High Expectations for the Second Cave City in Georgia
Uplistsikhe, once a buzzing religious and trading centre, has become a popular day trip destination from Tbilisi or alternatively a stop en route due west from the capital for travellers in Georgia. I had earmarked the ancient cave town as a break on our drive from the city to our next destination – the spa town of Borjomi. After our visit to the remote David Gareji Monastery and Udabno caves, a few days prior, we somewhat doubted whether Uplistsikhe would be able to wow us in the same way. David Gareji having set high expectations to the entire family. Jerome had enjoyed climbing the rocks and hidden caves, while the colourful remnants of frescoes, painted by monks, hundreds of years ago had surprised and exceeded any expectations.
Leaving Tbilisi Behind
Sad to leave our amazing abode at Fabrika Hostel behind, we set out on our first long distance drive in Georgia. I was glad to have help to navigate through the busy city traffic in Tbilisi, although nowhere could be as crazy or difficult as in Marrakesh or Vietnam, the lack of signs would have made our journey a nightmare and we certainly would have gotten lost in the process a few times without a smartphone to guide us. Once we had reached the motorway near Zahesi, the driving conditions improved, albeit only for a brief time as we had decided to take the back roads to Uplistsikhe, through rural Georgia. We were aware that the journey might take longer, but we thought that it might make a more scenic drive and be easier to stop if we discovered an interesting place.
A Peculiar Sight
Driving through the picturesque countryside we noticed a peculiar sight. In the villages pipes of either a rusty brown or yellow colour ran along either side of the road. Snaking their way up and down and over entrances and other obstacles similar to the nostalgic computer game “Pipe Dream”. At first we thought they were water pipes until we eventually came to the conclusion they must be pipes delivering gas to each and every house. Throughout our trip these were a prominent sight, even in parts of Tbilisi, they have shaped the Georgian landscape and reminded us of the characteristic jumbled telephone wires in Vietnam.
Remnants of a Bye-Gone Era
The villages we passed appeared to be stuck in the past, I could well imagine the Georgians leading a similar lifestyle to my grandparents. Almost every house still had its own fruit and vegetable garden, most had pigs, cows and other livestock running wild in paddocks, along the roadside and even on the streets which forced me to be very vigilant driving. The side streets in most cases were not metalled and even the main road was patchy making any drive bumpy and slow.
Arrival at Uplistsikhe Cave Town
Uplistsikhe cave town can easily be spotted from the train or on the drive using our route from Tbilisi. Holes, some naturally formed by erosion others created by men, appear like dark, gaping mouths in the barren hillside, the obligatory chapel stands out with its red bricks in the bright summer sun. Crossing the river on a rickety bridge, we not only noticed some restaurants but also some souvenir and local delicacy stalls either side of the road, and a vast car park, bursting with buses and cars. We had expected the cave town to be busier than David Gareji which with its remote location and difficult access is still one of the lesser-explored attractions in Georgia, and therefore more appealing to us – but we did not quite expect the masses of tourists at this sight. Most of the sightseers had booked guided tours or drivers, only very few seemed to have set out in their own rented cars like us.
The Difference to the Udabno Caves
Not only the number of visitors showed the difference to the Udabno caves, the entire site was fenced off and travellers could only gain access by paying a small entrance fee (7 GEL for adults, 1 GEL for schoolchildren) for its upkeep and restoration. There was of course a souvenir shop and café, plus a small museum that was closed during our visit. I could sense some disappointment in Jerome, he had expected the caves to be hidden, up in the wilderness, only accessible for few and turning our exploration into another fun adventure. However, on our stroll towards the main steps leading up onto the rocks, large flocks of tourists headed towards us, ready to head for lunch. Climbing the initial steep steps we found ourselves on the smooth cliff. Glad we had changed our flip flops for gripping, hiking shoes, the even surface could be a slippery hazard for less well equipped visitors, especially on wet and rainy days…
Exploring the Caves and Grottos
Although the access is a lot easier than David Gareji, I could still imagine tourist older and less fit might struggle to head further up into the main part of the Uplistsikhe cave town. There are clearly marked paths and some railings but even here at the busy sight tourists are relatively free to wander over the steep and smooth rocks. Narrow water channels provided us with an interesting way among the caves. The lower grottos were mere holes in the rock face and of not much interest, some even showed obvious signs of repair, is a couple ugly concrete pillars supported the caves’ roof from collapsing.
Note Worthy Caves
The cave town used to provide a home for over 20.000 people before it became deserted and then later on was inhabited by monks. It is easy to say that none of the caves left us with awe and lasting impressions, although there are certainly some caves worth mentioning. The Blackberry Hall, might have been a pagan temple, even though it is debatable whether the brambles dangling from the cave’s ceiling were deliberately planted or actually have grown there since ancient times. The largest underground chamber is known as Tamar’s Hall, despite the Queen never actually having lived there. Its ceiling is blackened from wooden fires and has evidence of carved decorations. There also are a wine store and a pharmacy, where relics of herbs have been found.
Escape the Crowds
Jerome did get to clamber and climb among the caves, the smooth rocks added to the challenges. In parts steps had been hammered out of the cliffs, making an otherwise treacherous climb possible. There were holes in some of the caves providing him with an additional playground and we discovered that to escape the crowds we only had to venture higher than the red brick chapel to some of the lesser visited stretches of the site.
An Abandoned Village
To the west the cave town ends at a steep edge and the area is certainly not easy to approach for the faint hearted. Below we could see the ruins of an abandoned village still visible through the scrubland, and the entire site offers impressive views across the valley, the lush green riverside stands in stark contrast to the desolate hills.
The Church and Tunnel
We left the conventional church until last. Inside we discovered white washed walls, with simple pictures of icons. Jerome lit some candles in memory of his great grandparents. Afterwards we scrambled downhill and exited the cave town through a long, cool tunnel, perhaps the mist impressive part of the complex. It was designed to be used by water carriers and also provided the town’s citizens with an emergency exit.
Overrated and Slightly Disappointing
Uplistsikhe Cave Town is a little overrated in our opinion, however if you only have the chance to visit one cave town during your travels it is the easiest to reach from the capital. It makes a good trip from Tbilisi, especially if, as we did, combining the trip with the Stalin Museum in Gori. I am sure the crowds will only increase with times and it looks like further safety measures are planned that might spoil the freedom of the experience, similar to Vardzia.
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