Churches, Monasteries and Museums: A Georgian Field Trip

Hello Loyal Readers!
For my American readers, I wish you and yours a happy Father’s Day. My gift from afar to my own father will be to finally update my blog! I started slacking on the blog in the last month or so, mostly because the reality of returning home set in and I was trying to spend as much time with my friends and host family, experiencing as much of Georgia as possible. That is how I ended up saying yes to an invitation on a 3 day excursion to Kakheti, the wine region on the opposite end of Georgia, with my school’s graduating seniors.

Reminder: My village is near Ozurgeti, the drive to Telavi took roughly 7 hours

Reminder: My village is near Ozurgeti, the drive to Telavi, the capital of Kakheti, took roughly 7 hours

The drive was above average, since the marshrutka was hired and therefore actually stopped when passengers had to pee, get something to eat, or saw something that they wanted to take pictures of. And, on top of that, all of the passengers were students and teachers from my school, so when they fall asleep on you it’s not as creepy.

I was told to meet at the school at 10 am, and I don’t know why I bothered showing up on time. At this point, the lack of urgency, planning, and punctuality in Georgia is no longer a surprise to me. I staked out a good seat on the marshrutka, and read my book for 2 hours before the rest of the passengers arrived. Then, it somehow took another hour of buying coca cola, visiting the ATM, and dawdling needlessly before we managed to leave Chokhatauri region. Beyond the slow start, the first day ran pretty smoothly overall, with a reasonable number of bathroom breaks and one long stop for lunch in Surami, a pretty wooded area on the main highway in Georgia.

Lunch appeared out of nowhere, a feast of khachapuri (cheese bread), roast chicken, pizza, and cake.

Lunch appeared out of nowhere, a feast of khachapuri (cheese bread), roast chicken, pizza, and cake.

We arrived in Sighnaghi, known in Georgia as “the love city” and advertised to tourists as the most European city in Georgia around 7 pm. Assuming we had a hotel, guesthouse, or campsite lined up was also a mistake on my part. Instead, we drove into the center of town where a bidding war for our patronage took place. There were 19 of us total, and our best offer was a guesthouse just outside the center for 7 lari a night each, equivalent to about $5 USD.

After choosing beds and setting down our luggage, we yet again produced a mystery meal of boiled eggs and cucumber salad out of nowhere. By 8pm we headed into the city center.

Sighnaghi by night

Sighnaghi by night

I can definitely understand how Sighnaghi got the European label. The entire city rests on a hilltop, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets lit by lanterns. It was quiet and calm after dark, allowing us to wander the streets and enjoy it’s beauty. The kids were all very intrigued by my Nikon, and designated me their photoshoot photographer for the trip, which was fun at first but quickly got on my nerves toward the end, but more on that later.

Eventually, the marshrutka parked near a park, and the kids blasted music from its speakers, doing dance routines from various concerts and performances throughout their high school career. It was one of those moments that felt so very Georgian, because it was.

The new graduates dancing to "Gangnam Style" because, of course

The new graduates dancing to “Gangnam Style,” because, of course

By midnight we returned to the guest house, where I almost immediately hit the sack. I slept for 2 amazing hours before the celebrating children, who had been sipping wine and beer and vodka out on the patio, charged the dorm giggling and chatting. It was 4:3o am before they finally shut up and I was able to go back to sleep. It was a cruel 8 am awakening on day 2.

Day 2 started with coffee, khachapuri, and cake. We packed and said goodbye to our host and loaded up the marshrutka for what would end up being a 13 hour tour of the many churches and monasteries of Kakheti.

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Morning view of Sighnaghi while driving away

The day began not 5 kilometers from Sighnaghi, in a monastery complex that included a natural spring which was supposed to bring health and spiritual rebirth. I did not feel like stripping down naked, even if only in the company of a nun, to step into freezing cold water, and the spring didn’t look like much on the outside, so I managed a nap on a shady bench to work off some of the tired from a shitty night of sleep.

After that, we had a bit of a longer drive, so I was able to break free from that feeling I often get in Georgia, where you don’t really feel like you’re getting anywhere. Georgian churches are beautiful, sparse in their decor, lit by memorial candles, etc, but they all sort of look the same after a while. I think we saw 7 or 8 total on day 2.

