On our Pan-American trip we could cover several hundred miles in a day, because basically there are a lot of wide open spaces and a long way between points of interest. To date, on this Ride East, we’re lucky if we cover more than a hundred miles between stops; there is just so much crammed into these amazing countries we are travelling through.
From the derelict villas of Tskaltubo, we set off on the next leg of our journey through Georgia to visit Borjomi National Park. We took the main east-west highway as far as a crazy pell-mell of a roundabout in Kashuri. The driving remained atrocious with drivers expecting us to get onto the hard shoulder to let them by and then getting really irritated when we declined, flashing headlights, sounding horns and so on. To yield would have resulted in us getting driven off the road altogether so we held our line until it was safe to permit an overtake.
Off the main highway the road took us into mountain country, chasing a broad river hack deep into the terrain. Borjomi was another jewel in Georgia. A spa town made famous by the Russian Romanovs who patronized it to the extent of building a palace here as a summer retreat. In places it felt like Matlock Bath, with everywhere overlooked by tree-covered, steep canyon walls and rocky outcrops. You can still bathe in the hot sulphur springs, as the Tsar and his entourage did and Borjomi water is bottled and sold across the world as a healthy, invigorating mineral water. It certainly has a bite to it unlike any other bottled water we’ve come across.
We spent a glorious sunny day following a well-marked adventure hiking trail that ran through a somewhat disheveled amusement park at one end of the town, then led us past the Tsars sulphur-springs, to a hot clamber up and out of the valley for beautiful views back down over the town and the surrounding mountains. For the whole day we wandered alone, both of us silently pondering our contentment with the world at the moment.
We used Borjomi as a base to strike out for the town of Gori, birthplace of Josef Stalin. The humble cobblers house where he was born has been enshrined in a marble columned vault set in a small park in the city centre, which also contains Stalin’s personal railway carriage and a museum dedicated to Georgia’s most prominent son.
But first some lunch… Leaving the bikes, we wandered off on a lap of the park perimeter looking for a bite to eat. There were one or two snack bars but they were full and looked a tad unappetising. An old taxi driver with weathered, leathered face and drooping silver moustache had been observing us. “You two motosyklistas? You want coffee? Something to eat?” he asked perceptively. He then locked up his cab and led us away from the park to an amazing underground restaurant, where we had one of the best lunches of the trip to date dining on beef kebab and a plate of Khinkali; deliciously juicy Georgian dumplings stuffed with a choice of herby meat, mushroom, potato or cheese fillings. We washed this down with some cream soda lemonade. Georgian bottled lemonades are quite simply the best and most refreshing soft drinks on the planet!
The Stalin museum; a collection of dimly lit rooms containing mostly black & white photographs, a few paintings, some documents and letters and one or two artifacts outlining the life of JS. It charted his rise from humble beginnings in the enshrined cobblers house outside, through dismissal from a seminary (it didn’t explain why) and his evolution into reactionary politics showing his multiple arrests and banishments in Tsarist Russia. Suddenly he is at Lenin’s side through the revolution and then he has taken over as grand-supremo on Lenin’s death. Ultimately he leads Russia to victory in the Great Patriotic War, his crowning achievement, and then in 1953 the man is dead and we enter a small room in the museum where his death mask holds centre and you have to walk around it to exit into a few remaining galleries mostly containing gifts to the great leader from other countries around the world.
Outside we asked ourselves “have we really just walked round a museum dedicated to one of history’s all-time-greatest-mass-murderers?” No mention of the mechanics of his climb to power, ruthless disposal of all opposition, murder of millions through forced collectivisation of the kulaks and let’s not forget the military purges that decapitated the Red Army to the point where the German invasion was a pushover that took four years of brutal combat to counter and eventually win through. Then there was his disastrous personal life. His first wife committed suicide and during the war Stalin refused to exchange captured German General Von Paulus, who had surrendered at Stalingrad, for his son who was a prisoner of the Germans and subsequently died in captivity. Finally his daughter who upon his death defected to the US denouncing her father and all his actions. After his death the Soviets decided maybe he wasn’t such a great man after all and had his body removed from the Lenin Mausoleum.
