Destination: Tbilisi

  • Mission 1: Eyewitness the current political unrest in Tbilisi and find out the protesters’ demands (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 2: Visit Gori the birth town of Stalin, where Stalinism is still rife today (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 3: Discover some of Georgia’s most impressive landscapes; from Kazbegi to the highly unusual Katskhi Pillar (SEMI-ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 4: Watch the spectacle of the colliding lover statues in Batumi (DEFERRED);
  • Mission 5: Brave a rickety Soviet cable car ride to the hilltop of the mining town, Chiatura (SEMI-ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 6: Venture into the contentious, self-declared autonomous region of Abkhazia (DEFERRED).

Highlight: A toss-up between a more and a less palatable answer: Georgian polyphonic singing with its rich harmonies and energetic traditional dances or the rarity of encountering a Stalin statue for the first time.

Lowlight: Choosing the wrong day to capture the quintessential postcard shot of Kazbegi when I was met arrived to find only grey skies, a low cloud ceiling and drizzling rain – drat.

Feat of Architecture: The Bank of Georgia Headquarters that I have coined the Jenga building, with its highly unusual offset block structure.

Recce Fact: In the Georgian language, the country is named Sakartvelo – far removed from the English name Georgia; thought to have been adopted in honour of their patron saint, St. George. I think we ought to switch too and avoid confusion with the US state.

More than a week after the maelstrom of 20th June’s attempted storming of the Georgian parliament, tensions were still high in Tbilisi as protesters continued to amass on the streets (and muggins here in the midst of it). But what would it take to meet their demands?

Protesters gathered in anger on two consecutive nights in June (2019) after a member of the Russian Communist Party (Gavrilov) audaciously sat in the speaker’s chair and addressed the chamber. Almost immediately triggering unrest, Gavrilov was whisked away and the riot police abruptly quashed any attempt to storm the parliament building using the highly controversial deterrents of tear gas and rubber bullets. And where was I staying? Precisely a stone’s throw from the parliament of course. Honestly, I wasn’t looking for trouble. I truly believed that all hype had subsided, and didn’t expect to find a rowdy gathering every evening, hundreds of police officers stationed outside my hotel and a few die-hards camped outside 24/7 brandishing NATO flags. Only by the end of the trip would I have grasped more of the nuances of the situation and why simply sending the offending Russian packing just wasn’t good enough to quell the people’s anger.

First Impressions

Georgians are a hot-blooded sort, yet embracing. Their only idiosyncrasy that took me aback was that they have a habit of staring persistently at strangers and don’t feel the need to be subtle about it, like owls (which will be my affectionate nickname for them henceforth). They take matters of culture and patriotism very seriously and are happy to share it with and educate others. As such, Georgians are much better-versed in their cultural and historical matters than their Western European counterparts. As children Georgians learn about David the Builder of the Bagrationi dynasty. Conversely, in the UK most of us aren’t even capable of passing the British Citizenship Test, but we are well-acquainted with Bob the Builder and are proud of him just the same.

Tbilisi is a picturesque city, with the Narikala Fortress and Mother Georgia fondly overlooking the old town; untainted by modern and high-rise buildings. Cable cars zip back-and-forth late into the evening (except on the windy day I turned up, as per Sod’s Law), as does the funicular to Mtatsminda Park. But forget the rollercoaster; for anyone seeking a white-knuckle ride, look no further than the Tbilisi metro. It feels like being shaken around in a tin-can at 80mph (apparently it’s only 20mph but I have my doubts!). Apart from the risks of a metro-induced concussion, Tbilisi is safe. Not to be a doubting Thomas, but I didn’t believe it until I saw the stats for myself. Crime rates and flagrant corruption are commendably low, even if some areas feel a bit shifty due to the staring owls everywhere.

