Mt Elbrus to Tbilisi: An epic journey through the Caucasus by The Raven Brothers

by The Raven Brothers

CHRIS: For many years, we have yearned to explore the Caucasus region where Europe meets Asia. Naturally, my brother Simon and I were dubious about venturing deep into what is considered to be southern Russia’s Wild West. Before starting our journey, we had read reports from the Georgian and Russian consulates in London that there was a fifty percent chance the Verkhny Lars - Darial Gorge border crossing between Russia and Georgia was now open to foreigners. Fellow adventurers had written on travel forums stating this route was now indeed open, while others claimed it was only accessible to citizens of countries in the ex-Soviet grouping called the CIS. Not being able to pass through into Georgia would mean driving hundreds of kilometres back to the Ukraine and catching a ferry across the Black Sea to Batumi. It was a gamble we were prepared to take.

Mission: Drive from Mt Elbrus to Tbilisi along the Georgian Military Highway. Distance: 384 km: To Vladikavkaz (184 km). From Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi (212 km). 

Vehicle: 1991 Volvo 440. “Boxy, but good”. Bought off eBay for $500. Previous owner: A Headmistress from Cardiff. Disadvantages: Leaky pipes, rusty suspension and a grinding gearbox. Advantages: Heated Seats! 

Location: Russian’s southern Caucasus. Our current location is in the shadow of Mt Elbrus near Abkhazia and Georgia and only 330km from Chechnya. As the crow flies London is 4,000 km - Moscow is approx 1,800 km - Istanbul is 1,900 km (by road) and Tehran is 1,650 km.

Survival Experience: Drove from the UK to Vladivostok in a $500 Ford Sierra Sapphire.

We arrive at a small market in the ski village of Terskol. Local Balkar people have set up stalls selling jars of honey, sheep skin rugs and fur ushanka hats. Grabbing a coffee from a wooden hut, Simon falls into conversation with the woman making the drinks. She speaks very good English and introduces us to her grandfather, who has the face of a wise and hardy mountain man. I ask if her family are Balkar and she nods explaining that many of the people in this region are Balkar, but the younger generation consider themselves to be Russian. Some scholars believe the Balkar people may have evolved from a cultural mix of the northern Caucasian tribes with the Alans and Turkish-speaking tribes, and they had slowly been integrated into the structure of the USSR after the Russian Civil War in the 1920s.

Rain falls once again and a thick veil of mist looms around the base of Mt Elbrus. Refusing to let the bad weather dampen our spirits, we bid farewell to our new friends and take shelter in the nearby 7Summit climbing shop and tour office. We are welcomed inside the cosy shop by the assertive manager named Anna. She offers us hot coffee and we both immediately slump down on the comfy chairs. We watch a group of climbers trying on hiking boots and choosing their ice axes and ski poles. There is an air of excitement, an anxious anticipation. An eccentric chap from Moscow strides comically around the shop and tests out his new hiking boots. He hopes to climb Elbrus in two days’ time when the weather is forecast to improve. Two women from Norway inspect their poles, while a young Russian couple argue whether a blue or orange ski jacket looks better on the mountain. A local guide hears about our road trip expedition and tells us the story about the adventurer, Alexander Abramov, who drove a Land Rover to the top of Elbrus in 1997. The vehicle had become stuck on the way down and still remains on the mountain to this day. “Maybe we should drive our Volvo up to the top”, I smile, but the guide frowns and quickly dismisses the idea. Mt Elbrus is considered to be Europe’s highest summit, with regards to the seven highest mountains of each of the seven continents. Anna pours us both a glass of wine, but I’m driving so I kindly refuse.
 ‘Where is your hotel?’ she asks.
 ‘We’re sleeping in the car.’
 She shakes her head vehemently. ‘No, no, no, it is too cold to sleep in your car tonight. Please, sleep in the shop.’
  Not wishing to be any trouble, she insists so I quickly accept her kind offer. The climbing group finish choosing their equipment and the young couple, after a very long debate, finally decide on blue as their matching colour on the mountain. It’s closing time so I grab our sleeping bags from the car and drag them inside the shop. Overwhelmed by Anna's kindness, we sip a glass of the delicious wine and listen to her stories. I ask if Mt Elbrus is in Europe or Asia. 
  ‘The mountains belong to nobody,’ she smiles. 
  Mt Elbrus is considered to be one of the most dangerous mountains on the Seven Summit circuit. In March 1963, even Tenzing Norgay, the first man to climb Mt Everest with Edmund Hillary, failed to reach the summit of Elbrus because of bad weather. 
  ‘May I ask what you are doing here.’
  'We are on a journey to Tbilisi!’ Si replies.
  ‘You drive here from England?'
  'Yes, in an old Volvo. Do you know if the border with Georgia is open?’
  Anna shrugs. ‘I am sorry, I don’t know. I have not visited the border for many years.’
  ‘Is it safe to travel?’
  ‘Sure, it is no problem for you.’
  ‘Great to hear!’ Si sings, raising his glass.
  We chat late into the evening and after the last drops of wine have been consumed Anna locks the door and places the keys on the counter. Humbled by Anna’s amazing hospitality and trust towards two complete strangers, we bid her goodnight and she disappears into her adjoining apartment. I curl up on the floor in my sleeping bag. An outside lamp floods the climbing shop in dim orange light that illuminates crampons, ice axes and climbing helmets that are hung on the walls. I hear a tapping noise at the window and see a huge moth flapping around the outside light. It casts eerie shadows on the wall, so I cover my head with my sleeping bag and drift off into a deep sleep.

