Sunday, 30 October 2011

Latvia, Georgia and Turkey Pt. 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part Three of my Summer 2010 trip




Links to all parts of this travelogue:

Part 1: Riga, Sigulda and Turaida

Part 2: Tbilisi, Mtskheta and Kazbegi

Part 3: Tbilisi, Gori and Uplistsikhe

Part 4: Batumi, Kars and Ani

Part 5: Doğubeyazit, Van and Diyarbakır

Part 6: Urfa, Haran and Adana

Part 7: Ankara and Istanbul

tbilisi map 2

29th July, 2010 – Kazbegi, Georgia
I woke around nine in time to catch the ten o’clock marshrutka back to Tbilisi. I was not unhappy to leave for although Kazbegi is incredibly beautiful, there’s not a grand deal to do there save hike and in the current heat, that was no fun. Furthermore, my homestay had proved disappointing compared with Tbilisi; the hosts were distant and the food, (bread, cheese and mashed-up egg washed down with lukewarm tea), the worst I was to encounter in Georgia. Still, it had been cheap at 20 lari per night plus 10 lari for the meal. Most of all though, I was aware of how much distance I had to cover before flying out of Istanbul on the 11th August and I wanted to get moving in the right direction. Back in Mtskheta I’d seen a sign showing Istanbul to be over a thousand kilometres away and that was by the most direct roads. By the route that I’d planned, I could count on almost doubling that figure – an awfully long way indeed.
The driver of this marshrutka was slower than the one up to Kazbegi, but as the vehicle was packed with people, it was no pleasure to travel in and by the time we got to Tbilisi I’d vowed to be travelling onwards to Gori by train. The problem when I got there though, was that at the Borjomi Station just down the road from Tbilisi’s central Station, I was informed that there was no train to Gori until 16:00, almost three hours away. To kill time I went back to Freedom Square for another free internet session in the tourist information centre before then checking out the restaurant next-door to the one that I’d dined at two days before. I chose pork mtsvadi; essentially a shashlik kebab, (I’d figured that once I hit Turkey pork would be unobtainable so best to get some whilst I could), but the meal was not as satisfying as the one at the neighbouring establishment although washed down with a bottle of the exquisite Kazbegi lemonade, (the most unexpected of Georgian delights), it filled a gap.
Returning to the Borjomi Station, I half thought that I’d stumbled into some West African town by accident as the whole platform was like a gigantic market crammed with people buying or selling or lugging huge bags around. A little confused I settled down by a concrete pillar to read some more of Fury and wait for the train.
When that train pulled in I was reminded of a scene from the 1965 version of Dr. Zhivago. The whole platform rose as one and surged towards the incoming train. Bags and babies were passed through windows and by the time I managed to scramble on board there were no seats left save for a solitary one on an aisle. Consequently, my journey was just as uncomfortable as my marshrutka trip earlier and I saw little of the passing scenery through the windows.
The day was lengthening as we pulled into Gori about an hour later. I’d seen little out of the window en route save a very arid and brown landscape. Nature however, was not my reason for stopping in that particular city for the night. Instead, I’d chosen Gori because it is the birthplace of Georgia’s most famous – or infamous- son.
Born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili on the 18th December, 1878 in a humble peasant shack in the city, the man who was later to adopt the name ‘Man of Steel’ – or in Russian, Stalin – rose to become the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the most powerful man on earth. Under the leadership of this humble Georgian, the USSR went from being an impoverished and backward state to a nuclear power which defeated the might of Hitler’s armies on the way. But such remarkable advances were achieved at a terrible human cost with millions perishing in catastrophic manmade famines or disappearing forever into the hell of the gulags – a vast network of prison camps where life expectancy was measured in months.
Alighting from the train I found a railway station that was grand and ornate and thus befitting of the hometown of the Soviet Union’s most influential citizen. A huge statue of the man himself graced the waiting room but beyond the foyer was just a humble square surrounded by nondescript buildings. I was reminded that Gori may be the birthplace of a famous dictator, but it is also a minor provincial city. Eager to see more, I hired a taxi – a Soviet-built Lada naturally – to take me into the heart of the city that bequeathed the Man of Steel to the world.
