Georgia on My Mind
No, no reference to the song or the state of Georgia in the USA, but instead the country east of the Black Sea and at the southern edge of the Caucasian Mountains, bordered by Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, a country at full speed ahead into the modern world after years of stagnation as a Soviet Republic and birthplace of Stalin. The younger generation there identifies with modern young people everywhere while apparently older people are having a hard time adapting with conservative influences from the Eastern Orthodox Church and former communist rule.
Paul Theroux related his travels through the country in his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star published in 2008 and found a dilapidated country with a decrepit infrastructure. How quickly things change! The daughter of the owner at the guest house where we stayed in Tiflis told us that there had been no electricity after 6 p.m. only a couple of years previously. Nobody went outside after that because it was too dangerous due to robberies. Now I found the country to be extremely safe, which she confirmed, and never had the feeling that I could be in danger.
Usually when one of my trips starts out badly, i.e., with a few mishaps, it turns out to be a great adventure. This one was no exception. I didn’t have my glasses on and read 8:05 for the train departure to the airport when my ticket actually said 18.05 for May 18. Fortunately, there was another train several minutes later that was even non-stop, but we lost our seat reservations.
I wanted to buy a SIM card for my smartphone on arrival in Georgia, but the two young women at a counter selling them were not sure whether they had the right size. One woman inserted her SIM card in my phone to check, but it was too small and then she could not get it out. After many attempts, I took a sewing needle out of my pack, and my girlfriend was able to remove it, much to the relief of the poor woman for whom the card represented a lot of money.
We had booked an Airbnb room in the capital, Tiflis, but when we arrived there, there was no information about the neighborhood nor the WiFi password, so we could look up things ourselves. The apartment was on the ground floor in a dark area and was advertised as “cozy near the river,” but had not mentioned that there was a four-lane highway between the apartment and river, which locals used as a racetrack. Due to the two-hour time difference, it was not that late for us, so I went out looking for a store, bar or whatever, but there was nothing in either direction. Other friends were staying in a hotel and wrote us a WhatsApp that they were sitting on a rooftop terrace drinking white wine with a great view of the city. We wrote back and asked if there was an available room and—having received a positive response—quickly moved to the hotel. Later, the owner of the apartment claimed that she always left a package of information in the apartment, but she obviously had not checked this. She wrote and said she wanted to invite us for a drink at the end of our trip before we flew home, but she waited until she knew we had flown home and claimed she had not checked her messages for the previous four days (a rather dubious claim for someone renting an Airbnb).
Most of the guests in the hotel were Russians, but there was also a group of eight women from Israel, Lithuania, and Russia who were meeting there to celebrate the birthday of one of their group. Most Georgians speak Russian in addition to their own language due to the years of occupation by that country (Georgia was suffering attacks from Moslems in the south and Russia in the north, so one of its kings a couple of centuries ago asked the Russian Czar for protection against the Moslems, not realizing that the Russians would just stay a couple of years). The Georgian language and Caucasian language family (approx. 20 languages) have no relation to any other of the world’s languages and seemed extremely difficult to me. For example, their verbs not only agree with the subject, but also the object, and the subject ending changes if there is no object. The writing reminds me of the Thai alphabet, and some scholars have claimed that Georgian is related to Basque in Spain (but which is very doubtful). A lot of young people speak English, but otherwise it is the country with the fewest English speakers that I have ever traveled in.
Approx. five years previously when we first met someone who had traveled in Georgia and had raved about it, he told us that he stayed in private homes (homestays) where the people cooked for him. Then they would call a relative or friend in his next destination and they would meet him at the bus or train station. By the time we finally made it to Georgia, this had all changed! Only hotels and guest houses, everything much more anonymous. And very modern architecture in the midst of antiquated buildings that seemed on the verge of caving in, many with cracks from frequent earthquakes, but the last bigger one affected the capital was in 2002. The tube-like buildings seen in the picture were the idea of former President Shevardnadze and designed to be a conference center and concert hall, but his successor didn’t like the idea, so they sit abandoned and unused, the insides slowly decaying.
The Bridge of Peace in the foreground was designed by an Italian architect, built in Italy and transported in trucks to its present site. It is so new that it was not even in my guidebook from 2008.
And then the artistic leaning clock tower of a puppet theater, constructed over a four year period by the puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze using old materials from abandoned buildings and ones destroyed by earthquakes.
The city is full of churches (Eastern Orthodox Christian), the religion of the great majority of Georgians, but other religions co-exist without strife as these signs indicate:
After a few days in Tiflis, we headed for the mountains, the Caucasus Mountains. After all, I had to check Caucasian as my race in the old days in the USA, although the term is totally inaccurate in this context and it is only used in the USA in such a way. It actually denotes a much broader expanse of human beings, even including North Africa and parts of Asia. (I once read an article purporting to pinpoint the genealogy of people based on their thumbprint; according to it, my ancestors are from India).
