I’ll never forget the moment when I, slashed up and bruised during a drunken descent down a trail-less mountainside in the High Caucasus, realized that I could die alone in the woods. Despite having fifteen hundred dollars of hard currency on me, enough to buy thousands upon thousands of delicious Georgian Khinkali dumplings at a safe and warm restaurant in downtown Tbilisi, that grip of cold cash could not fill my cold stomach with the necessary energy to keep on in a stormy, isolated wilderness ten kilometers from the nearest human settlement. And then, like an utterly vexatious bee on a boiling summer day, the old Native American quote that used to hang prominently from my 6th grade science teacher’s classroom wall snapped into my consciousness:
“You will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.”
Son of a bitch.
Before I dive into the rest of what happened during my alternatingly harrowing and listless four days in the Caucasus mountains, let’s push the mental rewind button and go back in time to the start of sojourn to the delightfully backwater nation of Georgia. Let it be known that my sources for understanding Georgia primarily come from my own observations, my talks with Georgians themselves, and rants from TEFL instructors working with TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia), a government-run English teaching program for state schools. I’m not an expert here but an opinionated loudmouth with some friends who seem like they’ve given me reliable information, so sit back and enjoy the junk.
To put it succinctly, Georgia is a former Soviet republic pounding at the door of the West for admittance into the 21st century. Although just a few hour flight from destinations in Eastern Europe, Georgia’s un-visited wealth of natural and human wonders demands attention for both the good of the nation’s fumbling economy and the pleasure of international tourists. The amount of photogenic churches, wine vineyards, and soaring mountains is pleasantly surprising given the country’s bite-sized geographical wingspan, and most of these treasures can be visited in day trips or extended overnighters.
However, the country remains very much stuck in the economic backwardness of the former Soviet Union, and the penetration of Soviet culture means that for tourists, speaking Russian will work you wonders whereas knowledge of any other language besides Georgian is essentially worthless when talking to the average Georgian. Even English, which many of us take for granted as the lingua franca of mass tourism, has not settled in with most Georgians and you may have to go out of your way to find English-speaking hotel and restaurant personnel. Fortunately, and like with any place on earth, you can communicate most of your basic tourist needs with a few creative hand gestures and vivid facial expressions!
I spent my first four days in the kick-started capital of the country, Tbilisi. This city is trying its darndest to look modern and European, with new construction and renovation spearheading the effort all around the city. It’s a bit aesthetically lopsided at the moment as a result; for example, you can find a jumble of decaying wooden houses from the 19th and early 20th century next to the soaring white colonnades of the presidential palace. In the touristy part of town next between Europe Square and Liberty Square, the construction is never-ending, but after a few years I’m sure the place will sparkle and shine. My base of operations to explore the place was Friends Hostel, a definitely-recommendable establishment with a nice old Georgian woman proprietor and a helpful staff assistant-cum-TEFL teacher from South Africa. Its cheapness and relative closeness to the metro and most of the major in-city sights makes it a worthwhile place to stay, although I did lose (or someone stole) my running shoes while I was there.
I took a dreadful 12:50 AM flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi on the morning of the 13th and spent the wee hours of the morn fruitlessly looking above and around piles of construction supplies for my hostel. It really does pay to bring a print-out with a map when you come to a country in the dead of night where no-one speaks English. For a few hours I gave up, found an all-night restaurant, and enjoyed my first non-Turkish, non-taxed-to-hell beer with a selection of delicious Georgian meat dumplings called Khinkali. The restaurant, Machakhela, is probably the most reliable restaurant in the Caucasus region and I couldn’t recommend it more. I never found such great value and stellar selections of traditional Georgian food, like dumplings, khachapuri (Cheesy bread), and clay-pot beans at any other establishment in the country. After that early hours pitstop, I came back many times during my stay to fuel myself for sightseeing in the city.
I eventually found my hostel and took a long, long nap for the better part of the morning. When I regained my energy, I set out on an extended walk across the town past stately-looking Soviet-era government buildings and wide boulevards traversed by maniac drivers. My goal for the day was to secure an Azerbaijani Visa from a shadowy tourist company called “X-Tours” (30 T. Abuladze Str.), and the search sent me stomping around the town for about three hours. With the assistance of a merciful bank teller who was the first person to give me understandable directions, I discovered the agency’s building in the northern part of the town next to the Turkish Embassy (I almost wanted to chat with a security guard in Turkish just to offset the linguistic loneliness that solo travel in Georgia had already forced upon me…but they turned out to be Georgian). I got my papers sorted with the agency, paid the $180 for a visa, and was told to wait three days for the document. It appears that the agency is nothing more than an operation for getting Western tourists Azeri visas, and although I suspect there could be some palm-greasing involved with the unusually-easy and expedited process, I didn’t care and was happy to have gotten that sorted out.
Later that night, I ate some McDonald’s ice cream like the dirty imperialist I am, bought a beer, and took a funicular ride up to a hill overlooking the city to enjoy its expansive views of the city’s illuminated downtown nightscape. The ride was certainly worthwhile, especially if you want to get a closer look at the magnificently slim-bellied and large-breasted statue called Kartlis Dede (Mother of Kartli) which stands sentinel over Tbsili. Up there, I was a man alone, sipping my brew forlornly as Azeri and Georgian tourists chatted all around me. But it felt good to just sit on the stone guard rail in silence, drinking in the amber glow of the valley’s light as the cheap beer coursed down my tired throat.
