“M-TSKHE-TA,” I shouted, pointing furiously to my guidebook. It was our second day in Georgia and the plan was to visit this UNESCO World Heritage town only a few minutes away from Tbilisi. We were at the bus station and no one around us could seem to understand a word we were saying.
a cathedral whose name i can’t pronounce, in a town whose name i also can’t pronounce
It didn’t help that everything was in Georgian writing, which is totally alien to me. They don’t even use Cyrillic like the Russians and they have their own alphabet. We would have been toast and left to board some random car that could have been headed to war-torn South Ossetia had it not been for this helpful chap. “Oh, you are going to Skheta?,” he asked. Apparently, the first two letters of this town’s name are supposed to be silent. He directed us to a row of parked minivans. The most popular mode of long-distance transportation in Georgia are actually not public buses but these speedy contraptions called marshrutka – a legacy of Georgia’s Soviet past. For 1 Lari (approximately US$0.60), we boarded one of these to Mtskheta which was just 30 minutes away from Tbilisi.
It did not take long before we arrived in Mtskheta. The entrance was dramatic. The postcard-perfect town is located near where two rivers intersect. At first glance, it reminded me a bit of a ski resort town in Switzerland complete with alpine-themed wooden houses and nothing but snow all over. If it were not for the UNESCO plaques, I would not have thought that this was a 2,000 year old town.
we were the ONLY tourists in town that day… and possibly that week
It was a small town, so small that the bus ran past it in less than a minute. We didn’t even have enough time to notice that we were already at the edge of town to alert the driver that we were alighting, and we ended up disembarking at the highway. There was fresh snow on the ground and it was another sunny day. There was barely anyone outside, which was no surprise given that the ground temperature was again below zero.
trust me… it’s colder than it looks
We did not have to walk very long before we stumbled upon this nice-looking church. We only discovered upon approach that it was actually the Samtavro Church, which is one of the UNESCO-identified buildings. There was a group of nuns sweeping the floor on the church compounds and we were not allowed inside.
the jvari monastery… too bad we couldn’t get up there though
After we left Samtavro, a cab driver offered to take us up to Jvari (Holy Cross) Monastery which to me was supposed to be Mtskheta’s highlight. We took his offer for about 24 Lari. He drove round until we reached the foot of the hill. And then, we got stuck. The car couldn’t move and the snow had basically gone through the car’s chassis. We had no choice but to turn back, to my dismay. The view from up there was supposed to be exceptionally good.
the svetitskhoveli cathedral from the inside
We ended up back in town, not far from where we started. We walked to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral – again another name I couldn’t pronounce. This church looked pretty impressive from inside and out. It looked really ancient, and there were even some frescoes inside the church walls. Jesus Christ’s robes, taken after his crucifixion, are also said to be buried there. It felt like a very holy place, and the seemingly unrestored interiors added to the atmosphere.
Jesus Christ’s robes are said to be buried beneath the tower-like column there
Up next was my favorite part of the day – mealtime. This time around, we decided to try some local dishes. Georgian cuisine was supposed to be a must-try so we ordered the local standards – khatchapuri (local cheese pie), khinkali (local dumplings that look like xiao long bao) and my favorite – lobio (stewed beans, coriander, garlic, onions) served on a clay pot. Save for the dumplings, I liked the rest. The stew was particularly rich and flavorful and reminded me a bit of the local lamb stew dish that I had in Iran only a few months back. The hot dish was perfect given the freezing weather outside and was just what we needed to recharge for the rest of the day.
no… these are not chinese dumplings… these are georgian dumplings
By this time, we were basically done with the town. As we still had time, we tried to catch a marshrutka heading for Gori – Joseph Stalin’s birthplace, and it ended up being easier said than done. We tried to hail passing minivans to take us there but since everyone was driving at break-neck speed, they just ran past us. Either that or the cars were full. We tried for about an hour until we decided to call it a day. This was just not the day for Gori. Tomorrow. Maybe.
How to get there:
Mtskheta can be visited on an easy daytrip from Tbilisi. A ride on local minibuses (marshrutkas) from Tbilisi costs USD 0.60 and departs frequently everyday from the bus terminal just off Didube Metro Station. Otherwise, hiring a taxi is also possible. Remember to pronounce the name correctly or the drivers may not understand where you’r going – the first two letters of M and T are silent so it’s pronounced as Skheta.