The Georgian alphabet (Mkhedruli) is surely the most ornate in the world – convince me otherwise. Armenian and Sanskrit are close, but no coconut. Georgian writing wouldn’t look out of place on a decorative wallpaper border with all those curly squiggles. With six letters that look like an “m” of some sort, seven that look like an “3” and nine that resemble a “b/d“, it looks more like a pretty pattern than text; at least to me.

Admittedly, I was ashamed to discover that I (and every English speaker on Forvo: pronunciation dictionary) have been pronouncing Tbilisi incorrectly. It has an extra syllable, i.e. “Tb-EEL-ee-see” not “Tib-LEE-see”. But the “T+b” combination is awkward without a vowel in the middle? We manage the word football just fine; we’ve got this, although don’t even get me started on ჭ, წ and ყ (which is most definitely not a ‘y’). Georgian is said to be one of the most difficult languages in the world in terms of pronunciation because of it’s impossible consonant clusters.

Georgian is an ancient Kartvelian language and is something the people are extremely proud of. Even if the majority can also speak Russian, they never allowed it to detract from their own identity and language. Still today, two things remain a true part of their identity; Georgians speak the Georgian language (regardless of dialect dialect) and Georgians are Orthodox Christians.

Paganism Meets Christianity

While most Western European countries seem to have left religion by the wayside, Christianity is still very much an integral part of Georgian people’s identity (the Eastern Orthodox Church specifically); even if they are not actively practicing. As such, the country is dense with churches and monasteries; almost certainly on every hilltop.

So much did I desire that postcard-perfect picture of Gergeti Trinity Church at Stepantsminda/Kazbegi, that it was worth a three-hour jaunt to the Russian border. In the end, Lady Luck was not on my side as I arrived to find drizzling rain, grey skies and a low cloud ceiling. Any attempt at photography became a pointless endeavour; much like when I visited Cristo Redentor in Rio and only managed to photograph Jesus with his head in the clouds. Perhaps the real gain from the trip were the pearls of wisdom from the local driver en route via the Military Highway (so-called if you are Russian; to Georgians it’s merely the highway) towards Mount Kazbek. Due to a combination of demand and Russian bureaucracy, the border queue on the Georgian side trailed back for kilometers, with goods vehicles sitting there for the better part of a day while their goods spoiled in the summer heat.

We passed very close to South Ossetia en route. It was hard to imagine the more turbulent and less accessible of the two self-declared autonomous regions armed with its Russian S-300s situated so close to this idyllic countryside. I hope to at least embark on Mission Abkhazia in the near future, if Mission South Ossetia will not be possible. [UPDATE: My biggest obstacle now is figuring out how I can go with my Georgian partner, as most Georgians are not permitted to enter Abkhazia.]

Metekhi Church of the Assumption & King Vakhtang I Gorgasali

As part of his tour guide narrative, the driver gave a running commentary to the tune of, “This church on the right-hand side was first built in the Xth century AD…“. Despite my best efforts to appear interested, the only topics at the forefront of my mind were Stalin, the mass protests in the city and Georgia’s disputed territories. Mindful that I didn’t want to come across as an MI6 agent, I patiently listen to the narrative as he went on to describe the legends of their sacred Saint Nino (a woman from Cappadocia who is considered the enlightener of Georgia), how Christ’s robe was brought back to Georgia after His crucifixions and when a woman perished upon touching it, no one ever managed to prise it from her grasp. These historical-religious accounts became progressively more bizarre.

As a Protestant, I am vaguely aware that Orthodox Christians place emphasis on icons, relics, sainthood and the canonisation of individuals more so than my own denomination. But at some point, it becomes very difficult to objectively separate factual accounts from regional folklore.

What was even more apparent from the stories, was the crossover between pagan and Christian traditions. Many churches were built on former pagan sites, and the local mountain village population continue to follow Christianity in a pagan ritualistic way; e.g. with circular processions, taking some creative liberties with religious symbolism (replacement of the moon deity with St. George), making animal sacrifices etc. Chiakokonoba is a popular annual festival where people jump over a fire to rid themselves of evil spirits. And true enough, outside Gergeti Church a sheep was tethered to the lamppost, awaiting its fate and kept in check by one of the many roaming Caucasian Shepherd dogs. I made a hasty descent down the hill at that point, lest I see the poor pitiful creature whisked away. I was informed that sometimes they just release the animal afterwards, so I’ve decided that’s exactly what happened to Sheepy here and he’s happily grazing somewhere as I write.

