The Georgian Military Highway

This road runs between Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz (always just rolls off the tongue!) just over the border in Russia.  Although the route was known since ancient times (Pliny apparently mentioned it), the present road dates from the 1800s when the Russians built it as the main route through the region.  It was a major project at the time, and when it was finally completed in 1863 had cost £4 million at that time, which was a staggering cost.

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The road  run down the right side of this valley…

Georgia/Caucasus appears to feature quite heavily in 19th century Russian literature – one book I read (and I forget which) compared the image of Georgia in Russian literature as being akin to the Wild West in Hollywood – a completely romanticised image of wild untamed nature full of men trying to make their mark and survive in this harsh landscape.  Many of the greats of Russian literature travelled to this region (in fact served as soldiers during Russian campaigns in the 19th century) and fell in love with and wrote about the region – this includes both Pushkin and Tolstoy.  However, the writer who is really connected to this region is Lermontov – I’d never heard of him until I booked the holiday, but his novel ‘A Hero of our Time’ – which according to the blurb on the back of the book is viewed as the First Great Russian Novel, is set entirely in the region.   I mention this now because the first chapter of the book is set on the Georgian Military Highway as the narrator of the story travels north along it…  The book is a bit like a Russian version of Dangerous Liaisons if you’re interested, and it seems Lermontov’s life progressed in a form scaringly similar to its central character, down to his death in a duel over a woman (in the Caucasus).

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The importance of the road has declined over the years, but it still remains one of the main routes in the region.  Our tour guide told us that it was particularly important for Armenia – and they had particularly struggled when it was closed during the 2008 War.

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The road starts to get interesting at around Ananuri, a beautiful 18th century castle that now perches above the deep blue of the reservoir of the nearby Gadauri dam – yeah, that lake isn’t natural.  The area was flooded in the 1950s on the orders of Stalin, flooding the original Military Highway, and the Castle only narrowly escaped the same fate.

From here the landscape becomes much more dramatic, and the road condition also becomes a lot worse!

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However, it was the final stretch we did to Kazbegi (see previous entry) that was slow due to the road condition; there is a lot of swerving large potholes and drives through what look like not particularly safe snow tunnels – which is always fun when you have find a massive truck coming the other way.   Delays happen on a regular basis here, either due to accidents or to roadworks, and some of the driving is utterly and selfishly insane, but the road doesn’t get closed that often – even in winter it’s kept open for at least some of the day.  Well, or night, as the road can actually be safer then as avalanches are less likely to happen in the cold darkness.

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The Military Highway with one of the tunnels…

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This huge colourful monument is the Soviet Monument to commemorate 200 years of ‘friendship’ between Georgia and Russia – I use the inverted commas because our tour guide let out a snort when telling us this.  But it was built in 1983 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first formal alliance between Georgia and Russia – a treaty the Georgian signed in order to get Russian military assistance against the Persians and Turkish invasions.  Not that it helped, as the Persians utterly destroyed Tbilisi in 1795… but there you go…  It was the start of Georgia’s absorption into the Russian Empire.  I loved it!

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Full of symbolism that I really don’t understand…

The last two photos are from a short walk we did from the Georgian Military Highway, close to the Russian border (or more correctly close to the 3km no man’s land that exists between the Georgian and Russian border).  Beautiful landscape.

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The ruined tower above is one of a chain of towers build by King David the Builder in the 12th century.  The towers served as a warning device should the region be in trouble invaded.  A fire was lit in the tower to relay a message to the next tower… etc., etc.  Most of the towers are now in various state of ruins: either pillaged by locals for stone, or destroyed by the invading Mongols in the 13th century.  They litter the landscape of this part of Georgia.

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Mount Kazbek and Gergeti, Georgia

I have not written in some time.

Back in June, I went on holiday to Georgia, and my intention was to write a bit about my time there, but in all honesty, it’s taken me this long to be able to process my photos, and in some ways mentally make sense of the time I was there.  In fact, I’m off on my next holiday (well, actually adventure, because I can’t imagine that this will in any way be a ‘break’) on Friday…

Where to start?

Well, firstly I went on a walking tour – it wasn’t just walking and we did cover many cultural stops (which meant loads and loads of churches) between the walks, but primarily it was about walking up near Mount Kazbek and then in Svaneti.

