We stand at the edge of the world, overlooking lunar hills striped with rust and tan. Azerbaijan unfolds outwards, a March desert empty but for a flock of sheep and the border patrol station. Fortunately, we encounter no Azeri patrols as we test the unmarked border.
This unending undulating landscape and the steep hike up the dusty hill are a relief after the 2-hour bus ride on muddy, flooded roads: infrastructure doesn’t extend into the rural parts of Georgia. The country, roughly the size of Massachusetts, takes three times as long to traverse, and the scenery along the way – abandoned concrete villages, flocks of sheep streaming down a hill – could not be more different.
Guided along our path by the autonomous poles of an abandoned monorail project, we ascend the ridge. Above us, the rock face speckled with caves is ripe for discovery: the Ubdano monastery. Scrambling up boulders sometimes reveals only pockmarked sandstone caverns, but others are filled with light-toned 11th century frescos, covered in graffiti yet stunning. I marvel at their age, and the time it must have taken to carve out these spaces. Even with their open-air exposure, they hold a particular solemnity; the stone is cold to the touch. We find the monk’s refectory, presided over by The Last Supper, where there is an audible moment of silence before cameras come out and we stage a recreation. We are all guilty of picnicking at the main church, shoveling rice into our mouths with fingers and laughing over our lack of spoons. A joyful amazement defines our framework for comprehending this unprecedented monument – but I am glad we are alone, to take this in as we are, instead of defining our absorption by the pressure of gaping tourist group mentality. There are no lines here, and no guardrails either – this scene is exactly as austere and (as Giorgi demonstrates) dangerous as it has been for centuries.
Satiated by Garejan honey and companionable cats after a winding hike down the slope, we enter the Lavra monastery itself. Lavra, founded by Syrian father Davit Gareja during his missionary trips to Georgia in the 6th century, is the first monastery This site, like many religious grounds we’ve encountered, has been sacked and pillaged more times than it can remember: 6000 monks were killed here on Easter night in 1615 by Shah Abbas, and the Soviet era saw the monastery used as a training ground for the Red Army. Here we retain the silence, marveling at the caves above us from the courtyard and the solemn 6th century cave church.
Each of us find ourselves at a pause here, and I wonder at our role. We are here to learn and understand this region as much as we can, and seeing these churches has introduced me to a regional version of a familiar religion that I never would have known existed. But we are not on pilgrimage; we are spectators, and we seek to form subjective memories with the guidance of guidebooks and checklists. Davit Gareja falls into a list of unmissable monuments, so we faithfully trek out, as have thousands of others who are eager to comprehend the Caucasus.
But we carve out our own interpretation of the space, and leave behind a scratch in the landscape, when we hike to the red hills. These are, simply put, lovely piles of mud, accumulated over some lengthy geological process. An apathetic scamper down from the monastery turns into an intrepid voyage up the uncharted side of the Dragon’s Back – the largest of the hills – with four of our team reaching the top and the rest of us laughing from the next peak over as they roll down through the mud. The bus ride back is sleepy, satisfied, and – for the muddiest of us – pantsless.