The entire museum was a somewhat sanitised view of a monsters life but then again it was a similar story a few years ago when we visited Graceland and found no mention of the King’s substance abuse or his road to ruin. I know, I know; Elvis was in the long run a good guy and maybe this is a poor comparison but I’m just saying how both places are celebrating the rise of a local son. With Elvis his legacy is all around; he is the acknowledged ‘King of Rock and Roll’ and he had a huge influence on probably everything we listen to in modern music today. In Stalin’s case, a scant look around outside said more about his legacy; Georgia departed from the Soviet Union upon its break-up and is now eager to join both EU and NATO. Walking around the park we found a couple of seedy looking strip-clubs and an ATM. At the ATM I withdrew some cash… the ATM paid out in US Dollars.
Our last stop in Georgia was the capital Tbilisi. We pre-booked 5 nights in the city centre ‘Sololaki Guest Apartment’, which offered private parking for the bikes. GPS took us directly into the city and straight to the door; or should I say the place where there had once been a door. We pulled up at the rather grand portico of a huge and crumbling apartment block. I say grand but that was perhaps a reflection of former days… Now the front doors were missing revealing an unlit interior hosting a broken stairway, the floor all covered in a thick layer of dust and cigarette butts. We called the owners and a few minutes later the caretaker, a lovely lady beaming smiles called ‘Maja’ appeared to let us in. The stairs led to a courtyard that was at the same time crumbling and overgrown and we were shown to a scratch-paint door. After some fumbling with a key to unlock the portal we were introduced to our home for the next five nights; a suite of enormous rooms, two of which hosted sagging double beds, another with a decrepit four-ring gas cooker and refrigerator of equal vintage and a cavernous living room that was furnished with a good few dozen empty wine bottles (all tastefully arranged, to which we would certainly add a few more…) and a suite of disparate chairs and sofas.
The owner was clearly an artist and the place was littered with works of their art along with dozens of Georgian books and magazines. Busted ancient window frames had been hung around the walls like empty picture frames and another wall was host to the remnants of a broken dining chair. Empty corners were populated by entire branches lopped off some hapless tree, but I guess they filled a space. Finally there were the bathroom facilities. At the back of the kitchen a doorway led to a small compartment that contained in turn, a wash-hand basin, a bath and a washing machine. The latter was modern but the first two were of a similar vintage to the kitchen hardware. We later noticed that the washing machine was plumbed into the bathroom plumbing and drained via the bath! And so to the toilet; the WC was literally in a closet. What we thought was a floor to ceiling cupboard actually had mostly dummy doors but one was functioning and this opened to reveal the loo!
We looked at each other and first thoughts were an incredulous ”what the hell?” As we studied the high ceilinged rooms of what had obviously at one time been a grand residence, a quick scan around told us that the place was clean, not smelly and its location, just off the city centre, would suit us fine. Further the bikes were stabled at Maja’s round the corner, out of sight in a private courtyard. The place had a tremendous sense of ease and peacefulness about it and it proved to be a great fitness retreat. Maggie found the solitude of the enormous front bedroom, illuminated by tree-filtered, early morning sunlight, to be one of the most sweet and inspiring locations she’d ever known for practicing her yoga.
Parking up the bikes with Maja, we noticed a Yamaha Tenere parked outside one of the residences. The racket of our arrival into the small courtyard brought us an introduction to a fine young gentleman named Kosta, owner of the Yamaha. We spent a beery evening in a local pub, where he entertained us with tales of life in Georgia from the Soviet era, through independence and on to the civil war, with Russian tanks on the street corners as recently as 2008. They were, for us, unimaginable times; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disappearance of regular money and wages, massive and sudden unemployment while factories closed and everyone tried to figure out what was going on. Then the rise of criminal elements, ever ready to exploit the situation and take control of basic commodities and movement of people around the city. Add to this the opportunity for the South Ossetian / Abkhazians to split from Georgia and they were chaotic times indeed. In one harrowing tale Kosta told us how his father and uncle were captured in their car by gangsters and taken to the local cemetery for execution. Shallow graves were prepared and they only avoided death through the fact that they happened to share the same surname as another well-known criminal (they lost the car mind).
Our visit to Tbilisi was certainly memorable. It’s a great wee city in that you can hoof it around most of the attractions in a day or so. Add to that fantastic food, great beer and wine to die for and it’s a must see place. But time was moving on; we had an appointment to be at the Iranian border in just under a fortnight’s time. But before that another treasure awaited; Armenia…
The photogallery for this Blog Post is at ‘Georgia Part 2′