From Kartli, with love: impressions of Georgia

10 minutes from home – Jvari monastery at the confluence of Mtkvari river (originating in Turkey) and the Aragvi river – from the high Caucasus mountains.

“Which one do you like better? Georgia or Armenia” was the first question our Armenian friends asked after we moved to teach at another international school in Tbilisi. Now, do you really expect me to answer this culturally insensitive question at a face-to-face encounter? Do you think it is a wise question to answer in a place where tribal conflict has raged, literally for millennia? Yes, according to Armenians it is necessary to discover whether you have joined another tribe, or whether your allegiance is to them. How do you think I responded?

Armenian hospitality – workers at Haghpat monastery celebrate new years (actually it is a good excuse for him to polish off his vodka with a clear conscience).

“Well when I’m in Georgia, I like Georgia, and when I’m in Armenia, I like Armenia the best.” Silence. As minorities in Tbilisi, whose relatives were persecuted by Georgians, I think they understood why it was important for me to answer like this. Armenians were a majority in Persian ruled Tiflis – an Armenian built the town hall in Freedom Square. At the same time the Ottomans were becoming disgruntled at their success, the Georgians, mostly the Orthodox church, began claiming Armenian churches for themselves. There are still Armenian towns strewn around the southern border, along with other minorities (including German exiles and Dukhobors).

So, to get some of the stereotypes out of the way – Armenians perceive Georgians as boorish and uncultured sell-outs to Arab imperialism (at one point the nobles converted to avoid death, whereas Armenians apparently have never done so..). Georgians perceive Armenians to be conceited, rigid in their thinking, and geo-politically stupid despite the terrible genocide (The Baku pipeline could easily have run through Armenia and begun a process of reconciliation, and the ruling class is basically dependent on Russia, which “invaded” Georgia in 2008.)

Nevertheless, both countries are full of lovely welcoming people. As you drive by, people stare at you intensely as if subconsciously activating a survival instinct on the ancient Silk Road. But really they are just looking to see if you want to stop for a drink.

Sakartvelo is the real name of the country, not Georgia. Georgia came from the Greeks who thought of the land as great farming territory. Somewhere along the way, St. George (and the dragon) became the patron saint of the country (as well as England). Sakartvelo means “kingdom of Kartli”, and kartuli is the Georgian language. This was the last kingdom to remain semi-independent from Persian and Ottoman influence, centered in Tiflis, until the bittersweet Russian takeover from the Persians in 1813. Georgian heroes are a mixture of feudal kings, monks and nuns – specifically, King David “the builder” who defeated the Turks with crusader help, and St. Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century.

Svetiskhoveli – the Georgian Orthodox “Vatican” in the UNESCO world heritage town of Mtskheta, 10 minutes from Tbilisi (and our house). I took this picture from the ancient Roman ruins across the river. Pompey famously conquered this town.
A six-apse pagan temple, on the Roman settlement opposite Jvari, and Mtskheta. During that time, the town was home to a large Jewish population that had lived there since the exile to Babylon. Today, there are direct flights to Tel Aviv.

Georgians have a truly distinctive polyphonic tradition, a phenomenal traditional ballet troupe, and are known to be savvy experts of chic hipster sensibilities. They claim major poets such as the “Dante” of the Caucasus Shota Rustaveli, and like the Armenians, also claim to have invented wine. They certainly have much more of it. The Carrefour grocery store has a half-dozen wine tasting stations to start your weekly shop. You’ll see bottles claiming a 6000 year tradition – I even saw one claiming 8,000!! Let’s just say that Pheasant’s Tears winery is becoming famous for a reason. At a recent wedding in Canada, I sipped wine stored in concrete – producing similar results to the traditional qvevri clay jars, lined with beeswax. It had an earthy feel to it, the result of throwing the skins in with the grapes and letting them ferment as they will. It’s called “skin on skin” method – the the light fruitiness of a Rkatsiteli grape can become an earthy, complex, and downright mysterious sensation.

