After checking out Stalin’s birthplace and getting chased away by the Russian Red Army from the South Ossetian border, we headed back towards Tbilisi and made a detour heading north on the Georgian Military Road, a 212km long pass that runs between Tbilisi, Georgia and Vladikavkaz, Russia. This route has played a significant role in history having been used by both traders and invaders for centuries.
Along with the drive from Srinargar to Leh in Kashmir, from Argentina to Chile, and from Khujand to Dushanbe in Tajikistan, this road is also known as one of the most beautiful mountain drives in the world.
One of the first stops is the Zhinvali Resovoir/Dam:
By it is the Ananuri Fortress, the classic example of Georgian architecture:
Continue onwards to the ski resort of Gudauri. Peak season is between December to March, running around 30 GEL for lift tickets and rentals between 30 and 50 GEL.
Eventually, you’ll hit Jvari Pass. At 2379m, it is the tallest point on this drive.
Finally, at nearly the limits of the Georgian border, you’ll arrive at the town of Stepantsmindi (formerly known as Kazbegi).
Right about 15km before the border to Russia lies the iconic church-on-a-hill Gergeti Trinity Church or aka the Tsminda Sameba Church.
Famous for the surreal photogenic image of a tiny church standing against the towering peak of Mt Kazbek, it has become a darling destination for mountaineers, mountain bikers, and hikers.
However, they all come during the warmer seasons; nobody ever arrives in the winter as all paths to the church is essentially blocked off by insurmountable amounts of unpaved snow. So my driver decides to hire the craziest taxi driver he could find who boasted the expertise and brawn to drive through it and back for 50 GEL.
That taxi driver, God bless his soul, could only manage about three-quarters up the hill before our van got stuck in the drift. He tried over and over but to no avail. He offered that I walk another few kilometers alone to the church but that was also became dangerously impossible as I had no proper clothing or footwear. So I headed back to my taxi driver and we settled for 40 GEL for him to drive me back down to the town and back to my car.
Dejected with failure, I did my best from where I was.
The views of Stepantsminda on the way back from the church:
After a late lunch in a family home, we drove the 3 hour slog back to Tbilisi, after which I celebrate to myself and look back on a vigorous 3 weeks through 5 countries in Central Asia and the Caucuses:
- At time of posting in Stepantsminda, Georgia, it was 3 °C -
Humidity: 54% | Wind Speed: 32km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Stalin's birthplace just got served.
After a 2-3 hour walking tour of Tbilisi at dawn, I hopped in my 9am car to Gori and the South Ossetian border.
South Ossetia is infamous for being the Russian-leaning autonomous region that declared secession from Georgia and its allegiance to the Russian Federation. This led to a brief war in 2008 between Georgia and Russia, where the surrounding cities (including Gori and Ergneti) were relentlessly shelled. Eventually a ceasefire was arranged, and to this day the border between South Ossetia and Georgia has been guarded by a legion of heavily armed Russian soldiers.
Although South Ossetia is still considered an official part of Georgia, it is nevertheless recognized as a separate state by only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru.
When our car pulled up to the bullet-riddled ghost village of Ergneti (literally positioned right at the border between South Ossetia and Georgia), our driver got a little nervous and made a immediate U-Turn as angry Russian soldiers at the border started wondering what the hell we were doing here:
The village of Ergneti itself would have been a fascinating place to wander, if a Russian military convoy wasn’t then sent on our tail:
The Russian troops eventually gave up after a few kilometers of following us and returned to their posts, so we headed onwards to Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin.
The main sight in Gori is the Stalin Museum, where by the entrance, the actual house of where Josef Stalin was born welcomes you:
Go around the house and head inside the actual museum.
In the main hall, purchase your 15 GEL (10 if your a student) entrance fee at the booth, including an optional 5 GEL ticket to check out Stalin’s Personal Train Carriage that he personally took to the Yalta Conference (he reportedly feared flying).