Now I have never made any secret of being left-leaning when it comes to politics and in my youth I was not far shy of a communist, (it was such sentiments that inspired my stay on an Israeli kibbutz which consequently developed into a love of travel), but my gusto for what is perhaps best termed as ‘Red Tourism’ is not really down to my political persuasions. I am very aware of all the evil that has been committed in the name of socialism over the world and of the fact that there is perhaps something inherent in the communist system that produces such evil. Nonetheless, all that aside, one has to admit that the Reds had a certain amount of style and none more so than Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili with his wedding-cake skyscrapers, vast industrial plants, grand railway terminals and the stunning Cathedrals of the People metro stations in Moscow and the other great Soviet cities.[1] There is something indescribably appealing about it all, probably born from the fact that it is inspired by an ideology that’s bold about its future aspirations and vision. Democracies are cautious and uncertain by their very nature, but communist regimes are prepared to take a great leap forward towards a brighter future.[2] Of course, it didn’t always work, but, by God, the dream looked good! And so it is that I have long sought the holy places of the Socialist World – Red Square, Tiananmen Square, Ho Chi Minh’s Mauseleum, Enver Hoxha’s birthplace, the great dams and factories of the lands that once were – or still are – painted red. All that considered, you must surely understand why it was that I was so excited about the prospect of staying in Gori.
And I was not disappointed. Under the mastermind of Lavrenti Beria, another Georgian who headed the vicious NKVD, (Stalin’s secret police), and a man who is often considered to have been as bloodthirsty and merciless as Stalin himself, the town was rebuilt as a model socialist city and a shrine to the great leader that it had produced. Starting with the grand railway terminal, then an ornate bridge over the River Mtkhvari, then wide straight boulevards flanked by grand Italianate buildings in honey-coloured stone il finally, at the site of Stalin’s birthplace, the house in which he came into this world, carefully preserved and protected from the elements by a glass-roofed Doric temple, whilst behind the house stands the majestic Stalin Museum.
Gori: Stalin’s House (under the Doric temple) with the Stalin Museum behind and Comrade Pointon in front.
I checked into the Hotel Intourist, one of the grand stone edifices lining the city’s main drag, Stalin Prospekt. At 60 lari per night it was a little more than I’d wanted to pay, but as a true Red Tourist could I have stayed anywhere else but the establishment built by the socialist state to cater for socialist pilgrims to the Man of Steel’s birthplace? And besides, there were few other places to choose from and it was a rather grand hotel, with a huge entrance hall and a staircase worthy of a stately home, whilst my room was huge, with a high ceiling, en suite bathroom and two balconies which I then proceeded to hang out all my washing on.
After hanging out all my socks and pants, I made my way downstairs and took a stroll around the town, heading first to Stalin’s birthplace and the museum (closed) with a quick look at the great man’s railway carriage, (he was afraid of flying and so travelled everywhere by train; a laudable trait shared with fellow communist bogeyman, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il), before then heading down Stalin Prospekt to Stalin Square, the heart of the city.
During the 2008 War pictures of this square were beamed all over the world as the Russian Army rolled in and occupied the city as a “security measure” to “protect” South Ossetia which had declared itself independent of Georgia. Stalin Square with its grand provincial assembly building with glass dome and the 17m high statue of Stalin – the last surviving one of what were once thousands across the USSR – in its centre had been quite distinctive and I wanted to check it out first-hand, but to my dismay when I got there I found that the statue had gone. I later learnt that it was to be re-erected in front of Stalin’s birthplace, but for a while I wondered if the departing Russian troops had not stolen the monument to their former leader.
