2012 - Georgia

21st – 25th August 2012

 

Tuesday 21st August

Having walked across the river bridge from Armenia, we were met by our new guide Elisa (Eleesa) and the driver of our small coach (for 30 people?) and continued to the capital, Tbilisi.

A journey of about 1½ hours gave time for Elisa, again fairly “Soviet” in style, to give us basic facts about Georgia.  We were intrigued that she referred to us as being “independent travellers” and therefore we would ultimately determine what we saw and at what pace!

We quickly formed the opinion that this was a much wealthier country than Armenia – indeed, Elisa referred to the whole of Georgia being a building site.  Just in passing on another occasion she said that all mini-buses and buses were “new last year”.  No other explanation was given!  We learned that the wealth came from hydro-electric power, gold, silver and very pure manganese.  Initially we travelled through an agricultural region and Elisa told us that this is an area with a good climate and soil.  Consequently they have 2 harvests a year.  This area is fruit and vegetables.  There are some sub-tropical areas.  Indeed, the very name Georgia comes from the Greek meaning people working on the land (“Geo”).  The population of the country is 4.5m. of whom 1.5m. live in Tbilisi.  It has been a nation for 3,000 years although Elisa said there were 80 nationalities of whom Russians were 5.5% and Armenians 7%.

The comment about a building site certainly seemed to be the case as we entered the centre of Tbilisi.  Although there were the depressing rows of Soviet era flats (and indeed many others built in 1997) and also derelict factories, there were also many smart new buildings and signs of further road construction.  We also noticed throughout this journey and our whole time in Georgia that there was a high police car presence and numerous striking, new glass buildings which proclaimed in large letters that they belonged to the Police.

The traditional houses of Georgia have wide balconies to reduce the impact of the heat.  In fact throughout our time in Georgia the temperatures were in the more comfortable 20s C rather than the 30s that we had experienced in Armenia.  The houses appear more varied in style and size than in Armenia.  They are still mainly small, single storey in stone or rendered and often with wrought iron.  They all seemed to have corrugated iron roofs.

Although we had already done a fair bit of travelling, we immediately went to the Georgian National Museum.  Taking Elisa at her word about independence, we broke away from her talk and went to the second floor where there was an exhibition on the period of Soviet occupation.  It was apparent that they had not been treated well and it was not surprising that Georgia has decided to throw in its lot with Europe rather than Russia.  We saw a quote from the head of the government in 1921(!) that the Bolsheviks had offered a military alliance that they had rejected.  It said that they should instead look to the West and the prospect of becoming a contemporary European nation.  Instead Russia took over and in the years 1921 – 1926 wiped out the aristocracy, intelligentsia and rulers of the country.  In 1942 125,000 were shot and 190,000 deported. 

After the museum we were let loose with a few suggested places for lunch.  We played relatively safe and headed for a small cafe in a bookshop behind the British Consulate for a coffee and cake.

The city dates back to the 5th century and is centred on the river and its gorge and it is surrounded by mountains.

Following lunch we were taken to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, built between 1997 and 2004 to a very impressive but traditional standard by private donations, in particular by two oligarchs!  Vast sums must have been thrown at this building, complete with its gold roof lantern.  It is built in the style of the Golden Period of Georgia and is soon to have frescoes painted and further icons added.

We had also noticed the smart President’s residence with a glass dome.  Apparently there had been a severe earthquake in 2002 and much of the 17th century housing with its balconies was damaged.  Further clearance in this area is intended.  We also noticed the Dept of Justice which was under construction beside the river and comprises a tall, glass building with a multitude of mushroom shapes for its roof.

By contrast we next stopped at Metechi Church, built 1278 – 84. It had been used as a theatre in Soviet times, when only 48 of the 5,000 churches were functioning.   From outside we looked across the Kura River valley, in which much of Tbilisi is built, towards the other side where on Sololaki Hill we were to visit the statue of Mother Georgia (a  Soviet image adopted in various forms in all Soviet countries) and also an old church - both close to the old fortress of Narikala. The fortress dates back to the 4th century but most of what we see now dates from the 16th and 17th.  To get there we took the newly opened cable car.  We still found that crossing the road to get to the cable car station was a frightening experience and no vehicles slow or give any ground to mere pedestrians.