It’s not only me who is squeamish about poor old Sheepy as many Georgians are actively opposing the annual slaughtering ritual of Lomisoba, calling for a ban on such traditions, condemning it as barbaric, anti-Christian and violent. It is curious how all of these pagan notions have survived and why the church allowed them to continue. The most obvious explanation is that what was most important was ease of transition and assimilation of the population to the church, without much emphasis on the means; just letting the people do it their way rather than not doing it at all.

Just as I was about to turn and head-back down the hill, a huge eagle swooped by and we all stopped suddenly in our tracks to admire it. Perhaps that was my religious experience after all.

Rural Georgia

Much more rewarding than the gloomy excursion to Kazbegi was the halfway stop-off at the Ananuri Fortress, with tremendous views over the glistening blue-watered Zhinvali Reservoir. It featured a gruesome story too about two rivaling dukes, one of which locked himself in the adjacent tower when Ananuri came under siege. He was a little too-well barricaded in, however, and it was in the tower that he perished having been sealed-in for good. It is also said that an underwater church emerges when the water levels are sufficiently low; although I couldn’t find any photos online to verify its existence. Even the underwater church has its own myth attached; that if one dives down and rings the bell, they can have any wish they desire. If I was a keen diver, I would go and clatter that bell and ask for the gift of understanding Russian grammar; the bane of my existence right now.

We passed through another scenic village called Sno with horses and donkeys grazing by the riverside, a statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, a watchtower and…yep, another church.

The final stop on the return to Tbilisi was the 1983 Russia–Georgia Friendship Monument (Treaty of Georgievsk Monument) – a vibrantly coloured work of art standing prominently on a “shelf” overlooking Caucasus mountains (ironically, the Devil’s Valley); perhaps gaining more visitation as a paragliding spot. How poignant that this monument in fact represents a complex and turbulent relationship between the two states more than the friendship it was intended to symbolise.

Joseph Stalin’s Georgian Roots

To say that Joseph Stalin (né: Ioseb Jughashvili) was Georgian is both true and untrue. As a communist, nationality was an irrelevant capitalist notion and he was simply thought of as a Soviet. Surprisingly, being an ethnic Russian was not a pre-requisite for becoming a leader of the Soviet Union.

The Stalin Museum in Gori is a controversial one; labelled as a glorified and distasteful shrine to a brutal dictator. I didn’t find it particularly showy in a venerating way, so much as a tribute that was representative of his personal brand. Having said that, my Russian comprehension isn’t good enough yet to understand the tone of the exhibition narratives. The museum grounds are also home to Stalin’s birth house and his personal train carriage that once belonged to the Romanovs.

Having researched the figure of Stalin fairly well by now (where my intrigue is one of fascination, not admiration), neither the accounts of his accomplishments nor dreadfulness of his deeds would be sought here in his Georgian hometown. Instead I wanted to learn about where Stalin came from. What sort of upbringing did he have here in Gori? Did he have a troubled start to life? Did he enjoy playing Tiddlywinks as a youngster or did he like to go to bed with a plushy mishka? I tried to picture him being innocent and vulnerable at least at one point in his life. Maybe it’s my attempt to pinpoint where it all started to go wrong as his character became increasingly flawed, or else it’s my own humanity trying to rationalise that this man couldn’t have been born wholly evil.