At sunrise, we rejoin the M29 and arrive at a heavily armed checkpoint. Police officers carrying high-powered automatic weapons eyeball us as we drive past, but we are not stopped and searched so we soon arrive at the pleasant town of Nalchik (little horseshoe). It is the capital of the Kabarda-Balkar republic, and an article in the Moscow Times reported that, “these days, Nalchik tends to make the news only in connection with government-led crackdowns on Islamic militants”. In October 2005, the city grabbed the world headlines when dozens of militants tried to seize local law enforcement offices in a raid that left 142 dead, including at least fourteen civilians. As many as 150-200 inexperienced fighters, took part in the assault on fifteen different Interior Ministry and state security buildings and police posts. According to reports, the rebels had ignored the advice of their mentor, renegade Chechen field commander, Shamil Basayev, who had warned them that they were not yet ready for combat. The operation was a complete disaster. The Guardian newspaper quoted a witness to the fighting, who recalled hearing one of the young attackers yelling to a comrade-in-arms, “How do you reload a grenade launcher?” Taking the time to visit the ‘Forever with Russia’ monument in the main square, which is dedicated to Ivan the Terrible’s wife, Maria, a native Kabardian, we push south and arrive at the state border checkpoint for North Ossetia-Alania. Waiting patiently in a long queue of cars, we buy corn on the cob from a kid standing in front of a military bunker. We creep forward and pull up alongside a control booth. Simon hands over our passports and car documents to an official. He asks where we are going. 
  ‘Vladikavkaz,’ I reply with a nervous grin. 
  He seems satisfied with my one word answer and casually slides the documents over the counter. 

* * *

SIMON: We skim along the border of Ingushetia. Chris looks rather anxious and sits hunched over the steering wheel with a somber expression across his face. I am feeling the same. This region is notorious for assassinations and kidnappings. The small Republic of Ingushetia once formed part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. A republic plagued by corruption, the continuing military conflict in nearby Chechnya and Dagestan has on occasion spread into Ingushetia. In July 2006, less than 33km east of Beslan on the Ingushetia border with North Ossetia, Shamil Basayev, the man behind the Beslan School Hostage Crisis, was killed by an explosion. He was one of the most wanted men in the world. Controversy still surrounds who is responsible for his death, with the Russian authorities stating he was killed in an assassination.

The Caucasus Mountains create a stunning backdrop to an otherwise rather grey city, as we reach the outskirts of Vladikavkaz. Chris pulls up to a set of traffic lights and I sneak a peek at my fellow road users. What am I expecting to see – a group of Islamic militants wearing balaclavas and clutching Kalashnikovs? No, of course not, instead it’s a young family squeezed into a red Lada to my left and an overweight businessman in his fifties driving a smart Toyota saloon to my right. Ossetians are a proud people, who recognise themselves as descendants of the Alanic group of Sarmatian tribes. Most Ossetians are fluent in Russian, but they also speak an ancient Iranian language with multiple dialects called Ossetic that belongs to the eastern branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The Ossetians mostly live in the regions of North Ossetia-Alania in Russia and the neighbouring Georgian break-away state of South Ossetia; the latter of which has been de facto independent from Georgia since the 2008 South Ossetia War.