I think I’m going to start with a few of my favourite things from our time near Mount Kazbek…

This was the first area we went to from Tbilisi, driving North up the Georgian Military Highway until Kazbegi – a town in the area which takes its name from a local nobleman turned poet.  He went to Saint Petersburg to be a poet, before returning to the area to become a shepherd – he actually met Dumas whilst he was traveling in the area, who was a little bit surprised to find a shepherd who could speak fluent French. The town is now reverting to its original name of Sepantsminda.

We stayed in the former University building in Kazbegi, which gave me the most beautiful views of Mount Kazbek – the third highest mountain in Georgia.  Honestly, I have loads and loads of photos of this view at all times of day and in all states of cloud cover.  Mount Kazbek is one of the mountains which is cited as the possible place where Prometheus was chained to a mountain to have his liver eaten by an eagle on a daily basis.   This is partly because it’s such a perfect shape, and partly because there is a local myth which bears a very striking resemblance to the Prometheus myth.  Whichever, the Mountain was meant to be pretty sacred to the locals who rose up and tore down the cable car that the Soviets attempted to build to the top a few decades ago.  And left it in ruins just as a reminder to not try it again.

So here are a few photos of Mount Kazbek in all her glory!

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See perfect mountain!

The mountain seemed close enough to touch, the perfect image of everything a mountain should be, its great cone topped with a cupola of snow, brilliant white and tinged around the edges with pink in the evening sun.’

 Fab quote from p163 of Peter Anderson’s ‘Bread and Ashes: A walk through the Mountains of Georgia’ – great book.

And lastly, for drama:

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The Church on the hill in front is Gergeti Church.  Walking to the Church (which we did) is a very popular activity in the area, especially when we went as the schools had just closed for the summer.  Well, you can get a 4×4 up to the Church if you are lazy (which as far as I could tell was how the Russian and Israeli visitors got up there), but if you want to work for your view then you puff your way up to the Church. It makes that view worth it.   The Church dates to the 14th century.  Due to it’s location it was apparently a favourite place for precious objects to be brought and hidden during times to troubles.  It was very small, very crowded and watched a bunch of very strict monks.

 

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Ystradfellte Waterfalls Walk

As well as some bluebell hunting, last week I also managed to get out into the countryside.

Last Wednesday I disappeared off to the Brecon Beacons in Wales (really not that far from where I live) for what I thought was a short hike: my last opportunity to wear in the new walking boots and prepare myself for my walking holiday next week (eeks!).   My friend gave me information on this walk quite some time ago and I’ve been dying to do it since.  As very typical of all walks I seem to do, we severly underestimate the distance and time it took to do it, and so what we thought would be a gentle 3 hour walk turned in 4.5 hours (even with a chunk cut out) complete with some pretty tough bits that left me feeling barely able to move by the evening!

Still, it did feature some pretty stunning waterfalls – and after a drive there in the rain, the sun even made an appearance!

For info, this is the walk we tried to do: http://naturalhighs.net/waterfalls/falls00/ystradfellte-p0.htm

And here’s a little info on the part of the world we went to: http://www.breconbeacons.org/visit-us/things-to-do-and-see/special-places-to-visit/the-waterfalls-area

Bluebells

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Every year, normally some time in May (is a bit late this year due to the cold winter this year), I head over the Severn Bridge and into the Forest of Dean to see the bluebells.  It normally takes at least a couple of attempts to get it just right, as the bluebells are always at their best about 2 weeks later than here in Bristol.

Saturday 1 June was the date this year for my annual bluebell forage.  Up at 6.45am that morning, we arrived here (near Wenchford) well before 8am for some early morning photos.  I think we hit it just right.

My friend told me that the UK holds 50% of the world’s bluebells.  That took me aback.  I kind of assumed everyone who had woods like this, would have bluebells like this, but apparently not.  Makes me appreciate how special this scene really is.

And on top of that the English Bluebells also have the heaviest scent.  For some reason, my nose isn’t particularly sensitive, so I was only occasionally aware of the heavy perfume (and it’s the sort of heavy that would probably give my dad a full on asthma attack), but yes, the air was heavy with the scent of these bluebells.  It is magical.

