Illuminating Georgia

Apparently, when God apportioned the Earth to all the peoples of the world, the Georgians showed-up late. When questioned, they replied that they had stopped for a drink, oh and to raise their glasses in praise of Him. God’s ego was so massaged that he gave the Georgians the part of the Earth he’d been reserving for himself; Georgia is a natural paradise.

Nestled on the south-east coast of the Black Sea it has incredible geographical variation but interestingly, Georgians don’t call it Georgia. They call their country Sakartvelo, even though rather rudely, no-one else does. As part of the Persian Empire the people were known as Gurj and it seems the predominantly Christian peoples have always been devotees of St George, so the passing Crusaders liked the name. Even today, the Christian Orthodox church is very popular and growing, as over 80% of the population claim adherence, but much of that popularity stems from the support the church gave Georgian traditions during the homogenising Soviet era, further helping to bolster their sense of national identity since independence.

The national flag is the cross of St George and a golden statue of the saint slaying a dragon dominates Tbilisi’s central square. The cobbles and leafy boulevards of the Georgian capital look like Paris, and the English-speaking youth are as cool as any European city dwellers. It’s a vibrant city founded on natural hot springs and is now home to 1.1 million, almost a quarter of the Georgian population. Alexander Dumas said it was a strange, fascinating city when he visited in the 19th Century and today the architecture alone confirms this.

There is a startling amount of space-age architecture in Georgia. The new parliament building is a huge glass and concrete bubble, looking like a giant frog’s eye. Loads of police stations have also been built from glass and are see-through, symbolic of Georgia’s aspirations for democratic transparency. Public Service Halls are being built across the country as one-stop-shops delivering key services, such as access to public records, the issuing of passports, IDs and business registration and architects seem to be getting a free hand to create each one in any way they wish.

The 150m Bridge of Peace in Tblisi was designed by the Italian architect Michele De Lucchi and was officially opened in 2010. The wavy steel and glass canopy is fitted with thousands of LED lights that are switched on 90 minutes before sunset, illuminating the Mtkvari River. High above the river, the 4th century fortress of Narikala overlooks the city and although it was expanded over time, an 1827 earthquake destroyed much of it, so most of what remains is actually 16th and 17th Century. You wouldn’t be chastised for thinking much of the country’s infrastructure was of a similar vintage!

The ‘Military Highway’ running north to Russia actually does have ancient heritage and is in better condition than many, but is the route that best serves to enjoy the dramatic scenery, clean air and indescribable grandeur of the mighty Caucasus Mountains, the highest range in Europe. If you adhere to the school of thought that they and the Ural Mountains further north, mark the real eastern boundary of Europe. The highest pass on the route is the Cross Pass, at 2,395m so called because of the cross placed there in the 12th century when the route was opened. Georgia’s highest peak is Shkara, which at 5,193m (17,040 ft) beats Mont Blanc by nearly 400m (1,312 ft). These dramatic mountains, with their challenging roads, gorges and hidden villages, are the stuff of legend.

Arguments about legend abound, none more so than those surrounding Georgia’s most famous son – Stalin. Born in a wooden shed in 1858 in the aptly named town of Gori, ‘Uncle Joe’ was responsible for butchering millions of people, 300,000 of them, fellow Georgians. Of all the statues erected to his glory, before his death in 1953, only the one in Gori remained standing when his successor Khrushchev encouraged further re-education of the Soviet peoples by attempting to blot out the memory of Stalin’s cult of personality. It too was pulled down in 2010 to make way for a statue in memory of the two wars Georgia has had with Russia since gaining independence. More recently, as the political climate changes yet again, plans are in place for Stalin’s statue to be restored in its original site outside Gori’s museum to honour the town’s hero.

Because to many Georgians, Stalin wasn’t a power-crazed tyrant who wished to destroy Georgian nationalism and identity in the interests of a greater soviet, or the one whose disastrous collectivist farming policy caused famine. Rather he was a hero who defeated fascism. So even now, over 60 years after his demise, you’ll find Josef Stalin memorabilia in shops and markets across the country and his moustachioed bust reappearing in many communities.

Let’s say Georgians still have a complicated relationship with the former Soviet leader as they experience resurgence in national pride five years after their last war with Russia in 2008. Tensions remain high with its powerful northern neighbour and these weren’t helped by the last President Mikheil Saakashvilli, who attempted to curry favour with the West and provided many troops to help the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After centuries of domination by foreign powers, Georgians are sceptical of government so an unofficial underground of family and friends is how most things get done. With social welfare still developing and often patchy, it’s the family on which Georgians rely in times of crisis. Fortunately for overland motorcyclists this communal care extends to travellers, who are often seen as a gift from God that must be assisted, and plied with food. Alas, when it comes to God, drink is also important, so generous toasts to the traveller from a bottle of Chacha may not be so welcome if you really had planned to cover any distance. The lethal spirit is only slightly more potent than the homemade wine which Georgians have been making for millennia and which now always seems to reside in large discoloured plastic bottles. On the plus side, if you really feel you can’t ride the treacherous mountain roads after a few large glasses, you may well be offered a bed for the night. But then there’ll be a toast at breakfast…

While Georgia was part of the USSR, one of the world’s steepest funicular railways (built 1905) took holiday makers to the third most visited park in the Soviet Union, Mtatsminda Park on the plateau above Tblisi. In 2012 the aging mechanism was replaced with more modern equipment, but alas the quaint carriages themselves were all replaced too.

Perhaps of more interest will be a visit to Vashlovani National Park, located in south-east Georgia on the border with Azerbaijan. The semi–arid landscape is more like parts of Africa than Europe and like the whole country it has a long history of land use by humans. Indeed the National Museum of History in Tblisi contains the skull of the earliest inhabitant in Europe so far discovered (1.7 million years old), but the National Park contains an amazing collection of species being home to the Caucasian Leopard, grey wolf, brown bear, striped hyena, Eurasian lynx, and golden jackal as well as many birds of prey. If you enjoy wild camping and the mammals don’t put you off, the area is also home to the highly poisonous Lebetine Viper snake.

It almost seems as though all of God’s creatures are resident somewhere in this natural paradise. The combination of mountains, gorges, hot humid coast and arid east is certainly fitting for a country whose people use a theatrical written language with 33 characters, spoken like nothing you are likely to have heard before; unless you were around in the time of Jesus or are familiar with Aramaic.

Paddy Tyson