Wednesday, July 18, 2007


For the past couple of weeks, Derek and I have been following a pretty routine schedule spending time at the hospital, having language lessons, spending time with friends, and going to church on the weekends. While I don't mind being busy, our schedule has required us to stay in Tbilisi. So, when Nana, one of our Georgian teachers, asked if we would be interested in leaving the city with her on a trip she was organizing with her friends, we replied in the affirmative.

The trip was to be a pilgrimage to Gergeti Sameba Church (Translation: Gergeti (name of nearby town) Trinity Church), a church built in the 14th century high up in the Caucasus, near Mt. Kazbegi, at an elevation of 2,400 meters (7,850 ft). The feast is known as Gergetoba, or the "Day of Gergeti," a sort of homecoming. As it would be the feast day and draw hundreds, if not thousands, of people to the church, Nana personally hired a Marshrutka (van) to leave at around 5 am on Monday to make the 3 hour drive and still give us time to get to the church before the crowds would.

I woke up to my alarm at 4:45 and quickly got dressed and ready, waiting for Nana's call to tell us to wait outside for the marshrutka. She did call us, but it was to tell us that the driver hadn't shown up and that he wasn't answering his phone. She apologized and said that it looked like the trip would have to be canceled. Disappointed, Derek and I began to explore other options of getting to Gergeti, but at 5:45, Nana called again with good news: the driver was here, having apparently overslept. 5 minutes later, the marshrutka stopped in front of our apartment and we climbed aboard. Shortly thereafter, we picked up the rest of our group, for a total of 18 people including the driver crammed into a van that had seats (after modification) for 16.

Tired, I slept for most of the drive until we reached the mountains. What awoke me was the cold. Tbilisi had been quite hot, with highs well into the 80s, yet here we were, less than 100 miles away and it was in the 40s. Snowpacks near the road were melting and feeding roaring creeks. At times the driver had to slow to a crawl because the road had disintegrated or because a herd of cattle was crossing the road (or being driven down the road by an old lady with a switch, in some cases). We briefly stopped in a small town before beginning our final ascent (by marshrutka, anyway) so that the driver could check his engine, and while waiting, I saw a sow roaming the street with one of her piglets.

The marshrutka driver parked at a point where the road became to steep for him to continue driving confidently. From the marshrutka, I could see Gergeti Sameba way up at the top of the ridge--it was going to be a long hike. And it had started to rain. After trekking for an hour up muddy, steep hills and trying to avoid being run over by people who though that their cars could make it up the hill, I finally reached the top of the ridge. I felt as though I had been transported to another world. Up here, I was surrounded by a mist so thick that I could not see where I had come from. In the distance I could see Gergeti Sameba, it too, fading in and out of visibility. As I made my final ascent, I heard the church bells ringing, signaling the beginning of Liturgy.

The church is surrounded by a wall, not that it really needed any defenses being high up in the mountains, which can only be entered through the bell tower. I ducked under the low stone archway and was greeted by a mob of people crowded near the entrance to the church. I'd experienced Georgian mobs before and I knew I was about to experience some uncomfortable squeezing (had the marshrutka driver woken up when he should have...). The flow of people in and out of the church was being controlled by three stocky altar boys who basically played the role of bouncers. We pushed to get in, and they pushed with all their might back, straining against the stone door frame. Whenever a few people left the church, they let a few people in. So, even though I was within 10 feet of the entrance, it took me more than an hour (!!!) to get into the church; the last 10 feet took longer than the hike up the mountain. My Georgian teacher, Nana, despite reaching the church after I did, wedged her way into the church in fewer than 30 minutes--she wasn't afraid to push people out of her way and her smaller size helped.

I was physically drained from both the hike and the pushing by the time I made it into the church. It was no less crowded inside the church than outside, but now we were indoors and the body heat from the hundreds of people made it quite stifling. I admired the frescos as best as I could from the rear of the church and under poor lighting (see pictures). Patriarch Ilia was serving liturgy which meant that the service would last at least 4 hours. After an hour had passed, I began to feel queasy from the heat, exhaustion from the hike and little sleep, and from fasting (I was planning to take communion). Knowing it wiser to leave than risk fainting, or worse, vomiting over all the people crowded around me, I left. Fortunately, getting out is much easier than getting in and soon I was breathing fresh air. It had started to sleet. I found some of Nana's friends and we descended the mountain together.

We shared food (khachapuri, corn bread, cucumber, fruit, cheese, chicken...) while we waited for the rest of the party to make the descent. By the time they arrived, I was already quite full yet our first stop on our way back was a khinkali (dumpling) restaurant. Nana had brought 5 liters of wine and someone else in the group had brought another 2. We sat down at a long table already occupied by 2 men from Hungary who were well on their way to getting drunk with bottles of vodka and beer before them. They asked me if I was from Tajikistan (I've heard many guesses before, but never Tajikistan!), which was probably a good guess considering our location. Our khinkali arrived, but we were seriously disappointed: this region of Georgia is considered the birthplace of khinkali yet what we were served was awful. We said goodbye to the Hungarians, by now almost oblivious to their surroundings, packed our wine, and headed off to a restaurant an hour away that was sure to serve us good khinkali.

And we weren't disappointed this time. We ate and ate and drank and drank for the longest time until I began to feel sick again. But before I did, we had finished the wine (all 7 liters), and with no more wine, there was no more reason to hang about. We all piled back into the marshrutka and merrily continued on our way. We made one stop at a castle and church on the banks of the Ananuri Reservoir. The reservoir was created during the Soviet period to generate electricity and provide a source of drinking water for Tbilisi. Unfortunately, a village was drowned to make this reservoir, and if the water level were at maximum, the castle and church would also have been drowned. You can see pictures of the castle and church as well as all the pictures from this trip at my flickr site (link in side bar).


Jason h said...
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Anonymous said...

Thinking of "Nana" -- if you guys see my friend Nana Bhagaturia, please send her my warm greetings!

Fr. John