Halt who goes there?

Posted by on 16, Jul 2010 in 2010 - The Caucasus, Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Europe, Georgia

Halt who goes there?

Our plan for Georgia was to visit the David Gareda monastery which is close to the Azerbaijan border in the desert like step. We had been told Taffy would easily navigate the dirt road route but when we got to the road we couldn’t even get on to it because it was so bad. Queue the arrival of the local drunks in their 4×4. They said there was a tarmac route over a huge hill that would lead back to the dirt road missing out the start section which had been rendered impassable for us by flood damage. They drove off erratically speeding up the hill and round the hairpin bends like mad teenagers. They must have been in their late 50’s and were so far over the limit that a blood test would be hard pushed to find any blood! It was the steepest hill we’ve ever been up and we crawled up in first eventually getting to the top. There is no way that our old van would have been able to get up the hill and we were pleasantly surprised that Taffy took it in her stride.

The road down was just loose stones and we debated    whether to carry on or not. The drunks waved us on but eventually we persuaded them that we would not follow them and they broke out the vodka! I sadly declined a drink saying it was due to religious beliefs and they told me that vodka was their religion! They waved goodbye and sped off down the track swerving and skidding as they went. That’s when the Georgian Special Forces arrived.

We had wondered why there was a perfect tarmac road in the middle of nowhere, well it led to the Georgian Army SAS basic training camp and the base commander had rolled up to find out what we were doing there. The Major looked every inch SAS complete with gun tucked casually into his trousers almost like he grabbed it just before leaving the camp to intercept us. Not that he needed it, he could easily have killed us both with one hand whilst doing the Times crossword! He asked where we were going and we explained and he said no problem (he spoke 6 languages) he would give us a military escort to show us the way and he would come along too! I explained that we felt Taffy would not be up to the road and so we wanted to camp somewhere, he at first said there was nowhere we could camp within 4km of the base, but taking pity on Linda’s horrified look that we may have to drive another 4km of terrible roads, he found us a spot on the helicopter pad on the edge of the hill. The track to the pad was overgrown and had a steep sideways slope, so much that Linda got out and walked it but we were rewarded with a perfect camping place surrounded by 500m sheer drops on 3 sides and fantastic views all round! The Major stayed and chatted to us for an hour or so and even arranged a driver to take us to the monastery in the morning.

The trip to the monastery was a 10km drive over a poor track and we were pleased we hadn’t brought Taffy. The monastery was beautiful, it was a mixture of caves, chapels carved into the rock and red block built buildings nestled into the side of a hill surrounded by Russian step. The step is like dartmoor but a lot hotter. There are very few trees and little grows but a thistle and hardy grasses and flowers. It is an uncompromising place and just the type of place you train soldiers. We noticed the soldiers here in full kit doing 4km runs followed by an ambulance. With it being 40C 4km must seem a lot further. The monastery was used for target practice during Soviet times and was in fact one of the first places to have demonstrations to protect it in the Perestroika times. Ironically it was then used by the Georgian military for the same thing leading to more protests and its eventual protection and reuse by monks.
The guide books say that high above the monastery there is another chapel on the peak of the hill and a series of cave chapels with some wonderful frescoes in them on the far side of the hill face. It says some fitness is required for this hike and half way up the masive hill, which really was an aspiring mountain, we found this to be an understatement. It was absolutely baking in the low 40’s (we found out later from the Major that the government had issued a heat warning!) and the climb had to be done on very slippery dusty slopes that at times required you to go on all fours! Oh, and did I mention the scorpions and poisonous vipers? We had brought plenty of cold water but by the time we reached the LOCKED chapel we were overheated and worn out. The view was tremendous and we spent a long time in the shade of the LOCKED chapel recovering from our climb. Eventually we were joined by some young Americans who had used up all their 500ml of water and asked if there was any up here! We let them have some of ours but to go anywhere in this heat with so little water was crazy and it was ironic that all of them worked in a local hospital as volunteers.

The climb down was if anything more scary than going up. The 6 inch wide dusty dry path stuck resolutely to the edge of what now was clearly a small mountain with absolutely sheer drops off the side. At times the path had collapsed completely and you had to scramble up the rock face to get over the hole. The cave monasteries provided some shade but with graffiti and collapses were shadows of their former selves and to be honest not worth the 3 hour climb. The one bonus from this hike was that Lindas back held up fine.

So we returned to Taffy drank gallons of water and made our way to our familiar camp of the brothel in Tblisi for the night to be swamped by lorry drivers with offers for tea and coffee like long lost friends.

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