Georgia (I) – A Piece of Paradise (Tbilisi – Mtskheta – Kazbegi)

The Cradle of Everything / Tuesday 3rd April 2018

The border crossing from Bagratshen in Armenia to Sadakhlo in Georgia was fuss-free and our passports weren’t scrutinised the way they were when we landed in Yerevan. Our Georgian guide and driver were waiting just after immigration – Nino, our guide and Gogita (“call me George”…I thought Gogita was much better), our driver.

It was a straight drive to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and Nino launched right into the history and what to expect…

How Georgia Came To Be 

Sometime in The Beginning, God held a meeting to divvy up all the lands of the world. A group of people were out partying with much alcohol, and arrived at the meeting very late – after all the lands had been allocated. God was not pleased, as you might imagine. But the ingenious bunch said they were late because they were drinking in His honour and generally celebrating God. Flattery always helps – God was so chuffed with their faith, he gave them a piece of land so perfect that he had actually been keeping it for himself – it had mountains and lakes, green plains and snow  – a piece of paradise, which today is Georgia.

The Cradle of Wine

That story segued nicely into the Cradle of Wine one. Georgia is also known as the Cradle of Wine – Nino informed us that a group of scientists recently confirmed that Georgia is indeed the birthplace of wine; I later read that the ‘Cradle of Wine’ moniker can be used only by Georgia.

The confirmation came after studying ancient archaeological ‘qvevris‘ (or kvevris) that date back some 6,000 years BC (!!) – more than 8,000 years ago!  They found remains of the wine, with grape skin and stems in these qvevris (which were buried in the ground and covered). Apparently, this ‘traditional technique’ uses all parts of the grape – stem, seeds, skin, twigs. Georgians still use these clay vessels for fermenting their wine (no oak barrels for them).

Nino was most animated, telling us about the various wines (one called Saperavi got mentioned a couple of times), and how Georgian white wine is actually amber. At one point mid-sentence, she stopped and asked, “You drink wine, don’t you?” and sounded most relieved that we did. She said she had guests once who, in the middle of her wine spiel, said that they don’t drink wine. Not impressed. On another occasion, she was with a French group who got a bit grumpy when they heard about the cradle of wine – they didn’t quite believe this bit of history.

Random thought…I don’t think I can be a tour guide if it involves swivelling around while sitting in the front passenger seat to talk to your tourists in the back seat. Katar did it – though hers was more a whole-body swivel – and now Nino was doing it, showing quite remarkable Linda Blair-esque neck flexibility.

The Cradle of Honey

And for good measure, Georgia is also where the oldest honey in the world was found. Prior to finding the Georgian honey which was about 5,500 years old, the oldest honey was thought to be from Egypt. In Georgia, as in Egypt, the ancient vessels in which traces of honey were found, were excavated from tombs – the honey to make the afterlife (or the journey to the afterlife) sweeter perhaps?

The Caucasus are fast becoming The Place for ‘oldest’ records – from the leather shoe we saw in Yerevan, and now wine and honey…

National Museum, Tbilisi

It was a 2-hour drive to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. As in Armenia, about a third of the 3.7 million population live in the capital. First stop in Tbilisi was the National Museum. Much time was spent at the ‘Treasury’ exhibition – some amazingly intricate bronze age _0ST6874stuff. Most of the bling was found in the tombs of wealthy noblewomen from the 3rd to 5th century BC. We were told that besides the jewellery, servants and horses were also buried with the noblemen and women…they probably were alive when buried…yikes!

Our docent was an older lady with an obviously bad back – every now and then she would grimace and hold her back, but she didn’t seem to take any shortcuts or hurry us along. She took great pride in explaining the history behind the intricate gold pieces… there were necklaces and bracelets, hair pins and brooches, and a little man and woman pair – this last one was found in the tomb of a child. One explanation was that these were dolls for the child to play with – but I wondered if they were parent figures to watch over the child. Also possible?

The Golden Fleece story and Jason & the Argonauts made an appearance too. Well, more accurately the golden fleece. The golden fleece which Jason and his gang chased was thought to be the magical fleece belonging to Zeus – but it could well be that there really was a golden fleece – sheepskin was used to ‘pick up’ gold from the gold-rich rivers of the Colchis region of Georgia. Gold dust that remained on the fleece rendered it gold…fleece fit for a god.

_0ST6896There was a hall of skulls. More old stuff – a 1.8 million year old skull thought to be part of the early Homo Erectus lineage was found not too long ago in the Dmanisi region of Georgia.  There was a fascinating chart showing the evolution of man and how the height and cranium size was steadily increasing, until a blip between the Neanderthals and present day Homo Sapiens – when the height of this species went down to around 100cm, with a weight of 23 kilograms, and a rather small brain. There has been much debate – was this a result of some catastrophic insult to the evolving man (one theory mentions endemic cretinism) or were these ‘hobbits’ (as this species was nicknamed) a whole separate species. Most experts these days lean towards the latter – that this was a separate species, Homo Floresiensis, which might have lived alongside the Neanderthals before getting extinct. Fascinating!

