I missed the nightlights at Colchis fountain but not the opportunity to stand on the wet stones in the roundabout and watch the water shoot up between the golden animals: large horses on top surrounded by animals in tiers, inspired by jewelry found in a nearby archaeological site from the Iron Age; which at this hour almost looked bronze as only their chests were reflecting the early morning cloudy grey light.
A large clock with a Pravoslavny Kostel (Slovak for Orthodox Church) behind it caught my attention, as did the McDonald’s drive-thru mural and its patio dining as I walked up the stairs towards closed doors and a view of the orange glow under the pine trees on the other side of the multi-spouted fountain. From here, I would drive up to Gelati Monastery through snow falling lightly on this historical church from the 12th century, a period which would also consist of the invention of checkers, the composition of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shota Rustaveli, windmills begin to replace the power of a horse (max 15 horsepower), and amidst the falling and rising empires consumed with death would be the collapse of the Anasazi culture at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
There’s a feeling you get when at the top of a mountain and perhaps this ~3,000ft high hill offers that after so many years of living at sea level or the uniform sky that leaves the trees blurry and brings the buildings into focus in their wet grass habitat that seems to be at the same upkeep level as the history it supports… if only my foundation had been so strongly set in stone. I’m grateful that as an adult I have the choice to change the way situations are handled that were conflicts in my childhood.
Once inside, I look for signs of the academy that once was but am left to search for meaning in the well-preserved murals, that seem to have been washed with time, that portray mostly men and crosses in a rich maroon color as they hold books and work together to stress a theme of a story told across many religions and continents with a moral that was the norm then and is still being misguided by zealots today that mistake ‘Love thy neighbor’ for ‘Kill those who don’t support your point of view.’
Churches, concerts, and courts are meant for the masses, so having this multi-room space to myself, with just the snow falling outside, was peaceful, considering the dead guys painted on the walls it’s still a nice place for quiet contemplation of what the past was, how the present is, and where the future will be — mine being to drive back down the hill, past the construction trucks, and a conversation with Caleb until the stairs for Bagrati Cathedral where I circle around the area with the car and park in time to see a woman throw bone knuckles from her balcony to the dogs that are barking at cars in the rain.
Up the “city” steps, past the “hiking trail” steps, continue by the tree that grew another tree (both on top of a rock), to the triangular intersection with a restaurant across the way and the church, that sits along the Silk Road Corridor, is to the right. It was built in the 11th century and had its marble columns stolen some 650 years later that were returned in 1770. The temple is a cross-domed building: the dome is supported by four pillars with a singular reinforcement built into the facade — a technological innovation of the period.
This church was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and got a complete renovation that was finished in 2012 that caused it to be delisted in 2017 because the repairs were too modern to maintain the authenticity and structural integrity of the historical theme. I think it’s great to remake buildings like their predecessors but I also enjoy seeing traditional and modern methods brought together to preserve what is left of the original structure and introduce something new to bring a piece of history through to the next millennium.
The church was roofed with copper and covered in a special azure and emerald patina to symbolize heaven and the splendor of Creation, respectively. Parts of the facade look pieced together, like a child learning how to do their first jigsaw puzzle and just forcing the pieces to match, some of which were broken to begin with but the original stones that were once scattered (of the ones found) have been put back in their proper location allowing researchers, over the years of reconstruction, to confirm the number of windows and thickness of walls for a more accurate rebuild.
I withhold entry to the interior to look out across the city below, mostly tan and grey buildings mingled with some trees, and what appears to be a giant Georgian flag upon first glance but is actually two buildings that are mostly white with large red lines that may be in the shape of initials. To my left, in the yard, are two dogs who are kindly guarding the rock piles, one in the shape of a well or deep fire pit. I leave them to make my way inside as the clouds begin to part on the horizon to let in some sunlight.
The modern metal touch is noticeable on the left corner of the church upon entering the gates and once in the door, I notice some stone pillars that are part metal too. This place of worship has its fill of saints’ portraits but what it lacks in lit or melted candles it makes up for in bones, possibly perceived to be those of the holy disciples that are portrayed near them; the old femurs, humeri, and crania, some smoothed with age and some covered in pearls and lace.
