the tears of David

My phone camera managed a surprisingly good Parthian shot of this… mysterious pillar of Amon-Ra or whatever the hell.

David Gareja was one of the true highlights of the tour, up there with Chiatura in “this is something you can only really see here” terms. There’s a daily (slightly poorly organised) minibus tour from Liberty Square, and we joined the crowd of intrepid-looking tourists, hearing Polish, Chinese and German spoken as well as the dense Georgian consonants and the inevitable English. We handed over our 25₾ (about eight quid) each, and the marshrutka whisked us away onto a dusty highway lined with watermelons and rows of shiny new tractors. The sheer density of the melon stalls bemused me – who looks at the fifth hopeful looking melon-seller in the space of a kilometre, and thinks “yes, this is the moment I need a watermelon big enough to hide a three-year-old inside”? But they must sell enough to bother showing up, because they’re there. A giant dark metal column passed to the south, knurled with unclear sculptures and crowned with a robed figure holding up the sun – who? Why?

Compared to most we saw, these are in relatively good nick.

We passed more ghosts of infrastructure, cows grazing among concrete skeletons (abandoned or never finished in the first place?) East of Tbilisi turns to really pretty country, more cultivated than the Chiatura uplands but just as green; we saw the first crest of naked orange rock at the same time as we felt the road get noticeably worse beneath. Scrub gave way to grassy plains and then to high, rugged heathland, scattered with wildflowers, cloud-shadows and prefab concrete parts. I feel like this would be a cool place to grow up, among the many birds and mysterious ruins, all the concrete culverts just built to dam or crawl inside. There were occasional outbreaks of barracksy-looking buildings, all clearly neglected. Did Georgia ever have collective farms? On non-collective farms, little boxy combine harvesters spat out little boxy haybales.

For once “underneath the open sky” is an appropriate title!

The road only arguably existed at this point, and our driver decided the best way to deal with potholes was to take the van half off the remaining tarmac, leading to a horrendous, storm-tossed lurchiness which did nothing to reduce the impact of the potholes but meant the whole roasting, juddering mess was canted over twenty degrees. A low polyglot murmur of alarm could barely be heard over the sound of stones popping under tyres and hot, unhappy bodywork being wrenched about. But we survived, and reached David Gareja as the landscape turned incredibly interesting.

Some minor fault line here, an outlying wrinkle of the continental ruche which raised the whole Caucasus range, has lifted the bedrock and shaken it out, leaving a landscape with a wobbly, uncertain feeling entirely recognisable to a bunch of recently freed marshrutka inmates. Chunks of tilted strata, striated with rust like the clouds of Jupiter, jut up out of the ground: some are proud and triangular, pointing up like the prows of torpedoed ships; some are smooth and curved, bunched together like the knuckles of a buried god.

The yellow strip on the lower right is the path we took; the little dark specks in the hillside are almost all caves.

The David Gareja complex occupies the largest and southernmost of these upheavals, an immense long ridge it shares with the Azerbaijani border. We went straight up the hillside with a fellow-traveller, a cheerful town planner from Dresden, without whose sensible pace-setting we would plausibly have either died from heatstroke and overexertion (both incline and temperature were about forty degrees) or given up. A huge flat piece of exposed stone has ancient rainwater channels cut into it, and the ants here have very long legs, to keep their bodies from the baking earth. Even the lizards – big, clever-looking things with spiky heads – keep to the shade at midday, and move from shadow to shadow with a leaping, loping gait.

Azerbaijan. For scale, that silver sliver on the high right is Jandari Reservoir, easily 15km away.

From the ridge’s peak, you look north to see the frozen waves of strata, west along an enormous rampart of broken stone, south to see the land fall away into Azerbaijan, with the distinctive silhouettes of power plants visible in the hot blue infinity. The exact border isn’t clear (unless it’s the nubbins of steel fence, in which case we and the path both crossed the border and back again with wild and gay abandon); it was in our interests not to really notice it, as many of the best monastic remains are on the Azerbaijani side. The geology round here has led to bands of iron-impregnated sandstone in alternating hard and soft layers, ideal for cave-carving. So we walked east, where the hidden monastery of Udabno is buried.

