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October 16 — Friday

Fr. George stopped by at about 9:30, and we departed for the south, our first goal being Abastumani. Driving out of Tbilisi, we went by Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia. Fr. George decided to stop in at one church in a village on the way. It is dedicated to the Holy Trinity and is operating. It seems they do filming there for something or other. We found this out when we asked what the red-painted grass was all about. We had to wait for a woman who lives down the way to bring the keys. We went in and venerated, looked around, took a few pictures and continued on our way.

At one point we starting turning south, and all of a sudden the scenery began getting greener and more beautiful. At one point we stopped at a spot that seems to be like a rest area. It had a wooden platform with a roof over it set right over the water where one could go and sit down and have his meal, which is what we did. Dr. Nino had prepared a large bag of potato-filled pirozhki for us. We only ate a few and continued on our way.

We turned off the main road to go to Vardzia, an ancient monastery which is made up of caves carved out of the stone in a mountain. It is very far from the main road, and although the area on the main road is somewhat green, by the time we got to Vardzia, it was partly like the Sinai desert. On the way we saw

Church of the Holy Trinity
one ancient fortress atop one place hundreds of feet above a river. Fr. George pointed out that below, by the water, is a cave, and steps can also be seen. There is a tunnel that goes to the top where the fortress is (actually, the ruins thereof), but now parts of the tunnel are caved in, so that no one can go up it. We continued on and finally got to Vardzia. We walked up to the caves. There is a stone path and steps that go up gradually, so that the climb is not difficult. We went into the caves which are very interesting. We saw where they used to make bread; we saw the church, which is still useable and has frescoes, etc. and is now operating. We went up through very narrows tunnels to a water supply which stays the same level all the time. It was very delicious water.
The stand over the river, where we rested.
Actually, the front of the mountain broke away some time ago, exposing the caves which had not been exposed before. I believe this happened during an earthquake. And now, whenever it rains, a little more is loosened, and pieces keep falling off. Altogether there are about thirteen levels, and there is supposed to be a tunnel that goes all the way down to the river as well.
Vardzia from a distance
The large hole is where the church is.
Fr. Andrew taking a photo from the bell tower.
Another view of the various levels.
One wall of frescoes in the church.
We departed and started back the same way we came. About half way out to the main road (I believe it took about a couple hours both ways) Fr. George suddenly pulled up a side road, and with a sheepish look on his face, said we were out of gas. Well, fortunately, we had pulled right up behind a police car (it was a strange thing that they should be out in the middle of nowhere, but we were later told that Shevarnadze was going to be driving through there and they were preparing their security, etc.). He was very kind and helped us; he somehow drew some gas out of his own car and put it in ours. But the car would not start up. So, he said, something else is wrong. They opened the hood and looked, and he found that the main wire leading from somewhere to somewhere had broken. Fortunately, there was enough wire to clean off a little insulation and pass it into the screw. We thanked him immensely, gave him, and another policeman who had driven up in the meantime, some icons and crosses. We went on our way and arrived at Abastumani at about 5:00 p.m.

Abastumani is located up in the mountains, and though it was very warm, as we drove up, and at one place made a turn, it suddenly became very cool, probably a twenty-degree drop in the temperature. Fr. George first wanted to go to one sanatorium for children to give the leftover pirozhki to a couple of children he knew. But when we got there, one man told him that the building had been bought out by someone, and all the sick children were forced to leave, and were now scattered who knows where. Fr. George was very upset and said that this is what has been happening around there: places for sick people being bought out and the sick forced to leave without anywhere to go. Anyway, while driving further to our destination at the place where the sisters live (Fr. John lives in a house not too far from them) we came across some very poor people cleaning the street outside their home. Fr. George decided to give the pirozhki to them. One could tell very easily that these people were the simplest of the simplest, and the poorest of the poor. You should have seen how grateful they were! The old lady came up to Fr. George, and like a little girl wrapped her arms around his waist and thanked him and thanked him. It was very moving. He said that this is the area where the poorest people in Georgia live.

We then went on and drove by Fr. John’s place to where the sisters live. All the other clergy were there, waiting for us. We just kind of milled around while supper was being prepared. Fr. John and I went off to one side of the house and had a long talk about this and that, how things were at the monastery, and other things that had happened of interest since he had been with us. During this time, Fathers Gelasi, George and Otari were eating because they had decided to go on to Zarzma that evening, so they could get things ready and be there the next day to receive the Metropolitan. Then we ate and talked and then went to Fr. John’s house, where we three Americans spent the night. After we got our things situated, Fr. John asked us if we would like to go up the mountain to the observatory. They know the scientists up there and he said we would probably be able to look through the telescope. We agreed. We went up, but the person we wanted was gone for a while, but his family said he would be back shortly. During this time, Mother Sidonia came out, as she was staying with her daughter and family who live there. Then the man came and took us up to the observatory, gave us a talk on the history of the place and let us look through the telescope. We saw Jupiter with four of its moons, and then Saturn. It was all very interesting. It turns out this man used to be an avid atheist, but now has come to believe. He greatly respects Fr. John and wants to be received into our church.

We then returned and retired. Fr. John and Fr. Gabriel went elsewhere to sleep.