Day 35. Saturday, September 2. Tbilisi to Udabno. 79km, with 1,031m of climbing.
On the map our route today seemed short and potentially unspectacular through rolling country east of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. But tucked away towards the end of our ride was a spectacular and fascinating Greek orthodox monastery complex dating from the 6th century.
The David Gareji monastery, named for its founding saint, includes hundreds of cells, churches, chapels, refectories and living quarters hollowed out of the rock face over the past 1,500 years.
Over the vast span of its history, its monks’ secular experience ranged from great power and prestige to brutal persecution and destruction of their manuscripts, art and places of worship – depending on which empire builder /destroyer or religious proselytisers were sweeping through the countryside.
The complex is much more than an historic artefact. Its community, and the people it inspires, bear witness to the iniquities of modern life. It was, for example, a focus of Georgian protests against Russia in the dying days of the Soviet empire; and today it straddles one of the border areas disputed by Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Several soldiers of the former were posted in the monastery grounds when we visited today, and two Georgian military camps are nearby. The Wikipedia entry for the monastery is well worth a read for its detailed yet panoramic view of the place’s intriguing history.
When I visit such ‘thin places,’ where heaven and Earth seem particularly close and connected, I usually light a candle. Today, at the monastery visitors centre, run by monks and lay people living in the monastery community, I chose a beautiful, slender, bees wax candle and then lit it in the church for my Aunt Sheila who died three days ago at the magnificent age of 103.
Lynn and I had visited Sheila in Plymouth in the UK, where she and her older sister (my mother Vera) had grown up, this past March. Her mind still lively, she told us some stories familiar and some new about her life and about my mother and grandmother.
With her passing, Lynn and I have lost the last family members of our parents’ generation. Sheila had been a touchstone for me and my sister Kate to our mother, who died some 60 years ago, and our grandmother, who died some 50 years ago. Without Sheila, they’ll recede even faster into the fading memories of my childhood.
In the photo below, you’ll see three candles. Sheila’s is in the middle. Søren, one of our Danish riders, lit the flanking ones for his mother and a cousin who died recently.
The riding itself today turned out to have other interesting aspects such as passing through a large but essentially derelict Soviet-era industrial complex outside Tbilisi; and challenging too – particularly the gnarly 12km, gravel climb en route to the monastery with gradients up to 10 percent.
This evening we are camping in the grounds of a guesthouse in the small village of Udabno; and the family hosting us are cooking us a traditional Georgian dinner. Such are the pleasures of such cycle touring!