Whether you’re a fan of Alexandre Dumas, a history lover, or simply seeking breathtaking mountain views, travelling along the Georgian military highway through the Darial Gate by the Terek river is a great adventure you shouldn’t miss when in the Caucasus.
No worries to have, it’s not the 19th century anymore and you won’t have to travel by tarantass like Dumas did, today the asphalt road is easily travelled by marshrutkas.
If you are planning on crossing the Verkhny Lars – Kazbegi border between Russia and Georgia or vice-versa, here are a few things you should know apart from being the only legal border crossing between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Georgia ; sorry to disapppoint, but the Pankissi Gorge, the border through Abkhazia or any sheep trail in Svaneti won’t do, they are illegal.
Last updated : 23/02/2023
Don’t do it last minute
If you’re coming from Russia heading to Georgia, whether you need a visa or get visa free in Russia, don’t overstay even for a day; unless being detained, judged and deported at your own expenses by the FSB is a fantasy of yours.
I don’t recommend to cross last minute (like, the final day of your visa) simply because the weather forecast and the diplomatic relations because Russia & Georgia can be unpredictable. The border crossing can be shut without any notice :
Crossing the border
You can’t walk across the buffer zone between the two countries. On the Russian side you will not even be able to reach the passports checkpost from the entrance gate of the border (or vice versa) unless you can wave a border zone permit in front of the young unfriendly Russian soldier’s face. He’s pobably not going to know what to do with you anyway. Just hitch a ride, it’s easier.
From the main bus station (Tsentralny vokzal) you can easily find marshrutkas heading daily to Tbilissi (they can drop you off in Kazbegi or anywhere along the road). Book your seat the day before or simply show up the same day if you don’t mind waiting until the mini bus is full. It costs round 800 roubles and takes 5 to 6 hours if all goes smooth (border crossing, no FSB, weather forecast etc).
Hitchhiking : I’ve hitchhiked twice out of Vladikavkaz, it’s fairly easy, there are plenty of cars and trucks driving to Georgia. You could easily find a ride all the way to Yerevan if you need to travel fast. I’d recommend to started hitching here with a sign saying граница (granitsa = border) or Грузия (Gruzia = Georgia) or futher south of Vladikavkaz here.
There are daily marshrutkas to Vladikavkaz from Didube station. One leaves at 5 or 6am each day. I’d recommend you to book your seat the day before (but do not pay).
A trip From Tbilissi to Vladikavkaz costs about 30 GEL and takes 5 to 6 hours, border formalities included if everything goes smooth.
Just so you know, a passport full of stamps from Central Asian countries won’t make the border crossing quick. The driver should wait for you but in case,don’t leave any of your belongings in the marshruka.
Tip : Even if you speak some Russian, stick to english or you’re good for a potentially long interview.
If you wish to keep going straight to Chechnya (there are other great places in the North Caucasus but okay), tell your driver and he will drop out off at some dodgy backstreet bus stop in Vladikavkaz where you can get another marshrutka to Magas, Ingushetia (the bus station is kind of in the middle of nowhere) and then another one to Grozny, full of friendly Chechen babushkas.
I can’t rememeber the price of the ride but the Muslim populations of the North Caucasus have to much respect for the foreign “guests” to rip them off, so don’t worry, they will not overcharge you.
What to visit along the way
If you stick to the main road, let’s be honest the Georgian side of the military highway is much more scenic than the Russian side. There are plenty of travel blogs out there recommending places to visit nearby Kazbegi, check out Against the compass’s post about it.
But if you like off the beaten track little detours, Russia it is !
Visa, money, safety & extra tips
The FSB is watching you
If you’ve been to Central Asia & South Asia (Afghanistan/Pakistan) among others, get ready for some questionning by the FSB (the 21st century KGB). Honeslty, even if you speak some Russian, prentend that you don’t. A Tajik stamp will raise enough suspicion, trust me.
The FSB officers aren’t rude, unfriendly, nor scary. They just do their job so no worries to have. They might question you about your previous travels, check your phones pictures (delete your nudes !), contacts, Whatsapp/Telegram and ask where you are heading in Russia ; answer Pyatigorsk & Sochi rather than Grozny and Makhachkala. Really.
Russia : Most travelers need a visa to enter Russia. Take a look at my guide on all tourism related visas here. This guide will be updated when the post-Covid world comes back to normal.
Georgia : Western countries do not need a visa to visit Georgia and can spend up to a whole year there.
Many countries can apply for an eVisa which is easily obtained online for 20 US dollars on the official site.
There are no ATM’s on either side of the border but you can change your money in the currency exchange office, if open. Anyway, Visa and Mastercard aren’t operating in Russia anymore so russian ATMs will be useless.
Arriving in Georgia you’ll have no problem paying in Russian Roubles for a taxi or marshrutka to Tbilissi but forget about paying with Georgian Lari after the border in Russia, better to change some Roubles in advance in Tbilissi. You can also get Georgian Lari in an exchange office in Vladikavkaz.
Contrary to popular beliefs you will not be welcomed by tanks, snippers, terrorists and destroyed roads when arriving in Russia. The North Caucasus is not a war zone nor a lawlessness region anymore (I mean, some places are, he). You can reasily travel around the Russian Caucasus nowadays and if you do, trust me you will have a blast !
Solo female hitchhikers : I have solo hitchhiked my way across many countries (even continents) and the only country I felt unsafe was Georgia. If you aren’t already an experienced hitchhiker with a strong personality ready to tell middle age men to f*ck off daily, don’t solo hitchhike in Georgia. But don’t get me wrong, half of my rides have been creepy pervs but the others were the most hospitable people ever.
Unfortunately the kindness of many have been so spoiled by daily bad experiences that I eventually gave up hitchhiking and choose to travel around by the convenient going everwhere marshrutkas.
In Russia, no worries to have. Only watch out for potential drunk drivers, which you are unlikely to see in most of the North Caucasian republics thanks to religion.
There you have it all : a complete guide on crossing the border between Russia & Georgia through the famous Darial gate ! Let me know in the comments if you have any questions and feel free to share your own experience !