Sunday, August 26, 2007

Javakheti Part 1: Axalkalaki and the drive to Mir a Shkhani

Many apologies for such a late post about something that happened 3+ weeks ago! I returned from the Black Sea late Wednesday and have been busy getting ready for my trip home (Tuesday morning!) since.

Javakheti is a province of Georgia southwest of Tbilisi. It borders Turkey to the southwest and Armenia to the southeast, and not so coincidentally, it is the home to a significant Armenian population—in fact, they make up the majority of the population. There is much tension between the ethnic Armenians and Georgians in Javakheti and there is even a movement to break away from Georgia. Like Abkhazia, a region of Georgia which successfully broke away in the early 90s (though it is not recognized by any country in the world except Russia), the separatist feelings are supported by Russia. A large Russian military base in the province’s capital Axalkalaki until recently employed ~40,000 Armenians—one can see why the Armenians like the Russians. Now that the base is closing, who knows what will transpire.

Javakheti is also home to some of the most beautiful, untouched terrain in Georgia. It is mountainous, with some peaks above 10,000 feet, in some parts and in others it is steppe. For the most part, Javakheti is treeless, but it was not always so. Several centuries ago, the whole area was heavily forested until one of Georgia’s many invaders set fire to the forest. It burned for seven years and hasn’t grown back since. See my pictures (link in side bar) for a better idea of what Javakheti looks like.

The bishop of Javakheti is Metropolitan Nikoloz, Fr. Theodore’s friend and whom he serves liturgy with, and he is also partly responsible for bringing Derek and me to Georgia. For the past several years now, Metropolitan Nikoloz has organized youth camps in Javakheti. At first they were aimed at university students but have been expanded to include even younger children. Derek and I were to join the university-aged camp which was located in a small village called Mir a Shkhani more than an hour away from Axalkalaki.

We departed from Tbilisi for the Axalkalaki on Tuesday, July 31st, our party consisting of Fr. Theodore, myself, Derek, Loyal (the photographer), and Nino (the film-history student). The drive up was relatively uneventful—we were stopped a couple of times by herds of cattle meandering across the road, an event which Loyal photographed by precariously leaning out the window—and gave me a chance to appreciate the changing scenery. We stopped to eat near Borjomi, a town famous for its healing waters (Stalin, a Georgian and a hypochondriac, made trips there when he could), before continuing on to Axalkalaki.

We arrived after nightfall at Metropolitan Nikoloz’s to find the mid-teens’ camp watching a Finnish film in the bishop’s backyard. Once the film was over, we were briefly introduced before being given a tour of the bishop’s house. It is more a museum than a house, which is exactly what the bishop wants—he has been collecting artifacts, fossils, stuffed animals, paintings, etc… for the past couple of years and has sought advice from museum curators on how to best display his collection. It being late in addition to our being exhausted from the drive up, we didn’t stay long. Derek and I spent the night in a hotel as the Residence (a house next to the cathedral where all the kids were staying) was full.

The next day was the last day for the mid-teens and they left for Tbilisi in the early afternoon. Two of them, Keti and Nestan, stayed behind as they would be joining the university camp with Derek and me and would be traveling with us to the camp. Keti is a 15 year-old girl who has been living in Paris for the past few years and comes home to Georgia as often as she can. Nestan, or “Nes,” has lived in Tbilisi all her life and just graduated from high school. Both girls know a decent amount of English, and Nes, noticing that I was eager to learn more Georgian, was my teacher for the time she was at the camp (only 5 days).

The drive to Mir a Shkhani is a beautiful one rich with history. We first stopped at an ancient castle several centuries old. There, Loyal had a little photo-shoot. Since meeting Loyal and seeing him at work, I have gained a greater interest in photography. As I followed him around in the ruins, I learned some of the basics of photography. I also saw the lengths to which a photographer will go to get a perfect shot, which in this case meant Loyal lying on his back in cow dung to photograph the opening in the tower above.

Next stop was a stop to drink spring water near Vardzia, the ancient cave-city founded in the 12th century by Queen Tamar. At its height, over 700 people (mostly monks) lived in this city which had over 6,000 rooms. In the 13th century, a large earthquake sheered more than 2/3 of the city away from the mountain side. Today, we can see the rooms exposed by the earthquake, but before the earthquake, one would have had to look hard to see any sign of a cave complex.

Just a few miles away is the village of Mir a Shkhani where we headed next… more about my time there in part 2.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Off to the Black Sea

I apologize for not posting about my time in Javakheti. Now, I'm off to the coastal town of Kobuleti with some of my friends from the trip to Javakheti. Keep your fingers crossed for easy internet access there...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'm Back

I've just returned from Javakheti and am exhausted (had to get up at 5), so I won't give a lengthy post just yet. But I'll tell you that my time there was the best part of my trip so far.