Last weekend, most of my friends met up in Zugdidi to take a weekend trip to Borjomi and Vardzia.  Tragically, I couldn’t attend.  Despite the insistence of many people, I made it known that I’d be spending the weekend doing nothing special, just hanging out with my family in Tbilisi.  Not all was as it seemed, however.

Saturday morning I woke up bright and early to make sure I could shower before embarking.  Around 8am I got a phone call from a rather sloshed Marissa who wanted to brag about how awesome the trip was so far and how “lame” it was that I was going to be sitting at home doing nothing all weekend.  I agreed, sadly, and reiterated how sad I was to be opting out of the trip.  Joanne hopped on the phone and I remembered she had left a cardigan at my house.  Confirming that it was hers I told her I would bring it to her in Martvili when I saw her for Thanksgiving.  Suddenly, I heard Yev’s voice in the background and told Marissa, “Put Yev on!”

“Hey buddy,” Yev said, “How are you?  It’s dumb that you’re not coming on this trip.”  “Yev, be discreet.  I am coming to Borjomi this morning.  I am about to go get on a Marshrutka and head there.”  My genius plan was to surprise all my dearest friends by showing up randomly and mysteriously in Borjomi without telling anyone beforehand.  Yev helped make this possible.

Though my Marshrutka didn’t leave for over an hour after I got on it, I managed to get to Borjomi in just under two hours, making it a very expedient trip.  Marissa had been texting me throughout this time asking me questions like, “What boring shit are you doing right now by yourself?” to which I would slyly respond by hinting at my true actions, “I’m on a marshrutka listening to Boney M.  Even that doesn’t make up for the fact that I’m not in Borjomi.”  I was indeed on a marshrutka and I was indeed sad to not be in Borjomi.  I was on my way to Borjomi though, and that’s where the lie by omission came in to play.

When I got to Borjomi, I was instructed to get off and walk across this big white bridge to the center of town.  Phoning Yev, I told him where I was.  They had seen the bridge before and so Yev told me to wait on it.  He instructed the driver in Russian to go to the bridge where they would meet me.  I waited for a bit, lounging against the railing.  Suddenly, Zurabi’s marshrutka swung into view and began to drive by.  I saw a shocked-looking Ian in the front seat gaping as I waved hello.  Faces crammed in the windows as the marshrutka drove by and pulled to a stop at the end of the bridge by a park.  I strolled over to greet my surprised friends.

Joanne, Marissa, Carla, and Yev were the first ones out.  Marissa was wearing a faux-shapka ushanka hat with the earflaps down and gave me an incredulous “WTF??” gesture with one arm while running up to me.  “What are you doing here?!?” she asked as she, Joanne, and Carla embraced me in a friendly greeting.

“Well, I wanted to bring Joanne her cardigan,” I replied, handing over the black sweater.  Yev sauntered up and winkingly said, “Raughley!  How did you get here and how did you find us?”  Others asked similar questions like, “You were just standing on some random bridge when we drove by?” and “Are you coming with us!?!”  “No, Carla, I’ll be going now, I just wanted to give Joanne her cardigan.  [pause for effect…] Of course I’m coming along!”  (I had also brought Marissa some anti-mosquito squares that you burn to keep the vicious insects at bay.)

I hopped into Zurabi’s big red Marshrutka to a cavalcade of astonished, but pleased greetings from the likes of Maxi, Pauli, Ian, Cristen, Tom, Courtni, Tony, Tall Paul (who ably showed me his wallet), and others, some of whom I had not met before.  Immediately Marissa’s hat was thrust onto my head and I was told that it was “the drinking hat”.  A jug of wine was pushed towards me with the warning, “This is the worst wine in the world.”  I sipped it through the gerry-rigged straw and agreed that it was indeed, “fucking awful.”

We drove and chatted for a bit, found some sketchy accommodations (more on that later [if I feel like it]) and set off on the road again towards Vardzia.  Many pee-breaks and drunken-photographs later (I was not terribly drunk–the wine was terrible, enough so that I refused to drink it at all–but many of the girls [I won’t name names {But I’m thinking of you, Carla and Joanne!}] had been drinking since the morning and were quite far gone) we arrived at the base of Vardzia, Cave City.

