Georgian Military Highway: A Road For All Time

Georgian Military Highway: A Road For All Time

It’s not the prettiest name in the world; after all you can’t beat “Going to the Sun Road” in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Yet the Georgian Military Highway in the South Caucasus is one of the most spectacular roads in this region, with the jagged snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, rippling emerald-green hills and valleys, wandering sheep, and ancient cathedrals, monuments, and fortresses still keeping vigil. And yes, its name reflects its history as a highway.

The Georgian Military Highway winds past historic churches and monuments, villages, and vistas <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The Georgian Military Highway winds past historic churches and monuments, villages, and vistas
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

 

Beginnings: A Long & Winding RoadFor more than 2,000 years intrepid travelers, Silk Road traders, and forceful invaders have been traversing this well-worn route between what is now Mtskheta – just north of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi – and Vladikavkaz, Russia. It began as a dirt path, gradually broadening into a horse track. The road travelers see today was originally built by Russian soldiers beginning in 1799, work that lasted more than six decades as they widened and improved the 130-mile road.

For centuries shepherds (here with cell phones) have herded sheep along the Georgian Military Road <br>Photo credit: Devin Connolly

For centuries shepherds (here with cell phones) have herded sheep along the Georgian Military Road
Photo credit: Devin Connolly

Built at elevations just under 8,000 feet, this highway was considered a masterpiece of quality in its time, with iron bridges and multiple lanes used both for strategic military and civilian transportation between Russia and Georgia. In World War II, German POWs continued improving the road, adding tunnels to protect it from snow drifts and falling rocks. Today it’s a road for sightseeing, worshiping, selling, and marrying.

Third largest in Georgia, Mount Kazbek towers over the Georgian Military Highway <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Third largest in Georgia, Mount Kazbek towers over the Georgian Military Highway
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

(click on photo for larger version)


A Novel RoutePerhaps inspired by its history or by its sheer beauty, the Georgian Military Highway is described in novels such as Twelve Chairs by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, and Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Russia’s famed poet, Alexander Pushkin, traveled along the highway, and Tolstoy, Gorky and Chavchavadze all were inspired to write about this mountainous road of intrigue, lawlessness, and adventure.

“What a delightful place, that valley!

On all sides rise inaccessible mountains, reddish cliffs hung over with great ivy crowned with clumps of plane trees; tawny precipices streaked with washes, and far above the golden fringe of the snows . . . “

– Mikhail Lermontov / A Hero of Our Time (1839)

Inspired by its raw beauty, for centuries poets and writers have included the Georgian Military Highway in their works Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Inspired by its raw beauty, poets and writers have included the Georgian Military Highway in their works for centuries 
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

What To See Along the Way Keep your eyes open for these highlights along the Georgian Military Highway:

  • Mtskheta: This UNESCO-listed town was once capital of ancient Georgia; today its beautifully preserved Orthodox cathedrals and monuments reflect its history as an early center of Christianity.
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta is a sacred pilgrimage destination, built in the 11th century <br>Photo credit: Inga Belova

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta is a sacred pilgrimage destination, built in the 11th century
Photo credit: Inga Belova

  • Ananuri: Considered one of the most scenic fortresses in Georgia, Ananuri has been keeping guard over the Aragvi River Valley since the 17th century.
Iconic symbol of Georgia, Ananuri Fortress was once a strategic stronghold along this famous highway Photo credit: Michel Behar

Ananuri Fortress was once a strategic stronghold along this famous highway
Photo credit: Michel Behar

  • Gudauri: Climbing to 7,200 feet with hairpin turns, the highway leads to Gudauri, one of the highest alpine villages along the route, attracting outdoor enthusiasts to its modern ski resort – perfect for skiing, heli-skiing, paragliding, and hiking.
Practically in the clouds, the village of Gudauri is heaven for nature lovers and skiers <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Practically in the clouds, the village of Gudauri is heaven for nature lovers and skiers
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

  • Krestovy (Jvari) Pass: Near Gudauri, the summit of Krestovy Pass (Jvari in Georgian) is just shy of 8,000 feet, making it the highest point along the Georgian Military Highway. Although that may seem a dizzying height, Krestovy is actually the lowest pass over the Caucasus Mountains. A cross first erected in 1824 still stands; thus the name Krestovy (Cross) Pass.
For centuries a cross has stood at this high-altitude pass, aptly named Krestovy (Cross) Pass <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

For 200 years a cross has stood at this high-altitude pass, aptly named Krestovy (Cross) Pass
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Built on a mountaintop, 6th-century Jvari Monastery is named after a cross that was said to perform miracles<br>Photo credit: James Carnehan

Built on a mountaintop, 6th-century Jvari Monastery is named after a cross that was said to perform miracles
Photo credit: James Carnehan

  • Kazbegi: Also known as Stepantsminda, this 6,000-foot mountain village is best known for Tsminda Sameba (Holy Trinity), a 14th-century Georgian Orthodox church perched above the Chkheri River, in the shadow of 16,512-foot Mount Kazbek.
The village of Kazbegi (Stepantsminda) is dwarfed by glacial Caucasus mountains <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The village of Kazbegi (Stepantsminda) is dwarfed by Caucasus peaks
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

  • Vladikavkaz: This North Ossetian capital is the end of the road – or the beginning – of the Georgian Military Highway. Historically a fortress town and later a Russian military base, Vladikavkaz means “ruler of the Caucasus.” Most striking here is its Mukhtarov (Sunnitskaya) Mosque, built in 1908 along the Terek River.
Boldly pink, Vladikavkaz's Mukhtarov Mosque is named after its financier, a Baku oil millionaire <br>Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Boldly pink, Vladikavkaz’s Mukhtarov Mosque is named after its financier, a Baku oil millionaire
Photo credit: Jamshid Fayzullaev

Travel to Georgia with MIR Explore the highways and byways of Georgia on MIR’s scheduled tours. The small group tour, Treasures of the South Caucasus, and the flexible private tour, Essential Georgia, travel the Georgian Military Highway between Mtskheta and Kazbegi, the “heart and soul” of Georgia. MIR’s scheduled tour, A Taste of Georgia: Wine, Cuisine & Culture, takes a day-trip to Mtskheta to explore the area’s wine-making history. MIR can also create a hand-crafted custom, private itinerary focused on your own interests, timeline, and preferred destinations – such as the iconic, not-to-be-missed Georgian Military Highway.

(Top photo: The Georgian Military Highway winds through jagged mountains and fertile valleys in the South Caucasus. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta)

PUBLISHED: April 13, 2015

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