Day 135 Wednesday 1st June 2016 – Mestia to Gori
It was another beautiful day and we are a little sad to leave as this is truly a beautiful corner of the world and the lady at the Guest House has really looked after us feeding us fresh yoghurt and full cream milk (I had forgotten what it tastes like after having low fat for years), hot Khachapuri (cheesy bread), millet, omelettes, hot bread and jams. She was upset the first morning when we did not eat it all and we had to explain there is only the two of us and although great it was enough for 5. This morning she packed up the left overs for our lunch and handled them to us as we left.
Driving back down the mountain with the towers and spectacular scenery it is like being in a fairytale or maybe Game of Thrones without the blood. We have decided to drive through the countryside before heading to Gori and were having a lovely time even though the roads are terrible, even in some of the towns the pot holes are nearly as big as our
little KIA. Just near the small town of Didi Chokoni we heard a big bang not sure if we hit something as the car shook but there was nothing on the road. We drove a bit further and then the car fell to pieces, OK a bit of an exaggeration but the engine mount had broken meaning the engine was on a slant and this was terminal for our little car. There is not a car in Georgia that still has the front panel undamaged and we have seen a few parked with the wheels at weird angles so our little KIA fought bravely but is now just another statistic. Scott considered doing the whole Aussie thing of cutting off some fencing wire and trying to tie the whole mount back together but there was oil leaking under the car as well and it didn’t look good and the car just wouldn’t move so we just needed to call a priest.
So here we were probably about 5 kilometres outside of the tiny town of Didi Chokoni in the middle of Georgia with no phone and no help and with a busted car. Something our parents and
experience has told us is not to panic but to think through the options and solutions. Michele decided she would hitchhike back to Didi Chokoni for help but in the end there was no need to stick by the car and so we both stuck out our thumbs. Hailed down a marshrutky (taxi van) and asked to go to Didi Chokoni. On the way, through charades, a word or two the people in the van found out we were from Australia and our car was broken down, they offered us water and when we arrived the driver would not take any money, you have to love country hospitality. As they waved us goodbye we looked around the town and it is tiny and so we headed to the police station and as we turned the corner there was a group of men and before we knew it they produced a man called Ramos who could speak English. He owns a small internet café (2 computers plus his own) we explained the situation and he was straight on the phone to the hire company and organised a new car to be delivered but it was coming from Tbilisi and it would
take about four or five hours to arrive and it was now about 2pm. While standing there with the locals one particular man who had way too many vodkas insisted on having a conversation in Russian with my tits and the more I moved, the closer he seemed to get, I know for sure I do not speak Russian and my tits definitely don’t. Scott was about to say “if they talk back …”, when Ramos reappeared and said “no problem” and was throwing our backpacks and us into his car and before we knew it he driving us to his house down, you guessed it pot holes with the occasion bit of tar. Here his mother and a neighbour put on a spread of food for us and lots of “wine”. Ramos was a great host and went through the usual toasts to “friends”, “Children”, “women”, “Happiness”, “women”, “Love”,” Georgia”, “Women”, “Australia”, etc, etc. Now the wine wasn’t exactly your typical wine but was a cross between wine and chacha (a strong spirit) so you can understand that Scott had to be very careful how much of the toast he consumed as he needed to be driving in the
Bronze statue and fort
dark in about 5 hours, Whilst Ramos sculled his glass Scott had to sip, eventually I came up with the brilliant idea of “can we see your garden?” We got a tour of the neighbourhood and introduced to everyone and looked over the hazelnut orchards. He pointed to a church in the distance and said he could take us there as this is where women go for a miracle to fall pregnant, he kept insisting that we should have children, as you can imagine we made sure we went nowhere near this place, at this stage of our lives – no way. His wife and sons were in Batumi and due back late in the night so we sat with him, his daughter Nino and his mother and the man from across the road came over for a short while watching of all things Bollywood soapies on TV, apparently they are huge in Georgia and even though the men said they did not like them they all seemed to know what was happening. Later we asked Ramos to call the hotel in Gori to explain we would be late and it would be about midnight before we would arrive which
was a relief. We had to wait till after 9.00pm before we got the phone call to say the new car was close, Ramos and his mother offered for us to stay the night but we felt they had already done too much. Ramos drove us back to our sad little KIA and along the way offered one last time to take us to the church but we preferred to wait till the new vehicle turned up, I think the guys for the hire company expected a wreck and kept looking all over it for dings as we kept saying “the engine”.
