Monday, May 29, 2006

First post - Tbilisi Georgia and the Caucasus


So I am in Tbilisi, Georgia right now, typing away on a wifi connection in our hotel room with a view of Tbilisi's city hall just outside my window. A few days ago, the first hundred or so of several thousand soldiers were practicing their marching skills for the celebration of Georgian Independence Day, May 26th. Like the Czechs, the Georgians have a couple days that could be considered independence days. This one represents the day in 1918 when the Georgians declared their independence from Russia who had governed them for 117 years previously, an independence that only lasted two years. The most recent moment of Georgian history that most people outside of Georgia remember is the Rose Revolution when Eduard Shevardnadze was excused from power and the democratic government of 36 year old Mikheil Saakashvili took over after storming the Parliament armed only with roses in 2003. Before that, tanks rolled down Rustaveli street, the street where my hotel sits, and fired directly into many of the buildings, lighting them on fire and either gutting or destroying quite a few. And that is only the twentieth century - the history of Georgia is immense.

Most of you know that currently Georgia is strategically important to the United States as it has allowed US warplanes to operate in Georgian airspace during the various campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (not too far away - Georgia is due north of eastern Turkey.) And Georgia, through Shevardnadze's wily marketing of Georgia as a thoroughfare, is the bed upon which several very important oil pipelines run, carrying energy supplies from Baku, Azerbaijan to the Black Sea directly and to the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey. This is why my wife is here. Her firm is helping Georgia settle a dispute that grew out of the building of the pipeline.

Still, even with the oil transport money coming into the country, there just is not enough money here. As a result of the devastating earthquake of 2002, which registered a 6 on the Richter scale and caused approximately $45million in damage while displacing 15,000 people, the historic old town in Tbilisi is on the verge of falling to the ground, a architectural loss akin I think to what is happening in Havana or Tirana, Albania or other places that continue to suffer after the fall of the Iron Curtain (unlike Prague, for which there seems to be no end to foreign investment.) Unemployment is high, worse in the countryside, and the optimism of the Rose Revolution is constantly bruised by the day to day realities of being torn between Georgia's love-hate relationship with Russia and a growing trade relationship with Western Europe and the United States, symbolized by the country's geographic location in neither Europe nor Asia.

The army is an achievement of sorts. Georgia must maintain an army, partly because several of the Georgian states have declared themselves independent from Georgian control and threaten retaliation if Georgia tries to reestablish sovereignty, and partly because Russia is the 3000 pound giant waiting at the door who would think nothing of (and has in the past) sending in troops as it sees fit. As it has historically for centuries, Georgia has to defend itself from the constant threat of invasion. In the end though, a fit Georgian army is simultaneously reassuring and depressing. Reassuring because small armies have frequently shown their ability to hold off even the largest and strongest countries in the world. Depressing because this effort has often resulted in the near annihilation of that country, as it has in Chechnya.

Over the weekend, we headed out into the area surrounding Tbilisi to see some of the buildings and sites associated with early Christianity in Georgia, as well as Stalin's hometown of Gori and a cave town whose habitation began in the first century B.C. Quite astounding. Georgia is just ancient. I suppose one gets the same impression from visiting Greece or Italy, but frequently here, we were the only tourists at the site. Everyone else was going to church or farming or shepherding a flock of sheep somewhere. So the impression feels much less packaged and contained. And the sites are incredible, located as they are in strategic positions to defend against a seemingly endless wave after wave of attackers who repeatedly wrecked things over the centuries. When we found ourselves among tourists, they were Georgian, mostly school children who are delightfully brave and quickly say "hello" and "isn't it beautiful" in English. If the energy of the youngsters is any indication, this country has a bright future.

We did see some Japanese tourists while visiting Stalin's birthplace, however. Gori is a very strange place. The only indication that we got of any of Stalin's faults was that perhaps collectivization of farming was not such a good idea. Obviously Gori is an important part of Georgian history, but it would be a shame if it gets tourist dollars to the exclusion of other places in Georgia, i.e. tour buses zoom past something from the 4th century to look at a statue made in the 1950's of someone who was responsible for the deaths of millions, including Georgians.

