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Monks and moonshine and a luxury hotel along the Georgian Military Highway

Take the high road

The old Georgian Military Highway is luring travellers to the Caucasus with its grand landscapes, warm welcome and fine moonshine. Tara Isabella Burton drinks it all in

The old Georgian Military Highway is luring travellers to the Caucasus with its grand landscapes, warm welcome and fine moonshine. Tara Isabella Burton drinks it all in

Tara Isabella Burton | May 3rd 2017

Ketino Sujashvili sighs as she spoons quince jam onto my plate. “It is woman weather,” she says. “In morning, sun. In afternoon, snow.” She throws up her hands. She worries over my bare feet, then brings me Azeri tea, a blanket, some Russian chocolates, a second space heater and a decanter of red saperavi wine. “Woman weather,” she says again, heaving herself into a chair. “Always change.”

But here in a small village near the top of the Georgian Military Highway, in the shadow of the 5,047-metre Mount Kazbek – the angular Caucasian mountaintop that Mikhail Lermontov, a Russian Romantic poet, once called “a diamond shining… in its wealth of endless snow” – it isn’t just the weather that’s changing.

Built in the late 19th century initially to transport armies and military hardware from Vladikavkaz, in Russia, at its northern end to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, in the south, the highway is more romantic than its name suggests. It has inspired the passion and the pens of some of Russia’s greatest writers. The wild Caucasian highlands through which it runs feature in the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Gorky. “A Hero of Our Time” by Lermontov starts: “I was travelling along the military road back from Tiflis [the old name for Tbilisi]”. The 1914 edition of Baedeker’s guide described it as “one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world”.

Seeing the light
Gergeti church is a focus for pilgrims from near and far

It still is. The route, which runs for 212km, cuts through a spectacular mountain landscape. Sharp peaks slope steeply down to the Aragvi river valley, which the highway tracks from just outside Tbilisi to the medieval lakeside fortress at Ananuri. High meadows, covered in snow all winter, burst with wild flowers in spring. And all along there are ancient monasteries and churches, and forts in varying states of disrepair, perched on the top of hilly spurs.

These days, though, there is little in the way of military traffic. While the highway still carries trucks and cars ferrying people and goods to and from Russia, it is increasingly used by travellers, who come for the mountains and the monasteries, the lashings of Georgian spirit (liquid and emotional) and a remarkably good hotel that inhabits a former Soviet tourism office.

In early spring, as the snow was beginning to melt, I journeyed up the highway to the Kazbegi region, just south of the Russian border. Other Georgian mountain regions – Tusheti, Svaneti, Khevsureti – may be more rugged, but none has Kazbegi’s literary pedigree. My destination was a small town in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, where legend has it that Amirani – the Georgian equivalent to Prometheus – was once chained in torment. 

The first time I followed the highway, it had only been a few years since the former Soviet state’s brief, disastrous 2008 war with Russia; the border was still closed (Russia only reopened it in 2013), and the drive by marshrutka – a precarious and overstuffed minibus – was treacherous. For three hours, a half-drunk driver skidded on ice up the 2,379-metre Jvari Pass alongside vertiginous and unprotected cliff drops.

The dome inside Dariali monastery near Stepantsminda

A monk, bearded and frocked 

Five years on, there are railings on the road and my driver is sober. Georgia has made other concessions to its burgeoning tourism industry: outside the Ananuri fortress, old women sell woollen hats, icons and churchkhela, a candy made of walnuts, grape juice and flour. There is a picturesque roadside tavern alongside the unprepossessing concrete one in the village of Pasanauri (I take my driver’s advice and go for the ugly one, burning my fingers on khinkali dumplings that are the local speciality). The ski resort at Gudauri is now operational; wooden chalets have opened alongside concrete Soviet guesthouses.

But Stepantsminda – a village of 2,000 people just south of the border – is as gloriously anarchic as ever. I rent a horse – for 45 Georgian lari ($20), helmet not included – by calling a mobile number posted on a billboard; my guide doesn’t bat an eyelid when it takes off with me down a steep hill. My bed and board at Ketino Sujashvili’s is just 60 lari, which doesn’t include the breast massage that I am assured is “for your health”.

When I make the four-hour trek to the 14th-century Gergeti church, which stands alone on the top of a hill, I pass ruined fortresses, half-built stone houses, makeshift pens filled with lambs. Wandering cows hold up cars by the remnants of a disused chain bridge. Soviet Ladas shudder to a stop on the banks of the Terek so that their passengers can stop to cross themselves at the sight of the church above. Farther uphill, as the cobblestone path gives way to scrambles of rock, a bearded and frocked Orthodox monk plays fetch with a massive Kavkaz sheepdog.

