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5 September  David Gareji

One feet in Georgia and one feet in Azerbaijan: Monastery search in the desert

We set off early for David Gareja, a group of monasteries in the arid semi-desert to the southeast of Tbilisi, right on the border with Azerbaijan - on one stretch of road, one can stand one feet in Georgia and one feet in Azerbaijan here, and I did just that !  Yes, I’m just a typically trashy tourist these days…

First built in the 6th C., David Gareji was once a centre of religious study and arts in Georgia, until repeated raids and destruction by Mongols and Persians led to its decline - in fact, the latest wave of destruction occurred in the last few decades, when Soviet military turned it into an artillery training ground, destroying a number of historic churches in the region.

With one leg in Georgia and the other in Azerbaijan.
A Soviet-era military installation
Abandoned in the desert
 Desert view
Bank note
On the road

We drove for over two hours through the huge industrial city of Rustavi and a nearby Sven town – the sun rose behind the endless jungle of furnaces, chimneys and gigantic pipes, creating what looked like a Soviet era poster on socialist glory and victory.  We were in Khakheti, the eastern province which is also the wine country of Georgia where peasants still work on vineyards and celebrate ancient harvest festivals.

Before long, we arrived at a hill that forms the dividing line between the green plains of eastern Georgia and the arid stark desert hills of the Georgian-Azeri frontierland.  On top is a Soviet era military facility where generals once observed the results of missile live firing – sometimes with the ancient monasteries as targets.  Beyond one could see abandoned military bunkers and trenches.  This was where they once prepared for the Afghan invasion, given the similarity of landscape and climate.

Chichrituri Monastery, or what was left of it... and yet another watch tower.
In the wild desert hills...
A modern day conqueror

Together with Zaza, I trekked through 7km or more of desert-like mountains, parts of which were rather steep... I don’t normally get guides, but over here, one would not be able to get to these uninhabited parts, or find the cave churches on cliffsides or mountain slopes without guidance, or at least not accomplish so much within a short time-scale.  Thank goodness we started early or the burning heat would have led to heat stroke.  The effort was worth it - beautiful frescoes (in numerous cave churches and monasteries scattered over a wide area), ranging from 6th C to 16th C can be seen here, although most have been defaced to a lesser or greater extent, by thoughtless visitors ranging from 17th C Persian invaders (who carved off the faces of saints), 19th C pilgrims (who signed off their names) and 1980's Soviet soldiers who scribbled Russian obscenities.  I wonder how long these great works of art would survive...

The amazing frescoes of Udabno Monastery

Back to Tbilisi, I visited the National Museum and its amazing gold collection.  Roman, Greek and Iverian gold – reminding one about the ancient origins of this country the world know so little about.

I popped by Iveria Travel and discussed my travel plans with Zaza and Dadi.  I decided to set off for Batumi tonight by train.  From there I would go on to Kutaisi and then Gori.  Zaza rang his friends working at the Georgian Railways and booked a ticket for me. I returned to Nasi’s place, packed my stuff and hopped onto an overnight train (US$4 for sleeping couchette) to Batumi, capital of the Adjaran Autonomous Republic in western Georgia.  As on most FSU train trips, once you get on with the right company - as I did with a professor and a Tbilisi family - it's drinking and toasting time with the locals - To Georgia !  To Singapore !  To Women - Mother, Sisters & Lovers !  To the Wine-maker !  To Stalin ! and god knows who else...

Entrance to the working Lavra Monastery
Lavra Monastery

6 September Batumi & Kutaisi
In Mafia Wonderland of Abazhidze

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