How odd, to me, to find a receipt, half-burned, for the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz in the sand-filled candle pot… some 2,400 km away, to include a ferry from Kerch, Crimea. I’ve heard of burning things as a way of closure or destroying evidence, so I hope whatever the reason for this sacrifice by fire that the goal was met and the person or people left in a better state of mind. Perhaps I’m just overthinking it and the paper fell out while they were trying to pray, move all the candle ends to the other side, or take a picture.
Next up is the glass floor, about the size of an American living room, that’s protecting the structures below; part of which looks like the sun’s rays without the sun. I find the near and far, the small and large, the religious and secular details in this cathedral fascinating, and am grateful for the time and space to explore, appreciate, and photograph for future reference the time I visited a delisted site which carries a different feeling from reading a book that was once banned. How much knowledge we can never know, but how much more are we never allowed to know that we don’t know about?
I knocked next door to a hostel but both remained unanswered. I noticed the activity of shoppers downstairs from where I parked and found the Georgian pay-to-potty: three squatty-potties with no doors and a fold of tissue paper for 0.30 tetri. What I didn’t think to ask the woman at the window is which side I should use so I very well might’ve used the men’s side, which I’ve done on purpose elsewhere to avoid a longer wait. Either way, there wasn’t an awkward moment that would make for a more interesting story.
Next on my itinerary, the Kutaisi Botanical Garden, founded in the 19th century and known for its Cathedral in a Tree also has some 700 species of greenery to catch the eye, a lot of the plants collected from other gardens of Georgia and Russia. I found street parking and some other cars made use of the dirt by the T-intersection. Usually, I enter a large garden with the intent to wander until I run out of the allotted time or gauge that I’ve seen enough to come back for the rest and preserve some foot mileage, but here I hoped that I was getting lost in the right direction to find the reason I chose this park from the others.
Mini lions in the Phoenix’s repose greet me at the entrance. There is a courtyard with benches and art of stone, mesh, and a multi-colored tree due to peeling bark and growing moss. The paths are wide and bricked, the trees gangly and plenty, and the flowers wet and colorful. The tree is marked with the grapevine cross, familiar in Georgia to the Orthodox church with its own history dating back to the 4th century, and the original preserved at Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.
The sealed skylight and the door, with a unique frame, help protect the hanging images, bible, and teacup for holding used matches (there’s a sand-filled shelf outside for burning candles) from the weather. I could probably fit three of me in the hollowed trunk but I seem to be the only person in the park. I feel a sense of giddiness having accomplished a mini-goal in the midst of the adventure taking place in this park, in this new-to-me country, on a day in my life that could’ve just been ordinary and quickly forgotten in the mix but now gets special neurons in my memory network.
I love the covered curved benches found around the city as they seem to give off a warmer and more inviting feeling for sharing and conversation amongst family, friends, and strangers. My next acquaintance will be a fluffy grizzly bear cub of a dog. I don’t think he works here but he greets me at the pay window of the Sataplia Strict Nature Reserve where I’ve driven for a cave tour, even if I have to wait 25 minutes for it to start, while pacing in the parking lot and around the gate to read the visitor’s rules, such as “no fast movements during limited visibility conditions.”
The cave was discovered in 1925 and just ten years later some 350+ hectares of surrounding Colchic (conifer and broadleaf tree ecoregion) temperate rainforest was preserved to help save the endemic, migratory, and endangered species: brown bear, jackal, lynx, roe deer, Dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant, ferruginous duck, strawberry tree, and Phillyrea latifolia (green olive tree) to name a few.
The path is lined with little bricks of history starting at 2,000 million years ago — starting with bacteria to dinosaurs and then 1 million years ago and jumping to Homosapiens. There are less than ten people on the tour. Our first stop is the dinosaur footprint room where a staff member is waiting to let us in. There’s a large platform over some rocky terrain that has evidence of some Jurassic era dinosaurs, mostly of a smaller species. This ancient history is so well preserved and I wish we could cause less change to the ecosystem for all the flora and fauna, even though death is part of the circle of life.
