15 - 21 June
After breezing through one of the most efficient and modern border control posts we’ve seen in Asia, we drive straight into Kakheti, Georgia’s beautiful, rustic wine country – a wide, verdant plain of vineyards enclosed by the pine and snow clad Caucasus to the north and an equally pretty, coniferous ridge of mountains to the south.
We pass through sleepy, crumbling villages, full of stately, once grand brick and stucco fronted houses each complete with long established vine-shaded courtyards. Old men sit cross-legged on rickety donkey carts, bringing in freshly cut hay from flower filled meadows. The countryside is beautiful, pastoral, and lush – it feels like what England might have looked like 100 years ago, before we covered it with things like the M4 and Swindon.
We spend our first night in the distinctly Italianate hilltop village of Signaghi - like Tuscany’s San Gimignano except with cheaper (and arguably better) wine and no tourists. Whilst looking for a B&B, Vana, a typically matronly, buxom Georgian, finds us and suggests we stay in her spare room in her neat little bungalow across a cobbled street from St George’s church, a crumbling 12th century tower jutting out from the old town walls.
Having agreed, she points us to a local bar and much as we’d hoped in this country, within three hours of crossing the border we’re sitting with a litre jug of ‘black’ Georgian table wine in front of us (cost c. £3) looking out over hundreds of square miles of vineyards and woodland in the valley beneath us.
So far, this country is everything we’d hoped it would be…
Vodka for breakfast
So it continues. We wake up the following morning, bleary eyed and sore, ultimately having demolished two litres of excellent Georgian ‘Saperavi’ and eaten only a solitary quail, a stick of pork shashlik and some aubergines wrapped with walnut paste – all delicious local specialities but not enough to soak up the booze.
Our delightful host cooks us a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, tomatoes and onions, but not before she insists on a hefty vodka shot each to start the day and toast eternal friendship between Georgia and the UK… we haven’t even had our coffee yet!
Wine tasting, Georgian style
That’s only the start though. Today we’ve set aside for a winery tour and our first stop is the highly regarded Kindz-Marauli vineyard, right in the heart of the Arazeni valley. We turn up at 11.30am; there’s no visitor centre of sorts but we understand the staff are usually happy to give impromptu tours and tastings.
Sure enough, Stevan, the burly, shaven headed security guard with Aviator sunglasses, is happy to give us a tour of the vast storage and aging vats and the modern and highly sophisticated bottling process. A tasting session is compulsory.
A Georgian wine tasting is not for the faint hearted – unlike the French (or any other nation for that matter) – each tasting sample comprises a glass filled to the brim, and the idea of not finishing your glass, or of spitting anything out, is unheard of. We start with the excellent sweet Muscat, then move through the Rieslings, Merlots and everything else.
Nina, with the excuses of (a) being a girl and (b) having to drive – (a) gives more credence to her argument – manages to evade the worst of the session, taking a swig of each and handing her glass to Charlie to finish.
Charlie has no such excuses; none would be tolerated by Stevan anyway. By 12.15am at least ten full glasses have been consumed; Stevan asks us for our favourite and we both declare the Muscat. With that, he promptly takes us back to the first vast warehouse and pours another full glass for each of us, for celebratory toasts, followed by ‘one for the road’, before insisting he takes us out for lunch at a nearby restaurant.
We don’t have much choice but to accept; we’re both really in need of food. We follow him in his little Lada Niva to the nearby town of Kvareli and park up at a local courtyard restaurant. He doesn’t bother locking his car. "Nye nada. Mafia!"
Indeed, nothing’s a problem here if you know the right people; all the local bosses are sat on the next door table and we’re introduced one-by-one. "Drink, drive, no problem!" Stevan proudly boasts in Russian.
The guy is merciless in his hospitality. He promptly orders a two litre jug of wine, initiating numerous toasts all round. Thankfully, excellent shish kebabs and fried aubergines soon arrive – as does the second two litre carafe… Nina’s allowed onto water by now but not so Charlie.
At 3.30pm, there’s an ultimatum from Charlie: "You need to find a hotel room now otherwise I’m going to sleep in the back of the car". Needless to say, Nina miraculously engineers a diplomatic retreat from Stevan (who’s insisting we continue the party at his house 20km away) and finds a decent local hotel nearby.