We were finally on the road at 10.30pm after lots of hugs from Ramos and goodbyes, truly lovely people. Now we had the long trip to Gori which is about 4 hours away with one quick stop for petrol as we only got the car with less than half a tank. The discussion with the guy at the service station was perhaps the hardest we have had to do in this country and it took a good 10 minutes to just to get him to start filling the petrol tank. Maybe we were just over
tired but it seemed an easy request that he couldn’t get. After this it was slow going with roadworks 50km/hr zones a lot of the way but we finally arrived at the hotel at 2.45am and the night manager was waiting for us. We both were never so glad to see a bed. Day 136 Thursday 2nd June 2016 – Gori
Didn’t fall asleep till after 3am but for some weird reason was awake at 8.30 and getting ready for a day of sightseeing. We both felt fairly shattered after the roller coaster day of yesterday but wanted to get out and see the town of Gori. The hotel we are staying at is great value but doesn’t include breakfast so the first task was seeking out coffee and a feed. Discovered an “Italian Café” that was as Italian as a meat pie that gave us a crap Cappuccino but at least it was cheap. From here we walked up the centre of town to the museum dedicated to Gori’s number one son – Stalin.
Most people think that Stalin was as Russian as Vodka, Sputnik and
Lada cars, but in fact he was born in what was the small town of Gori in Georgia. Out the front of the museum they have preserved the very house that his parents and he lived in for about 4 years. The house sits beneath a large marble structure that preserves it from the elements, and behind this is a huge building dedicated to Stalin that is perhaps more shrine than museum. The museum was started in 1951 whilst “Uncle Jo” was still alive but wasn’t opened till 1957, 4 years after his death. There is lots of photos, paintings and statues of the old bastard and most things have English captions on it but there really isn’t a lot of information here, we couldn’t even find out what year he was born. The best pieces are his uniform, his desk from the Kremlin, and the tacky stuff that people gave him as gifts. You could easily walk through this museum and believe he was the greatest and most loved man on the planet. Tucked in one corner of the museum in a small cabinet they had about 14 photos of priests and writers from Georgia under the heading “victims
Mestia to Gori Road
Where our KIA (Killed In Action) stopped
of Stalin’s purges”, which would make you believe that was the extent of his crimes. Didn’t spot any information on his forced resettlement programs, or the operation of Gulags. The estimate of deaths as a result of Joseph Stalin’s policies has been a hard and controversial number to establish but if you include the 6 to 8 million who died from famine and the 15 million that were executed or died in the Gulags it is generally agreed that between 20 – 30 million (and possibly as high as 60 million) were killed, and not to diminish the crimes of Hitler but it sort of makes him look like a kindergarten teacher when compared to Stalin. As a piece of old Soviet propaganda the museum is a good laugh, as a modern museum it is a bit offensive. Don’t believe they should close it but maybe they should revamp it and actually show some hard cold facts. The museum was closed in 1989 and has only recently been reopened it is a shame they didn’t work on the content whilst it was closed.
Outside the museum they have displayed Stalin’s rail carriage, all 83 tonnes of it.
Mestia to Gori Road
Another toast with Ramos
Had to get a woman from the museum to open it up for us and she gave us a personnel tour of it, even got to see Stalin’s loo. Apparently Stalin only ever flew once in his life, when he went to the Tehran conference in 1943, but otherwise drove or went by rail. After the tour of the train the woman took us over to his house and allowed us inside which we hadn’t expected and came as a surprise.
After that interesting experience we went for a walk around the town centre and had a look at the town fort and some bronze statues in the adjoining park. Both still felt pretty shattered after the big day yesterday and so we decided to have a rest in the afternoon, before going out for dinner. Not a lot of food choices in town but we managed to find a restaurant that had a balcony where we could settle down for a couple of beers and a serving of Georgian spicy sausages. Day 137 Friday 3rd June 2016 – Gori to Akhaltsikhe
Back on the road again
Mestia to Gori Road
Ramos and his plantation
today, and because we did not get breakfast at this hotel it was just a matter of packing our bags, paying and going. It feels really good to be able to just chuck your bags into the boot of a car and go, and not have to deal with taxi drivers. Before heading onto the next town we wanted to visit the nearby historical site of Uplistsikhe which is 10km out of Gori. Uplistsikhe is a very old town that was probably established in the 6th
century BC and after the Arabs took Tbilisi in 645 AD it became an important Christian centre and was also an important trade city on the main caravan road from Europe to Asia. At its peak it housed about 20,000 people but this all came to an end when the Mongols arrived in 1240 and destroyed it. What is fairly unique with this town is that a lot of the important structures are carved from the rock face a bit like the Ellora caves in India or maybe a rough small scale Petra. There was a lot of pagan temples here that were later rebuilt as Christian churches and the site also has a
theatre but most of these “buildings” are nothing more than caves. A couple of them have carved ornate ceilings but most are just holes in the rock. We clambered all the way to the top of the hill for great views over the area as well as the ruins of the old brick town down near the river. On the way back we found our way to an escape tunnel that had been carved down through the hill to the river. Thankfully rather than sliding down the steep rock we could descend via a new set of stairs. Walking back to the car we just passed one large tour group after another so we were lucky when we were here as we had the place nearly to ourselves.