The main exhibit upstairs chronicles Stalin’s life from his birth here, through his youth, his rise as a communist leader of the largest country on Earth, his feats during World War II, his participation at the Yalta Conference, and his eventual death.
Stalin through the ages:
The most interesting part was the room that features one of 12 copies in the world of Stalin’s death mask, taken shortly after he died.
Outside the museum is Stalin’s personal railway carriage, built to be bullet-proof and features the fanciness of the day: a personal bathtub, a conference room, a prototype air-conditioning system, and Stalin’s personal bed.
If you bought the extra 5 GEL ticket to see this exhibit, someone will have to accompany you to unlock the railway carriage so you can go inside.
After about an hour here, we headed onwards on the scenic Georgian Military Road towards Kazbegi/Stepantsminda.
- At time of posting in Gori, Georgia, it was 7 °C -
Humidity: 52% | Wind Speed: 32km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
From a one-way 4 hour Air Astana flight from Almaty to Tbilisi, I landed at 9:40pm right on schedule. Not only did I get an entry stamp on arrival, I was also handed a free bottle of wine (that’s Georgian hospitality for you) by the passport officer herself.
Celebrating this gift but alas with no corkscrew to begin my lonely inebriation, I then took a cab to Envoy Hostel located at the southern edge of Tbilisi’s Old Town.
After about 15-20 minutes of driving, there’s that superb jaw-dropping moment when your eyes first lay upon a gorgeous city on a hill…
The views from Envoy Hostel’s 3rd floor terrace are even better:
Around 6am the next morning, I started my solo tour of Tbilisi while everyone in the city (save for a few couples making out) was still asleep.
From the hostel I headed up 400m to the Persian-built, Arab-upgraded 4th century-era Nariqala Fortress for sweeping city views of Tbilisi.
Walk west of the fortress, hugging the hill, and you’ll come across to the foot of the Kartilis Deda (Mother Georgia) statue.
She’s holding a glass of wine in one hand and a sword in the other to symbolize both Georgia’s hospitality and willingness to defend itself, respectively.
This is what Mother Georgia gets to see every night:
Walk back down the hill, which path will curve east and lead you to Betlemi Church and the Zoastrian Ateshgah Fire Temple beside each other.
You’ll eventually hit the heart of old town, including the Gudiashvillis baghi park.
Take you time here to explore Old Town, either at night or during the day, and you’ll find a plethora of charming, windy avenues populated by bohemian cafes, bars, youth hostels and various European-style entertainment tucked away in medieval buildings dating as far back as 1795 (when the city rebuilt itself after being sacked by the Persians).
BTW, Tbilisi had also been conquered by none other than the Uzbek National Hero, Timur, himself. This trip has now come full circle.
The Peace Bridge
Old Town ends at the clearing of Tavisuplebis moedani square, with the St George and Dragon monument in the center.
This is also where the main street of Rustaveli gamziri begins, transitioning you from Old Tbilisi to new.
Head north on Rustaveli, and on your left will be the famous Parliament building, the central site of many watershed moments in Georgian history; it was here where 19 hunger strikers met their fate on April 9, 1989, where Georgia declared its independence on April 9, 1991, and where the Rose Revolution of November 22, 2003 transformed Tbilisi overnight from a lawless, dangerous, corrupt slum into a spotless, crime-less, cosmopolitan city that it is today.
On the opposite side is 6th century era Kashveti Church, built by priest (and one of the ascetic “Syrian fathers”) Davit Gareja who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia.
Head up north more and you’ll hit the Academy of Sciences on your left.
The end of your Rustaveli journey will be at the statue of Shota Rustaveli.
At this point I turned around and headed back to Envoy Hostel, admiring the sunrise over Tbilisi and witnessing the city slowly arise from its slumber.
At Envoy Hostel was a car waiting to take me to Gori (the birthplace of Josef Stalin), the South Ossetia border, and Kazbegi.
To be continued in part 2…
- At time of posting in Tbilisi, Georgia, it was 7 °C -
Humidity: 52% | Wind Speed: 32km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear