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, 12 July 2014

Holy Georgia - in the steps of St Nino and the Syrian Fathers - the road to Kutaisi

We are pilgrims on a journey; in Caucasian Georgia, in the steps of St Nino and the Syrian Fathers. We have explored the Dzhvari or Jvari (cross) church in its proud and very prominent position high above the town of the sacred city of Mtskheta, and then visited the cathedral in the town, related in my last post here.
But now we have to travel on.
Back in the coach we travel westwards, passing close to South Ossetia. Advice on safety and security for travelers from the UK foreign office advises us that: "along the M27 road (also known as the M1), particularly where it runs very close to South Ossetia (between the Stepantsminda/Gudauri turnoff and Gori, and between Gori and Khashuri)... There is a risk of criminal activity in these areas." This is our route!  The website further advises that: "The British government does not recognise the unilateral declarations of independence made by the de facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is no UK diplomatic representation available in either location." We have every confidence in McCabe's meticulous attention to such details, and also in our excellent Georgian guide and driver.
A refugee camp on road to Kutaisi
on the road to Kutaisi
Our guide tells us that 20% of Georgian territory is still occupied by Russia today, 400,000 people have been turned out of their houses to live in refugee camps in Georgia or to leave the country. We drive past one such camp where some of these Internally Displaced People, or IDPs as they are known, now live. We are told that this camp was partly funded by the European Union and the World Bank. Since its independence, Georgia did suffer civil conflict, fueled, our guide tells us, by Russia who would like the world to think Georgia is unstable. But whilst Georgia did have a corrupt government and economic problems in its early days of independence, for the last ten years or so it is making positive steps forward and life is generally good. There is plenty of new building going on, and the roads are being substantially improved. Georgia wants only to build peace and stability for its people, a desire shared by most of us. The country is expanding its export market around the world, especially for its wine for which it is justly well known, and in 2011 the new Georgian government even renegotiated its exports to Russia again, a huge and very important market for them. As she tells us this, we pass a tourist sign to the "Wine Route", the first of many such signs we will see later in our pilgrimage.

on the road to Kutaisi

There is a family of stray dogs basking on the bonnet of an abandoned car by the wayside; a bitch and her pups, clearly set up home there. There are too many emaciated stray dogs around - so sad.
The wild flowers in the meadows as we drive along are stunning in their diversity and colors. Poppies give us flashes of bright red brilliance, there are fields of barley and wheat, and there are plenty of smallholdings and small orchards in and around the villages we pass through. Much accommodation here seems very old and run down, in stark contrast to the very modern IDP settlements. Rusty corrugated iron roofs cover many of the older buildings, again in contrast to the many shiny new satellite discs seen as we drive further to the west.
typical Georgian food very Veggie friendly!
It is lunch time, and we stop at Venecia Ristorante, before reaching Gori. This restaurant has been built around an artificial lake and canal with arched bridges and plenty of outside terraces. We discover later that this is a very popular style of restaurant in Georgia. A long table is set out ready for us, groaning with enticing plates of food and baskets of the flat bread for which the region is known. We are seated on one of the covered balconies overlooking the lake, which is full of trout. I'm finding the Georgian food very veggie friendly on the whole, helped by the way they keep bringing various dishes, both meat and salad based and there are no defined courses as such, which we are all used to. So at first it seems a little strange, but I like it. I only miss having a sweet "pudding" to finish the meal, that's all. And my wheat free diet, recently imposed for medical reasons, is proving to be a challenge, with so much delicious looking fresh bread always generously provided. But my wheat abstinence is certainly helping me, so perseverance in this respect is definitely worth while.
dough for the flat bread

colorful roadside market stalls on
road to Kutaisi
After this meal we go around the back of the restaurant where the coach is parked and watch an elderly lady making this flat bread, sticking the shaped dough with apparent ease around the sides of a stone pit at the bottom of which are red hot embers; a skill no doubt learnt over decades and passed on through generations. Also here a man is catching and killing some of the free range chickens for supper tonight. I give this a miss! At least the birds have had a happy life scratching around the coppice behind the restaurant and their end comes mercifully quickly.
It is a three hour drive after lunch to Kutaisi and our hotel for the next two nights so we settle down to read, sleep, watch films on our personal tablets etc. or listen to music. I cannot do any of these things; I watch out of the window continually, anxious not to miss any detail of the changing landscape of this lovely countryside. There is so much of interest to see along the roadside;
There is a craftsman making wooden ladders. Then there are the many colorful street market, the stalls stacked high with local fruits. Each market comprises a collection of many small stalls, but many of these appear to be very run down, even abandoned. I've mentioned the cows before, grazing everywhere, with no boundaries, usually under the watchful eye of one or two men, who we later learn are paid per cow per day for this watchful duty. Some keepers are on horseback - one we saw was galloping bareback somewhat dangerously I thought alongside the fast moving traffic!
There are many small fields of newly planted "greens." Then I see a motorbike pulling a farm trailer! A large and rare road sign in English at the road works along the way urges the traffic to "Slow Down." They are widening this very main and busy route and improving its surface at the same time.
Always there is litter, especially at junctions and along the main roads. Curiously the towns themselves are nearly always relatively clear of litter. Lovely Georgia, please stop desecrating your beautiful countryside in this way. Sadly, I fear the UK is heading in the same direction unless we change the filthy habit of "litter bugging" soon.
Kutaisi street scene
We are warned to expect a higher humidity in Kutaisi than in Tblisi. We are driving towards higher mountains on our left, to the South, and into rain - we are only one hour into our drive and can see the clouds coming down the mountain sides towards us. I even think I see snow on a distant peak, glinting in the sunshine before the rain clouds blot out the view. And do they just! It is raining really hard now, the view ahead almost obliterated except when vivid lightning flashes momentarily open it up again, and thunder roars around. It looks to be set in for the day.
Water pours down roadside gullies presumably to a collecting reservoir somewhere? Meanwhile we are noticeably climbing. My ears start popping. There is evidence of quite a few rocky landslides which have been cleared away from the road. Then we begin our descent. We drive down verdantly green and steep wooded gorges and we can see a river, sometimes alongside the road, then far below us, always swollen and fast flowing with the rain. There are regular "wrecking cul de sacs" - the signs again in English. Presumably these are the same as our "escape routes" (what do Americans call them?) for lorries with failing brakes on steep hills and the assumption is that Georgian lorry drivers don't need them? I understood that English is not widely spoken here outside Tbilisi so why the English signs?

Home to the story of the Golden Fleece, Kutaisi is Georgia's second largest town, with a population of 200,000. It is also the oldest, with evidence of settlements going back to perhaps the 17th century BC. It was certainly established as a Greek colony by the 7th century BC.
Here we will be visiting two monasteries and the wonderful Bagrat Cathedral, as well as soaking up the atmosphere of the Georgian Independence celebrations which happily coincide with our be continued...

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