After Stalin Square I wandered along Chavchavdze Street and then through the winding alleys and ramshackle houses of the old city, (where Stalin had lived had been similar in character before they’d bulldozed and remodelled it all), and up the hill to the Gori-Tsikhe Citadel.
The citadel was open and no one asked for money so I wandered on in and had a look around. It was reasonably well-preserved but with no explanations to hand I learnt very little but I didn’t mind since my main reason in climbing the hill had been to sample the magnificent views available from the ramparts. One could see out in all directions – to the Mtkhvari River and the railway line beyond along which an incredibly long oil train rumbled its way, to the barren hills, to the city’s suburbs and then north to the breakaway republic of South Ossetia and the sheer white wall of the High Caucasus beyond.
South Ossetia is a place that interests me because one hears so very little about it. I later asked if buses ran there only to be told that the border is now firmly closed. Not many people outside of Georgia ever talk about the 2008 War fought between Georgia and Russia and in which the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away and declared their independence.[3] These two countries are now completely free of Georgia, (and indeed, have severed all ties), even if they are not so unencumbered by Russia, but few outside the region have taken any notice of them and of those that do, it is always the larger and richer Abkhazia that is discussed and rarely South Ossetia even though she paid a much heavier toll in the war.
Yet this little mountain republic is a fascinating place. With a population of only seventy thousand one might wonder how it expects to survive as an independent state when North Ossetia is part of Russia, yet the men in Tskhinvali, (the capital which lies less than 30km away from Gori), evidently mean business for when their powerful Russian neighbours and liberators invited them into the Russian Federation and union with North Ossetia, they bravely declined.
On a hillside to the north-east of the city I saw a strange development of brand-new square dwelling surrounded by a high fence. I suspected, (and this was later confirmed by research on the internet), that this was a settlement built to house ethnic Georgian refugees from South Ossetia who had fled from the Russian invasion and now had no homes to return to.
IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp on the outskirts of Gori, built to house refugees from the 2008 War
I walked back down from the citadel and investigated a weird yet striking sculpture at the foot of the hill. It consisted of eight mediaeval knights cast in metal and twice life-size, sat in a circle as if discussing some important matter. However, each of the figures was missing something: a hand, an arm, a leg, even a head. What did it all mean? I suspect perhaps some episode from Georgian national mythology although it may have just been the product of some over-active imagination. Whatever the case, I was curious to know more.
The strange knights of Gori Citadel
By this time it was dark and I had worked up an appetite, so I returned to the Hotel Intourist and paid a visit to the hotel’s incredible restaurant complete with marble walls and glass chandeliers. I was though, the only diner, but I ordered nonetheless and enjoyed a fine meal of chakapuli, a lamb stew that was excellent, washed down with an equally palatable Kazbegi lemonade.
The restaurant at the Hotel Intourist, Gori
Then I returned to Stalin Prospekt where the locals were all enjoying their evening promenade, a custom as popular in Georgia as it is across the Black Sea in the Balkans.[4] In the small park in the middle of the street I met with a group of fellow tourists – the first I’d seen since Kazbegi – who all hailed from Israel and were looking for a room for the night. I couldn’t help them much as the Hotel Intourist was far more expensive than they were prepared to pay, but we had a short chat before moving on. Georgia sees very few foreign tourists but virtually all that I’d come across were either Polish or Israeli.[5] I wondered whether the tolerance that I’d learnt about in the synagogue in Tbilisi had a part to play in the Israelis’ choice of travel destination or whether it is more due to the fact that Georgia is one of the few countries in the region that will actually talk to Israel.
I settled down in a street café and watched the world go by. As the locals ambled by and the streetlamps shone in a long straight line to the birthplace of the city’s No. 1 son, I realised that I liked Gori in particular, and Georgia in general, very much.

