Georgia on my mind
- Categorized in: August 2011
“Welcome to Georgia” was the cheery opener from the border guard as the three of us gently wheeled our machines past the barriers and checkpoints into the shade of a couple of tall cypress trees, the fresh smell of their needles filling the air.
Something was changing once more. The faces – a little whiter yet more weather-beaten, noses stronger and wider, grizzled chins, sturdy hairy hands for the men; long wavy hair, a shade of brown lighter, straighter noses, green and blue eyes, quicker smiles under a thoughtful brow for the women. The script – gone were the Cyrillic letters, expiated along with many vestiges of the Soviet overlords, leaving only the flowing scrawl of Georgia’s unique alphabet, totally incomprehensible at first sight unless pity had been taken and Latin letters offer a translation. Crosses are suddenly everywhere – on the houses, in the windows, on flags, hung around hairy necks. Vines crawl around wooden posts and across shady trellises in every front yard; watermelons pile up in ridiculous abundance every few hundred metres, incredible optimism that these can all be sold. The light seems warmer and softer; somehow it feels like there is a laugh on the air.
These were my first impressions of Georgia. (The laugh was probably our own.)
Kellen is pleased to have made it to Georgia
The town of Lagodekhi nudges right up to the border with Azerbaijan, framed by this boundary on one side, and the high wall of the first ridge of the Caucasian mountains to its north. It is the entry point to one of Georgia’s loveliest national parks, filled with beech woods, flowing streams and waterfalls.
The total lack of Russian script immediately threw up a question in my mind about what people’s response would be to my speaking Russian. But I needn’t have worried. Georgians (I have discovered) are anything but bigots. They have a remarkably pragmatic approach to life and have no problem separating a people from the policies of its government. On top of this, of course people over a certain age, of around 30, find it completely natural to speak Russian where necessary. The younger generations know it less well, and in general few Georgians now would speak anything but Georgian to each other.
Anyway, within a little time we had managed to zero in on the hotel where Christian and Christina and Jaspar (8) and Luka (5) were staying. The arms-wide-open-heroes-welcome-collapse-in-joyous-family-reunion event didn’t quite happen as anticipated because they were off splashing about in the waterfall, and I’d failed to give them enough notice of our time of arrival for them to get back in time.
First things first - cooling off
No matter. Eventually, after Kellen and Cory and I had had our own minor frolic in a woodland stream, they did show up, and it was fantastic to see them all looking so well.
We celebrated with a slap-up dinner at the Four Seasons. In Lagodekhi, the Four Seasons was not quite what the C Bruns were used to, but rather was a little house, owned by an expansive babushka who set out a plastic table and chairs in her backyard (which was in dire need of some weeding), and served us food through the window. However, for sheer charm, quality and quantity of food, it beat the pants off any 5 star hotel.
C starts with a beer or two
We all enjoyed for the first time Georgian food. Yet another boundary had been crossed with the entry into Georgia. Georgians are not happy to make do with the same old food over and over – they want choice, novelty, abundance, exuberance in their food. And they certainly deliver it. We were treated to the Georgian staple of Khachapuri (a kind of cheese pizza bread which is served everywhere), aubergines stuffed with nuts or garlic, Khingali the enormous dumplings filled with meat or other fillings which you eat with your hands, enormous salads, kebabs and shashlyks, litres of Natakhtari, the local Georgian brew, in chilled glasses. In short, we were all stuffed long before we came close to finishing what this remarkable woman and her diminutive daughters kept serving up.
Meanwhile, Luka was doing his usual trick of making best of friends with whatever furry animals were at hand, and Jaspar had about a thousand questions for Kellen and Cory.
Kellen and Cory bonding with the boys
It was a very happy feast.
There was certainly some anticipation about how our little team was going to fare over the coming days on the road. Christian and Christina had hired two mountain bikes through a Georgian friend in Tbilisi, and brought with them from England two contraptions that attached under their seats – a little trailer with one wheel, a fixed handlebar and pedals and a chain on which a small child could simply sit, or sit and pedal and make some contribution to the general speed of the bike.
Cycling Team - assemble!
So with a team now of 7, we eventually got underway from the little town of Lagodekhi, heading towards the little mountain citadel of Sighnaghi, some 50km away. Fortunately the first 20km were all downhill into the river valley of the Kura, and the next 20km were more or less flat.
We were all enjoying the novelty of what we were doing, the kids as much as the rest of us. I have to say, I kept laughing to myself every time I would follow behind either Christian/Jaspar or Christina/Luka, watching the little legs of my nephews pumping up and down enthusiastically, as we passed frankly astounded Georgian farmers and labourers, who perhaps had never seen such a brightly-coloured array of aliens in their land.
