The road to Stepantsminda

The Highway

The Georgian Military Highway in its northern reaches, some 5km short of the border with Russia, looking back to Stepantsminda. The River Terek is to the left, with the road itself cutting through the mountainside to the right of the picture.

The Georgian Military Highway. For 200km north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, it carves its way through the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the border with Russia.

The Russians built the Highway around 200 years ago, but a track of some kind existed along its route for centuries before that. And when Imperial Russia wanted to expand southwards to include what is today Georgia as a protectorate, they built a road to allow them to do that.

Its relationship with geopolitics continues to this day, the route flirting with the borders of South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgian that is currently occupied by Russia.

But the Highway has long been known for its spectacular scenery, as it winds up and down, left and right through one of the the world’s great mountain ranges. As far back as 1914, before motor cars were commonplace, let alone the modern idea of a road trip, Baedecker’s guidebook described it as ‘one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world’ noting that there was even a bus service for would be tourists to spend 10 hours travelling from Vladikavkaz, the last city on the Russian side, to the Georgian capital.

And the jewel of the crown in any trip up the Highway is the famous Gergeti Trinity Church near, overlooking the small town of Stepantsminda, just shy of the Russian border.

But I wasn’t interested in any of that.

Reproduction of 1939 tourist poster in Yerevan, Armenia, designed for InTourist, the USSR’s tourism agency.

Back in 2015, when I first rode the Highway, I got a taste that there was more to the Highway and the areas immediately around it, then just picture postcards of churches on hills.

So in the second week of June, dodging late spring downpours, I set out with my camera in hand to see what that was.

The Truckers

A driver speaking with Georgian police as a long queue of trucks waits to move up closer to the border crossing with Russia, just outside the village of Kanobi.

“It’s never the people who make war; it’s always the governments” read the text on my phone screen. We were using Google Translate.

The ‘we’ in the instance was myself and a Turkish trucker, a rather chubby fella in his early fifties with grey hair, glasses and a beard, who had been driving trucks for thirty years, from Portugal to Russia, from Iran to Finland. 

The first part of our conversation had been somewhat confused – mainly because I kept trying to converse with him using Google Translate’s Georgian setting, when he was in fact Turkish.

He was a friendly chap, who had been waiting to cross the border for a couple of weeks. I’d pulled up to take a photo, and he invited me to join him for coffee, boiling the water using a stove from the neat but admittedly rather grubby kitchen set-up that folded out from the side of his truck’s chassis, next to the diesel tank, fiddling on his mobile phone as we waited.

He’d been waiting in a long queue of trucks that began at the outskirts of Tbilsi and stretched the length of the Highway to the border. They parked up on the right hand side of the road and I’d quickly found that the drivers had an alarming tendency to jump out of their cabs or emerge from behind their trailers without looking as I zipped by, either oblivious or past caring of the oncoming traffic.

Horses led by shepherds down the Highway just outside of Kanobi, as trucks wait in line.

Queues in this part of the world were normal, due to customs constraints at the Russian end. Police cars zipped up and down, stacking lorries in groups before releasing them to move up the road. But the war in Ukraine meant that an already log-jammed trade route was now totally saturated, which is how me and the Turkish got on to the subject of internationalism. Other truck drivers had been waiting over a month already.

Most of the vehicles, with the obvious exception of the Turkish ones, were from ex-Soviet countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and of course Georgia. Armenia, to the south and boxed in by closed borders with Azerbaijan to the east and Turkey to the west, is particularly reliant on trade through the Highway due to its resultant economic dependence on Russia.

Russian and Armenian trucks formed the biggest proportion of trucks here by far. There was everything from ancient, olive drab ex-army trucks, towing trailers and belching huge clouds of thick black diesel smoke as they crawled at a snail’s pace up hills and mountain passes, to the modern Chinese manufactured ones, which looked infinitely more appealing given the amount of time one would have to spend in them. 

“We wait, we drink vodka, we party, we drink coffee, we wait” said another Russian trucker some time later, who spoke some English, temporarily freeing me from the embarrassment of Google Translate’s ever-dodgy transliteration.  “It has been 21 days”. There was a group of six gathered around, five Russians and an Armenian, asking the usual questions about where I was from and where I was going . Not surprisingly, the Armenian one disagreed with the Turk from earlier about where the best coffee came from. They were a lively bunch, trying to persuade me to stay for vodka despite the fact that it was only 10 in the morning. 

Part of me wondered how the Russians, most likely ex-army conscripts themselves perhaps with relatives currently conscripted in the army, might react to meeting someone from the UK, given the war in Eastern Europe. I needn’t have. We didn’t talk about Ukraine of course, why risk ruining the moment? But as I left and we shook hands all round, the English-speaking one paused before letting go, looked me square in the eye and said “We want peace. Not this other bullshit.”

The Shepherds

Shepherd driving his sheep in the rain, Bakurkhev Valley.

The shepherd wore bright yellow Wellington boots with a long, matching overcoat, with similarly bright blue and orange overalls beneath.

It certainly made him stand out from the crowd. Having successfully persuaded the goats on the clifftop above him to reverse their course, he set-to striding onward down the track below, neck bent forward, his baseball-capped head craning, long stick in hand. He soon joined another man, this time dressed in more conventional dress of black wellies, blue jeans and a faded camouflage jacket. 

Around 5km south of where I left the truckers, in the village of Kobi, a wide, pot-holed track cratered with muddy puddles leads west, off the main Highway. The road narrows into a dirt-track, before reaching a small hamlet with a bridge, where I met the man with the yellow wellies.

A few minutes later, and the goats had joined a flock of what looked like a thousand sheep stretching into the distance down the track, as they crossed over a bridge and down a huge gorge. Donkeys and horses followed, along with two or three other shepherds cracking whips and shouting to chivvy them along, some on foot, others on horseback.

