08.06.2013 - 19.06.2013
My impressions of Georgia may cause quite a stir. There is a State in the USA called Georgia. They will almost certainly think that my comments are about their world and will be unimpressed - little realizing that another Georgia has existed since long before Columbus learnt to row. When they read that Georgia has been ruled by Middle Eastern despots and even was once part of the Soviet Union, I imagine they will reach for the valium or call their congressperson.
Our tour of Georgia had the potential to be the fastest ever. Not a short tour but one covering the most kilometers in the least time. (See – it can’t be America or we would have covered miles) Our driver guide was young and keen to impress. He was in fact a gambler. He gambled on the brakes always working perfectly and all the other drivers doing as he expected. I had to tell him that the stakes were too high. Our lives were not available to put on the table. The first effort to slow him down was to tell him I had done a bit of car racing and knew how to do driving stuff. I taught him how to sit up straight so he could look over the steering wheel and how to hold that wheel so that he could provide more influence on the direction the car was traveling. After a bit more ‘training’ I told him he was actually now travelling faster than even but it just didn’t feel like it. That lasted 2 days. After that it was a stern order to stop being an idiot. He then sulked and drove too slow. These things reflected in the tip we gave him at the end of the journey that didn’t live up to his expectations or hopes. Tipping in the Caucuses is expected to be around 10% (who started this tipping culture???) Occasionally a tip was earned but seldom did I feel generous.
Even after adding the 10% prices were about half those at home. For example we could have a nice multicourse meal with wine for around NZ$40 – so long as we ate and drank local products – which was not a hardship. The food is plain, fresh, wholesome and in most instances recognizable. Some of the white pastes, creams and thick liquids reminded me of yogurts but, unlike some yogurts, were generally delicious. The people of this region have a sweet tooth and its well know that adding enough sugar will make anything edible.
Our arrival in the Capital City Tbilisi was indicated by the inevitable Soviet inspired huge theme statue – Mother Georgia. Every ‘ex’ and current Soviet State has a number of these. They are designed to create patriotism and are generally symbolic. She always holds a sword which is not very motherly unless one recasts it as a meat cleaver or perhaps a big cabbage chopper. I understand that it’s a message to their enemies’ - but as a result I am always respectful to mothers in this region. This one, Kartis Deda has a bowl of wine in her left hand. It’s generally accepted that winemaking has been around in Georgia since 7,000BC and she is offering hospitality to friends. So are the thousands of wine merchants that can be found cheek by jowl on every street and country road. Thank God for Christianity.
Evidently there are about 500 grape types in Georgia and the word ‘wine’ is derived from their word ‘ghvino (vino, vine, wein, wine). Originally the farmers stored grape juice in large clay pots coated on the inside with beeswax – they are known as ‘Kvevries’. They buried these in the ground for winter and in spring discovered that the naturally fermented beverage made their women look much more attractive and the summer months much more enjoyable. (Actually, I just made that up) The church quickly joined the game and wine became a symbol of the Christian faith. The favorite old Georgian is Saint Nino the Enlightened who roamed the country christening young Georgians with a vine cross. Originally she was just Mrs Nino but once the Georgians gained a taste for her favorite tipple they gave her the Sainthood. Most other Saints had to die a gruesome death so she was pretty smart and deserving of the status.
Since olden times Georgians had lots of drinking vessels and among them is the cows’ horn – called Kantsi. After removal from the cow they were cleaned and polished to make a handy cup. With a bung in the end you could even carry it around to extend happy hour. We saw a group of people drinking from one of these at a restaurant one evening. It seems that, if offered the horn you have to knock it back in one swig – and failure is uncontemplatable. The guys took to the idea with enthusiasm but some of the ladies tried, dribbled and became dismal failures. For me a lot would depend on the quality of the brew. There were we some we sampled that were declared by Flypaper as suitable for ‘cooking’ … this is not a high recommendation. The ‘semi-sweet’ were our favorites and some would have been welcome in a horn or even a gallon jar. Officially, Georgia exported about 13 million bottles of wine last year – and knocked back another 5 million at home – population around 4.5 million people – but that doesn’t take into consideration that most people make and drink their own. It’s a serious business.
On this subject, I was intrigued to see almost every roadside home in the suburbs of every town had a steel trellis covered in grape vine hanging out over the footpath. I questioned our guide about this and suggested that passing traffic could hit the trellis. I also offered the notion that in my country there would be a law about this practice. He was horrified. To hit the grape vine would require the poor judgments of 2 people (the trellis owner and the truck driver) and both would learn from their stupidity. This is an excellent attitude – no law required.
Surprisingly, Georgians are expected to pay only 20% income tax, 15% Corporate tax and 18% Vat. This seems very reasonable. I’m envious. (What happened to Roger Douglas?) Our driver/guide, who also owns a backpackers hostel, thought it was less. He’s self employed so possibly has a good accountant. Like all the other ‘emerging’ nations, the money he gives to the ‘guvmint’ goes first to handsomely reward the politicians’ and secondly towards building architecturally magnificent buildings that instill great pride in the communities. (Bling !!!) The politicians’ all travel very quickly in cavalcades made up of 3 black cars with dark tinted windows and flashing lights. “Why?” I ask – and you may venture an answer. They live in magnificent mansions on well paved streets … and seem to have jobs for life. The President is elected for a 5 year term with a maximum of 3 terms. After that he gets every imaginable privilege for the rest of his life. Members of Parliament are elected for 4 year terms and also seem to have a glorious future thereafter – although some are reelected over and over again, undoubtedly because they like the lifestyle. Isn’t that universally typical. The current parliament is a coalition between 6 parties who collectively have 55% of the vote. (The losers suggest it depends on who does the vote counting). The current coalition is made up of the following parties – Georgian Dream, Conservative, Industry will save Georgia, Republican, Our Georgia, National Forum. My research indicated that there was a 60% voter turnout and were no ‘blank’ or ‘invalid’ votes. Obviously a very accurate people. Our guide had another theory.
Strangely, the largest city, Tbilisi, is the ‘official’ capital – but ‘Kutaisi’ is the ‘legislative capital. It’s all very confusing as the Parliament Building was constructed in 2009/11 in Kutaisi following massive protest over the huge WWII memorial that was demolished to provide space. Critics say it is a massive waste of money. It looks nice. So does Parliament building in Tbilisi. What a surprise.
Tbilisi is a large city of 1 million people divided by the sluggish muddy Kura river. Our 18th Century hotel (www.oldmetekhi.ge) was in the heart of the historic district of Tbilisi. A little worrying was the fact that its magnificent views over the river of the ancient and ancient fort were the result of it being cantilevered out over the crumbling cliff above the river. There are many buildings like this and they survive in spite of the fact this country does have earthquakes. I enquired about the foundations and discovered that the reinforcing that provided our support was ‘very strong wood from big trees’ encased in 18th Century ‘concrete. We figured that it had at least 3 days life left. From the other side of the hotel we could see magnificent buildings in every direction. All presided majestically over crumbling walls and footpaths.
One of the bizarre things about the construction industry of Georgia is the fact that they can build fabulous looking buildings … but cannot build a footpath that will last a year. Their walls are not much better. Let me give an example. We visited the magnificently restored 8 hectare Rabati Castle in Akhaltsikhe. This is a serious project. Magnificent. The surrounding wall between the castle and the road is engineered (probably by international consultants) – but because the grass didn’t grow (I’m guessing here) they dumped many thousands of tons of large rocks on the area. It looks wonderful. I predict in 10 years it will have collapsed and base this on visible distortion after only 1 year. Never mind – restoration work is good for the economy and is likely to attract international sponsorship.
We kept very good company in Georgia. Stalin was born here. That caught me on the wrong foot and I very nearly said something that had the potential to have me locked up in a dungeon with the lady guide that sternly took us through the large memorial to his life. (Shudder) Interestingly we learnt that Stalin’s father was a cobbler and wanted him to follow in the family tradition. He wanted to be a priest. (This is true). He entered a seminary and was expelled for his ‘radical ideas’. That’s a pity. He has the reputation for being incarcerated 7 times – and escaped 5 times. (The other 2 he served his time). During one of these periods he was tortured and ended up with one arm much shorter than the other. A psychiatrist may suggest that this had an influence on his later life and philosophy. I was thrilled to wander through his personal armored train and became convinced that his psychopathic demeanor was a result of the time he spent in this form of transportation. Lets face it … trains are ‘public transport.
