My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Holy Georgia pilgrimage: the Georgian Military Highway and trip to Kuzbegi

"I believe you have seen the Georgian Military Road, too. If you have not been there yet, pawn your wives and children …and go. I have never in my life seen anything like it. It is not a road, but unbroken poetry, a wonderful, fantastic story written by the Demon in love with Tamara." Thus writes Anton Chekhov to N. A. Leikin, from "The Letters of Anton Chekhov" which he wrote to his family and friends.

Zhinvali Reservoir
We are pilgrims on a journey, and we are travelling towards the north on that very same Highway, from Kutaisi via Tbilisi in Georgia, so I have no need to pawn my children, husband or anyone else! There is certainly much to see on the journey and there is some very beautiful scenery. We're following the course of the River Aragvi flowing fast across the plain to our right. A calf has just been born, wobbling uncertainly on its gangly legs as it searches for its mother's milk. (My father, a research scientist and agnostic dairy farmer, never failed to be moved by the wonder of new life arriving in this way). Soon we approach the place where the river has been dammed, to create the massive Zhinvali Reservoir.
mountain view from our hotel
We climb high above the dam and the road gets very twisty before coming down again at the north western tip of the reservoir where there stands the idyllically situated 17th century fortress complex of Ananuri. Amazingly, this was going to be destroyed by the flooding when the dam was built. The hamlet itself, which stood below the fortress, was largely destroyed and relocated further north, but common sense and local campaigning saved the fortress with its churches and watchtower - and what a good job. The complex is now closed so we cannot stop to see it, but we will pass this way again in a couple of days.
Caucasian Shepherd Dog
Today we continue our climb in the coach, past the Ananuri church complex into the mountains. It is a fantastic hairpin road at this point, with sloping green meadows on either side looking just like green felt in the evening sunlight. Someone corrects me on this. No, he says, green felt looks like the mountain sides here; God's Creation came first! How true. We climb higher and higher with stunning views to the valley below and the pink tinge of the setting sun contrasts with the brilliant white of the snow sitting on some of the highest peaks. The recent heavy rain this area has experienced is not only evidenced in the muddy appearance of many of the rivers, but also now by a large landslip which has been cleared away from the road ahead of us.
We arrive extremely tired after a very busy and long day. But the hotel we are to stay in for two nights is a fabulous ski resort hotel with huge rooms, many on two levels, and all with varying views of the mountains around. Most people also have a balcony. I don't! There are already 6 coaches parked around the front of the hotel. But the hotel can cope admirably with these numbers. We are strictly too late for the evening meal but they have kept a table for us in the restaurant and there is a large buffet-style spread of what may be described as "international" food. This is the first time on our trip that we have not had traditional Georgian fare, and this is a shame. It is clear that the hotel caters for large groups from Austria, Germany, and the rest of Europe and in trying to please everyone ends up perhaps pleasing very few? Some go so far as to describe the food as "woeful." They certainly cater little for vegetarians. There was never a veggie option among the hot dishes and I always had to make the best I could from the salad buffet range. When I asked the serving staff for a "veggie" option I was offered pasta and potato - in all seriousness!! And they had not heard of gluten free or wheat free diets. I gave up on that one and brought my supply of rice cakes and oat cakes down to the dining room for each meal.
It must be said that I was getting a little tired of my continual diet of tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and hard boiled eggs for both breakfast and supper! Never mind. We certainly don't have to go hungry, and the accommodation is superbly comfortable. and we certainly never go hungry.

appalling litter at the Friendship Monument
I am wide awake at 6am, after an excellent night's sleep, to the sound of a cuckoo flying around the valley below, his distinctive call loud and clear. I walk out into the grounds and marvel at the meadows around the hotel thick with wild orchids - I don't know which ones…
The itinerary for today tells us that "we walk up through beautiful valleys and woodland to Gergeti (or Trinity) Church, at 2170m." This makes it sound like a stroll, and does not in any way adequately prepare us for what lies ahead! Our guide, who is considerably younger and fitter than many of us, tells us to wear comfortable shoes, carry walking poles if we have them and for the ladies to wear skirts as the church/monastery is very traditional and trousers will definitely be frowned upon. It is a 2 1/2 hour climb up, we are told, to the highest Orthodox Church in the world. Coming down will take us just 1 1/2 hours (assuming we have the energy!).
The Friendship Monument
So as soon as we have finished breakfast we all pile into our coach again heading for Kazbegi and the beginning of our walk. We take the road north towards the Russian border, the only direct route linking Russia in the north with Armenia to the south. It is just 18km from Kazbegi to the Russian border. This road is now normally very busy with huge trucks transporting products south to Armenia, but at the moment a large landslip has blocked the way further north and the trucks are temporarily idle - we saw quite a few parked up in the valley below on our way here last night - good for us but not for trade.

Panoramic mountain view from the Friendship Monument

huge flocks of sheep are common here
We soon stop to see the Friendship Monument, erected in the early 1980s as a symbol of 200 years of friendship between Russia and Georgia. I am not really sure what to make of this monument, given for example the 2008 South Ossetia War between Russia and Georgia and the huge numbers of Georgian citizens displaced by Russia into refugee camps which we have seen along our pilgrimage route. The central female figure in the monument represents Russia, holding the child Georgia. The Georgians like the Russians, our guide tells us, and they welcome the Russians visiting on holiday here. But it is the Russian government that no-one likes! More information on the scenes depicted on the monument can be found elsewhere. Whatever our personal views, it's a great lookout point for the surrounding Caucasian Mountains. We are now above 2000 meters, in the alpine zone, and the views around are stunning. But the litter tumbling down the slopes away from the monument is appalling. What a blot on the otherwise beautiful landscape, and offensive to my eyes. Some don't even seem to notice it. I take photos and resolve to write to someone about it. But who do I write to?
The sheep farmers here use horses to control the large flocks. The horses have very colorful saddles and make a pretty picture against the mountain back drop. Today must be sheep market day as we see many different flocks all being shepherded into one large enclosure, presumably in preparation for auction.
the shepherd with his horse
If it were not for the housing one could think we were in Switzerland, the scenery being so similar. But the housing here is mostly poor, in sharp contrast to the pristine chalets we see in the Swiss and Austrian Alps, and at least in Switzerland I was struck earlier this year by the litter free and clean towns and villages.
Leaving the monument, we climb to 2395 meters, the highest part of the pass we have been over. Our guide is disappointed that we cannot see the Kuzbegi mountain peak, covered in cloud. There can be up to 2 meters of snow up here in the winter and tunnels are built across the roads to help protect the roads from avalanches. The snow melts clearly bring down much debris, seen in the scree and large boulders along the road side. There are some fantastic geological formations, some resembling the basalt Giant Causeway in Eire. And big black birds of prey wheel high above us. We descend again towards Kazbegi and will soon be taking that walk "up through beautiful valleys and woodland to Gergeti (or Trinity) Church, at 2170m"….Many of us are hardly prepared for what is to come! ....


  1. Thanks for sharing useful info on virtually identical, here i got lots of knowledge about it.
    religion and food

  2. Gorgeous photos! I like the phrase, "looking just like green felt in the evening sunlight." I took some photos of the Rocky Mountains in the western U.S. and Canada that gave this impression as well. It's inexpressibly beautiful.