The eponymous David was an Assyrian monk, one of a legendary thirteen who came to Georgia a millennium and a half ago.* He and successive monastic types have inhabited this rock off and on until the present day, carving and building an eclectic patchwork of caves and above-ground complexes, most abandoned, some decorated with beautiful, ancient frescoes. The faces and some of the fine detail on the paintings have faded, and only the brightest of the details remains: blazing crucifixes and the wings of angelic hosts. The art is at once fairly primitive (asymmetrical crosses, formless angels), and quite strikingly accomplished: the use of colour and repeating pattern is timelessly gorgeous, the visual language of devotion and exaltation as clear as high Baroque. The cave mouths are ringed with wild flowers, and pigeons have set up in the corners of ancient altars. Entering each cave, a blur of surprised black butterflies would billow out past me, into the light.

The caves themselves feel like a microcosm of the whole pitted, riddled cliffside. The strikes of ancient mattocks are still clear in the stone; the clay and plaster has been much blown by burrowing wasps; the dusty floors are full of the reverse cones of ant-lions. Worst is the graffiti. Bored Soviet soldiers have carved names and dates into the faces of ancient frescoes, leaving lines of warrior saints half scribbled out and walls deeply chiselled from that time in 1965 Alexeyev from Dnepropetrovsk had half an hour off watch.** The refectory had a triple line of carved stone benches under the long Orthodox faces of the Last Supper. Other caves had flood channels, wine jars, huge, dark cisterns deep enough to leave a two-second silence between tossing a stone through the entrance and hearing a bassy bat-guano thud. Up top, three Georgian soldiers smoked in the shadow of one of the above-ground structures. At the highest point, an iron Russian trig point stood underneath a mysterious frame, overlooking yet more dramatic strata – whole plateaux of sheared-off rock.

We slipped and scuffled down the hillside and past the vast flat slab of rock with its rain channels, overlooking the fortified Lavra monastery (currently undergoing reconstruction.) In the shadow of the hill, stone steps have been cut and cisterns dug, some of them still actually in use. The spring called David’s Tears was, alas, bolted up and inaccessible, with the gaps in the bars giving away only a musty smell and the vague glints of Orthodox altar paraphernalia. So we turned back into the light, back towards the waiting marshrutka, and in one of the nearby cisterns a cave frog suddenly sounded off, loud enough to make everyone jump.

* There is evidence of plenty more Assyrian missionaries operating in Georgia around the time; it’s possible that David and his twelve colleagues were simply retrofitted on to the thirteen major sacral sites they are said to have founded.
** I am hesitant of the third post in a row having some sort of anti-Russian polemic, but they used it as an artillery range, for crying out loud. Disgustingly, it took serious protests to stop the independent Georgian government doing the same thing.

Georgia 2018

Good morning, Kutaisi! – Museums and wine – Chiatura from above – Pioneers’ Palace, Gori – Tbilisi David Gareja – Akhaltsikhe – Vardzia

hot enough to boil a falcon

Tbilisi’s name means “warm place”in old Georgian. Legend has it that this is because of the sulphur springs, but you could have told me it’s because the city is hotter than an overclocked toaster and I would have no trouble believing you.* More than one in three Georgians live here, no doubt helped significantly by the AC units which drip onto every pavement (as, occasionally, did we). Our airbnb was in Vake, one of the older, cooler districts, and an interesting mix of architecture and cultural styles: Soviet tower blocks, modern gyms and mini-markets, women with crates of fruit. Many signs were in Mkhedruli, some English, a few Cyrillic.

The traffic situation is a fun mix of Russian truculence and Italian unpredictability; getting across the road is a matter of aggressively striding out in front of moving cars and hoping they’re awake enough to not kill you, as simply waiting never works. A plurality of cars are missing bumpers. Charitably, Arpi suggested this might be to improve air flow to the radiators. I’m possibly painting too negative a picture here – at few points did we feel like we were actually at risk of death, and the chaos is more opportunism than aggression.

