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
After a few hours exploring all that Bishkek in the winter had to offer, we drove 20 minutes towards the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, the busiest and largest border crossing in Central Asia.
It’s best that you do this border crossing on foot, a 5 minute walk to the first passport check, as opposed to waiting in car traffic which can take up to 3 hours.
Eventually you’ll cross a narrow river, which is the official physical border between Kazkhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Then you’ll come into a small enclosed structure with booths inside. Head into a door on your left if you have a foreign passport, which they’ll then take inside to stamp.
You now have officially left Kyrgyzstan; you can skip the booths and keep walking towards the Kazakh border control.
In the next enclosed structure, a guard will hand out a small form for you to fill out on the side. Fill in the basic questions on your identifying information and home address, wait in line, hand over the form and your passport to one of the booths inside, and smile for their camera.
After they stamp you in, you’re now in Kazakhstan.
It’s about another 3-4 hour drive (depending on snow conditions), or a 2 hour drive in the summer, to Almaty.
Once arriving in Almaty, we dropped off our stuff at the hotel and began our city tour at Panfilov Park, a central hangout spot in Almaty.
Within the park on the east side is Zenkov Cathedral, once the tallest wooden cathedral in the world and Almaty’s oldest surviving tsar-era building.
A few paces further east is the sensational war memorial with an eternal flame honoring the soldiers of the 1917-20 Civil War and World War 2.
We then took the bus and walked through Republiska Alany, a huge square with the sensational Dawn Of Freedom Monument, honoring the 250 victims and injured during the Zheltoksan protests on December 17, 1986.
Then we headed up to Kok-Tobe hill, 1100m high topped by a 372m high TV tower. Although the cable car was closed, we took the 500 tenge shuttle bus that took us to the top.
Although you can come here for the myriad of family-friendly carnival games, it’s also the place for sweeping views over Almaty and the mountains surrounding the city. Although our very foggy evening took away such a view, it nevertheless added to the surreal ambience of our last night together.
The park here amusingly boasts the life-sized bronze statues of The Beatles, claiming to be the world’s only sculpture of the four band members together:
Then the group said goodbye to 7 of us as we held our last night’s dinner at a fancy place featuring Kazakhstan’s national dish, Horsemeat and Noodles:
The next morning, the remaining 3 of us remaining strolled the local Green Bazaar as it was waking up to a sleepy Sunday morning. The behemoth is a multi-storied, multi-building complex that sells quite possibly everything ever invented under $50 USD or less.
Afterwards we jumped in our guides’, Ben and Eilidh, car for an informal spin around the city.
…including a visit to Presidential Park:
…and Hotel Kazakhstan, famous for being the primary hotel for Soviet aristocracy during the USSR’s heyday. Its considered a landmark in Almaty and distinctive for its crown top:
And as the day was winding down the fog (or pollution, seeing that it was a Sunday) began to clear, finally revealing the famous mountains we’ve been missing out on all this time.
As with the conclusion of another monsoon, I say goodbye to the group and head onwards alone to Tbilisi, Georgia.
- At time of posting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it was n/a -
Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: fog
From Dushanbe we flew on Somon Air (currently operating 2 flights a week from Dushanbe to Bishkek) for an hour to Manas Airport. Formerly known as Ganci Air Base during Operation “Enduring Freedom”, it once housed over 2,000 US troops as they sortied missions daily into Afghanistan.
After a relatively quick passport stamp, we were appropriately greeted with Kyrgyz cognac and Russian stoli vodka by our guides sent by Kyrgyzstan’s successful non-profit experiment, Community Based Tourism (CBT). For CBT, all your proceeds and money go back to the local people of Kyrgyzstan in exchange for a professional network of socially responsible Kyrgyz all around the country who will take you in and show you their country from a local’s point of view:
From Manas Airport, we then took a long lonely road for 30min to Bishkek that reminded me earlier of my drive to Astana from the international airport.
We then turned in at 1am for an early next morning.
Bishkek's "Big Ben"
We first visited the atmospheric World War II Monument, built 40 years after the end of the war and meant to suggest the shape of a yurt around an eternal flame:
Afterwards we spent half an hour at the Frunze-House Museum, which was built around the original cottage house of Mikhail Vasilievich Frunze, for whom Bishkek was named after he died. With no displays in English, the museum suggests that it chronicles the history of the Soviet Empire in the Kyrgyz region.
