was especially picturesque. Each stall had their own tandoor-type oven and since they don’t want to bake more than they sell, the shelves were full of ceramic examples of what the bread would look like once they baked it for you and served it right from the oven. I was paying close attention to the types of wares being sold in each town as I was on the lookout for one specific item, a wooden dumpling spoon, and luckily on the way back I knew just where to stop to buy it, but that’s a whole story on its own (stay tuned for a future post).
Continuing through the valley, we saw many herds of goats and sheep, lots of old cars, tractors, and trucks, and, sadly, plenty of dilapidated buildings. The towns are very poor, and apparently the road maintenance within the towns is up to them so that’s when the road would get really bad. Really bad. In no time, the road started to climb, climb, climb and we were soon up in this ski town. Of course the ski season was pretty much over, but snow was on the ground and the ambient temperature was rather warm so there were still a few people on the slopes. Not much business was going on, and there was no transportation, so we saw this one poor guy carrying his gear, still clomping around in his ski boots, down the mountain.
We thought we had climbed as high as we could go, and the mountain leveled out onto a beautiful white plain, peaks ringing the floor like a royal crown. From quite a long way, we noticed a huge semi-circle of color. It was the concrete Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument. There were a bunch of cars lining the road to get to it, and we had to join them. Hysterically we met the owner of the guest house where we’d stayed the night before. He had guided a group of tourists there. He laughed at us driving ourselves up the icy hill.
The monument is covered in brightly colored tiles depicting heroes from myths and legends. It was full of people taking photo after photo and there were at least two pop-up coffee vendors as well as a couple of souvenir stands. It’s a very popular place. We, too, stayed and enjoyed the natural view as well as taking in the many different scenes on the memorial panels.
From there we climbed into the pass, and had to go through about five or six tunnels where there could be significant avalanche problems. In fact, we had to wait while a road crew cut into some of the snow wall and dumped the snow on the other side of the road. We enjoyed watching them clear, but many of the drivers were impatient and soon began honking their horns. He finally let us pass and we had the tunnels to go through. Like the towns in the lower elevations, entering a tunnel immediately meant the road deteriorated, and there were no lights. Some of the tunnel walls had windows built into them, and this was the only light. However, most of the time headlights were the only illumination. And here is where we starting seeing the trucks. It was terrifying. The huge tractor-trailers had to try and pick their way through the best part of the tunnel, often crossing over to our side of the road.
Every tunnel was jammed up with traffic. It took a long time to get through all of them, and when we reached the other side and started heading down to the border we saw truck after truck. Our original plan was to have lunch in the border town, wave at the Russians, and then head back. After trying to get through those horrifying tunnels with only a couple of trucks we had visions of being stuck inside one for hours with as many trucks that were waiting to enter Georgia. Before we even got all the way down, we turned around and quickly retreated back down the military road through the pass.
We were hungry, though, so we stopped in the almost deserted ski town for lunch. There was only one restaurant that we could identify as open, but there were no cars outside and no customers inside. In fact, until we called out, we didn’t see anyone. A lady appeared and to our surprise spoke fantastic English, assuring us that the restaurant was open as she handed us menus. A few minutes later, we heard the khinkhali machine pounding out dumpling shells and we knew lunch was on. In fact, it was one of the better meals we ate in the entire country.
After our lunch, we knew it was time to head back to Tbilisi. We arrived a few hours later, stopping often to take in the wonderful views along the military road.
Have you been to Georgia and driven the military road?