2017 - Ongoing
She was shielding her eyes from the sun, a lone Orthodox Christian nun, framed by the blades of the helicopter’s rotors against snow-capped mountains and a flawless sky. I was hitchhiking on a Georgian Border Police chopper en route to an assignment in the Caucasus Mountains. We had made an unexpected detour west along the mountains, and touched down briefly in a stunning abandoned valley. It was here that she emerged from a tiny abbey. I was able to establish that her name was “Mariam”, but little else. Her image would not leave me.
After my assignment, I pieced together exactly where I had been, poring over trekking websites and satellite images. Months later, on another trip to Georgia, I took a ‘marshrutka’ along the Military Highway and hiked up the Truso Valley, armed with a message in in a translation app on my phone: Hello. My name is Nyani…
The Truso Valley leads into Russian-occupied South Ossetia. In summer, hikers visit the medieval ruins of Zakagori near the abbey, but border police prevent them going any further. The police patrol the frontier zone, as do their antagonists, with each side keeping strictly to their respective schedules, “because if we see them, we will have to shoot them.” A couple of Azeri nomad families graze small herds of livestock during summer, but the valley is otherwise all but abandoned. For the seven months of winter, it is home to only seven souls: four nuns, a priest, a monk, and a hardy homesteader. During this time, the monthly police helicopter, which supplies a post upriver, is the only way in or out.
I arrived at the abbey with preconceived notions of a life of stricture and penance, intrigued by the search for meaning that the choice to live in such a place seemed to represent. I found a more nuanced reality. While life is indeed bound by routine and simple rhythms, there is humour, levity and a larrikin irreverence I did not expect to find. There are friends and visitors, football games, smartphone puzzles, and chocolate cookies on the kitchen table. There is a political dimension, too, for to live on the threatened frontier is in itself a statement.
We all take different paths to the answers to the same fundamental questions.