Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Georgia

With fantastic mountain scenery, a fascinating history, great cuisine and a vibrant culture, we’d been long looking forward to visiting Georgia. And thanks in large part to the generosity and hospitality of our friends, Katie and Doug, who we stayed with in Tbilisi our two weeks in the country felt like a wonderful holiday.

Physically Georgia is both extremely beautiful and diverse (amazingly, although just the size of Ireland it is the 12th most bio-diverse country on Earth). The dramatic and permanently snow-capped Greater Caucasus Mountains form the country’s northern border with Russia, with the southern portion of the country dominated by the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, the semi-tropical western regions reaching the Black Sea, and semi-desert to the east along the border with Azerbaijan. And with much of the country sparsely populated we were treated to endless empty vistas out across wild flower meadows, wooded slopes and snow capped mountains.


Georgia adopted Christianity as its official religion in the early 4th Century, the second country in the world to do so (after Armenia). Religion remains an integral part of daily life, and has also had a profound impact on the landscape. Georgians seem to delight in building churches in the most beautiful but inaccessible places with endless hills across the country topped by old stone churches, and a series of underground monastic complexes. We visited one of these, Davit Gareja, on the border with Azerbaijan where scores of caves have been cut into the cliffs, containing beautiful pastel coloured frescoes dating back to the 12th and 13th Centuries, and with spectacular views out over the surrounding countryside.

The Georgian Orthodox Church appears to continue to play an important part in national identity. Since independence many old churches have been restored and new ones built, such as the magnificent gold domed Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi. Most of the churches we saw were similar architecturally but very different to English churches, with small floor plans and a high central copula. Inside there are no pews or other seats, and they are decorated with gold paintings of Jesus and various saints hung on the otherwise plain, stone walls.

Prayer seems a largely individual practice in Georgia, with few services, but in every church we visited we came across people lighting candles or engaged in private prayer. Almost all car and minibus dashboards are adorned with religious icons, and many Georgians cross themselves three times when passing a church or cemetery. We found this particularly interesting given the low profile religion seemed to have in many other post-Soviet countries.

Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, is ten times the size of the next largest city and dominates the country’s political, economic and cultural life, yet remains a pleasantly manageable size. Set either side of the Mtkvari River and surrounded by green hills, the city’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles reflecting its complex history of Soviet, Tsarist Russia, Persian and Turkish rule and influence. Yet unlike many of the cities of the former USSR we’ve visited Tbilisi seems, thankfully, to have largely escaped the usual grey towerblocks and to have retained its own distinct character. In the Old Town narrow alleyways, ramshackle balconied houses and old caravanserais mingle with churches old and new, while wide boulevards lined with elegant neoclassical buildings and large Soviet public squares are interspersed with new and sleek modern buildings.


This mix of architectural styles is mirrored in the clothes worn by people in Tbilisi, with an individuality in dress that we’ve not seen since we left Europe last summer, and in the vibrant cultural life of the city, with independent art galleries, museums, theatres and cinemas. We spent an enjoyable few days wandering around the streets, peeking into Georgian Orthodox churches, visiting museums, going to the cinema for the first time since November, and watching a spectacular dance performance by the Sukhishvilli Georgian National Ballet.

Georgian cuisine was also a treat after the frequently greasy and bland Central Asian fare we’ve eaten for the past few weeks. Khachapuri, a calorific but addictive cheese pie, is served everywhere, as are aubergines, walnuts, beans, spinach and all kinds of salads, all washed down with delicious Georgian wines.


The Georgian Government and Georgian people seem very much orientated to the West and this is particularly evident in Tbilisi. EU flags fly outside every Government Ministry and on the top of the Parliament building and posters stating that ‘Our foreign policy objective is NATO membership’ adorn the streets. But Georgia’s economy and chances of joining NATO are undoubtedly hindered by its poor relations with Russia, its largest neighbour. Georgia’s two de facto independent regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which claimed independence with Russian support, are the major source of ongoing tensions between the two countries. These tensions flared into war as recently as 2008 and the Georgian economy continues to be stung by Russia’s ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, and the largely closed borders between the two countries.

An hour or so drive from Tbilisi is Gori, where Georgia’s most infamous son, Stalin, was born. The Georgian attitude to Stalin seems curious: in Gori we visited a huge, state-funded museum dedicated to his memory and built in 1957, the year after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The museum provides a fascinating, if partial, account of Stalin’s life (we had no idea that Stalin, then called Iosif Jughasvili, wrote poetry as a youth and that he had studied at a seminary to become a priest), and there’s an almost ‘local boy done good’ attitude to his life. This stands markedly at odds with Tbilisi’s Museum of Georgia, which houses an exhibition of the Soviet Occupation of Georgia and which catalogues the persecutions which occurred under Stalin.

For us one of Georgia’s greatest attractions was the opportunity to walk in the countryside and it was refreshing to find that the Government promoted and encouraged walking and camping, rather than viewing it with suspicion as has been the case in almost every other country we’ve visited. More generally tourism is being heavily pushed by the Georgian Government making it an easy and appealing place to visit. While it hasn’t been quite finessed yet there seems huge potential for this sector of the economy to grow, especially in outdoor activities, and we’re already planning a repeat trip to explore more of the mountains.


We started our forays into the countryside in the Borjomi National Park in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains (www.nationalpark.ge), where we walked and wild camped for four days following marked trails through beautiful, wild country of forested hills and high alpine meadows covered with a mass of yellow and blue wild flowers. Originally established as a hunting reserve set up by Tsar Nicholas II’s brother, Prince Mikhail Romanov, the Park was only opened to the public in 2001 and is now part of the PAN Parks Network which aims to create a network of Europe’s best wilderness areas from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. (The Bear’s Ring which we walked in Finland is another member of the Network). The Park was wonderfully quiet and in our four days there we saw only a couple of other walkers and a handful of cowherds grazing their animals in the high summer pastures.

Our second trip out of the city was to the Kazbegi region in the Greater Caucuses, due north of Tbilisi and very close to the border with Russia. The high mountains of Georgia have always been wild, sometimes lawless regions, and on our walks in the region we passed countless tall stone defensive towers which once stood in every hamlet to house and protect the inhabitants in case of siege. Now most of the towers have fallen into disrepair but as a reminder of the continuing hostilities with Russia we came across several groups of Georgian soldiers, camped out near the high passes that lead into Chechnya and Dagestan and through which the Georgians fear the Russians might invade again.

We did some spectacular day walks with Katie in the wild, empty valleys around Kazbegi before meeting up with Doug and friends of theirs with whom we spent a fantastic weekend climbing above the valleys to the Gergeti Glacier which snakes down from Mount Kazbeg. During the day we were rewarded with spellbinding views of the glacier and surrounding snow-covered peaks, but that night as we camped at the edge of the glacial morraine, at around 10,000 feet we were hit by an immense storm. Travelling back to Tbilisi the next day we were reminded of how fragile the few roads are which connect the mountains to the rest of the country: many mountain villages are cut off by snow for much of the winter, and after the storm the road was again blocked by several landslides while several local villages were flooded.

Our time in Georgia, staying with Katie and Doug and meeting their friends, was the first chance on this trip to experience what it must be like to live in a country rather than to just pass through as a tourist. And while we’re still continuing to really enjoy our travels, and are so glad to have had the chance to visit so many different and diverse countries, it’s convinced us that we definitely want to try living abroad at some point in the future.

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