Georgia, a road trip through the Caucasus

Georgia has been on my wish list for a long time. At the start of June, I finally managed to squeeze in a twelve day road trip that took me from the hubbub of its capital Tbilisi, to the soaring mountains of the High Caucasus close to the Russian border; from the vineyards of the world’s oldest wine industry in the eastern region of Kakheti, south to the border with Armenia and Turkey, and astonishing, isolated Orthodox monasteries perched precariously amongst mountainous landscapes.

Along the way I sampled some of the most delicious food of my life, tried wines still made by methods pioneered 8,000 years ago, and risked life and limb driving mountain roads and through Tbilisi’s rush hour – a terrifying and nerve-jangling experience that I don’t wish to repeat. Ever. Wherever I went it was impossible not to marvel at the extraordinary landscapes of a country that defies expectations. Outside tourist hubs not much English is spoken, but people were always friendly.

Old Town, Tbilisi, Georgia
Mount Kazbek, Stepantsminda, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia
Mother Georgia statue, Tbilisi, Georgia
Ancient defensive tower, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia
Old Town and Mtkvari River, Tbilisi, Georgia
Stepantsminda, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia

Georgia is a candidate country for European Union membership, and is desperate to break its traditional dependence on Russia. EU flags can be found everywhere you go, yet Georgia challenged my understanding of what is Europe and who is European. Physically, where Europe begins, in the west at least, is clear. There’s water around it. Where Europe ends is an entirely different question. In Tbilisi you’re only a geopolitical stones throw from Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Chechnya and Azerbaijan.

It’s no surprise that Georgia is looking west. In 2008, its relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia led to a disastrous war. The result is two Russian-occupied ‘breakaway’ regions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. All were part of the Soviet Union from 1922 until 1991, modern-day Russia is having a hard time letting go. Recently, mass protests broke out in Tbilisi when a Russian politician visited the Georgian parliament. Russia responded with economic pressure, suspending all flights to Georgia.

Not long ago, Georgia could be described as off the beaten track. Although it’s now definitely a destination, tourism is still limited and the infrastructure is still fairly basic. Yet tourism is making an impact, often not in a positive way. Unless there’s another conflict with Russia though, things will only go in one direction. That will open isolated parts of the country to travellers, but local people are already sounding the alarm over the impact on traditional ways of life and the environment.

The country’s location and relative isolation thanks to multiple mountain ranges, have bequeathed it a unique and diverse cultural heritage. Here you’ll find Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, as well as a few people who don’t believe any of that. Religion plays a major role in daily life, and the Orthodox Church is strongly linked to national identity. Perhaps not surprising in a country that suffered seven decades of communist rule. What accounts for epidemic levels of machismo is less clear.

Caucasus Mountains, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia
Ananuri Fortress, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia
Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater, Tbilisi, Georgia
Soviet Monument, Georgian Military Highway, Georgia
Truso Valley, Caucasus Mountains, Georgia
David Gareji Monasteri, Georgia

My first day in Tbilisi was dulled by exhaustion from a sleepless night spent in Istanbul airport. This was made worse by temperatures in the mid-30ºC, crushing humidity and world class levels of air pollution. If they introduced a low emissions zone in Tbilisi there’d be no vehicles left on the streets. Which would make crossing the road a whole lot safer. Despite these small inconveniences, I knew from the first meal I ate that I was going to like Georgia.

I combined khinkali dumplings, rich and delicious lobio bean stew and dolmas with one of the many varieties of cheese bread, khachapuri. All washed down with a delicious bottle of red Saperavi wine. I told myself that no one comes to Georgia to lose weight, and so it proved. It was this first introduction to the national cuisine that made me start wondering about Georgia’s true identity. Not quite Europe, the Middle East, or Turkey. In fact, somewhere unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

4 thoughts on “Georgia, a road trip through the Caucasus

  1. Khachapuri is an excellent thing, also available in at least some parts of the Ukraine. It’s seriously dangerous to your waistline, I do know that. Oh, and good choice of wine too. Saperavi is an interesting varietal and pretty much not seen outside a small part of eastern Europe.

    I do like the look of Tsbilisi though I’m not sure I could cope with the pollution. Kiev was bad enough…

    1. The khachapuri were fantastic. I liked the traditional meat ones with soup inside, but I had some with wild mushrooms that were gorgeous. I tried quite a few different Saperavi, especially made in the natural fermentation style. Really very good, but some of the natural white wines (orange wines) were pretty good as well. Hard to find outside of the country, although I’ve discovered there’s a Georgian wine shop in Frankfurt an der Oder!

  2. That last sentence speaks loudly, considering the large and varied travels you’ve taken!
    Would you agree perhaps they still have a connection to Mother Earth that is missing elsewhere?

    1. I think you still get a strong connection with the land and environment in rural areas, especially in the mountains, but things are changing fast. I stayed in one guest house where the cows slept under the building and they were milked by hand. Breakfast included home made butter and cheese. It was a bit like stepping back in time.

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