2013 Georgia 3 – photos to come when I get back to NZ

Leaving Kutaisi – Day 4

Motsameta monastery: This small monastery is spectacularly sited on a cliff-edge – so it was quite difficult to get good photos of it. All the women on the tour were wearing headscarves so we had fun taking photos of us looking very authentic! There was a service on so we couldn’t take photos inside – however, there was one nice door outside! The church is built in memory of two young boys who were thrown into the gorge way back in the past. Their skulls are now in a special tomb in the church; there is a short tunnel to crawl through on your hands and knees under the tomb, and then you go up a couple of steps to see the tomb. I didn’t, but Nick and a couple of others did, after getting permission to do it while the service was on.

Gelati Monastery complex:
[History] This consists of a variety of churches and the Academy building. It was founded in 1106 by King David the Builder in gratitude to God for his victories over the Turks. The King wanted it to serve as a centre of Christendom, so as well as scholars, many religious artists studied there. Many of the treasures which were made there have been lost over the centuries, however the buildings and frescos in them are extremely well preserved, and the setting of the monastery on a hillside with views over to the distant Caucasus peaks is spectacular. He is buried in the grounds under the gateway, as he wanted all who entered the complex to step on his tombstone, a very humble gesture for so great a man. Of course now his tomb is covered by a layer of perspex and visitors are requested not to step on it. He was a very tall man, and his tombstone is 3 m long.

He is also known as King David IV, or David the builder, and is considered Georgia’s finest monarch. He introduced immigration of a particular (can’t remember the name) tribe, with the requirement that each family had to give 1 man for the Royal Army – and he got 14,000 extra men. He made major theological and educational reforms, introduced hospitals and liberated Tbilisi from the Arabs. He died in 1125 aged 53, he was Christian Orthodox, and could speak 7 languages.

Google King David IV Georgia for more information on him. 

Several of the buildings were being renovated so we couldn’t see inside. There was a service on in the church, however, we were allowed to take photos of the building’s interior.

Sataplia Nature Reserve and Imereti Caves: Here we saw 120 million year old dinosaur footprints, walked through the forest, and the Imereti Caves – these are well lit (albeit in different colours) caves with stalagmites and stalactites, and an underground river.

At the end of this visit I was asked to fill in a feedback form for the park – it was in English, but for some of the answers I needed Nick’s help (like why I had visited it – the option of it being on our tour itinerary wasn’t there) and of course, I gave them feedback on the possible answers for one other question – the text they had didn’t offer a logical answer, so I just wrote my answer in. 

Back into Kutaisi for lunch where I took Nick’s advice on lunch – but all I got was a plate with 5 slices of cheese and a corn bread – not the most exciting lunch. Luckily Larry didn’t like the onions and parsley in his salad so I added those to my cheese and that made it edible – again, evidence that meals in Georgia are meant to be shared. Luckily Clifford was with us, and I gave him the rest of the cheese. The day before he had kindly eaten the rest of my soup which was too much for me, and too spicy as well.

After lunch there was a very long drive (3-4 hours), through the Caucasus Mountain range to our hotel in the ski resort town of Bakuriani in Southern Georgia. There was snow still on the tops of the mountains surrounding us. I don’t enjoy the high altitude places as I get altitude headaches. It was about 1,700 m high and cold.

The trip through the mountains to Bakuriani was lovely – beautiful scenery, huge forests, snow-capped peaks, flowing rivers and abundant wildlife. However, even here the legacy of the Soviet Era has left its usual blight on the landscape, with abandoned factories, rundown apartment blocks, and the above ground gas pipes through every town. And on top of that, the rivers, instead of being pristine as you would imagine them to be in such a beautiful place, are often littered with rubbish along the high watermark on the banks.

Our hotel room was huge, and actually had good pillows – most of the time the pillows are large and fat, and I have to use my small travel feather pillow, otherwise I wake up with headaches – which is not a great idea when on a tour. Ibuprofen is better for altitude headaches than Panadol, so I bought some in Armenia, and used it in all the high altitude places – usually didn’t need more than one –  which is much better than going through the day with a headache.

Day 5

We drove back down the mountain passes for our visits that day.  The trip notes said we would visit Khertvisi Fortress ‘dramatically situated on a cliff above the confluence of two major rivers’ – well we stopped, got out of the bus, walked across a swing bridge to get the best view and then back onto the bus! So we ‘saw’ but didn’t ‘visit’ it.

