Towering Peaks, Wine Country, Medieval Churches. Georgia, baby.
December 11, 2010
I got up in the middle of the night needing to use the facilities. I was in the living room of a Georgian village home, and there were several beds in that living room containing my friends and travel companions to negotiate. I fumbled around past them – snores marking their spots in pitch blackness – made my way past the woodstove in the kitchen, nearly burning myself, opened the door and felt the rush of the south wind coming from the towering mountains we drove through the previous afternoon. Dang, I thought, do I really have to go out in the freezing cold just to get to the bathroom? No bathroom inside? But then I looked up at the stars, beautiful, then the mountains draped in moonlight, stupendous, and made my way down the steps to a (heated!) bathroom. Yes, going outside to use the can was worth it: for this blissful, wee hour silence in the high Caucasus village of Kazbegi.
I spent five days in Georgia, and coincidentally so did several English teachers in Istanbul who also had a week-long holiday to celebrate, so we celebrated together for some of the time. After the first night in Tbilisi, we went to Kazbegi, three hours north of Tbilisi, courtesy of a Saudi gentleman who had a car and drove all the way up from his home country. Roadside shrines dotted the highest, pot-hole strewn passages of that road, while roadside churches hundreds of years old and even the occasional Soviet-era modern sculpture dotted the lower lands. Indeed, it was those lower lands reminded me
of the mountains and valleys of my native southern Oregon, but what Oregon misses is the next level of stark, amazing peaks like Mount Kazbek, towering more than 5000 meters and within plain view of the village of Kazbegi.
Home stays are the main accommodation option in Kazbegi, as the whole country is still developing tourism potential. We were approached by a woman with a small child offering her home to stay in, hence the middle of the night trek through a living room festooned with all manner of Georgian figurines, crystal, books and warm folded blankets. The stay included some delicious breakfast, warm, calorie filled kachapoorie, cheesy fried bread, and eggs, jam, tea coffee and other familiar offerings. Kachapuri is indeed replete all over the land, as breakfast pre-dinner snack, lunch, whatever. It’s positively the heaviest dough-related concoction one can imagine, though I hear in western Georgia they put an egg on top. After breakfast four of us trekked up to Tsiminda Sameba Monastery, a 14th-century structure perched overlooking the town at 2200 meters. Monks tended to gardens, we tended to our senses, ensuring we breathed as much mountain air as possible.
Heading back down the lowlands to Tbilisi for the night, we traded stories in the Honda with Saudi plates, getting weird looks from passersby at perhaps the first Saudi car to cruise the Russian Military Highway. The next day is was to the east and the tamer topography of wine country. Georgian wines come in many varieties, but each has a unique taste not found in an Albertson’s wine rack in the US, let alone at the bakkal in Turkey. The three of us spent nearly a day in the village of Sighnahi, a pleasant small town perched on the edge of a ridge overlooking a valley. We got there by taxi, which ran us about 15 bucks total for a two hour journey (gotta love travel in Georgia). There weren’t as many wine tasting facilities in town as we thought – one really, serving a brand called Pheasant’s Tears – but the town was relaxing and felt like a small town in the Napa Valley might have about 40 years ago, plus Georgian babushkas of course.
My next two days were spent palling around Tbilisi alone, my friends having gone to Armenia for a couple days. Tbilisi is a mish mash of styles, but the overarching feel is central European, a sort of Prague of the Caucuses. But there are certainly other influences: towering churches and a pious populace that gives a Greek feel, a bathhouse in the center of town that is central Asian in architecture, towering Soviet era sculptures. But the town doesn’t have as much of a heavy Soviet feel as I thought, except for the metro and its ludicrously fast and unsafe escalators.
And like European cities, there are no shortage of monuments, churches, a turn of the century synagogue, even an hourly clock tower parade show thingy reminiscent of Prague. I am not going to go into the history of all the awesome monuments, but do check out the fortress overlooking the city above the old quarter, then wander down a surprisingly well tended and diverse botanical garden with waterfalls below it.
Oh, and I can’t forget the half day trip to Gori and the Stalin Museum! For what visit to Georgia would be complete without it. The museum was oddly just what I expected, some crumbling Soviet-era palace devoted to the hometown boy who made it good. Sadly, not much balanced reporting on Stalin, and most of the museum is in Russian and Georgian. Lots of flattering newspaper clips blown up, a bizarre bust of the man surrounded by velvet. The usual. But who comes to Gori for an accurate portrayal of Stalin. Not me!
Not a day passed by in Georgia without feasting on Khinhali, splendid dumplings filled with minced meet. At about 30 cents apiece, they made for a refreshingly heavy change from the smaller portions found at Turkish restaurants.
Cheap, stunningly beautiful, with hospitable folks that can go toe to toe with any Middle Eastern culture, Georgia is a prize that is on the cusp of being totally touristified. Catch it while you can, while you can stay in someone’s house because you have no other option.