Awake and surrounded by darkness, I turn on the TV to watch a minute of a mustachioed man run a marathon, like an Indian version of Forrest Gump, to let my eyes adjust before walking into the dining area for fresh coffee with my cookies I saved from last night. I was waiting for the sun to touch the horizon so I could set off on foot and explore the area a bit, though I would have waited to drive as well because in the absence of light so much of the sights are obscured.
I don’t remember if I told the hotel clerk where I was going but when he saw me step outside the front door he quickly joined me and pointed left. I thanked him as I crossed the street and admired the ditches between the sidewalk and the road — to drain the rain, keep cars from sliding into shops in the snow, and a convenient place to put potted plants if there isn’t a version of a planked driveway there. There’s an old prison-bank-museum-looking building and the only thing I can read on the sign is USAID which has given $1.8 billion since 1992, perhaps to help strip the doors, paint, and windows from this leftover frame to help another project.
Casting light from under evergreens and onto the street is a small park with a monument dedicated to Nikoloz Baratashvili, which in the shadows gives the impression that he has two faces. He wrote about Georgia asking for help from the Russian Empire, a situation that would last over 100 years until 1918. He would use what little he was able to write to introduce Romanticism into Georgian Nationalism, not when he died in 1845 in Azerbaijan but starting in 1861 when he was finally published and idolized.
Georgia would again claim independence, this time from the Soviet Union in 1991, after a rule of 70 years. In the five day war of 2008, Georgia lost 170 soldiers and 224 civilians, left over 20,000 people displaced, and 20% of their land occupied with Russians in violation of the ceasefire. This is also the first time that a cyberattack of news websites and military hostilities took place at the same time. People have pointed fingers to blame everyone but themselves for the atrocities that humanity so badly craves.
I suppose I’ve never seen myself as racist, religious, or reactionary and perhaps that’s because I’ve not believed in something so strongly that I would be willing to kill people for it (though I’m sure some of my habits endanger their daily livelihoods). I know I’m going off-track, but countless countries/territories have killed their own people to make a point, which is why the American Constitution forbids states from seceding from the Union but they may create more states within themselves with the consent of Congress.
Some people travel for work (hotels, airport lounges, business meetings, and upscale restaurants), some for pleasure (resorts, Instagram worthy beaches, yachts), some for escape (from the 9-5, the abuse from a loved one, or as a way to find a new life interest), and for some, there’s a passion to find more — history, knowledge, understanding, empathy, beauty, and love — and to share that with the world you encompass. I know there are many more reasons why people cross borders and try to redraw them to international acceptance but lines in the sand are arbitrary and used to divide people when we should be coming together and growing more positively.
Anyhow, I continue past the tall and skinny pine trees as the sky begins to change colors and see the Okona Day Church, walk on the cobbled streets past three iPhone stores, and read some graffiti, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here!” Some of the homes look like the façade of a Western main street with modern brick and stone upgrades. I reach the entrance path to the Gori Fortress and am met with a guard dog who is easily tamed and maintains its distance while I tell him about the amazing sunrise he’s about to miss.
I always wondered if my dogs appreciated the broad visual newness I gave them, but being inept in vision as they got older definitely didn’t help, though they always loved the sounds, textures, and smells of a place in a way I couldn’t… or didn’t want to. The wind picks up as I move away from the protective shell of shops and homes and up the hill to take a picture of the fort and then the sunrise, then turn and repeat using the stairs to my advantage until they turn me behind a wall and block the view of the sky that resembles a ripped blanket on fire.
There’s a fenced-off hole in the ground when I reach the top and I turn my back to the sun peeking over the mountain and the ferocious wind to get closer to the edge for another look. On the other side of the Mktvari River is the St. George’s Church which offers a steep hike, whether on foot or via car, to this picturesque place on the top of the shorter peak in the mountain range. I should’ve taken the time to walk around the perimeter of the fort built by the 13th century and looked up how to get to the church built 500 years or so later, but I’m always leaving something to come back for.
I can barely make out a badge on his shoulder as the rest of his body is covered by a green military blanket while he lies on a cot. Under his youthful face looks like a pillow my dad could sleep on, one stuffed to the max with origami, where the kid’s head is attempting to make a dent to escape the cold. His guard shack is half wood and half glass and there are a thick pair of gloves next to a ceramic cup. I slowly step away as not to disturb him while also making sure I don’t trip over something that destroys me.