IMG_9274

There was a floor in the museum dedicated to the Russian occupation of Georgia – IMG_9279unfortunately most of the exhibits didn’t really have much by way of explanations in English. There was one black and white photo of a rather distinguished man and his family that caught my eye – this one had an explanation in English. The man was the Catholicos Ambrosi, who was arrested for his writing condemning the Russian occupation. He was released as he was ill and died soon after. Before he died, he said to his Russian tormentors, “My soul belongs to God, my heart to Georgia, and with my body you may do whatever you please.”

Our First Georgian Lunch – The Bread House

By now we were starving, and The Bread House was a very welcome next stop for lunch.

_0ST6902
Bread at the Bread House

It was a perfect introduction to Georgian food – and I think even if I weren’t starving, I’d say this was the best meal of the trip so far.

We were introduced to kachapuri – a cheese-filled bread that was so light and fluffy (and not oily), I was convinced it was healthy; there was a yummy vegetable soup and salad, and aubergines stuffed with a walnut paste so fine it tasted like a very good paté; the mains were ojhakuri – pork, potatoes, onions and spices, eaten with a sour cream-like accompaniment…to die for. For dessert we had Georgian ‘Snickers’ – churchkhela – which we’d seen in Armenia, but apparently is Georgian…I suspect this might be similar to the ‘is chicken rice Singaporean or Malaysian’ debate. Wherever it originated from, the churchkhela was delicious and not too sweet at all. Nino told us that this was a snack for soldiers – it provided ‘good energy’ and could be stored for a long time. We packed the leftovers to have later.

Jvari Monastery – St Nino Territory

Suitably fortified, and with churchkhela ‘just in case’, we set off out of Tbilisi towards Kazbegi where we would be spending two nights. There were to be a few stops en route. The first was at the Jvari Monastery, which is up on a hill near Mtskheta, at the confluence of two rivers – the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers.

This monastery is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is also known as the Monastery of the Cross. If Armenia had Gregory, Georgia has Nino – the female saint who converted the Iberian king to Christianity in the 4th century.

_0ST6931
Jvari Monastery

The weather by now had turned quite bitingly cold, with strong winds, especially as we made our way up the hill to the church. Nino found a little alcove which provided some (very little actually) shelter from the wind to tell us about the church. Once again, this was the site of a pagan temple. Nino (the saint, not our guide) had built a large cross at this site around which the monastery was eventually built.

St. Nino’s cross (aka The Grapevine Cross) looked quite different from most of the other crosses I’d seen – it was much simpler, and the horizontal part of the cross drooped downwards. As the story goes, the Virgin Mary gave Nino the cross which she bound with her own hair. This was the cross that was eventually used to baptise the Georgians.

I later read this story about the cross – “…in the night the Holy Mother of God appeared to Nino in a vision and said to her, “Depart into the land of the north and preach the gospel of my Son, and I will guide and protect you.” But she answered in alarm, “Queen, how may I accomplish this ? For I am a worthless and ignorant woman.” Then the Holy Queen stretched out her hand upon a vinebranch which grew close to Nino’s bed and cut it off and fashioned it into a cross and gave it to Nino, saying, “Let this be your protection. By it, you may overcome all your foes and preach your message. I will be with you and not abandon you.”

After this vision, Nino awoke and found the cross in her hands. When morning came, she went out and told all this to the Patriarch and showed him the cross, and the Patriarch gave thanks to God. Then Nino begged the Patriarch to send her with the noble lady who was leaving for Ephesus. So she received the Patriarch’s blessing, and set off in company with the noble lady….”

I was finding all these stories absolutely fascinating, especially as many of the relics mentioned in the stories were in some monastery or church in this region. We heard that St. Nino’s cross is preserved at the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi (unfortunately we didn’t get to visit this cathedral).

_0ST6945
St.Nino’s cross in the foreground

Here, as in the various churches of Armenia, there were many locals of all ages in quiet prayer. A monk with a most magnificent beard and friendly eyes made an appearance and called out a hello to our Nino…unfortunately they don’t like to be photographed, so that memory will have to remain in my head.

Svetitskhoveli, Magic Pillars and a Mini Sepulchre

Our next stop had even more mind-boggling stories. It was a short walk to the _0ST6957Svetitskhoveli Cathedral on slippery cobblestoned lanes, past some roadside stalls selling all manner of knick knacks, food and drink – there were drinking horns, daggers with ornate handles, fridge magnets, churchkhela – and even karak chai…Nino said this stall was probably owned by a Middle Easterner; karak chai is most definitely not Georgian!

