It's early Sunday morning. Tbilisi is deserted.
We travel in the backseats of a Lada Niva that flows down its wide boulevards, interrupted only by an inconvenient traffic light or two. In front, follow Apo, at the wheel, and Tamara Giorgadze, with whom we speak in Castilian.
We reached the Mtskheta Inlet at a glance, one of Georgia's oldest cities, situated at the confluence of two of the nation's great rivers, the Mtkvari and the Aragvi tributary. We ignored her for a few more days. We proceeded to the vicinity of the Tserovani refugee camp.
It was in this camp that the Tbilisi government installed the Georgian inhabitants who fled their homes in South Ossetia when the military conflict that pitted Georgia erupted. Josef Stalin's home nation and the Russian-backed Slavic Ossetian separatists.
The E-60 cuts 90 degrees to the west.
It turns into a sophisticated highway and crosses most of the country to the Black Sea. We exchanged it for the much older, greener E-117 known as the Georgia Military Road. This route advances against the flow of the Aragvi River through the historic return route of traders and invaders from the across the Caucasus.
It is so old that Strabo mentioned it in his Geographica.
We progress north, towards the Caucasus Mountains and the Russia.
There are stalls and small businesses on the verge full of autumn fruit and other foodstuffs. Until we enter a canyon that narrows access to the great mountain range that is said to separate Europe from Asia.
The scenery becomes inhospitable, parched by the wind and the cold. A few kilometers further on, the frigid waters of the Zhinvali reservoir swamp it, overflowing with a mist that filters the sunlight eager to warm the earth and sublimates the atmosphere.
A steep descent takes us to the place where the Araqvi branches and gives way to the lake. Simultaneously, it unveils a castle that seems to come out of a tale of enchantment.
We had reached Ananuri. "The idea was to stop here on the way back." Tamara – or Tamo, as she preferred us to treat her – comes forward when she sees our restlessness.
And, she surrenders, immediately, when we remind her that it was only by a miracle that we would find an environment as magical as that, if we still came back during the day. We took advantage of the agreement.
We explored and photographed the castle, the reservoir banks and the strange black bridge that stretched across a muddy river branch.
From the 1739th to the XNUMXth century, it was the fortified seat of the Araqvi feudal dynasty from which the river took its name. During this period, the fortress was the scene of numerous battles. Finally, in XNUMX, their masters were massacred by a rival clan. Despite being burned, the fortress remained standing.
UNESCO is slow in granting it the status of World Heritage, due to changes in the structure caused by the formation of the reservoir. As we knew her, it would forever resist in our minds a resplendent Ananuri that surpassed what we had ever expected. Satisfied, we resumed our journey.
The altitude increased and snow soon took over the landscape and the road. It was freezing cold. A temperature similar to that of relations between Georgia and Russia after the war they waged from 7 to 12 August 2008 and which, these days, continues to cause damage.
Apo still feels the shock of the conflict and insists on explaining to us: "for years on end, the Russian authorities have completely banned the entry of Georgian citizens and products, especially our mineral water and wine."
Until the war, we exported almost 80% to Russia.
Today, we never know what will or will not pass and the products that pass flow to the north of the border in droppers, according to the predisposition of the guards who got used to profiting from the lorry drivers' distress.”
What we admired, incredulous, was an endless line of trucks, mostly Armenians and Russians, parked on the side of the road; its drivers given over to repeated conversations or tasks they struggled to diversify.
The sequence of TIRs was so long that we gave up trying to predict its end. “Do you have any idea how many trucks we've passed”, asks Apo, who until then had been driving in silence. “I know how many. When I go to Kazbegi I like to tell them.
There were 184 trucks there. But as far as Russia, many more will appear.”
We stop at a service station at the entrance to Gudauri, the region's prime snow resort. Tamo talks on his cell phone for some time. It gives us last-minute complications.
It had snowed heavily the night before. The authorities cut the Gudauri-Gobi section, one of the most treacherous on the Georgia Military Road, because it was frozen, tucked into a large valley where, due to its configuration, much of the asphalt was in shadow.
In addition to this valley, in particular, also a way to the heights of God and from Kazbegi it would have been insurmountable, or at least for the tires and conditions offered by the Lada Niva we were following. Tamo confers with Apo and makes call after call to Tbilisi and Kazbegi.
We waited almost an hour at that service station. In between, we tried to get good news from police and park authorities who stopped there.
Half an hour after that time, it is Tamo who transmits them, more animated:” OK, it looks like they are already opening the road. That was the most important thing. Let's go to Kazbegi, then we'll see the rest.”