I decide to pet the dog that approaches as I’m leaving the fort but our meeting is short as his two friends catch up and they run off, squeezing under a fence and probably looking for breakfast. This draws my attention to a little green bin surrounded by cigarette butts with the sticker “Ultras Against Racism” on it. Ultras are extreme sports fans that use banners and flares in stadiums and also like using their influence to support their political views. I also learned that the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, was started as a charity to push Sharia Law. The year of the Arab Spring legalized the group but it was later considered to be a terrorist organization by many countries.
At the end of the path is a house that appears to be abandoned, but many of the lived-in ones give that impression from the outside. On the wall is written a bunch of expletives so, of course, I must go and walk down the stairs built into the sidewalk past the bottles and broken doors. I probably would’ve entered the gate at the bottom had it not been locked. I’m quite sure someone knew I was coming and helped keep me from an international incident due to trespassing and not being able to explain why I felt important enough to go on private property.
Next on the morning’s agenda is to see the Memorial of Georgian Warrior Heroes, but first I must pass by a small sacrifice of books and what appears to be a steering wheel cover but is actually a much longer hose that has been set on its cardboard pyre for its partial burning before being left charred and covered in ash. Perhaps this is some foretelling of what these men have seen, and if so, I’m grateful they managed so I hopefully don’t see that violence so close in my lifetime, though others are still forced to struggle with that reality while trying to find a place to call home.
The statues are massive as each one sits on a stone in a large circle, all broken in their own way — stab wounds, missing limbs, and decapitation. I take them in one-by-one and then as a whole to acknowledge the solemnness of this historical marker. I’ve spent the morning in my sole company so the man on his morning walking run quickly grabs me (not literally) out of the mood by tossing a piece of bread to a dog who is now taking the liberty of pooping in the middle of a large, but luckily clear, intersection.
I’m drawn into the courtyard of the Virgin Mary Temple and after a walk around the perimeter make my way through the colorful entrance, with a mosaic above the door, into a more highly painted scene, some of which is still in progress — and all using a majority of baby blue, brick red, and honey orange to tell the story of Jesus. I’m then frozen as one voice is joined by another by sounds I’ve only heard recorded, Gregorian chants, that speak to my soul as the words aren’t for me to interpret but to feel, and it’s magical. I would be drawn to any meeting place to leave with this sense of wellbeing instead of the fear and guilt I grew up with attending services as a child.
I’m walking on thin ice (meaning in a precarious or risky situation; also referring to a song by Pink Floyd released in 1979, episode 57 of MacGyver aired in 1988, and a documentary that was premiered on Earth Day 2012) back to the car. I’m sitting at a red light and watching the countdown timer for the left green arrow and wondering how many accidents are prevented by providing the driver a measure of time left to get through the intersection. Perhaps it’s just the courteousness of the driving population in general that sets the standards for road manners regardless of local regulations.
Approaching Uplistsikhe Cave Town and there are friendly roadside horses and rambunctious dogs that can’t control their excitement but to bark and chase the car. I’m nervous to get out for fear they will scratch my camera or me if they’re the jumping kind but they seem to know that they’re not allowed inside the gate, neither is decorating, destroying, or drinking. Beware of the falling rocks and people and pay 20 more lari for a guide service if you need an interpreter.
The path to the “lord’s fortress” historical-architectural museum-reserve starts to the right and looks like the rock has been worn down by wagon wheels for more than two millennia. This place was re-established in 1979 after six centuries of abandonment, but no longer as a hub for religious, political, and commercial activities although a church and basilica are still present. I take the tunnel to get inside, and once up the 80 plus stairs, I see the one building that’s not like the rest of the surrounding structure, a difference which can clearly be seen from the road as well.
The view is awe-inspiring as I imagine the wealth of possibilities spread out in the river, trees, plains, and mountains beyond. I picture the people here busy learning how their world works via creating language, making food, studying religion, and surviving attacks as other cultures and empires clash for control of the region. As I climb higher, the scene gets more expansive and the wind more bitter. I take refuge in each room between the more virulent bursts of unseen air to see the burnt stone with modern names carved in and concrete supporting this elderly structure.
I could live here with the built-in shelves and stoves, but would definitely want a Dutch door installed to block the wind but keep the sun coming in. There are faint greens and blues with bright rusts and whites, either growing bacteria or mineral deposits, that have agreed to this living arrangement minus the need to adjust for the weather as it meets their requirements perfectly. There’s also a touch of candle wax from the multitudes of visitors that may be trying to connect with their ancestors or praying that their life maintains its friendly warmth and isn’t soon left to be cold year-round.
There are stairs, paths, and numbered signs but I’m not concerned with marking them all off my list of things seen here as I’m more focused on the varying heights of arches, random rocks in the sand, and how the landscape changes in the summer. I wish I’d been given more time to talk with my grandparents about less trivial matters but they each had a drama of their own and none of them contained the secret to the past that I would be looking for here. I would love to hear or comprehend the simplicities and such difficulties that were required for daily survival in such a harsh environment as the past.