Most of the churches we saw had at one time been entirely white-washed by the Soviets - that is to say, all the frescos and decorated surfaces were coated with white paint or white plaster and either left derelict, converted to historic monuments or used as theatres or other secular functions. Renovations are recent and ongoing, but the amazing thing is that Georgia has been trashed by the Persians, Tamerlane, the Russians, earthquakes, etc. and still these older sites are standing. The masonry skill is tremendous, and the supposition is that the chemical properties of the mortar, which included eggs in the mix, made the buildings flexible but stable.

On Sunday we headed north out of Tbilisi on the Georgian Military Highway that leads to the Russian - Georgian border. The road runs along the Aragvi river until the river's valley gets too steep, whereupon the roads begins to climb to the Dzhrvi pass, elevation 7858 feet, then down the other side to Kobi, a flat spot at 6339 feet where four mountain valleys meet, and on to Kazbegi at the foot of the huge Mt. Kazbek (16,500 feet) where a small church sits perched on a cliff above the town. A little bit further down the road beyond Kazbegi is the Darial gorge, the end of the known world for the Romans and the site of the Russian - Georgian border. Just shy of a hundred kilometers north of the border (if that) is the town of Beslan, unfortunately famous for the school massacre that took place a while ago. The whole area is contentious, with the Russian at the border, the Chechens to the northwest, and the South Ossetians, one of the rebel regions in Georgia that claims autonomy, just over the mountains on the east bank of the Aragvi river. The Russians accuse the Georgians of aiding the Chechens, and the Georgians accuse the Russians of arbitrarily shutting off the natural gas pipeline that keeps everyone warm in the winter & of meddling in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The scenery is primeval. Most of the rock formations are the result of volcano, earthquake or both. Huge uplifts of rock jut out with angular striations, striated volcanic plugs flake into geometric tailings, and large expanses show evidence of lava flow from the once active volcanoes in the region. Much of the rock color is gray, but there are also areas that are colored an intense red, or in the case of sulfurous outflow, bright yellow, white and green. The mountains are sharp edged and pointed. Rocks are everywhere. Landslides seem to happen frequently, and at several locations, we could see buildings up to their second floors in scree, though it was difficult to tell whether the slide had occurred yesterday or several years ago.

People live throughout the area and have for centuries. The mountains, if you are tough enough to withstand the horrendous winters (6 meter snowfall at times) and the vertical territory, allow you to stay one step ahead of your enemies who may not be so hardy or prepared. Towers are sprinkled liberally throughout the valley and functioned as an early warning system when invaders approached. If you have seen the movie, The Lord of the Rings and watched the scene when the towers are lit to signal far off kingdoms of the coming invasion, you will have a sense of how some of the Georgian towers functioned and what it felt like standing beneath them.

Shepherding is a common vocation, and the shepherds spend their springs driving the herds up out of their pens in the valleys towards the alpine meadows in the heights. When you see a flock of sheep up on a highland meadow, the first question is how did they get up there? Then the second question is how will they get back down. The routes are often not easily seen from a distance, and I am sure that too is purposeful. A sheep meadow with only a few ways to enter or exit makes the work of the shepherds and their sheep dogs (large white dogs with brown and black splotches and bobbed tails) easier when it comes to watching for wolves.

Pretty spectacular but hard life. If you want a really good read for some Georgian history & culture, as well as a ripping yarn, try to find Tony Anderson's excellent book, Bread & Ashes. I don't think it is distributed in the U.S., but you can follow the link and get it through Amazon in the U.K. Highly recommended.

You can see my photos from the trip at the links below or by just going to my site on Flickr. Before you start wondering, I have gotten a small Canon Digital Elph camera to carry along and shoot snaps so I can post on the road, so to speak. This is an experiment. So far the quality seems pretty good, but I haven't given up on film by any stretch, as evidenced by the last link below. Rather I have been shooting film and digital both, which makes for a heavier bag but not by too much.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Film Shots

Thanks for looking. Hope everyone is well.