Georgia On My Mind (II)


TBILISI, GEORGIA — As I was saying, after gorging ourselves on Georgian food, we managed to meet up with some of the Hungarians from the rally. They’d set up shop at an outdoor cafe by the river, and I guess the day’s exertions had taken their toll on young Szabolcs.

Among them was Attila Berenyi, the organizer of that year’s Caucasian Challenge. He’d run several overland rallies in much more inhospitable terrain, most notably the Sahara, and I sat and listened to his tales of desert survival. I felt like a rank amateur compared to this guy: here I was, trying to go a long distance the easiest way possible, and meanwhile he’d routinely put himself in situations and places where a single bad decision would lead to certain death. I made a mental note to avoid large deserts and get a larger water container just in case.

I also had the pleasure of meeting up with Christian and Miriam again. They’d had a fantastic ride up through Abkhazia, and had made it to Tbilisi the day after me. Jon and I invited them along to a dinner at a cheap ‘n’ cheerful Georgian restaurant, along with Ashraf and a Georgian colleague of his named Lasha. Lasha, who is the man to know if you ever need expert local knowledge in Tbilisi, acted as toastmaster, or tamada, for the dinner. His toasts were delivered in his third language, but were no less eloquent and moving for it. He also demonstrated proper khinkali consumption for those of us still struggling with juice spillage.

The next day, Miriam and Christian were slated to hit the Georgian Military Highway up to Kazbegi, which is allegedly one of the most beautiful alpine corners of Georgia. Jon and I elected to hire a driver and do some less hardcore wine tourism in the Khaketi region of eastern Georgia, on the border with Azerbaijan and Dagestan. This neck of the woods is most famous for its wine, but, feeling pious, we first made our way to the nearby cave monastery of Davit Gareja. Down there on the southern Azeri border, the landscape quickly changed into a semidesert expanse of rock and scrub.

On the way to Davit Gareja

Lavra, the main monastery complex, is hewn out of the rock face and is now inhabited by monks after years of abandonment during the Soviet era. It was founded 1500 years ago by one Davit Gareja, who spread Christianity across Georgia upon his return from the Middle East.

We poked around for a bit, and contemplated climbing over the hill to see the other monastery complex, Udabno, but thought better of it and figured the rest of the afternoon would be better spent tasting some of Georgia’s famous wines. We hopped back in the rented hoopty and directed the driver to the hilltop town of Sighnaghi, 70km to the north.

On the slopes of Sighnaghi

Careening around a mountain road a thousand metres above the valley floor, you get your first glimpse of Signaghi, perched on a cliff with commanding views all around. Like Batumi, it’s seen an enormous amount of money thrown at it in recent years, and oh my, does it show. It’s almost impossibly picturesque. Everywhere you look, there’s evidence of new paint, new cobblestones, and new restaurants, like Walt Disney built the entire village and opened it for business yesterday. One restauranteur we spoke with lamented that the previous incarnation of Sighnaghi was probably more interesting and authentic. Sure enough, it’s like one of those perfectly-restored Tuscan tourist towns, albeit with a tenth as many tourists. Jon and I had a wander around and sampled a few local reds and whites in different cafes. We would’ve kept going, but by then the sun was going down and it was time to head back to Tbilisi. On the way back, I spotted a sign indicating the road to the airport:

Some, or most, of you may scoff, but Dubya isn’t at all a figure of scorn around here, not even among educated, multilingual, big-city types. If Georgians could vote in U.S. elections, they’d be single-issue voters, that issue being Georgian sovereignty vis-a-vis the Russians. For them, Bush Junior was a great friend to Georgia, because his administration squared off with Russia over influence in this part of the Caucausus. Evidence of Georgia’s pro-American stance is everwhere, from the American flags flying at scrap-metal yards, to the signs posted all over the place indicating the government’s desire to join a now-moribund military alliance.

Good luck with that, I say. Meanwhile, many Georgians I spoke with are worried about the recent thaw in U.S.-Russian relations that’s been engineered by the Obama administration and Medvedev, Putin, et al. They fear that as the two powers cozy up to one another, the Yanks may throw Georgia under the bus. We’ll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, Jon headed back to Budapest and Miriam and Christian made their way back to Tbilisi under unfortunate circumstances. Up in Kazbegi, they’d attempted to ride up a steep gravel road choked with traffic, and at one point Christian had to put the bike down. Unfortunately, Miriam’s leg got between the bike and a roadside boulder. They got her to a hospital, where they put her broken leg in a cast, after which they sent her back down to Tbilisi. Miriam was to be flown back to Zurich the next day, and Christian was left with the task of riding the TransAlp back to Switzerland alone. Welcome to my world, I said. Miriam insisted that he continue and see some of the things they’d wanted to see in Armenia, which was awful nice of her I think.

Still smilin'!

Finally, I got on the Couchsurfing and rounded up some locals who could show me the town. For some reason, it’s only women who respond to these “coffee or a drink” requests, and good-looking ones at that. Why that is, I have no idea. Anyway, two smiling Ninos showed up — one’s a Nina, actually, but that’s the same as Nino — and were happy to tell me all about Georgia, its recent history, and other little tidbits you don’t get in the guidebook. A day or two later the pair of them even showed up for my birthday in the recently renovated cafe district of the old town, where I had the privilege of having everybody I knew in Tbilisi around the same table. Thanks for coming out everybody! (And thanks for the Georgian horn-shaped wine thingy, ladies. It’s now wedged under the spare tire on my bike. I never know when I’ll need it.)

Before I left I had to of course get a local-on-a-Vepsa shot, and Nina was more than happy to oblige. Here she is in front of one of the oldest thermal baths in Tbilisi.

(As an aside, I thoroughly recommend a visit to those baths. Jon and I had dropped by there earlier, and we opted for the full body scrub. As administered by a gruff, no-nonsense Georgian, the removal of weeks of road grime, along with my entire epidermis, was painful. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve been that clean since I was, well, zero.)

I’d spent more time than I’d planned in Georgia, and was overdue for arriving in Armenia. I only had a week or so of validity left on my Iranian visa, and I had to make time. I blew the dust off the long-disused Hamburglar, loaded it up, and headed due south to Yerevan.


9 Responses to “Georgia On My Mind (II)”

  • Attila Says:

    We had a good time in Tbilisi, sorry I was way too tired to keep drinking chacha with you, guys!

    Great blog! Keep on pushing it!!


  • Eric T Says:

    The Koreans do that body scrub thing too, except they even exfoliate the more delicate parts.

    It looks like you’re meeting and charming every pretty woman in every town you meet. I’m so proud of you.

  • John Jordan Says:

    Another action-packed episode. Like the previous respondent, I too am proud of you.
    Now to a simple grammatical note for your quiver; wipe ‘continue ON’ from your memory. It is the biggest redundancy known to the English language.
    From someone who was nearly fired for saying that on the air, the old man

  • Charlie Holbech Says:

    I only got to catch up on your escapades recently! Suffice it to say our blog makes my NY Subway morning commute a damn sight more enjoyable! Looks like you’re having a blast and I assume you’re planning on getting this published on your return 🙂

    Great stuff and looking forward to the next installment! Stay safe

  • John Mac Says:

    Kudos to The Giff for getting over there, the man is a legend.