Our group at the top of the mountain in the Davit Gareji monastery

One of the things that I hadn’t done during my previous time in Georgia that I wanted to be sure not to miss this time was a trip to one of the cave monasteries.  I live in Kakheti reasonably close to the Davit Gareji monastery (or David Gareja, as it’s sometimes anglicized), so I decided to drag my friends along with me for some tourism.  In my preliminary research, my guidebook (Lonely Planet) warned to “Watch out for poisonous vipers on this route, including in the caves and especially from April to June.”  Since (despite living in the Southwest) I have a strictly-enforced policy of avoiding poisonous snakes whenever possible, we decided that we would do our trip at the end of March.   Take that, snakes!

After some preliminary research, my friends and I determined that it would be cheapest to charter a marshrutka from a town in Kakheti, and have everyone converge on that point from their respective homes.  My Georgian colleague helped me talk with marshrutka drivers and make arrangements, and we were all set to go!  Except advance-planning in Georgia can be quite a challenge, so we weren’t quite sure how many of us there would be, but we proceeded anyway and let things work themselves out (and as usual in Georgia, everything was fine.)

Come the morning of our trip, we had an excellent posse set to visit Davit Gareji: 5 Americans, 1 Canadian, and 5 Georgians.  We brought some food to share, and set off in our “party marshrutka”.  We were surprised to see along the way that there were still areas with rather deep snow drifts.  At home, the snow had been gone for a few weeks at this point, and the monastery is located in the desert.  In fact, the nearest village is even called Desert (უდაბნო–Udabno).  One surprising thing about our journey to the monastery was the state of the roads.  Georgian infrastructure is still recovering from the troubles of the Soviet and post-Soviet times.  A Georgian friend in Tbilisi told me that the first time in her life she could remember seeing road construction was in Summer 2010.  That said, the roads to Davit Gareji were particularly bad, despite the fact that it is a fairly major tourist destination–it makes the list of attractions tracked by the Georgian National Tourist Agency.  There’s currently a drive to encourage tourism in Georgia,in particular in Kakheti, and improving this sort of infrastructure will be a major step towards that goal.

The hills near Davit Gareji. Bacon-y, no?

But I digress.  We arrived at the monastery, to wildly different scenery than in other parts of Georgia I’ve visited.  The vegetation really is desert-like.  The mountains are a different shape than the Caucasus or the Gombori Mountains, and the striations in the rock made a an interesting panorama.  As my friend, H, pointed out, it looked as if the hills were made of bacon.

We went into the first monastery, a working monastery called Lavra.  It was interesting to poke around, though not the most interesting of the religious sites I’ve seen in Georgia.  At this point I thought that Davit Gareji was perhaps a bit overhyped as a tourist destination.  We then went outside the monastery to find our teenage boy posse climbing the rocks outside, and decided to follow them (by the by: appropriate female attire for visiting a monastery and clothes that are easy to scramble up rocks in don’t really overlap…).  Then we realized there was a walking path, so we decided to take the easy way and meet with our bidjebi (guys) at the top.  While we were

Taking a break climbing to the Udabno site at Davit Gareji

atop the rock, we realized there was a path leading up the mountain, and we assumed that it must be the rumured path to the Udabno monastery.  We decided to check it out, not realizing exactly how long a walk we had gotten ourselves into–I recommend bringing the water and snacks with you for the walk.  Once you get to the top, though, it’s well worth the walk.  The view down the mountain and into Azerbaijan is absolutely stunning, and the caves at the Udabno site have some incredible murals.

Murals in the Udabno monastery at Davit Gareji

These murals are particularly interesting (even though I have no art history chops) because their style is apparently entirely native to Georgia–they aren’t influenced by the Russian or Byzantine painting traditions.  And though I don’t know much about art, they did feel very “Georgian” to me.  They’re difficult to photograph, so I’ve posted one of my less-bad photos here (taken on my camera by my friend S), but if you’re really interested there are plenty of photos out there on the internet.

We proceeded along the cliff-side path.  (In Georgia, the mountain-top attractions I’ve visited don’t have such conveniences/distractions as railings or other safety devices.  I have mixed feelings about this: I’d really rather not plummet off a cliff, but the unobstructed views really are incredible).  Reaching the top of the mountain, we found a small chapel and some absolutely stunning views.  Our bidjebi horsed around a bit, and we took some group photos, but we noticed dark clouds over Azerbaijan, so we didn’t tarry too long and hurried back down the slope. At the bottom we accidentally wandered into the working part of the monastery (a big no-no; but it was where the path ended!).  We were lucky to have our Georgians to handle the dispute.  We had to briefly scramble up another rock to reconnect to the path.

At this point we were ready for our snacks, and we busted out our potluck/picnic of bread, fruit, M&Ms, Russian alphabet crackers, and tcha-tcha.  Unfortunately we had to cut the picnic a bit short to make sure everyone could get back to Tbilisi on the last marshrutka, but we continued our snacking and my host brother played his guitar for our return trip.  We made it back home quite tired but very happy.

The caves at Davit Gareji, Udabno Monastery.