Today began with my introduction to the main form of public transportation in Georgia - the marshrutka. This is a large van that functions as a bus, going between towns and cities, and even within cities themselves. You don't see Western style buses on the roads much here, but marshrutky (plural of marshrutka) are everywhere.
A quick early morning walk to the metro station, and six stops later, I was outside the main marshrutka station in Tblisi. My guidebook called it "sprawling," and it was that. Not being able to read the Georgian letters - they use a form of Cyrillic, like Russia - I asked around and quickly found my van. The price was less than 14 Georgian Lari, which comes to less than $10 for a 3-hour plus ride.
The scenery steadily became more mountainous as we drove southwest from the capital. About halfway there, we lost the nice, 4-lane divided highway and were reduced to a potholed 2-lane country road. I'd heard Georgian drivers are, well, nutballs behind the wheel. Mine was aggressive, becoming frustrated when he couldn't pass slow, diesel smoke spewing trucks that coughed along ahead of us. I'd made a vow, though, that I would watch the scenery and not stress out about the driving. It worked, and I enjoyed the ride through steadily more mountainous terrain. Ruined castles and towers brooded atop some hills, while on others patches of weathered stone covered in dark green moss peered out from behind the thick coating of trees. I was the only one of a dozen passengers enjoying the view. I was the only traveller to Akhaltsikhe - everyone else appeared to be Georgian locals.
The word Akhaltsikhe has two of one of my favorite foreign sounds that we don't use in English. Make a hawking sound like you're getting ready to spit. That is what the "kh" sound is in Georgian. Akhaltsikhe is lucky....it gets two,hawking spits in its name! Once in town, I struck out along the main drive looking for one of two hotels I'd picked out from the guidebook's description. This was actually one of the few stops I did not reserve a room over the internet beforehand. I did have to ask directions to find hotel Prestizhi, but was glad I did. For $30, I got a great room with balcony, bathroom, shower - and most importantly, all to myself! Last night in Old Town Hostel in Tblisi, I'd conked out early and slept for about 4 and 1/2 hours. Once I woke up about 3:45 am, I never could get back to sleep. Mister Snorer in the bunk below me had his sleep apnea kick in then, and it woke me up despite my ear plugs. I was definitely looking forward to my own room!
Next up was my #1 reason for coming here: Sapera Monastery. I cut a deal with a taxi driver to take me up into the hills on dirt tracks for 8 miles and bring me back. I didn't know how bad the road was, so now I understand the 25 lari price better. The scenery was stunning. I savored the forests, alpine meadows, deep river valleys and green hilltops while getting slung back and forth in the back of the taxi. Sapera is halfway up a steep slope, and the stone walls and tile roofs of the monastery seem to rest at peace in its remote forest. The oldest buildings are more than 1,000 years old, it is a gorgeous, serene place. My taxi driver accompanied me the whole way, soaking it in alongside me and pointing out places to take nice photos from. You could go inside two of the churches, and the medieval era frescoes on the walls were stunning. Georgians take their religion seriously, and the sparse handful of others there were lighting candles, crossing themselves and bowing. Sapera's monks seemed cheerful. In fact, they would fit right in at any gaming convention with their unkempt beards and quirky humor. It always cracks me up, too, when a monk pauses to answer their cell phone...!
Once back, I decided to explore the castle. Akhaltsikhe means "new castle" in Georgian. To give you an idea how old the land is, the castle was built in the 1100's AD. The castle looms over the town on a steep hill. Right now, it is one massive sprawling cot structure site. The government is pouring millions of laris into a huge renovating project. All of the castle buildings and walls are being completely rebuilt to look brand new. There were hundreds of workers cutting stone, driving backhoes and doing every job imaginable. This has got to be the biggest employment source in town, if not the whole region. There is even going to be a reconstructed village at the base of the castle. In about a year or so, this is going to be a cool place to visit! I played nonchalant and wandered in amongst the construction, taking sly photos now and then. My three day beard growth, dark glasses and (I've been told) Georgian features meant that no one stopped me.
Afterwards, a nap was calling to me. Having less than 8 hours sleep over the last 4 days added up, and I conked out in the hotel room for an hour or so. The rest of the day was spent exploring the town and finding cool stuff to photograph. So far, the only wifi I've found is at a gas station convenience store. Hopefully, I'll find a better spot and upload this. Tomorrow, I'm off to a highly scenic valley chocked full of historic sights. Stay tuned for more updates....