After another expansive lunch in the little town at the foot of the mountain we had set ourselves to climb, there was good news and bad news for the team. The good news was it was only 8km to the town of Sighnaghi. The bad news of course was that it was straight uphill all the way.
Most of the team, most of the way up the mountain to Sighnaghi
So set out our little band and we quickly ran into the reality of the situation. Hauling those trailers uphill is no easy feat. But everyone stuck together, with Christian and Christina exchanging trailermen when the balance tipped from Luka’s lesser weight in favour of Jaspar’s actual participation in the pedalling.
Despite their valiant efforts, it cannot be said that the boys were doing as much as they might have. While Christina gritted her teeth, every muscle taught in her body, and battled her way up this formidable climb, Jaspar found the time to ask her important philosophical questions such as, “How fast do you think a butterfly can fly?” or “Do you it would be fun to be a bee?”
To which the only reply could be a stifled, “Not now, Jaspar!”
Christina doing stirling work with her tail-end inquisitor
At last, after many stops and not too much wailing and gnashing of teeth, we did all pop out on top and were treated to a breathtaking view across the whole of north-east Georgia. It was spectacular, made even more satisfying after the hard grind of this climb.
Stunning views from the top
After a few gallons of drinks between us, we felt we’d recovered our composure enough to carry on into the historic mountain town of Sighnaghi. Mounted right on top of a series of ridges running eastward, the town retains its old city wall in remarkably good condition. The heart of the town is made up of old architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries, and the whole atmosphere exudes a kind of Umbrian charm, complete with wineshops, outdoor terraces and over-hanging wooden balconies lining cobbled streets. It is entirely charming and well worth a visit if ever you have a chance. And the views from anywhere in the town remain spectacular.
We all stayed very cheaply in the home of a middle-aged lady dressed in a tiger-skin dress, together with her husband who had once been a chess champion and now spent all his time playing chess online against unseen and nameless opponents. She wanted to put us all in her one big spare room, but everyone elected to cede the room and the one fan to the married couple, while the rest of us would sleep al fresco on the balcony.
We passed another wonderful evening enjoying the wine and open air atmosphere in one of the squares in the town, the place swarming with kids well into the late hours of the evening, not all of whom could play nicely with one another!
The next day was to be the day we (the Bruns) split from the Smetana brothers. But not before we visited the famous historical site associated with the town of Sighnaghi in the morning.
Collection of 3 sets of brothers
A couple of kilometres along the ridge from the centre of town is located the Bodbe convent, final resting place of Georgia’s most venerated saint, St. Nino. St. Nino was a young woman from Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) who came to the land of eastern Georgia, known as Iveria, in the early fourth century AD. She is credited with the conversion of the entire country by virtue of the fact that she was the first real missionary here, and she was successful in leading the Queen Nana to the Christian faith (in part through the miraculous curing of an illness). Not long afterwards, her husband, King Mirian, accepted the faith as well after certain other miraculous events in which the King first lost and then regained his sight. From this point onward, 327AD, King Mirian instituted Christianity as the official religion of his kingdom, and it has remained as such since that time.
The Bodbe Convent, St. Nino's final resting place
This makes Georgia the second oldest Christian country in the world after Armenia. Having been to a great many countries in the world, many of which might describe themselves as Christian nations (including my own at least formerly), my impression is that none are Christian in the way that Georgia appears to be. The great loss of the Christian faith in much of the rest of European Christendom has not happened here. Suppressed by the Soviets maybe, but it has experienced something of a renaissance since Georgia’s independence in 1991.
When asked, I’ve yet to find a Georgian who does not profess a belief in Christianity. Of course there must be some. Yet one lady told me that it represents one of three things which it is impressed upon Georgian children that they are to retain: their language, their confession and their country.
In Tbilisi this was especially noticeable. I was staying in a hostel just a few paces away from the Russian church. People walking up or down the street -old men, middle-aged men, young women, painters, shopkeepers, professional-looking people, old women in headscarves – very many would stop walking, turn and face the entrance to the church, and cross themselves three times, then turn and continue on their way. This happens all over the city, it seemed to me, as people passed churches or other symbols of the Cross. I even saw several teenagers doing the same thing – something I absolutely could not imagine in the UK.
What does that sign of the Cross mean to each person? I don’t know exactly. To some perhaps it is mere superstition, but to others that I asked they say it means a mark of respect and acknowledgment to God. To me this spells faith, even if the church I come from seems to have given up the sign of the Cross long ago.
