The military road from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda (and on another 11km through to the Russian border) is the funnel through which countries north and south of the Caucasus mountains utilise as it is the only open road border between Georgia and Russia. We were warned how busy it was so we opted for a van ride and joined the traffic with number plates from Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia. It was a spectacular 3hr drive but super busy and as our driver said lots of 007, James Bond crazy driving.
The relations between Russia and Georgia are not so good at present (Russia has recently stopped all fights into Georgia, resulting in the loss of millions of tourist dollars from Russian visitors) so the impressive Soviet Russia-Soviet Georgia Friendship Memorial built in 1983 before true independence came for Georgia, en route above Devils Valley, rang a little hollow.
We passed the impressive Gaudari ski resort (add that to our list of ski destinations) and after crossing Jvari pass we dropped into a valley draining north into Russia lorded over by Mt Kazbeck (5400m) sitting directly above the town of Stepantsminda (historically known as Kazbegi).
Our guesthouse sat above town away from the busy highway and had great views across to the mountain. Next morning we left early on foot to walk to the famous Gergeti Church, 400m above town, and beyond, to get views of the Gergeti glacier below Mt Kazbek.
The following day we had a shortish bike up to the village of Juta and the lovely guesthouse of Megi and Levan. Tourists have only been coming to Juta for 6 years and it is becoming a hot spot especially for trekkers who want to hike the Chaukhi Pass to Roshka and back over the Sadzele Pass. We walked up to Chaukhi Pass under the impressive Chaukhi Peaks the next day, before leaving Juta for a camp on the way to Sadzele Pass, the lower and easier option for a hike-a-bike to Roshka and the Khevsureti region.
Sadzele Pass was beautiful but tough for us. We had the slightly easier direction and we were chuffed to meet 2 other bikepackers carrying their bikes up the steeper eastern side as we were trying to manage bikes against gravity on the downhill.
We were very happy to reach the home comforts of the Roshka GH even though we had to camp as it was full. We enjoyed good homemade food and interesting conversations with the daughter Shukya who spoke great English.
It was a day and a half biking down valley to Tbilisi. We got a bit stumped in a short 6km section near the city that avoided the multi lane highway by heading over a section of Tbilisi National Park. The tortoise we came upon could have done it quicker. We are not sure what went wrong but we certainly didn’t make it easy for ourselves, the heat didn’t help along with a missing trail. The previous 54km had taken less time AND we still ended up riding on the busy motorway.
We are now back in Tbilisi for a couple of rest days. We moved accomodation from the trendy (but expensive) Fabrika Hostel to the comfy 2 room Hostel 48A at a quarter of the cost, but, we go to Fabrika for the 5 star buffet breakfasts.
The city is big but we are starting to get a feel for it. The museum is world class. The most harrowing display was about the 70 years of occupation by the USSR (after Georgia tried to become a republic in 1920, in which many of the aristocracy, the wealthy, the educated, the creative, the religious and anyone who dissented were murdered or deported to Gulags (workcamps) under the Bolchevic regime headed by Stalin – dark, dark days.
On a lighter note we rode the funicular up to Mtsatminda park – too windy for the 80m Ferris wheel but we will be back, after Armenia the next part of the adventure.