Day Trip to Gori
Oct 6, 2008
|October 6, 2008 Monday – Tbilisi/Gori
Today our group was scheduled for a Tbilisi city tour. Having taken this tour twice over the last two decades, I readily agreed to take an independent daytrip to Gori, the town where Stalin was born that is a short hour northwest of Tbilisi. Prior to two months ago, the primary reason for visiting Gori was to view one of the few remaining Stalin statues in the former Soviet Union and have a look at other Stalin memorabilia. However, in late August, 2008, Gori was one of the Georgian towns that was cluster bombed by Russia during an invasion of Georgia in an attempt to wrest away the Georgian province of South Ossetia with the goal of reuniting it with Putin’s new Russian Empire.
At least a dozen people were killed, hundreds injured and nearly 10,000 became IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons in NGO speak). As of early October many of these people were still living in tent cities that are awash with sanitation problems.
The Georgian government has moved quickly to repair bombing in the mid-size towns that were damaged by the bombing. I am less certain that the same is happening in small villages. Villagers whose homes were destroyed are being given a smorgasbord of options, none of which sound particularly appealing. The government is trying to give an apppearance of normalcy in areas like Gori that the Russians shelled but did not occupy.
On the way to Gori we stopped at Mtskheta, Georgia’s spiritual capital since Christianity arrived in the the 4th C. As you approach the east edge of Mtskheta, a hill rises that overlooks the city and the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers. The Jvari Church (or Church of the Holy Cross) crowns the hill and can be seen for miles. The history of the site and and church date back to the early years of Georgian Christianity.
After exploring the ancient interior of Jvari we drove into town and visited the Svetitshoveli Cathedral from the 11C., the Bebris Tsikhe, a medieval castle, and the petite Antioki Church. Today’s photo collection includes images of each of these architecturally interesting antiquities.
We continued to the northwest roughly paralleling the border of South Ossetia, one of the Georgian provinces occupied by the Russians. We eventually arrived in Stalin’s birthplace, Gori. The dreary town took some direct hits from Russian shelling in August, 2008 but the government has moved quickly to repair visible damage. This is probably an effort to avoid futher psychological wounding of the citizenry.
Entering Gori, you come to a tiny traffic circle with a very modest clock tower. The visitor first assumes this is the heart of the city but a couple of blocks beyond you come to Stalin Square. As Gori is Stalin’s birthplace, a larger than life statue of him has remained in the center of the city’s main plaza despite Georgia’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union in the 1990s. We had heard reports in Tbilisi that the statue had finally been dismantled after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August. However, as we pulled into town, Stalin was firmly holding his ground atop a huge pedestal in the exact center of the plaza.
The plaza was filled by a fleet of semi-trailers supplied by the Italian Red Cross. They were reportedly full to the brim with medical supplies ready for distribution to the Internally Displaced Persons in South Ossetia. However, the Russian occupation prevents getting them to those in need.
The square contains the Stalin Museum and his personal luxury rail car with bullet proof glass that he used to travel around Russia. He had a phobia about flying on airplanes used the railways as his preferred mode of travel.
From the square you can see the medieval Gori Fortress that sits atop a volcanic-like cone just west of the city. We didn’t have time to trek to the top but the view from the center of town was impressive.
We headed out of town to Uplistsikhe, an ancient cave city that had its heyday between 500 BC and 100 AD. It has a complex history until the 13th C. when the Mongols laid waste to most of it. However, several of the main caves around the old city center remain reasonably intact and provide the visitor an idea of what the place was like. The 10th C. Prince’s Church sits atop the cave mountain. The church has been restored and an Orthodox Mass is celebrated daily. Believers from contemporary villages at the foot of the mountain, scale a twisting path that threads around the old caves to attend services in the church. On this particular day about 30 natives made the climb. The path traverses huge rocks and is steep in places. However, because you are stopping to see the interior of several caves and their carved interiors, the climb isn’t too strenuous.
Just a few kilometers north of Gori you arrive at the semiautonomous republic of South Ossetia that lies inside the borders of Georgia but is home to a large Russian population.
The Russians still had control at the time of our visit. Thus, it was not prudent, perhaps impossible, to visit the most war torn areas that harbor the IDP’s. However, we did drive about halfway to the border to have lunch at an outdoor restaurant at a village named Nachasmageni(sp?). It was hard to believe that 60 days earlier missles and artillery shells were whizzing over the top of the courtyard where we were seated.
There were six officials from NGO’s seated at one table. I went over to talk with them but they were pretty guarded in their responses not being sure who I was with an expensive camera dangling from my neck. They simply confirmed that they had very limited access to the people who needed help.
Going through the outskirts of Gori on the way to the restaurant we passed through an antiquated railyard that, at some time in the last century, was able to service engines and railcars in need of repair. The rusting equipment was another graveyard of the Soviet era.
After lunch we made our way back to Tbilisi on a highway that was a bit faster than the roads we had followed along the river to get to Gori. At the hotel, the concierge arranged for a taxi to take us to the Sulphur Thermal Baths in Old Tbilisi and then up to massive fortress that sits high on a bluff overlooking the city. A 20 meter tall statue of Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) occupies city side of the bluff. The stairway up to the fortress and statue has numerous resting points where young people gather to consume their favorite beverage.
The views of the Mtkvari River bisecting the city and all of the city’s architectural landmarks are quite spectacular from the fortress grounds. All in all, it was a busy day with a lot of memorable experiences.