30th July, 2010 – Gori, Georgia
Pilgrimage. That was the word that came to my mind as I walked around the Stalin Museum. The displays were reverential and the atmosphere hushed. Items from his youth and gifts from other world leaders were displayed as if holy relics whilst all the pictures on the walls showed the great man as benign, determined, strong and at one with children, but not once a tyrant. Add a beard and take away the sixty million (unmentioned) deaths and it could have been Jesus.
Things came to a head in the final room which was low lit and black save for a large, fanced-off red circle in the centre in which, laid in state, was a bronze bust of the man himself. I almost felt like bending down on one knee and prostrating myself to His Holy Image, shedding tears at the realisation that such a great human being had been taken from us.
And it continued outside. The guide who showed me round His armour-plated railway carriage and humble worker’s home spoke warmly and with affection about her hero whilst pointing out the personal items that had been lovingly laid out for view.
I left feeling strange. I have been on several Christian pilgrimages and I knew that feeling, except that this was different, it was somehow wrong. All the way through the museum, carriage and house, one could not help but remember the cost of it all. In amongst all the reverence, there was something missing, a story untold, a bad taste in my mouth.
It was interesting though. The fact is that the USSR, the atheist state, recognised that it people needed a religion and so they created one, the dual cult of Lenin and Stalin. Adulation such as was previously reserved for religious figures was heaped onto the two leaders such as here in the 1944 version of the national anthem:
Through tempests the sunrays of freedom have cheered us,
Along the new path where great Lenin did lead.
Be true to the people, thus Stalin has reared us,
Inspired us to labour and valorous deed![6]           
And in such cults the birthplaces of those holy figures become centres of pilgrimage and so it was with Gori both during Stalin’s life and after his death in 1953. However, after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956 where Stalin and his personality cult were denounced, the status of the museum town and its pilgrimage sites became a little unclear. Although kept up by the Georgians who were still proud of their son who had come to dominate world politics, (after the Secret Speech there were protest riots in Tbilisi in which hundreds were killed), the site no longer received any official recognition. And so it is today, Gori, a showcase and monument to a leader who is no longer revered, even amongst many Georgians, an embarrassment in some respects, yet at the same time an important historical monument and valuable tourist draw card in others. The man himself would not have been impressed.
Stalin’s statue by Stalin’s house
Stalin’s armour-plated railway carriage
I took a taxi to the railway station in time to catch the train onwards to Borjomi, but upon arrival found that I’d read the timetable wrong and there was no train to that place until five which threw my plans out a bit. My other option was to catch the night sleeper to Batumi which, although it meant missing out on some potentially interesting places, was more realistic considering my tight schedule, so I booked onto that instead and then finished off Fury. That left me with a problem though, for I now had almost twelve hours to kill before the train so, reluctantly as I didn’t really want to spend the money, I hired a taxi to take me out to Uplistsikhe.
Uplistsikhe is some 10km from Gori through some interesting villages with fascinating decaying examples of Soviet public housing. It was once a major city on the Silk Road, a trading centre by at least the 5th century BC and although it diminished in importance as the years passed, it was not destroyed until the 13th century when Genghis Khan’s son Khulagu came to town. All of this alone makes the site worth a look, but what is more interesting is that it was built entirely out of caves hewn into the cliffs. Whilst my guidebook warned that there has been much  erosion, conversely a lot still remains and I spent an enjoyable three hours clambering about, investigating the different caves, wondering at the strange round holes in the floors of many, (I later learnt that they were once ovens), nearly falling over sheer precipices which would send any Health & Safety Manager mad and marvelling at the impressive views out over the arid Mtkvari Valley with Gori in the distance whilst in the foreground the remains of a village whose inhabitants were removed by the government in 1968, one presumes to helpt reduce the amount of damage they were doing to the World Heritage Site next door. I hadn’t, in truth, expected much from Uplistsikhe; archaeological sites of that nature often tend to be undecipherable to the layman, but this had not been and in addition it was fun. More than that though, it made me realise that in many respects this trip was going to be an extension of my great 2002 expedition.[7] Then, the Lowlander and I had traced the Silk Road from China all the way to Uzbekistan before we’d veered off north up to Moscow. Now though, I was picking up the road again, a mere 800 miles further on from where I’d left it, (small fry in Silk Road terms), across the Caspian Sea and I would continue on it to the very gates of Europe. Like Bukhara, Samarkand, Urumqi, Jiayuguan, Lanzhou and Beijing, here was another great Silk Road city and I knew as I gazed west that I’d be seeing several more before this trip was out.