What Armenia has in length of history and distinctiveness (their history and manuscript museums are phenomenal), Georgia has in natural beauty and willingness to feast. There is not one single monastery of equal beauty in Georgia, but there are plenty of monks and nuns in active monasteries, and they produce a lot of wine. Sanahin and Haghpat monasteries, just a hundred and fifty kilometers away in Armenia, remain unequalled in mystery. Yet the norther trade routes are literally strewn with medieval castles and churches waiting to be rediscovered. I’ve been here for two years and barely scratched the surface.

At the local watering hole – “Lobio House” restaurant, 5 min from home.

Imagine living in Vancouver or Seattle with nearby skiing snowcaps, surrounded by the ancient ruins of Roman, Persian, and Mongol conquests – castles and signalling towers stringing together deep hidden valleys.

Tmogvi fortress near the Turkish border (and just down the river from Vardzia cave city) – a landscape straight out of Lord of the Rings.
Vardzia cave monastery complex, near the Turkish border.

 

A guard outpost on the way up to Birtvisi that once resisted Tamurlane’s conquest. (One of the top hiking destinations in the foothills south of Tbilisi)

You’re in the 70s and capitalism is in its heyday. Traffic is chaotic, regulations are sparse, families are strong, the threat of the USSR looms. Soviet-style top-down education teeters slowly from the ivory-towers, dissolving piece by piece with every returning grad student from the west.

This is how we park in Tbilisi

 

Near the history museum downtown – Georgia uncovered the famous Dmanisi skull, at least 1.8 million years old, proving the broad settlement of homo erectus outside Africa.
What do you think this traffic sign means?

It’s June, and next to the whitecaps are emerald green hills, 2000 meters high. Shepherds from a bygone era herd masses of livestock along the roads up into the highlands.

View from Roshka, one of the villages on the way up to Chechnya.

Rough staccato baritone ululations fill the air of the bazroba (bazaar), and rune-like script screens out your friends’ pronouncements on facebook. Rugby is the national sport, followed by diplomacy, and the monitoring of the disputed territory populated by Russia soldiers.

Looking north from the highway close to Gori, into Russian occupied South Ossetia. After a NATO exercise in the country in 2015, the Russians casually shifted the border fence a couple hundred meters deeper into Georgia.

 

Sno valley and Chaukhi massif in the distance, hiking up to Khde gorge on the border with Russia. Chechnya is a couple hundred meters up the hill to the left.

 

Georgia defeats Russia soundly. A large contingent of Georgian military soldiers in attendance join the crowd wave.

The black tinted Toyota landcruisers careen, totally indifferent to your existence as a human being, signalling large-scale connections (or corruption?) in a land once dominated by Soviet era thieves-in-law. The hoipolloi, on the other hand, sell everything they have and live in a hovel to buy a Mercedes and show everyone that they too are connected. Drives home require regular rear view mirror checks, for “players” – red bull smashed kamikaze formula 1 wannabees flashing their lights at you to get out of the way. In Armenia everyone obeys the traffic laws. They also pay bribes. Not here. Instead, driving is a bloodsport – a land where crossing yourself at every church replaces the shoulder check.

Thousands of Georgian restaurants along the roadside are built around faux-medieval themes and play out the national narrative of hospitality, fierce loyalty, and fierce drunkenness every weekend, and sometimes every day. No, you may not leave the party until your brains are shot through with 10 to 15 half glasses of wine for each toast. There is no way out of a supra feast unless you are pregnant or driving. But if the family can sing in harmony, why would you ever want to leave?

Georgia is a screaming comet, bursting into the 21st century, and entirely silent to the rest of the world. Iosif Dzhugashvili, otherwise known as Stalin, played out the ultimate Oedipal drama – slaughtering the entire intellectual class of his fatherland. While Russia rehabilitates the man of steel, Georgian young people know very little about the man who murdered their grandparents. At his museum in Gori, you can board his armoured train and walk into the one room shack where he was raised fatherless.

Yes, the old-timers are nostalgic about the Soviet Union, but most people here (except when talking to their Orthodox priests about the evils of liberalism) want to join the European Union. Driving down the highway within sight of the South Ossetian border, a man walks down the road with a giant scythe over his shoulder. His relatives in Moscow send him enough money so he can retain the lands bequeathed to him by the USSR. He is somewhere between squalor and pride – 1991 was the first time peasants have ever owned land in history as he knows it.

