By Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA: No, Ray Charles never visited here. But, if he had, he’d probably have found plenty of musical inspiration.
A relatively small country compared to its neighbours Russia and Turkey, the republic of Georgia is still a long way from becoming a popular mass-market tourist destination. But for those who crave history, ancient traditions, breathtaking landscapes, and an amazing mix of diverse cultures (not to mention great food, open-air jazz concerts, film festivals, gilded churches, museums, mosques, Roman ruins, art galleries, sulphur baths, cozy restaurants, and great wines; the list goes on), Georgia is a veritable gem, not to be missed.
With a population of about 4.5 million, Georgia never seems crowded. Roads are usually good (an important issue when you’re on a motorcycle), with little traffic except in the larger towns or cities. The problem, if one would call it such, is that there’s so much to see-which, in turn, translates to frequent stops, whipping out the camera, and leafing through that essential guide book. Before you know it, the day is coming to an end; you’ve covered less than half the distance you’d planned on, and now it’s time to start thinking about dinner and a bed for the night.
Fortunately, finding either of these amenities isn’t generally a problem, especially in rural areas where most farming folks are more than happy to take in overnight guests (with a great family style dinner to boot). The average price: about 55 *lari*, (around 33 US dollars). Also included: unwavering hospitality and genuine friendliness toward visitors, both being traits for which Georgians are renowned.
But sometimes, as you begin to learn about Georgia’s turbulent history, you can’t help but realize that the country has seen its dark days, too. For Georgia has experienced some truly devastating events over the centuries: Mongol invasions, the Black Death, Tbilisi’s almost total destruction by the Persians, and the Russian occupation, to name just a few. In fact, it wasn’t until 1991 that the country finally attained its independence from what was once the Soviet Union, followed in 1993 by the Rose Revolution, a momentous event which finally set Georgia on its path to modern democracy.
More recent-and just as disastrous-were Georgia’s clashes with its behemoth neighbour, Russia: first, in 1992, the loss of the ethnically separate region of Abkhazia (with the help of Russian boots on the ground), resulting in a refugee crisis of major proportions for Georgia. Then, in 2008, the Five Day war, in which Georgia’s central government tried to assert its authority over the breakaway region of South Ossetia by launching a military invasion, only to be routed by Russian forces, and, in the process, losing South Ossetia completely.
And yet, despite its tumultuous history, Georgia has managed to literally re-invent itself within the last few years. Under its former leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, and now his successor, there have been remarkable improvements in the country’s economy, infrastructure, human rights record, and, especially, the tourism sector. As most visitors will tell you, Georgia is not only about what you might expect, but what you don’t.
Without doubt, the highlight of my own visit was Svaneti, a remote area in the Caucasus mountains near the Russian border. Long isolated from the rest of the country because of its inaccessibility (that is, until recently, when a major road project was finally completed), Svaneti is almost a time capsule, a mystical place whose inhabitants speak a language unrelated to Georgian, and where no less than one hundred and seventy-five medieval watch towers, called *koshki*, overlook rustic villages fringed with verdant forests of chestnut, spruce, and pine. Meadows bursting with wildflowers, with the majestic snow-capped Caucasus mountains behind them- it’s truly an unforgettable tableau for the senses.
Just before nightfall, I managed to spot a sign which led me to Nino’s Guest House. Luckily for me, Nino had one room left (if I didn’t mind sharing a bathroom, that is). I could already catch tempting whiffs of the evening meal being prepared.
During my three nights at Nino’s, I met some amazing people. Among them: a sixty-one year old Japanese man bicycling around the world; a 20’s-something Korean lady who had walked (yes, *walked*) all the way from eastern China; and an American hippy type in his late twenties named David (we never learned his last name), whose only earthly possessions seemed to be a backpack and a guitar.
On the second evening, as we sat around the family dinner table to enjoy a delicious serving of Nino’s home-made *chvishdari* (a local cheese dish cooked in maize bread), we guests began to exchange stories about our travels. When David’s turn came, he seemed rather shy at first. But we eventually learned that he was walking and hitch-hiking around the world. He’d left San Francisco almost two years before and hadn’t watched TV or even read a newspaper since. (He simply wasn’t interested in bad news, he explained). Even more amazing, he’d managed to earn his keep, halfway around the planet, by strumming his guitar and doing throaty imitations of Bob Dylan. (He also revealed to us that he’d worked briefly as a Wall Street stockbroker for Merrill Lynch. Talk about a change in life style!)
Never judge a book-*any*book- by its cover, I reminded myself.
The same holds true for Georgia.
*For further information about Georgia, go to the government website: www.georgia.travel