Byzantine missionaries first brought Christianity to the Alans in the 10th century, and a large percentage became Eastern Orthodox Christians in the 12th-13th centuries under the influence of Georgia. During the 13th century, Ossetia fell under the control of the Mongol Empire and the Alani were forced to flee into the mountains. The Kabarday (who we had met around Elbrus), introduced Islam to the region in the 17th century and the Digor branch of the Ossetians in the west gradually adopted the Islamic religion and practises. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that in North Ossetia-Alania, “Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the predominant religion, and Sunni Muslims make up a small but significant minority.” Indigenous pre-Christian and pre-Islamic pagan practices also exist here alongside these and other faiths. With the establishment of a fortress in Vladikavkaz in 1784, Russian colonisation began in the northern Ossetian district. In addition to Ossetians - Russians, Ingush, Armenians, Georgians and Ukrainian Cossacks populate the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania.

Chris weaves around rattling trams that speed past Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks. For many years Vladikavkaz was the main Russian military base in the region. It grew quickly into an industrial centre following the completion of a railway line in 1875 that connected it to Rostov-on-Don and Baku in Azerbaijan. Failing to see any visible signs of the city’s notorious reputation for violence, Chris reminds me that it was only a few years ago in 2010 when a suicide bomber detonated explosives that tore through the packed central market, killing nineteen people and injuring a further 240. Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty reported that Emir Adam, commander of the Caucasus Emirate forces in Ingushetia, “formally identified the Riyadus Salikhiin suicide battalion as responsible for the suicide bombing in September 2010 in Vladikavkaz.” Equally disturbing, the city is thought to have been a base for the Shahidka - Islamist Chechen female suicide bombers also known as the “Black Widows”. Known for their involvement in the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, amongst multiple other attacks, a suspected Shahidka was thought to be responsible for an explosion at a taxi-van stop in Vladikavkaz in 2008, killing at least eleven people and injuring as many as forty others. The term Black Widow is thought to originate from the fact that many of these women are widows of men killed by the Russian forces in Chechnya.

We stroll down to the Mukhtarov Mosque (Sunni mosque) on the banks of the River Terek. Sitting on a bench in a pretty garden, we admire this historic building with its dome and twin minarets. The mosque was built in 1908 and was utilised by Ingush residents of Vladikavkaz before they were driven out of the city in the 1990s. From the river we wander back to the main square and observe the local people going about their daily lives. In the central market we pop into a local café. A woman behind the counter, with short bleached blonde hair, invites us to sit at a table in the sunshine. Ordering a coffee, she prepares the freshly ground beans on a stove and stirs each cup vigorously. Surprised to discover she speaks a few words in English, she asks “what country?” I reply “England”, and she seems surprised why two citizens of the United Kingdom would travel all the way out here to the Caucasus. Chris shows her our route on the road atlas and points to Crimea, the Sea of Azov, Rostov-on-Don, Sochi, Mt Elbrus and Beslan.
  I point out of the window. ‘Vladikavkaz, good?’
  The woman drops her smile, and shakes her head. ‘No good, no good. Here no good. Mayor stupid alcoholic!’ she snaps, her face bulging with anger.
  She complains that the streets are dirty with chewing gum everywhere, and that people today have no respect for their elders. I’m intrigued that she appears to be more upset about the social decay of the city, rather than concerned about the political fighting, assassinations, kidnappings and continuing acts of terrorism and violence. She serves our coffee in white china tea cups with saucers and accompanies it with a slice of fruit cake. We discover Olga is Ossetian and has two daughters. One is married, but her youngest is 27 years old and she still doesn’t have a ring on her finger. Olga is sad about this in the way a Greek or Jewish mother might behave. She uses the word “cho-cho” to ask if we would like “a little more” coffee. We gladly accept her offer. Chris tries to ask Olga if foreigners can pass through the ‘Verkhny Lars - Darial Gorge’ border crossing, but she shrugs her shoulders. Olga hasn’t been to Georgia since she was a child and I get the impression she is not fond of the place. This is hardly surprising when you consider the Russo-Georgian War only took place six years ago. Approaching the counter to pay for the delicious coffee and cake, she shoos us away and refuses to accept any money. Disputing her kindness, Chris places money on the counter, but she looks so angry we feel it would be insulting to push her any further. I have heard of hospitality like this from travellers who have been to Iran and Armenia. Curious to witness this in North Ossetia, we embrace her in turn and leave the café with admiration for yet another proud people in this complex multi-ethnic region of the Caucasus.