Owed to Stalin’s efforts to eliminate his pre-revolutionary biography, very little is known about his early years. What we do know is that he was born as an ethnic Georgian in 1878 in a small house in Gori to an alcoholic, abusive father and received little affection from his mother. Who would guess that the despot who would later go on to eradicate the Orthodox Church had spent his early years studying at a spiritual seminary? From this point onwards his identities included: poet, atheist, Marxist, socialist, meteorologist, revolutionary, Bolshevik, train/bank robber, prisoner (escaping multiple times), editor, chief cook and bottle-washer. He held various party and military positions before finally succeeding Lenin upon his death in 1924.

Despite several published biographical accounts, his most personal and intimate details were either concealed or never revealed to those beyond his inner circle. But he was both a mysterious and a highly contradictory character.

Although he turned his back on Christianity early on, it is said that Stalin was influenced to some extent by paganism. He is said to have worn white in his youth and in his political career and he adhered to a peculiar ritual of walking around the room in circles and talking about individuals whilst standing behind them (most likely a manipulation technique). He loved a good bottle of Khvanchkhara red wine, but was fearful of being poisoned and revealing too many truths. After being run over by a carriage aged 12 he lived with a gimpy arm all his life which excluded him from serving in the military, yet he would go on to become Commander in Chief of the Soviet armed forces. In spite being a keen aviation enthusiast, he was terrified of flying (preferring his personalised train carriage). Like anyone with good taste, he was extremely fond of his native Georgian cuisine, yet would order food to be delivered to his private dacha rather than be cooked there as he detested the smell of the kitchen – well Iosef, that’s one thing we have in common.

Once having adopted the role of a family man in the privacy of his dacha when he was portrayed as the caring Father of Nations, he later displayed his ruthlessness even to his own family by refusing to prisoner-swap his own son for a higher-ranking officer and allowed him perish in a concentration camp instead. He went into isolation after the suspicious death of his second wife (and never recovered from the loss of his first), but considered her a traitor and didn’t even attend her funeral. He was both vulgar and had a keen sense of humour; but nobody really knew if his jovial death threats were serious or not. And in a single evening he would personally sign several thousands of death warrants then head out to cinema to watch his favourite musical-comedy “Volga-Volga“.

Although Stalin’s Underground Printing House was closed for refurbishment, the Stalin Museum in Gori (standing very much as it was when it opened in 1957) serves as evidence of the extent of his personality cult. A grandiose building with rooms upon rooms of shrine-like busts, paintings, photographs and Stalinabilia documenting the life and glory years of Stalin, without evoking any condemnation of the horrors endured by the Soviet Union with him at the helm. I have managed thus far to track down several Lenin statues in inconspicuous corners of the former Soviet Union, yet I had never seen a Stalin statue or portrait displayed anywhere until now. It is understandable that every effort is made today to wipe all traces of him from sight and mind since he was denounced by Khrushchev and the extent of his atrocities were revealed. That is, for the vast majority who want to forget…

Sat on the wall outside the museum was an elderly man with a wooden box full of trinkets bearing Stalin’s face. Inquisitively, I pointed to what transpired to be a matchbox and queried, “Что это?” (what is it?). The elderly man replied proudly “Это Сталин!” (It’s Stalin!). I inwardly uttered to myself, “You don’t say; and there was I thinking it was Tom Selleck.” But his proud conviction was striking.

In spite of the magnitude of Stalin’s atrocities, Stalinists have not entirely disappeared from existence (largely a nostalgic bunch of old gaffers belonging to a communist party), and they can indeed be found in Gori. This finding is rather at odds with Georgia’s staunch anti-Russia sentiment as a whole.

How is it that Stalin’s personality cult has still survived in his native hometown in Georgia long after all the shocking deeds during his dictatorship were revealed?

Gori – A Stalinist Town

Listing all of Stalin’s crimes against humanity would be a tall order. Human life was something dispensable under the Stalinist regime and millions of deaths remain unaccounted for. Average estimates place the death toll during Stalin’s 30-year reign of Great Terror at 20+ million. One of his most heinous decisions for me was the liquidation of the kulaks during the collectivisation of the 1930s. Aside from the arrests and deportations, to take a whole family’s last cow and bag of flour, killing for them if necessary was beyond heartless. These were his instructions. From a critical Georgian perspective, Stalin was responsible for mass executions and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Georgians, and has even been held accountable for the country’s loss of territory. To add insult to injury, the town of Gori was bombed and briefly occupied by Russia as recently as 2008. It is curious how avid Stalinists can disassociate their national hero from Russia and even from the Soviet Union itself.

So how is it that Stalin can still be celebrated as a hero in his Georgian hometown?

  • Stalin is remembered as the victor of WWII, defeating the Nazis. The opposed claim that the war was won “in spite of Stalin” rather than “because of Stalin”;
  • He was a clever and rebellious Georgian who rose up from humble beginnings to lead the Soviet Union, and is therefore an inspiration;
  • The cult of his personality was particularly strong in his birthplace and has been passed down through generations;
  • He transformed the Soviet Union into a prosperous, industrialised modern superpower, well-aware that if he didn’t, the Communist regime would be undermined (regardless of the means to achieve it);
  • The first secretary of Georgia in 1952 stated, Comrade Stalin denies the city of Gori nothing. They supported their man on the inside and believe that he maintained Georgia’s best interests at heart (even if he abandoned his Georgian nationality and persecuted his own countrymen);
  • Purges and extreme measures were deemed “necessary” for the times;
  • Disbelief persists that Stalin was personally responsible for the crimes of the NKVD. Many prisoners in the Gulag addressed letters to Stalin to inform him of the insufferable conditions and atrocities they were subjected to, assuming it was happening without his knowledge;
  • Back in Soviet times, even poor Georgians had basic securities such as homes, jobs and education;
  • They fail to understand why de-Stalinisation has been imposed on them in an attempt to ostracise their local hero (he’s not doing any harm now);
  • Another obvious reason is that many locals are drawing-in a tidy little profit from selling their Stalin snowglobes and fridge magnets owed to Stalin-tourism.

Restoring a Stalin monument in the 21st century is an unimaginable, barbaric, anti-Georgian, anti-national, anti-state act.

Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, 2010

Of course, not all of Gori’s residents see the Orchestrator of the Great Terror in such a favourable light. In 2010 a banner was hung on the museum, declaring its contents “a falsification of history, although appeals to convert it into a Stalinism museum (more akin to the Museum of the Soviet Occupation in Tbilisi) were dismissed. It was also in 2010 when the town’s statue of Stalin was dismantled covertly during the night, which deeply enraged many of the locals when they discovered it missing the following day.

Among the immaculate collection of Stalinabilia are the well-known portraits and photographs; all carefully staged, doctored, edited and approved by the man himself. One or two are significantly less flattering, showing the pockmarks on his face or depicting his true modest frame and stature at 5 ft 4. One of the most recent photos I came across was presumably taken in his 70s and he looked old, grey and frail. His death mask on display in the museum depicts how peacefully he laid at rest, despite suffering a lonely death in his final days of sheer paranoia. It is almost unfathomable to believe that this vulnerable looking man now at peace was responsible for tragedies beyond the imaginable.

The Situation with Russia Today

It is fair to say that Russo-Georgian relations have been in a better place than at present and are possibly at their lowest since the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. In light of the latest anti-Russian rallies, Russia has decided to hit back with punitive measures as an almighty slap on the wrist; a complete ban on Russian-based airlines operating to Georgia. This move is set to cripple Georgia’s tourist industry and investment on which it is so dependent. Although it is still possible to fly the route indirectly, it is likely to deprive Georgia of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of income. The next possible blow could be the reintroduction of Georgian wine import sanctions (a repeat of 2006-2013). It is a complete and utter breakdown of diplomacy and a move by Russia to show that it will not tolerate such insolence and still has the influence to hit Georgia where it hurts. I wanted to find out why the rallies in Tbilisi were still continuing. What were the demands of the protesters now that the speaker had already resigned?

