Vipers, Wolves and sheepdog - more wonderful animal encounters....

Davit Gareja Travel Blog

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People I met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia)

What can i say, I'm a fool. Having been vomited on by a camel, spat at by an orang-utan, chased by Komodo dragons and a bull and hunted by a bear, i swore my days of stupid excitement were over, and that “It just wasn't worth it anymore”. So why the hell are we stuck in the middle of butt fuck nowhere with two sheepdog going crazy at us, steadily edging in with their teeth showing? I'll tell you why once again - because I'm a fool. Anyway, we'll get back to that in a short while.

The day started as most do, a high pitched alarm in the ear that had me fumbling around in bed for my watch, like a 16 year old about to lose his virginity. With the sheets becoming tangled and anything within touching distance getting clattered around, the alarm inevitably switched itself off, just as i found the bloody watch.

This left me with the recurring question that i have each morning, why do i struggle to turn the alarm off, when it does it automatically itself? One day I'll figure this conundrum out!

By 08.00 we were in the deserted Tbilisi streets and i had to check that my watch was right, as there were so few people out and about. At this time in most countries, the place would be buzzing with dreary eyed folk looking forward to another day in the rat race, but Georgians presumably have a delayed kick off to their day. The metro whisked us across town to Didube bus terminal and soon we were boarding the 08.40 bus to Gardabani.

Davit Gareja is a set of famous cave monasteries, located on the Azerbaijan border in the South of the country, and supposedly makes for an easy day trip from the Capital.
I must say that Lousy Planet excels itself with the 'Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan' book when it comes to writing about how to reach just about anywhere. The normal line goes as follows “The easiest way to reach site X is by taxi from City X. The return trip including waiting time should cost X GEL”, which normally amounts to upwards of $20, even if there is a $0.50 marshrutka. I mean come on guys, get a grip, of course the easiest way is to use a taxi, but if I'm paying to read that, then why bother with a Guidebook?

Fingering through the pages i found today was no different, we would need a taxi from Gardabani, although the price was quoted at 60GEL ($37), which sounded a little steep. Checking on the ever reliable LP map, it appeared that the distance was no more than 30kms each way along a decent road, so surely it couldn't cost so much.
On top of that there was the town of Udabno that was located much closer, and a turn off near there that was surely no more than 7kms to walk. Easy, take a marshrutka heading towards Udabno, jump off at the turn and walk the last few kilometres, or maybe hitch a lift if we were lucky.

When the marshrutka pulled into Gardabani, the driver dropped us off at a lone taxi driver, who immediately pounced on us asking for 70GEL ($43) to make the trip to Davit Gareja. We shrugged him off and asked around for a marshrutka to Udabno, and managed to find where it left from pretty easily. As we walked to the stop, another taxi driver began to pursue us, but we kept insisting that we just weren't interested. As he could see our custom slipping away, he slashed his price to 50GEL ($31), which cleared it in my head that he would only do this if he knew that we had sussed out a cheaper way to reach our destination.
As a final throw of the dice he began telling us that it was due for rain and that there were dangerous animals where we were going blah blah blah. When he finally left us, i saw him approach the marshrutka driver to talk with him and i was sure they were conspiring. Needless to say, the marshrutka driver then also told us it was too far to walk and too dangerous, but we'd heard it all before, so chose to ignore them.

Now we stated clearly that we wanted to go towards Udabno and get off at the turning to Davit Gareja, there was no misunderstanding, so I'm baffled as to where we were dropped off. Our map showed that the road went for about 30kms from Gardabani and then forked left to Udabno and right to Davit Gareja. So why were we been told to get out after no more than 10kms and head left??? I have three suggestions for this, firstly the LP map is a useless sack of crap, secondly the marshrutka driver wanted to screw us, or thirdly both of the above.
Knowing that there is a town called Udabno near to Davit Gareja confirms the second, and knowing there is no sealed road anywhere near the place confirms the first, so putting the two facts together makes me think option 3 was the correct guess.

Now was the time to make a decision, do we head back to town and just pay for a taxi, or do we walk into the wilderness? Something told me heading back was the only sane option, but i was not paying money to that driver who had been pestering us, as i was pretty sure he was in on getting us dropped where we now found ourselves. In fact, having originally been dropped in town where there was a lone taxi waiting for us, it seemed like the marshrutka and taxi drivers were in on a big rip off scam together. Again, i can't prove this, as i can't track down any reliable map of the area, but unless there are 2 Udabno's in the space of 30kms, something wasn't quite right.
So with one option exhausted through stubbornness, we were left with the insane option of walking 20kms - both ways!