Again we were let loose for photos and then we walked through a restored area of cafes and shops, with Elisa commenting on some of the buildings which had been factories and even a caravanserai, built as late as 1912!  Passing a carpet shop we decided on impulse to buy a red and cream hand made Persian style rug.

Then we set off for the Holiday Inn, a smart 4* hotel about 10minutes drive away.  That would be our home for each night in Georgia except for the following day.

 

Wednesday
Our departure was at 8.30 as we set off to visit Jvari Church and 11th century Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta.  Initially there were the Soviet blocks of flats and then the open countryside.   Jvari Monastery stands on the rocky mountaintop at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi rivers, overlooking the town of Mtskheta, which was formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia. According to traditional accounts, on this location in the early 4th century St Nino, a female evangelist credited with converting King Mirian III of Iberia to Christianity, erected a large wooden cross on the site of a pagan temple. The cross was reportedly able to work miracles and therefore drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus. A small church was erected over the remnants of the wooden cross in c.545 named the "Small Church of Jvari". 

The present building, or "Great Church of Jvari", is generally held to have been built between 590 and 605 by Erismtavari Stepanoz I. This is based on an inscription on its facade which mentions the principal builders of the church.  It was the first church in Armenia with a cupola.

We could see below us the ancient capital of Mtskheta, but when we arrived there we were disappointed that the town which had been the capital from the 3rd century BC until the 5th century was now fully “restored” and looked like a rather fine Disneyworld set.  The cathedral included (apparently) included parts of the 5th century church.   

From here we travelled on the road to the Black Sea and the Turkish Border and then along the Georgian Military Highway.  This 160km road to Russia dates from the 19th century .

We headed up into the wooded mountains along a wide valley, passing a lake created in 1983 to act as a reservoir for Tbilisi.  Three or four villages were drowned in the process.  This took us to within 40km of Chechnya, well known to us through decades of rebellion against Russian rule.  We also passed the Russian gas pipeline.  We had heard how both Armenia and Georgia had been cut off for supplies from Russia for a 10 year period.  The many overland pipes that lined the roads were built for a “temporary” supply from elsewhere!

Periodically we passed stone watch towers used for beacon warnings of invasion.  These date from the 16/17th centuries.   

Elisa suggested we walk over the bridge to Ananuri as we would get the best photos.  This was the site of another church and a fort.  Ananuri was a castle and seat of the Eristavis (Dukes) of Aragvi, a feudal dynasty which ruled the area from the 13th century. The castle was the scene of numerous battles and now adorns the front cover of the Lonely Planet guide to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan!

The fortress remained in use until the beginning of the 19th century.  In 2007, the complex was put on the tentative list for inclusion into the UNESCO World Heritage Site program.

The fortifications consist of two castles joined by a crenulated curtain wall. The upper fortification with a large square tower, known as Sheupovari, is well preserved. The lower fortification, with a round tower, is mostly in ruins.

Within the complex, amongst other buildings, are two churches. The older Church of the Virgin, which abuts a tall square tower, has the graves of some of the Dukes of Aragvi. It dates from the first half of the 17th century, and is built of brick. The interior is no longer decorated.  The larger Church of the Assumption (Ghvtismshobeli), was built in 1689.  It is a central dome-style structure with richly decorated facades, including a carved north entrance and a carved grapevine cross on the south façade.  It also contains the remains of a number of frescoes, most of which were destroyed by the fire in the 18th century.

Driving on we then had lunch as a group of 6 or 8 in a small family run inn at Pasanuri (£3 for our drinks and cheese in dough for 2 – rather like a pizza).

Fairly soon we took a mountain road with numerous hair-pin bends up to a ski-resort, Gudauri, to which we would return for our night’s hotel.  The road became unmade and we continued for 22 km on one of the craziest roads we have ever travelled.  This mountain pass goes up to 2,400 metres and is narrow, full of rocks and potholes .  Parts were at one time surfaced but the rest appeared totally unmade.  It was also busy!  It is apparently used by people travelling from Russia to the Black Sea – some were fancy new 4 wheel drive vehicles but many were simply ordinary and often old saloon cars.  We were jolted and jarred for a long while and the coach appeared to develop a suspension problem as on the return we travelled much more slowly and the coach swayed from back to front on each pothole. 

