20 November 2013

Cavorting in the Caucasus: David Gareja Monastery Complex

After my misadventures in the Armenia-Georgia border, the first thing I did in Georgia was immerse myself in hiking. Georgia is a mountainous country, and there are plenty of hills and mountains of interest to the traveler. So, my Irish friend and I chartered a cab to go to the Kakheti Region, which is in eastern Georgia. While we were in a bar the night before, we bumped into a Latvian guy who happens to organize various types of trips for travelers in Georgia. So with his help, we were able to get a cab that would take us to various places in eastern Georgia. The David Gareja Monastery Complex is the first one we went to.

This place is hard to reach: from Tbilisi, it takes about two hours to get here. After all, this mountain is surrounded by desert, so once we left the main highway linking Tbilisi (which is approximately at the center of the country) with the eastern cities, then we were pretty much in desolate area. We drove until we reached the Georgia-Azerbaijan border. And yes, interesting things seem to happen in borders, including my visa misadventures.

People from the Caucasus have this belief that if you want to be close to God, you should be in a high altitude place. Hence, they built churches and monasteries on top of mountains, and this is no exception. In the middle of the desolate desert, this cave monastery is located. It was apparently founded in the 6th century by a monk, and while several events threatened the existence of this monastery, the buildings are still in good condition, and is a destination for travelers and pilgrims alike. We were free to explore the area; there are well-indicated barriers on where we can go and where it is off-limits.

The night before, the Latvian guy who arranged our transportation for the day told us that we should not miss climbing "around" David Gareja. He said that many visitors make the mistake of visiting just the monastery, which is well-indicated. One enters the stone gate, checks out the monastery, and that's it. He said that we should climb on top of the monastery and check out the other side, the side facing Azerbaijan. Because he says that that is actually what makes David Gareja spectacular. So we tried out best to find out what this actually means, when we saw people on top of us, climbing what seems to be a path to go up the mountain and above the caves which the monks have hollowed out as their living quarters.

I particularly liked this hike, because I think this was the first time I hiked in a desert. My Irish companion and I were constantly stopping because we cannot keep our eyes from admiring the surroundings, which somehow felt like it was constantly changing. And when we reached the top, we saw the other side. And the other side was again, the face of the mountain, with hollowed-out caves, facing Azerbaijan. It was somehow surreal to be at the border; the red desert being Georgian territory, and the greenish-brown plains being Azerbaijan. Yes, this cave monastery is straddling the international border, and in fact, there is a legal dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan on this exact location.

If you zoom into one of my pictures, you will see a Georgian border guard carrying an AK-47 (or some other big gun). He was there to watch us; after all, one cannot illegally leave Georgia and enter Azerbaijani territory without going through passport control. So he is there to warn hikers to stay in the path, and never venture out into the other country.

So, after spending about 3 hours here, we went down, found our cab, and ventured further. Georgia is stunning, and if I have the chance to go back again, I would totally do it in a heartbeat.


  1. The scenery is pretty unique, looks like a set of a Star Wars movie!

    1. Zhu,

      It is very unique indeed! I liked the mixture of desert and mountains and caves!