Moscow Metro

The Soviet Government passed a decision to build an underground network in 1931, although the idea had been around for decades, but just not thought possible, for various reasons including the lack of expertise in Russia and just the sheer difficulties of tunnelling under Moscow.  Construction on the red line of the metro began in the 1930s and was largely built by volunteers.  TThe project was criticised at the time as a vanity project: critics felt there were more pressing needs in Moscow.  The governments argued that congestion was a serious problem in Moscow (it certainly is now!), but that it was also a symbol of what was to come.

I found this quote in a book from 1939 on the Moscow metro describing its purpose:

The Soviet people are building the subway system of their capital not as a commercial proposition designed to yield profit to its owners.  The people are building the subway for themselves and future generations.  The subway is designed to be an integral part of the new Moscow which is being reconstructed with a view to providing the most complete satisfaction of the material and cultural requirements of the population.’
E Abakumov in ‘The Moscow Subway’ a guide published by the Soviet government in 1939, p23.

My Russian penfriend told me that she is a little bemused by the tourists who can be found on the metro taking photos.  For her, there is no magic in the metro: it’s busy, dirty and (in her words) full of strange people.  I guess coming from London, I see the metro in comparison to that…. Yes, the metro is busy… it carries more passengers than both the London and New York metro systems combined.  Having said that, at peaks times there is a train every 40 seconds, which seems a little better than London to me!  And every single journey is 60p… which is more than a third cheaper than the cheapest fare in London (and don’t get me started on bus fares in Bristol, which are more expensive than that!).  I’m a big believer in the importance of public transport… it should be affordable, reliable and efficient (I dispair of the UK on this)… and the fact that the Moscow Metro looks amazing to boot gives it a big thumbs up from me.  And I found it pretty safe as well (but then I was travelling around the city centre) – safe enough that I was happily travelling around by myself in the evenings.

I really didn’t see enough of it though.  I’d love to just spend a day just travelling around.  Part of the philosophy of the metro is that every single station is different – and the metro is still being expanded year on year.  All the stations are made of marble: very expensive to construct, but cheaper long term as the upkeep costs are lower.  Isn’t that amazing?

Mayakovskaya

One of my favourite stations, just a stop down from my hotel, the station is named after the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who killed himself in 1930.  It’s a really striking and simple design: a style which is called ‘Stalin’s neoclassic’ and won a design award in New York in 1939.  The columns are made from marble and stainless steel which came from a Zeppelin factory.  This station is also famous for a speech that Stalin gave her in 1941 Stalin  (the station is one of the deepest in the network) on the eve of the anniversary of the Revolution and with the Nazi approaching Moscow.

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Komsomolskaya

This is one of the most famous stations on the network.  The station is decorated with frescos and mosaics which include precious stones.  The theme for the mosaics (like the one below) is the struggle for independence, moving through the ages as you walk down the platform.

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Novoslobodskaya

Another one of the most famous stations, Novoslobodskaya is most famous for the stained glass panels which run down the sides of the station.  They are illuminated by lights behind.  There isn’t a tradition of stained glass in Russia, so these were commissioned in Latvia. They each have their very own design and are lined with intricately carved frames. Not sure why the photo of the station has come out looking so like an optical illusion, but obviously my camera had problems dealing with it!

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Belorusskaya

In this station the ceiling is fairly low and of white marble, with an elaborately patterned plaster ceiling.  The decorations have a Belarusian theme, including twelve octagonal mosaics overhead, which depict scenes of daily Belarusian life.  The platform is apparently meant to a resemble a Belarusian quilt.

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Ploshchad Revoliutsii

Ploshchad Revoliutsii features a series of 76 life-sized bronze statues of Soviet heroes peeking round corners.  The statues moves forward chronologically from revolutionary partisans through to builders of industry and then to younger Soviet citizens. A number of the statues are rubbed for good luck – as can be seen by the well polished spots.  The most famous one is the statue of a frontier guard with a dog with a very shiny nose.

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It’s all in the detailing of the stations.  The vents on the stations are amazing!  This one below is typical of the vents.

