High road to Russia
There's nothing like a couple of days in the mountains, although most people will give you quizzical looks if you tell them the road you're going to take leads to the troubled Russian regions of North Ossetia and Chechnya.
Add that you'll be passing the disputed territory of South Ossetia, the scene in 2008 of a five-day war between Russia and Georgia and the largest demonstration of Russian military power since the Cold War, and your sanity comes into question.
But this part of the Caucasus, which for centuries has never been totally stable, is currently safe to visit and, high up in the clear air of the mountains, it's hard to imagine this being anything other than a place of alpine tranquility.
The independent Caucasian nation of Georgia lies to the south of the mountains that form a natural boundary with Russia. Part of the Russian empire from 1801, Georgia was later annexed by the Soviets but became independent again only in 1991.
When the Russians seized Georgia in 1801, the tsar of the time, Alexander 1, decreed that the route linking the two countries through the Caucasus should be improved. It had been a trading route for millennia (the Greek geographer Strabo referred to it in the first century) but was little more than a dirt track.
Construction on what was to be called the Georgian Military Highway (GMH) began that year but was a work in progress for more than 60 years, costing about NZ$8 million, a staggering sum in today's money. Today the road serves also as a major land link between the Caucasus and the rest of Eastern Europe. It is also a barometer of the state of relations between the two countries. For example, during the 2008 war, the highway was closed and remained so for many months afterwards.
The road is now open, although any illusions about it being the wide, smooth dual carriageway that the name implies are quickly dispelled. Reaching an altitude of 2395 metres at the Cross Pass on the Georgian side, the road is subjected to many months of heavy snowfalls, ice and rain. Keeping seal intact at this height is near impossible. As it winds through some of the highest mountains in the Caucasus, it becomes increasingly potholed and rough.
A bus driver's demeanour is always a good indication of what lies ahead.
Nugo, our bus driver, was happy enough on the lower sections of the GMH as it headed north into the mountains about an hour's drive from Georgia's capital, Tblisi. As there are many villages along this part of the road, and a major ski resort further up, this section is in relatively good repair.
He was still smiling when we stopped at the 17th-century fortified church complex of Ananuri that sits on a small promontory above a manmade reservoir. The towers and church inside the high stone walls date back to an earlier time of unrest in the region when feuding dukedoms fought for control.
Today visitors instead negotiate stalls selling local felt products (ranging from tasteful scarves to rather alarming renditions of naked women) and the traditional embroidered skull caps. Dangling from the front of some of the stalls were another Georgian specialty, churchkhela, long knobbly confections of walnuts encased in solidified grape juice. "Georgian Snickers bars" as one inventive vendor described them.
Beyond Ananuri, the road begins to climb steadily, passing villages in some of which medieval defensive towers still stand. In times of peril, villagers would lock themselves in these towers and hope for the best. Flocks of sheep roamed the grasslands, each accompanied by at least one shepherd on horseback and several enormous, ferocious, dogs. These are caucasian shepherd dogs, known for their ability to kill wolves (of which there are still many in these mountains). They were also the breed of choice for guarding the Soviet Gulags and for patrolling the Berlin Wall.
Just before the ski resort of Gudauri, a rather incongruous, monstrous semicircular concrete structure appears on the mountainside. This typically Iron Curtain-era edifice was built by the Soviets as a symbol, my Georgian friend said, her voice heavy with cynicism, of Georgian-Russian friendship. The inner curve was covered with slightly crumbling, brightly coloured mosaic renditions of Mother Russia, Mother Georgia and other symbolic images.
Beyond Gudauri's ski chalets and hotels, the road narrowed and Nugo began to sigh heavily as his beloved bus lurched through the potholes. On both sides of the summit of Cross Pass (named after King David the Builder who planted a cross here in the 12th century) the road disappeared in and out of long avalanche shelters.
Hot springs, the waters of which had stained the surrounding rocks terracotta and yellow, flowed down and under the road. Over the pass - and now officially on the northern side of the Caucasus although still in Georgia - we snaked down through the pastures to the border town of Kazbegi. Last time I was here, the border was closed and Kazbegi was a ghost town of closed shops and men standing aimlessly in doorways, smoking endless cigarettes.
This day, however, it was bustling with trucks bearing Russian, Turkish, even Belarussian licence plates, and battered white vans (the local public transport) packed to the gunwales with locals. We paused here to transfer to four-wheel-drives to head up to Kazbegi's most famous landmark, a 14th-century church. Tsminda Sameba sits at 2170m on a grassy spur surrounded on all sides by the snowy peaks of the Caucasus.
Most spectacular of the encircling mountains is Mt Kazbegi (5047m). It has inspired many legends, beginning with Prometheus, who was chained to the mountain by the gods for stealing fire and giving it to man. Zeus decreed that every day an eagle (his personal emblem) would attack Prometheus and eat his liver. This would then regenerate overnight and the torture would begin again the next day. Less gruesome are the legends that say that Christ's manger is hidden somewhere on the mountain, along with Abraham's tent.
Tsminda Sameba is testament to Georgia's deeply held Christian beliefs as its construction in such an isolated place is a major feat, especially as it was completed more than 600 years ago. The stunning sight is about to be marred by a building project. What appears to be a new visitor centre, or priests' and pilgrims' accommodation, is being built on the side of the hillock on which the church rests. It looks like a giant wart.
The authorities, both Christian and Muslim, often seem oblivious to the ancient architectural treasures they possess.
But whoever's bright idea this stone box was, it can't detract from the superb panorama of mountains, the shadowy gashes of deep gorges and the undulating tawny gold pastures. To the north, just a few kilometres away, was the Russian border - an ever-present reminder to Georgians of how close they are to their mighty neighbours.
Memories of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia are still raw. South Ossetia lies in the geographical heart of Georgia but, ever since Georgia broke away from the Soviet Union, the South Ossetians have been claiming independence, linking themselves with North Ossetia on the Russian side of the Caucasus. As a result of the 2008 war, the province has declared itself an independent republic but this is recognised only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and, bizarrely, Nauru and Tuvalu. Georgia asserts the province is still part of Georgia and considers it under Russian occupation.
All around this territory, since my last visit, townships of small houses under United Nations supervision have sprung up. These are for Internally Displaced Persons, of whom Georgia has more than a quarter of a million, some who have fled South Ossetia and others from another breakaway Georgian republic.
As the autumn day drew to a close, Nugo drove us back to our Gudauri hotel where, relieved that his bus had survived the famous road unscathed, he produced a bottle of homemade Georgian chacha. This Georgian version of vodka is made from grape residue and packs a powerful punch.
Georgians have a strict ritual when it comes to drinking. Long elaborate toasts delivered by an appointed toastmaster preface every drink. This ensures consumption is regulated but, as toasts can be interactive, those taking part learn a lot about each other . . . from pride in homeland, to poignant memories of first loves to stirring pleas for world friendship.
We performed our toasts over a rather confused game of Western pool - confused because we were attempting to play on the much larger Russian table (with smaller pockets and special larger balls just to make things trickier).
The Kiwi-Georgian everlasting friendship toast was easy - the one for Georgian-Russian peace and harmony is, like the GMH, still under repair and more than a little bumpy.
The Timaru Herald