Heading south of the city, we see the promising sight of a brand new road sign pointing to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Located only 195km away on the opposite side of the Caucasus Mountains, we are forced to repress our excitement as we speed into the mountains. This border at the frontier of the Georgian Military Highway is currently the only accessible route from Russia into Georgia, with Abkhazia now existing as a break-away state and South Ossetia de facto independent from Georgia since 2008. Before leaving England, Chris had read news reports that in 2010 Russia and Georgia had reached a deal under Swiss and Armenian mediation to reopen the checkpoint. But the crossing was only open to citizens of countries in the ex-Soviet grouping called the “CIS” (Commonwealth of Independent States). We had stumbled across various other conflicting reports on travel blogs and forums, with some people stating the border is now open to foreigners and others warning it is closed.
Traversing the Terek River through a rocky jagged mountain valley, we cautiously approach this remote frontier at the end of the line. Spotting a queue of cars in the distance, I inhale a deep breath. Smartly dressed Russian customs officials wearing green uniforms, with wide brimmed hats, shout orders at the drivers of the vehicles as they filter through the barrier. Reaching the front of the queue, we wait for the green light before drawing to a halt alongside a passport control booth. Experiencing a minor communication breakdown with the woman behind the counter, much to our relief we discover all she wants to see is our visa registration documents that we obtained at the hostel in Rostov-on-Don. Chris is instructed to open the trunk by a guy dressed in black. He asks if we are carrying any weapons or narcotics. Chris mutely shakes his head and he instructs him to close it.

We leave Russian soil and drive 8km through no man’s land to the Darial Gorge border crossing. Workmen weld metal pipes alongside a newly constructed customs building. Serbond stickers have yet to be removed from the white plastic veneer panelling and unfinished wiring and cables hang loosely from ceilings and walls. An air of excitement buzzes around the place as this new border crossing, which is due to be officially opened by the Georgian president in six days time, is literally being unwrapped in front of our eyes. We approach a Georgian police officer with a shaved head and hairy forearms. He is wearing a tight black uniform and looks rather intimidating. We slide our passports across the counter. He flicks through the pages and without looking up he asks us for our visas. I try to remain calm, and Chris explains to the official that according to the Georgian Embassy in London British citizens no longer require one.
  He doesn’t look impressed, and shakes his head. ‘This could be big problem, guys.’
 Waving over his colleague, they have a quick chat. We both wait in nervous anticipation. The fate of our journey relies solely on this one man.
  He glances up suddenly, and winks. ‘Welcome to Georgia!’


CHRIS: A dusty, unpaved stretch of the Georgian Military Highway winds through the Dariali Gorge the “Gate of the Alans”. Pumped full of adrenalin, Si squeezes past a truck from Azerbaijan on a narrow shelf below a 1,800 metre vertical wall of granite. I try to remove the thought from my mind of rocks smashing through the windows, or a landslide forcing us into the steep valley below. This dramatic and ancient trade route is considered to be one of the most romantic places in the Caucasus, with both Lermontov and Pushkin drawing inspiration from the region. Concentrating on the road, Si reminds me to keep my eyes peeled for lammergeyers “bearded vultures” and griffon vultures nesting on the cliffs. In this remote region of Georgia there are plans to construct a new hydropower plant that would generate electricity to be used locally in winter and exported in the summer to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. If not built with care the threat of environmental disaster seems like a terrifying possibility.
After half an hour of negotiating switchback corners and hairpin bends, we cross the Tergi Bridge and arrive in the northeastern Georgian settlement of Kazbegi (1,797m). In the distance I can see the 14th century Holy Trinity Tsminda Sameba Church perched on the adjacent hilltop. The setting sun kisses the jagged horizon and silhouettes a group of hikers making their way up the mountain. In the main square we are immediately surrounded by a group of hard-faced local men touting rooms. A guy appears suddenly at my window. He has flecks of grey in his wiry bushy hair and deep lines embedded in his face. Wearing a brown woollen tank top over a checked shirt, he has the manner of a mountain warrior and despite his age he looks as strong as an ox. I notice his teeth are yellow and decaying and his lips are dry and cracked. The smell of tobacco drifts inside the car.
  ‘You want room?’ he asks, the corner of his mouth curling upwards in a slight smirk.
  I shake my head. ‘No, we go to Tbilisi. Can we buy car insurance here?’
  He drops his smile and raises his bushy, out of control eyebrows. ‘What?’ he growls, fixing his stare.
  ‘We need to buy insurance, for the car,’ Si adds, knocking his fists together to demonstrate a collision.
  The tout mutters something under his breath to the sun-dried gentlemen standing around him.
  ‘No room?’
  ‘No,’ I smile.
  Exhaling a deep sigh, he turns sharply away and marches over to a young traveller struggling up the hill with his rucksack. Si swings the Volvo over to a nearby petrol station. I ask the guy working the pump about car insurance, but we are both suddenly distracted by the surreal sight of a camel walking along the road. A man with long white hair runs alongside the animal and barks orders at its backside. I turn back to the petrol pump attendant, who looks equally puzzled. He shrugs his shoulders and suggests we try in the capital city of Tbilisi.

