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At various points in life I was chasing something, and there is one common thread to all the pursuits. Adventure, curiosity or wonder have always been tied to the chase - whether it was an intriguing man I was trying to figure out, some exotic location I was trying to make my way to, or some natural landscape I wanted to experience in person rather than simply admire from my computer screen.

In Georgia, I was able to chase clouds - yes, I love them! At many points during the journey they were hanging so low it felt like I could reach out and touch them with my fingers. One such place was along the Georgian Military Highway, which connects Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. It is also the site of the only official border crossing into Russia, at least this is my understanding. The border used to be restricted to CIS citizens only, but is now open to all. If you're looking for a day trip from Tbilisi, this is my recommendation, and let's see why.

1. Leaving Tbilisi, you can see that road conditions are quite normal, with many lanes at various points. Note also the Georgian flag waving high in the wind, and it's a common scene as the flag appears to be treasured there to some extent, or at least its presence is felt when you drive throughout the country.


2. These signs appear in various parts of the country, wishing drivers a "happy journey." I think a better wish would be a "safe journey," for reasons I'll discuss in a different post.

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3. This is somewhere near Mtskheta, about 10 km from Tbilisi, but I didn't stop in this town. Wonderful autumn scenery when visiting Georgia in October!

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4. Once you start along the route, there are many marker points worth stopping at. One of them is the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument sitting high on a ledge and offering dramatic views below. It's located between Gudauri and the Javari Pass, and is a large round stone and concrete structure with an elaborate tile mural that spans the whole circumference. The artistry depicts scenes from Georgian and Russian history. I'm certain you have seen this mural in dozens of other reports from Georgia, so I shot it from a different angle.

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5. Panoramic views of the design, taken from Google images.


6. This is one of the most dramatic views of the Gudauri region from the highway. In winter time, this area has a popular ski resort.

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7. The village of Kazbegi has less than 5,000 inhabitants, but it's a highly congested area with tourists when weather permits. You can see some houses spread along the vast landscapes. I think it's not such a bad location to live for a short period of time, but there's no desire to live out my remaining days in such a place.

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8. The history of the highway dates back to antiquity, with both invaders and traders marching along the route. The Georgian Military Highway in its present form was created by the Russian military in 1799, and today it's the only road connecting Georgia and Armenia with Russia. The two other routes - in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - are closed due to ongoing conflicts of which you are all aware. The highway is filled with very, very narrow serpentine roads on which two machines are expected to safely pass. Although the asphalt is decent here, in other parts the "road" is a real hell.

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9. You better carry a huge dose of nerves if you take this journey, or a big bottle of vodka. :) Driving in Georgia is not for the faint of heart and on this route you will be sharing the narrow lanes with massive trucks, livestock, and wild drivers such that alertness is required at absolutely every moment. One wrong move, and you're over the edge of a mountain, or sliding down a rocky cliff.

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10. About the trucks, I could write an entire post, but you should get a general idea of the bureaucratic and political complexities of the region by this image. I have never seen such a huge traffic jam of tractor trailers waiting to get to any point. They are basically lined up along a major part of the Georgian Military Highway waiting to cross the border into Russia and transport goods. Just hundreds and hundreds in an orderly queue, as far as the eye can see. One driver told us the wait is usually 7 -10 days to cross the border, as only 40 - 50 trucks are allowed to cross each day.

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11. In winter, there's a huge risk the highway will be closed for extended periods of time due to heavy snowfall. In such cases, the truck drivers remain stranded, and if they're carrying perishable goods or food items, the haul is destroyed or spoiled. :(( The other problem is how to ensure the safety of the drivers, keep them warm, fed, etc., as there have been recent cases of high price hikes for basic needs like food and shelter during these storms. You can read a lot of articles about it online, if you're interested. For instance, here. Just this week, the road is closed due to storms, with major back-ups for trucks. Photo copyright Sputnik/Maxim Bogodviv.


12. Many tunnels along the route, and this one is in prime condition compared to others. The main purpose is to protect from avalanches, landslides and mudslides. Despite its beauty, Georgia is prone to various natural disasters due to its mountainous landscapes and weather that can shift in an instant. At one of my homestays in the Svaneti region, I met a Geman civil engineer who was in shock over the condition of the tunnels in the country. He could not stop thinking about ways to make them better and safer, on a mission to contact the Georgian government when he returned to Germany to offer ideas for improvement...good luck with that. :)

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13. We stopped for the afternoon at a local cafe, and I had this chicken dish with a creamy garlic sauce. The broth was delicious, but the meat consisted mostly of bones and dark meat, which were inedible for me personally. There is no problem with cafes in the town, many options from which to pick and they will have menus in Georgian, English and Russian. Whether you can understand the English is another matter - :)) - what exactly is a "chicken family" or "pig family"? You can pick to eat the brother, sister, mom, or dad? :)) In this cafe, there was also a large selection of brain dishes. I can think of a few folks who could benefit from a pan of brains - and you? :)

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14. Toilets, and the absence of them, is a huge problem in Georgia. Be prepared to use holes almost everywhere, even in some hotels. In Kazbegi, I encountered the most beautiful pit! The woman in charge of this restroom took great care in keeping it clean and fresh. The same can't be said about most other "toilets" you find in the country. Most often, I preferred to squat in the forest than go into one of these rooms where it was clear nothing had been cleaned for an eternity, no tissues, no water, nothing but an unbearable stench.

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15. A few times, we ventured off the main path down side roads where a lot of discoveries await - some waterfalls, or just an opportunity to stretch your legs.

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16. Nice shot of my beloved clouds. During a night walk in Tbilisi with one of my Georgian readers, I learned an interesting fact. Do you know the average weight of a cumulus cloud? About 500,000 kilos, or 1,000,000 pounds!!

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17. One of the numerous crosses you can find along the highway, always placed at very dramatic and scenic points.


18. I can't remember exactly where this was taken, but just another example of the nice scenery along the way.
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19. Man, horse, herd, way up high on the mountain. Can you imagine such a life?

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20. This is a monastery right before the Verkhny Lars border crossing into Russia. It seems like a very odd location to construct such a place, but there it is. Not sure the name of it, or whether it has ever been operable. During my visit, there was no one around and a lot of construction materials, so I think it's still being worked on.

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21. The road turns to hell, with a lot of gravel, pits and rough terrain right before the Russian border. The area is especially prone to rockslides, mudslides, all kinds of natural disturbances that can cause fatalities in an instant. I was traveling with a Georgian woman on this day, and she didn't want to go right up to the guards, so this is as far as I got to the actual checkpoint. Now my Russian tourist visa is expired, so I would not be permitted to cross anyway. The crossing was closed for many years, and only reopened in 2013 as a result of Armenian demands - it is a crucial transport link for goods. I think there are still numerous restrictions in place for Georgian citizens trying to cross, unfortunately.

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22. If you want to take a day trip from Tbilisi to Kazbegi via the Georgian Military Highway, you should first check the weather and local tourism sites to make sure it's open - especially if you're traveling in winter. Transport options include: (1) organized/guided bus tours that will cost about $70, and include many stops but also more people and less freedom to stop where you want; (2)  take a cab (they are very cheap in Georgia); or (3) the cheapest option - hop on a marshrutka - a type of local minivan taxi which costs about $5. You can also just walk around town and ask people on the street if they know a driver who can take you to Kazbegi. Really - Georgians will go out of their way to help, and so many people there are tied to the tourism industry. I can send you recommendations, if interested.


More stories from Georgia to follow...stay tuned. :)

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