Georgia maintains a strong relationship with the EU, and many believe that joining as an official member could actually do more economic harm than good once the EU starts imposing its bureaucracy and caveats on trade. Russia looks on with concern over the EU’s open arms to its neighbour, Georgia. It is typically not the way of the EU to permit membership to states with serious territorial disputes. That and Georgia is physically disconnected from the EU so it would be somewhat of a geographical overstretch.

NATO is another matter altogether with potentially more serious consequences. In theory, Georgia could join NATO imminently, but only if they cede their disputed territories of Abkhzia and South Ossetia. From NATO’s perspective, Georgia (or Ukraine) could be the most likely to drag them into a war with Russia. Stuck between a rock (Russia) and a hard place (Azerbaijan) with tepid Turkey to the west (who blew a proverbial raspberry to the rest of NATO when they went ahead and purchased Russia’s S-400 against advisory this year), it would be quite unwise for Georgia to join NATO on a whim without having had prior dialogue and no objection from Russia (which of course they would never agree to). So the only feasible solution to keep the peace is to continue in its capacity as a very special friend of NATO and meet up for military exercises every once in a while and cooperate as a combined interoperable unit in Iraq and Afghanistan; focusing on the bilateral aspect.

I jumped at the chance to quiz the first Georgian I met about the situation outside of parliament. Instead of triggering an emotive anti-Russian rant, he claimed that the protesters remaining represent a yearning unrealistic subset of the population who want two mutually exclusive things; NATO membership and an amicable relationship with Russia (plus their territories back). He went on to explain that the opposition party were at the extreme/inflammatory end of the spectrum, and there would be a serious risk of escalation if they came to power.

Indeed, the individuals camped outside parliament were branding EU flags, NATO flags, Ukrainian flags and Israeli flags. Although I haven’t worked out how the latter fits into the equation, it seemed to be a collection of symbols that represent Russia’s opposition. I was reassured that Georgians bear no hostility to Russian people who constitute around the majority of their tourists (or did until this moment), but purely the state/government. He astutely pointed out that leaning towards US influence can be equally problematic, and that the most prudent stance of any Georgian should be one of indifference and non-bias, while looking out for numero uno.

While RT may not be the most reputable nor impartial source of information, it reports that the US has established a research facility in Georgia to carry out bioweapons research under the guise of drugs tests, with very fatal allegations. These accusations have naturally been refuted by the US, and Russian delegates have been invited to inspect the facility. Apart from covert and clandestine theories, what is clear as day is the US’ lack of investment in the country; although they have finally decided on a trade deal of Javelin missiles. Azerbaijan and Turkey are the biggest investors in Georgia at the moment, with the UK not too far behind. Georgia may be renowned for its wine exports, but in fact, mined metals constitute the greatest value of exports.

My second opportunity arose to acquire a second opinion on the matter when I noticed a “Russia is an Occupier” badge on the car of the driver bringing us to Gori. What I understood eventually, was that the people were still discontent and demanded the resignation of the interior minister (Gakharia) over the police brutality of rubber bullets (in which two people reportedly lost an eye) and tear gas used to disperse the rally, as it was painfully reminiscent of the same crackdowns in 2007 and 2011. I was slightly taken aback when he admitted, “To be honest, the means were justified, otherwise the protesters would have stormed the parliament so there was no other way“. And indeed, the very same happened in Hong Kong a few days after similar events unfolded in Georgia in opposition of China’s tightening clutches.

Unusual Architecture of Georgia

For ten years I have longed about going on a pilgrimage to see the Jenga-like former Ministry of Highways Building; now the Bank of Georgia Headquarters. Is there anything quite like it? Doubtful.

Next on the Soviet architecture itinerary was the Former College of Archaeology. Sadly I couldn’t afford the time to swing by the Industrial Technical College.

It was only during my second visit to Tbilisi in December 2019 that I found out about the Chronicles of Georgia (as opposed to Narnia) and honestly I don’t know how it’s possible not to know about the monument as it is huge (over 30m tall). The columns depict various heroes, royalty and religious figures summarising Georgia’s historic accolades. Erected in 1985, it is said that it remains unfinished. I like that optimism, as if the best moments have yet to come.