The church door was installed behind a piece of rock that juts out from its arch, so it wears a simple red scarf to make sure it stands out more. Inside is the austerity of decoration and the deterioration of architecture; the faces are darker and the candles unlit. Back outside is a cute Western Rock Nuthatch, a small passerine bird, found in 19 countries from Slovenia to Iran. The birds use rock crevices as homes and as a place to wedge seeds and snails to assault them with their beaks until they break.
I pass by the wine cellar, number 11 on the map, the most northerly structure here, and definitely modern. I don’t proceed closer due to the little wire wrapped lock to keep the gate closed and the short stone wall I could step over. I don’t know if there are visiting hours or if it’s closed for another reason. Over the rust-colored bridge and the flat rock, past the other entrance with twice as many stairs, and I’m once again on the outside of this piece of history (as time capsules are smaller and interesting in their own right).
All it took was me lifting my camera in the museum to lose that privilege. It was a small hall with a few items pertaining to the caves and a film that talked about the role the Silk Road aka the Transcaucasian Trade-Transit Trunk played in forming the region as it changed due to the politics, economics, religion, and military control of the current empire until the route’s decline in the 15th century when sea transport became a more popular way to deliver Chinese silk to the west.
Religion also played a role as Christian monks and missionaries built temples within fortifications as a place for those traveling in the North Caucasus to change horses, spend the night safely, and hire a guide for the next part of their journey. The area and route would see Arab control bring Islam, Pagan worship from the Greco-Roman pantheon, and the spread of Buddhism from China. Remnants of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Daoism structures also remain as a reminder of how trade is more than just an exchange of goods, but of belief systems, languages, and lifestyles.
Sharing my path with nature is something I grew up with and there are parts of childhood, no matter how disturbing the background, that brings comfort as an adult — this is one of them. I spent time riding a bike or running through the woods, looking out for horses, goats, cows, turkeys, and sheep (not all owned by us) along with all the dogs we had through the years. I was a birdwatcher before I knew it was a professional hobby and used to spend part of my day watching clouds go by, plants growing at their pace, and lying quiet so I could hear bugs dance and sing undisturbed.
This memory makes watching the Eurasian magpies fly, the hooded crows eat, and the Georgian mountain cows walk along a bridge all the more memorable as I wish I had more time for moments like this. I look forward to Caleb retiring, even if just for a year, so we can both spend days enjoying the simplicity of life that technology has afforded us. This thought process makes me want to go back to dirt roads and aluminum roofing for slower traffic and a lullaby on rainy nights. I appreciated what I had as a kid and I still do because life has brought me love and lessons and left me longing for more, but when I’m traveling with just the bag on my back, I feel I have all I need.
I drive back to Gori and abruptly pull over to get a piece of bread the size of my steering wheel, like a large fluffy pizza crust, after seeing it in the baker’s window. I park the car in front of the municipality administration building to walk along Stalin Avenue to the museum also dedicated to the former dictator. Outside is a replica of Stalin’s house rebuilt under a yellow stone tent with white columns and an orange and yellow stained-glass roof — a star surrounded by squares. The larger building looks like it holds a university, but walking inside feels like being a wealthy individual greeted by a collonade, marble stairs, and a chandelier.
I make my way merrily to the top of the stairs and take in the royal view of a red carpet, purple light, and more marble. The windows have colored glass and metal shutters cut into a pattern to add depth and delicate design to the interior. I’m about to waltz through this museum when the upstairs doorkeeper kindly lets me know I’m not gaining more access until I go downstairs and pay my 15 lari. I’m back in three minutes with my little slip of blue paper with the price and image of the museum on it in the corner under half a circular stamp.
Room one is mostly pictures of people who helped the varying ages of Stalin, a tinier replica of his house, a woven image of him, and documents such as “The Morning”, a poem by J. Dzhugashvili in a 1916 edition of “Deda ena”, a book by J. Gogebashvili for learning the alphabet and elementary reading. The second room has a book by Stalin, “Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR”, 1952, and a table from the conference room in the Kremlin. The next room is all military based photos of soldiers, maps, guns, smoke, and Stalin in uniform.
The exhibit hall contains gifts from the countries who loved him around the world — a lamp with a tank commemorating 9 May 1945, a carpet of Stalin and an officer from Baku, Azerbaijan, and a grain of rice from India with a microscopic message on it. There’s a small corner room that gives me the feeling of being in a giant sarcophagus mausoleum with a head bust on a pillow and black walls. Another hall for more books and busts and cases filled with a metal vase from Germany, a colored sand portrait from Ukraine, red Dutch clogs, and plenty of pieces from Georgia and China.
