Georgian Military Highway
- This article is an itinerary.
The Georgian Military Highway (Georgian: საქართველოს სამხედრო გზა [sakartvelos samkhedro gza], Russian: Военно-Грузинская дорога [Voyenno-Gruzinskaya doroga], Ossetic: Арвыкомы фæндаг [Arvykomy fændag]) is a mountain road that crosses the Greater Caucasus Mountains and connects Tbilisi in Georgia with the Russian town of Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. It passes through narrow gorges squeezed between colossal mountains, which makes for some amazing views.
This epic journey across the traditional boundary of Europe and Asia reaches nearly 2,400 m in the Jvari Pass and is dominated by the massive Mount Kazbek whose 5,033 m peak straddles the continental divide.
Despite being a rough ride, it is the easiest way to navigate the political minefield of the Caucasus region and to travel between Russia's Northern Caucasus and the countries of the southern Caucasus.
Heading south from Vladikavkaz (alt. 677 m), the road follows the course of the Terek River into the mountains. It passes a few small villages. About 30 km by road from Vladikavkaz is Verkhny Lars, the last Russian village. The border is 3 km beyond this in the Darial Gorge (1300 m alt.)
The Georgian checkpoint is right on the border. From the Darial Gorge, the road still follows the Terek River and continues to climb into the mountains. About 12 km south is Kazbegi (alt. 1740 m), an excellent base for enjoying the mountains. The road continues to climb alongside the Baidarka River, a tributary of the Terek, and reaches its highest point in the Jvari Pass (alt. 2395 m).
After 30 km of descending curves and switchbacks, the road reaches neglected Pasanauri (alt. 1,050 m), a popular spot in the Soviet days that remains a pretty base for exploring the hills. The next 20 km south is a fairly straight run that sees the mountains taper off to the 17th century Ananuri castle that overlooks the picturesque Zhinvali reservoir (alt. 820 m).
The road flanks the southwestern side of the reservoir and then follow the Kura River south downstream towards Mtskheta. About 19 km south of Ananuri, a road leaves the highway and heads up the hills for 4 km to Dusheti (alt. 900 m), a town known for its khinkali (meat dumplings). It is also near Bazaleti Lake. A further 25 km past the Dusheti turning on the main higher leads to Mtskheta (alt. 450 m), spiritual home of Georgia and its ancient capital. The 6th century Jvari Monastery commands a nearby hill and offers some supreme views. The last few kilometers take you to the journey's low-point (only in terms of altitude), Tbilisi (alt. 400 m) - the thriving Georgian capital.
- Vladikavkaz is 15 km from Beslan airport, which has flights to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and the Armenian capital, Yerevan. It is also well served by trains to Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and other cities in southern Russia.
- Tbilisi is a regional hub for the Caucasus and has trains and planes around the region and beyond.
Border, visas and permits
While much of the more remote parts of Russia's North Caucasus require special permission to visit, the highway itself and the border can be used without any bureaucracy. There also no restrictions on the Georgian side.
Relations between the two countries are not very friendly and either country may close the border out of political spite. Harsh weather can also force the border shut in winter.
Altitude sickness (associated with heights over 2,400 m) should not pose a problem on the road itself but it may affect travellers that venture off the highway into the mountains.