An interesting little fountain in Mrgvali Baghli square.

“I guess even Georgians don’t park at crossings.”
“They don’t give a damn, but it’s a Mediterranean sort of not giving a damn, not a Russian sort. You know?”

We found a streetside bakery for pastries and a sort of dry sesame pretzel, and descended into the cool depths of Rustaveli metro station, named for the great poet, whose iconic status here is only slightly below Saint George and David the Builder. Tbilisi public transport has Oyster-style cards (easily topped up at the little roadside touchscreen machines which are absolutely everywhere in Georgia), with journeys costing half a lari (about 12p). Tbilisites are polite on the metro, letting people off trains rather than crowding round; the trains are the same old Soviet stock as on the Budapest and Prague metros, painted in tasteful Georgian red and white.

Classical Georgian lion, serving as an air grate down the metro.

The tourist office on Liberty Square gave us a much-needed English-language map, and directions to Arpi’s desired attraction, the Automuseum, so far to the east it was basically in the Caspian Sea. We took a taxi (the driver kept crossing himself, which I did not take as a sign of great confidence) and zoomed through Tbilisi’s riverside array of intriguing megastructures – the Reichstag-esque hall (complete with glass dome), the pointless but fun roof over the Liberty Bridge, an even more pointless and apparently unused pair of golden sausages like dead sandworms, an otherwise nondescript building capped with a huge girderwork crown (the university, we later learned).  Tbilisi is a valley city, hemmed in on all sides by high hills, with the occasional domes of monasteries overlooking it placed for maximum dramatic impact. Lovely fountains were everywhere, built in the classical “cascading down tiers” style, which gives much more of a sense of abundance than “squirt it up in the air” fountains and is presumably mechanically much easier. The dashboard thermometer showed 100F (I know, I know – Fahrenheit?!)

Shiny old commiemobiles.

The automuseum was almost hidden down a side road; it contained a large collection of Soviet cars and motorbikes, beautifully restored and painted, gleaming with polish, smelling of fuel and wax and paint. If only I cared at all about cars. Arpi was as happy as a dog with two tails, though.

The postwar Georgian air force, and their plane.

We returned in a different taxi (going down George W Bush Street in the process – he’s popular here) to the National Museum, which like all national museums was a collection of magnificent treasures with a pretty serious political point at its core. The opening narrative – of a secular, tolerant postwar Georgian democracy snuffed out in its prime by the Bolsheviks – is a bit too utopian for my tastes, but plausible in its general sweep.** The treasures down in the basement, of course, are absolutely top notch – Georgian goldsmithing was second to none as far back as the kingdom of Colchis, and some of the enamelwork was genuinely breathtaking.

They had Greek coins from 2,700 years ago, burial carts and Colchisian axeheads; Hellenic candelabras, winemaking implements from before written history. A gallery of traditional Georgian dress, heavy on big moustaches, bright embroidery and those fantastic long jackets called chokha, with silver-plated belts and cartridge loops on the breast. There was also an (unexpected, but really incredibly good) collection of Far Eastern art. I didn’t get much of a sense of the sequential history of the nation, why this coin was Roman, this cup Arabic, this piece of jewellery Mongol and this one Persian – partly because everyone east of the Rhine seems to have had a turn going at Georgia and listing the invasions would take a whole museum to itself. Even the natural history section noted how animals of every kind wandered across the Caucasus on their way to the corners of Eurasia (and some excellent fossils of proto-humans have been discovered there).

Outside of Gori, it seems the Georgians have little or no nostalgic illusions about the USSR, and the section on the Soviet occupation pulls absolutely no punches; it opens with one of the railway cars in which arrested Georgian civilians were rounded up in 1924, and one of the machine guns that put all the little holes in its side.*** Quite strikingly, and very effectively, they put up the evidence first and let the narrative emerge from it: a whole gallery of earnest handwritten petitions and applications for the return of lands and churches seized by the Reds; photos of Georgian artists and descriptions of their work, all with a death date in a gulag or a basement. A letter which led to 145 people in Georgia, and 110,000 ethnic Poles across the USSR, being shot as “enemy agents”. One Georgian in every eight was shot or deported between the wars – nobles, priests, doctors, artists, “kulaks”; a similar proportion died in the second war or the followup repression. Stalin is a remote, malign presence, not addressed head on. At the end is an “occupation continues” section, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia blocked out in red; it suits current Georgian nationalism to draw a continuous narrative from the Russian Empire, through the Bolshevik horrorshow, to Putin’s current shenanigans. It’s also not too far from the truth.