Fifteen minutes passed by when a car full of aging men stopped to ask where we were going. The four of them were out hunting for the day and took pity on us, so agreed to take us towards the monastery of John the Baptist, which was meant to be 3kms from Lavra Monastery, the main one in the Davit Gareja complex, or so they thought. It took 20 minutes along unsealed roads to get within view of our destination and this gave them plenty of time to scare the wits out of me.

Poisonous Vipers are no-ones idea of fun, but luckily it wasn't the main season for them, so although we should watch our step, it was by no means guaranteed that we would get injected with a deadly dose of venom.
Wolves on the other hand are a problem year round, now that doesn't sound good! What do you mean they aren't the main problem? Sheep dog, now if you get attacked by them, then you really are in trouble, so avoid them at all cost. The final advice was to get a big stick to defend yourself, stand your ground, but if a dog decided to set on you then get in a ball and hope it settled for taking a few chunks out of your arm. I think the guys could smell our fear and told us to take their mobile number in case of emergency, which was a nice offer, except we don't have a mobile that works. This we were told was idiotic, how can you head into the middle of nowhere without a map, a mobile, food and water and expect to come out alive? Luck.

Watching the Lada Niva disappear into the distance wasn't the most comforting of sights, but we could see John the Baptists Monastery a couple of kilometres away on a hill, so this offered a little peace of mind.
As we walked we kept alert and scoured the landscape looking for any sign of movement on the horizon. It wasn't something that we saw that bothered me, it was the barking that we heard that sent shivers down my spine. Big stick, big stick, where the fuck is a big stick? I was panicked, really panicked. “Pick up some rocks Julia” was all i could say, so we quickly gathered the heftiest that we could find. “Stay calm” i murmured with a tremble in my voice.

Seconds later two angry looking dogs came to a halt a couple of metres in front of us, showing their teeth, snarling and barking. They were eying us up, working out what to do, whilst we were praying they would come no further. The white one making most of the noise was clearly up for some bother, whilst the black and white one just behind it seemed to be covering its back.
Whitey began to circle around us, but we stuck together and faced it off. Slowly inching forwards, it was clear that whitey really was up to no good, so i raised my hand with a stone in it, hoping this would get it to back off. The barking stopped, but the snarling really intensified, it was now super pissed that i had the audacity to threaten it, and crept in even closer.

Shrill whistles suddenly drifted in from the distance and the black and white dog galloped off, but whitey wasn't having any of it. This was his territory and intruders needed to know that! It took several more whistles and calls before he eventually began to back off, albeit rather slowly. Julia and I also edged off at the same time, creating as much of a gap as possible. Once again i was left thanking my lucky stars at been left in one piece and for once Julia had got to sample that terrified adrenalin rush! “Never again, its just not worth it” we both muttered.
Its starting to feel like the morning after a heavy drinking session, when you swear its the last time, but in the back of your mind, you kind of know the truth. I wonder what animal will be next!?

By now John The Baptist Monastery was only a few hundred metres away up a hill and we were grateful to enter the safety of its grounds. One apprentice monk pointed us in and said we could take photos, then when he heard where we were from, he asked Julia why Russia had been bombing them. Oh God, from dogs to angry religious characters, which would be worse! Julia calmly answered that it wasn't her doing anything personally, which brought a smile to his face and he waved us onwards. Thank God, quite literally!

The caves that make up the monastery had been hugely damaged over the years, with offenders including the Mongols, Uzbeks, Persians and Soviets, so most of the splendor had somewhat disappeared.
Nevertheless their legacy has outlived such attacks and it was still nice to look into the niches, one of which had some small frescoes. Lousy Planet had claimed that the only inhabited monastery was that of Lavra, but along with the apprentice monk, there was also Father Neofit, who we found sitting under two bells.