Gori, Stalin’s birthplace, is kilometers away from South Ossetia, occupied by the Russians. After NATO’s “noble partner” operation in May 2015, the Russians quietly moved the fence posts a couple hundred meters more.
Our guide at the Stalin museum said these fresh flowers are from the Chinese.

For me there is something magical  living in the “wild west” of the Russian empire, the place immortalized in countless “noble savage” romances written by soldiers sent to patrol the Circassian front. I grew up with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago on the shelf, along with Chekov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak. The tensions of liberalism are heightened in a place like this, just as they are in Hadji MuradHero of Our Time, and Gulag. Isaiah Berlin’s secret meetings with the poet Ana Akhmatova, Roger Scruton’s underground university lectures in Prague – we are in some way connected to their legacy and continue the great discussion about tradition vs “progress”. Tbilisi is a city saturated with diplomats. I once drove home to pick up the kids and there was a traffic jam that slowed me down – it was Madeleine Albright’s entourage at the US ambassador’s place.

On the famed Georgian military highway, which inspired writers such as Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy.
Another secret hidden on the Georgian military highway – A Ford Model T truck. Perhaps donated to the White Army? How did it get here?

12803240_1565749877077010_9049513032322091739_n
Gudauri ski slopes 1.5 hrs from Tbilisi. There’s talk of hosting the 2023 world skiing and snowboarding championships. Less than $50 US a day for rental and pass.
First time through the avalanche tunnels on the way to Kazbegi. Rule #1 Don’t meet a truck face to face in the narrow ones. Rule #2 You have no idea who is in there Rule #3 Drive in anyway.
Gergeti church, at the foot of 5000 meter Mt. Kazbegi on the Russian border. This is Georgia’s equivalent of “Banff” in the Rockies.

We miss the walk-ability of downtown Yerevan and the “small-town” feel you get with a country that is nearly 100% ethnically homogenous. Georgia on the other hand feels like a true crossroads, more cosmopolitan, and for very good reason named the “jewel” of the Caucasus by Romanov vacationers.

Large waterfall in Lagodekhi national park, on the eastern border with Dagestan and Azerbaijan.

 

Kinchka waterfall, in the central Imereti region. At our campsite in front of the waterfall, the local villager offered us fresh shoti bread and of course, vodka. “No, no, this is a school trip” we said.. “Ok, Ok, just a little bit of vodka then” he said.
Hike up, ski down. One of my friends bought a property in Tianeti for $3000. After a 2.5 hr hike up the hill, this is what we saw at the top. Mt. Kazbegi in the distance.
Hike up to Khde gorge from Sno Valley
Pretty gnarly arrival into Khde gorge – we made it over the saddle (barely) instead of the actual trail on glacier.

 

Spelunking in Prometheus cave – speleologist Valery takes us through a 2 foot crawlspace into one of the many halls in the 20km underground system.
19143068_1830842067234455_4297844457793552766_o
Camping inside Tsutskhvati cave, Imereti region.
18955095_1830841887234473_3519694742476908819_o
Kinchka waterfall
19055609_1830841770567818_3987547633899577447_o
The perfect morning bath
At the top of the 45km “Romanov Trail” in Borjomi national park. Yes, that is a chapel in the middle of nowhere for the shepherds who live here in the summer.

 

View of the Bakuriani range from the Romanov trail.
Davit Gareja monastery, founded in the 6th century. Southern border with Azerbaijan. Cells are carved into the stone.

 

Alasdair hiking in Birtvisi gorge

 

The first observatory in the USSR, built near a Romanov palace in Abastumani, Georgia. Where supernovas were first observed.
One of my favorite day hikes – 20 min away from home. Ridge hike overlooking Mtskheta and ending in Roman ruins.
Picnic spot 5 minutes from home. Mtkvari river just south of Mtskheta.

We love our new friends here in Tbilisi, and we look forward to learning more about Georgia and its people. And no, Armenia, we will never forget you.

Advertisements

One thought on “From Kartli, with love: impressions of Georgia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s