David Gareja Monastery complex is a rock-hewn Georgian orthodox monastery complex in the Kakheti region of Georgia. It is situated on the Georgia – Azerbaijan border and has an interesting history. Parts of the complex is in the territory of Azerbaijan and thus, there are ongoing disputes between the two countries.
The monastery complex consists of chapels, churches, cells, refectories, living quarters etc carved into the rocks.
First things first. Ride to the monastery is not a joyride. When I was planning my trip, I found out some information about the place, but not enough. Hence, I decided to pen down this travel guide so that, when you plan your trip, you have all the required information.
This guide will not describe the monastery itself in detail, since that information is available in abundance on the web.
How to get to the monastery?
TLDR; Unless you have a 4×4 and you are a good offroad driver, do not take Google Maps’ route recommendation. I repeat, do not take Google Maps’ route recommendation. Go to Sagarejo, take the road to Udabno and then head to the monastery. If you don’t want to drive, you can always take a taxi or go on an arranged tour.
From Tbilisi, there are two routes to get to the monastery. For the purposes of this guide, I’m assuming that Europe Square in Old Tbilisi as the starting point.
Route 1 : Tbilisi – Rustavi – David Gareja
Chances are, if you are starting from anywhere within Tbilisi, Google Maps will recommend you the route via Rustavi.
Roads from points marked 1 to 2 are in great condition. Roads from 2 to 3 are bad (with patches of good roads) and 3 to 4 is just a dirt track. The last section (3 to 4) is why you should not take this route. I went prepared for the mission based on the information I gathered from the internet. I had a 4×4 Subaru Forester and which is why I wanted to explore this route so that I could write about it comprehensively. And, from experience, I say, do not take this route unless you are a good off-road driver and have a 4×4 vehicle.
The section of road from points marked 3 to 4 is a dirt track at best and a gravel-pothole-mud filled off-road trail at its worst.
I do not have any photos from the worst parts because I was busy tackling them. There was even a point where I didn’t approach an incline correctly and my 4×4 couldn’t handle it. I had to back up and go around that part.
Last section of this road goes very close to the Georgia – Azerbaijan border. At some cross sections, the ‘road’ and the border markings are separated only by a few metres. At many points, you can see boards with ‘Friend Zone. No Entry’ written on them, right in front of you.
If you decide to take this route, make sure you stick to Google Maps and don’t stray away from the trail. You don’t want to end up too close to the border by mistake. There are no humans in this area. I did not see any shepherds and their cattle in this area either. Throughout the entire 22 km stretch of off-road trail, I did not see a single other vehicle.
I did not keep track of mobile network status through out the drive, but it was available pretty much throughout, I think. If you happen to get stuck in this route, hopefully you’ll have mobile network or be ready to walk miles to get help. I hope it doesn’t happen to anyone!
As a petrolhead who loves adventures, I definitely loved the drive. If you are like me, go for it!
Route 2 : Tbilisi – Sagarejo – Udabno – David Gareja
Google Maps will never recommend you this route. Even if you add Sagarejo as a destination in between, Google Maps will recommend you Route 1. Even if you add Udabno to the destination list, along with Sagarejo, Google Maps will not recommend you this route. I have no idea why that is. It is weird!
Even when you keep moving and take the right from Sagarejo, Google Maps will keep asking you to take U-Turns! I took this route while coming back from the monastery to Tbilisi and Google Maps kept asking me to take U-Turns on to Route 1.
Since I can’t get Maps to construct the full route clearly even by adding multiple destinations, I’ll explain the route in words here. Head to Sagarejo from Tbilisi through S5. At this point, take a right towards Road no 172 (Sagaredjo-Udabno- David Gareji Monastery road, as indicated in Google Maps!) and go straight. This road takes you all the way to the monastery. This is the recommended route.
Road no 172 is no express way. Its a country side road which is partially good, with a lot of patchy sections. The last 10 kms or so is very bad, with potholes and loose gravel, but its a breeze compared to the alternative. Moreover, you can go all the way in a car in this road. You don’t need a 4×4.
This route passes through a few villages. So, you’ll come across people, herds of cattle and even a few shops. However, I recommend you carry all the water, food/snacks required.
All the vehicles that go to the monastery takes this route. So you’ll see vehicles going in both directions.
What to do at the monastery?
You can visit the structures at the base of the hill and then climb upwards to the top of the hill where there is a chapel. Follow the signs and the trail. The climb is not easy, but its not that hard either. Hiking shoes are recommended since there is loose sand at many parts. It’ll take you 20 minutes to get to the top.
Beyond the hill is Azerbaijan’s territory. From the summit you can see the fence on the other side. If you check Google Maps standing at the top of the hill, it’ll show that you are in Azerbaijan. I’m not sure if that is correct. It is possible that the two governments have come together and decided to allow tourists to explore the monastery without caring about borders.
Beyond the chapel, there is a small outpost, which was occupied by an armed soldier.
I was curious to find out the status of this territory and also wanted to know if he’s an Azerbaijani soldier or a Georgian soldier. I said hi and asked if he speaks English, but he just waved his hands and signaled no. I don’t know if he did not understand English or if he was not interested in talking or if he’s not allowed to engage with tourists. I kept that question in my head, took the no for an answer and moved on.
What is the entry fee and what facilities are available?
Entry to the monastery is free. I guess, if you brave the roads to get here, you have earned a free visit anyway.
There is parking available at the site. There is also a church shop that sells religious literature, images and objects. They also sell water. Water costs 1 GEL for 500ml bottle and 1.5GEL for 1 litre bottle.
There is also a pay and use WC (toilet). It costs 0.5 GEL to use the toilet.
Tour guide can be called if required. There are sign boards with the guide’s phone number right next to the trail signs.
Where to rent a car in Georgia?
There are many car rental companies available in Tbilisi. Enterprise, Hertz, Budget, Alamo, EuropCar, Thrify and other companies you find elsewhere operate in Tbilisi too. Apart from them, there are a lot of local car rental companies like TbilisiCars, GTGCar, City Rent Car etc.
I rented from CityRent Car. I booked through their website. They were quick to respond with a quote. I confirmed the quote, sent scanned copies of necessary documents and my reservation was confirmed! Irakli, an English speaking representative from the car company met me at the airport arrival hall and sorted things out. I got a squeaky clean and well maintained car. He gave me the necessary explanations and even gave me a full list of food recommendations before we bid good byes. Based on my experience, I recommend CityRent car.
Where to get a mobile SIM card in Georgia?
Mobile operators have stalls at the arrival hall of the airport. They have tourists specific prepaid plans available which has certain amount of international calls and loads of data. You need only your passport to get a SIM card. Magti is the biggest network provider with widest coverage.
I chose Magti and a pack of value 40GEL that gives 7GB of data, 30 mins of outgoing international calls and unlimited incoming calls. There are cheaper as well as costlier plans available. The salesperson at the help desk spoke English. I had network coverage everywhere I went, including all the remote locations I drove/hiked to.
I hope this guide proves helpful for you when you plan your trip. David Gareja monastery is a piece of history and a visit is highly recommended. Do let me know your questions and feedback, if any, in the comments.