Monday, 19 August 2013

The Land of Saint George

(Originally on 5 July 2012.)

Two years ago in summer 2010 I visited Georgia and Armenia, and wrote about the experiences of that journey in Tbilisi, Mtskheta, Yerevan and the mountains around the Kazbek in my Finnish blog. Back then I travelled with a Lebanese American friend. This time we were a group of four young men. Besides myself, only one of my three companions had been to the Caucasus before, as his mother's roots were there.

We flew into Tbilisi from Estonia and rented a car, which we used to drive around most of Georgia. I and one of my companions had to return a bit earlier due to other commitments, whereas the other two continued to visit even Abkhazia and Karabagh. The areas that were not visited this time consisted of Svanetia in the northwest, Djavakhetia in the southwest, and Kakhetia in the east, where I ventured before the era covered by my blog together with a friend of mine now residing in East Africa. We even visited the famous Pankisi Gorge. Back then we were still jolly little undergraduates, and on the same long journey we also revisited the cultural diversity of Eastern Anatolia, the Qamishli Spring in Syria, and the bazaars and internet cafés of Hawler, Suleymaniya, Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq. "There may be enough destination in our journey, but what makes it worthy of the trouble is the way there itself."

Also this time, travelling took place in an outstanding atmosphere. One would think that taking four confident, cosmopolitan and verbally talented young men, whose summed IQ probably exceeds six hundred, and putting them for a couple of weeks into a Renault Mégane in the middle of the Caucasian honour culture, throwing in some hatchapuris and a few bottles of Saperavi wines per man, one could not avoid clashes of egos. Yet no, the good spirits of our expedition survived even all the debates on sensitive questions of international politics and cultural clashes in a civilized and lofty atmosphere. All my three travel companions shared respectably wide general knowledge and they were socially active promises of our internationalizing homeland; two of them active web discussants and the third one an otherwise important eminence gris.

Compared with two years ago, Georgia has actually just increased its attractiveness as a travel destination. With the exceptions of Batumi (marketed for the newly rich) and the core centre of Tbilisi, the price level in Georgia has remained very affordable, while the quality of everything has steadily risen as a result of large-scale improvement of infrastructure, renovation of the city centres, and the new, more international generations taking over. Georgia is a safe country for tourism. Roads are mostly in good condition, although one should carry a map along, because signs are generally insufficient or illogically placed - even if one's able to read the Georgian alphabets.

For the beginning, Tbilisi: located in Kartli, in the gorge of the Kura River that flows towards the Caspian Sea, the Georgian capital has continued its remarkable face-lift. Two years ago the Rustaveli Avenue leading to the Freedom Square, and the Old Town were already nicely restored, and I wrote about how there was now a concentration of bar and café streets in Old Town that was reminiscent of Beirut. Also across the river in Metekhi restoration has proceeded with speed and we could now see that also the Mardjanishvili district has been restored with its imperial nineteenth-century buildings, fountains and parks. I recall anticipating two years ago that there could be yet another concentration of social and evening activities in Mardjanishvili, and this seems to have happened.

In spite of the Russian invasion four years ago and the economic blockade and political attempts at destabilization ever since, Georgia has continued its development with a surprising pace. Russian activities and the global depression, however, have had an impact on the spirits of the Georgians. They have kept that somewhat bitter, disillusioned and frustrated tone I observed already two years ago. The economic depression seems to have hit the country even worse than the Russian invasion, which after all resulted in the loss of only a couple of additional border valleys, in addition to what Russia had been occupying since early 1990s already.

Georgia's response to the constant Russian bullying has been quite interesting. Georgia has, for instance, unilaterally opened its borders with Russia and granted all Russian citizens a unilateral visa freedom to visit Georgia. Georgia also allows the inhabitants of the occupied territories (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) to travel to Georgia. Russia, however, does not allow Georgians any access to its own territory or the Georgian territories it continues to occupy.

