The following account DEMANDS that you go to my facebook page and look at the photos of Khazbegi. I will do my best to describe my adventures but pictures will complement them.
You will see from my photos that Khazbegi is a gorgeous little town ringed by medium-sized brilliant green mountains that are crowned by Khazbegi and its snow-capped peak. We were told that most of Khazbegi is covered in snow from October to May but today it was HOT. In the company of our guide Genri, we began to hike up to the Trinity Church up atop one of those medium-sized mountains. Legend has it that in the 13th century the residents of these mountains gave the haunch of a calf to an eagle and then spread out in order to see where the eagle would land and devour its prize. Where the eagle landed is where they began to build the church--a project that lasted nearly one hundred years. Today it still stands nobly above Khazbegi town and attracts both Georgian and foreign tourists in droves during the summer. We were not alone as we struggled up the mountain; there is a road upon which cars may (and do) traverse but it is extremely rough. A surprising number of "mature" folks hiked along side us up to the church while pickups full of young tourists labored over the ruts and craters in the road.
The interior of the church was much like any other Georgian Orthodox church. What is interesting to note is that many of the icons (pictures of Christ, Mary, and other saints) were defaced by the Soviets and remain damaged today. The chief icon in this church featured a faceless Mary and Jesus.
While hiking the nearly 10 miles up and back down I had plenty of opportunities to chat with Genri with the aid of our translator Katie. Genri, it turned out, is the caretaker of the church and hikes up that mountain three times a week! Genri also owns a local restaurant (where we subsequently ate lunch) and, apparently, is a medical doctor. Georgians are not lazy people.
Genri told me that church attendance has been on the rise, particularly among young people. This phenomenon is reflective of the rising Georgian nationalist sentiment that has accompanied the rise of Ivanishivili and the Georgian Dream Coalition. In contrast to Sakaashiili, Ivanishvili has encouraged the role of the Church in government and the Georgian national identity. The growing anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia may be tied to this increase in Georgian nationalism and may also be fueled by Ivanishivili. The latter is unclear; Ivanishivili is an local Georgian who made billions in Russia and it entirely unknown to Georgians. As you may recall, many speculate that he only won the recent elections because of the release of videos depicting horrible human rights abuses of prisoners that turned public opinion away from Sakaashvili. Is Sakaashvili directly responsible for the abuse in prions? Likely not, but his increasing arrogance and refusal to negotiate with the opposition was really starting to anger Georgians, particularly the Church. After the release of the lurid videos the Church patriarch and priests began to preach Ivanishvili from their pulpits. Sermons are highly politicized and Genri and his fellow attenders claim to embrace the message. Do Georgians actually vote as they are told to? We will find out this October during the presidential election.
I also had some time to muse on my thesis for this class. My professor, Dr. Christensen, suggested that I look into how Georgia has remained neutral in the on-going tension between Iran (its neighbor) and the U.S. (possibly its patron). Georgia has much to gain by retaining good relations with both nations and may be an example to other countries in neutrality. Is it possible to remain outside or neutral from power politics? I may look further into this. I am also still interested in locating the supposed Egyptian Coptic refugee community here in Georgia. If I can find enough academic sources on the phenomenon and can conduct my own primary (anecdotal) research than I might like to head in that direction instead. The former topic seems more IR and macro to me, while the latter has opportunities for micro analysis. Maybe. Maybe I am also exhausted from my wonderful hike up the mountain.
The rest of my day was like this:
-Lunch at Genri's restaurant--bread, cheese, salad, khinkali (meat dumplings), and kabob. No kabob for me today. Kristin and I skipped breakfast in favor of a lie-in so we were ready for lunch when we finally descended...at 3pm!!! Don't worry; we drank lots of water and ate a Lara Bar Kristin had packed in case of emergencies. Yay Kristin! I love her.
-Quick (2.5 hr) drive back to Tbilisi and return to Thea's house. We picked up hot puri (bread) and cherries for dinner on our way back. Thea was impressed (well, she was nice to pretend) with the Georgian I picked up while away. I know can say: "This is my friend. I have a bag. You do not have hot bread." I know--you are impressed.