Day 20 Udabno, Georgia. The Svaneti Connection and Azerbaijan Boundaries.

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Published: September 26th 2023

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Udabno townUdabno townUdabno town

Day 20 Udabno, Georgia. The Svaneti Connection.

We’ve driven in a hire car 86km to Udabno because we wished to see the Davit Gareja Cave Monastery and experience another another part of Georgia’s varied terrain.

It turns out that there is a connection between this south eastern part of Georgia (on the cusp of Azerbaijan, more later) and the mountains of Svaneti in the north, the reason we first came to Georgiain 2016.

In 2015 we went to see Moshes Bagel, a Scottish Klezmer band at the Sage Gateshead Hall 2, England. Their latest CD was a soundtrack to a Soviet film, Salt to Svanetia, commissioned by Pitlochry Film Festival. The music was played live to the ‘30s film. We fell in love with mediaeval towers we saw in the the Caucasus mountains.

As one of the earliest ethnographic films it documents the life of the Svan people in the isolated mountain village of Ushguli in Svanetia.

It portrays the Svans as isolated peasant people with outdated ritualised lives. The basic story line: ‘these yokels have always been short of salt…. the Soviets will sort the problem by building a fine road to Russia

Udabno town in a desertUdabno town in a desertUdabno town in a desert

from where salt can be brought’. The final scenes show muscular men with their shirts off pick axing away at the new highway.

Well here’s the thing. On arrival in Udabno it was clear that this no ordinary town. It’s isolated on a tree-less plain 30 Km away from other habitation and all the houses are built in concrete to the same plan, with unvarying sameness.

Research tells us that in 1987 this town was built to re-house eco-refugees from Svaneti. That winter saw hundreds killed in avalanches and floods in the mountains to the north. Either by choice, or by imposed edict, a whole mountain dwelling town was brought to Udabno to a new life here. Udabno means ‘Desert’ in Georgia, and there are accounts of the dismay of individuals arriving in a place with little or no water from the trees and mountain streams of their homeland.

The Soviet Plan was to pump up water from underground and provide an agricultural life for this new collective, irrigating the plain.

A construction was given the task of building houses to create the town. There is a school, but all the other buildings are

Our Udabno PodOur Udabno PodOur Udabno Pod

clones of one simple square floor plan design ….. in concrete.

In 2023, many of the houses have now been reroofed and improved but some remain untouched with leaking corrugated asbestos roofs and crumbling concrete. Each property has a garden fences would normally be there are pre cast concrete slabs.

They say that 90% of the migrants left because with the Rose Revolution with the collapse of the USSR soon after the migration, there wasn’t the finance and resolve from the state to finish the project.

Now, things are improving……. because of tourism.

There are two restaurants, a hostel run by a polish family. We ate there last night. A lively hostel feel with many people of all ages eating the good food and local wine.

It all works because of tour groups stopping for lunch before visiting the Davit Gareja Cave Monastery 14km away. We saw a group of 30 cyclists with accompanying minibuses there today.

And we’re staying in a state of the art A frame chalet looking south on to pigs, cattle, dogs, crested grass land birds (haven’t identified them yet) and all is sweet. It’s relatively

The Davit Gareja Monastery cave cellsThe Davit Gareja Monastery cave cellsThe Davit Gareja Monastery cave cells

green here, so perhaps sufficient irrigation has been achieved. We’re in one of the few timber constructions in town.

The road to the monastery is right on the border with Azerbaijan. And although Georgia does not have the major conflicts over territory that Armenia has with Azerbaijan, currently in the news, there are disputed boundaries when it comes to this Davit Carega Complex.

We stopped in a modern well surfaced car park which looks onto a vast undulating land mass of red sandstone which is multi-layered and on its side. The parts of the complex are signposted. We start with the lower church which comprises towers and dormitory buildings and is re-established as a working community for a few individuals. In addition to the buildings there are a succession of cells hewn out of the rock within a huge diagonal slab of sandstone above the church. They have windows and doors and are tricky to access. There are some steps hewn out of the rock as well.

The same thought always comes to me at these sacred sites…….. why here. It’s an extraordinary feat of construction in a very isolated place.

The guide book

Towers and buildings withinTowers and buildings withinTowers and buildings within

talks about the Udabno Monastery on a ridge above the Davit Carega church. We find a sign which points vertically upward saying ‘Udabno Monastery’ and there is a narrow, steep worn path up from it. We start off upward but it is treacherous and not a public footpath. I slide twice on the hardened mud.

We decide not to risk injury and to look at the guidebook photos of what we could have seen.

As we descend to the car park we notice two soldiers with guns where we have just tried to climb. And later, Googling the ‘Udabno Monastery’ find out that the original ridge footpath to it has recently been closed in a dispute between ownership of the site.

There is a further monastery sign posted on the way back, but the road is of pebbles and there’s an Azerbaijani watchtower close to the road…. we turn back.

Footnote: we read this morning that 6000 refugees have arrived in Goris, Armenia, over the last days. We were tourists there only a fortnight ago. It was raining and misty then and, I gather, it’s just as grey and wet for those displaced people

Church beneath, dormitories aboveChurch beneath, dormitories aboveChurch beneath, dormitories above

who are just entering the town



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