Friday, 2 November 2012

Georgian Military Highway

This route was an added bonus, which we only realised would be possible while we were in Istanbul. The original plan had been to take a ferry across the Black Sea from Trabzon in Turkey to Sochi in Russia as there was no land crossing from Georgia to Russia for third party nationals. However, about a month before we left home, the border was suddenly opened, and we had the opportunity to ride instead of sail. That alone saved us about $400.00 USD each, which was also very welcome, and freed money to spend elsewhere. We already had our Russian visas, which did not specify a specific entry point, and some friends had crossed there a few days before at Kazbegi, so we knew it was possible.

The highway (GMH) runs up from the Georgian capital Tiblisi, to Vladikavkaz in Russia. Vladikavkaz is actually the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia- Alania, but politicaly still remains part of the Russian Federation, and lies in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. It's an old route, the highway having been started in about 1799 to transport troops and arms. 

We had had a hard ride across Georgia to get there, having ridden on really awful roads from the border with Turkey, and survived more really mad driving. Everybody seemed to drive flat out all the time, and skim us as they passed. Again, it wasn't an act of aggression but just the way that they do things on their roads but it scared the crap out of both of us. And because Georgia is a mountainous country, our route was dictated by terrain rather than choice, so everybody was going the same way, and on a new motorway which still seemed to be under construction.

On that road, we encountered what must be the poshest petrol station in the world. It was huge, set well back off the road, and finished in chrome and polished aluminium, and totally out of place. But there was nobody there, and not that many people passing by either. Very odd and more reminiscent of the MacLaren HQ in Surrey.

We saw several police convoys en route too. Big black 4 x 4s with blacked out windows and about fifteen vehicles in each convoy. It wasn't that far from Tblisi, so maybe it was the president or somebody, but we didn't hang around to find out. 

That night we stayed at Mtakheta, about 20 kms north of Tiblisi in a family home with a room for rent. The town is the ancient capital of Georgia and the place where Georgian christianity developed.  What is noticeable is the surrounding hill sides, with monasteries and churches dotted on top of them.

We were lucky too because we couldn't find anywhere at all and spotted a man walking with his young grandson along a quiet side street. We stopped, intending to ask him if here was a hotel or campsite nearby, but before we could, he offered us the room. It was ok and the family was very nice, but it was recently renovated and the shower didn't work, and there was no place to cook. But it was better than sleeping in  a hedge or pressing on, which neither of us wanted to do. And it allowed us a fresh start for the next day.

The route north up the GMH runs for about 150 miles/200 ams, and climbs steadily as it does so to about 2600metres, from Stepantsminda through the Kazbegi Strict Nature Reserve, to the border post at Kazbegi.  It got quite cold as we climbed too, and the landscape changed from spectacular and open to almost Alpine like.

We met a Dutch couple several miles up, parked up and overlooking a dam. 

They were travelling in a 1952 German fire engine that had been given to the Dutch government as part of war reparation, and they had been all over the world in it. 

Apparently they handed over about 300, but now there are only a few left, so they are quite rare. Cool vehicle though, and pretty hardy. They invited us for coffee  but we had no time as we really needed to be up and over the pass in full daylight, having been warned that the road near the top was very rough and unpaved , and a bit dodgy on both side of the border. There were also unlit tunnels - and by unlit, I mean completely dark, so we didn't want to be caught out there.

So we continued on, pausing to add a few layers as it got colder, and met a very drunk man who appeared from nowhere.

The road eventually got all hair pinned up there too, and then the road surface stopped, about 15 miles short of the border, turning to loose gravel and potholes right across the whole width. 

But bizarrely, vehicles still came whizzing down the road las if it was smoothly surfaced motorway. 

There were no trees or any vegetation up there at all, but several patches of snow and it was really open to the elements. Goodness knows what it must be like in winter, although its probably virtually impassable anyway, but they must keep the border post open, particularly now.

The tunnels were every bit as scary as we thought they would be. Hewn out of the rock, with rough surfaces and no lighting at all, some are now having roads built around the outside. Maybe its to help the expected traffic increase, while the tunnels protect the crossing from the extreme elements in winter; who knows.

The actual border post was a bit of a surprise and somewhat of an anti climax, and it is right at the top. We had hoped to change some money up there, but it suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and there were no shops or anything in it. Its probably because it was only a crossing post for Russians and Georgians until recently, and hasn't yet caught up with its new international status. 

Our arrival caused a bit of a flutter though as the guards clearly weren't sure what to make of us, but they let us through quick enough. One of the Russian guards barked something at us, but his mate just laughed and spoke to us in English. Our registration plates caused a bit of confusion too, because they are consecutive, and the woman couldn't tell the difference between JNL on Nads' bike and JNK on mine, but we sorted it by showing her the two rego certificates. Then in the customs office, they helped us fill in the vehicle forms as we clearly couldn't read the cyrillic alphabet. But as we later found out, they did lack a bit of international experience because they insisted that we had all the forms that we needed to carry on, which we did, but it turned out that we didn't have any insurance for Russia. That was ok because apparently Russian law allows you to ride or drive to the nearest town to buy some without committing any offence. 

Having crossed the border, the road was just as spectacular on the Russian side. 

There is a big Russian Army base about a kilometre or so from it, and various relics of previous border tensions, with tanks and bunkers dotted over the landscape, and patrolling armed soldiers. The scenery though was astonishing - sheer rock faces, a stoney river bed, and sun bouncing off the sides of the valley.