Monday the 7th we headed out for a road trip with the two other Kiwis staying in the Hostel. The target- the bleak industrial city of Gori. Why go to Gori you ask? The Stalin Museum.
The moment we entered the vast marble edifice we knew we were in for an experience. The woman who stamped our tickets had the classic brusque soviet style, and the whole place felt like you had stepped back in time 30 or 40 years. There was an english speaking guide, so we got the tour.
Where else in the world can you go to a museum lovingly dedicated to an evil madman? Surreal, to say the least.
The guide was clearly following a script, though we heard later that if you speak Russian, you can often get the guide to go off-script, and admit that things were not all great during the Stalin years.
Who knew Stalin had a beautiful singing voice, or that he got a scholarship to a good high school because of it? Apparently the “Stalin” nickname came from his boyhood. I liked the photo of him as a 20-something revolutionary. I have seen plenty of other kids that age with a similar look- thankfully most have not (yet) grown in evil madmen.
The guide did well at glossing over the purges and starvations, and put nice spin on the letter written by Lenin that stated that Stalin should not be the next leader.
I love the irony that they bulldozed the entire neighborhood around Stalin’s birthplace (preserved in front of the museum) evicting thousand of workers so they could build the museum. Communism in a nutshell, there.
After lunch [Scott and Charlotte were rather over khachapuri by now. The music in the cafe was incredibly loud, and whatever Stephen ordered never did arrive, so he ended up eating bits of everyone else’s lunch. It was, as far as we could see, the only eatery in town, near the old Intourist Hotel. We admired the bullet holes still to be seen in several of the buildings from when Russian tanks had rolled through in 2008. We hadn’t realized how close the Russians had gotten to Tbilisi. I wonder who it was in the Russian chain of command who made the decision not to just roll the last few miles to the capital. -T] we climbed up the hill in the middle of town to visit to fortress. Nice set of walls, and the small sign in English mentioned that Pompey besieged the place. Those Romans really got around.
[It’s a great fort for climbing around, and totally missed by the guidebooks. We made the “mistake” of trying to exit via a different route than the one we came in by, and ended up on something of an odyssey of exploration, picking our way down through successive layers and rings of walls. The metal staircase at one point gave us hope, but on reflection, the way the trail got gradually more and more overgrown (with sharp-thorned wild roses) should have been a clue. And Charlotte, being the quintessential Kiwi, was picking her way along in jandals/flip-flops. The last chamber was a roofless round tower with something like a path around the inside wall where the floor joists probably used to be, completely choked with weeds and roses. There was a tiny little chapel that still had a functioning roof and inside I could see who had kept what little path there was cleared: it was a chapel, so naturally people came and left votive candles, and little prayer cards and the like. I wondered about who came here, whose secret this was.
The next onion layer up, Scott elected to squeeze himself out of a hole in the wall that as far as we could tell only animals and the occasional flash flood used. The rest of us picked our way carefully back up and out the way we’d come in, then met back up with him outside, farther back around the wall. The place he’d managed to get himself down the rock was conveniently close to the taxi stand. -T]
That afternoon we got a cab out to Uplistsikhe. This was a huge underground city which dated back nearly 3000 years, carved from sandstone. The underground bits were for the nobles (and housed about 1000 people), there was a more conventional surface city attached back when it was inhabited.
Apparently the Mongols wrecked the place, and it had not been inhabited since the 13th centruy. It was quite [Well, accounts seem to differ. -T.] intact until the 20th century, then in 1920 there was a vast earthquake (~9) under the site, and it all fell down. The weather eroded much away, and now few rooms remain. It was still quite nifty. I like how in some chambers they carved the roof so that it appeared as though there were wooden beams.
Our guide was a nice fellow. He was named after Stalin, as his grandpa had been a personal friend. He was commenting on the many varieties of grapes he personally grows, and all the wine he makes. A mind-boggling array of grape varieties in Georgia, and they say they lost many more under Ottoman rule. Home of the grape, perhaps. [The latest studies would seem to suggest so. Digs have turned up amphorae with dried lees that are of a species mid-way between wild and domestic grapes, and linguistic evidence suggests the Latin root vin may actually be borrowed from the Georgian root word. I remember learning in Classics how Dionysus, god of wine, was presented in the earliest sources as being a foreigner from the East.
