Geopolitics of the Black Sea-Caspian Region: Political and Economic Security in a Complex Geopolitical Environment.

Tbilisi, Georgia

Sunday, August 5, 2012

History Lessons

Wow. I can't believe I only have one week left in Georgia! That's crazy!

We are spending our last weekend in Tbilisi, but I wanted to share pictures from our latest adventure last weekend out to Vardzia, to the Southeast of Georgia. We had already been to the East (Kakheti), to the West (Batumi), to the North (Stepansminda) and so we had to round it out and go South.

During this trip we stopped by a 14th century castle, a 12th century cave city, and another 14th century monastery, as well as two churches from the 10th century. Being from the US, we just don't have these kinds of ruins! It's absolutely mind-boggling to walking inside a building that was the scene of battles during the 1300's.

We started our trip last week out of Tbilisi and went through Borjomi, the town where most Georgians get their spring water. They literally have tubes on the side of the street and people just pull over and fill up water bottles.

Our first stop (about 20km from the Turkish border) was Khertvisi Castle, on the way to Vardzia. The church at the castle was built in 935, and the surrounding ramparts were built in 1354. This area was often invaded, and since the castle is up on a hill, it served as a lookout for surrounding villages as well. When invaders were spotted, fires would be placed on top of the towers which would call villagers into the castle, as well as alert surrounding area towers, which would then light their fires in return. (Think LOTR when the fires were lit across mountains)

After the castle we made our way to Vardzia, which is an ancient cave city. It was built during King Giorgi III's reign, and his daughter, Queen Tamar finished the site. She was actually also called a King, because at that time they did not differentiate between a female ruler or a male ruler, they were all called King. Tamar is actually quite revered in Georgia. She finished the building of the cave city at Vardzia, and was a very successful ruler and leader during times of war. The cave city was said to hold up to 50,000 people at a time, and she hid her army here when Turks invaded. Her army was able to defeat 400,000 Turks from this dwelling. (Supposedly) The cave was finished in 1186 and, and now only about half of the caves are left. The city as a whole was unearthed during an earthquake, and has since been named a UNESCO world heritage site. The church within the caves has fresco's from the 1100's in it still visible today. You can see some of the rooms have holes in the ground, these were for cooking fires, which were then capped with a tunny dug out so the smoke would waft out of a cave, and not in it. There are also benches dug into the side of the caves were people would sit. The site is still a working monastery, and priests watch over the church inside the cave. I wish I had pictures to show you of the fresco's but no pictures allowed! The last picture is of a clay quarry, which if you remember is used to make wine, and it is actually from the 1200's....

After Vardzia, I thought our trip was over....but we ended up taking a long detour up to the "Hidden Monastery." If you recall, I was pretty terrified about going up in the mountains in a minivan, and to get to the Hidden Monastery, you have to drive up a mountain! I was definitely more than nervous going up there, but we made it! And got some great pictures on top of the mountain. The monastery was built by a Duke who's father decided to renounce his possessions and join the Church. He was then known as Saint Saba, and his son built a church in his name. The original church at this site dates from the 9th century while the current structure was built in the 14th century.

As we were at the monastery a torrential thunderstorm broke out. Our guide, Tea, leaned over to me and said we she should probably go "before the roads wash out." Sooo here I am stuck on top of a mountain at a monastery with no paved road and we have to traverse down a cliff in a minivan in order to get down. Greaaaaat. On the way down, in the torrential rain, on no paved road, I literally prayed to get down safely! I might not be too religious, but soon after, the clouds parted and there was a double rainbow. I know someone up there was looking out for me on that ride!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


This past weekend we were finally able to get out of Tbilisi, and head up into the mountains of Georgia. Kazbegi and the major town, Stepansminda, are high in the Caucasus mountains, past the line between North and South Caucasus (So they are actually considered North Caucasus while most of Georgia is South Caucasus).

I wish I had a picture of the vehicle we took up into the mountains, it almost looked like it was pieced together from different cars. Picture a small nissan minivan, with a grill, huge 4x4 tires, and then raised. When we left we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into...

On our way towards the mountains we stopped at a 17th century castle and church. The story goes that it belonged to a Duke who protected the surrounding areas, they actually left the region for the United States after the Soviets came to power, and the church is now a tourist attraction. It sits next to the Tbilisi reservoir, which actually has villages underneath it which was flooded during Soviet times in order to build the reservoir. Inside the church are frescoes from the 17th century which were painted over white (again, by the Soviets), you can see some of them, but it's too expensive to restore most of the church to it's original state. I found a couple friends while we were there, there were two dogs which followed us around on the grounds. When I bent down to take a picture one of the dogs kept giving me its paws. I know it was probably the dirtiest thing I've ever touched but how can you resist dogs!!!

About 1 hour outside of the city we started to come into the mountains. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking! Its no wonder people say the mountainous region are some of the most beautiful places in Georgia. 

After this is when it really got interesting. You start to climb up the mountain, doing switchbacks, with no guardrails, and on an unpaved well as people are passing each other!! I was sitting in the middle of the van, so I was doing OK, but there would be moments when we driving along the edge that I had to literally move my body towards the mountainside because I was freaking out. Luckily, I had Kat next to me so when we did drive along the edge we literally held onto each other and shut our eyes while silently praying. There was definitely some jokes on our behalf in that van. (Sorry Dad, you would have never made it!) This view was definitely worth it though:

This wasn't even at the top of the mountains!!! After this viewpoint we got back into the car, and after a little traffic jam (below) we were able to make our way over into the North Caucasus and through to the Russian border. It's crazy, there are tiny villages up here with probably 20 families, if that! Completely isolated during the winter months, these roads aren't even passable during those times! The pics below are of us driving through Stepansminda to the Russian border. Look Mom! I can see Russia from here! No really...that giant rock wall is Russia...

After seeing Russia we went back to Stepansminda and had some khinkali for lunch. Khinkali is meat filled dumplings, and this region is supposed to have the best. I have to say, they were actually really good!! Now I can't eat them in Tbilisi because they aren't as good down here! 50 Khinkali later....we headed up to the 10th century monastery across from Mt. Kazbegi. Again, we gathered in the minivan and rode up the side of another mountain. You can see the monastery and Mt Kazbegi (the snow covered mountain behind it) in the background from afar, and then when we went up there. There was another dog up at the monastery with a group from the US Embassy, his name was Roscoe and he was probably the happiest dog I've ever seen. Makes me miss Nala! The final picture is of the "guardrail" up the mountain....Caution Tape?

It's amazing what mountain air can do. I came back much more refreshed and feeling better after this trip than I had in a while. As of right now we are still trying to book a final trip up to Svaneti, the northernmost area of Georgia. Accessible only by 8hr treacherous minivan or 2hrs in a 19 seater prop plane....wish me luck!