Letters. The nearest is from a group of Kutaisi Jewish leaders to the “People’s Committee”, pleading to have their synagogues back.

Tbilisi’s old town walls are still there – some underneath a motorway, some with buildings perched directly on the turrets. Inside, the old town is (unlike most cleaned-up touristy Old Towns), run-down and thoroughly crummy, in the same way as it’s probably been since Tbilisi extended beyond the walls and urban planners started enjoying actually having a bit of space. These little winding streets are, in richer places like Tallinn, absolutely charming as a contrast to the sprawl of wide-boulevarded modernity. But the authentic, ungentrified version has a medieval seediness to it.

Hotel perched on the old city walls. Note the street bookseller – there are hundreds like him.

After dinner (probably the most expensive meal so far, which is to say it was still less than £20 between us for a mass of kebab, dumplings and a litre of fantastic Georgian wine) we took a cable car up to the hill that also hosts Narikala Fortress – an ancient, glowering pile of brown stone – and the statue of “Georgian Mother”, a smaller and less violent version of Mother Motherland but in the same “giant metal woman with a sword” vein.

Funicular base station.

We marched over to the base of the Russian Empire-era funicular and zoomed up to the top, where we chilled all evening with our new Egyptian friend, looking out over Tbilisi: the golden light on the gigantic Holy Trinity cathedral, the broadcasting tower lit white and lilac, an olive-tree fountain whose lamps and water between them scattered the trees around with a shaking, uncertain light.

* A Tbilisi founding legend has it that fifteen hundred years ago King Vakhtang was out doing a bit of falconry. His bird caught a pheasant and the two fell into one of the hot springs. Both were promptly cooked alive, impressing Vakhtang so much he had a city built there. This seems capricious, but kings will be kings.

** I don’t know much about modern Georgian history so my suspicion that the reality wasn’t quite so tolerant is based on little more than gut feeling and a knowledge of the hideous abattoir of repression and cleansing that followed the Great War. But it is funny, for instance, how many Armenian churches and buildings there are from shortly before the collapse of the Russian Empire, and how little evidence of any Armenians.

*** The gun is an M1910 Maxim with a pre-1930 water jacket and the early model brass feed block, so it checks out. How they got hold of it is a story I’d like to hear, though.

Georgia 2018

Good morning, Kutaisi! – Museums and wine – Chiatura from above – Pioneers’ Palace, Gori – Tbilisi – David Gareja – Akhaltsikhe – Vardzia

gori gori hallelujah

I’ll be honest, if the Boy Scouts had these I might have been more tempted.

The Pioneers’ Palace in Chiatura was almost impossible to locate; I don’t think I spent nearly as much time researching any other part of the trip. I successfully located a Council of Europe plan for regenerating the area which gave longitude and latitude – but they’d screwed up the longitude somehow and the mangled references took me to somewhere in Saudi Arabia. Finally, I resorted to scanning the incredibly drab, low-res Google Maps of Chiatura (the aerial photos had clearly been taken on a snow day, through intense air pollution and an entire jar of dirty Vaseline) for a huge Y-shaped building and finally found it. Can you see it?

Role models for good Soviet boys and girls.

We had met two other travellers at the rooftop café, one Swiss, one Egyptian, and they were interested in tagging along, so we sorted a taxi through the very helpful waitress (who spoke excellent English, and told us how the owner of the place had married an Englishman). The driver spoke almost no English at all but offered us a very fair price to go up, wait a bit and go back down, and so we rolled up a switchback of dusty roads. The Young Pioneers were a sort of Leninist version of Boy Scouts/Hitler Youth, combining healthy outdoor camping activities with communist brainwashing, and the Palace was a sort of Stalin-scale youth/community centre. Now, it’s a huge collapsing pavilion of artistic 50s Soviet concretework in the utterly neglected Gagarin Park (cows at one end, sweetcorn at the other), and its ruined walls with their cartoonish figures of heroic workers and soldiers are like an early form of Pripyat.