We glide through the green mountains on a smooth tarmac road with the menacing 5,047m Mt Kazbek looming above us. A turn off for Sno Valley zips by as we approach the small settlements of Sioni and Kobi in the Tergi Valley. Rocks stained red by the sweet mineral waters interrupts the alpine meadows. We head towards the 2,379m Jvari Ughelt “Cross Pass”, the highest section of the GMH. Driving through deep water in an unlit tunnel, I grip the seat with my Gluteus maximus when two large trucks narrowly squeeze past. Sweeping from left to right, we observe crosses on sharp bends that suggest not all those who have driven this scenic highway have survived. In the winter months this section of the road is notorious for avalanches, and I try to imagine how beautiful it must look up here with the mountains covered in a thick blanket of snow. Devil’s Valley glows in the evening light, and we make a pit stop at a scenic viewpoint balanced on a cliff edge. An unfriendly local guy wearing a big floppy hat sells honey and handcrafted souvenirs. Si photographs the enormous colourful abstract mural above the stone arches, depicting a medieval scene of a princess with a small redheaded boy at her feet and white royal battle horses. Since crossing the border we have been zapped to a region of eastern Georgia in the Southern Caucasus, known in Greco-Roman times as the kingdom of Iberia - home of the Caucasian Iberians. During Classical Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Iberia was a major state in the Caucasus. It later united with Colchis to its west, forming the nucleus of the medieval Kingdom of Georgia.

With nightfall rapidly approaching, we begin the familiar hunt for somewhere safe to park. Arriving at the mountain ski village of Gudauri, on the southern slopes of The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range, Si spots a sharp turn off below a luxury ski lodge. He sweeps the Volvo onto a grass verge and kills the lights.

Soft rays of morning sunlight creep slowly across the mountains and reveal our dramatic location. Si coasts the Volvo down the hill to a small supermarket with a café, and I gaze dreamily at the poster in the window of a frothy cappuccino. With wild hair and pasta shell eyes I greet the friendly girl behind the counter. She has a very different appearance to the people we have seen living in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. Her nose is slightly crooked and she has thick wavy black hair and olive skin. Si returns from a trucker’s wash with a skip in his step. We sip our cappuccinos and watch the supermarket employees arrive for work. The boss appears to be overly enthusiastic and orders a young lad to quickly mop the floors. He doesn’t immediately jump into action and he shakes his head and trudges through a staff exit door. We listen to the employees chatter away and I’m intrigued to hear that the Georgian language sounds softer and more musical in contrast to their Russian neighbours. The guy operating the till eagerly teaches us how to say hello “gamarjoba” and thank you “gmadlobt”.

High on caffeine, Si checks out the road atlas as I set to work at driving the remainder of the Georgian Military Highway. Traversing the Tetri Aragvi River, a warm westerly wind blows through my window and massages my freshly shaven skin. Losing myself in the drive, I power the Volvo through sweeping corners as we descend 500m to the deserted village of Kvesheti in the green Khada valley. We follow the Mtiuleti Aragvi River for 40km, from Pasanauri to the Ananuri fort that is located on a hill above the turquoise Zhinvali Reservoir. The fortress belonged to the Dukes of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty from the 13th century who ruled as far as the Tergi Valley. The location of great battles, in 1739 the castle was set ablaze by Shanshe of Ksani and the Aragvi clan was massacred right here inside its walls.