Changing faces
View across the valley towards Stepantsminda

Gergeti church is magnificent, with its cracked frescoes and smoky incense; whatever their private beliefs, Georgians are extravagantly observant in public. Silver and gilded icons glimmer in the rays of light that pass through the window-slits (Dostoyevsky is always going on in his novels about the “slanting rays” of light in religious scenes).

The monk’s dog reappears. A group of soldiers (the border checkpoint with Russia is 15km away) sit drinking moonshine out of plastic Cola bottles in the back of their convoy.

On my way down, I pass a group of teenagers. The boys have beards, the girls wear turtlenecks; one holds a panduri, a traditional Georgian stringed instrument. The others hum along.

My guide, Sashka Iskandarov, tells me that although most places are still covered in snow, he knows of a secret mountain hut. As we drive higher, the roadsides are dotted with monumental statues – the heads of Georgian poets, hand-carved by a local artist. Beside them are stone altars – which, as a woman, I am forbidden to approach – topped with crosses, evidence of the pagan-Christian syncretism that shapes the culture of the mountains.

We trek along a narrow ridge to Juta, a village of about 20 people, mostly ethnic Khevsurs, highlanders from across the mountain range, known for their independence. Even when Georgia was governed by a series of kings, the Khevsurs remained autonomous.

An aperitif with a view
On the terrace at the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi

High above Juta, a 20-minute hike through deep snow, Gela Arabuli has built a traditional stone house by hand in the old manner, using no cement or sealant. He’s transformed it into a guesthouse called the Fifth Season, which often serves as an artists’ hangout for those escaping Tbilisi. The guesthouse opens for the season in May, but Arabuli has come up for the weekend.

“I was out in Tbilisi at this nightclub,” Arabuli explains. “At five in the morning, I realised I missed Juta.” He takes a deep breath. “I was born in Tbilisi. But my soul – it is in the mountains!” He gestures at the peaks beyond the full-height windows. He takes out a large plastic water bottle filled with potent chacha, along with about 25 potatoes: “Lunch.” He elects himself tamada, the traditional toastmaster in any Georgian dining occasion. Between shaving the potatoes (he fries them with a hunk of salty sulguni cheese and about a pound of butter) and pouring chacha, he subverts the traditional Georgian order of toasts (“I do not toast the [Georgian Orthodox] patriarch!” he spits), raising his glass to his late father, to new friendships, to the people who have made us who we are. He leaps to his feet, re-enacting with an invisible sword the military battles of the 18th-century Georgian king, Erekle II, to explain how terrible it is that Georgians still must live under Russia’s thumb, before thrusting his hips in a vulgar manner to explain what Russians are doing to Georgians now.

After draining the chacha, we stumble down the mountain. Arabuli leads the way. He stops at the base of a shrine dedicated to Khevsureti’s patron saint, Saint George (sometimes worshipped among older Khevsurs as a god). He takes out another bottle, full of chacha.

“I will not drink to the patriarch,” he says, “but to St George, we will drink another toast.” The snow is falling, the sun is setting, the driver waiting.

By the pool of the stylish Rooms Hotel Kazbegi

Giant sculptures of the heads of local poets are dotted by the roadside

Not everything in Kazbegi is ramshackle. At the top of the hill in Stepantsminda, what was the old, brutalist Soviet Tourism Office has been transformed into the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, a mountain lodge with roaring fires and chandeliers fashioned from gargantuan antlers. Here, bartenders wearing bowties and hipster haircuts uncannily reminiscent of a young Stalin serve me Sidecars made with high-end Sarijashvili Georgian brandy. Groups of guests sit on the terrace, looking out on the surrounding mountains. 

At first, I do not recognise this side of Kazbegi. Rooms’ efficiency, geometric minimalism and sophisticated cocktails are all so unlike the joyful chaos I associate with Georgia.

Then evening comes. A group of 40 women (and a few lucky men) have booked out the hotel restaurant. I recognise the signs of a Georgian supra, or feast. Bottles of saperavi flow freely, along with lighter Georgian prosecco. When somebody brings out a guitar, everybody applauds. They sing songs in Russian and Georgian, about the beauty, perseverance and ultimate victory of the female sex. “Jenshina, priama!” they sing in Russian: Women, forward!

On the terrace, a few members of the party smoke. One stretches out her arms, points at her toes, begins to turn. Under the red neon lines, she begins the first, delicate steps of a Georgian folk dance. The singers inside keep belting. “Priama!” they sing again. Forward!

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