The church was built in the 4th century – St.Nino had a role in choosing this site too. It had been damaged several times – by earthquakes, and the various invaders – Persian, Arab, Russian. Each time, it was restored with parts of it rebuilt. While it was being restored some fifty years ago in the 1970s, the original 5th century basilica was found beneath the foundation! This has been preserved and at several points we could peer through a glass panelled floor to see the original base.

The cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (surprise, surprise), is also known as the Church of the Mantle. After Jesus was crucified, many of his belongings were divvied up among the Roman soldiers. His robe, however, could not be torn – Elias, a Jew from Georgia bought the robe from one of the soldiers and brought it back to Georgia. When his sister Sidonia held the robe, she was so overcome with emotion, she dropped dead, clutching the robe – which no one could pry from her grip (the force is strong in religious rigor mortis). And so, she was was buried with the mantle.

A huge cedar tree grew where she was buried. St.Nino used this tree to build the church with seven columns as its foundation. The magical seventh column rose into the air towards the heavens, returning to earth only after St.Nino’s all-night prayers.

Today, there’s a monument over Sidonia’s burial site. It was another story that truly fascinated me – especially as I was ‘standing right there’.

_0ST6975
Monument over burial site of Sidonia – and Jesus’ mantle

Within the Cathedral, there was a copy of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. On account of this, the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the second holiest site in the world (after the original in Jerusalem).

_0ST7033
Replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Nino told us that most of the wall paintings had been painted over by the Russians, in anticipation of the Czar’s visit…a visit which didn’t materialise. Some of the paintings have been restored – notably one of the zodiac, which apparently is very uncommon to find in a church. There also was a remnant of Jesus’ cross at this Cathedral – not buried this time and quite plain to see.

What an amazing afternoon…and there still was a journey to the mountains ahead of us.

A Room With A View

We actually had one more stop en route to Kazbegi, but the weather had turned quite bleak and we had spent more time than expected at Jvari and Svetitskhoveli – so we all agreed to visit Ananuri on our way back to Tbilisi from Kazbegi.

So for now, we were on the Old Military Road – the main route between Georgia and Russia, a route used by the Russian invaders as well as traders. It was closed for a while in 2006 due to landslides but reopened in 2013. It now is the main route for trading trucks – and we saw many. Most travel at night when other traffic is light. If they do travel in the day, the convoys have to each comprise a few trucks only – or else it becomes impossible for other vehicles to pass them on the narrow single-laned mountain roads. Along the way we saw groups of these humongous trucks just waiting on the side of the road (well, as much to the side as possible) – to provide some space between them and the next convoy. All very civilised.

As we climbed, the hairpin bends got more frequent, and the snow-capped mountains became snow-sloped. It was truly beautiful. The grey clouds and darkening day made the snowy mountainous landscape all the more imperious.

Our route took us through Gudauri – the ski resort which had made the news a few weeks ago when one of the ski lifts malfunctioned. Fortunately all the injuries sustained were mild – quite surprising especially after seeing the video of the lift going at high speed and people being thrown off.

We stopped at a little supermarket for a much needed bio break – which also turned out to be a good photo stop (the view from the outside made a pretty picture, not the supermarket – or the bio break).

_0ST7050The view from the loo stop

_0ST7060A short drive away, Nino pointed out a colourful ‘Friendship Monument’ (which referred to the friendship between Georgia and Russia). She said there was a good view of the mountain range from there, so we zipped up our jackets and got out. It was COLD. It was a bit of a trudge through the quite thick snow, and as we walked, the wind picked up and it started snowing. Nino had gone ahead – when she turned back she saw two freezing Singaporeans waving to her that we were turning back. Slightly wimpy but we hadn’t layered up and I couldn’t feel my fingers…

As we walked/ran back to the car, we saw another car parked ahead of us. Their passengers, a group of young men, were prancing around in the snow – shirtless!! Mad! They yelled and waved as we drove past; we just waved.

_0ST7069
Shirtless in the snow

The clouds had come down to road level by now – or maybe we were driving into the clouds. I don’t know how Gogita saw anything – I pretty much saw oncoming cars only when their headlights were practically in front of us. Many very narrow tunnels had to be navigated – very tight fits but everyone got through unscratched.

_0ST7077

Nino assured us that we’d have a great view of the mountains and the cathedral from our room at the Rooms Hotel in Kazbegi. When we got in it was almost dark – but yes, it was indeed a magnificent view – the lights of Kazbegi town with the outline of Mount Kazbegi and the Kokh mountain range in the background.

IMG_9323

We were both quite tired after the long drive. So it was dinner communal style downstairs – it was a good buffet spread – shower and sleep. I, for one, certainly couldn’t wait for the morning view from our room.

Our drive today –

D1 map

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s