Friday, 10 July 2015

5 - 10 July

First week down. Sitting in the last luxury comfort (Kempinski Hotel in Baku) we're going to have for probably the remainder of this trip, I feel, finally, relaxed, and immensely excited for what is to come. The past week has been a rollercoaster of culture shock after culture shock, but I think I'm finally beginning to wrap my head around the idea of Central Asia.

Day two started with us being swiftly boiled out of our tents, and after quickly packing and navigating our way out of the grass field, we were on our way again. It wasn't long (500 meters) before we came across a beautiful little Orthodox church, Zarzma. Armed with my head wrapped in mum's sweater (didn't bring a scarf), I discovered the meticulously painted murals and watched locals come to pay their respects by kissing various framed painted figures. 

On the grounds surrounding the church, someone was breeding bees for honey as well as at least 20 different kinds of cacti. Very peaceful and nature-y. If it wasn't for the fact that it was situated in the middle of nowhere and I'm not religious, I wouldn't have minded a life there as an old, grey, lady. Continuing East, we came across more similar Orthodox monasteries with more murals and more bees. Eventually we made it to the king of all monasteries in Georgia; the David Gareja monastery complex. It's made up of caves in the rock mountain wall that its 6th century builders had carved out, at an unfriendly altitude I might add. Unfortunately, the monastery was also used as a training ground for the USSR military during the Georgian occupation, which damaged some of the frescoes, but what was left was impressive nonetheless. Besides the initial awe at seeing the first few caves, the rest were all kind of the same, until we came across the chapel and refuge. These were much deeper into the cliff face, and contained a maze of very small tunnels that even I hit my head on (a miracle- I'm quite short). Exhausted from the heat and sightseeing, we walked down and had a drink at the local bar, where many monks (!!) came in their spare time. When the time came for dinner, we found a very nice looking hotel/restaurant called Vardzia. Dad put his newfound German skills to good use when we found out that the owner was a former local German teacher. She very kindly let us use their grounds to camp on, for free!, so we set up next to the swimming pool with a view overlooking the valley with the caves- definitely the best camp site yet. 

Our view

Morning dip
On day 3 we had to make our way to Tbilisi, where we had an apartment booked in the centre of the Old Town. This meant that in the morning, we had to drive up and over the mountain we were camping on, on a track all-knowingly marked with 4x4 only!. I should mention here that dad has a fear of heights, which was now, as well as continuously so far, being tested almost to the limit. The view was incredible, with the caves looking significantly less high than we'd experienced when we were there. At the top of the mountain, we came upon a very creepy sight. A lone horse, an abandoned church, and whole village of seemingly abandoned concrete Soviet houses. It was foggy (again), and as we drove through the compound we found some of the houses to be inhabited, albeit without doors, windows or paint. As we travelled further down the plateau, we came across very primitive villages  with women planting seeds in the fields and men ploughing with their horses. Only very few people owned cars, and they all seemed to be living off of their own lands in their hand-crafted wooden dwellings. This was all refreshingly more picturesque than the Soviet housing. The plateau stretched as far as our eyes could see, we passed the occasional horse-drawn wooden carriage, and finally after an hour of driving came across a road (I use this term with caution). This was level 1 of a game we would be playing for hours and days to come, Dodge the Pothole. There were literally squares of concrete cut out of the asphalt in a tetris-like pattern, and with traffic coming in the opposite direction, participating in the same game, it was quite a feat if you managed to hold onto any of your 20 lives (you lost one per pothole). 

(MORE COMING SOON- running out of time but here's some pictures of what comes after) 

Border between Georgia and Azerbaijan

Old administrative building of Palace in Sheki, Azerbaijan

Baku by day
Baku (Azerbaijan) nightlife
Boat we'll be taking across Caspian Sea to Turkmensitan

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