The cave town of Vardzia: This is one of Georgia’s most significant sites.
[History] Established by King Giorgi III in the 12th C as a stronghold against the Turkish Sultanate (the Turkish border is only 10 km away) Vardzia was subsequently developed by his daughter, Tamar (later to become queen). She created a cave monastery that became the centre of Georgian culture. This network of caves above the Mtkvari (Kura) river stretches 500 m along the river, used to number at least 3,000 caves, and had up to 19 tiers in some places, housing over 2,000 monks. It is still is a working monastery today, with a few caves inhabited by monks. Originally there were over 119 cave groups, 13 churches, 409 rooms and 25 wine cellars all carved out of the rock in the side of the mountain, accessed by a very steep winding path, and staircases. At the heart of the complex is the small cave Church of the Assumption dating back to the 12th C. An earthquake in 1283 destroyed the outer walls of many of the caves, and in 1551 the Georgians were defeated by the Persians, with many of the battles taking place in the caves themselves, which seems unbelievable given how steep the access is. Nick’s best friend is a monk here.

The caves are cut into the cliffs and are very visible now but they used to be enclosed – rock fall has been caused, not only by earthquakes generally, and in particular the big one mentioned above, but also by human intervention. During the Soviet Era, the caves were a military outpost and soldiers were stationed here. The construction of safety railings on some of the paths at that time caused sections of the cliff to sheer off. 

We saw the Church of the Assumption but were not allowed to take photos inside, but outside there were some lovely frescos. It was a very steep climb up to the church which was at the beginning of the cave ‘tour’. It was a good aerobic workout for us all after all the sitting we do for hours on the bus – Judy and Rosemary weren’t going to walk up with the group but go at their own pace, but at the beginning of the climb, Rosemary stuck her thumb out as a vehicle came along and they were picked up by one of the monks driving supplies up to the monastery!  We were all slightly amazed (as were they) as they cruised by us in the vehicle – but it was good, as this meant they were able to visit the church with us (it was locked after we left). The rest of the group then followed Nick through some tunnels – very steep steps up and down and we needed our torches at one place, and then we came outside again, and we were just along from the church!  Some of the group had found this section with its steep steps too dangerous and scary and difficult to navigate (which they were, and especially so if you had joint issues). I had used John the leprechaun’s hand to get down one very deep step and the shorties (we had 3 women who were around 5ft) did have more than a few problems with the very deep/high steps but managed ok with help from the others. However, they were not among the group who decided not to continue.

Larry, our American, was overly vocal to Nick about the dangers of the first section and he had better ideas on how Nick should have run it, such as being at the back of the group to make sure everyone got down ok – but that wouldn’t have worked at all (and he didn’t see the second section!) so the rest of us were really pleased when he chose to return back across the 5 m flat path to the church, and then back down the road to the bus. A few others joined him. 

The rest of us happily followed Nick up and down through an even more challenging and difficult route – steeper steps and lower rock ceilings in the tunnels – as the UK contingent said, there was no way that OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) would have let anyone near the site without hard hats or even allowed people down some of the steps (probably in NZ too)! They probably would have closed the site totally but actually it wasn’t terminally dangerous – the worst that would have happened would have been a broken leg. There was no danger of actually falling down the cliff unless you went where you were not allowed to go.  A couple of times I was very pleased I was wearing my sun hat as a scrape from the ceiling onto a sun hat wasn’t as damaging to me as one straight onto scalp! I didn’t take any photos of that section as I had put my camera away because I needed 2 (sometimes 3) hands all the time. We were calling information back about what was ahead but I think that sometimes it didn’t get through, but as the leprechaun and I were near the front we were lucky and heard it. Like the other cave town, the second, external section isn’t somewhere we could have gone if it had been wet. The first section was inside the rock face. Our route brought us out at the bottom of the cliff. We thought it would be cooler than it was so I had worn a long sleeved top which I changed out of as soon as we were back at the bottom.

My lunch was a ginormous cheese-filled pancake but it was far too much for one person and I managed to give some away to Judy and Judith – they had grilled trout – that was it, just one small trout, nothing else – again, this shows how dishes are usually shared at a Georgian meal. The side dishes are often too much for one person, but the meat/fish/chicken dishes always come on their own and are often only enough for one. 

Google Varzia cave complex for more images. 

One of the reasons for going on trips into these countries is to be able to pass on some of our income to the local population – certainly we don’t want to be ripped off, but if the price is ok then I don’t bargain. At this point I hadn’t bought much in Georgia, so bought a couple of fridge magnets and a small purse/bag from the shop at Vardzia – it was run by nuns so I felt that the money would be going to the monastery.

On the drive back to the hotel we saw this amazing rainbow – it wasn’t a double one (two with a space between them) but a double thickness single rainbow – I have never seen such a fat rainbow.

After dinner Nick gave a talk on the history of Georgia – apart from the amount of ancient history, what amazed us was how recent modern conflicts have been – and 1991, which was when the Soviets left Georgia, is only just over 20 years ago. I have mentioned in the first Georgian email about the 2008, 5-day war with Russia – we drove through the forested area that Russia bombed on the way to Bakuriani – the fire damaged areas have not regrown yet.