Entering the larger Assumption Church that is covered in stone carvings, a woman wearing a headscarf scrapes candle wax out of an ornate freestanding candleholder. She has a striking face, round, pale and angelic. I observe a large cross on each wall and study the 17th and 18th century frescos; one of which depicts images of devils, snakes and agonising torture. A priest wearing black robes, with a long grey beard, appears from out of nowhere and scurries across the church with his head bent low. I watch with interest as he disappears mysteriously through a doorway hidden behind a fresco of The Last Judgement. I glance over at the woman scraping the candle wax and she looks up at me with her large watery eyes.

Joining Si on the battlements, we look out across the reservoir towards the Pankisi Gorge. Located in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, this region is home to an ethnic group known as the Kists, an ancient people that trace their origins back to the Chechens of the northern Caucasus. In an article on Pankisi, Romanian journalists Annina Lehmann and Rina Soloveitchik quoted the 19th century Georgian poet Vasha Pshavela, who described the Kists as “a vengeful yet honourable people, who were locked in blood feuds with their neighbours but would respect the laws of hospitality, even unto death.” This remote poverty-stricken northeast valley in Georgia, south of the Chechen border in the municipality of Akhmeta, is associated with being a breeding ground for terrorists. Due to its reputation for radical Islam, drugs and arms smuggling, lawlessness and banditry, the region has for many years been viewed as a black hole beyond the reach of the authorities.

BBC News reported that during the two wars between the Russian government forces and separatist rebels in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, the Chechen population grew in the Pankisi Gorge. Murad Batal al-Shishani wrote. “The valley became a refuge for those wanting to flee the fighting and, as the Russian state re-established control, rebel fighters seeking protection from attack”. In the build up to the Iraq War in 2003, Georgia was pressured by Russia and the United States to repress the threat of al-Qaeda, with terrorist training camps believed to be located in this region. In 2005, France claimed al Qaeda operatives were manufacturing the biochemical ricin in the valley, and scrambled fighter jets to bomb the gorge. According to Sky News, the US also sent military advisers to train Georgian troops to fight the militants in a US$64 million dollar operation. Many Chechen fighters currently operating in Syria and Iraq for the Islamic State (IS) were recruited from the Pankisi Gorge, unemployed men who are believed to have been easy and willing jihadists. Daniel McLaughlin reporting for the Irish Times stated, “Beso Kushtanashvili (18) was at least the sixth young Muslim from Pankisi Gorge to die fighting in Syria. His parents told Georgian media they thought he was working in Turkey.” One particular local fighter from Pankisi, with a distinctive red beard, was born in the nearby village of Birkiani and is today the commander of the newly formed al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Growing up, Omar al-Shishani (real name Tarkhan Batirashvili) was a mountain shepherd boy, who decided to become a soldier. He served during the Russo-Georgia war in 2008, and was about to become an officer when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Katie Stallard, Moscow Correspondent for Sky News, reported that his life quickly spiralled out of control when he left the Georgian army on medical grounds. He was arrested in Birkiani not long after he left the army and was imprisoned for the possession of illegal weapons. A Sky News interview with his father, Teimuraz Batirashvili, revealed that Omar felt his country did not need him and he planned to start a holy war for god. His father, a Christian, still lives in a village close to Birkiani and has a small, simply furnished house. His son is now one of the most feared jihadists in the Middle East.

* * *

SIMON: Leaving behind the wilderness of the Caucasus Mountains, Chris drives the last 70km to Mtskheta, a UNESCO World Heritage town north of Tbilisi. Parking outside the newly built Museum of Archaeology, we admire the beautiful Jvari church that sits atop a hill east of the town. Built in 585 AD, the church is located on the site where a sacred wooden cross was erected in the 4th century AD. Mtskheta was the capital of the early Georgian Kingdom of Iberia from the 3rd century BC to 5th century AD, and it was here that Christianity had first been proclaimed the state religion of Kartli in 337 AD. Still the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox Church, we walk through the tourist town and make a circuit around a large defensive wall that surrounds the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, or “the Living Pillar Cathedral”. Built in the shape of an elongated cross, we crank our necks and look up at the stout cylindrical tower, with a steep cone roof and admire the carvings on the stone work.