I marshaled my recuperated energy from a night and morning of relaxation for a day trip to Mtskheta, the historical capital of Georgia. In spite of having a consonantal car accident for a name, this city was quite pleasurable for a leisurely afternoon of strolling. Mtshketa is right outside Tbilisi and is the long-time home of the Georgian Orthodox Church, a unique offshoot of Orthodox Christianity with early roots dating to around the 5th century. The town’s biggest draw is its big old cathedral (Svetitskhoveli), formerly the largest church in the country, still surrounded by a low-lying protective wall that hearkens back to the instability of the Middle Ages. It must be said that outside the appreciable church complex, however, the roads and shops look a bit too heavily restored to really make the city as enchanting as many tourist brochures make it out to be. I bumped into some French backpackers on the rollicking minibus to the city, and we toured the cathedral and got some lunch together. Later on, I took a taxi to the hilltop Jvari Monastery for an hour-long visit. Jvari provides a great view of Mtskheta and has a squat little church that looks good in the photos and isn’t too bad in real life. The place was locked up when I arrived, but I stayed a while longer until the resident priest unlocked the sanctuary and let the tourists in, which definitely made the experience a lot more valuable.
The Day of Stalin–oh boy. Yes, the man was an indelible black spot on the pages of human nature and systemically murdered millions of his own innocent countrymen, but missing a visit to the Man of Steel’s birthplace of Gori and namesake museum (Just a few hours away from Tbilisi) was something I would not let occur. If you care about modern history and if you’re a human rights lover, I think that a grim instinct of responsibility, like what guides modern people to concentration camps, compels you to see such a spectacle.
I prefaced my visit to Stalin’s hometown by a stopover at the Georgian National Museum, which has one of the best exhibits on ancient gold artifacts that I’ve ever seen. Georgia was known to the ancient Greeks as Colchis, the land of Jason’s Golden Fleece. The natives have been collecting bountiful quantities of natural gold from the Caucasus as far back as written history can attest to, and there’s a theory that the Golden Fleece myth originated from a practice of gold panning where locals dipped sheep wool into the river to collect the stuff’s shiny particles. True or not, Georgia’s reputation as a center of gold should stand the test of time with the numerous amounts of unique artifacts that have been discovered in the region, many of which are singularly beautiful for their unique designs. The museum goes to lengths to let visitors know that many such designs are endemic only to historical Georgia–a fact is understandably braggable. In addition to the exhibition on Georgia’s gold, I took a much more somber tour of the museum’s section on Georgia’s history under communist oppression from 1921 to 1991. The low lighting, sad pictures of intellectuals and dissidents who were shot by the authorities, and blurry pictures of insidious orders from the authorities communicated the nation’s opinion of those dark seventy years. The icing on this sad cake was a full-sized rail car, poked through with hundreds of gleaming bullet-holes, in which the Red Army’s opponents were packed to be mercilessly cut down by Soviet machine guns during the 1921 invasion.
If anything, the last exhibit sobered me up for my time at the Stalin Museum in Gori. The museum of Mr. Steel is in a curious position at the moment, as the man is still more-or-less glorified by the extensive documents, artifacts, busts, and photos that are on show of him, despite the conventional wisdom on the man’s bloody legacy. The museum authorities, presumably under their own initiative and that of entities like the EU, will be changing the museum to the “Museum of Stalinism” in the near future, but I think they’ve got a lot of work redesigning everything ahead of them. Still, the museum was a novelty to walk through, featuring everything from Stalin’s first poem to his death mask. The information was overwhelmingly in Georgian or Russian, so I paid for a tour guide to show me around the place. I don’t remember that much from what she said but it wasn’t very critical of the man, and she seemed to be in a hurry to get done with our tour. The two coolest parts of the tour were looking around Stalin’s private rail cart–essentially, a green tank on train tracks–and seeing the rinky-dink house where he was born, which is now covered by a protective roof to sustain the people’s most glorious house’s longevity. On the interior walls of the house, some of Stalin’s letters to his mother were pinned up, and it appears that the moment his pen used to touch paper for a letter home, this brute of a monster transformed into a mawkish little boy with a soft-spot for mommy. One of them, dated 1931 (when he was 53 years old) from the Kremlin, thanked her for sending homemade him jam and Georgian candy!
I rounded off my day by taking a look at a small local museum on World War II, which was nothing special except for a morbid photo of a fallen Hero of the Soviet Union (a dead hanged naked Georgian woman) and some rusted WWII kit. Once again, everything was in Russian/Georgian and I had to hire a tour guide. However, the place had some information about the recent war with Russia in 2008, and I had the unique opportunity to pose holding a used Russian cluster bomb. So, despite the defenses put up by people interested in protecting Russia’s image, I’ve seen (and held) the infamous munitions myself and can attest to their usage in the conflict.
As my last day in Tbilisi, I did a bit of souvenir shopping at the so-called “Communist Market”, where almost anything you can dream of from Soviet times can be purchased. Old-school cameras, pins, military medals, flags, knives, swords, passports, canteens, hats, and shit-load of other shitty cool shit can be haggled over and purchased in this ironically uber-capitalist exchange. I unceremoniously purchased enough medals to receive de facto control of an infantry battalion for prices that would make yesteryear’s martyrs of Marxism weep. There was something deliciously crass about it all, like I was rubbing our country’s Cold War victory in the absent faces of long-dead enemies with each Lari I spent buying their dead honor. At least with the medals, it makes you shudder with pity and a tiny morsel of genuine sadness to think you are purchasing something that someone worked so hard to get–and now, it means nothing. Let that be a lesson, perhaps, to ourselves as we seek in vain to value our lives with what are really meaningless benchmarks of accomplishment.
***So folks, that’s it for now, but stay tuned for the really meaty stuff about my time struggling through the Caucasus. This is part one of three. Thanks for reading***