The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Georgia

Tskhinval, South Ossetia

Tskhinvali Cathedral

The breakaway “Republic of South Ossetia” was a major focus of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war.  The border with the rest of Georgia is closed to foreigners, but it’s possible to visit from Russia. You need advance permission from the South Ossetian authorities. They don’t issue a visa or even provide an authorization letter, but instead they add your name to an authorized list at the border checkpoint.

I applied for permission from the South Ossetia Foreign Ministry about four weeks before my trip.  They didn’t actually give me permission until about 5 days ahead of my visit.  I had a similar experience with Abkhazia, I suspect they simply don’t like to issue permission more than a few days ahead.  They don’t have an application form, instead they requested me to email them a scanned image of a formal signed letter requesting permission to visit and giving the dates and my identification information.

Glimpses of the Greater Caucasus

I took the bus in from Vladikavkaz’s Avtovokzal #1 to Tskhinvali. There are five or so buses a day (from 9am to 4pm) and there are also occasional marshrutkas. The bus took three and a half hours.  The road runs through narrow passes through the Greater Caucasus range, so it’s often quite scenic.  There are several tunnels, including the 4km Roki Tunnel, which crosses the border between Russia and the RSO.

Exiting Russia I got questioned for several minutes by the Russian frontier officers. But it was all fairly friendly and they seemed mostly concerned to make sure that I knew what I was doing and had somewhere to stay. An English speaking officer translated.  The Russian authorities tactfully avoided stamping my passport when I crossed into RSO and also when I returned.  There were no issues or questions on my return.

The rather battered Hotel Alan

I didn’t actually go through any entry or exit checks for South Ossetia itself. The bus drivers indicated I should just stay quietly on the bus when they stopped at the checkpoints. (I suspect they didn’t want to be delayed.)  So I never had my entry permission checked.  But obviously you should not rely on that!

At Tskhinvali I stayed at the Hotel Alan, which is on the South side of the bus station square. It looks dilapidated and abandoned, but if you go up to the second floor, that is operational. It is a little basic, but fine for a few nights.

War damaged buildings

There isn’t that much to see in Tskhinvali itself. The town is still recovering from the 2008 war, with only a limited amount of reconstruction going on. The highlights are probably the cathedral and the parliament building.  The central area is mostly in reasonable shape, but the Northern sections contain many derelict buildings.  More Tskhinval photos.

Other travel practicalities:  Although the Russian border post doesn’t stamp passports, it does count as a Russian exit and re-entry, so you’ll need a double or multi-entry Russia visa to enter RSO and return.  You don’t need a visa for RSO but you do need advance permission from the RSO Foreign Ministry.  (Google Translate will help you there.) The RSO Tourism department (yes, it exists) has a Russian language website giving various pieces of travel information at minmol.org/ru.

Abkhazia and Sukhumi

Before I arrived in Georgia, I had applied to the Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi for a visa to visit Abkhazia. After a little toing-and-froing I was assured that my visa would be waiting in Sukhumi and my name would be on the “approved list” at the incoming border checkpoint.

I took a taxi from Zugdidi to the Abkhazia border, arriving at around 8:50am. On the Georgian side, there was much careful writing down of my particulars (name, nationality, passport number, date of birth, place of birth) and a couple of phone calls “to officer” to get the OK. Everyone was quite friendly and it took about ten minutes.  I was warned to beware of thieves on the Abkhazian side.

On the way towards the border, still on the Georgian administered side, there is a strange sculpture of a giant revolver pointing towards Abkhazia, with the barrel tied off.  Interpretation is left to the viewer.

There was then a long trudge, perhaps 1.5 km, down a road and over a bridge to the Abkhazia checkpoint. Naturally the route was in dismal repair, with giant puddles.  There was moderate rain. Sigh.

On the Abkhazia side, with no thieves anywhere in sight, a cheerful young passport officer with no English confirmed that my name (with maybe a dozen others) was on a handwritten list on his desk. I was then waved through. It took less than 5 minutes.