We discovered that there were daily flights to Mestia, our destination, but unfortunately there were completely booked for the next two months. The daughter of our hotel owner arranged for seats in a “marshrutka”, a minibus used for transportation some Eastern European countries. She told us that the trip would take 5-6 hours, but 8 ½ was the reality. However, the trip was more than worth it.
We considered a four-day hike with full packs from there to Ushguli, the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe, but first took a trial hike from Mestia up 800 meters with just a day pack.
The hike up was extremely strenuous, and we realized that we were not up to the longer hike with higher, steeper ascents and full packs although I had packed light and my backpack only weighed 12 kilos (I had carried my 3-year old daughter weighing 18 kilos through the mountains of Nepal for 10 days at much higher altitudes, but I was 30 years younger at that time. Difficult to admit that I am no longer young). In the local tourist office, we were told that there was still 2 kilometers of snow on one pass, which would be difficult to manage. Later, we met a young Bavarian and a couple of Czechs, all in their early 20s and with a lot of experience hiking in high mountains, who had all done the four-day trek. They said it was very difficult and they had to go to the limit to complete it. This certainly dispelled any regret that we had had about not attempting it.
We took another marshrutka to Ushguli on harrowing roads cut into steep cliffs.
But the ride already provided fantastic views! Ushguli plans to become a ski resort one day and even has a ski lift, but it still retains some of its old flair, although the locals are building more and more guest houses in anticipation of hordes of tourists one day (a road being planned from the old capital Kutaisi will certainly change the village drastically).
Ushguli is actually a conglomeration of four villages, all with tall towers where the locals would barricade themselves and their livestock when marauding bandits would descend on them from the north.
We wanted to hike to a glacier the second day, but a thunderstorm thwarted our plan and we spent much of the second afternoon there huddled under blankets in our room (fortunately I had a good book: Das Achte Leben [für Brilka] (The Eighth Life [for Brilka] by Nino Haratischwili, more than a thousand pages long—fortunately I had an e-reader—and spanning six generations from the beginning of the last century until the present, which recounted the history and development of Georgia along with the lives of the family).
Another beautiful hike on the third day before returning to Mestia in the evening. We returned to a restaurant we like there, and—being inoculated in silly US American customs—I asked them if I could buy one of the t-shirts all the waiters and waitresses were wearing. This was apparently something unexpected, and one woman asked my size and then return with a t-shirt, for which she wanted to money. Wonder if they will get the idea and start selling them in the future.
Then it was on to Batumi, a resort on the Black Sea. We had hoped to spend a few days lying on the beach in warm weather after the mountains, but it rained a lot and I only was able to swim for a few minutes once when the sun came out and before dark rain clouds returned. I normally stay in cheap guest houses or hostels, but we were tired from the mountains and a luxury hotel offered us a room with a huge discount. The website also claimed that there were indoor and outdoor swimming pools, but unfortunately the outdoor one was still under construction. Still, they gave us an upgrade to a business class room, since we had never booked a room in their hotel chain before: a room on the sixteenth floor with a great view of the city!
The city is full of new building (constructions), very modern in part as this one with a carousal in its upper floors.
In addition, all the big hotels have gambling casinos. We were told that the city is packed in the summer with tourists from the Middle East, especially Kuwait, there for gambling, alcohol and visits to massage parlors.
However, there were also beautifully restored older buildings and works of art in public places.
And the impressive statue of Ali and Nino, statues that pass through each other every day without touching, representing the tragic love story of a Muslim boy and Christian girl.
Not interested in donating money in any gambling casino and faced with rainstorms, we took a train back to Tiflis. The train carriage was quite modern, even with WiFi, although we passed many decaying, abandoned railway cars along the way.
Last days in Tiflis trying out new restaurants and seeking out areas we had not seen before. The flea market at “Dry Bridge” was full of useless junk, the valuable antiques having been sold years before when Georgia was still suffering from extreme poverty. Another pedestrian zone, nicely done, but just one tourist restaurant after another. An alternative project, “Fabrika” (is that from the German or Russian), an old building turning into a hostel and a courtyard with “hip” restaurants, one selling Japanese ramen and another even offering kimchi hamburgers.
We had too much time left, so we took a “wine tour”, which turned out to be uninspiring. A stop at a large winery (Georgia has a very long tradition of winemaking and some very good wines), a small farmhouse where they were baking bread and selling cheese, a stop at the former home of Niko Pirosmani, perhaps the most famous painter from Georgia where there also was a small museum with some of his paintings (we saw more in the National Gallery the next day), another Eastern Orthodox Church (we saw many in the country, often full of believers; the church is a very conservative force in the country, but seems to be making a big comeback after years of communist rule), and finally Sighnaghi, an attractive town in the far southwest. Our guide proudly proclaimed that everything there had been renovated for tourists, that it was the perfect tourist location. However, we would have preferred less tourism.
Tiflis and Georgia are rapidly changing. It was probably a lot more interesting five years ago, and it will probably be a lot less interesting in five years if tourism continues to develop at its present pace. I don’t believe that it is a place that I have to return to, but am grateful for the chance of having visited it.