Along the road to Kazbek in the Caucasus Mountains we saw how numerous Russian families had entered Georgia with their own cars, to have vacation and look around in Georgia. They cannot miss sensing the greater freedom prevailing there and witnessing with their own eyes and ears the falsehood of the propagandistic image that the Russian media gives of the neighbouring country. Seen from this point of view, Georgia's unilateral concessions actually constitute a potentially successful charm offensive, as many ordinary Russians can now acquaint with a reality quite different from the image they would get in Russia.

Since Russia occupied Sukhumi and bombed Poti, Georgia has paid a lot of effort to improve its third port city, Batumi, the third-largest city of Georgia and the capital of the autonomous region of Adjaria. Batumi is located on the Black Sea coast near the Turkish border. Two years ago I didn't visit there, so I couldn't witness what had been built by then, but still eight years ago it used to be in a quite dilapidated and post-Soviet condition.

Now an amazing kitchyland has been erected in Batumi in a short period of time - some kind of a Black Sea version of Dubai with grandiose marble palaces, neon-lighted glass towers, pompous restaurants, casinos and luxury villas, gold-covered statues, seraphs, cherubs, dancing nymphs and fountains. Batumi intends to go even further since everywhere around the city one can see new construction projects, offers of luxury real estate, and there is apparently a plan to construct a fountain spraying Georgia's national booze chacha. That is sure to attract Russian tourists and might also constitute a good trump card to market Batumi for Finnish tourists.

I have no idea where all the initial investment has come from but the place is far from being deserted. There is apparently a sizable and affluent constituency of holiday-makers who have discovered Batumi. Some undoubtedly are newly rich Georgians living abroad, but judging from the fragments of Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish heard around, a large part of the people here are Azerbaijani, Ukrainian and Russian newly rich, including the upper middle class of the oil-wealthy Baku, Turks with Caucasian roots, and amazingly enough, lots of Israelis and Iranians, too. An Estonian contact we met cracked a joke about dawn in Batumi's nightclubs where the last ones to linger on the dance floors are the Israelis and the Iranians since they have so much to talk about.

A short drive north of Batumi there's another resort town, the much more moderate Kobuleti, which was full of smaller and more affordable family hotels. There most of the holiday-makers seemed to be of the domestic stock. It is good that also ordinary Georgians have a Black Sea beach resort so close to Batumi, which has turned Mediterranean by its price level. We also visited the port city of Poti, which seemed quite dormant compared with the coastal towns further south, although even there the destruction inflicted by Russian bombings had been quickly repaired and the commercial harbour was functional again.

Georgia's second-largest city and an important cultural centre Kutaisi was once upon the time the capital of the Imeretian Kingdom. There we lived for the astonishingly inexpensive price of 40 lari in a white marble villa, across the river in a hillside near the cathedral and overlooking a wonderful scene over the city. The villa now hosted a family hotel, and we could chill out at its terrace, enjoy the scenery over the town's skyline and consume the five litre canister of Saperavi wine that we had picked from a vineyard on the way here.

The climate of Kartli and Kakhetia, inhabited by the Karts of East Georgia, is more continental - hot in summers, and also drier as one moves further east. On the western side of the watershed forested mountain range where Gori and Surami are located, it turns into the hot and humid subtropical climate of the Black Sea, and the mountains descend towards Kutaisi to form the plains of the Rioni Valley. The Rioni River lets into the Black Sea at Poti, where also the protected delta area of Kolkheti is located. We returned from Batumi through Guria and the Supsa Valley into Central Georgia. There's also an ethnic difference between western and eastern Georgia: The East is inhabited by the majority ethnic group of the Karts, while the West is home to the speakers of Western Georgian languages, the Megrelians (Mingrelians), the Svans, the Adjarians and the Lazis - the last of whom live partly on the Turkish side. Historically majority of the Adjarians and Lazis were Muslims whereas the Karts, the Megrelians and the Svans are Christian.

