There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Uplistsikhe and Gori, Cave Dwellings and Stalin: Part 10 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

In the morning we retraced our steps southwards down the Aragvi Valley. We were leaving the mountains, but only temporarily - in two days’ time we would return - but on the other side of South Ossetia. We were going round this mountainous and sparsely populated region partly because there are no good roads across it, but more importantly because it is no longer de facto part of Georgia. Prompted by Russia, it seceded in 1990 and now considers itself an independent country.

Our Journey so far
Reaching the southern end of South Ossetia we turned west, followed the valley of the River Mtkvari and soon reached Uplistsikhe. On a rocky bluff across the river from the rather down-at-heal modern village is an ancient cave city.

Uplistsikhe across the Tiver Mtkvari
Established in the sixth century BC Uplistsikhe became the major pre-Christian religious centre of Kartli (Eastern Georgia), but lost importance when Christianity arrived in the 4th century. When Tbilisi was taken by the Arabs in 645 and became the capital of an Islamic Caliphate, Uplistkhe returned to prominence as the stronghold of the Christian kings of Kartli.

At its peak the cave city had a population of 20,000 but after King David the Builder took Tbilisi and united most of Georgia under a Christian monarchy it went into decline. The end came when Timur (Tamburlaine) and his Mongol hordes paid a visit in the fourteenth century.

Wildlife, Uplistsikhe
The dwellings, palaces and temples were deserted and over the centuries seismic activity caused many of the roofs to fall in and the walls to crumble. When archaeologists arrived in the 1950s only the tops of a few caves were visible among the rubble.

As we clambered over the rocks and visited the various caves labelled as halls, palaces or temples I found myself struggling to recreate the city in my mind's eye. The labels all seemed quite definite, though they are of course speculative. Evidence exists to suggest certain caves were temples or palaces, there are marks of burning on the roofs to show where hearths once were, and in some halls it was clear that the stone roof had been carefully decorated....

A temple (possibly) with a decorated roof, Uplistsikhe

 or laboriously carved and polished to look like wooden beams.

Hall with stone roof carved to look like beams, Uplistsikhe

The Blackberry Hall was well enough named, a large bramble hung from the remains of the roof, but the ‘Apothecary' seems a stab in the dark.
Apothecary, Uplistsikhe
The most modern building, indeed the only real ‘building,’ is the tenth century Prince's Church which was built over an earlier pagan religious site at the highest point of the city.

The Prince's Church, Uplistsike

We finished by descending a tunnel that took us from the defensive heights down to the riverside. It was unlit though easy enough to descend by the modern stairs; how the original inhabitants copied I have no idea.

Tunnel down to the riverside, Uplistsikhe
Back at the entrance we had a look round the museum, which we would have done first had it not opened late. A brief film showed how the city might have been, but despite the computer graphics the place stubbornly refused to come alive for me. Lynne did not have this problem, so it must be my failure of imagination.
Uplistsikhe overlooks the Mykvari River and much arid countryside
From Uplistsikhe we drove 10km to Gori, the birthplace and childhood home of Josef Stalin. Our route almost touched the South Ossetian border and we could see the hills, fields and Russian communication systems of this make-believe country.

Beyond the Caucasus, North Ossetia had been part of the Russian Federation since 1806. There were a few Osset settlements south of the mountains in the 17th century, but many South Ossetians migrated from the north during the 19th and 20th centuries. According to Dinara they were well integrated into Georgian society and several generations of intermarriage had weakened the Osset identity. The Georgian view is that the Russians stirred up their dormant nationalism and then used that as an excuse to move in 'to protect the Ossets from Georgian oppression.' They did the same in Abkhazia, Georgia's northwest province along the Black Sea. It is the same tactic, Dinara observed, that Vladimir Putin has used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and indeed that Hitler used to annex the Sudetenland in 1938.

Map of Georgia showing South Ossetia and Abkhazia
In 2008 Georgia started a misguided war to get South Ossetia back; a Russian-Georgian war could only ever have one winner. Gori was shelled, cluster bombs were dropped (the Russians deny this but unexploded bomblets are still regularly found)* and it was occupied for ten days.  As a teenager Dinara had travelled from the Black Sea coast to be with her family in Tbilisi and had seen Gori burning as she passed on the main road.

Lynne and I were born in 1950 and like most of our generation were brought up by parents who talked (sometimes incessantly) about their wartime experiences, but we have been blessed by having no direct experience of warfare. Dinara told us calmly about what she had seen and although she did not believe she had been in any imminent danger, it was unnerving to hear experiences of a war that was so recent and from one who was still so young.

The population of South Ossetia, 100,000 in 1989, has halved and left Georgia with a refugee problem - added to by similar events in Abkazia. The road into Gori was lined with houses reminiscent of our post-war prefabs which I remember surviving into the seventies and even eighties. These were the dwellings of Georgian refugees.
Refugees houses, Gori

Our first brush with Gori was brief – we no sooner arrived than we drove five kilometres out of town to Dinara's restaurant of choice. We sat in the shade in a large courtyard, watched fish swim round a pond and ordered a veal kebab. The spreads laid on when food is pre-ordered are memorable, but we had eaten two such feasts yesterday and were glad to be in control of the menu and able to order a light meal. Even the greatest trencherman needs an occasional rest and another feast was promised at our guesthouse that evening.