Hanging by a rebar thread.

The driver accepted our first tip, upon letting our new friends out at the cable-car station, but refused to take any more money for getting us to the marshrutka stop. I got my phone to thank him and wish him well (ძალიან დიდი მადლობა. კარგ დღეს გისურვებ. შენი მეგობრები ინგლისისა და უნგრეთისგან). The Gori marshrutka (actually to Tbilisi, but passing Gori) was a cleaner, more modern piece than Ulrich Kapral, and it wound along the valley through the skeletons of manganese mines, into the brighter country beyond. Then it broke down. We would have been worried, but it was a lovely day with a cool breeze, we were in no rush, and this presumably happens all the time and they have ways of dealing. Sure enough, after the driver disappeared under the bonnet for some time, we were up again. The landscape – rolling hills, dense maquis coverage, women in black headscarves selling fruit and the odd bloke napping under a tree – all gave it an oddly Corsican flavour.*

One of the still functional industrial cable cars, with manganese ore hoppers and a net to (hopefully) stop bits falling on the road and killing us.

I napped (apparently through some cracking castles, and a friendly castle-informing elbow) and felt like I’d woken up in a different country: a wide, flat one with broad yellow fields and gentle hills which felt like at some point they’d been under either a glacier or a sea. The taxi driver picking us up from the motorway ripped us off, but only by £1, so who cares? In the middle of Gori, the castle is visible from a long way away, crowning a large ridge with a ring of brown walls and a flight of gatehouses like massive stone stairs. Coming close, we saw its rounded crenellations, like gingerbread man fingers.

Unfortunately we never got up there. Fortunately we later learned there’s basically nothing up there if we had.

“Relatively few people in the world cherish the memory of one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders, Joseph Stalin, but most that do live in Gori.” So saith Wikitravel.  I don’t know what I expected from the Stalin Museum, but I still found the level of hagiography bizarre. They’ve built a shrine – there is really no other word for it – around the crummy little hut he was born in, in the spirit of the Holy House of Loreto and equally deranged.**

Nativity scene of the Red Tsar. Can you imagine? “Dreaming of a Red Christmas…”

The museum is grandiose but thankfully not too big; we’d arrived with only half an hour to spend, and it was plenty. The museum itself is as much an exhibit as anything it holds, a bizarre living specimen of a cult of personality I thought Khrushchev had killed half a century ago. Stalin as the young, hunky revolutionary with red scarf and fierce hair; Stalin as the cuddly-looking patrician Uncle Joe; hardly anything in between, and not a Trotsky or Yezhov or mass grave or gulag in sight. Creepy early-Soviet postcards added even further to the cultic feel – there is something inescapably religious about the depictions of young Koba, a latter-day Jesus preaching to a crowd of slightly updated peasantry.

It’s a bad picture, but to be fair, it’s a bad postcard. I’d love to know what those funny looking buildings are, though.

We had missed the last marshrutka to Tbilisi, but a solicitous taxi driver offered to take us for 70 lari (vastly more than anything else we’d paid in Georgia but still not actually very much money.) Road signs said things like “1294km to Tehran”. The driver was a younger bloke, and we exchanged despairing comments on the politics of our respective countries, and lurid tales of the Russian invasions in South Ossetia (visible across the valley). Eventually he turned on the radio, and we ended up having a little singalong, tearing it up at 130kph, windows down, belting out System of a Down songs together.

This, on the other hand, is fantastic. It’s a light! It’s an ashtray! It’s a clock! It’s plausibly a radio! It’s an inkstand! It’s a tiny tank for crushing the fascisti!

