Due to the time we have in hand before we need to be at the border (passports now being processed, hopefully sent back on Monday), we felt no harm could possibly come of heading off the beaten track towards some seldom visited, yet universally lauded, monasteries South East of Tbilisi towards (or on) the border with Azerbaijan. Built as early as the 6th century, this cluster of monasteries known as the David Gareja monasteries number around 20 and are primarily built into sheer cliff faces all around the desert.
“Desert”, however, was a word often used to describe their location yet just as often ignored by us. Unlike the Karakalpakstan desert which a fairly large (up to 100 perhaps) number of cyclists cross a year, this is not a common cycling route, and the advice was consequently sketchy and inconsistent. The road was horrendous, at times just a collection of loose stones which our wheels could get absolutely no grip on and so bumpy even on the downhills that we would never be going much faster than up! Mix this up with the aridity of the area and we were in for quite a treat.
Even with a fortunate spattering of cloud cover, we were forced to ask two military bases (no one else for miles around) for water and sweated far more than they could provide. At around 4 PM, we reached the first monasteries and ‘parked’ our bikes at the bottom of a ridge below one of the main towers. We walked to Lavra, the only remaining inhabited monastery where we met the notoriously fundamentalist monks who reside there. After a lot of insistence, they agreed to fill up the drinking water tub where we sat and nurtured water bellies for at least 45 minutes.
We proceeded to hike up to the top of the ridge behind the monastery and being a trio to enjoy rarely seen views, decided to try to walk back to the aforementioned tower along the ridge. This walk alone, above the rest of the desert with endless views and the setting sun (we like that, too) was superb and worth every harsh pedal stroke we had endured earlier that day. We came across a group (is there a special word?) of vultures flying all around us out of the caves in the cliff and other than dropping my camera in the most picturesque spot possible, continued merrily along the top towards the tower in the distance.
On the approach we suddenly noticed people waving wildly and running towards us. As they came closer we realised these were members of the Georgian Army, so out of breath that I doubt they could have pulled the trigger on their AK-47s if they had been ordered to! We had been walking along the border on the ridge and judging by their reaction, this was near enough an act of terrorism. We were escorted into their outposts (read: hut) and a flurry of calls to superiors and, no doubt, Interpreters began. Pretty quickly, the inevitable happened: they asked for our passports. Ant managed to stay quiet about his and Alex proudly presented his driving licence. Unable to ask us what it was, and clearly bewildered that we didn’t have passports, the chief army chap suddenly changed his mind about our threat level (perhaps following a call from headquarters telling him to stop being stupid) and let us walk back to our bikes having promised we would not go into Azerbaijan…
Back at our bikes, Ant had a puncture which convinced us to cook our frozen Khinkali. Predictably now a total mush instead of meat filled dumpling-like delights, I ate a few spoonfuls before Ant and Alex pointed out the meat was raw. Woops. As night fell the army became concerned about us sleeping there and ushered us away down the road into the dark to camp somewhere else!