I feel like Dorothy in Oz as I follow the grey-bricked road past the trees that still have leaves to the ones that have dropped their bright reddish-brown ones on the ground. There’s green moss on rocks and white moss on tree trunks. We pass the museum and a closed two-story cafe that I could live in but what awaits me inside the cave will leave me enthralled and being passed by those who don’t care to capture any of this wonder on an SD card because perhaps they have photographic memories.
I try to capture it all, from left to right, zooming in and out. This cave comes with a River Oghaskura that may sustain mollusks, crawfish, and spiders nearby. It takes a 12-meters wide petrified heart to capture the rest of the audience and entice them to touch the stalagmite that’s currently competing in a wet t-shirt contest, which perhaps protects this non-beating giant from all the oils and bacterias of strangers; one of which will offer his flashlight so that I may get some better pictures.
We only seemed to explore half the cave and come back out the way we went in (when the map shows two entrances, one probably for spelunking scientists). My camera was foggy in the 14*C cave and when it finally seemed to adjust the tour was over… too short as always. I looked into renting out a cave for a day and was surprised by how many were for sale and saddened by how many had modern amenities that completely take away from the cave appeal. Perhaps that’s the difference between wet and dry and tourist money.
Our guide now leaves us to explore the rest of the park on our own, but the glass bridge with a panoramic view is closed due to weather. The museum is centered around an animatronic T-rex and has large descriptions, with images, of the region’s geology, the forest’s plants, and animals, past and present, that cover the walls around the room. The trail is short, the trees are tall, and there’s a sanded-wood playscape beside it all.
This country’s long history brings up stories told in many cultures — evidence of a civilization that just disappeared, abandoned cities that once hosted the rush for a natural resource, the remnants of towns left destroyed by war — and Georgia has picked up those pieces, put them together, and continued on in the business of life. The outside might look forgotten but the inside is still churning with vitality, just as the laundry is still hung to dry in wet weather, and the cows, pigs, and chickens are left to fatten themselves.
I’m seeing these things as I pass through Tskaltubo on my way to Prometheus Cave Natural Monument where I meet another dog, though this one looks like a mutt waiting on his human to get out of the car. I pay the tour fee and am told there will be a wait, so I wander off into the museum to read about Jumber Jishkariani who discovered the cave in 1984 and the surrounding flora, fauna, and archaeology. I’m reading about the different cave types: solutional, lava tube, sea, glacier, talus, tectonic, and suffusion sinkholes; when I notice the sudden silence and run out of the visitor center.
The tour guide is just approaching the steps after having given an introduction I’m sure. I have no problem taking my place in front as we descend the 50 or so stairs down to the entrance but trying to keep at the pace of others and take pictures was more difficult so when a couple, frustrated, asked if they could get ahead of me I let all nine speed-walkers go ahead with the guide as I realized I wouldn’t be left in the dark and could savor the cave to myself for a while.
There’s a mix of manmade and nature’s art and I’m grateful to have just a moment to appreciate their details and imagine their stories. I prefer people leaving murals of truth and love then selfishly signing nature in a need to feel important. With art that’s easier to share — should the owners of each sculpture, painting, or book be allowed to leave their mark of temporary passing or just respect the piece as is and leave it for the next owner, whether that’s a person, a community, or a country.
It’s amazing that “doing the same thing repetitively and expecting different results” is attributed to insanity and yet nature grows trees of varying heights in the same forest and drips water on the floor at the same rate in different caves and though the results might be similar, just as all people are the same inherently but somewhat different, there’s a sense of magic in the process that those little tweaks in mountains and rivers stand out in our eyes and therefore our minds to deliver the gift of living in a high that only nature can give.
Knowing how long these formations take to grow I stare in awe at the younglings and though I want to be here I don’t like knowing I’m part of the reason for the paved concrete path with walls and the destruction it has caused to be installed with the surfaces being smoothed to arm’s reach. Some things are better left untouched and unseen if it means they can continue their productive lifecycle without human invasion. There’s so much to learn that’s already accessible without having to make it impossible for species and ecosystems to perform the way they were intended to.