On the same theme, we visited the home of Napoleons sisters grandson. Forgive me for namedropping here. Actually Prince Niko Dadiani wasn’t able to greet or entertain us as he died some time ago. However, the collection of letters, pictures and other paraphernalia relating to Napoleon made me feel quite close to the family and Flypaper has been making a point of telling me to stop walking around with my hand in my shirt. It was a nice little castle type home in a large estate surrounded by properties that had enjoyed little owner pride – or perhaps they were a bit busy in servitude to the neighbour.
One of the highlights in our itinerary was a visit to a ‘National Park’. It was the size of a ‘lifestyle block’ in New Zealand. The principal feature was a fountain at which one could drink ‘Sulphur Water’. I did this with enthusiasm. The guide took a risk with this. My hazy recollections at mothers knee was that (a) sulphur is good for cleaning ones blood and (b) it unfortunately has the re result of inducing flatulence. My blood doesn’t seem unduly cleansed but it was very fortunate that the next item on our agenda arrived just before (b) became effective.
The largest employer in Georgia is the Police. Every young man with an aggression problem or power complex wants to join up and all are welcome. They are everywhere. They drive around, 2 up, in little cars with the flashing lights engaged all the time. The idea is to intimidate people by making them aware that they are being watched at all times. Often, for example, if we were having dinner at an out door restaurant, we could see 4 – 5 police cars at any given moment. That may suggest we were dining in dubious company or surroundings. Our guide was visibly conscious of the police presence and I could see that he may die young with a high blood pressure problem. This is very sad as I considered him the sort of ambitious young man that any country would benefit by encouraging.
Georgia would be paradise for those who promote free range status for chickens and are against things like dairy feed lots. The greatest hazards in Georgia are the wandering cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock. There is a saying among practical farmers … “Where there is livestock there is deadstock”. The cows wandering all over the roads are a nightmare. Often I found myself uttering an involuntary prayer. The pigs weren’t a problem as one would fit nicely in the Corolla boot. They did ruin our average speed and the sight of those that the motorists failed to dodge made me consider the wisdom of ordering the ever popular ‘barbeque’ at the restaurant each evening. I offer the opinion that the farmers turn them loose for 1 of 2 reasons … either the insurance value of a skinny cow is greater than the market meat value or they are being paid an under the table subsidy by the brake pad manufacturers.
For me, a highlight of my visit to Georgia was the journey through spectacular remote mountain gorge’s to Mestia – then 4 hour / 50km on to Ushguli. This road is mentioned in some peoples list of the ‘worlds worst roads’. It shouldn’t be as Flypaper slept for most of the journey – and I had time to complain that the ‘music’ was too loud. It does possible have a place in the records for ‘most potholes’ and does enjoy the status of leading to the highest village in Europe. (Europe? I always thought the Bosphorus in Turkey was the division between Europe and Asia. Here we were about 2,000kms East of that. We hired a 4WD with local driver for this journey and was intrigued by the fact he bought expensive bottled water for drinking (while surrounded by some of the worlds most pristine snow melt) and used most of it to clean his windscreen – hand out the window sloshing it onto he screen while the wipers were flailing at top speed. This of course meant at a considerable quantity came back through his open window each time the wipers swung to the right. Flypaper was quite damp on arrival. (She insisted that it wasn’t the quality of the road that caused that.)
Of particular amazement throughout the Caucus countries is the universal gas reticulation. Almost every home in the country has natural gas piped in from Russia. Russia is a zillion kilometers away. The ugly piping infrastructure is amazing. There must be hundreds of millions of cubic metres of gas in the pipes – and the potential for leaks is beyond my comprehension. It is charged a flat rate and although there are occasional ‘inline’ meters, no one reads them to discover the percentage that is leaking to the atmosphere. Please don’t tell those concerned about greenhouse gas emissions about this as it could offend some very powerful people who also happen to be oligarchs who send out people with nasty attitudes to deal with their problems.
The countries of the Caucasus are a bit jealous of each other and squabble over lots of things. This was evidenced by the sign above the road as we departed Georgia, it said, “Azerbaijan Boarder – Good Luck”. We were delighted that our luck held out on the roads of Georgia and I promised to send our driver a book about how to drive safely and live longer. Flypaper suggested that his smoking will get him anyway so why bother. In contrast to my own caring attitude, she’s a hard woman.