Well, they definitely have a type

Well, they definitely have a type

Some of the churches stood out more than others, some had frescoes inside, some had monasteries attached, some were surrounded by sweeping views of the unarguably beautiful Kakheti countryside, but I grew fatigued by the sheer volume of churches at a certain point. Georgia is something like 93% Orthodox Christian, which included everyone but me on this excursion. Each stop would have the girls pulling on full length skirts and tying on head scarves, buying and lighting candles, kissing entryways and crossing themselves. I felt, out of place. Georgians see a bit of tourism, evidenced by the wrap skirts provided outside most churches for the under-dressed, but it was still a bit awkward to be the only person in a party of 19 who was not participating in the many rituals of the church.

Toward the end of the day we visited a church that doubled as an archaeological dig site, complete with tarped off areas and scattered tools. I saw many clay pots, pieces of simple metal jewelry, and a human skull!

I kept myself occupied with the creepiness

I kept myself occupied with the creepiness

I don’t know if it was lack of sleep, exhaustion, or what, but throughout the day I could feel myself getting pissy. I tried really hard to fight it, but little things were adding up to make me quite angry. The camera issue is one of them. Ever since the villagers first noticed my Nikon, I have felt kind of used. Every invitation to concerts, picnics, and Birthday parties is attached to the addendum “and you will bring your camera and take pictures.” It’s never a question. On this trip, I was being instructed by the other travelers to “take photo of this hill” or “Kacie, I want a picture in front of this.” As the day progressed, I got more and more annoyed as I was lining up a shot and was interrupted by a request to photograph something else that I don’t even care about.

When we finally got to Telavi, where we would be spending the night, my photographer status was hitting an ultimate high when I was saved by a freak storm, complete with thunder, lightning and heavy rain. We hopped into the marshrutka and searched for a budget hotel.

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My final commissioned photo before the storm hit

After 45 minutes of driving in circles in the rain, we found a cheap hotel (again 7 lari each, this time with double rooms so I could actually sleep.) We ate a late dinner where we were joined by a stray Polish traveler who thankfully spoke English. He asked me a lot of questions about Georgia and it was nice to feel like an authority on the matter.

I slept well that night, stirring only when Shorena, my co-teacher, came into the room for her own sleep. We woke at 8:30, had breakfast and coffee, and embarked on what I thought would be the drive home, yet turned into ANOTHER FULL DAY OF SIGHTSEEING. Mostly, it was more churches, monasteries and museums, but the final site of the day, a monastery called Davit Gareji, made the whole journey worthwhile.

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A cave monastery surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape in Georgia and beyond

I was entirely aware of the time when we started driving toward Davit Gareji, a much talked about and well known “place to see” for TLG volunteers like myself. It was already 5 pm when we left the main road, still in Kakheti, 7 hours from home. But I no longer cared what time it was on the hour long journey through rough terrain that led us to the monastery.It was beyond gorgeous!

When we arrived, we hiked far above the monastery and easily killed another hour. The scenery was amazing, and it took all of our energy to admit that we should probably head home. We reached the main road as the sun was going down, and I remembered once again how far we were from home. I clocked our ETA at 1:30 am, which wouldn’t be too bad.

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Sunset through the obligatory cracked marshrutka windshield

We were right on schedule when we got to Tbilisi around 9 pm, but then I heard a teacher tell the marshrutka driver to go to Sameba. Sameba is the Holy Trinity Church in Tbilisi, and literally everyone has been there. Every student, teacher, and myself on the marshrutka had been there. I asked my co-teacher how long, and she said 30 minutes. I found a bathroom and bought a soda, and stayed in the marsh reading, I was ready to be moving toward my bed.

9:30 quickly became 9:50, and we were finally on our way out of Tbilisi. We made it a few kilometers before the boys complained of hunger and we stopped for some “fast food.” When 7 boys order Shaurma, it is no longer fast food. At 11:00 we were finally on the move, when we got, I kid you not, PULLED OVER. Cops are half myth in Georgia, but I guess in the summer they’re more likely to check for marshrutka driver’s papers. As we pulled away from the policeman after 10 minutes, I saw the “You are now leaving Tbilisi” sign ahead.

We got back to the village at 4:00 am.

A moment of genuine laughter after climbing off a ledge

A moment of genuine laughter after climbing off a ledge

Overall, the excursion was more good than bad. I got to see a lot of Georgian landmarks and scenery that I never would have made it to on my own, spend some time with the students I don’t get to teach, and my co-teacher. My annoyances at time management and being the camera bitch were largely outweighed by the fun times. I might be going on another school excursion later this week, so clearly it didn’t destroy me!