We resume the journey. Soon, we have the surreal vision of new queues of trucks, as long or longer than the previous ones, probably delayed simultaneously by the procedures of the Russian customs of Zemo-Larsi and by the freezing of the road.
By the time we reached Kazbegi – or Stepantsminda as the Georgian authorities want it to be known – Tamo had the local imbroglio resolved. "Let's move to another vehicle, OK?"
He introduces us to Xvicha, the new driver who, without further ado, takes us to his Hiace artillery-style van.
Above all, we had to climb from 1740 meters from the village to 2170 from the Church of Santa Trindade, which we could see from there as if suspended.
We had to comply with it and return in time to avoid the frigidity of the late afternoon that could block us both at the top of the church and on any mountainous stretch on the way back to Tbilisi. Even so, we still stop at the Gudari Monument, which celebrates the friendship between Georgia and Russia.
At that date, seriously out of date.
Xvicha opens the way through the narrow alleys of Gergeti, the village west of the Terek River. Do it among country houses inspired by isbas and wear and tear to match. Soon, he gets rid of the houses and enters a hillside road, tight, winding and subsumed in the forest.
It would probably have been dirt but we could never know such was the amount of snow accumulated on its edges and on the forest floor and the ice in the meantime that covered the road surface and transformed the marginal foliage of vegetation into strange white chandeliers.
Xvicha and the van seemed to move in their favorite environment. It had taken the driver several years to make a living from that route.
Not only was he not afraid of unexpected slippages, he used them to speed up locomotion, assured of the additional traction provided by the chains on the rear wheels.
We were entertaining ourselves with this mountain rally when a meander of the road unveiled the lofty summit of Mount Kazbegi (the third in Georgia and seventh in the Caucasus Mountains) releasing streaks of mist against the blue sky.
From there, until we reached the plateau that housed the Church of Santa Trindade, it took only a few minutes.
We detected the dark silhouette of the temple in the distance, clearly defined against the white slope of the mountains opposite Mount Kazbegi.
Xvicha followed the trail left by the earlier pass of vans and jeeps, dug into an impressive height of snow. We reached the base of the church at the same time as another Lada Niva, this one, unlike Apo, prepared and equipped for the harshness of ascension.
We climb a final staircase, enter the precinct and walk around the centuries-old building, amazed at the isolation to which it has been voted on high.
Also with the Spartan blackness of its architecture, possibly more refined than most of the many churches we had visited in the Caucasus, we admit that due to the contrast with the whiteness of the snow.
Tamo explains that 6 to 8 monks live in the church. During the time we were there, we only saw one of them pass, evasive and with closed features befitting the look of their spiritual home.
The anti-religious suspicions and intrigues of the Soviet era will have contributed to that common posture among the monks. In those decades, religious services were prohibited, but the Church of the Holy Trinity did not fail to attract visitors.
Centuries earlier, it had also served to hide precious relics brought from Mtskheta in times of danger.
The most important was the Cross of St. Nino, a woman who in the fourth century AD introduced Georgia to the Christianity already prolific in Armenia and is, today, the patroness of the nation.
The interior of the church turns out to be as dark as it could be. We still opened the heavy door to better appreciate it, but the wind that immediately buffeted us and other visitors frustrated us.
We turned our attention to the outside: to the majestic and icy Caucasian mountains all around, to the bell tower independent of the main building and to the houses of Gergeti and Kazbegi.
From there we can see it, geometrically arranged and covered with snow, at the bottom of the Gorge of Dariali, which from there stretched for 18 km to the problematic area. Russian-Georgian border.
The descent back to the village was troubled. Not because of the afternoon or because of any neglect on Xvicha's.
The misfortune was caused by a series of tourists who estimated that, as they traveled in enviable models, their vehicles were also invincible.
In the time we spent at the top, the ice on certain stretches of the road had reconstituted itself. It took one of those jeeps almost skidding down the slope and a pragmatic lecture from Xvicha for that surreal embassy of stubbornness to surrender.
We ended up hosting the transfer of the German wife and two children of that Georgian driver. The lady dared little or nothing to say while her husband returned the jeep, at a snail's pace and interrupting the lives of some resident guides/drivers.
At three in the afternoon, we said goodbye to the guide from Kazbegi, sat down at a table in a local restaurant and indulged in one of the banquets with which Georgians treat their guests.
The repast included a few more wonders of the nation's cuisine.
Only an hour later, and with great effort, we were able to return to Georgia Military Road and its capital.