We arrived at Stepantsminda (formerly Kasbeki)  which is a town serving outdoor pursuits and having a population of 3,000.  There we were given a choice:

·         1) A  2 hour (more like 3 or 4) walk up 500m to another church.  We were told that it has a good view of the town”!

·         2) Alternatively, we could take 4 wheel drive vehicles at our own expense. 

Both choices were entirely unrealistic as the time was already about 4.00 p.m!  We unanimously decided that the driver should have a 45 minute break while we walked around the small, uninteresting town, and then we would head back over the same crazy road to our hotel. 

There were several tunnels beside the road.  These are used in winter to offer escape from the snow – but only for a few hundred yards.  All very bizarre.

On the return journey we stopped at a minute cemetery of German soldiers who died working on the Georgian Military Highway in the 1950s.  We then stopped at a grandiose semi-circular stone monument with mosaics on the walls, built in 1983 to celebrate the friendship of Russia and Georgia.  Like that friendship, it was sadly decayed.

Our hotel in Gudauri  was the 4-star Hotel Marco Polo.  One small German group was staying also, but otherwise this sad, and tired looking hotel was empty.

 

Thursday
This was another long day, but was quite different.  We were to explore the Kartli province, which sits in the heart of the country and is known for its fertile land.  We had a 220km drive to Gori. 

At first we retraced our steps of the previous day through magnificent mountain scenery.  We then joined the road from the Black Sea to Turkey which was a new 2-lane dual carriageway through a more agricultural valley.  We were reminded of Georgia’s troubles as we passed UN /EU refugee settlements.  These were proper, but small, houses with allotment back gardens and had been built in 2008 for refugees from South Ossetia. 

The 2008 South Ossetia War or Russo-Georgian War (also known in Russia as the Five-Day War) was an armed conflict in August 2008 between Georgia on one side, and Russia and the separatist governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other.

The 1991–1992 South Ossetia War between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians had left slightly more than a half of South Ossetia under de-facto control of a Russian-backed internationally unrecognised government.  Most ethnic Georgian parts of South Ossetia remained under the control of Georgia (Akhalgori district, and most villages surrounding Tskhinvali), with Georgian, North Ossetian and Russian Joint peacekeeping force present in the territories. A similar situation existed in Abkhazia after the War in Abkhazia (1992–1993). Increasing tensions escalated during the summer months of 2008. On August 5th, Russia officially decided to defend South Ossetia.

During the night of 7 to 8 August 2008, Georgia launched a large-scale military offensive against South Ossetia, in an attempt to reclaim the territory. Georgia claimed that it was responding to attacks on its peacekeepers and villages in South Ossetia, and that Russia was moving non-peacekeeping units into the country. The Georgian attack caused casualties among Russian peacekeepers, who resisted the assault along with Ossetian militia. Georgia successfully captured most of Tskhinvali within hours. Russia reacted by deploying units of the Russian 58th Army and Russian Airborne Troops in South Ossetia, and launching airstrikes against Georgian forces in South Ossetia and military and logistical targets in Georgia proper. Russia claimed these actions were a necessary humanitarian intervention and peace enforcement.  Russia ended up in control and threatening Tbilisis itself.  It remains in occupation of South Ossetia.

After about three hours’ journey we stopped at the ancient cave town of Uplistsikhe, about 10 km beyond Gori.  This remarkable complex of cave dwellings housed up to 20,000 people over a period from the early Iron Age to the Mongol raids in the 14th century.  Uplistsikhe is identified by archaeologists as one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia. Strategically located in the heartland of the ancient kingdom of Kartli (or Iberia as it was known to the Classical authors), it emerged as a major political and religious centre of the country. 

There is little “health and safety” in either Armenia or Georgia and we scrambled over the rocks to an assortment of caves and a small church.

After a brief stop for lunch in Gori, we visited, of all things, the Museum of Stalin.  Stalin was born in Gori and this museum is built behind the single roomed house where he was born, and next to the railway carriage that took him everywhere – apparently he did not fly, The museum was opened in 1957.  Our tour by a young woman followed the pattern used in Soviet times.  It was more a life history than a glorification of his “great achievements”.  At the end there was a small section dealing with the millions who were killed by him.  Two interesting facts emerged for Adrian.  Firstly Stalin suffered exile in about 1909.  Secondly, his son was captured as a soldier by the Germans.  Stalin declined an offer to do a deal for his return saying how could he do this unless he did the same for everyone else.  This either shows heroism or callousness.  His son was therefore shot by the Germans.