In the arched entrance to the cathedral’s main courtyard, a babushka dressed in black reaches out a hand with a twinkle in her eye. Chris drops a few coins into her palm and she thanks him with a toothless grin. We step inside this ancient monument, and feel immediately dwarfed by the enormous interior with towering stone columns. A group of women wearing headscarves sing and light candles at the gold altar, their soft voices echoing throughout the cathedral. Examining a giant pillar decorated with frescoes, I read a tourist leaflet in the light of my mobile phone, and discover that it is believed Christ's actual robe lies buried here. According to this ancient myth, retold by Roger Rosen in his book ‘Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus’, a Jew called Elioz was in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. He returned to Georgia with the robe that he had bought from a Roman soldier in Golgotha. On his arrival to Mtskheta, his sister Sidonia had apparently taken it from him and immediately died in a passion of faith. No one could prise the robe from her grasp, so it was allegedly buried with her.

On the spot where the robe was buried with Sidonia, a large cedar tree is believed to have sprouted from the ground. Three centuries later Saint Nino ordered the tree be cut down and used in the construction of a church. St Nino had travelled to Iberia from Cappadocia (Turkey) to carry out missionary work, and converted the Georgian queen, Nana, to Christianity. The pagan king of Iberia Mirian III eventually agreed to adopt Christianity as the state religion after St Nino helped cure him of an illness. From the cedar tree, the foundations of the church were built using seven wooden columns. Bizarrely, the seventh column is believed to have had magical properties, and rose into the air by itself. Thankfully it returned to earth after St Nino prayed through the night. A sacred liquid is rumoured to have flowed from the magical seventh column that cured people of all diseases. Chris examines the stone pillar for signs of this sacred liquid, and confirms that the construction of this new stone cathedral in the 11th century, must have plugged any leakages. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was named after this rather strange supernatural miracle; Sveti meaning “pillar” and tskhoveli meaning “life-giving” or “living”. Studying the tomb of Erekle II, who was the king of Kartli and Kakheti from 1762 to 1798, I observe a family of Georgian tourists who snap photographs inside the cathedral. I get the distinct impression they are not here to worship god, but rather to enjoy a day out visiting a historic monument in a pretty old Georgian town. We pass through an ancient stone archway that is tall and incredibly narrow. A woman lights a candle and crosses her chest. A western tourist wearing a Norwegian football shirt walks past with a sarong tied around his waist - an attempt by the church to prevent offending worshippers by hiding his skinny white legs. He sheepishly nods a hello and then gazes dreamily at the cathedral’s ceiling.

Returning to the road, a police car tailgates us all the way out of town. It eventually overtakes, and a policewoman glances over her shoulder at our licence plate. Chris thunders south to Tbilisi and we enter into battle with the speeding traffic. The highway begins to feel more like a racetrack, with high performance vehicles cutting dangerously across lanes. Located in the south-east of Eurasia, Tbilisi grew up along an established East-West transit route, and has profited for many centuries from the trade of spices, silk and slaves and in more recent times from oil from Azerbaijan. A modern commercial city, the capital of Georgia has experienced rapid economic growth since the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili and his Georgian National Movement party came to power in 2003 following the Rose Revolution. In spite of this, Saakashvili government suffered a political crisis in 2007, when opposition parties staged large street protests. They accused the new government of corruption and artificial price rises that had led to increasing poverty.

The impressive bow-shaped Bridge of Peace, which is covered in wafers of glass that are encased in a steel membrane, arches across the Mtkvari River. Chris identifies the grand Presidential Palace, with a beautiful glass dome on the roof and the Georgian national flag at full mast. Several times the size of the White House, the history of the presidential palace only dates back to 2004, after the Rose Revolution, when the newly elected Saakashvili decided to build this grand building. It officially opened in 2009, at a time when thousands of Georgians were still living in makeshift refugee camps after the war with Russia. Driving towards Freedom Square, steel and glass office buildings and international hotels rise like temples to the modern world. Chris screeches to a halt outside a bakery on Rustaveli Avenue. He returns with two slices of khachapuri, a delicious cheese pastry and two slices of kubdari, which is similar but with meat. The strong cheese tastes like ricotta and the meat pastry is bursting with minced beef and finely chopped onion. We pay a cheerful parking tout a few Georgian lari to keep an eye on the Volvo, while we tour around Tbilisi’s fantastic world class museums and galleries and delve into Georgia’s ancient past. This road trip has been truly amazing, from its historic heritage, beautiful landscapes, dramatic memorials and reopening of borders, but more importantly to the fascinating people who live here today.

