Soviet-Era Monuments in Georgia.
Georgia is dotted with Soviet monuments of all kinds. These concrete and steel memorials are considered by many locals eyesores and a constant reminder of a past they would often rather forget. On our drive through the country we stumbled onto a large number of Soviet-era monuments everywhere, from town squares to roadsides and even in the smallest of villages. I have always had a soft spot for these ugly, yet fascinating mementos of history, some of them portraying political statements like the statue of Stalin in Gori, while others may be considered modern art works with less socialist messages.
Monument to the Treaty of Georgievsk
The Monument to the Treaty of Georgievsk at Gudauri (also known as the ‘Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument’) is possibly one of the largest of its kind in Georgia and after being restored it shines in its former, colourful glory on a mountaintop near Gudauri, a popular ski resort in the Greater Caucasus Mountain range. Having left Kutaisi behind, I had planned a stop at this magnificent memorial on our journey to Stepantsmindsa (Kazbegi).
Driving From Kutaisi to Gudauri
The way from Kutaisi to Kazbergi takes you back almost to Tiblisi before turning onto the road north towards the mountains. The first part of our drive had been uneventful, just in places the trucks and lines of cars moving at the steady pace that one comes to accept in Georgia. Our way was broken only by a brief stop for some very tasty dumplings in a restaurant en route.
Driving Along the Georgian Military Highway
Once we had turned off motorway and had our brief lunch, the stretch of road to Gudauri was not only a test for my driving skills it also proved to be quite nerve racking. The bendy, steep road that connects Tbilisi with Russia is called the Georgian Military Highway, and is frequented by a large number of old trucks transporting heavy loads between Georgia and Russia. We kept following these trucks at a slow rate numerous times during the drive, until we got the possibility to overtake them, every now and then.
Spectacular Views en Route
Jerome had fallen asleep at some point and missed out on some spectacular views that we encountered en route, especially across the reservoir that the road fringes in its lower levels before heading higher in the mountains. The mountain part of the road is steep and the trucks ever slower, huge zig zags take you from the bottom of the river valley high onto the plateau above.
Gudauri, a Popular Ski Resort
Gudauri, on the plateau hanging above the valley is a popular base for hikers during the warmer months of the year, in winter it offers the best skiing in Georgia and attracts a large number of winter sport fanatics, from near and far. When I had booked our stay in the Greater Caucasus, I had wavered between Gudauri and Kazbegi, however, driving through Gudauri I was now glad that I had changed my mind and booked a hotel in Stepantsminda. Gudauri appeared to be a soulless place, lacking charm, rather like Bakuriani (another ski resort in Georgia) that we had seen a week before. New hotels seemed to be sprouting everywhere, spoiling the beautiful landscape and creating just another ski resort like many others in Europe, without even an old village at the heart.
The Russian-Georgian Friendship Monument
The Russian-Georgia Friendship Monument cannot be missed. After leaving the last buildings of Gudauri behind we could see the curved structure dominating the landscape ahead. A large number of cars and buses were parked along the roadside and the designated car park. After some initial trouble of waking Jerome and his refusal to get out of the car, we wandered past souvenir stalls to the colourful monument. Upon closer inspection, we noticed that it contains a large-scale tile mural depicting the history of Georgia with Russia. The semi circular frieze seems to hang over the valley and almost feels like it will slip into the gorge below at any time when you stand gazing out over the valley floor below and up to the mountains above.
Giant Mural with Historical Scenes
It is a truly spectacular site for this giant mural with stylized historical scenes designed by architect Giorgi and erected in 1983, it has since attracted locals and nowadays an increasing number of tourists come just to see it. Besides the vibrant mural, the views over the Devil’s valley and the surrounding mountainscapes are breathtakingly beautiful. Depending on the weather, the clouds hanging in the mountains can create a moody atmosphere while on sunny days the high mountaintops glisten in the bright sunlight, offering striking views of the High Caucasus.
Mineral Spring Near Jvari Pass
A few kilometres after the The Russian-Georgia Friendship Monument the road crossed the Jvari pass, parts of the route protected by concrete snow shelters, showing that it can be closed often in winter. Shortly after cresting the ridge we stopped at a mineral spring that had created a peculiar landscape over thousands of years.
A Bizarre Landscape
Sulphur waters have created a bizarre crust and after recommendations from friends we took off our shoes and wandered across the mineral deposits feeling the waters tickle our feet. Although they appear to be very slippery they are quite rough underfoot and the thin layer of water running down the steep hill was freezing cold. Some believe they have healing properties.
Take Off Your Shoes!
Jerome enjoyed walking bare foot across the cool ground after the long drive and climbed right to the top, to find the source of the spring where the sulphur water spurts out of the ground. As we descended we wondered at the other tourists, many too frightened to take of their shoes and feel the cool water on their feet. Others did not even venture onto this natural slope, they certainly missed a unique experience.
Jumping back into the car we followed the winding line of trucks and the cascading waters of the streams down into the valley the other side. The way down is not as steep or hair raising but the snow capped mountains and the contrasting green valleys held our gaze. This part of Georgia feeling remote and almost cut off, although a massive toll post full of trucks clearing customs before the Russian border 10km further on blots the landscape as you near the bottom of the pass.
Our Arrival at Stepantsminda (Kazbegi)
Leaving this eyesore behind we crossed a small rise and were soon in Stepantsminda (Kazbegi), which would be our home away from home for the coming days. Unlike Gudauri, the village has a heart set around a square near the bridge of the river and the town now sprawls with a mix of building as and styles up the hillside behind. We soon spotted our hotel, the recently renovated Rooms Hotel, a sister to the Fabrika Hostel that we had stayed in Tiblisi. Having checked in we drew breath as we stepped onto the balcony of our room to see the valley below and the snow capped range of Mount Kazbek, the highest peak in Georgia. Below its snow capped mountain top we recognised the outline of the Holy Trinity Church in the afternoon sun, a mesmerising view we would enjoy every afternoon and morning for our entire stay.