Our next road project in Georgia is the Vaziani-Gombori-Telavi (VGT) road, east of Tbilisi. After a frenetic week in Tbilisi appraising the Third Highway Project, my colleague Elena and I had a break from the office to do a field visit to familiarize ourselves with the VGT road. We also used the opportunity to visit some other parts of Kakheti Region, a place neither of us had been before.
The VGT road is an interesting case study in what happens when you do not have sufficient funds to maintain a road. At one time this was the main way of travelling to the main centre of Telavi and was a paved 7-9 m wide road. Today, it has deteriorated to the point where people would rather drive some 50+ km further to avoid breaking their vehicles. As my colleague Tamara noted, only those with very old soviet vehicles already in poor condition would drive the road, and she was right. I felt sorry for our driver Ramaz with his nice Mercedes, but he slowly navigated his way around major potholes that threatened to swallow us up.
A dilemma that one faces when looking at investing in a road such as this is determining that the investment is economically justified. We do so by looking at the benefits to road users in transport costs. With the current road so deteriorated there is little traffic, but everyone we have spoken to has confirmed that if the road was repaired they would definitely use it instead of the current longer route. The team will be doing traffic and other analyses to confirm the economic viability of the investment, but it seems very clear to me that the project is worthwhile.
One area of particular concern was the crossing of the Iori river. Currently the road crosses along a bridge built as part of an existing dam. Since the dam is not under their control, the Roads Department proposed a large 9 span bridge as part of the project, but this was very expensive so we agreed that the existing section would be used, and any future bridge would be financed by them. The World Bank has a safeguards policy about safety of dams and I wanted to check that this should not be triggered. From what I could see the structural integrity looked acceptable, but we will need to do some detailed testing. At least it did not look like it was falling down and threatened dam failure! I can see why the Roads Department proposed a new bridge and one will definitely ultimately be required if the traffic grows as expected. The problem is that both upstream and downstream the river is very wide so it will prove to be an expensive proposition.
As we travelled along the road Elena had spotted either an usual rock formation or an old tower so we stopped to have a closer look and it was indeed a tower. There were some workmen who spoke Russian so Elena was told this was an old fortress and the pointed us uphill along a narrow path. The photos below show what we found.
As one of the workmen explained, this was the remains of the ancient fortress Ujarma—and there wasn’t even a sign on the road! Had it not been for Elena’s powers of observation we would have missed it.
It is hard to find information on the fortress but this is what it seems to be.
In the late 5th century, Vakhtang Gorgasal “erected numerous buildings in Ujarma” and moved his residence there. In the 10th century it was destroyed by Arabian forces of Abul Kassim. King George III rebuilt it in the 12th century, and further improvements were made. I have not been able to find out when it was finally destroyed-it seems by the Persians. Some claim it was in use until the 18th century.
Ujarma had two parts: the citadel, located on the plateau of the rocky hill and city on the slope. We were shown a drawing of the fortress which Elena snapped this photo of. There were nine towers and they were designed so that horses could travel inside the walls from top to bottom. They claimed there was a tunnel under the river which allowed them to escape the Persians. When we visited the base of the hill we saw the remnants of one of the towers which is shown below.
It was great to wander through the overgrown citadel area and to see the remains of walls, rooms, towers. It is a sign of the rich abundant history of Georgia that they have too many historical places to take good care of them: in most other countries this would be a popular tourist attraction rather than a place left pretty well alone, with no guides, signs and limited information. As my wife Lis observed, Georgia really is one of the most unknown tourist destinations. With magnificent views from the top of the hill, it was a very special place.
We headed back to the car and went off to an art exhibit from the father-in-law of a colleague from the Bank who was described (not by her) as “the greatest living Georgian artist”. The display was held at the estate of Prince Garsevan Chavchavadze, who was very important in the first half of the 19th century. There were quite a few visitors but with our invitation to the exhibit Elena got all three of us in very smartly – she spoke English rather than Russian which identified us a bona fide tourists.
It was a beautiful estate and we enjoyed a walk through the lush grounds. After looking at the paintings which were very Georgian – bright colours with elongated people – we went inside the house where the rooms were preserved. I was impressed that they had so many original artefacts, after all, the family would have suffered with all other noble families during and after the Bolshevik revolution. The guide said that many had been returned by the family from overseas after Georgia regained its independence. One thing I noticed was that there were pianos in all the large rooms, as Elena said, it was a sign of culture that the women played piano in those days. I thought how lucky we are to have radios.
There were some photos in a room which looked familiar and Elena asked the guide about them. They were of the Chechen Muslim Shamil and his two sons—I had seen them in a book I read about Caucasus history. Apparently they had raided the Chavchavadze estate and kidnapped the prince’s wife, sister-in-law and some children. They were exchanged for Shamil’s son and 40,000 roubles. In doing so, the prince went so into debt that they later had to sell their estate. Now that is love.
The estate has recently been leased to a wine company and they were having a reception downstairs. Ramaz helped himself to some food and mineral water on our way out. Nobody seemed to mind as it was late in the day. We then headed over to Telavi which is the old capital of the Kakheti kings. The palace is now a museum so that was our last stop of the day. With its imposing walls it was a beautiful place.
In both Georgia and Armenia it seems that there is a gender discrimination when it comes to working in museums or art galleries: they are always women. It was the same here, except for two male security guards. At it was approaching closing time we had a very quick tour.
The palace itself consisted of a few restored rooms. I commented to Elena that the king must have been short as the ceilings were so low. Except that is in the massive reception hall. It was interesting to see the Persian influence here, something that one does not see in the west of Georgia.
The grounds were very large and there was a museum behind the palace. It was tired looking without too many interesting exhibits. Unfortunately, it looked as though it had not been given any improvements since the Soviet time.
When we went to leave we were told that they were waiting for us in the art gallery so we went over more out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm. We were glad we did.
It seems that during Soviet times the only cosmetologist in Georgia was based here and she made a lot of money. Yes, that concept challenged me as well since it was, after all, a communist country. She used the funds to purchase art which she donated to the city. Housed in an old school was everything from Dutch masters to famous Russian painters to modern art. Elena, who knows her art, was quite surprised at the number of famous Russian painters. What amazed me was that such beautiful and valuable art would be kept in a non-climate controlled old school building, subject to the extreme temperatures.
Elena explained that in Soviet times Georgia was seen as a somewhat entrepreneurial place so it didn’t surprise her that this woman could become wealthy. There was apparently an underground economy, including art dealers, who would trade with each other. The local party apparatchiks turned a blind eye to all this.
It has been a long but fascinating day and time for the long drive back to Tbilisi. What a great place Georgia is for visiting. Such a range of contrasts in a small country.