I stop for a powdered donut on the way back to the car and it tastes like a fluffed hamburger bun. I will pass three soccer fields (only green in town in the winter), two sleeping dogs (taking permanent naps), and some fat chickens as I drive north. I pass wind turbines, fruit stands, and trucks with carcasses hung up for roadside shopping. I notice snow starting to fall and appreciate the quality of the roads as I realize I get to drive through the inspiration for Winter Wonderland minus the crowds and flashing lights.
The roads are surprisingly clear for the amount of snow on the trees and options to stop are limited — railing, tree line, rock face, ditch, and concrete barriers. I’m grateful as I pass a man up to his knees in the snow that I didn’t try to pull over and risk getting stuck as the fog starts to settle on the street. A car passes a semi-truck going uphill around a turn forcing me to hit my brakes or them head-on going downhill on a wet road. I’m about 10 km away from my planned detour and I stop for juice. The first place wouldn’t give me the display, the second shop only had water and Pepsi, but the third store had cherry nectari, not Fanta.
After passing a NATO Partnership Training and Education Center building I’m approaching what I think will be a tunnel, not arched and reinforced but simply cut from the rock. It turns out to be a small cave with two staircases and a fountain that perhaps works in another season. It seems I won’t be riding the famous cable cars of Chiatura today as I’ve found the ones used to transport coal and then my phone loses signal so I’m unable to search for the other one.
Rain joins the fog and parts of the road are missing so I either have to go around or crawl over the damaged sections causing me to pay much more attention to a road than ever before. I still let cars and dump trucks in as I focused on the passing headlights, noticing most of them are dim or dirty and only one driver had their brights on. This inclement weather doesn’t slow them down and they always use a blinker. Here, the “children crossing” sign is more of a “children playing karate” sign. I’m happy to be back on the highway, this has to be a first, but there are so many missed picture opportunities of houses and buildings that the American system would condemn based on the under-construction appearance that the locals use to fit their needs.
I was able to stop and see a statue though that looked like a soldier being protected by his guardian angel. On each side was a flag, the well known red and white one on the right and a half blue – half green with an orange cross on the left. Down the street, on a corner, stands the Katskhi Monastery. From the tattered sign, I’m able to gather that the church was built over 1,000 years ago, was burned and rebuilt twice, the roof of the dome is like a half-open umbrella, and that hundreds of books were rewritten here. I took a minute or five too long appreciating the outside to even get a peek at the inside. When the woman was getting picked up by her husband, he asked something and she looked back at me as the answer as I scurried through the gate so she could lock up.
The low-air light on the dashboard comes on and I pull over to a gas station, most equipped with air, tires, fluids, and other car essentials like water, snacks, and coffee are to the drivers. The guy restarts the car in an attempt to reset the symbol. Then he holds the unlock button on the key fob until all the windows roll down. It’s a neat trick but it won’t be helping with the tires. On the second stop, I went up to a shop window and held my phone up for the five guys to read and one guy got up from the card game. He checked the tires and told me to circle the lot and said I was good to go.
I wish I could’ve just trusted their judgment but I didn’t want to be left stranded somewhere so I went to a third gas station and this guy didn’t read Georgian. I didn’t feel like taking the time to get onto his wifi to change to Russian, so I continued on to get an actual third opinion from another guy who agreed with the first two. Then I had a guy inside the shop offer me his tour guide services. I thought he was trying to sell me food or a boat, so I’m sure that would have been an interesting experience.
I had plans to see some places tonight in Kutaisi but with the tire issue, sprinkling rain, and still needing to find a room I decide the attractions can wait until morning. I knocked on a door, rattled a gate, and the third place was in ruins. I was on my way to another guest house and stopped at Hotel Rio because I saw the sign and parking for three, possibly six if I got blocked in. The two Russian girls walked me down the long hall to room 7 with a single bed and told me 40 for the night after they searched to make sure the translation was right. I thanked them and grabbed my bag from the car and what’s left of my bread, that’s now the size of my hand.
The girls offered me tea and coffee and came down to my room to turn the heat on. I wish they could do the same in the bathroom, where the door seal keeps the cold air and water tightly within, so I’m hoping the hot water warms the freezing floor. As I wait for my room to warm up a bit so I can start to remove my coat and boots I look up at the heater that reads, “Don’t put your hand into the air outlet.” I trim my two chipped nails and get some semi-warm tea down the hall, in my socks, to drink while I talk with Caleb as he walks home with John and Justin, a coworker and his husband.