Most villages and towns have a large Cross on display somewhere, most Georgian men and many women wear a Cross around their neck. Their flag has five Crosses (including of course the Cross of St George) on its face. In short, the Christian faith is everywhere here. Beyond this, I have sat in churches and watched people come and go – a steady flow of all types of person entering the sanctuary reverently, and diligently going round honouring the icons, appearing to pray with great solemnity.
What I find interesting is that in as much as their religion is solemn and apparently sincere, their attitude to the rest of life is – if it can be generalised – lightly lived, humourous and joyful. Perhaps there is something to be learned from that.
Clearly the Christian faith is deeply linked to the identity of Georgia, even though they are quite happy to tolerate other religions in their cities as well (there is even a temple to Zoroaster remaining in Tbilisi). The country has been crushed time after time after time by Islamic invasion, from the east (by the Persians, the Mongols and the Tartars under Timur) and from the west (by the Turks), and most recently you might say they’ve been sat on from the north (by the Russians). Evidently the country of Georgia has survived as a unitary whole throughout and despite all of this. No doubt in part this is because it has clung tightly to its faith. Whereas other countries have been swallowed up and lost, the pressure exerted on Georgia has crystallized and hardened it into something like a diamond by now, with characteristics just as essential, bright and indestructible.
At any rate, all this is a remarkable testimony to the humble work of St. Nino. The convent at Sighnaghi will sell you a little book about the story of her life, in which are excerpts from some of the documents associated with it that have survived. She herself describes in a letter the dream that she understood to be a call from God to travel far from her homeland to this land to bring with her the light of the faith to its people. And here in Georgia, 1,700 years later, what root it has taken and what fruits are on display. If there is any reward to be had in heaven for a job well done, St. Nino must surely deserve hers.
For my part, all this creates a certain spiritual impression in me – to have come from the land of the Dragon in the east, through the ex-Soviet Islamic countries of Central Asia, into this land of the Cross. It is nothing more than a spiritual impression, but it is at least that. And it is this – that a window has been opened, like something long shut up and stifled, has been released. Cobwebs and stale air are blown away and a kind of freshness pervades everywhere, in the land, in the cities, in the people. That is it. But it is certainly felt.
The convent itself is neat and well-preserved, cypress trees filling the grounds, with little gravel paths leading to stone terraces with wide open vistas over the valley below. St. Nino herself lies entombed in one corner of the little chapel, the metal covering worn to a shine in places from the million kisses received from pilgrims to her grave.
View from the bell tower over the chapel and tomb of St. Nino
Peaceful though it was, we didn’t stay long. We still wanted to get a little way further along the valley by the end of the day.
From this point on, we separated from Kellen and Cory. They waved us off as they made ready to head straight to Tbilisi and then press onward to the Black Sea and along the coast of Turkey to Istanbul. They should be there by now.
I didn’t feel the impact of leaving them really until Christian and the others left at the end of the week, but then I did feel I was sorry to see them go. They have been excellent company, each totally resilient in his own way to everything that was thrown at us. In their case, what they endured was far worse than I, since they were both quite sick for several days during our charge across Uzbekistan. But I am very grateful to them for being such admirable companions during an unforgettable (and often stressful) adventure.
When shall we three meet again....?
As for the new peloton, it was really up to me to devise a plausible game plan for each day. On this occasion I figured a steady ride of 60km along the valley floor towards the town of Telavi would be quite manageable.
In fact, it turned out to be really quite tiring. The road never quite descended all the way to the river. Instead it stayed high on the shoulder of the valley, dropping down and then climbing up, often quite steeply as it progressed from village to village. This was hard for everyone, but particularly for Christina who of course had neither quite the preparation I’ve had, nor the strength that Christian has. So instead of my planned modest easy run of 60km, it became a sweat-filled toil up and down, up and down.
The views were good and the villages in some ways interesting, but I wasn’t what we’d all hoped. Eventually, and right on the limit of both available light, and Christina’s patience we drew into the village we’d headed for – Tsinandali. Amazingly the kids seemed to last the whole day with hardly more than a couple of “Are we there yet?”s. To be fair, we were all thinking the same thing.
Tsinandali is at the heart of the region which we were traversing – the Kakheti region – home to Georgia’s main wine industry. The oldest and best-known vineyards are located on the valley slopes in and around Tsinandali and the plan was to stay in a guesthouse on one of the most famous of these, called Teliani Valley.
However, when we arrived in the centre of the little village, I stopped and asked an old man where this could be, and he was adamant that there were no hotels or guesthouses in the village, and we should keep going the last 10km into Telavi where there were loads. This was not an option. Christina was done, and 10km was too far.
