Georgia Part #1: At Europes End
Georgia Part #1: At Europes End
Georgia: At Europe’s end
‘Oh, and these are Travertine’s, we should stop here’, Elena said, translating from our driver, as we pulled over about 20km from the town of Kazbegi near the Georgian-Russian border. The site was incredible. While nothing as glamorous as the much vaunted travertine’s at Pamukkale in Turkey, or New Zealands own long lost pink and white Terraces of Taranaki, it was unbelievable to have a piece of natural phenomena, just sitting there, unnoticed by any local or foreign publication (including Lonely Planet) as it had for millennia.
Travertine’s themselves are the results of mineral water springs gradually depositing limestone over time, eventually building up to create beautifully patterned stone formations, made all the more so by the water flowing over them. Happy accidents if you will. And the same could be said of ‘tour’ group, whose existence (a Kiwi, a Russian, and a Spaniard) was entirely arbitrary.
It all kicked off 2 days earlier, when I first touched down in the capital Tbilisi, a city in architectural purgatory. The main street of Rustavelli resembles a Central European boulevard, culminating in Liberty Square which is centrepieced by a column depicting St George. Then, just off to the side lies the old town, taking on the appearance of Brazilian Favelas. Meanwhile the city’s famous Opera House looks distinctly Arabian, and the new bridge spanning the Mtkvari River: Star Wars. I was observing all of this from the cities hilly lookout point (easily accessible by gondola) when I met Elena from Russia.
Also a solo traveler, Elena had just arrived from backpacking solo through the rougher parts of Azerbaijan – as you do – and was now continuing her adventure into Georgia. We initially connected over the fact that we were both walking around alone with bulky Nikon cameras, and soon began talking about other ideas to spend our time in Georgia. We eventually made plans to meet up tomorrow and see the nearby town of Mtskheta (one quickly learns that most places in Georgia are near unpronounceable), the ancient capital of Georgia.
Just a 1 lari, 20 minute bashed up bus (Mashrutka) ride away from Tbilisi, the quaintly town of Mtskheta is famous for two of the oldest churches in the world, both of whom sit on the sites of predeceasing churches from when Georgia declared Christianity the state religion in the year 337. While the grand, centrally located Svetitskhoveli Cathedral’s present form celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2010, real connoisseurs of antiquity will find greater intrigue in the Jvari Church and monastery (built 590 – 605) overlooking the town from a nearby hill and accessible only by private transport. It’s simple enough though – cabbies are lined up everywhere in Mtskheta for the purposes of taking people up there, and we negotiated a fare for 15 Lari.
We were just about to get in the taxi when a crazy haired Hispanic man appeared from nowhere and asked if he could join us to Jvari and split the fare. And with him, our ‘tour’ group was complete. It turned out to be a fantastic stroke of luck, as Isra, from Spain, was here partly on business and had a personal tour – his company had forked out for – organised the following day, up to the remote town of Kazbegi on the Russian border. While consuming Khinkali (Giant dumplings – they’re excellent) over lunch, he shrugged, and invited us along as an afterthought.
Jvari is definitely worth seeing. While there are older churches in the world, virtually none exist in their original form as Jvari does. Though long-grown church tired from continental Europe, once inside I found myself getting the breathtaking pangs of lost discovery. It’s no wonder the building has been untouched for so long. Hardly anyone knows it’s here.
Isra took a particular liking to the church, unveiling another startling quirk when he said that he had to stay and ‘bring balance with the energy in the place’, or something along those lines. This, he opted to do so with the use of a small pendant, frantic pacing, and a notepad full of scrawled numbers and pentagrams which he was furiously adding too. Me and Elena cautiously considered this a good time to leave, saying bye until tomorrow’s excursion.
The day wasn’t over yet though. The next stop for us and our cabbie was Uplistsikhe, an hour from Tbilisi. If Jvari could have inspired Indiana Jones and the last crusade, then Uplistsikhe could have inspired The Flintstones. 3,600 years old, the long abandoned town is carved entirely out of stone, save for the recent addition of a 9th century church. Again, me and Elena found ourselves wandering around, awestruck, as much with the fact that we were the only ones there (including tourists), as well as with the place itself. Had we been in regular Europe the place would have been crammed beyond belief. This incidentally worked in our favour though, as me and Elena took the opportunity to hook up here…
It was the same sensation of isolation that was roused the next day as we continued pass the Travertine’s and onto Kazbegi, courtesy of Isra. It’s like Georgia is all dressed up with no place to go. Not that it makes the getting there part always that easy though. The road to Kazbegi is awful and calling it a road would be a stretch in itself. Upon arriving, a vehicle swap to a serious 4WD is needed to complete the tour up to the regions scenic showpiece: The Caucus back-dropped Gergeti Trinity Church. While tired of churches by this point (we’d stopped at others on the way), the views at the top are inspiring, iconic of the Caucuses, and the isolation of where you are, 2100 meters above sea level, really hits home. Had I more time here, quality hiking options were also on the cards, as was skiing had it been winter.
Staring out across the Caucuses, I started reflecting on what I’d already experienced half-way through my Georgian expedition. This is a place that rampantly restores your inkling that parts of the world really are undiscovered. While technically European, Georgia’s fantastic cuisine, language, history, culture, and plethora of natural and historical wonders are entirely standalone, not even akin to their Russian, Turkish, Armenian or Azerbaijani neighbours. And to think I was getting this all to myself.