Sunday, November 11, 2018

Snapshots of Georgia

From Gori, we drove up the Georgian Military Road to Stepantsminda near the Russian border, a suitably romantic-sounding name for a road which, to quote Wikipedia, ‘follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders through the ages’. Its full length is 212 kilometres, running from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, just across the border. Its highest point, the Jvari pass, is at an altitude of 2379 meters (7815 feet). It skirts the disputed/occupied territory of South Ossetia for much of the time, although there was no sign of conflict from the road. (We did drive past a large camp for internally displaced persons on the main Tbilisi-Batumi highway, however). 

Many trucks ply the route through Georgia from Russia to Armenia, so there was often overtaking to do, but other than that it wasn’t a particularly tricky route to drive (as a passenger, haha) and offers some beautiful scenery as it winds through the Caucasus mountains. Most of the photos below are from our return journey, starting in the north, since I was sitting on the better side of the car for photos on the way back.

An otherworldly landscape on the side of the road near Stepantsminda with... cow?

I actually like the whatever that wooden thing is in the foreground, sort of gives a scale to the majesty of the mountains and river valley

The Russia-Georgian friendship monument (ironic), near the highest part of the road

We happened upon a large flock of what I think are turkeys (?) on a very rough back road on the way to the Kakheti wine region

A lonely outpost in the mountains

I like how this little gangster looks like he’s wearing a donkey disguise

Ananuri Fortress. I wished we would have stopped here, but we thought we wouldn’t have time to fit it in along with our visit to Alaverdi Monastery later in the afternoon. It turns out Alaverdi took hardly any time to see, so we could have done both, or just Ananuri, which has a beautiful location on the Aragvi River. Next time, I suppose.

The Zhinvali Reservoir, a beautiful man-made lake. I was surprised there wasn’t any sign of developments for camping around here. I suppose the beach on the left of the photo is pretty inaccessible.

When the Georgian roads weren’t busy being beautiful or gravelly pits, they had another key feature, which is the abundance of roadside stalls selling all manner of goods. The interesting part was that different villages or regions along the side of the road seemed to specialise each in their own product. You’d have a couple of km of watermelons, then further down a stretch of pottery, followed by bread. A lot of these goods (like pottery, bread or hammocks) don’t seem to be obviously region-dependent, so I’m not quite sure what kind of economic explanation lies behind these. They were pretty popular, too. We didn’t stop at any, but it was quite common for a car in front to suddenly veer off or on to the road from one of these stalls, usually without signalling.

Most of the next photos are from the Tbilisi-Batumi highway.

Stop here for woolly hats

“There’s hammock hut, that’s on third. There’s Hammocks R Us, that’s on third too. You got Put Your Butt There. That’s on third. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot... Matter of fact, they’re all in the same complex, it’s the hammock complex on third.” “Oh, the hammock district!”

Seriously, there were a lot of hammocks for sale. Not going to lie, I kind of wanted one.

One town was full of these “5+1” bread offers (I think it’s bread, at any rate). We never stopped, because what would we do with 6 loaves of bread. Along with the 5+1s, there was the occasional 6+1, which was surely an attempt at tomfoolery

A Georgian coffee shop that is definitely not infringing on any trademarks

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!