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. Along this road this the only open border crossing between Russia and Georgia.
Known since antiquity, this route following rivers up through the mountains became vital to Russian Imperial expansion in the late eighteenth century. The Russians improved and maintained the road well, and by 1799 the military engineers had made the road in its current form.
Russian control of the Georgian Military Highway was essential to her victories in the Caucasian War (1817–1864) and thus to establishing imperial control of the whole region. After the Kingdom of Georgia was officially annexed by the Russian Empire in 1801, Tsar Alexander I ordered General Yermolov, commander-in-chief of Russian forces in the Caucasus, to improve further the road to facilitate troop movement and communications. In 1817, the completed highway was heralded as the “Russian Simplon”. However, work continued until 1863 at a cost of £4,000,000 (a staggering sum in the 1860s).
A British observer in 1876 noted the road's high quality with two or three lanes and "iron bridges over the torrents", something he considered astonishing given that within Russia proper at this time decent roads were virtually non-existent.
The Georgian Military Road played an important role in the economic development of Transcaucasia and remains an important trade route to this day, despite the turbulent politics of the twenty-first century.
While the distance isn't far and the road is in generally good condition, the long wait at the border should be prepared for. Take plenty of water in summer. If travelling without changing vehicles, expect the journey from Vladikavkaz to Kazbegi to take about 9 hours; if changing vehicles at the border, account for about 5 hours—which includes about an hour for interrogation (it can happen!). There are a shop and café (reasonably priced) before the checkpoints on both sides.
- 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 preliminary 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. If you arrive to find the border closed, it might only be for a couple of hours: once it opens again things will start moving. Such unpredictability is an inherent part of crossing this border. Harsh weather can also force the border shut in winter. Things move very slowly on the Russian side, but clearing the Georgian formalities is painless.
The border must be crossed in a vehicle, but the checkpoints can be approached on foot. In fact, the best thing to do to avoid waiting for several hours is to get a taxi to take you as close to the border as possible, then walk as close to it as you can before asking any driver with spare seats to get you across the border (it will also be cheaper). They will probably also give you a lift to the next town, as that's where they'll be going too!
Heading south from Vladikavkaz (altitude 677m), the road follows the course of the Terek River into the mountains. It passes a few small villages. About 30km by road from Vladikavkaz is Verkhny Lars, the last Russian village. The border is 3km beyond this in the Darial Gorge (1,300m).
There are shared taxis heading to Georgia at Vladikavkaz railway station. However, travelling direct through the border will involve a very long wait.
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 (1,740m), 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 (2,395m).
After 30km of descending curves and switchbacks, the road reaches neglected Pasanauri (1,050 m), a popular spot in the Soviet days that remains a pretty base for exploring the hills. The next 20km south is a fairly straight run that sees the mountains taper off to the 17th century Ananuri castle that overlooks the picturesque Zhinvali reservoir (820m).
The road flanks the southwestern side of the reservoir and then follow the Kura River south downstream towards Mtskheta. About 19km south of Ananuri, a road leaves the highway and heads up the hills for 4km to Dusheti (900m), a town known for its khinkali (meat dumplings). It is also near Bazaleti Lake. A further 25km past the Dusheti turning on the main higher leads to Mtskheta (450m), 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 (400m) - the thriving Georgian capital.
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.