“It’s good that you are going now. In summer there are many snakes”

Gori had long been on my list of places to visit in Georgia, as soviet kitsch found a place in my heart even before I first ventured east of Berlin. The Stalin Museum seemed the major attraction, but after talking to locals it became clear that the main event would be Uplistsikhe, an ancient cave city just up the road from Stalin’s drab hometown.

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Arriving in Gori, the Museum welcomes visitors as the first large building at the head of a park that stretches down the main avenue, Stalin Street. Like so many local monuments, it combines neoclassical elements with vaguely oriental accents, including the ornaments atop the tower, which seems the tallest structure in town. A few steps away, the house Stalin grew up in is sheltered inside what looks like a temple, pristine and massive columns surround the modest, traditional home. Above the tile roof of the house, a decorative glass ceiling protects the history below.

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Unfortunately the museum itself only had descriptions in Russian and Georgian. Though my Georgian skills have now eclipsed my Russian ones, I gleaned most of my information from photos and art on display. I found the collection of embroidery quite impressive. Never before have I seen so many needlework portraits of one man in so many stages of life. Also, one hall was filled with gifts Stalin received from other countries, which represented a wide variety of folk art and industrial-themed desk-sets. Perhaps I should have guessed that in Italian he’s called Giuseppe Stalin, but even so I could hardly stop laughing I saw him addressed in such terms.

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The town fortress, perched on a hill that sprouts up out of the valley, provides a great view of the surrounding area. It also allows teenagers a refuge from the eyes of older generations, a place they can hold hands without their families hearing about it later.

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Aerial views of Georgian cities tend to be unflattering, but the unobscured panorama of mountains and valleys looks even more serene in contrast with the chaos of unplanned and dilapidated sprawl. In Gori the knowledge that the not-too-distant peaks are out of reach in South Ossetia (here called Samchablo) lends a nagging sense of instability to the otherwise peaceful landscape.

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The bus doors refused to close as we followed a road along the river. When we arrived at the end of the route, a two kilometers walk from the cave city Uplistsikhe, it became clear that the tourist season was long over. There was no one on the road, and even the parking lot was empty until a tour-van pulled in just as we were buying our tickets. The emptiness made the site seem doubly abandoned; not only had the original residents moved on centuries ago, but even tourists found attractions other than these ancient caves.

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Uplistsikhe, the “Lord’s fortress,” probably began its history around oooooooo. The residents carved structures out of the hills, and somehow managed to survive for some time in the barren landscape which seems suited for little more than shepherding. Erosion from a variety of sources has challenged people here for millenia, which preservationists now counteract with a few staircases and railings to keep feet out of the more sensitive spots. Restoration in this part of the world can be a bit heavy-handed, and concrete pillars help support the weaker caves.

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Nevertheless, the surreal and ancient nature of the place is otherworldly. Were it not for the village across the river, the city would seem completely isolated in time and place. Swathes of history here blur the lines between natural and manmade, and the wind makes it seem as if the city operates in dream time. Here are some pictures, though again it’s best seen in person.

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There are in fact sites in Georgia that don’t involve caves, though I seem to have neglected them so far. But the caves are so curious that I always find myself wanting to return, to explore a bit more. Including Stalin in our itinerary gave us a break from the ancient, but the shadows of modern history endear the older, obscure past. Perhaps the next trip will find a more moderate path, though I’m not sure such a thing exists here.

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