 We returned to Tbilisi around 4.30 p.m. enabling us to visit the bath house area.  These structures date back mostly to the 17th century and appear as a group of brick domes.  Some remain in use today and use natural warm sulphurous water from the springs that attracted the original settlement of the city.  The very name Tbilisi means “warm”. 

 

Friday
Our main visit today was to the David Gareja complex, located in semi-desert near the border with Azerbaijan - about a 2 ½ hour drive away.  This involved a day from 8.45am until about 6pm.

Once more we traversed mountain roads, practically deserted, with broken up surfaces and for the last 5km unmade. En route and in a remote mountain area of rolling grassland we passed a largely deserted village – Udabno (which indeed means “desert”).  Built complete with school etc in 1983-5 for 1,000 people from the mountains of NW Georgia , the majority of people have now left and only about 200 are left.

The road ended at the very remote David Gareja monastic complex dating back to the 6th century and originally based in some small caves within the site.  There are men working everywhere to improve visitor facilities (when we went, there were none – not even a toilet!) There are also armed Georgian soldiers. The site is still an active monastery although there were a few other visitors there.  We entered the church with some very striking frescoes.

Before heading home we visited  Sighnaghi for a walking tour of its narrow streets, enclosed within a defensive wall consisting of 23 towers.  This again was a disappointment as it appeared newly built – another “restoration” job.

In the evening we prepared for our 2.00 a.m. wake up call and 2.45 a.m. hotel departure.  

 

Saturday  
All credit to our guide and driver who accompanied us to the airport at 2.45am!

Our early morning return flight from Tbilisi to London Heathrow, via Baku (Azerbaijan) proved more memorable than we might have wished as whilst on the tarmac at Baku, Azerbaijan for our allotted 45 minutes, Adrian suddenly felt a deep stomach pain and, standing up, collapsed.  The crew were very attentive (thank you Sarah – crew and nurse and also Eric, a G.P. from our trip who offered very useful help!)  Supplied with a succession of sick bags and with oxygen, Adrian survived and slept much of the remaining 5 hours of the journey.  What he did not know was that Jill was suffering similarly but with diarrhoea.  We made a slow journey home by car to Devizes and then spent the next  4 - 5 days recovering.  At the time of writing (5 days later) Jill is not yet back to normal and is just beginning to slightly widen what she can eat.

 

History:
Georgia was invaded by Pompei in 65 A.D., by the Arabs in the 6th – 9th centuries and the Mongols at the end of the 14th.  The Turks invaded in the 18th century and so did the Persians.  The king then asked Russia for help in 1783 and the Russians then really just took over and abolished royalty.  From 1921 onwards the Soviets dominated and abolished the republic of Georgia.  In 1990 the USSR collapsed and in the following year 98% of the population voted for the independence of 1918 to be restored.

Christianity came in the 4th century.  St Nino is the most important religious figure and it is Western Orthodox – independent but same as Russian and Greek Orthodox.

Tourism:  It is estimated that there are 250,000 tourists a year.

Social security: 
There is no unemployment pay and only a low pension (US$60 per month).  We noticed that there were a fair number of beggars, although we were told that these were often refugees from north east Georgia.  Salaries are low, but so are food prices.  Other prices are high.

Army:
Conscription for 18 months.

Politics: 
There are 25 political parties.  Elections are 4 yearly and are due this October.  Elisa thinks that the same trick will be worked here as in Russia with the President and Prime Minister simply swapping roles for a while to get round the rules.  There are 150 MPs with women well represented – they have a tradition of equality in their country.

Roads:
As is often the case in countries that are becoming wealthier, there seems to be no history of much car use and drivers act very selfishly.  The normal approach is to overtake wherever and assume that if there should happen to be anyone coming the other way then of course that person will deal with the situation.  It appears to work and without the sounding of horns that one would expect – but it is frightening!

Most of the roads are extremely bumpy and it seems that basic levelling was never carried out when the roads were surfaced.

Conclusion:
A beautiful, mountainous country with a people that we did not find very friendly.  Clearly a very troubled history.