After Uplistsikhe, we had another short excursion — the cabbie pausing occasionally for directions — to Ateni Sioni, a lovely little 7th century church recommended for its recently restored frescoes. As much an attraction was the beautiful, lush little valley it sat at the head of, and the vine-decked village arrayed along its flanks — a welcome antidote to the gray blockiness of Gori. The frescoes were, in fact, stunning. The caretaker unlocked the place so we could go in, and allowed Scott to shine his flashlight into the dimmer corners, so we could get a better look. It’s a queer sort of feeling: I’ve seen photos of so many of these places in books and on the web, but when you’re the only foreigner for miles and the man is opening the place up for you special, it feel like you’re at the end of the earth, discovering new and secret worlds for the first time. -T]
The Marshrutka ride to and from Gori involved much older, and much more mechanically exciting busses. Do you want the one that vents exhaust into the passenger cabin, or the one that can’t get above 3rd gear with the gear box howling in protest? Tough choice. [Between Tbilisi and Gori we pass huge tracts of little identical box houses, each with a tiny garden plot, plonked down with nary a tree in what used to be farmland. We’re guessing these are for refugees. -T]
The next day (Tuesday the 8th) we left Rover Hostel and Tbilisi behind, boarded a Marshrutka, and headed for Akhaltsikhe, the stepping off point for Vardzia. [Observant readers may note that “Uplistsikhe” and “Akhaltsikhe” share a couple of syllables. Congratulations: You have just learned the Georgian word for “fort” — “tsikhe”. Uplistsikhe is the Fortress of the Sun(god) (Georgian pagans were serious sun-worshippers), and Akhaltsikhe more or less reads as “Newcastle”. “New” in the 12th century, anyway. The fort we clamber around in at Gori ? Goris-tsikhe. -T]
From the (tiny) bus stop, we caught a cab to the hotel “White House”, we needed a cab; could not have found the place otherwise. Like many other places, Akhaltsikhe was also in the process of renovations the cleaning up the town center. That cabbie ended up pissing us off a bit. Too pushy. [Although the guy we ended up stuck with was too pushy (to the point that the other cabbies were rolling their eyes at him), I was nonetheless charmed by the swarm of guys all trying to figure out where we wanted to go. We discovered later that were were pretty much the only tourists in town, at all. At least, until the one Swede turned up. -T]
We managed to get checked into the hotel, though there was a great deal of confusion, as the host spoke only Russian, and spoke far too quickly for us to keep up.
First visit was the castle and museum on the far side of the river. Thankfully there was an English-speaking guide, which let us get much more from the quite extensive museum. [There was some more confusion with the cabbie here, as we got dropped off before we’d managed to find anything to eat, and thus had a fabulous three-hour tour of the museum while absoutely falling down starving. -T]
Some interesting things we learned:
-In ancient times the Sun was the Goddess, and the Moon a male figure. Stars were the children.
-There are 5 million Georgian-speakers in Eastern Turkey, as the border has shifted back and forth.
-The town became a Russian military town when it was captured in 1830 (at the time the Muslims were expelled), and remained a closed military town until 1972!
-Some Georgian Muslims hid crosses in the artwork of their house decorations.
-The ruling family [the wily Jakelis. – T] stayed in charge under the Turks. They were very adept at switching sides and religions as necessary. [One of the sources I read indicated that they actually asked permission of the Georgian monarch to surrender to the Turks, and were granted it so that they could stay in place and protect their people. -T]
-The Mosque built in the castle was specially designed by its Italian architect so it could be easily converted back to a church (see ruling family above)
There was also a BP-sponsored exhibit. The Pipeline from Baku runs through Georgia, and a whole bunch of archaeology got done during the construction.
During our afternoon break in the hotel room we discovered that one of the beds was full of clothes-moths. Apparently they are part-stuffed with wool. Time to find the cheerful hotel manager who shifted us to a new room. [Image: Me, gormless Western tourist, padding down the steps to the lobby clutching a slender phrasebook, and insistently repeating the word “insect, insect” in some vague approximation of Georgian. I’m sure you can picture the baffled and possibly alarmed look on the manager’s face. The wool-stuffed mattresses — the non-buggy ones that is — were *really* comfy, though. -T]
[A random interesting thing about Akhaltsikhe — they do this fancy tin-work on thier spouting. Really neat ! -T]
When taking an afternoon stroll down a town street this fellow ran up and in broken english asked for help… of the computer kind.
Seems they had acquired an old printer-plotter for cutting vinyl (sign-writing), and were getting error messages on the computer they could not understand. Tam battled valiantly against the problem. Internet connection and google might have helped. The provided us with strong coffee as we worked, which we drank out of courtesy (and it was surprisingly nice and not bitter). In the end Tam was pretty sure it was a hardware/cable/communications problem. Too bad we could not fix it, but they were very happy for our efforts. Just doing our bit for international public relations in a remote town in Georgia.