As we left the Stalin museum a little girl was having her photo taken with a statue of Uncle Joe, smilingly innocent of everything he was and represented. Thinking about it in Tbilisi that night, I decided that actually, it didn’t bother me. Stalin’s face has been smashed down from every wall in every country he once terriorised. The parts of his legacy which can be put right largely have been; the parts which cannot are better known and remembered than before; and if what’s left of his cult is as a weird, defanged tourist curio in a poor, obscure town with nothing else to be proud of, so much the better.

Or as we put it more pithily to his death mask, “stay dead, you cunt.”

* NB: I have never been to Corsica and am principally aware of it through the stereotypes presented in Asterix. Which this landscape exactly matched, apart from the flick-knives.
** The museum and an accompanying fountain park are aligned to the hut. The city is built in a grid pattern which more or less parallels the park, leading to the chilling thought that they might have rebuilt the city plan around this meaningless slum. Or maybe not. What can’t be said about Russia? Everything is true eventually.

Georgia 2018

Good morning, Kutaisi! – Museums and wine – Chiatura from above Pioneers’ Palace, Gori – Tbilisi

black pearl of the Caucasus

The backbone of Georgian public transport is the fleet of marshrutkas, public minibuses running to set routes.* Most towns have a train station (although they mostly seem to run freight rather than passengers), and normal buses exist, but marshrutkas are very clearly the go-to for most Georgians for both short and long range journeys. So, after a riverside breakfast of squeaky cheese, excellent vegetables, scrambled eggs and black bread with apple jam, we said goodbye to our lovely Iranian hosts and flagged down the #1 for 1 lari. It runs a circular route from Kutaisi old town to the main bus/train station; people got on and off throughout, leaving the bus always busy but never completely full. I wonder if Uber, Citymapper and all the other lot trying to revolutionise general transport are taking notes. Horn use in Georgia seems to mean “hello!” and “I’m here, watch out” a lot more than it means “idiot!”; marshrutka drivers beep to each other automatically.

Not pictured: an army of taper-hawkers, matchbox-floggers, shampoo-sellers and babushkas pushing massive carts of fruit. Street selling types in Georgia are always solicitous but rarely aggressive.

The bus station was a big gravelly waste absolutely full of minibuses. Many were personalised in various ways: beaded seats, religious icons, anti-glare panels, stickers of knights, scorpions and eagles, cheerfully brash logos: LUX BUS, MAXIMUM, ROYAL CLASS. Men yelled “Tbilisi!” “Batumi!” at us, in a spirit of enquiry – we yelled “Chiatura?” back and got pointed in the right direction. Communication has simply not been difficult here. A great many road vehicles in Georgia are second-hand, and in their original livery – we saw French logistics, Polish tour buses and a lorry marked “SEVENOAKS, KENT” on the road. Our ride to Chiatura was a cherry-red number which had in a past life been the van of a Berlin locksmith,** and so we drove off with “Bauschlosserei – Ulrich Kapral – Meisterbetreib” on the front.

It’s difficult to get across the sense of absolute, implacable immensity these mountains had, but trust me, it was there.

Our driver set a deliberate pace, pulling over hopefully whenever he saw people loitering on the side of the road. The surface was good, and we rolled through bright green countryside, with honey-coloured cows grazing the verges and some on the road itself (one of the few aggressive uses of the horn.) Off to the south, the mountains were higher than the clouds.

Broad sunlit uplands.

We went up into those hills, a mix of meadow and forest with fences of irregular sticks wired together. Yellow pipes ran suspended alongside the road, looping up to the height of a marshrutka at every lane. The road got more challenging; a quiet, wet coughing from the family at the back heralded smell of baby sick, happily washed away quickly by mountain air and tree resin. Concrete bus shelters went by, some with little gates, others with cows. Some of the farms had old Russian military lorries, some had the odd local crucifixes with downturned arms, making them look more like wind turbines than crosses.  Ulrich Kapral finally filled up with wrinkly locals a few km outside of Chiatura, and then we descended into town, past a string of pylons with no wires that now only serve as modern sculpture.

Riverside developments.

