Lessie, Mickey and Giorgi
The goal for today was to hike to the cave city of Vardzia. The guesthouse owner had promised me his 10-year-old son, Giorgi, to be my guide for the day. Tagging along were two of his dogs, Lessie and Mickey. I wasn't sure it was a great idea for the dogs, seeing as how we'd be climbing through tunnels and visiting churches. Giorgi was insistent, saying the dogs had made the trip many times.
We started early, 7:30 am, and we're soon hiking steadily uphill. I told Giorgi that without him I never would have stayed on the trail as it disappeared and reappeared. We settled into a marching order, the dogs scouting ahead, and Giorgi pointing out sights. One cool one was a hermit's tiny cave. It had a single, carved stone window that looked up at the looming bulk of Tmogvi castle. I pointed out the route I'd taken yesterday in my only partially successful attempt to storm the fortress. Giorgi was somewhat quiet at first,until I got him talking about his dogs. After that, he chattered away excitedly like only a preteen can. In addition to our companions, Giorgi also had a wolf hybrid, Bimi, who was essentially the farm's guardian. Giorgi was most excited about his dog that lived with his grandfather. Rexi is apparently quite the scamp, winning fights against all comers and devouring the neighbor's chickens.
After about an hour of scrambling up and down hillsides, slipping on loose rocks, the trail veered towards the river. Walking became much easier and the dogs bounded through the tall grass hunting foxes or rabbits. The path was so easy to follow at this point, even a city boy like me could do it. The scenery was simply stunning. The steep hills rise up sharply on both sides from the Mtvari river. The bare green hillsides with only sparse clumps of trees reminded me over and over of Scotland. For the past 20 years I have told people how beautiful that country was. So, it was like deja vu gazing up at the rocky hills as we hiked through the canyon.
An hour or so later, a cliff face pockmarked with holes came into view. We could see the cave city ahead. Vardzia is a monastery complex carved entirely out of rock. It was built in the 12th century by King Giorgi III and his successor, his daughter Queen Tamar. More than 2,000 monks lived, worked and prayed here during its height. Many Georgians consider it the spiritual heart of their church -- kind of a rocky Vatican in caves. Although some monks still live here, the monastery was all but destroyed when Persians seized it in 1551 A.D. Georgia has always been on the Eastern frontier of Christianity, harassed and sometimes subjugated by Turks, Persians and Mongols.
It took about another hour for us to get to the entrance and make the winding climb up to the caves. We tried to keep the dogs on the other side of the gate, but they simply went around and caught up. I couldn't picture them climbing around in the caves, but Giorgi seemed unfazed. Most of the caves are bare with only black, smoke-stained ceilings. Some had shallow holes that were used to store large, ceramic wine jugs. Others had stone benches or slabs for beds. The highlight was when we got to the cathedral. It had a gorgeous carved, wooden door which was promptly used by one of the monks to shut the dogs out. Inside, it was amazing. Colorful frescoes on the walls could be easily seen in the dim candlelight. The paintings of saints, Jesus and King Giorgi and Queen Tamar were almost 1,0000 years old. Georgians are very devout Christians, and the room was filled with men, women and children lighting candles, crossing themselves and praying. Even the army soldiers who were visiting the caves and had been clowning around earlier grew solemn and respectful.
Next, we started to worm our way through tunnels and passages. At times, I had to bend almost double to make my way though the rough, white stone passages. We climbed stairs and ladders, and explored the cave system for awhile. We emerged into the open air high above the valley. We could see the rapids of the Mtvari river snaking between the steep hillsides. The sun beat down on the hillsides making them blaze with green light. It was another gorgeous day, and all of us leaned on the rails and enjoyed the view. Giorgi seemed concerned he couldn't see the dogs, but they came running as we began to descend the ramps and left the caves. We rewarded our long trek and our climb with the lunch Giorgi's mom had packed for us. Strangely, he didn't bring water, so I gave him one of the two bottles I'd brought. I also bought him ice cream, even though he seemed like he was hurrying me through the caves at times.
Sergei had recommended that we visit Upper Vardzia afterwards. Giorgi seemed a bit worried about "big dogs" that lived near the nunnery. He let me make the call, so we been the two mile trek on the road leading to it. A half mile short of the nunnery, we passed a farm which erupted in furious barking. Three large dogs trotted growling and woofing towards us. Our two medium sized dogs chose two dramatically different responses. Lessie took off running and one of the farm dogs shot off in pursuit. Mickey stayed by us, but began whining plaintively. Lessie outran her pursuer and circled back around to join us. The other two dogs approached, but never closed as Giorgio and I yelled at them. The people on the farm watched utterly unconcerned, which bothered me a bit.
This incident spooked Giorgi, but there was little else we could do but press on, as the farm dogs eventually stopped stalking us. Giorgi insisted there was an even bigger dog at the nunnery. He wouldn't take my advice to stay back with the dogs while I went on ahead. When we came to the 1,000 year old church, Giorgi shouted to the nuns. One came over and unlocked the church for us, while another older nun began berating Giorgi for bringing dogs. She pantomimed how they had a huge dog that would rip out Lessie and Mickey's throats. She tossed pebbles at the dogs to get them to retreat. It cracked me up to see a bent old nun with small rock totally cowing two active dogs. As we went into church, Lessie and Mickey huddled under a tree.
When we came out, they were gone. Giorgi said they probably ran down the road. He didn't want to whistle or call for them like usual for fear of the "big dog" (that we still hadn't seen). Once we'd walked a hundred yards or so, he did call for them, but there was no sign of them. As we got further down the road, I asked if we should go back and whistle for them by the nunnery. He said no - they probably went back to Vardzia. It seemed I was more worried than he was. When we got back to Vardzia, still no dogs. In all honesty, this really put a damper on the day for me. I pictured Lessie and Mickey, hiding out in the unfamiliar woods (they'd never been to Upper Vardzia), too afraid to go back down the road because of the farm dogs. I'd been less worried if they were on their own turf, but this was their first time to that place. When we got back to the guesthouse, after a long, footsore trudge back, I was disappointed to see they weren't back. In fact, when I left the next morning, there was still no Lessie or Mickey.
One thing that had shown up, though, were more guests. Yesterday, I was the only visitor. Today, we had three Israeli tourists about my age or older. They were Jews of Georgian ancestry, which led to me experiencing a tradition I'd read about. Sergei joined the guests (myself included) for dinner. He took on the Georgian role of Toastmaster. This man makes long speeches toasting the health of those present and their families. You must not interrupt or talk when he is toasting. This toast is followed regularly with more toasts - to the countries of the guests, to sentimental notions or anything that strikes the Toastmaster's fancy. Shortly, the guests are given opportunities to make toasts. When it was my turn, I asked for a break in tradition. I had one of the others to translate each line after I said it. The gist of it was something like this:
The leaders of the world say bad things about other people of other countries to keep us apart...
The news of the world says things to make us fear visiting other nations...
It is only when we travel that we truly see these things are lies...
It is when we travel we discover that we are really all brothers...
To travel, and to brotherhood!
Me and Bimi - the wolf dog...look at those eyes! Are they a wolf's eyes oe what?