The Father was a nice guy, who instantly began discussing politics with Julia and explaining about the History of the site. After some time he invited us into the Church, which had been chiseled from the rock. Whilst most of the frescoes had been destroyed by invaders, and later a Bolshevik bomb, there were still the legs of the apostles that could be made out, and a very faded drawing of Queen Tamar. Not only did we receive a full guided tour, but the Father then let us look through his 200 year old bible, written in ancient Georgian and then showed us some of the objects that they had  discovered around the site.
It was sad to see that items dating back 1400 years were all just chucked together on a shelf, but there was no money to have them restored or even looked after.

It was already gone 13.15, so we kindly thanked the Father for showing us around and asked for directions to Lavra Monastery. “About 12kms that way” was the reply.... “how far”... “12kms give or take”. Oh bollocks, so much for the 3kms that the hunters had told us! Father  Neofit told us not to worry, as he was sure the good Christians in the area would give us shelter if we were in need, but the problem was that there were barely any people in the entire valley and if we got stuck in the middle of nowhere when it became dark, the Wolves would no doubt have a feast!

However much we insisted that we must be on our way, the Father kept trying to keep us there, i guess it must be a very lonely life out there.
It seemed rude to just leave, so we found ourselves stood at the table with the Father saying grace, before we sat down to drink some coffee and eat some biscuits, how random! The Father said there was plenty of wine and beer if we would prefer that, but the last thing we needed was to get into a drinking session with a holy man at this time of day!

It was nearly 14.00 when a truck driver pulled up carrying what i can only describe as a type of golf buggy. How peculiar, that he chose this of all days to pay the Monastery a visit to drop this off, which would be used to shuttle the Father and his apprentice to Lavra Monastery whenever the need would arise. Sadly there was no petrol in the buggy, so we couldn't get a lift, but the Father said he would ask the truck driver to take us.
Words were mumbled in Georgian and whilst we could see the truck driver originally shaking his head and then umming and ahhing, the Father presumably used some religious blackmail on him, as he eventually succumbed and gave us a ride. This was incredibly kind of him, as the guy was going the opposite way of where we were heading, someone was watching over us.

It seemed an awfully long 12kms, as it took over 30 minutes, although we were on little more than a dirt track. I had held out some remote hope that Lavra Monastery may have a little more life and even an asphalt road, but this was misguided optimism as there wasn't a soul in sight. If we got stuck here, we were screwed, so the sensible option was to ask the driver if we could pay him to wait, as he was heading back to Tbilisi after here.
He agreed to hang on for an hour and in return we gave him 20GEL ($12.25), which suited all parties.

An hour wasn't too much time, so we raced into the 6th Century site, passing through an ornate gateway, which was carved with writing and reliefs. I had seen a photo of the site before and can't say it struck me too much, but now i was there in person, it really did impress me. The 17th Century Church of St Nicholas and numerous caves carved into the cliffs were encompassed by an 18th Century wall, with a watchtower dominating the horizon. The caves spread over three levels and now supposedly housed monks, but there was no sign of them and on every level we tried to enter, we were met by a “no entrance” board on a small wooden gate. It was wonderful to look at the place, even without entering the caves, so we settled for this and went in search of Udabno Complex, located over the ridge of the hill that we were now at the bottom of.

Julia and I raced up to the hills summit and followed a rusting rail that took us to a number of caves that faced out over Azerbaijan. We could see an Azeri look out post and were thankful that the countries are at peace, as if we were on the Armenian border looking at Azerbaijan, we would probably have been shot! Whereas Lavra's outer appearance had really stunned me, it was the interior of the Udabno caves that took your breath away.

Wonderful frescoes adorned a selection of the caves, with some in far better condition than others. We spent 20 minutes poking our head into as many as we could, before heading to a small stone chapel on top of the ridge. From here it was a steep descent to the cave of Davit's tears, named because there is a spring inside.
It was just over an hour when we returned to the truck in a bit of a lather. I left Davit Gareja thinking what an incredible place it must have been at its peak, but Shah Abbas' Persian soldiers not only wrecked the caves, but they also massacred 6000 of the resident monks on Easter eve in 1615, putting to an end its glory years.

The driver returned us all the way back to the centre of Tbilisi by 17.30 and it felt like the Gods had been smiling on us all day. I wonder if we would have had such luck if we had been visiting a non-religious site!? Nana had a lovely Dinner of Borsch, noodles and sausage waiting for us when we got back to the house and i spent the remainder of the evening updating Travbuddy.

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Davit Gareja
photo by: Deats