In other news, SCHOOL IS OUT. Now that I’m not teaching, I should be able to catch up on blogging a bit. Coming soon: A post about teaching/my school/students and a post about Georgian food!

Thanks for your patience,

Kacie Riann

The Greater Caucasus

Hello all,

A few weeks back some friends and I decided to check out the REAL mountains of Georgia, known as “the Greater Caucasus.” Don’t get me wrong, the Lesser Caucasus are beautiful, but when I imagined my life in Georgia, I imagined tall peaks that would rival the North Cascades that I had grown up with, and felt instead like I was seeing more of the same.

So, we went to Mestia, the capital of the Svaneti region and one of the most mountainous parts of the country.

The city is famous not only for it's mountains, but for it's ancient watchtowers

The city is famous not only for it’s mountains, but for it’s ancient watchtowers

Getting to Mestia is no small task. The road is long and dangerous, and marshrutka drivers leave very early in the morning from the city of Zugdidi, so an overnight in Zugdidi is required. We found a marginally cheap hotel, booked our 6am pickup for the marshrutka, and spent some time at a bar called Amerikidan, literally “from America.” A former TLG who married a Georgian woman and settled in Zugdidi opened this bar, boasting familiar cocktails, mayonnaise-free pizza with actual mozzarella, and burgers!

 

I went with a Pina Colada, cheese fries, and a chicken sandwich!

I went with a Pina Colada, cheese fries, and a chicken sandwich!

The next morning was rough, to say the least. I spent 20 minutes knocking on hotel room doors, begging my companions to wake up while the marshrutka driver waited outside the hotel at 5:55 am. Eventually, we all made it onto the marsh where almost everyone promptly fell asleep, but I was dying to see what kind of condition this famed “dangerous road” was in, and to spot the first glimpses of the mountains. The road was narrow with frequent rockslides and a few washed out bits where it was unpaved, but for me the scariest part was when we drove through the tunnels. They were unlit, seemed shoddy, and some even leaked impressive streams of water onto the road. Were we driving under a river? Would this end up like that movie “Daylight?”

We saw the remains of this unfortunate accident on the way up, but the truck was gone by the time we drove back down the mountain

We saw the remains of this unfortunate accident on the way up, but the truck was gone by the time we drove back down the mountain

The scenery was worth staying awake for, especially since I got to watch the sun rise, a first for my Georgian experience. The driver was quiet, but sweet. He stopped whenever someone needed to pee and used the opportunity to smoke a cigarette. Most marshrutka drivers will simply crack the window a centimeter and smoke while driving. I appreciated that he didn’t subject us to that on a road that really requires two handed driving.

First snowcapped mountain sighting on the drive up

First snow-capped mountain sighting on the drive up

After the journey, the “city” of Mestia was a welcomed relaxation. We slept away part of the first day, recovering from our early wake up, then ventured into the incredibly small city center. Our guest house provided meals, so it was a pretty low-hassle adventure. The boys took to hiking while the girls took in the scenery at outdoor cafes. We did try our hand at an expedition, however, in the form of climbing one of the 5 story towers.

Mestia5

I played pioneer and led the way for the girls into the tower. That is Maisah’s reaction to my laughter when I viewed the next level.

Each floor of the tower offered a smaller, narrower, steeper ladder. Sometimes, the top of the ladder was still a few feet from the next floor, leading us to leap up onto our stomachs and worm-crawl to the next level. It was absurd. The final level was a metal ladder, inverted at the top, disconnected from the frame above, it’s bolts long lost in the shuffle. We made it though! And the result was amazing: A sense of accomplishment and an unobstructed view of the mountains I came to see.

Amy at the top of the tower

Amy at the top of the tower

The weekend was great. 4 days with some of my best friends in Georgia, including Amy who I hadn’t seen since our Eurotrip, no agenda, and some lovely snowy mountains. Mestia was small, so we never felt like we should be doing something more productive, but it carried a culture all its own. For one, they speak a different language in Svaneti, known as Svan, and they are so much more cutoff from the rest of Georgia, yet well accustomed to tourism. It felt like a different Georgia.

Sitting at a cafe, enjoying life

Sitting at a cafe, enjoying life

More posts to come friends, I promise!

-Kacie Riann

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