Jay, do you remember going to Uplitsikhe? That was a cave city, if you'll recall. Vardzia is a bona fide Cave City ten times more impressive than Uplitsikhe! Check it!

Zurabi urged us to hurry, as the park closed soon.  The sun was setting above the hilltops, so there was plenty incentive enough to hurry as it were.  The caves were quite large, something that’s hard to realize in the near-contextless photo above.  For a sense of scale, I present Exhibit A: A Large Cave.

"Look at the size of that thing!" -Wedge Antillies, referring to the caves of Vardzia.

Having climbed up to the third level of the cavehouse, we paused to admire the view and snap a quick group photo:

I am impressed with the candid symmetry of this photo. What do I mean? Compare my stance with Marissa's and then compare the placement of Ian's and Tony's hands. Also the heights of people are pretty well-patterned.

The caves were incredibly extensive.  I had seen Uplitsikhe before, which is also a fantastic Cave City just outside of Gori, but these caves were unlike anything there.  They stretched on and on, up, down and horizontally, spanning the entire face of the cliff.

I kid you not, these caves were incredible.

We clambered onwards, following Zurabi and the rest of the gang towards a monastery and some entrances to the innards of the Cave City.  The monastery was lit only with natural light and, with the sun setting, the chapel was bathed in darkness.

These bells hung outside the chapel and were begging to be rung. We politely declined.

Passing the Monastery’s chapel we looked up to see Courtni, Ian, and several others far above us leaning over a railing to wave at us.  All of a sudden, Courtni gasped as a camera fell sixty feet to the ledge we stood on.  Miraculously it didn’t smash to pieces!  It wasn’t about to turn on, though, either.

“That’s Tony’s camera!” Courtni freaked down at us.  She was very displeased with herself.  We took it into custody and followed Zurabi into a small, dark doorway by the Monastery.  (Aside: Just made the following typo, “Monstery.”  Is that where Monsters hold prayers?)

It was really dark in there, though some light came from the electric lights strung along the walls.

Zurabi relished the darkness and used it as an opportunity to scare us.  At one point we all crossed paths in a tunnel and Z used the delay to go and hide.  Yev, Marissa, and I caught up with Cristen who was waiting at a fork in the tunnels.  “I think he went this way,” she said, pointing right.  “I want to see what’s at the top!” I said, pointing up.  We split up and maybe twenty seconds after Yev and I had started climbing we heard what sounded like an explosion.

Turns out Zurabi had hid in the pitchest dark of the tunnels and waited until he heard one of the girls say, “I can’t see anything in here!” whereupon he jumped out, yelling, causing them to shriek explosively.

Look at this photo and tell me he wouldn't scare you in the dark!

To contextualize the darkness of these caves, here’s a photo that I took sans flash:

Now scroll back up and look again at Zurabi's terrifying visage. You would be scared.

As the sun sank behind the hills we left the Cave City behind us.  An ill-fated expedition to the top of the mountain ended with Cristen using my shoulders for support as she fearfully descended the steep, sideless steps with Ian close behind for additional security.  Cristen has a thing about heights (It’s no sicker than your thing with Dwarfs!  Dwarves!  Dwarves!  …Dwarves are very upsetting….)

As we hungrily rode back towards Borjomi we passed a castle on a hill.  Scrambling up the slippery slope, a small band of us explored and conquered the castle, declaring it our own.

Take that, Castle! You can't stop us!
It was a nice castle though. Incredibly dark. It had mountain goats in it.

After a long-delayed and much anticipated delicious dinner we returned to our hostel, which was under renovations.  Max was feeling unwell, let’s say, and was put to bed with much fuss.  Seeing as there were seventeen of us and only sixteen beds (or fifteen?) Pauli and I ended up sharing a twin bed together.  It was adorable.

Almost as adorable as this ancient phone in the "lobby!"

Now, watch in amazement as I attempt to share with you a slideshow of a nearly-failed Triple Dragon.  Cristen has been getting too excited (no such thing, when it comes to Triple Dragons!!!) and jumping way to high, leading her to crash down on me and me to crush Marissa in turn.

Okay, unfortunately all of the photos from  this post are in the slideshow, but check out the last ten or so for some Dragon-y goodness!

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