The bigger the room, the more variety of colored light there is to change your perspective based on the angle of your view… and I’ve heard red is less disruptive than white. There’s a river flowing through and though I want to reach out and touch it I think of the impact, something I’ve never thought about with any other body of water, considering the stories from dive boats to naval ships, from what happens onboard to what “falls” off. The rest of the group is out at the other end of the tunnel, most of them smoking, and the guide waited for me.
Three from the group took off walking, in such a hurry, to make the bus pull over and pick them up on the way back to the visitor center because they didn’t know there was a hill. The cave was magnificent and I would definitely go again to spend another 45 minutes amongst the wonders to be found underground. As much traveling as I have done, more than some and less than others, I should be better about carrying change; even if most of the places I go take card, use larger bills, or have plenty of coins, I blame the currency exchange for making me carry around cash like I’m paying rent, not trying to negotiate the cost of candy (not enough change) or a tour (too much change).
I drove to the parking lot of Martvili Canyon and got hassled into a 30 lari tour (that I paid 40 for because Dima didn’t have change) because of the no-parking signs and not knowing where to pay — it’s free if you can find it. We start off driving down a pot-holed road with parts of it washed out. He helps me navigate so the car keeps the rocks and river under the wheels and not splashing in my windows after sliding downhill sideways. If some hadn’t said no before this sunset adventure began, I’m sure getting out of the car to walk across a bridge over a beautiful river towards a picnic area might’ve made them turn around.
I’m glad I didn’t. I took a chance on a local and it paid off, again. He took me where the tourists don’t go often and we got to take some awkward selfies by the Kaghu waterfall so he has proof of how he spent his Saturday evening. I park us behind a sign on a curve in the road and across the street is Balda Canyon Natural Monument. The sky is as blue and cloudy as the water is clear and inviting. It’s difficult to get pictures at the dam (named Amusement Park on Google Maps and translates to “the canyon is crowded”) because Dima grabbed onto me “to keep from fall” as he had just tripped.
He didn’t smell as nice as he was which made me all the more ready to move from moss-covered rocks to the next stop on this guided excursion instead of trying to get the proper angle to see the hole in the rock under the bridge due to water flow. We finish the tour by driving back to Martvili Canyon, past the boat ramp, and up another bumpy road to enjoy the view. He invites me for a ride on the water tomorrow after asking if I had a lover and kids (said a little one is good) and if there is room for two in the car or hotel room. This is where I kindly tell him no but let him think I’ll be back for my change and another adventure tomorrow.
I drove into Martvili as the clouds turned shades of orange and pink and the radio played Tu Es Foutu by In-Grid (English version: You Promised Me) a tune I first remember hearing in Phoenix, AZ. I stopped at the first hotel I saw (and just as quickly left because it was 100 lari) but Gocha wants me to come back so he can show me around. I drove to another place, but there is no one in the lobby and the room is the same price so I found Hotel Garda (aka Canyon Hotel on Booking.com) through their restaurant bar for 50 lari, via the large sign outside that simply said HOTEL.
This kind of signage made finding dinner easy too as on the side of a glass building was written RESTAURANT and down the wooden stairs to the left, I found Teliani Valley (aka Katkha) restaurant. After the hotel, I had walked to the market where I was able to sneak two photos (as stores don’t allow it here) while buying some chocolate-covered jammy dodgers inspired by the mouse’s boat in the animated film Flushed Away that Caleb and I find diverting.
Dinner will be badrijani nigvzit (eggplant and peppers covered with walnut paste) again. It’s a smaller serving than the others but spicier. At some point in the day, I hit a cow with my side mirror when the honking wasn’t working and it was just enough to get between bovine and pole. I would spend over two hours on the phone with Caleb throughout the day and about 16 minutes talking with Dad and Caroline on their trip in Winslow, AZ while I brought my bag up to the room, changed into PJ pants, and folded the blanket three times to lay under me to not fill the lumpiness in the mattress.