One of the most unusual housing developments is located on the hills of Nutsubidze Street in Saburtalo (which is otherwise becoming an upmarket place for university students to live). I managed to go inside and ascend one of the towers; surprised to have to fork out 10 tetri for the privilege of using the lift! Going back down again is free thankfully.

The advantage of exploring with a local is that they know all the best nooks and crannies off the beaten path. After a very hilly drive that I never would have braved had I been at the wheel (Georgians are super off-road drivers), we reached what looked like a massive abandoned house in Karsani. We were greeted by a very friendly dog who was over the moon to see us and even gave us a “tour”. Had I tried to follow the dog’s lead as it confidently hopped over the ruins from room to room with skilful precision, I would have at best put my foot through a jagged floorboard and at worst fallen through the rotten floorboards, plummeting to my demise. According to the only online source I could find, the abandoned “house” was actually over 100 years old (built in 1904) and was originally a tuberculosis clinic before becoming the headquarters of the Tbilisi Geophysical Observatory. That would explain the ominous-looking medicine bottles found within. It has been lying abandoned since the 80s.

Back in Tbilisi, when approaching the part of town with the dome-like sulphur baths, the air becomes increasingly heavy with the smell of the gas. Not the most pleasant odour, I might add, but at least it was an indicator that I was headed in the right direction. Having selected one of the multiple bath houses (there is even one that looks like a mosque from the outside) ,opting for a private room with both hot (and I mean hot) and cold baths, I spent an hour simmering; occasionally dipping a limb into the the icy cold pool to try to regulate my internal body temperature. Probably those lukewarm-shower folk wouldn’t fare too well, but for me (not content until I emerge from my showers looking like a boiled lobster) it was perfect – apart from the smell of eggs that I couldn’t wash out of my hair for days.

Chiatura – the Soviet Mining Town

Chiatura is a mining town with a landscape almost unchanged from Soviet times. The real allure was the rickety old cable car network (constructed in 1954) that was still partially functioning, despite so many of cars looking like rusty death traps. Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, they were all out of order during my visit; even the newer ones. Nobody seemed to know what was happening with them, but I now fear they have ceased to operate indefinitely. The flying coffins are no more. Some are used for passengers and other for transporting mining materials. I do wonder how the people of Chiatura get from A to B or C to D without them, as the hill slopes are very dramatic.

With all the industrial sounds and railway activity it was evident that production is still ongoing, but whereas Chiatura once produced vital manganese ore for the entire USSR (a valuable element used in steel production), it now produces for Georgia’s national Zestafoni ferro-alloy plant using the same old, outdated technology and facilities.

The small town centre has some attractive buildings and is rather pleasant, but if you blink, you’ll miss it. As I couldn’t find a working restaurant, I grabbed some lobiani and a soft drink from the bakery, then went on my merry way to explore some of the old crumbling buildings and aerial tramway stations. The Kvirila River is said to be heavily polluted and the air quality is also one of the worst in Georgia, with harmful amounts of nitrogen monoxide and other contaminants present. Admittedly I didn’t notice anything amiss with the air with so many green trees and shrubs around.

The mine has been working for over 100 years, held in high esteem by Lenin, and even higher by Stalin. Stalin was very fond of Chiatura and hid there for some time as a fugitive. It was his desire that the people should have aerial trams to make their daily commute more bearable, although Stalin didn’t live to see them finally up-and-running.

The rules for passage include: No more than 8 persons (2 children under 10 = 1 person), no unaccompanied minors, no unaccompanied drunks – but accompanied drunks are fine, no hand luggage over 10kg and assembled guns are not permitted but disassembled guns are fine.