In one of the caves of Uplistsikhe
After exploring Uplistsikhe I was hot and tired, so I had the taxi return me to the railway station where I read some of Kim Philby’s autobiography My Silent War which I’d started the previous evening and wrote a little of my travelogue until the sun started to sink in the sky and my stomach started to rumble. Then I took a stroll back into Gori, over the ornate Stalinist bridge and up Stalin Prospekt until I spied an establishment named ‘Hunter’ which was very interestingly decorated, (for that read very east European cheesy), and specialised (unsurprisingly) in meat that has been hunted. This time I tried kharcho, (a spicy soup of mutton, garlic, rice and vegetables), and khinkali, (pasta envelopes of dough stuffed with mincemeat). I then strolled around the town looking for an internet café which, when I eventually found one near to the university, was strangely full of pre-teen boys speaking Greek. What on earth were they doing there? They looked too young to be on a student exchange and seemed to be at home in the establishment so were they locals? Georgian has a small Greek-speaking population but most of them live on the Black Sea Coast or in Lower Kartli (i.e. south of Tbilisi near to Armenia), so why an internet café full of Greeks in Gori? One of life’s little mysteries I suppose…
I strolled back to the railway station to find the young English-speaking station master there who had booked me my ticket on the sleeper and helped me get a taxi to Uplistsikhe. He invited me into his office and we shared my Kazbegi lemonade and there in the railway station in Stalin’s home town, I continued with my induction into Georgian society and culture.
Giorgi Javakhishvili was a young man in his twenties who had recently graduated from university in Tbilisi. He was not happy with the paltry salary that he earned as a station master, but he also appreciated that he was lucky to have a job in 2010 Georgia. He told me that he personally did not have the highest opinion of Stalin although he did respect him as a strongman. As regards to the country’s current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, like all other Georgians that I spoke to, he did not blame him for the 2008 War as most foreign observers did. No, that was all Russia’s fault, they were the instigators, they stole Georgian territory, at least Saakashvili fought back although the loss of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia was hard to bear. But what of Gori itself, occupied by the Russians during the war? Yes, it was hard, but we just kept our heads down, it wasn’t for so long and they didn’t destroy too many buildings.
Giorgi was also, like all Georgians, very religious and very cultured. He recommended I read Rustaveli, the famous mediaeval Georgian poet and in particular his work ‘Vepkhistkaosani’. The only atypical feature about my jovial host was that he was not yet married. There is a girl, yes, but I don’t have enough money to get married yet. Also, she is still studying. One day soon, I hope…
The four hours until the train arrived passed quickly and as I boarded the night sleeper to Batumi, I was waved off on my journey by yet another Georgian who had justified his country’s reputation of providing extremely warm welcomes.
Me with Giorgi Javakhishvili, the friendly station master at Gori

[1] Although not Tbilisi whose metro system was built much later and is, alas, quite bland. See ‘Across Asia with a Lowlander’ for my thoughts on the Moscow and Tashkent systems.
[2] The same too, it must be said, with fascist regimes. See my comments on the Olympic Stadium in Berlin on page 23 of ‘Travels at the start of 2007’.
[3] To this date however, only four countries have recognised the two breakaway republics as independent countries. Aside from Russia, these are Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. It seems that the declaration of Kosovan independence was the inspiration behind the move but without Western backers (like Kosovo has) international recognition was always going to be unlikely.
[4] See ‘Albanian Excursions’ p. 48
[5] I’d been mistakenly assumed to be Polish on several occasions with my white skin and execrable Russian.
[6] Calendar 1917-1947: Thirty Years of the Soviet State, frontspiece
[7] See ‘Across Asia with a Lowlander’

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