Monday – Leaving Tbilisi, Stalin and Uplistsikhe

We had a late start and left Tbilisi in bright sunshine. to was a lovely day. Our route out of the city took us along the riverside. Birds, people and broken concrete could be seen at the shallow waters edge. Fishermen rested rods on the concrete river wall. To our left the city soon ran out and hills appeared. Tall apartment blocks continued across the river. As we veered away from the river, the trees were interspersed with petrol stations – lots of them. We then came to some waste ground and then somewhat surprisingly, in short succession, a Porsche showroom, a Volkswagen showroom and a large Carrefour supermarket. All somewhat unusual for this trip!

Soon after this came the sign indicating we had left Tbikisi. We were heading to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. On the way we passed a refugee camp built for Georgians who had fled Russia in 2008, during one of the many conflicts between Russia and Georgia. On this particular occasion Russia bombed Gori and several people were killed.
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At Gori we visited the purpose built Stalin Museum. We were shown round very briskly by guide who looked like a character out of one of Beryl Cook’s paintings rendering the situation even more bizarre than it already was. Stalin was born in Gori in 1879 and went to school there. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a dressmaker. His mother wanted him to become a priest so he was sent to a seminary from which he was expelled at 15 because of his involvement in revolutionary activities. He then became a professional revolutionary and started to publish political articles. He was arrested when he was 22 (the first of many arrests) and was exiled to Siberia. He escaped all but the last time when he served 4 years before being released by the revolutionary forces.

In 1911 he left Georgia for Russia, and changed his name he chose for himself – Stalin. During the 1917 he was on the revolutionary council and after the revolution he became a member of the government. Not long after that he became the Secretary of the Revolutionary Council,

Lenin, who Stalin originally met in London when part of a Russian delegation, died in 1924. Stalin was nominated to carry on Lenin’s work and was one of the pall bearers at Lenin’s funeral although by all accounts Lenin was not very fond of him. In 1926 he made an official visit to Georgia and visited the country for the last time.

We were told of his enterprise and innovation eg collective farms. However our guide did acknowledge that he did ‘made mistakes’. An understatement of the first order methinks! The walls were covered with pictures of him during every stage of his life and there was memorabilia from his life at the Kremlin. Among the pictures were some of Stalin with Churchill and other world leaders. Only a passing reference was made to the Battle of Leningrad where 800,000 people died and somewhat more attention made of Stalin’s role in the unconditional surrender of Germany in 1945.

Stalin was married twice. His first wife died young and his second committed suicide. He had a son by his first wife who was taken prisoner by the Germans, Hitler offered to release him to exchange him for one of the German generals. Stalin refused, saying that all Russians young men ‘were his sons’. His son was shot. He had two more children by his second wife. The son died in prison and the daughter spent much of her life in America.

Stalin died in 1953 aged 74. The museum has a bronze of his death mask. He was eventually buried in Red Square, having eventually been removed from his mausoleum where he lay instate until 1962.Of the 4 million people who were sent to Siberia during his watch, most died. In the grounds of the museum is the wooden house where Stalin spent the first 4 years of his life – his parents rented one room and the basement as his workshop and the bullet prove carriage of his train that he travelled around in.

In just one room of the museum we were shown the chains that people were held by and there was brief mention of the programs that took place.

It was I stark contrast to this that we moved on to put our tents up to dry out while we visited the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe. This incredible place once housed 20,000 people and was at one stage an international trading post on one of the branches of the Silk Road.

The evidence is that it was originally built by people who worshipped celestial bodies and fertility in the 3rd millennium BC. It is one of the oldest urban sites in he Caucasus. Over the years it has not only been a religious site, moving from pagan to Christian and back to pagan again before returning to Christianity, but it was also used as a fortress and kings lived there.

The buildings all had roofs and were much better preserved until a bad earthquake in circa 1920 when a lot of damage occurred. It is a fascinating place with hand dug holes in the rock for everything from cooking and baking bread , through to wine making and making sacrifice. There is evidence of a theatre with rows of seats for the audience and decoration of the ceilings and walks of the caves with carving to look like beams in the stone. Channels have been dug to allow water to flow and in one place there are a wall of holes thought to be a ‘cupboard’ used by an apothecary to dry herbs and medicinal plants. Some of the caves are coloured, these were painted in the Russian period when the site was used to make films.

Excavations have revealed gold treasure including imported pieces of jewellery. There is also evidence of a 7 ancient wine presses and they were known to grow vines on the rock.. Most of the temples had wine cellars. (It is obvious that these people knew what they were about!)

It was a very interesting area and one that has not yet revealed all its secrets. There is still a lot of mystery surrounding the perfectly round holes – some as deep as 20 metres – how were the dug out and what were they for? On top of the cave dwellings there is three named church that dominates the sky line as if there for good measure. The final mystery is the tunnel, believe to be dug very early on in the cave city’s existence and used as an escape route and a means of collecting water as it runs out into the river below which was believed to have covered its entrance…….

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