[I mentioned we were the only tourists in town — we stood out. They had these error boxes popping up in English, and of course the manual that came wiith the software that ran the plotter was in Engrish. And occasionally the operating system (Windows 97, I think) would occasionally toss out an opinion in Russian. They had the thing plugged into the COM1 port, because the USB and LPT ports on the old desktop weren’t working. I’m not convinced the COM1 port worked, either, but there was no other hardware I could swap out. I was going to Google the manufacturer and see if I could find any troubleshooting posts on a forum somewhere, but their internet connection punked out. I could at least tell them that messages that were popping up had to do with image settings, and not the plotter connection. And the Turkish coffee was surprisingly palatable. -T]
That evening we walked along the river, it didn’t take long at all to get out of town. Seeing how people were dumping their garbage straight into the river was not so nice, though. [It was really depressing, actually. I keep telling myself that the US was no better not that long ago — remember the “Crying Indian” TV spots ? -T]
The next morning (Wednesday the 9th) we noticed the cistern in the hotel bathroom had stopped filling. The manager told us (through gestures as much as language) to use one in another room, but that one seemed to have issues too. The hotel was also losing power on and off. We discovered later that 10 years ago all of Georgia was like this [much worse, actually -T], but the White House hotel provided a little glimmer of those old soviet-era sucky infrastructures problems they were trying so hard to fix.
That day we took a cab out to Vardzia. The long drive meant a somewhat pricy cab, but we had a good driver, so no real complaints. The land east of Akhaltsikhe opened up at first, before closing into ever tighter and narrower gorges. We paralleled the brown and “perky” river, with occasional swing bridges linking the two sides. The river might be fordable in the dry season, but I would not want to try it now.
About half way there we passed the first fortress, with rounded towers. Khertvisi Fortress. The story for this one was that master and apprentice stone masons competed in tower building. When the master lost he threw himself from the walls and was impaled on his belt knife.
A few kilometers from Vardzia we passed the “near impregnable” Tmogvi Castle, and I must concur with the description. We couldn’t find a place to stop and take a photo that would do it justice, perched atop a sheer cliff above a raging river on a peak that totally dominated the gorge.
Vardzia was quite dramatic when it came into view, a huge structure. When first built it was a hidden monastery/fortress, but a series of earthquakes caused the front of the mount to shear off, destroying most of the 800 chambers, and exposing many of the rest. This left lots of “stairs to nowhere” with phantom sets of stairs clinging to the side of a mountain. [It was like an Escher etching, or an opened dolls house, or an antfarm — a two-dimensional vertical town. *Awesome* fun to climb around on. I really wonder what it was like before the front of it fell off, when the rooms were whole and there was proper Inside and Outside. We did get to climb up this long, long tunnel that went up insdie a couple of stories behind and above the church. Glad we brought flashlights! -T]
They really should have consulted with a geotechnical engineer before building such a fortress into the side of an unstable mountain!
At its peak the complex housed 3000 monks. It finally fell to the Turks in no-doubt dramatic tunnel fighting. It is an (small) operating Monastery again.
[In the church. This is *the* fresco of Queen Tamar, with her father King Giorgi. I include the second photo at a wider angle, because they so rarely let us take photos inside the churches, and this gives you an idea of how they covered every square foot in art. –T]
(I noticed the internally displaced people were allowed into Vardzia- and presumably all other museums- for free. They might have been the beggars we ran into within.)
I really liked Vardzia. The size, scale, and location were all amazing. The Basilica had lovely (and very famous!) frescos. We also ran into a nice Czech tourist there. He told us how eastern Turkey was like this, withvery few western amenities. Most everyone else we saw at Vardzia was clearly local Georgians on holiday.
That evening we took a walk out of the Rabati (old town), and out along the rural road west of town. A little dog followed us the whole way, only splitting off when we got back to town. This was the first of many “tourist service” dogs we would run into during our trip.
Back in town we ran into another tourist! And boy, was he glad to see us. A nice Swede with a stammer, he knew no Russian or Georgian and was having a heck of a time communicating. We went into what looked like a restaurant (the one with the wagon wheel out front). It was a restaurant, but they had no menus! We communicated our hunger to the three very charmed women who ran the place, and they brought us a variety of yummy foods until we told them to stop. A great dinner. A great final evening in the little town of Akhaltsikhe.
You’ve all mastered the pronunciation of Akhaltsikhe by now, right?