This was the Truso Gorge and the shepherds spent the next hour or so driving the flock down its length, until landscape opened out into a wide, flat plain with the mountains gazing down on them. Ruined fortresses and villages peppered the bright green grass, as drizzle began to descend from the cloudy skies above.

The start of June and the end of spring in the valleys the areas adjoining the Highway marks the shepherds bringing in their sheep, cattle and goats from the lowland areas into the higher pastures, now fresh with fodder and liberated from the icy grip of the Caucasian winter.

Its wasn’t just the livestock who were here for the long haul. 

Across the surrounding valleys makeshift shelters were going up, with bamboo frames with plastic tarpaulins wrapped tightly around them. Old fallen-down houses and fortifications had a new lease of life, as they were adapted into seasonal shelters too. Solar panels are hoisted on to the roofs, to charge mobile phones and a few other basic mod-cons. A combination of pick-up trucks, old Ford Transits and donkeys hauled supplies, while the shepherds themselves get about on horseback.

The Highway creates a commercial opportunity for these farmers. At the Jvari Pass, its highest point, a makeshift camp with a series of shelters and BBQs is right by the roadside, with the sheep held in pens, ready for slaughter to be served to the passing truckers, with signs advertising halal meat, hoping to attract the trade of the passing truckers, many of who are from Islamic Central Asian countries or the Muslim areas of southern Russia.

The Tourists

A dog stands guard by a white water rafting centre on the banks of the River Terek.

Of course, the shepherds weren’t the only ones wanting a piece of the action, as far as local trade was concerned; the Highway’s tourism industry doesn’t just stop and start at Stepantsminda, in the shadow of nearby Mt. Kazbegi. 

High up in the Truso Valley, the shepherds had plenty of marshrutka to keep them company transporting tourists from Stepantsminda for day hikes; these shared taxis can be found for hire in any town along the Highway, taking you pretty much anywhere for a fee.

Marshrutka are a common feature of life anywhere in the former USSR. Their communal nature isn’t something that has been resigned to the dustbin as more people have been able to afford their own cars since the end of communism – if anything their use is thriving, in the case of Georgia, fuelled by fast growing, highly entrepreneurial tourism industry.

A Polish tourist looks down on the Terek Valley from a viewpoint just outside of Tsdo.

Around the Highway, many of these small minibuses look like something out of a Mad Max film; second-hand four wheel drive Toyotas, Mitsubishis and Nissans with their suspension dropped to soften the ride across the potholed tarmac and dirt roads, and big, chunky all terrain tyres fitted to deal with road conditions whatever the season. The most extreme examples have, whether by accident or design, their front bumpers and radiator grills totally removed, leaving the large cooling fans than normally sit behind exposed. In many guesthouses along the Highway, the wife of the family is responsible for looking after the guests while the husband ferries them and whoever else will pay to the surrounding areas.

Hiking in the nearby valleys around Stepantsminda, and in the Truso and Sno Valleys in particular, is still the main tourist trade here. But for the braver travellers, Georgians are finding new opportunities for tourists too, like whitewater rafting in the upper reaches of the fast-flowing River Terek. Bright yellow rafts sit inflated by the roadside, advertising rafting centres, often with a small collection of goats and sheep ready for an after-rafting BBQ.

The Villages

Two villagers drink tea in Sno.

Whether it be guarding a white water rafting camp on the banks of the Terek or a flock of sheep high up in the Truso Valley, the tenaciousness and aggression of the Georgian dogs that roam the countryside is legendary. With their thick coats and docked ears, it’s often unclear which are genuine sheep or ‘cattle’ dogs, free to roam wherever the flock or herd they’re protecting happens to be, or which are pets or strays.

Either way, enter any village on two wheels and you’re almost certain to be greeted by at least one of them diving towards you at a kamikaze pace, barking, yapping and snarling. They are one of the less pleasant features of life around the Highway but, more often of not, their bark poses for more of a threat than their bark; a quieter, slower approach with the motorbike engine switch off and friendly whistles will often turn a reaction of beared teeth into wagging tails instead.

Dog in a derelict cable car station, Kanobi.

In contrast to the dogs, the villages in the valleys off the Highway are quiet, to say the least. Away from the larger settlements on the Highway itself, there are no shops, bars, cafes or a village centre or anything resembling a high street that sells food and drink, let alone provides a focus for socialising. Instead, they are typically a collection of homes clinging to the hillside, knitted together by tracks and wonky power lines. Infrastructure is limited, and as you head deeper into the valleys, adjoining gravel tracks turn to dirt and then finally footpaths, and water supplies come from memorial springs and river water.

The dramatic landscape is of course picturesque but the existence of many of the villagers is still a largely agrarian, subsistence-based one. Small numbers of cattle, hens and other livestock often roam at will or are kept behind gates and fences made of sticks, lashed together. These aren’t animals owned by the shepherds or farmers for profit, but rather for villagers for their own consumption, alongside vegetables and crops produced from kitchen gardens and smallholdings, in neat, parallel rows.

The rusting shells of old Soviet-era trucks and buses can often be found abandoned, having been cannibalised for parts to keep other vehicles running, often matched by the shells of derelict buildings of indeterminate age. 

There’s the feeling of faded grandeur of buildings which, perhaps before the arrival of communism one hundred years ago, once stood with pride – but now stand with decaying broken glass, window frames and rusting corrugated metal, patched together with plastic sheeting.

If it weren’t for rusting satellite dishes or the five bars of 4G mobile phone signal, it would be hard to tell whether life has changed here at all for a hundred years.

But given the pace of change taking place on the Georgian Military Highway today, then perhaps it’s only a matter of time before that changes too.

View north towards the Highway from the viewpoint at Tsdo.

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