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by The Raven Brothers

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Out of shape and unprepared, The Raven Brothers return to the road in a collection of ten quests to travel to their dream destinations against all odds! After two decades pioneering new routes across the globe, you would expect the authors of 'Driving the Trans-Siberian' to be hotshot explorers, with a sixth sense and an ability to survive in almost any situation. Think again! With virtually zero knowledge of the workings of the internal combustion engine and very limited skills of wilderness survival, Simon and Chris struggle into their hiking boots and power across three continents by river, tarmac and trail.

Venture to the top of Norway, cruise the road to Damascus, hike the Camino trail into Spain’s Wild West, row the Ganges, explore Frida Kahlo’s world in Mexico City, hangout with the dead in Sicily’s eerie catacombs, crawl deep inside Bolivia’s notorious silver mine, seek lions in Gujarat, wellness in Berlin and journey into the Naga Hills where tribal kings still rule.

Noted by Lonely Planet for their talent to portray an “accurate view of what to expect”, 'Hike, Drive, Stayin’ Alive!' signals a return to the duo writing “buttock clenching” travel comedy with the first in a series of candid stories of adventure by The Raven Brothers.

Driving the Trans-Siberian

by The Raven Brothers

On Amazon >

Ever had the desire to jump in your car and keep driving; to wave goodbye to routine and commitment, to drive into the unknown hungry for adventure? Well, that is precisely what overland travel writers, Chris Raven and Simon Raven, decided to do whilst stacking boxes of frozen oven chips in a -30 degrees freezer. Not being petrol heads and having zero knowledge of the internal combustion engine, the brothers fired up their rusty Ford Sierra Sapphire and headed east. 

After clocking up over 11,000 miles, quite literally living in the car, the pioneering duo miraculously arrived in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok in Siberia on the Sea of Japan. What they had in fact done was to drive the entire length of the new Amur Highway before it was finished, which crosses Russia and the notorious Zilov Gap in a 6,200 mile swath of cracked tarmac and potholes. Along the way our trusty heroes drink vodka with Chechen criminals, escape highway robbery, trade banana flavoured condoms with Russian cops, meet the eccentric and plain weird at truck stops in darkest Siberia, endure torturous road conditions and have a race to the finish with the Germans. Surviving this insane journey by the skin of their teeth the brothers are forced to confront their worst fears in this toe-curling comedy of extreme road trip adventure.

Carnival Express

by The Raven Brothers

Overland travel writers, Chris Raven and Simon Raven, embark on a new comedy adventure that leads them to the wild and colourful continent of South America. From bull's testicles in Buenos Aires to bums and boobs on the beaches of Brazil, the Raven brothers put their dream plans into action and traverse the Trans-oceanic highway from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast of South America.

Pioneering a new frontier over the Andes and through the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, the bizarre and the beautiful cross their dusty path as they seek inspiration for a new book and go in search of the ultimate carnival. Not always getting it right, Simon and Chris tango through the Argentinean vineyards, cycle to the Moon in Chile, lose themselves in the mysterious world of the Inca Empire, swim with caiman in the Madre de Dios, experience panic in the Pantanal, The Rolling Stones in Rio and conclude their journey in Olinda at the carnival of the soul.

Living the Linger

by The Raven Brothers

On Amazon >

The sudden break-up with Emily Willow finds Simon Raven, ex-amateur rock god and bored internet producer, on a Boeing 747 bound for Seattle. Led by his twin brother, Chris, who is more than happy to exchange a career in fashion photography for the open road, they embark on a buttock-clenching journey of paranoia and self-doubt, as they traverse Interstate 15 across backcountry America. 

Along the way the hapless duo bumble through bear infested wilderness, meet the eccentric and plain weird on the American freeway, escape a bullwhip wielding maniac in Missoula and survive the evils of Las Vegas. Testing their friendship to the limit as they battle to reach their nirvana, which exists in the form of the bikini beaches of California, the brothers find inspiration on a journey that exposes the stark truth about work and relationships and which asks the question - what do you really want to do with your life?