We also visited the northwestern town of Zugdidi and the Enguri River that forms the boundary to Abkhazia. Atmosphere up there was surprisingly phlegmatic and sleepy. The soldiers gave us permission to go to the side of occupied Abkhazia and come back. Still in the early 2000s Zugdidi was the base of Georgia's radical nationalists who wanted to win Abkhazia back, but now it was just like any Georgian town. Zviad Gamsakhurdia's statue and memorial decorated the central park, but otherwise the Abkhazian conflict was hardly visible at all in the streets of Zugdidi.

One cannot claim to have really been to the Caucasus if one one has not visited the Caucasus Mountains. It is there one can also find the cultural soul of the region. Had we had more time, we would have gone to Svanetia or some other slightly more difficult mountain area, but as time was limited, we chose again the simpler solution and drove through Ananuri, Pasanauri and Gudauri along the Georgian Military Highway up to Stepantsminda, at the foothills of the Kazbek.

We drove to the border crossing leading to the Russian Republic of North Ossetia to see the ruins of Queen Tamara's castle, and we climbed up to the mountain to the Tsminda Sameba churche, where patriotic Georgian youth make spirited excursions, carrying the Georgian flags for good poses and singing patriotic songs. And we also visited the Darial Gorge to wonder the breathtaking sceneries that had so inspired Lermontov and Pushkin. Griffon Vultures were soaring over the mountain paths of Gveleti, and Alpine Choughs around the concrete abomination from the Soviet era that has been erected in the middle of most majestic gorge landscape before the Djvari Pass, to celebrate the "friendship of peoples" between Georgians and Russians.

I recommend my readers, too, to make the trip to Georgia as long as it is still there, and as long as you can experience it as a free country. Renting a car is an excellent way to acquaint with that fascinating, regionally and culturally diverse country, where every valley and region has its own character. Travelling in Georgia is easy and safe. It is easy to find inexpensive hotels and guesthouses in towns, while in smaller villages one can often find "granny accommodation". Finns and most Westerners don't need visa to Georgia, and also otherwise Georgia hasn't obsessed it with controlling foreigners since the Rose Revolution in 2003. Only one of the hotels we visited during the entire trip actually wanted to see our passports.

For those who do not have the opportunity to travel, I could recommend for example an armchair trip into the eleventh-century chivalry romantics in the form of reading Georgia's national epic, the Knight in the Panther's Skin. Let us quote what the Finnish Wikipedia writes about the book:

The epic strongly reflects Georgia's location in a crossroads of cultures and trade routes. At Rustaveli's time, the country had been part of the Christian world for almost thousand years already, but it was situated at the edge of the strengthening Islamic culture that lived its golden age of prosperity. Also the characters of the story represent different cultures and traditions, yet they live in a tolerant coexistence. Although the Knight in the Panther's Skin has been written in the Middle Ages and it carries lots of similarities with European chivalry romantics, it anticipates the Renaissance in its humanist and liberal spirit. [...]
Rustaveli makes personal freedom, pure love, and justice central themes in his epic. The heroes of the story are pure-hearted, brave fighters for justice and happiness. In its basic tone the epic is optimistic. Although Rustaveli's patriotic, political view on a powerful central state steered by an enlightened autocrat is strongly present in the story, the story is not limited in its national scope, but instead delivers its message generally to the humankind. Even the theme of intellectual and moral equality between man and woman is visible in the Knight in the Panther's Skin.

Unlike the grotesque Soviet monument of forced Druzhba, which was mentioned above, the heroic epic penned by the poet and courtier Shota Rustaveli is a genuine cultural monument for a peaceful coexistence of different civilizations. Like Georgia itself, the epic places itself to the border zone, where it guards the gates between the East and West, and cultivates flourishing rose gardens along the gateposts. Like Georgia's national saint, it protects civilization, sometimes in a seemingly desperate struggle against the roaring mouths of fire-spitting dragons.

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