Information Poster in Abandoned Cable Car Station

Georgian Cuisine

Georgian cuisine is peaking in popularity these days internationally, and not only for its world-famous wines. At the top of the list, I must pay homage to the humble khinkali (ხინკალი); something between a soup-filled bao dumpling and the manti of Central Asia but with better quality meat and no horrid fatty bits. The trick I didn’t yet master was to pick it up by the stem and eat it by hand without losing most of the broth content down my blouse.

Other notable stars include lobio (ლობიო) kidney beans, chicken tabaka (ტაბაკა – poor flattened little carcasses) with tkemali (plum sauce), satsisvi (საცივი – chicken in walnut sauce) and perhaps the most famous of them all, the white pizza-like khachapuri (ხაჭაპური), in all its varieties. I like the one that looks like an egg-in-a-boat, yet it’s only now that I realise the raw egg is meant to be stirred into the cheese to produce a molten yellow fondue – aha. Street food is very cheap and accessible in the form of pastries, and if you don’t fancy cheese (this cuisine is far too cheese-heavy for me), one can always opt for beans (ლობიანი/lobiani). Georgia is not overly into its desserts seemingly, but it has enough sweet wines to compensate.

What I’m about to say may be blasphemy in Georgia, but the country’s famous Borjomi (a wonderfully green region) sparkling mineral water is really quite horrid. It must be an acquired taste. My mum used to drink Andrews Liver Salts like lemonade, so it would probably be right up her street. Chacha (ჭაჭა) (best name ever for a brandy?) only tastes slightly worse.

Red, red wine… hands down, the best semi-sweet red wine comes from Georgia – no disputes. Eight thousand years has given them more than enough time to refine it. Yet it’s as rare as hen’s teeth to find in Western Europe. My favourite brand (Badagoni, Alazani Valley) cost only €4 in the supermarket, so naturally I filled my boots. Kvanchkara is still controversially marketed as Stalin’s favourite wine. It’s just unfortunate that I can’t have more than 1.5 glasses in one sitting lest I would be fit for nothing the next day. In my defence, scientific evidence correlates darker-coloured drinks to worse hangovers and that is a pity. I have also been advised by a good friend and wine connoisseur to check for ones with the lowest sulphite content.

What’s on the menu this evening; a double cheeseburger with a side order of Russophobia?

Menu from Respublika Grill Bar in Tbilisi

Sounds of Georgia

In Georgia, real men sing and I have an illusion that all of them can sing; young and old alike. Those polyphonic harmonies are so powerful and resonating that I can nearly visualise an aura of testosterone around them. I was fortunate during my first visit to find such singers performing in many restaurants and also on the streets. [UPDATE: I have since become betrothed to a Georgian who also happens to be singer and musician; obviously I was impressed to the point of weakness].

And every bit as impressive as the polyphonic vocals are the energetic dances of Georgia (something not unlike lezginka). Male dancers leap like antelopes, brandishing swords and showing off their athleticism. While in total contrast, the female dancer floats and glides like a graceful swan, and does it so convincingly that I reckon she has a set of caster wheels under her frock. I have been fortunate to catch the world famous Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet on tour in Dubai (twice) and they were really quite something. Not a ballet as we know it by any means.

Religious (Orthodox) music is also very important to Georgia’s identity and some of the chants would give anyone goosebumps. The one which probably does so most of all for me is Georgian-Assyrian monk, Father Seraphim singing Psalm 50 in Aramaic (the language of Christ, now almost extinct).

See Reconnaissance Jukebox for a collection of my personal favourite songs from Georgia.

Mission Georgia Summary

Georgia remains a mission in progress; but nothing that an ambitious tour to Abkhazia, Batumi and Kutaisi cannot fix. With an uncertain future relationship with their superpower neighbour, they have challenging times ahead to maintain that middle ground between the power play of East and West. Self-assured of their cultural identity, they have thus far succeeded in preserving what it really means to be Georgian; and the rest of the world can rejoice in being able to share in their rich cuisine, music, fresh mountain air… and tremendously-scalding baths.

Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, please do drop me a message below and tell me your thoughts and feelings about Georgia: