Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The road to Stalintown

When visiting Georgia my mum's advice was simple:

"Don't cause any trouble"

"But wait...What if I go to Gori, the town where Stalin was born and is still revered and worshipped like a God and somebody asks me my opinion about him?"

"Say Stalin? I've never heard of him. Say you don't know who he is."

"Then how would I explain why I ended up in this smallish out of the way town in Georgia?"

"Just say you are passing though. Say it is lovely place."


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Joseph Stalin was born in Gori in the Russian Empire (now Georgia) in 1878. The present day town has a population of around 50,000 people and is somewhat of a shrine and memorial to the genocidal Soviet dictator. Stalin is of course Georgia's most famous son to everybody in the world apart from Manchester City supporters.

A marshrutka in action
Getting to Gori from Tbilisi was to prove something of a challenge. By far the most common way of getting around Georgia is in the hot and stuffy transit vans and people carriers that operate as shared taxis called marshrutkas (or marshitskas if you are in a bad mood). You see hundreds of these around Tbilisi, all heading off in various directions around the city. In theory they are all pretty organised, with numbers and routes, but to someone who can't speak Georgian or Russian it can be pretty difficult to work out and understand.

It seemed that the best way to get to Gori was to go to the metro station Didube on the edge of town. At Didube we were greeted with a giant, chaotic and sprawling market. Picking though the stalls we eventually found the place we needed, a giant patch of wasteground filled with hundreds of yellow and white transit vans. Speaking none of the local language, the only thing to do was to walk around repeatedly saying the name of the place. Of course it took about five seconds for us to be identified as clueless tourists. From then on we received all kinds of offers for guided tours, personal chauffeurs and so on - all for astronomical prices. Finally someone took pity on us and told us that to get to Gori we had to go to the other giant patch of wasteground filled with transit vans (of course!), so we followed him through the rubble and the chaotic market and quickly found someone making the journey. A small amount of Lari were exchanged and we sat in the people carrier waiting for it to fill up. Quickly it seemed we were ready to go.

When the driver got in the car he did something very unexpected. From his pocket he pulled out a huge butchers knife, showing it to his mate who was sitting in the passenger seat - they both laughed heartily. He then placed the knife in between the two front seats next to the handbrake, put the keys in the ignition and we were off. Nothing was mentioned about the huge knife for the rest of the journey but the glint from the afternoon sun on its considerable surface offered a constant reminder.


Note large knife and prayer beads
I was somewhat concerned but had done my research from several sources. Although Gori was invaded and taken over by Russia as recently as 2008 as part of a war between the two countries, I had read it was now completely safe and the only two remaining areas of dispute were Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the Russian border. Two places I definitely did not plan to go.

Instead of sweating the chance of being attacked by Russian bandits I should probably have been more concerned about dying in a car accident. The man behind the wheel with the big knife was an absolutely terrible driver, even by Georgian standards. I should probably list the rules of Georgian driving that I picked up while I was in the country.

1. Never ever indicate
2. The lanes drawn on the road are for guidance only
3. Traffic lights are a hindrance. Stop only when there is a significant number of people walking in front of you that you wouldn't be able to plough through them. Do this by slamming on your breaks at the last possible opportunity
4. While driving enjoy the stripey patterns drawn across the road. These have no significance apart from aesthetic design.
5. Shout a lot.
6. Wave arms manically
7. Use horn liberally

Stalin enjoys a casual moment
We were driving on a three lane highway. The scenery was lovely but I couldn't help but notice that the driver had chosen a path directly in the middle of the outside and the middle lanes. We were going pretty damn fast, the car shook and the prayer beads hanging from the rear view mirror clicked and clacked together. He was also having a very animated conversation on his mobile.

Even so there were still cars that wanted to overtake us. They did this by steaming down the small gap between us and the barrier in the outside lane with the horn blaring. Our driver was apoplectic at the cheek of people blaring their horn at him. Clearly he believed he was driving totally fine. My hands clenched holding on to the seat in front. Occasionally we 'changed lanes' by swerving violently. Every articulated lorry up ahead was a heart in the mouth moment.

It proved to be a long 50 minute journey but we arrived without serious incident. Disembarking from the vehicle we gave our thanks to the driver for not killing us and wished him a good afternoon.

And there it was in front of us in all its glory.... The Stalin Museum


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