About two minutes into the hike I realized that I was ill prepared and horribly inadequately dressed for what lay ahead.
The wind mercilessly whipped against my coat (a light “wind-breaker”, ha) and brought uncontrollable tears to my eyes. I couldn’t hear a thing besides thunderous billows of air stirring about me.
I could barley see ahead, so I opted instead to look steadily at the ground – at my taupe flats (ridiculous footwear!) and the steep incline beneath them.
When the hell would this hill end!? I didn’t even know this required a hike!
Visiting Davit Gareja had topped my list of “Things To Do” while in the Republic of Georgia. I was fascinated by the mystique of the place – the forgotten 6th century cave monastery/city that was once a hub of religion, culture and commerce for those traveling the Silk Road.
Nothing in my research (as I recall) indicated that hiking a mountain would be a major part of the experience.
But now as I climbed ever higher and the wind continued to pick up (how was that even possible?!), I didn’t see anything resembling a “cave city.” All I saw was incline, low-lying shrubs and mist.
I began to think that I might be in the wrong place? Or going the wrong direction?
Where am I??
Luckily I’ve got a stubborn streak, so even though I was skeptical about my trajectory, I pressed on.
“I’ll at least get to the top of this beast and then decide what to do,” I thought to myself.
By the time I reached the summit, I was sweating and literally had tears streaming down my face from the ferocity of the wind – so attractive. And I felt as though I might actually be blown right off the mountaintop.
And then very abruptly, I dropped down to the other side of the ridge and everything was silent.
The contrast was startling; I looked around to see if anyone else noticed the absurd silence, but there was no one. Just me. Alone on this mountain.
What lay before me was a seemingly endless vista – the Azerbaijani high desert shrouded in wispy fog. It looked nothing like a desert really, more like an expansive plain or steppe or grassland. Regardless, I was transfixed.
Rivers etched their way to the horizon and the mountain range I was standing on cut a path to the west.
It was then that I heard shifting gravel behind me and spun around to face two Georgian soldiers holding M16 riffles. Pretty sure my jaw hit the floor. Real smooth.
They didn’t smile or say a word, but simply pointed to a narrow dirt path cut into the mountain and obscured by the low fog.
I guess I go this way?…it felt like walking into in an abyss.
The “simple” act of walking the path got my adrenaline going. It was SO comically close to the cliff-face and my flats were SO absurdly pitiful for the task.
With the Azerbaijani desert to my right and the meager path crawling in front of me, I stole a glace to my left and stopped dead in my tracks.
Arches, doorways and rooms chiseled into the face of the cliff revealed themselves one by one through the fog. I climbed to them, bursting with eager excitement.
Ancient fresco paintings depicting religious rituals, animals, the stars and space covered hand-smoothed rock surfaces.
It felt like the wind had been taken out of me (in a good way), like I had to breath heavier simply to absorb what I was seeing. It was that fucking cool!
I wandered from room to room and on more than one occasion had to slow myself down; stop myself from running to the next section.
“Cliff-face. Instant death. They would never find your body. Slow your roll.”
Davit Gareja has long been at the center of a fierce border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan – both claiming that following decades of Soviet occupation, arbitrary border drawings misappropriated the ancient dwellings.
Today, it’s unclear, at any moment walking the ruins, what country you’re standing in. Regardless, it’s hard to fathom that people actually lived here and that Monks still do – in this remote, harsh, forgotten place.
By the time I reached the last carved chapel I was grinning like an idiot. I was actually glad there was no one around to see me - in a state of wind-swept, teary-eyed bliss.
On the decent down the mountain, the fog and mist had cleared and I faced yet another alien landscape. The valley to the north was nearly as impressive as it’s Azerbaijani counterpart to the south.
I also noticed a low-lying railing…designating a trail. Umm Hmm. I knew that this existed, but I hadn’t been able to find it through the wind and fog on the way up. Man it would have been helpful though!
At the base of the mountain, I wandered through another section of cave dwellings in which Monks still live today, an area called Lavra (the dwellings on the other side of the mountain are called Udabno).
The entire bumpy drive back to Tbilisi, I tried to process what I had just seen. I’m always amazed that such ancient places manage to survive centuries of occupation and disputes and change.
Davit Gareja truly felt like a place lost in time.
And to this place, I sacrificed my flats. They were destroyed and went straight in the trash. Worth it!
Know Before You Go:
- Find the metal railing. Use the railing. Thank me later.
- Wear proper footwear! Sneakers at least.
- Bring water. You can only buy wine out here and hydration is key (especially in the summer heat).
- It’s free to visit Davit Gareja, but stockpile some karma points and leave a donation.
- There is no public transportation to the site. It’s best to hire a cab from Tbilisi which should run about 80-100 GEL…$50ish US bucks.