My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Holy Georgia - from Kutaisi to Gori

I have no need for alarms to wake me up at the Tskaltubo Resort outside Kutaisi. The birds do the job more than adequately with their loud and exuberant dawn chorus - a joy to wake up to.
As we leave Kutaisi behind, we pass the all-glass parliament building (symbolic, as I said before, of the avowed openness now of Georgian government following their Independence), some wonderful sculptures, and a bustling and colorful flower market, before finding ourselves out of town and speeding back towards Gori on the main highway we came in on just two days before. Because of the mountainous nature of the country, the relatively few main highways between towns, and the fact that all main routes seem to radiate out from Tbilisi, we have to do a fair amount of retracing our own tracks if we are to see as much as we can of the different regions of this varied and fascinating country.
Snickerse, honey and pots for sale along the road 
The scenery is beautiful on this drive, much of it missed on our journey out to Kutaisi two days ago because of the torrential rain and storms we drove through. The pastures are lush, thick with wild flowers, and being enjoyed by the many cows wandering freely as they graze. They are a special breed, sure footed and able to deal with the sometimes mountainous terrain. Distant mountains to the South are dusted with snow on their caps. We drive through woodlands - a significant area of Georgia is still covered with deciduous and evergreen forest - many trees here are leaning over towards the South west, a clue that the prevailing winds here are from the North East. A wide river, the River Kvirila, meanders to our right, amidst marshland, and a man has driven his car into the shallows and is washing it! We pass large breeding kennels for the popular Caucasian Shepherd Dog, or Caucasian Ovcharka, an ancient breed popular as a guard dog and for bear hunting.
This is a big sweet corn growing region, used for the corn bread of this area, bread with a dense texture which is not to everyone's taste but which suits me fine when it is well made. This is also the area for wicker goods and pottery, evidenced by the many roadside stalls selling these goods. These are not for the benefit of the tourists, we are told, but are essential household items for the Georgians. The special clay for this pottery comes only from this region, the pots are all hand made and are used for both cooking and serving; the clay imparts a distinctive flavor to the food. On the far, Eastern, side of Zestaponi we stop at one of these stalls to buy souvenirs to take home. They seem so inexpensive. I am always worried about weight, in this age of airline restrictions, and have to resist some of the attractive clay vessels which I would have loved to buy.
There are also the Churchkhela or Georgian Snickers for sale, the lovely sweets made with nuts coated in grape juice- nutritious and calorific and for me delicious! 

Our first pilgrim stop of the day is at the little church of St George, in a delightful situation down near the river in the small village of Urbnisi (Ubisi). There are some beautiful and well preserved 10th century frescoes, most noteworthy being the ones depicting the Last Supper and the Annunciation. The church is only big enough for one coach party at a time and another group are arriving as we leave. Beehives are lined up beneath the almond trees near the entrance to the church. There is a churchyard slightly separated from the main church grounds, as is the Georgian custom, each grave surrounded by elaborate iron railings, the whole area somewhat overgrown with tall bracken. The priest sees us arrive and comes across to say hello to us; for some reason his eye is caught by my black tea shirt from Thailand with a striking elephant on the front!

beehives in the churchyard

entrance to St George's church

Leaving the church behind we soon go through the 2.5 km road tunnel marking the divide between East and West Georgia, thereby avoiding the scenic but tortuous old road over the Rikoti Pass, with 4 km of tight hairpin bends. We drive through Surami, famous for its pine tree forests and a popular resort for those with respiratory disorders.
We approach Khashuri. There are hammocks for sale everywhere here, around the town, at roadside stalls and small shops, popular purchases apparently for those heading West to the beach resorts on the Black Sea. The poppies are fantastic in the fields on either side of the road, and many calves are tethered in the pastures - destined no doubt for the veal market. At least they are not suffering the fate of many of their less privileged brethren who are destined to live their life in veal houses, where there are often issues surrounding their welfare.
Biliki handicraft for sale
Finally we arrive in Gori, and after the poshest "comfort break" of the whole trip, in a brand new and very modern "service area" with a fantastic range of food and drinks, we make our way into town. Our first stop here is at the Society Biliki (in Georgian this means path, or way forward), an NGO founded in 1997 to work with refugee children from conflict zones around Gori, Internally Displaced People (IDP) and those from poor local families. It began with 15 "street children" and now has more than 80 children on its register, offering them both education and medical support. It has a special focus on street children who are begging or trying to trade simply to survive.

Biliki handicraft for sale
McCabe Pilgrimages founded the McCabe Educational Trust in 1991, to help those in need encountered by pilgrims in their travels with the company. And so wherever the pilgrimages go, there will be an organisation grateful for the support of the pilgrims that we can visit and see how well our contributions are being spent. This also gives such places much needed moral support as we extend our hands of friendship to them. The Trust now distributes about £200,000 annually in grant aid. At Biliki we are given a presentation about their work and leave a gift for them. Before waving goodbye the ladies among us cannot resist buying some of the beautiful jewelry and felt work made there for raising funds.
Gori block of flats - many show scars of the 2008 conflict
There has been a settlement here at Gori since the early Bronze Age and it has been a military stronghold since the 12th century although the fortress may have been in use already by the 7th century. Gori has had a turbulent history, due to its position at a strategic crossroads of major transit routes. It suffered its most recent attacks with aerial bombardment from the Russian Air force from the outset of the South Ossetian War in 2008. Perhaps Gori is best known as being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, although its fortress is also famous, towering above the central part of the modern city. It is a city of contrasts - some of the stark communist blocks of flats clearly still showing the damage of the 2008 invasion, whereas there were big gardens to large houses on the outskirts, often with cool looking arbors over them draped with vines, offering welcome shade against the excessive summer heat.
Poppy field along the way

Stalin's birthplace
We arrive in Gori at the time of the "Last Bell" - the last day of school for students until September - before then they have study leave and exams - if they survive their celebrations! Because it seems that the revelry primarily involves getting all your friends to sign your white T Shirt, then piling as many students as possible into each car and travelling at break neck and suicidal speeds through the town's streets and out of town to as many local and ancient monuments as can be managed, all the while leaning out of the side windows, standing up through sunroofs, taking up both sides of the road and generally behaving stupidly! Our coach meets a few such convoys, and in the circumstances I think our driver is very restrained.
Inside the Stalin museum
Driving a little way out of town for lunch we see more settlements for IDPs, with some productive looking "allotments" where food is clearly being grown. Then we go to the Stalin Museum. We were shown around by a guide who went through the many exhibits in several rooms at breakneck speed and the whole experience left me quite cold. I rather wish I had followed those who instead explored the Gori fortress and the fantastic sculptures below it. But it is certainly an incredible collection and display for those interested to delve more deeply into Stalin the man and his place in history. Sadly the captions are mostly in Georgian and Russian, with little attempt at English translations, which limits the value of the visit.
Stalin's Railway Carriage
It is a shame that we didn't have time to visit the nearby 7th century church of Ateni Sioni, said to be one of the loveliest churches in Georgia, and with some famous frescoes. It's perhaps good to leave some places to come back to on another trip! We have to move on as there is still a long drive ahead of us, once we have visited the Cave City of Uplistsikhe ………….

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