First thoughts on Georgia: the roads are better, the driving worse. I’d chosen to go for a shared taxi, known as marshrutka, to get from the Armenian capital of Yerevan up to Tbilisi in one afternoon, rather than the more expensive and lengthier train. What I didn’t realise, is that although the scenery through the window is much the same, the train driver isn’t trying to give Tokyo Drift a run for its money on hairpin bends. The noticeable difference between the unmaintained Armenian roads and the far smoother ones immediately across the border was, at first, appreciated. I thought perhaps our Georgian driver was in fact just a little crazy, probably not representative. But within 48 hours I’d learnt that it’s just the way the country drives.
Frighteningly, several of the taxis had cracked windscreens and paint scratches of varying degrees. It got to the point where it was almost entertaining to compare the speed at which they cut in front of other drivers to the severity of the car damage – almost. One taxi I walked past even looked like the windscreen had been shot at! I couldn’t quite understand why no one seemed to fix these kinds of scrapes, but looking back, it was probably more of an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The kind of laissez-faire outlook that made the country such a wonderful place to visit.
Georgia is a very relaxed place. Everyone is so busy being hospitable, talking laughing and eating their way through life, that it seems impossible that there’s ever a need to be rushed in this country. The Armenians often said that their northern neighbours are the only ones they could joke with (since they have such bad relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and though on cordial terms with their southern neighbours, the Revolution in Iran made things a little more difficult for the Christian Armenians still living there). It’s easy to see why they never lost their friendship with Georgia!
We did of course, do the obligatory wine tasting day. When you visit the nation famed for being the first to have made wine in the world, you can’t neglect to! And though other in the group had already had their first taste (literally) of Georgian hospitality, and knew what they were in for, I was yet to be included in that club. We weren’t given sips or two of each wine to taste, at the second winery we were given glasses. And then we went to the next winery – and were treated to a huge feast with several jugs of wine. Considering we’d had our first drop at about 10 or 11 am, we’d been pacing ourselves a little.
And then a friend of our local guide turned up, incidentally accompanied by a significant Georgian archaeologist on his way to check out a site nearby. So despite being on the point of food comas, more food was brought for the table, more jugs appeared, and then the dangerous old chacha came out. Chacha is a spirit made from the skin of grapes, and it is certainly strong! It’s generally considered more potent than vodka, and though my other friends wisely refused after learning from experience, I decided it would be best to try the local brew while I had the chance. Thankfully I didn’t take the full shot, considering the wine already tolling on me! It certainly has a bite to it. We started our tour at about 9.30 in the morning, we made it back to our home stays sometime after 4pm, and were then expected to sit down to a dinner none of us needed soon after, or risk insulting our hosts. There was of course wine that appeared on the dinner table – and for the first time none of us touched it, despite it probably being the only alcoholic drink on our trip that didn’t cost extra. Yes, that’s right, nothing extra. At any big meal, it’s just expected that there will be jugs of wine! And they are often jugs, not bottles. So it was entirely normal for our hosts to automatically bring them out without asking. Even restaurants in Tbilisi often had three options for wine: glass, bottle,or jug. That’s how ingrained their wine culture of over 6000 years is.
Toastmaster is a significant role here. It’s someone, often a host, at a party in charge of making all the toasts, and seeing to it that enough alcohol is consumed – a dangerous business! And no toastmaster would be fit for the role without a traditional Georgian drinking horn. They’ve even got a statue dedicated to the Toastmaster in Tbilisi!
Above: Toastmaster statue, with his drinking horn
Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi is nestled on the the banks on either side of the Kura River, with steep hills and narrow winding lanes containing the south-eastern section of the city. Tbilisi is a great mix of everything: medieval and modern, traditional and soviet, and Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities that have lived here for centuries together. Overlooking the city from the ridge above, the Narikala fort includes a church, the botanic gardens a little further around the valley, while the other end of the wall now hosts the statue of the Mother of Georgia. The statue symbolises Georgian hospitality with her food bowl and the national pride with her sword. Then there’s the statue of St George in the typically Soviet Freedom Square. Churches, historical figures, modern architects, mosques, synagogues, hamams…I learnt so much about the history of Georgia in just two short days of wandering around and looking at architecture, without having read much about the place.
Walking around the city was definitely more challenging than it sounded. In high summer, Tbilisi can get quite humid, and going up and down the steep hills proved to be better exercise than any aerobics class. What should have been a five minute stroll from my hostel on one side of the river to the next place I was staying on the other, took me almost 20 with my backpack. There are plenty of quiet backstreets to discover, with some really nice eating areas of the city as well. In one such place, there were even a few live jazz bands playing! On a Sunday, I stumbled across a church service which has spilled out onto any available space around it. Obviously this church was more popular than the others I’d already walked past, but it was a nice thing to see. Most of the people outside couldn’t hear what was going on inside, yet they still hung round all the same, chatting with other families instead.
The other surprise I had while in Tbilisi was the dumplings! A friend and I saw dumplings on the menu and were a little surprised, having had no idea that dumplings were eaten outside of Asia. What came out were not the kinds of dumplings we’ been expecting at all! They were huge, about the size of my hand. Certainly not chopstick size, and not really fork size either! After eating a few, we were told by a couple at the table next to us that you actually ate them with your hand, by turning the dumpling upside down, and using the top of the dumpling as a kind of handle. It felt so strange! Turns out I’d be seeing dumplings all along the Silk Road for the next two and half months, of all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of sauces and fillings.
The Soviet influence on Georgia is still in some of its architecture, but if you go looking for it, there’s a little more to see and learn. Georgia also hosts Goris, the birthplace of Stalin, though he doesn’t seem to be entirely popular with the locals. One of the more interesting places we visited was the Soviet car museum. This is a tiny place, down a dirt track, and you’d have to know about it to find it. Not being a car person myself, I didn’t appreciate it quite as much as some, but it was definitely interesting to see the array of cars, and learn about which types cars were used by the police, diplomats, leaders, or locals. I also loved the bullet proof car – with a gunshot in its windscreen. Those who work there have spent a lot of time and money restoring these old cars to pristine condition, which you can see them doing in the workshops just next to the display room. It was a quick glimpse into daily life during Soviet times, as seen from a mechanics workshop.
Our final stop in Georgia was the Lagodekhi National Park area, where we camped for the night. Not far from both the Russian and Azeri borders, these woods were a nice changed rom everything else I’d seen so far on my travels. Most other scenery I’d seen had been deserts, mountains, open fields, and cities. It felt like we were getting into out into nature, and I’d been looking forward to my first night of camping. After stetting up camp, I snuck off to play saxophone for a while a little. The sound carried beautifully, and I could hear it ringing out through the trees. I enjoyed it so much that I just stopped playing, sat down on my saxophone case, and watched the insects and birds flit around, before standing again to play.
I travelled to Georgia to start my Silk Road trip with Dragoman, who specialise in overland journeys. Local home stays and camping took us off the beaten track, and certainly made the trip more memorable!