I was out and in the minibus for Gali around 9:30. But (perhaps due to the rain) it was a slow day and it wasn’t until around 10:30 that we had a full bus and left for Gali. We got to Gali around 11:00. After a little dithering, and the persistent assertion that there would be no bus for several hours, I agreed to pay for a taxi to Sukhumi. We zoomed off, then a few minutes later abruptly U-turned and zoomed back. It turned out the driver needed to go home to collect his license (I guess he normally doesn’t need it?).

The area of Abkhazia around Gali is very decrepit. Although many buildings seemed OK, I also saw several ruined buildings, probably from the 1993 war. Much of the farmland seemed untended and growing wild. The road was very bad, and we were continually veering from side to side to avoid potholes and puddles. (The rain was now heavy.) After we reached the coast (Ochamchire) the road and countryside improved dramatically. By Sukhumi the road was fine.

Abkhazia Visa (redacted)The driver dropped me off at the Hotel Ritsa. I dutifully hunted down the correct bank (“Сбербанк”, hidden in the Customs Yard) to pay my 641 Russian Rubles visa fee, got my payment voucher and headed off to the MFA building. While searching for the Consular office, I accidentally wander into a small theater area and hurriedly backed out again. But after some searching, I found that this really was the room being used by the Consular Section and the people on the stage with desks and PCs were the consular staff, not actors holding a rehearsal. Eight minutes later, I was duly issued my Abkhazia visa. Hurrah!!!

The Hotel Ritsa is trying hard to be a first rate hotel. It has been recently renovated and my room has first rate fittings, with rather erratic installation.  For example, the elegant chrome toilet roll holder fell off in my hand and all the faucets were loose. But it was actually all fine and comfortable, just slightly eccentric.

Later, I ambled around central Sukhumi in occasional drizzle.  The city is a little drab, but the central areas have now (mostly) been repaired.   I  passed the burned out, but structurally intact, Presidential Palace. (A victim of the 1993 war.) There is a large empty plinth in front, which I suspect once held Lenin.

The following morning, the rain stopped and the day cleared up nicely: Sukhumi is much more fun in the sun!  It is at about the same latitude as Nice after all.

The Abkhazians clearly love their palm trees and their beautiful pebbly beach. I dutifully wandered through the pleasant Botanical Gardens and admired their many semi-tropical plants and also their fine water lilies.

Despite the 2008 war, neither Gori nor its famous Stalin Museum seem to have changed much since my previous visit in 2007.  The tall statue of Stalin still dominates the town square.  The Stalin Museum still provides a positive narrative of Stalin’s life with a  focus on the great Soviet WWII victory, and no mention of any awkward topics.  The only change I noticed was the addition of a small gift shop, where the faithful can buy commemorative tee-shirts and mugs.

I know that Gori suffered some bomb damage in the 2008 war, as well as being briefly occupied by Russian troops.  However there is no longer any visible damage in the central parts of town.   In general, things actually seemed slightly more prosperous than I remembered from 2007.

[Update:  The Gori Stalin statue was removed on 25th June 2010.]

Tbilisi AteshgahThe Tbilisi Ateshgah (aka Atashgah or Fire Temple) was under restoration when I visited it in 2007.  That work is now complete and, mercifully, the restorers have been gentle.  The old brickwork has been cleaned, and in a few places discreetly repaired, but has largely been left “as is”, without any gross tampering.  A perspex roof has been added to protect the site from the elements.

Authentic Zoroastrian fire temples are extremely rare, especially outside Iran.  (The Atashgah at Baku is an 18th century Parsi construction.)  According to the sign outside the Tbilisi temple, it is believed that it was built between the 5th and 7th centuries, and later spend a while as a mosque, while retaining its old name as “Ateshgah”.  This seems reasonably plausible as Tbilisi was under Persian occupation and influence for a while.  Zoroastrianism (like Christianity) was loosely tolerated under Islam, so the Ateshgah might easily have survived in active use for several centuries after the 7th c. Arab invasion.Tbilisi Ateshgah Sign

Tbilisi Ateshgah InteriorThe Ateshgah exterior is a largely featureless brick cuboid, perhaps 20 feet on a side.  There are steps leading up to a pair of stout wooden doors just to the left of the Ateshgah.  These open into what at first looks like a private family courtyard, but if you turn right actually leads into the Ateshgah interior.  There is a new wooden floor, but they have left parts of the original floor exposed.  There are no windows, but instead there are blank arches on each face.