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And lastly… I know this post is about the Moscow metro, but it’s not just Moscow that has these beautiful stations.  St Petersburghad it’s share of wonderful stations too.

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I’m starting to be convinced that this must be a general feature of Soviet metro systems…. Roll on Tbilisi and Tashkent if that’s the case!

Moscow: Sunday Adventures

In 2010 I visited Mongolia for 3 weeks of travelling round a bus camping.  It was whilst in Ulaan Baator that I saw my first ever en situ Lenin statue – am unsure why I felt so excited by this, but I was.  Very.  Unfortunately, it was also the only time in my entire holiday that I didn’t have a camera with me… Ever since I’ve been haunted by this moment (not least as that statue was torn down recently), and have become a little obsessed with finding Lenin statues – not least when I discovered there was a Wikipedia page dedicated to a list of them around the world.

As you can imagine, Moscow was always pretty high on my list of places to go… Although for some reason, I kind of imagined that most of the statues had been removed from their original places… How wrong I could be!  He’s everywhere in Moscow once you look… I actually almost got Lenin-ed out by the time I left.

I say all this because it explains why I did what I did with my Sunday in Moscow…

Prior to going to Moscow, I was a little bit terrified at being dropped in such a large city by myself, and wanting to get the most of time there, I decided to hire myself a tour guide for the day.  Honestly, this felt like utter decadence!  But as I said, it seemed to make sense: I could say, ‘I’m interested in this, this and this’ and just not have to worry about anything.

So on a glorious Sunday morning, I set off for a day of Lenin statues and Soviet architecture…

Fallen Monument Park

First port of call was the Fallen Monument Park, close to Gorky Park.  It’s a statue park next  to the Modern Art Gallery (I think!), which features loads of statues – not just of the Communist kind.

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A collection of statues from the Soviet era.  There were whole factories churning out statues of Lenin of various quality.

 

 

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This installation is by E Chubarov and is dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s regime.  It uses an old vandalised Stalin statue.  Behind is a wall of stones, each carved with a face to symbolise the victims of the gulags.

 

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This very famous statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, ‘Iron Felix’ the first head of the secret police, used to stand outside the Lubyanka. 

From the Glasnost era it was the focus of opposition pressure and so when crowds gathered to try to pull it down in 1991, the city authorities pulled it down first. 

In 1998 the State Duma approved a resolution to restore it to its former spot – although this has yet to happen.

You can still see the remnants of the paint and graffiti from the opposition protest. 

 

 

However, this was my favourite, not least because it looks almost Wallace and Grommit-esque – and as I live in Bristol, that greatly appeals!

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I’m not 100% sure what it is (or who it’s by).  My tour guide told me it is based on a famous Russian children’s fairytale about a flood, where a man in a boat rescues rabbits from drowning.   Apparently there is a statue of a rabbit in St Petersburg, that is dedicated to the victims of the regular flooding there.  I was a bit puzzled by this connection between rabbits and flooding, until I was talking to a friend,who told me about an eye-witness account of a huge flood in Essex , whose lasting childhood memories was of feasting on rabbits who were trying to escape from the flood.  Does make me wonder whether this was the end of the above fairy story…

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Near to the park and on the Moskva is this recent, rather controversial statue of Peter the Great by Georgian Sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, who is much favoured by the mayor, Luzhkov.  It was built for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Naval fleet.

VDNKh

A large portion of the day was spent at the VDNKh.  Originally opened in 1939 the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition opened to showcase the achievements of 10 years of collectivisation.  It was revived again in the 1950s and extended in 1958 and renamed the Exhibition of the Economic Achievement of the USSR or VDNKh. It consisted of more than 70 pavilions built in different styles: one each for the Soviet states as well as ones for things like space travel, atomic energy, coal and grain production.  Loads of the pavilions are now run down and closed, but the whole site seems to be a grand open market, with the better preserved pavilions full of small market stalls and shops selling a bit of everything.

I loved some of the pavilions though.  My particular favourites were the Uzbekistan pavilion…

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And the Ukrainian one, which is in a sad state of disrepair – a real pity given some of the beautiful detailing on it (below).

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The most famous of the fountains in the park (switched off as it’s winter)…the Fountain of Friendship of the People features a gold statue each representing the different republics of the USSR in traditional clothes.

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Some other photos from the exhibition park…

However, my favourite thing at this park – and actually my favourite statue of all in Moscow is the Space Obelisk, erected in 1964 to commemorate Gagarin successful orbit of Earth in 1961  I saw photos of the statue before I went and was quite excited to see it and I simply LOVE IT!

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Scientists leading the way to the future!

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We also quickly popped up to Victory park, dedicated to the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) – again designed by Tsereteli.

P1050961The Statue of St George (patron saint of Moscow) slaying a dragon covered with swastikas.  The obelisks features the names of the crucial battles.

Last visit of the day, was the Hotel Ukraina – the second tallest of Stalin’s skyscrapers and until 1976 the tallest hotel in the world.  It’s now an incredibly posh hotel, that has a restaurant on the top floor with panoramic views of Moscow.  We were allowed to just walk round the restaurant, but unfortunately I didn’t take any photos.  I didn’t think they’d come out well at the time, and did feel a little embarrassingly out of place walking round this really posh restaurant in my snow boots!

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And just because I feel I should say, my tour guide was Daniel P, who I hired through the local tour guides website (http://www.toursbylocals.com/) – was surprisingly hassle free and enabled me to cover a lot more than I would have done by myself, plus get explanation to things I would have completed missed otherwise.

Moscow: February 2013

When I was 16 I had 3 ambitions, and one of them was to stand in Red Square.  I’ve wanted to visit Moscow for what feels like forever, but have always just put it off.  I even originally intended to do Russian at University, but chickened out, thinking I couldn’t survive a year living here (albeit in St Petersburg and Yaroslavl).  Yeah, there’s a bit of me that regrets it now – although I wouldn’t have given back my year in Germany for anything.

So for me, my very short trip to Russia was all about Moscow.  And trust me, I was terrified before I went – with all the worst case scenarios going through my head, along with the awful thought that I could actually hate it and all my teenage fantasies would come crushing down about my ears!

You see, I generally avoid visiting large cities.  I guess coming from London I don’t have a Dick Whittington view of them – they are busy, crowded, stressful and expensive.  None of this boded well for a visit, does it?

I needn’t of worried.  Yes, Moscow was utterly bewildering  – but I loved it and was utterly in awe and had the most magical time there.

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From the first evening where we wandered down to Red Square (which isn’t a Square and felt a lot smaller than I imagined), which is amazing lit up at night – even with the awful ice rink they’d installed for winter and white bubble over Lenin’s tomb (which I kind of liked).

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On the Saturday, I had a small city tour with my holiday tour, which included the metro (I’ll do that separately), Red Square and then a visit to the Kremlin – strangely I had no idea of what to expect inside the Kremlin.  Everything looked washed out in the overcast February light, but that does make the gold domes seem that much brighter…

And then on the afternoon I got myself out of the city and met up with a teenage penfriend (who I had never met before) who took me on a tour of some of the parks, including ice skating in Gorky Park before a visit to Sparrow Hills.  It was a really special day.

IMG_5100 IMG_5098 Above photos are from the woods around Tsaritsyno. 

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Above is from Kolomenskoe, a former royal estate to the south of the city, where Peter the Great is rumoured to be born.  The Church of the Ascension (the white tent-roofed one on the left) was built in the 1530s to celebrate the birth of Grand Prince Vasily III son, Ivan (to be the Terrible).  It’s design, is based on traditional wooden churches but built in stone. 

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Ice skating at the 15,000 square metre ice rink at Gorky Park.  It’s been years since I’ve   ice skated, and it’s not a skill (not that I was ever good), that I’ve obviously retained. 

 

On the Sunday evening – my last evening, I took the chance to wander down to Red Square again for more photos of it at night…

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In my eyes, the best cities should be a mish mash of their history: old and new should elbow each other for attention.  Moscow has this in buckets.  I love the below photo of the Moscow skyline for that: churches, one of Stalin’s skyscrapers (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is pure Gotham city and I love it!) with the new skyscrapers in the business centre of the city – including Europe’s tallest building, the Mercury City Tower (still in construction).

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Am just dying to go back – not least because I can move beyond the normal touristy stuff.