The climb up Mount Gareja was hot and humid, only compensated for by the ever expanding views across the Georgian valleys and hills below. Reaching the ridge at the top of the hill offers an even more spectacular view into a deep valley that sits in the neighbouring country of Azerbaijan. The vast panorama over the sweeping grasslands on both sides was accompanied by birdsong, a multitude of butterflies, and the buzzing of insects. This might tempt you to think all is well with the world. You’d be wrong.
The ridge I was standing on, marks the poorly defined border between Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the presence of armed border guards from both countries gives a hint of the unfurling diplomatic spat between formerly friendly neighbours. David Gareji is an ancient complex of rock-hewn monasteries and caves where monks have lived since the 6th century. Some have magnificent and ancient frescoes, but the border runs right through the complex and thanks to the dispute many areas are out of bounds.
In less politicised times, monks, pilgrims and tourists were allowed access to the whole area, with the Azerbaijani border guards allowing people to move freely between both countries. That arrangement ended earlier this year when the border was abruptly and surprisingly closed. This sparked tensions and a breakdown in relations between the countries. I could see the cave monastery of Udabno and another church that were, at most, a hundred meters away, but access was blocked.
Luckily, the Lavra Monastery, the main sight on the Georgian side, is still accessible and you can walk along the ridge before descending via the Spring of David’s Tears … but first you have to get here. I left Sighnaghi in the early morning for a drive that was supposed to take me almost to Tbilisi before turning back into the wilderness, where the David Gareji complex sits in grand isolation. That was, until I saw a road sign to the monastery directing me down a small but paved road.
In the spirit of adventure I took a chance that this was a shortcut and headed off into the vast open landscape. This was an inspired decision. Until the final 20km, the road was in good condition but, much more importantly, it passed through some of the most extraordinary countryside of this entire trip. Utterly beautiful grasslands stretched as far as the eye could see, mineral lakes shone brilliant white in the sun, and I watched as a cowboy herded his cattle along the valley floor. It was worth the bone-jarring final 20km.
The Lavra Monastery was founded in the 6th century but was expanded significantly in the 11th century, when this complex was the centre of religious life in eastern Georgia. It was destroyed by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and then rebuilt, only to suffer disaster during Easter, 1615. The army of Persia’s Shah Abbas’ killed over 6000 monks and destroyed much of the complex. It was rebuilt in the 17th century but never regained its former prestige or authority, much of the complex was abandoned.
This is how it remains, a place of solitude and mysticism set in a hostile lunar landscape. There is a working monastery, you regularly see black-robbed priests, and it’s a site of pilgrimage. There were only a handful of people when I arrived, including a number of pilgrims, making for a relaxed visit. The Lavra Monastery is especially spellbinding, a mixture of traditional buildings, rock-hewn passages, monks cells and caves. I visited before heading up the hill to the border.
Even though I couldn’t visit the rest of the complex, I’m glad I made the effort for the views alone. It was good to take some exercise before the long drive to Tbilisi where I’d spend the night. I wandered down the hill again and came across a most unusual sight, a wild tortoise. I later learned this was Testudo graeca, a Spur-thighed Tortoise. I had no idea Georgia was home to wild tortoises. It went some way to mitigating the closed border.