I have lived in cities for so long that it’s only when I leave that I realize how much I feel smothered by them. Drab worlds of concrete and steel, the press of bodies rushing to and fro, the sharp tang of exhaust fumes and rot choking my lungs… You almost get used to it. Almost.
But upon escaping to the countryside, the colors of spring come to the fore — the colors of a world regenerating. The air is clean and has that musky, earthy smell, and the unfettered view of the sky is a balm to any harried soul. That’s what I felt this week when I made it outside of Tbilisi to explore the cave city of Uplistsikhe.
Marshrutkas to Uplistsikhe don’t run directly from Tbilisi, so I had to make my way there via Gori. Gori is famous for one reason — it is the birthplace of one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. Don’t know who that is? You might know him by another name: Joseph Stalin.
Gori is weirdly proud of its (in)famous son, and there is a Stalin museum in town which draws a large number of visitors. I had little interest in it, however, and elected instead to check out the Gori Fortress. Like the Narikala Fortress in Tbilisi, it’s situated on a hilltop overlooking the town and offers a great vantage point from which to survey your surroundings. Between the fortress and the Cathedral of the Holy Archangels (წმინდა მთავარანგელოზთა ტაძარი) below, be sure to check out the Memorial of Georgian Warrior Heroes, sculpted by Giorgi Ochiauri.
Getting to Uplistsikhe was easy enough, simply a matter of finding the marshrutka with ‘უფლისციხე Uplistsikhe’ in the window. I didn’t have any luck buying a ticket from the counter, but just boarding the bus worked just fine. I disembarked across the river from the cave city and walked the rest of the way, admiring the sandstone cliffs bordering the road.
Uplistsikhe is old, very old. Many artifacts found indicate the site was established in the early Bronze Age and was inhabited until its overrunning by the Mongols in the 13th century. Since then, time, the elements, and earthquakes have done their part to chip away at what remains, leaving the ancient stronghold a shell of what it once was.
Much of Georgian architecture postdates the area’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century AD. Uplistsikhe is one of the exceptions, with archeological evidence pointing to the site being inhabited as much as 3,000 years ago. The town was an important hub of paganism in the kingdom of Kartli and contains several temples dedicated to a sun goddess, in addition to a throne room, numerous halls, an apothecary, wine presses, and more.
As I explored, I couldn’t help but think what the Uplistsikhe of antiquity might’ve felt like if it had survived somehow — if the Mongols hadn’t ravaged it, and if Kartli hadn’t been converted to Christianity. That same curiosity hit me in Iran when I visited the Zoroastrian towers of silence in Yazd, and in Mongolia where shamanism has managed to entwine itself with elements of Buddhism to survive.
The damage proselytic religions have done to culture and heritage around the world always saddens me.
While many of the ruins are just that — ruined — the level of detail preserved in others is nothing short of impressive. A column still supports the ceiling in one of the halls, and the triangular facade of a temple is still distinguishable. The 10th-century church built atop the city, in particular, is remarkably well-preserved and intact.
Don’t miss the viewpoints at the back end of the complex looking out over the river plain below. The abandoned village of (the newer) Uplistsikhe lies below, with the crumbling remains of dwellings dotting a verdant plain. Sheep rule the place now; if you’re lucky you might be able to spot the shepherd in action as he takes care of his flock.
There is a secret way out of Uplistsikhe, through the very sandstone itself in the form of an escape tunnel leading down to the river bank. If you have an active enough imagination, you might even be able to hear the clamor of the Mongol horde as it surges through the streets above…
I made a bit of a tactical error in my planning and decided to forgo returning to Gori in favor of taking a train directly back to Tbilisi. What I didn’t realize was just how different Georgia is from Korea. A train station on Google Maps doesn’t necessarily mean a bustling transportation hub. It may simply be a dusty place by the tracks where you can catch a train a couple times a day. When I arrived at the ‘station’ there was nothing, so I fell back on my contingency plan…
…which turned out to also be a bust, as the highway south of Uplistsikhe is not the bustling thoroughfare I imagined it to be and is not a popular route for marshrutkas. Annoyed with myself, I walked the almost 16km on foot.
As you do…
It was a brutal walk, but I loved the little village that I passed through on the way. Cherry blossoms were in full bloom, and I enjoyed creepily peeping in on the homes — seeing the little courtyards and green spaces, the snapshots of day-to-day life that you don’t see when you only go to the tourist sites.
I limped into Gori about two hours later, only to find the bus station all but empty of marshrutkas. I panicked for a few moments before spotting a couple lined up to pull out of the station. As I ran up, a taxi driver tried to intercept me. “Tbilisi?” he asked loudly, but I ignored him, making for the marshrutka.
Then, the man did the darndest thing.
He ran up to the lead marshrutka and told the driver to stop, making sure I could get the last seat on the bus. Humbled, I thanked him and boarded, scrunching in between two Georgians as we bumped and jostled our way back to the capital city. It hadn’t been a seamless trip, but I’d done it.
Getting to Uplistsikhe
From Didube Bus Station in Tbilisi, take a marshrutka to Gori (გორი). A one-way ticket costs 3 lari.
Once in Gori, check out the town, then catch a marshrutka to Uplistsikhe (უფლისციხე). There is a place to buy tickets inside the station (go to the middle counter), but I didn’t have any luck buying a ticket from the surly old woman inside. Instead, find the marshrutka in the yard and just board it. The fare to Uplistsikhe is 1 lari. Let the driver know where you’re going, as many of them will not actually go to the complex, but go through the village across the river. The driver (or some friendly locals!) will let you know where to get off.
Cross the bridge (you’ll see it, don’t worry) and follow the road to its end. You made it! On the way back, look for a marshrutka waiting in the parking area outside the main gate. Take that back to the Gori bus station, then catch your final ride back to Tbilisi.
- Transportation total: 8 lari
- Admission to Uplistsikhe: 7 lari
Have you visited any cave cities? Where were they and what did you think? Let me know in the comments below!