Afterwards we headed to the main plaza:
Hidden behind the State Historical Museum is a statue of Lenin:
Then you’ll come across the city’s centerpiece, Ala-Too Square, overlooked by a statue of Manas.
At one end of the museum is the impressive State Historical Museum, remarkable for for its wall to wall Soviet murals on its ceilings and its life-sized yurt on the top floor. Like the Frunze-House Museum, its heavy on Soviet history.
And the murals themselves:
The Soviet depiction of Americans as the Merchants of Death
The Soviet depiction of The Holocaust
Finally, the last thing to do in the Ala-Too Square is the changing of the guard, which occurs every 2 hours in summertime and every hour in the winter.
That’s all there’s to see in Bishkek in terms of sights; Kyrgyzstan is really known for venturing outwards into the mountains during summertime, so for the most of you, don’t plan on coming here during the winter unless you want to be the only tourists here or if you want to ski.
- At time of posting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, it was -3 °C -
Humidity: 95% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
What does that spell?
The largest teahouse in the world just got served.
After a one hour drive from the creepy haunted Soviet sanitorium, we arrived in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. Formerly a small village known for its weekly Monday bazaar (the name “Dushanbe” means Monday), it gained global attention in 1920 when the emir of Bukhara fled here temporarily. Afterwards, significant railroads were laid through the area and Dushanbe was soon named Tajikistan’s capital. Within a few decades, a small village became a bustling metropolis.
Our first stop was at Chaykhona Rokhat tea house, a Soviet-era institution and a classic place to visit in Dushanbe known for its a beautiful wedding hall inside:
We then visited the surprisingly impressive National Museum Of Antiquities of Tajikistan:
This museum helpfully has their exhibits labeled in 3 languages including English, and chronicles the history of the region and Tajikistan since the discovery of a 2,000 year old skeleton of a princess buried with her 2 slaves:
Not to mention, at 13m in length, the largest Buddha in Central Asia:
Afterwards we did the obligatory visit to the local market, the Green Bazaar:
By dusk we stopped over at the city’s central park, the central hub of all political and social aspects of Dushanbe.
In the distance are a few impressive Apartment Towers:
The National Library, completed in 2012:
The Presidential Palace:
By it, Bayrak, the 2nd tallest flagpole in the world (after the one in Jeddah, and before the one in Baku)
The 2nd tallest flagpole in the world just got served.
The statue of the father of Tajikistan, Ismoil Somoni:
In front, the parliament:
Parchan, a white marble column topped with gold:
And arguably the most impressive, the Rudaki Statue underneath his blue mosaic arc:
Then it was off to dinner:
And then we capped off the night with bowling at Taj Bowling:
The next morning we woke up to a glorious breakfast spread at our hotel, Hotel Tajikmatlubot (every “basic” room you pay for is actually a full suite!).
After breakfast the group headed to the Hissar Fort 30km away from Dushanbe, a restored fort destroyed by the Russians in 1924. The original part is only the twin-towers making up the gateway; the rest are the result of recent restoration efforts.
Although Lonely Planet thumbs their noses at this place, we found it worth a visit.
Climb a hill for views over the area:
Afterwards, drive back to Dushanbe and stop by a humongous new teahouse that the President just built for the locals.
Looking like a giant watermelon, it’s still under construction at time of posting.
For example its bottom floor isn’t quite ready to serve any tea:
But its upstairs interior opens up to a giant wedding hall, already ready for…weddings
Then we visited the Gurminj Museum, a small place featuring a collection of antique musical instruments and occasionally becomes a performing space for local musicians to get together and jam.
Don’t forget to visit the World’s Biggest Teahouse, doubling as a giant movie theater inside (which was playing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3D)
View from the teathouse
Then we waltzed around the flagpole once more, attracting a crowd of onlookers when we tried out this random carnival thing by punching a rubber mannequin for prizes.
We then commandeered 2 buggies and raced each other around the area to the music of Indiana Jones playing in the background.
Around dusk it was time for Chinese-Tajik dinner, and now it’s off to the airport for to the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek!
- At time of posting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, it was 7 °C -
Humidity: 57% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy