And took a marshrutka south to Vardzia to see the Samtskhe Javakheti region.
I got to Akhaltsikhe just as the sun was setting and jumped into a taxi to visit the Sapara Monastery a few kilometers south along a very bumpy mountain road. My taxi driver filled me in on some of the recent history.
Sapara was a Pioneer youth camp during the Soviet Union, but turned into something of a drug smuggling point in the late 80s, according to the taxi driver. In 1988, it was restored as a functioning monetary and there are ten Georgian Orthodox monks living there today.
The monks don’t smoke, drink, and abstain from sex. “It is for people looking to explore the spiritual world,” said one monk. He came to Sapara about five years ago and after visiting and living there for two years, he decided it was the right place for him. The schedule involves two hours of prayers between 6 and 8 in the morning, then lunch at 10. There is more praying in the evening, but aside from special days, the monks have the better of their day to themselves.
"So what do you then?" I asked. He smiled and asked if I was a religious man.
As for the rest of Akhaltsikhe, my experience was not exactly pleasant. I went looking for an open restaurant around eleven o’clock after leaving my things at a guesthome near the bus station. Everything except a few shops was closed, but I stayed along the main street until I found an open restaurant. Inside was a group of drunk and getting drunker men, a big bowl of hot dogs, bread and beer.
I asked if the kitchen was open and they invited me to sit with them. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but you can’t really refuse. So we talked in broken Russian. They weren’t the most polite or intelligent people I’ve ever met, but I certainly did not feel any reason to worry.
I was fielding questions from several of them at a time as they kept interrupting one another. They asked where I've been, how I speak Russian and so on. Suddenly, one of the guys across the table interrupts, points his hand at me and tells me to get the hell out of here.
I wasn't sure I heard him right. "Yeah, get going, right now," he said to a silent table. I said alright and left, turning back to see some confused shrugs and took a long, winding route back. Pretty disturbing, but Akhaltsikhe seems like a rough place - my taxi driver said there isn't much work and the tourism has really fallen off since the 2008 war.
The next morning I took another marshrutka to Vardza, a cave town built into a mountain in the 10th century. The brochure said it used to be a refuge for as many as 50,000 people during the Mongol invasions.
It's a big tourist destination, but there's enough tunnels inside to forget the world entirely and imagine for a moment how a bustling town could exist inside a mountain, with people climbing from one tunnel into another, full of the smell of food and the sound of gossip.
Outside there are small birds diving and flipping right along the rock face, taking advantage of the strange wind currents, with cool air from inside the caves escaping into the flat heat of the Georgian summer.
Then I hitchhiked with these guys back to Tbilisi:
And saw this guy...