Back in the day, a sacred flame would have burned here and there would likely have been a matching pool of clean water nearby.  A small hollow is visible in one corner, but it isn’t clear what purpose (if any) that served.

The Ateshgah is at GPS = 41.68885,44.80559 around 100 meters East of the Betlemi Church, on the Old Town slopes NE of the Mother Georgia statue.   You can find it by first heading South from Freedom Square,  then heading east along Asatiani Kucha, then take the first right (South) onto a short road that leads up to the Betlemi stairs, then take the 135 steps up to the Upper Betlemi Church, and then head East, past the Betlemi Bell Tower.  Look for the ancient brick building with the protective curved perspex roof!

Batumi's Stalin Museum

The Stalin Museum in Batumi is much more modest than the imposing Gori Stalin Museum.  It comprises three mid-sized rooms, in a former worker’s hostel which housed the young Stalin when he was organizing workers in Batumi.   However, the Batumi museum provides a much more personal and enthusiastic touch than in Gori.  Your 3 Lari admittance fee includes a guided tour (in slightly halting but workable English) from the Museum’s curator. It quickly becomes clear he has true enthusiasm for his work and he believes Stalin was, on the whole, a positive force.  He uses the familiar arguments: without the crash industrialization program of the 1930s the USSR (and the West) would have lost WWII and, without Stalin, the crash industrialization program would never have happened.

Curator + Stalin

Stalin ‘s stay in Batumi was reasonably brief.  He was arrested and imprisoned after organizing a workers protest where a number of workers died in a confrontation with the authorities.  (See Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Young Stalin” for details.)  The museum includes the room where Stalin stayed and supposedly the actual bed he slept on.  Other than that, it includes a modest collection of idealized Stalin paintings and sculptures, and reproductions of various stock photographs of the young revolutionary, including his classic police mugshot.

Since I seemed interested and polite, the curator was kind enough to take my picture with a flag of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, beside an idealized statue of the young Stalin.

If you are in Batumi, it is definitely worth visiting, if for nothing else, as a glimpse into an entire alternative world view.

Curator's Office

"Stalin's Bed"

Stalin's Mugshot

Scotsman + Georgian SSR Flag

On my third try, after much searching, I finally found Tbilis’s Atashgah, or Fire Temple.  The two LonelyPlanet maps show slightly different locations for the Atashgah, both of which are close but slightly too far East.  You can’t access the Atashgah from the path to the Narikala fortress; rather you must come to it by going up into the nameless little streets South-East of the Jvaris Mama church, then taking the steps up to the Meheti church, then going 100 m East.

I finally spotted the Atashgah because I noticed a self-congratulatory sign listing various worthy groups that were funding some restoration program.  But of what?  Then I realized  the rather dull looking redbrick building matched the descriptions I’d read, so I checked with a workman and yes, this was it!

Atashgah interior + wandering Scotsman

It is a strange structure: roughly a 20ft sided cube, under active restoration both inside and out.  There is an entrance doorway, and arched sides but no windows.  The roof is gone and there is a tree growing inside.  There is what seems to be a fire pit in the center. I paid my respects, and gently asked the Lord of Fire to be kind to California (currently plagued by wildfires).

This is believed to an authentic Zoroastrian Fire Temple, established during the short-lived Persian occupation of Tbilisi in the 6th c AD.   The Zoroastrians venerated fire as a pure element and would use the temple flame as a focus (or direction) to worship Ahura Mazda, the one universal god.

[ See also Tbilisi Ateshgah Revisited in 2010].