Iron Butterfly, June in the Republic of Georgia

I’ve been home in Sitka two weeks now, writing reports, enjoying the Sitka Summer Music Festival and thinking of my recent trip to Tbilisi, Georgia.  It was a shorter trip than usual, which was a good thing because if I had stayed my normal two weeks I would have been caught in the flood and probably had to fend off lions and hippos on my way to the airport.  My thoughts are with Tbilisi with the loss of human life.  I’m also thinking of how we do news.  If this had just been a flood that killed 12 people it would barely get mention in the world media.  But if it includes the death of zoo animals, it becomes, briefly, an international sensation.

This trip was mostly visits radio stations outside of Tbilisi, a good road trip.   Each region has its specialty and you can see that specialty for sale along the highway.  Kashuri has hammocks.  Further along the road you can buy bread, wicker baskets, clay pottery including the huge wine pots that are buried in the ground to ferment wine.  Georgian wine is distinctive for being made in clay and not wooden casks.

At Ubisa you can buy honey, some of which is made in the Ubisa Monastery, only 500 meters off the main road.  We stopped to look at the 14th century murals.  Click here to see more pictures of this Monastery from 2004.

In Surami there are the ruins of a castle framed in the more modern ruins of smokestacks from abandoned Soviet era factories.  I have tried to take a photo of this every time I’ve passed by, and each time failed, reflection off of a window, a tree at the wrong time, sun into the lens.  This time the light was right, the window rolled down and the car slowed, the camera setting was wrong, so I have a bouncy video of the castle, and had to learnJune Road Trip (17) how to capture a still from the movie.

The drive is a mix of mountains, ancient churches, monasteries and the ruins of dead factories, some featuring heroic Soviet murals that depict pheasants singing and dancing while doing stoop work.   One mural glorifies Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.  To see pictures of this factory from 2013 click here.

I spent much of the day in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, at Radio Dzveli Kalaki (Old City Radio).  They’ve just moved into new studios.  On other trips to Kutaisi I have not gotten a chance to see much of the city save for Bagrati Cathedral.   This time I got the chance to see quite a bit more, including a return visit to Bagrati.   Bagrati is an 11th century cathedral that had fallen into ruin after being blown up by the Ottomans in the 17th century.  It had been declared a UN World Heritage Site but it is in danger of being delisted because of the “restoration” work carried out.  That work includes rebuilding the walls, topping it with a green roof, adding an elevator and replacing some of the lost stone columns with metal.  Lika says that they look like prosthetics.  While I like the mixture of modern with ancient (mine was the minority view in our car), I can see UNSCO’s point.  See 2013 pictures of Bagrati by clicking here.

We visited the new Parliament building in Kutaisi.  It’s one of those modern buildings favored by the former president.  This one looks like a giant snail, but because its shell is largely glass it’s unbearable in the summer.  It is not a loved building and even though it is not yet three years old it’s beginning to look like one of those Soviet era buildings that’s crumbling at one end while being built on the other.  Cracked pavements and un-cut lawns add to the image of civic destitution.  The building is surrounded by modern sculptures that Lika characterizes as “Iron Butterflies.”  But this building is not “In the Garden of Eden.”  Perhaps the building is cursed.  It was built on the site of a Soviet War Memorial that was blown up in 2009 after the Russian Invasion (killing two onlookers).  Russia protested, the Parliament was built.

Downtown features old buildings with balconies, a classic old cable lift, and the River Rioni.  On the Red Bridge (Tsiteli Khidi) there’s a statue of a hat thief, who grabbed hats and then dove into the Rioni, although given the shallowness of the water and the rocks, I don’ see how he could have survived.

The next day we drove to Zugdidi, a town that had been taken by the Russians in 2008 and which is only about 7 miles from the “administrative” border with Abkhazia where Russian troops prowl.  Radio Atinati broadcasts to listeners in both Georgian and Russian and is run by an NGO that works on healing a post conflict society.   Across the street from Atinati is a Soviet era metal mural sowing the evolution of transportation from Winged Mercury to space flight.  The one thing missing is a bicycle.  Atinati has fashioned an old style high wheel bike to fit on a blank section of the mural.  They are waging a campaign to include the bike and have built a bike rack under the mural as a way of promoting cycling in Zugdidi.  The mural and bike are on my webpage: .

There is mixed feeling toward the Russians here.  Many people speak Russian and Russian music is popular.  We visited a palace of one of the local nobles who married into a Russian noble family during the time when Georgia was being absorbed into the Tsarist Empire.  The interpreters insist that the Russians did not invade (that time) but entered to protect Georgia’s Orthodox Christians from the Turks.  The tickets to the palace are leftovers from the old Soviet tickets, the price marked at 10 Kopeks.  There are two palaces and a church on the grounds that include a botanical garden gone to seed.  One palace is being rebuilt and refurbished by the US Embassy.  Echoes of the Cold War still reverberate.

We drove through Zugdidi suburbs on the way to Anaklia on the Black Sea, where we spent the night.   Zugdidi has suburban houses with large front lawns.  Each lawn comes with a cow, chickens and either a goat or a pig (or, being that this was early June, a sow with a lit lf little piglets.)   In the late afternoon the cows were meandering across the streets, the pigs routing around in the drainage ditches and the goats the lawns mowed.

Anaklia is a new resort being built with Italian architecture and Turkish investment.  It’s the Kutaisi Parliament cubed.  Parts are crumbling while other parts are being built.  The resort sits where the Inguri River runs into the Black Sea.  The Palm Beach Hotel is on the river.  It is new, modern and well-appointed but already you can see bits falling off.  The beach is dark sand, much nicer than the pebble beach at Batumi down the coast except that it’s not kept clean, or perhaps has not been cleaned up after construction.  The water was warm but there were blocks of concrete with rebar sticking out that I could see in the breaking waves.  A tire bobbed in the surf.  Because of the dark sand I wasn’t sure that I wanted to swim out to be impaled by rebar so I waded.   The resort is a mix of modern hotels and skeletons of hotels yet to be built, or perhaps halted because of the economic downturn.  The sports pitches are overgrown but the chaise lounges on the beach are among the most substantial and comfortable I’ve ever encountered.   There’s an outdoor stage with an amphitheater on the beach, a water park, a marina with exactly one boat and the same strange iron butterflies that grace the grounds of the Parliament.  The pavement is already cracked and the dramatic new cable stay footbridge across the river has broken boards.   Anakila has potential but it needs care.  It does have beautiful sunsets.

The resort is one of the few places in Georgia where the alphabet on signs is Cyrillic as well as Georgian Latin.  A common sign is “СЛОТС” (Slots).  The resort was by no means full but most of the visitors we met were Russian.  Breakfast at the Palm Beach was strange.  Lika said it reminded her of breakfast at a Soviet kindergarten.  One dish was potato flower stewed in berry juice.  It was warm, sweet and had the consistency of porridge suspended in gelatin.  That with a piece of cheese, bread and strong tea was my Soviet comfort food breakfast, comfortable the Russian tourists, exotic for me.


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