Back in Gori we drove past Stalin Square and down Stalin Avenue to the Stalin museum.
Central Gori - modern(ish) and a bit dull
Stalin is a problematic figure to the whole of the former Soviet Union, not just Georgia. Born Josif Dzhugashvili in 1878, the son of a Gori cobbler, he ruled the world's largest country for a quarter of a century, turning the USSR from a rural backwater into an economic powerhouse - as Churchill said 'taking it with the plough and leaving it with nuclear weapons'. Even those of us who prefer the idea of beating swords into plough shares have to acknowledge that under his leadership the Soviet Union played arguably the most important role in the defeat of fascism (though they had that role forced upon them when Hitler’s invasion unilaterally brought the Molotov-Ribentrop non-aggression pact to its end.)

And, of course, Stalin was a psychopathic mass murderer. He imprisoned his opponents, real and imaginary, in a vast archipelago of gulags and in Yekaterinburg we saw a mass grave of some 30,000 victims of Stalin's purges. 7 million more died in the 1932 Ukraine famine, for which he bears the main responsibility, and his secret police terrorised large parts of the population.
Lynne in Russia at the memorial to 30,000 murdered on Stalin's orders,
Yekaterinburg 2007
Although Khrushchev denounced Stalin and Stalinism in the 1950s it is not difficult to find devotees of Stalin among older people in Russia today. In Georgia the situation is even more complex. They resent the Russian denomination that the Soviet Union brought, and most Georgians are only too aware of his faults, but still he was a native son of Georgia.

The last statue of Stalin in the whole of the former USSR stood outside the Gori museum and stayed there long after independence and long after Georgia had abandoned everything that Stalin stood for. It was removed in 2010, but even then the authorities thought it best to do the deed at night.

Stalin Museum, Gori
We were shown round the museum (along with a lone German student) by a woman in her late sixties - it is impossible to visit any museum in Georgia without being given a guided tour. She might (Dinara suggested) have been of Russian origin, but she was certainly an unreconstructed Stalin fan. It was a swift tour and she seemed to be reciting a script as we whizzed through Stalin's early life in Gori and later in Tbilisi where he trained for the priesthood but was expelled from the seminary for political activity.

And that was where the history stopped. We saw an exhibition of some of the gifts he received, shades of North Korea, some of them with less than compelling connections to the despot. A musician’s organisation presented him with an accordion but, as our guide told us, Stalin did not play the accordion so he passed it straight on to the museum where it is labelled 'Stalin's Accordion' though he may only have looked at it from a distance.

Lynne and Uncle Joe
At least we were not expected to bow!
She mentioned nothing that might bring discredit to the great man's name. We were not shown Lenin’s letter warning the politburo that after his death they should under no circumstances let this psychopath get his hands on the levers of power. Near the end there were some much more recent colour photos of destruction and rubble. ‘What is that?’ asked the German student. ‘2008,’ said the guide without elaborating and moving swiftly on. Dinara contained her amazement at the whole show, but did some serious head shaking later.

In the square opposite we saw the simple nineteenth century worker’s cottage where Stalin was born.

The house where Stalin was born, Gori
It stands alone, all the neighbouring properties, like most of Gori's buildings from that period, having been demolished as the town has modernised. It was reminiscent of Kim Il Sun's house, though without the parkland setting.

Inside the house where Stalin was born
Again like, Kim, we saw Stalin's private train,...

Lynne boards Stalin's private train, Gori
..... but unlike in North Korea we were able to get on it and walk the length of the carriage.

Stalin's private train, Gori
There was childish glee in the way Lynne photographed his private toilet.

Stalin's private bathroom on his private train, Gori

Leaving Gori we drove on to Kutaisi, Georgia's second city. The drive was scary, the two lane road was busy and Alex's overtaking was aggressive to say the least. The big BMW had immense acceleration which he relied upon to keep out of trouble. Unfortunately other drivers seemed equally aggressive but few were as well equipped. Back in Azerbaijan our driver Togrul had merely raised his eyebrows when discussing Georgian driving standards. I was beginning to understand his meaning.
Honey bread on sale by the roadside, Kutaisi

Nearing Kutaisi the road was lined with stalls selling something we did not recognise. 'Honey bread,' Dinara told us. We stopped to look at one of the stall-holder’s ovens and bought a loaf. It was delicious.

Honey bread production near Kutaisi
Kutaisi does not present its best face to those arriving from the east. We entered the city through an area of post-industrial dereliction. We had seen the same in Armenia ten years earlier and for the same reason - the Soviet Union deliberately placed parts of complex industrial processes in outlying republics, but never the whole process, so at independence they found they had either lost their suppliers or their market.

We found our guesthouse in the old part of the city which sits on a hill, the large balcony giving a good view over the newer parts that have colonised the valley below. At dinner, as expected, every inch of the table was covered in goodies and despite serious work, ably assisted by Dinara and Alex, we were able to see off only a small proportion of what was on offer. We ate cucumber and tomato salad, rice and vegetables, aubergine purée with walnuts, mushrooms with dill, vegetable soup, chicken pieces, pork with a walnut and garlic sauce, homemade burgers and finally, watermelon. We also enjoyed a litre of 'homemade' white wine – as brown and oxidized as always.

We shared the guesthouse with a group from Dragoman Travel whose leader gave them careful instructions for their arrival in Turkey the next day. I spoke to him the next morning, he had picked up what he called 'the truck' (and it was much more of a truck than a coach) in Malaysia and driven it to Beijing where the tour started. Some of his clients had travelled the whole length of the Silk Road with him and would stay until the end in Istanbul while others had joined for just a section of the journey.

*Appalling as this is, it is a drop in the ocean compared with the American cluster bombing of Laos in the 1960s and 70s which has left tens of millions of unexploded bomblets that are still killing peasant farmers (and their children) today. See Phonsavon, The Plain of Jars and Unexploded Ordnance.

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