From here we had to drive back to Gori and then onto the freeway heading west, and then speared south towards the Armenian border. Passed through some lovely mountain scenery and then our sunshine turned to rain. Around 3pm we finally arrived at our destination of Akhaltsikhe. On our drive today I kept telling Michele how I had a massive craving for a doner kebab with chilli, to the
point I think I drove her not only to our destination but to the point of madness. So as soon as we settled into our room she became a woman on a mission, a mission to give me what I wanted. Marched all over town till we found a kebab shop and the guy was able to chop up hot chillies onto our kebabs – problem solved.
After a bit more of a walk over town we settled back at the hotel’s restaurant/beer garden for a few drinks and then a great feed. Shelley went a Greek salad with trout whilst I went a traditional Georgian feast of fried potato with pork. This meal is heavy on potato, light on pork and very oily but tastes fabulous. Day 138 Saturday 4th June 2016 – Akhaltsikhe
Breakfast at our hotel is equivalent to a medieval feast, except there is no swan stuffed with oysters. It can sometimes be a bit embarrassing when dish after dish gets plonked on the table and you have no ability to tackle them all. After our feast we got our stuff together and
hit the road. The adventure today is a short drive back into the history of Georgia along a scenic drive through the mountains. 45 kilometres down a narrow gorge from Akhaltsikhe we reach the Khertvisi Fortress, which is one of the most picturesque forts we have ever seen. Apparently Alexander the Great stormed and took this fort on his march east but the fort that sits here today is a 14th
century reconstruction. It is a picture perfect medieval fort that sits in glorious surroundings and was an absolute joy to clamber over.
From here we drove onto the main objective of the day which was the ancient cave city of Vardzia. King Giorgi III started this city back in the 12th
century and his daughter Queen Tamar turned it into a holy city housing around 2000 monks and today it is still regarded as a spiritual bastion of Georgia and is regarded as the Eastern frontier of Christendom. Like so many Christian cities on the “frontier” the whole place was constructed by digging into the cliff face and everyone lived in caves. What probably started as a modest settlement developed into 13 floors, 409 rooms, 13
Stalin Museum Gori
Stalin's home undercover
churches and 25 wine cellars. The 2000 monks praying every day for a hundred years only resulted in a huge earthquake in 1283 that destroyed most of the caves and then god sent them hordes of Persians that annihilated any survivors. I guess their God either had a wicked sense of humour or didn’t particularly like them. Today Georgians embrace this defeat like Australians revere Gallipoli and unfortunately we turned up on a Saturday when just about every Georgian within 100 kilometres wanted to pay their respects.
Just driving up here was a hassle, parking was an extra hassle, and Michele getting the tickets to enter the site turned into veritable hand to hand combat. I walked 50 metres away to get away from the scrum and I still do not know how the woman with claustrophobia managed to secure the tickets except she came out sweaty and told me it was all in the elbow work.
I am not a God fearing person but can appreciate places of worship particularly ancient shrines, churches, mosques and temples, but don’t get monasteries and in particular cave monasteries. Vardizia is just a whole lot of holes
in a large slab of rocks that some mad monks called home and thankfully the Persians decided to remove. Today the whole site was overrun with Georgians soaking up the religious history and indulging in selfies, which gave me a glimpse of my own personnel Hell. Other than lots of empty caves the site had some incredible climbs and descents through narrow low ceiling tunnels that really tested Michele’s claustrophobia. If you had the site to yourself it may be an enjoyable experience but with a million of Georgian’s most annoying people it was a real trial. For some reason the monks have decided to crawl back into the rocks they came from and a large section is off limits so they can mediate/contemplate/masticate (and remove themselves and do nothing that seems to contribute to society) in peace. As we exited the mountain monastery a Police Border helicopter landed nearby and as we left the whole place was swarming with police. They actually were stopping anyone from arriving but thankfully we could leave. Would have done a Blues Brothers to get away from this hell.
I cannot fully express the joy we felt to be getting away
from this circus but the only positive thing was we didn’t see a single selfie stick although nearly every person was filming themselves as they walked through. On the way back to Akhaltsikhe we stopped at the ruins of an ancient Caravanserai that used to be also a slave market, perhaps the monks were big customers, today thankfully only cows grazing and no slaves.
Before returning home we took a detour out to the Sapara Monastery. This monastery was started back in the 9th
century and managed to survive the ethnic cleansing of the mongols by sucking up to them “big time”. The Sapara zealots were allowed to flourish and today the site is revered and we were lucky to be here when hundreds of selfie indulgent Georgians descended upon the churches. The main church had some incredible frescos which you were not supposed to photograph but since all the God fearing Georgians were happily clicking away I thought I might as well join in. The religious fanaticism of some Georgians has come as a bit of a shock to us, and in recent years there has been a growing number of attacks by Religious extremists against
Stalin Museum Gori
Note the person that has been painted out on the right - probably someone that was shot.
so called “enemies of the state”. The main target has been Georgia’s GLBT communities but also included a Vegan restaurant that was pelted with meat by Religious groups and neo Nazis – almost comical except for the absurd message behind it and the injuries that were inflicted. Drove back home and then retreated to the hotel courtyard for some “calming down”. Probably ended up calming down too much but it was a stressful day. .
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