Kasia Remshardt recently visited Georgia and found it full of charm. She sends this report.
Friends and family without a personal interest in the post-Soviet sphere often struggle to comprehend the more exotic holiday destinations. They invariably ask: ‘Georgia? But isn’t that dangerous?’. Certainly, their conception of what lies beyond, say, Germany are seldom disturbed by any real knowledge of what used to be (and sometimes still is) vaguely described as the Soviet bloc.
Notwithstanding that almost quarter of a century has passed since the Soviet Union crumbled and thus travel to its former republics has been made easier for the average tourist, the ‘East’ still holds the (largely imaginary) horrors of political chaos, violence, corruption and economic breakdown.
Yes, Georgia was at war with the Russian Federation a mere five years ago. Yes, Georgia might not be the most economically developed or politically advanced country under the sun (whatever that may entail). But it is far from being the backward, unstable Eurasian ‘banana republic’ many people in the West seem to envisage.
We first arrived in Tbilisi airport late at night. All regular bus services to the city had stopped. Hence, we accepted the offer of two young men who, after some bargaining, agreed to drive us to our accommodation. In a sense, this nocturnal ride in a rickety car with a severely damaged windscreen and two curious, affable locals could be seen as an allegory of travelling in Georgia: tourism has not yet become the smooth and slick business often found in more traditional destinations, but has remained embryonic enough to be genuinely exciting.
The lack of professional structures and facilities is almost always counterbalanced by openness, hospitality and the unwavering readiness to help. Be it the difficulty of finding the right bus or train, organising accommodation or quite generally finding one’s way around in a country which uses an alphabet that is as beautiful as it is unintelligible – you often don’t even have to ask for help.
A word of practical advice at this point: most Georgians do speak Russian and are happy to communicate in this language despite political disputes with Moscow, whereas proficiency in English is far less common.
The first impression of Tbilisi itself is mainly one of contrast – the contrast between broad boulevards flanked by representative buildings (and the nearly ubiquitous display of Georgian, EU and NATO flags) and narrow alleys cutting though a labyrinth of tiny, wonky houses in the older parts of the city. Remnants of Soviet-style architecture, Armenian churches and futuristic bridges all melt into a diverse and often surprising picture reflecting the variety of past and present rulers and citizens alike.
One can sense that in ten or even five years from now the face of the city will have changed again. It seems as though the Georgian capital is in a constant process of re-inventing itself. Conversely, the country’s second city Kutaisi, which is a few hours bus ride from the capital, seems far less dynamic but also less torn between the old and the new. It is pleasant and comparably calm though it hosts an extensive covered market with an unparalleled range of fruit and vegetables, the (albeit rather small) Georgian museum of National Military Glory and a range of enormous stalactite caves in its vicinity.
Although there is no doubt that the cities are worthwhile visiting, a trip to Georgia without a day or two in the Caucasian mountains is incomplete. The journey to Stepantsminda, one of the larger villages not far from the Russian border, is at least as special as the landscape surrounding it. The only road leading this far into the mountains is the Georgian military highway which for centuries has also been the only route into Georgia from Russia (and remains the main route from the capital into the northern mountains).
The thought that eminent Russian poets and writers such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Lermontov or Mayakovski have followed the same path may be comforting given the appalling state of the road (and if it isn’t, there is always the cheesy Georgian and Russian pop music blasting from the CD-player to keep up one’s spirits). The last miles to Stepantsminda are best described as pot-holed gravel track – a fact that does not deter the driver from going at a speed that will make you clutch your backpack in deadly terror.
The reward however, is a breathtaking view on the mountains and the perfect starting point for a hike. An attitude that overlooks this beauty, cultural richness, diversity and hospitality and focuses instead on political conflict and uneven development is a tragedy. This rapidly changing country is worth a visit at any point in its development.