Monday, September 24, 2018

Man of Steel

Uplistsikhe is just outside Gori, best known as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. Embarrassing confession: when I was about 11 or 12 I wrote a righteous takedown of how friendly moustachioed ‘Uncle Joe’ was actually, wait for it, a bad guy, and somehow thought that my insights gleaned from history books for kids available in our small local library would like blow my teacher’s mind or something. Ah ah ah, the impetuosity of youth. 

My fascination with Russian history has persisted, and even though the Stalin museum in Gori is, by all accounts, less woke than I was as a 12 year old, I still had it on the bucket list of must-sees while I was in Georgia. I say ‘by all accounts’ because there’s very little information available in English in there, so we were assessing on the general vibe. Which was pretty much ‘all hail the mighty conqueror Stalin’. 

Quite a lot of the museum just consisted of reproductions of old photos on the walls with short captions, and most of the rest was artefacts from the cult of personality. I have a bit of a thing for Soviet kitsch as well, so I was mildly interested in dozens of Azeri Stalin rugs, although I have seen cooler Soviet stuff elsewhere. (Feel always and enormously free, anyone, to surprise me with a Belka and Strelka rocket jug.) The collection was rounded out by some genuine Stalin paraphernalia and a creepy memorial room with pictures of his coffin and what I assume is his death mask. (I recently mentioned visiting the Lenin memorial in Moscow: Stalin used to be in there too, until during the period of de-Stalinization Lenin’s widow had a convenient dream where Lenin visited her and told her he would be more comfortable in the afterlife sans flatmate.)

Outside the museum was Stalin’s actual birthplace, a tiny tiny hut encased within a larger memorial (that you weren’t allowed to go in) and Stalin’s personal railway carriage, which you can go in and soak up the Staliny atmosphere. It’s pretty nice, although not super lux, and was used by Stalin to go to the Yalta Conference, amongst other destinations. 

On Gori in general, my impression from the internet was that it was quite sad and rundown, not enjoying a lot of tourist money as its proximity to Tbilisi makes it a convenient day trip destination. It was actually nicer than I expected. There is a big fortress up on the hill, which we didn’t have time to get to, and we had a really delicious meaty dinner (along with the bread and dumplings, you can enjoy copious amounts of barbecue shish kebab type things in Georgia if you so desire). We ran into some rough potholey roads on the way out the next morning, but overall Gori is really not a bad place to spend the night instead of rushing back and forth from Tbilisi.

A nice park at the foot of the fortress, not far from the Stalin museum. Not sure exactly who these giant statues were of, but I’m guessing ye knights of old. 

Stalin’s wee little house

The back wall of Stalin’s house inside its memorial canopy

Just walking into the main museum gives you a good idea of the tone

Stalin’s death mask

Gotcha nose Winston! There’s that playful rogue we all know and love.

The design strongly reminded me of the Moscow metro system. I don’t know if this was a deliberate architectural nod to one of Stalin’s lasting achievements, or just the style of the time (the museum was begun in the early 1950s, not long before Stalin’s death)

Stalin’s first office in the Kremlin. I will admit there’s still a bit of a frisson for me to think “there’s the actual desk Stalin sat at”, even though I realise for many people it would be tantamount to displaying Hitler’s office furniture in a museum that doesn’t breathe a word about the Holocaust. 

Stalin’s train

It was surprisingly quite refined and elegant, not too showy

I feel it’s an interesting place to see in its own right, to see how history is still contextualised in a country that is, really, still suffering from the legacy of Russian imperialism and the Soviet Union. There’s still a sense of pride there that a boy from small-town Georgia went on to have such a profound influence on world history. There didn’t seem to be a single trace inside the museum of anything even mildly critical of Stalin - Terror, violence, purges, show trials, the gulag, the Holodomir etc., all swept under the carpet. It’s interesting in its own way that such a place still exists. I wonder if it’s kept on as a sort of curiosity for awful ironic hipster tourists like me or if there’s actually still widespread support for the guy in Georgia. (Actually, no need to wonder: on a confusing 1 - 12 scale, this research based on 2012 data shows pretty strong appreciation for Stalin particularly around his home region.)


I guess even if he’s a bad guy, he’s their bad guy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Lord’s Fortress

I had been a little bit back and forth on whether to go to Uplistsikhe (which means the Lord’s Fortress), since on the face of it - an ancient cave town - it sounds very similar to Vardzia, so I wondered if it was worth the effort. Turns out it was my favourite place on the trip so far. While superficially similar to Vardzia indeed, the experience was quite different. The caves in Vardzia are hollowed out of the cliff face, so you reach them by mostly narrow paths on the edge of the cliff, rarely going deep into the cave system. In Uplistsikhe, by contrast, you essentially stand on top of the hill and clamber up and down to see individual caves. This was what made Uplistsikhe so much fun - we were really just scampering about on top of this cave town like a couple of kids. And while Uplistsikhe is a lot more accessible than Vardzia, and therefore busier, the open layout meant it didn’t feel crowded. 

Uplistsikhe contains structures dating from the Early Iron Age to the Late Middle Ages, although since we didn’t have any audio guide or other information, I couldn’t tell you which is which, with exception of the brick church in the middle, which was built in the 9th - 10th centuries. Arriving at the site is a surreal experience. One minute we were driving through green fields and streets hung with vines, then you turn a corner and suddenly you’re in a landscape that looks like something out of Westworld (or Utah, where I think it’s filmed). Suddenly it’s all bare rock formations, but once you’re actually up on the hill you get a vista of a lush green river valley that looks like a savanna. It really wasn’t hard to see why our ancestors would have chosen such a place to settle: shelter, defensibility, water access and presumably hunting opportunities back in the day. 

Arriving at Uplistsikhe, you suddenly go from this 
To this:

Some top notch site security

Some of the fancier caves had a bit of interior decoration going on 

A qvevri, the clay vessel used to make traditional Georgian wine. (Really traditional - the earliest found go back to the 6th millennium BC!)

I can just imagine gazing at this first thing in the morning and then leaping into action to hunt a deer or something

It was hella windy up there

Visions of Dali in this rock formation

Premium cave real estate

Tunnelling out

Disclaimer: this actually happened in Vardzia, but I forgot to put it in the blog, so I’ll put it in here. On the way out, a Russian mother and teenage daughter semi cut in line in front of us (that thing where you’re approaching from different directions, but instead of doing the polite ‘you first’, they just put on a burst of speed to make it there in front), and the teenage girl had a small wearable speaker strapped to her leg. That part is obnoxious enough, but the really weird part is that, of all things, she was rocking out to Love Potion no. 9...??? Thankfully we were leaving while they were arriving!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Prometheus underground

The Prometheus Cave near Kutaisi was only discovered in 1984, and hasn’t been open to visitors very long. I suppose it took the authorities a wee while to pimp that cave, since although it is very pretty, it definitely doesn’t go for a naturalistic look. Legend has it that Prometheus, tortured by the gods for bringing fire to mankind, was imprisoned here, or nearby, or confusingly, on Mt Kazbek, a four-hour drive away near the Russian border. Maybe he’s the inspiration for the trippy lighting scheme inside the caves. I think we can safely say he wasn’t imprisoned anywhere, but the scale and variety of the stalagmites and tites etc on display don’t really need a legend to make them something special.

The cave visit takes about an hour, made up of a 1060 meter walk through the cave followed by a small boat trip. Tours are offered in Georgian, English and Russian, which would have been great except it turned out they combined the tour for English speakers (about half a dozen of us) with Russian speakers (a good 60 or so of them). Yes, we had to hurry a bit to keep up with the guide, but they basically treated it as though it was a race to get through the place as fast as possible and woe betide you if you stop to take a photo on the way. One woman, instead of walking around me (which there was room to do) stood behind me shouting “idyotye! idyotye!” (Russian for go! go! - surely mere coincidence that it sounds a lot like you’re being called an idiot). It reminded me of when I visited Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. The rule there is no stopping - you just walk around his body in a circle and out. I tried to get around this by walking extra slowly but the woman behind me there yelled idyotye at me too. Whatever happened to stopping to smell the roses/examine crusty old corpses? I think I still managed to get some cool shots though, helped out by that psychedelic lighting. (#nofilter)

A lot of the cave looked like it wanted to eat me

Monday, September 10, 2018

Tasty Gelati

Gelati Monastery near Kutaisi in western Georgia was my favourite thing of the trip until the next one (currently Uplistsikhe holds the crown). It dates back to 1106, founded by King David the Builder, who is buried there, along with a number of other Georgian royals including the famous Tamar who we met back in Vardzia. As we explored the extensively-decorated interior, I couldn’t help thinking it would be world-renowned and absolutely flooded with tourists if this was somewhere like Florence or Paris. As it was, I was fairly selfishly pleased that it wasn’t too crowded, although there was a fair smattering of tourists. The frescoes are rather weathered, but altogether it’s a really beautiful place. I don’t have much more to say on this one, but hope you enjoy the photos! (By the way, I’m having to blog this on iPad so I hope the photos aren’t too giant and/or wonky...)

There were really strong royal associations throughout the church. I’m not entirely sure who these two funny-looking customers are, but definitely someone important

Ol’ Wonky-Eye Jesus in the dome

Quite a graphic John the Baptist post-decapitation

The royals again. David the Builder is on the far right

We also stopped in at the nearby Motsameta church. I saw on the internet a few people saying that this was better than Gelati, which is overrated. To these people, I say there is such a thing as objectively bad taste and you have it and you should feel bad. Motsameta was in a pretty location, also on top of a hill, but the tiny church has been garishly overpainted/restored on the inside, and the views are not that spectacular. The church is so small that we couldn’t really go in either, as there was a mass going on the whole time we were there and a wedding party turned up just as we were leaving. Which is fair enough, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as nice as Gelati in any case.

Motsameta’s tacky frescoes

Some guy turned up with two lambs as an offering to the church. I assume for the monks to eat rather than some sort of sacrificial thing