Chiatura was once the “Black Pearl” of Georgia, a manganese mining town tucked into a valley of steep cliffs: a rich and prosperous place on the up and up through the 19th century, its infrastructure combining local uniqueness with Soviet gigantism. The fall of the Soviet Union and decline in manganese mining annihilated Chiatura; blog posts from previous travellers (vital in locating the cable car stations) led me to expect a pure ghost city, a hollow shell of Soviet brutalism inhabited by a fast-declining populace with no money and no reason to exist.

In the shadow of the colossus.

Actually, it was substantially less empty and miserable than blogs had led me to believe (although admittedly my main point of reference for run-down Soviet towns is Pripyat.) The centre is full of life, albeit a different kind of life to the original spec. Little markets perch beneath dead cable car stations, selling boxes of live chickens and rabbits, tractor parts and homemade axes. Street sellers put down their blankets and flog plastic toys outside buildings too dilapidated to safely inhabit. Kutaisi, too, had a feeling of inhabiting the grand designs of a richer, more confident precursor civilisation, but in Chiatura it’s absolutely inescapable, the VDNKh feeling magnified a hundredfold with extra abandoned tower blocks and bits of concrete falling into the polluted river. But it didn’t feel despairing (despite the emigration statistics), and however far the local economy has slid back towards medievalism there’s a cheerful vigour to it. The cable cars seem to have been recognised as the town’s big draw, and (helped by gobs of European money) there are multiple brand new stations going up, with fancy galvanised pylons and shiny orange stations.

The cable cars are, I’ll be honest, the only reason I’d even heard of Chiatura. They were (according to local legend), personally decreed and planned by Stalin in the 50s as one of his last and least malign acts, to help miners get around. Dozens of them go from the town into the immense cliffs above them, dangling iron coffins with round portholes, hanging from steel threads like modernist earrings. Hardly any of them are running now – I don’t think they’ve had more maintenance than some occasional oiling and a few whacks from a spanner since Joe died. Even the most functional station in town (complete with pebbly Lenin & Stalin faces) was basically falling apart.

What’s your favourite book about WW2 submariners? Mine is “Iron Coffins.”

We found a little café nearby for lunch – tea and local beer, more khachapuri, khinkali (funnel-shaped dumplings whose trunks you grasp and leave uneaten), and kotleti (crispy, fragrant meatballs). It was both delicious and alliterative, and topped by seeing the cable car whir into life. I leapt up, only too eager to die in a Stalinist box, while Arpi (wholly sensibly) demurred and had another beer.

Chiatura panorama.

Two lines went up from the station, with different cars. The first was genuinely sarcophagus-like, with small round grating windows, an alarmingly improvised locking mechanism and an interior made entirely of graffiti and rust flakes; the atmosphere was not helped by sharing it with two rather smelly blokes in overalls. It whisked us up very swiftly, and the views from the top were incredible – the whole valley city, a railyard full of abandoned ore tricks, the busted-up arches of the Pioneers’ Palace on the far side of the gorge. The cars were operated from a little metal command box at the top; the operator was a little old lady who gave me indulgent looks in between eating sliced tomatoes and pressing important looking buttons.

Back down, a second larger car goes up to the other side of the gorge; the attendant (another little old lady) actually gets in this one with you, which makes you feel slightly less in peril. Slightly. It creaked up to a deserted housing estate, with pigs rooting in the muck by the station and a roof about to fall apart. I went past the cows, up to the top of the 10-storey block, and took some photos from the roof. Architecturally, it was identical; there were bathtubs on the landing and a few closed doors, suggesting inhabitation, but nothing like prosperity.

* From German, via Russian, originally “march route taxi.”
** Or possibly building fitter? My knowledge of German non-martial manual trades is incredibly limited.


Georgia 2018

Good morning, Kutaisi! – Museums and wine – Chiatura from above – Pioneers’ Palace, Gori

city of smile

Post-nap, Kutaisi was noticeably much more alive (as was I), its streets busy with vehicles and Georgians of all ages and sizes. We changed some money into Georgian lari (I had some leftover USD from Ukraine) and, using the map our new hosts lent us (“Kutaisi – City of Smile”) headed into the old town, enjoying the very cool fountain covered in bronze animals, the big round theatre building and the shady parks full of old people on benches. Restaurants boasted foreign names – Cafe Sweden, El Paso, Bavaria – but all, as far as we could tell, served the same Georgian food.

