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(Un)Orthodox all-nighter

GEORGIA | Tuesday, 26 May 2009 | Views [2348]

April 11: Tbilisi to Kazbegi

Though the mountains were stunningly beautiful and what I had come to northern Georgia to see, my heart and core temperature sank as the snow levels rose with each hour spent careening around the hairpin turns of the Georgian Military Highway. My first warning sign that the north would be significantly colder than Tbilisi were the heavy coats and hats donned by the others in the marschutka (a large van that takes passengers on a set route for a fixed and fairly cheap price). The only other foreigners (having any is unusual for me) in the marschutka were a pair of Dutch ski-mountaineers about to take on Mount Kazbegi who said that I would probably have more luck going snowboarding than finding a hiking trail. Boarding would be a wicked and highly welcome alternative, but I definitely had not expected it to be that cold and was thoroughly unprepared. After we blew a tire in an icy pothole-laden tunnel and were forced to wait outside for half an hour, a deep chill set into my bones and I spent the rest of the drive up to the village of Kazbegi shivering in my light windbreaker and envying their down-filled North Face winter gear. All I could do was hope that my contact in Kazbegi would let me borrow an extra coat for the few days I planned to be in the area.

Upon arrival in Kazbegi at the end of the Military Highway, I was quickly ushered to a particularly homey home-stay graced with a comfortable bed, a sitting room filled with walls of musty old books, and even a TV with English news channels (a rare luxury) – but no hot water in the bathroom. Ah well, can’t win ‘em all!

The Dutch ski-mountaineers and I went for a stroll around the village to stretch our legs after several hours in the marshutka. The village appeared to be largely deserted at first glance, with ominous gusts of wind whipping up flurries of snow and rattling the padlocks and broken window panes of the empty cafes and shops. However, when I caught sight of and waved at one man peering through his kitchen window at us, the expression on his face changed from one of intense scrutiny and even suspicion to outright joy, and he burst onto his porch to invite us into his home as if he had been waiting all day for passersby. His homely but bubbly wife nearly tripped over her own feet as she rushed to serve us tea and bread and insisted on nudging our chairs ever closer to the fire, tsk-tsking at our red noses and numb fingers. I settled into my chair, rubbed my hands together next to the fire until the painful but nostalgic tingling subsided, and savoured the moment of charming Georgian hospitality. We begrudgingly left the physical and social warmth for the harsh outdoors, gasping in unison as the frigid winds sucked the breath from our lungs. I did not envy the guys in their attempt to scale the 5000 m summit of Mount Kazbegi looming imposingly above the village. 

* * *

When I told the home-stay owner that I wanted to hike up to the Gergeti Holy Trinity Church the next morning, she offered for her teenage son and his friends to join me. She suggested, however, that I go the day after because “the boys will be tired from a late night”. I chuckled, assuming that meant that they would be partying their faces off on a typical Saturday night, but was quickly corrected: they were in fact going to an all-night Palm Sunday service at another church somewhere in the mountains. How many teenage boys do you know spend their Saturday nights at church? I was impressed and humbled by the unexpected display of faith; clearly, it permeates their daily lives more than your average Christian. Pleasantly taken aback, I asked if I could join them. They warned that it would be a feat of endurance in more ways than one but that I was more than welcome if I thought I could handle it. I’ve learned to take local warnings with a grain of salt, as they tend to be kindly but overly protective of me as a young and solo female traveler. It was a church service after all, which meant that old people would be there. How hard could it be?

In preparation for the night-time hike up to the church in the bitter cold, the mom of the home-stay generously lent me one of her winter coats but didn’t have any mittens. I made due by doubling my long wool socks as mitts and my headscarf as a sort of head/neck wrap (which, come to think of it, would be quite literally called a headscarf). I wore enough layers to add more than a few inches to my profile and proclaimed myself ready when all that was visible were my eyes and nose.

At 10 pm, I joined a small group of teenage boys and began hiking up a mountain behind the village, opposite Mt Kazbegi. It wasn’t a terribly steep gradient for most of the time, but it was dark and an aggravating combination of ice underneath a thin layer of snow made for a decent workout. Just when I started to tire out (and overheat, admittedly), I saw a soft glow emanating from above the next ridge.

“Is that it?” I asked one of my companions, who grabbed my arm as I slipped on yet another hidden patch of ice.

“It sure is,” Lukas replied wearily, pointing ahead to the outline of the church emerging through the trees.

My jaw nearly hit the ground as we walked up to it and I realized just how pristine the setting was: the tiniest church I had ever seen was nestled humbly in a thin valley, a sweeping 360° vista of jagged, snow-capped mountains towering protectively over it. I turned around a few times, taking it all in, completely awe-struck. I turned my gaze upwards to the near-full moon illuminating the outlines of the mountains against the velvety black sky bejeweled with countless stars.

Whoa, I thought to myself. I don’t even care how painful the church service is; that sight alone is worth it a million times over!

The single-room church was already jam-packed with devout Orthodox worshippers. Several dozen candles cast a warm glow over the faces of the congregation and the thick incense danced a fine line between intoxicating and overpowering. Most of the women in the congregation wore long skirts and head scarves, though about half of their hair was still showing. The interior walls were unusually modestly decorated but still adorned with eye-level pictures of Mary and Jesus, St. Nicholas, St. Nino, St. George, and St. David. The front quarter of the church was taken up by the priest’s workspace which was separated from the rest of the room by a wooden half-wall punctuated by swinging doors that looked like they had been taken from an old Western saloon. The priest wore a tall black hat and had a fantastic ZZ Top-style beard, and there was a small red velvet curtain that he opened and closed with a grandeur usually reserved for magicians. [Christians, forgive my ignorance and insensitive observations.] Communion consisted of actual chunks of bread - which I've always thought would be infinitely better than the dry discs! - dipped in wine (home-made Georgian red, of course; also that much better).

The service went non-stop all night and it was 'standing-room only' in the most literal sense of the term. Though I almost fell asleep several times on my friend's shoulder during the rather long-winded and monotonous Bible readings (in Georgian), I was pulled back to consciousness whenever the singing began again. Other than the gospel choirs in South Africa, this was by far the best church-bound singing I had ever heard. Five people each had his or her own harmony and they were impossibly in tune with each other; the result was an awe-inspiring work of art that struck me speechless, simultaneously filling my heart with warmth and sending shivers down my spine.

When the service finally drew to a close with dawn at 6 am, the congregation filed out of the church and into the frigid night air. The priest then shook water over their heads with olive branches and many people knelt down to kiss a large stone cross before heading back home. I loved the experience of attending the entire service, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't relieved that it was over (standing up in a warm room for 8 hours all night is not exactly the easiest thing to do)... but now that dawn was breaking, all I wanted to do was stay longer and take pictures! As the faint rays of light painted the sky a dizzying array of pastel pinks and blues, the stars took their cue and receded into the wings. The sun finally burst over the horizon and lit the mountains ablaze, with Mt Kazbegi taking centre stage...

To me, that moment was profoundly more intense and spiritual than any official religious service. Even though the sunrise happens every single day, it will never fail to astound me. I only wish I had Le Petit Prince with me so we could move our chairs a few meters ahead and enjoy it 44 times over...!


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