In this episode of Tristan’s Adventures, I talk theology with Georgian orthodox monks on top of a mountain, straddle the Georgia-Azerbaijan border, nearly step on a poisonous viper, and marvel at thousand-year-old frescos.
The Lonely Planet guidebook for Georgia has this to say about Davit Gareja:
On the border with Azerbaijan, Davit (or David) Gareja is perhaps the most remarkable of all Georgia’s ancient sites, and the most interesting easy day trip from Tbilisi. Comprising about 15 old monasteries spread over a large, remote area, its uniqueness is heightened by a lunar, semidesert landscape which turns green and blooms with flowers in early summer.
So Davit Gareja (which I’m going to be referring to intermittently as DG) is a series of monasteries. The complex was founded in the 6th century by a guy named Davit Gareja, one of thirteen Assyrian missionaries sent to Georgia to strengthen the church there. Over the centuries, the monasteries have been expanded, sacked, destroyed, neglected, and rebuilt a number of times. These days visitors generally visit two of the monasteries. There’s the Lavra monastery and the Udabno monastery. The Lavra monastery is still in use and consists of a bunch of caves that Georgian orthodox monks still live in. There’s also a courtyard, church and some other buildings there. The Udabno monastery is near the top of the mountain that Lavra sits near the base of. Udabno has amazing 10th-to-13th-century frescos. You have to climb up the mountain from Lavra to get to Udabno.
Getting to DG from Tbilisi wasn’t too bad. I took a marshrutka (mini bus) from Tbilisi to the town of Sagarejo, and then got a taxi from there. (See the Getting to Davit Gareja section at the end for more of those details.) My driver actually didn’t really speak Russian (only Georgian), so we didn’t talk at all on the way there. He blasted some music (in Georgian, Russian, and English—you can never get away from Flo Rida and Rihanna) and I was happy to just stare out the window. The closer we got to Davit Gareja, the more incredible the landscape became. The green hills looked like that one Windows XP background, and then they gave way to bigger and more jagged mountains.
When the spectacular drive ended, I wandered around Lavra a bit before climbing up the mountain to Udabno. You climb to the top of the mountain and then follow a path alongside the ridge top to Udabno. I arrived at the top of the mountain at the same time as two Georgian orthodox monks who were coming up from the other side—the Azerbaijan side—of the mountain.
That’s another interesting thing about visiting this place. This area is currently being claimed by both Georgia and Azerbaijan. Stalin and co. really messed up when they drew the Georgia/Azerbaijan border. Technically speaking Lavra is in Georgia and Udabno is just barely over the border in Azerbaijan, but both are historically Georgian. It’s an interesting story and a point of contention for both sides. You can read more about the border issues here and here. But here’s the area on a Google Map so you can see what I’m talking about:
So getting back to the point at which I reached the top of the mountain, or at least the ridge that leads to the top. On top of the ridge, where I met the monks, there is a one-foot-high metal railing that delineates the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Perched on a rock on the Azerbaijan side was a lone Azeri border guard. I guess he’s there to make sure no one takes the path down into Azerbaijan that shouldn’t take it. It’s kind of odd, though, because right away the trail that leads over to Udabno drops down over onto the Azerbaijan side. Whatever.
Back to the Georgian monks that were coming up from the Azerbaijan side for some reason. I heard them speaking Russian and so I said something to them in Russian about how great the view was. That got us talking and we started walking together toward Udabno. Eventually they asked me if I was православный (pravoslavny), or an orthodox Christian. I said no, that I was a Mormon. They’d heard of Mormons. They’re the ones with multiple wives, right? Sigh. Yes, I said, that had been true in the past, but that hasn’t been a thing in Mormonism for over a hundred years. They weren’t antagonistic or belligerent toward me when they found out that I was Mormon, which is how other orthodox priests I’ve talked to have reacted, so that was nice. We had a nice discussion about the Bible and the path to God—which was especially fun as we were literally walking on a narrow path on top of a mountain toward a church. They’d quote a scripture to me and I’d agree with it, then I’d quote a scripture to them and they’d agree with it, and in general it was a pleasant conversation. They invited me to pray with them on top of the mountain there (in Georgian and in Russian), but I had to decline due to time constraints.
Anyway, this whole place was pretty spectacular. The thousand-year-old frescoes at Udabno are incredible, as is the fact that people used to live way the crap up there in those caves is mind-blowing. This area is a desert in the middle of nowhere. It’s crazy to think about people living in those conditions 1,000+ years ago.
Without further ado, here are the photos. As always, click a photo for the larger version.
Overall, this place was incredible and is a must-see if you’re in Georgia.
Getting to Davit Gareja
There’s no public transportation to Davit Gareja. Sagarejo is the closest town of any size. I took a marshrutka (mini bus) to Sagarejo from near the Samgori metro stop (see this map). There were a bunch of marshrutkas parked there. Don’t pay attention to any of the yellow marshrutkas you see on the streets—those just go around within the city of Tbilisi itself. The destinations of all marshrutkas will be written on a sign and placed in the front window of the marshrutka, but they’ll only be written in Georgian. I just kept asking people about a marshrutka to Sagarejo and was eventually pointed to the correct one. It costs 3 lari ($1.80 USD) to go to Sagarejo, and you pay when you exit the marshrutka.
The ride from Tbilisi to Sagarejo took about 45 minutes. You might be able to ride to the end of the route and then get off, depending on where your marshrutka is ultimately heading, but I got out when I saw a sign for the turnoff to Davit Gareja. I also had the City Maps 2Go app on my iPhone. It’s an offline maps app, so you don’t need a data connection to use it. Because iPhones have a GPS, though, your position is still pointed out on the map. So I knew when we’d made it to Sagarejo and figured I could get out pretty much anywhere and try to find a taxi to DG. But like I said, I got out when I saw a sign pointing to Davit Gareja, and it was at this intersection. I walked to a little building across the road and asked where I could find a taxi to Davit Gareja. They pointed to a guy sitting on a couch and we settled on 50 lari ($30 USD) for him to drive me out there, wait for an hour and a half, and then drive me back. The Lonely Planet guidebook said that this should cost between 50 and 60 lari, so 50 sounded great.
The drive in the taxi to Davit Gareji took an hour and fifteen minutes. The hour and a half there was just fine for me, but I’m a fast walker and hiker. Two hours would be good if you’re a normal walker, and three hours is probably needed if you’re a slow walker. By the way, there is no entrance fee to the monasteries. The drive back to Sagarejo took an hour and five minutes. The driver dropped me off on the main road and within two minutes I’d flagged down a passing marshrutka and was on my way back to Tbilisi. It dropped me off back at the Samgori metro stop, but at the entrance north entrance (the top one shown on the first map linked to above). The metro entrance wasn’t marked; I had to ask around to find it.