When we knocked on the door of the Museum of Military Glory, we surprised a bunch of housewife-looking ladies sat round a cable eating cake. One of them recovered, turned on the lights and guided us through various Red Army campaigns and the more recent “Russian aggression”, as the Georgians refer to it (I, for the record, wholeheartedly agree). Two older, portly gentlemen asked where we were from, and immediately pressed wine and cake on us (the wine was amber and excellent, the cake was halfway between halva and tiramisu.) One also absolutely delighted Arpi by naming the Hungarian football team from 1963. Other than them, the museum was a charming, largely non-sequential photo gallery, with a few personal effects of soldiers, a few RPGs and launchers, pictures of Stalin and Khrushchev, pictures of a Georgian soldier wounded in Afghanistan meeting Barack Obama and Angelina Jolie.

We had more wine, took a group photo (one of the old blokes dragged a random Polish couple in) and said our goodbyes, then went next door to the sports museum. It was another two-room affair where the person at the front desk refused any payment, full of muscular wrestlers, Soviet medals, Olympic memorabilia and rusty guns. The woman who pointed out the highlights (in fairly good English) put the lights out behind us. The National Museum – the third of Kutaisi’s museums, all within rock throw of each other – was the first that actually charged, 3 lari (<£1.) Its treasures are better expressed visually, so wait for me to update this with pictures.

We took a tiny old cable car up over the odd-coloured Rioni* to a very quiet, laid-back Soviet-era amusement park on the hilltop. It was mostly empty, with the Georgian families present sitting on benches rather than availing themselves of the little electric trains and CAR FIGHT (dodgems, but with super soakers). I went straight up the Ferris wheel (identical to the one in Pripyat) and enjoyed the views and the utter lack of health and safety provision – it didn’t even stop for me to get on and off.

There was a little wooden restaurant nearby; we were definitely hungry, but I’ve rarely had a meal so totally delicious. A pork shashlik (with some of the best onions I’ve ever tasted, and an odd, unique, fruity Georgian sauce), cheesy local cornbread, khachapuri (a round flat bready thing absolutely covered in cheese, cut into pizza segments) and a half-litre of some of the best wine I’ve ever had, which given the hot day and the previously empty stomach hit me like a bag of hammers. We tipped the waitress substantially and staggered off down the hill to the riverside, past huge drifts of plastic bottles and rubbish.

The cobbled uphill stagger to the Bagrati Cathedral woke us up pretty well.  An information board in Georgian, Russian and English showed what an absolute ruin the thousand-year-old building had been until its 19th century reconstruction. Now – after a highly controversial re-rebuilding which cost it its World Heritage Site status – it’s a compellingly weird hybrid of ancient stone, new stone and black metal, with a functional office integrated, perversely, into the fabric of the building. Little wood and stone altars are scattered around its huge floor like lost toys. Some of the exterior stonework has oddly Celtic looking carvings, from lord only knows how long ago, and in the courtyard a huge iron cross overlooks the city.

Down along a cobbled switchback road, full of weird Japanese export models, horrible American cars and Communist leftovers (they drive Ladas here, but unironically), to the river. Kutaisi’s “Chain Bridge” is clearly just a girder bridge with ornamental chains (“it must be to attract Hungarian tourists”), but, seeking the synagogue, I found a genuine treasure behind the police station and all the weird little dental surgeries: while living in Newport I’d been perplexed by its Kutaisi Bridge, but upon discovering in Kutaisi a Newport Street with a twinning plaque (font Blackadder ITC, classy), suddenly it all made sense.


* Fun fact alert! The Rioni was known to the ancient Greeks as the Phasis, and was viewed by Plato as the easternmost bound of the known world and by Herodotus as the boundary between Europe and Asia. It’s also where the word “pheasant” comes from. Who knew?


Georgia 2018

Good morning, Kutaisi!Museums and wine – Chiatura