While we were thinking what to do another man approached, and when he started speaking it was obvious he had been drinking. But he thought this was a great opportunity to offer us his hospitality. He said he had two rooms at his house and could easily put us up. I can’t say any of us leapt at this idea, since he seemed in a bit of a state. I asked him again, “Are you sure there are really no hotels here? Only this morning, someone told us there was a big hotel in this town.”
“Oh, they mean the Chavchavadze Museum. It’s called Tsinandali Park. It’s down there about 500m on the left. But it’s expensive, you don’t want that. Come home with me.”
How could he have known that one of the men he was talking to carries a credit card made of titanium?
Christian’s response was, “it doesn’t matter how expensive it is, let’s check it out.”
So after a whole day of passing humble rural villages, without so much as a hint of a hotel all day, we suddenly found that we had sniffed out probably the only 5 star hotel east of Tbilisi. In fact, it wasn’t even that. Making our way up a tall avenue of trees towards big ornamented iron gates, we hesitantly asked the guards whether this was a hotel. They said it was but it was closed.
Drive up to the Chavchavadze Museum - which gave us a private 5 star room for the night
This answer was modified to “it’s open but very expensive”. Eventually a phone call later and the manager of the entire estate, which had once belonged to the celebrated General/Poet Mikhail Chavchavadze, a godson of Catherine the Great, arrived with his key and said they’d let us use one of the rooms in the “hotel”.
While the main house was now a museum dedicated to Chavchavadze, the “hotel” was an outlying building that had until recently been one of the Presidential Residences. Saakashvilli has now given this up and it has been refitted as a 5 star hotel, although it was not yet open to business.
So we found ourselves as the sole occupants of this building for a sum that, given there were five of us, could have been a lot worse. (I slept on the floor. Everyone else fitted in two single beds pushed together so it didn’t feel quite as “bling” as it might.)
We then called a taxi and went out to dinner in Telavi just 10km away, leaving our bikes propped up outside the house, being told that it was no problem to leave them unlocked because the security guards would make sure they were safe.
When we eventually returned, we were a little taken aback that the two “big bikes” had gone. Where were they? Had someone taken them? Mine was standing there all alone.
Within a couple of minutes, it became clear. With a shriek of laughter and a bump of wheels and chains, the two bikes came into the lamplight from the darkness of the trees, ridden by two suddenly sheepish-looking security guards.
Asked what they were doing, they mumbled apologies and put the bikes back in place. Annoyed at their cheek, there wasn’t much else to do, but Christina said she heard them in the middle of the night again charging up and down on them having races outside. Curious behaviour for people supposedly guarding property rather than abusing it. I wonder if they did the same thing with Saakashvilli’s car?
The next day I gave the team a reprieve. Which was just as well as it rained quite a lot that day. We simply cycled 10km into Telavi and found the best hotel in town (which was very nice with great views across the valley, and not too expensive). We then spent the afternoon variously drinking delicious local wine, visiting the vineyard and looking round their factory. Later in the day we visited an old ruined citadel across the valley called Gremi which the kids seemed to like.
All this was good in its own way – for me it was simply enjoyable to spend a fun day with my family.
Portrait of my nephews
Between Telavi and Tbilisi, there is a 1,600m pass. Even a seasoned cycling tourist like me would have found it a swine to overcome. I think it would take the best part of 5 hours to get up. Given our experience of the day before, it was pretty obvious to attempt this with the others would be deeply unpleasant for everyone and/or futile.
Instead, the following morning we got a minibus to drive us and our bikes to the top of this, the Gombori Pass, and we had the great pleasure of free-wheeling down the other side. As Christian later said, to do this with all his family was something he would never forget. So I’m pleased we could do it together.
Jaspar taking five after a climb
It was certainly a beautiful valley – extremely green interspersed with quiet little villages which then grew into towns the further down the valley we went. Most of the day was downhill and eventually the mountain descent filtered into a more major road, and finally the main route from the east heading into the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
We had, after all that, made it!
So all this really just proves that what Christina says she will make happen, does indeed happen. (As if we ever doubted!) And we were very pleased that they could all now return to the UK to bathe in the warm waters of vindication in the face of all the nay-sayers.
So after a final slap-up Georgian feast by the Kura River with three of Christina’s friends in Tbilisi – a Georgian called Giorgi, and a couple called Tata (Georgian) and her husband Michael (Australian) – they were up and away for an early flight to London the following morning.
All taken in the kids’ strides very nicely.
Meanwhile I was left on my own once more in Tbilisi.
The aging beauty of Tbilisi - and her new bridge
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