Charlie’s passed out cold by 4pm and remains so until the morning. Unsurprisingly, it’s a pretty quiet night for Nina…
Head pounding like Russian pop music, Charlie calls a halt to the wine tasting and the next day we indulge in a far safer and more pious activity, visiting the region’s innumerable ancient monasteries, all nestled in dramatic mountainside settings. Most have been refurbished and are now functioning again, having been neglected and used as warehouses during the Soviet era.
Feeling decidedly more virtuous, after a late lunch (katchapuri – ‘cheese pie’) we head west, over the densely wooded Gomberi pass, towards Tbilisi. We pass the ruined but still substantial Ujarma Castle, a mass of grey rock walls and turrets sat proudly on a forested outcrop, overlooking the fearsome Iori River nearly a kilometre below.
The scene typifies Georgian countryside: unspoilt, incredibly beautiful and dotted with endless ancient edifices that invariably enhance their surroundings.
We reach Tbilisi in the late afternoon and check into new hotel in the bustling Armenian quarter of Avlabari, east of the thundering Mtkvari River that dissects the city, and in the shadow of the vast and recently finished Tsminda Sameba Cathedral, at 80 metres high the biggest religious monument in the Caucasus and a symbol of Christianity’s massive re-emergence in post-Communist Georgia.
In bed with the Americans
In the evening we dine with the intelligent, quietly spoken and hospitable Stavros Stavrakos, working for the Greek Embassy in Tbilisi, and a handful of his Greek ex-patriate friends, generally businessmen who’ve operated in Georgia for years.
We chat about our first impressions of the country and about their long term views. We’ve been astonished at the modernity of the country’s infrastructure, the evidently expensive refurbishment works on numerous monasteries and cathedrals we’ve seen and the surprisingly good (and under-utilised) tourist infrastructure.
"Foreign aid!" declares Yanni, who’s run an air-conditioning and construction business here for 12 years. Ever since the Americans orchestrated the ousting of Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003 the new president, Saakashvilli has been "practically in bed with the Americans" according to Yanni.
The recently complete Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline runs straight through Georgia, supplying one million barrels of oil per day to the Turkish sea port, most destined for America. The stability of this civil war-torn country is therefore imperative to the Americans, desperate to reduce their dependence on oil from the Middle East.
To achieve such ends, colossal amounts of money have been pumped into the country, though as per usual virtually none of it filters beyond the higher echelons of society. Sure, the country’s roads and monasteries are being rebuilt, and $30m has just been spent on an Italian designed swanky new pedestrian bridge over the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi, but most of the country’s population still earns less than $50 per month. Lucky for them, they’re blessed with one of the world’s most fertile countries and can happily feed and drink themselves, if nothing else.
The new bridge was built with German and Japanese aid, using their own, foreign, staff. The amply funded project was chosen over a number of other candidates, most involving the construction of schools, sanitation and hospitals in more remote and impoverished regions.
Misdirected foreign aid
Throughout this trip we’ve seen dozens of examples of ignorant and misplaced foreign aid, helping no-one but the recipient governments and the foreign companies who get to spend it, or the hordes of self-satisfied NGOs living it up ‘on site’ to oversee its use. This example has to be one of the most mind-boggling so far, though.
By contrast, Yanni is working on a number of private projects to improve regional, un-trendy towns and villages. As we’ve seen in India, Laos, Mongolia and elsewhere, it is invariably the private individuals, often living in foreign countries for dozens of years, who quietly make a difference to people’s lives – rarely is it the NGO brigade and the foreign-aiders, prancing around in their gleaming white Land Cruisers.
For Georgians, though, there may be some accidental benefits of their government’s acquiescence to foreign powers. Much to Russia’s displeasure, it is their publicly stated ambition to join both NATO and the EU.
Until neighbouring Turkey, at least, becomes a member of the EU, the latter may be a pipe dream. But for the time being, the democratically elected government is taking bold and beneficial steps to make the country more appealing to the West. Corporate and official corruption are being eradicated, foreign investment encouraged and age old problems of banditry and kidnapping have all but been removed.
Tbilisi one of the most beautiful cities we’ve seen for a while – narrow backstreets packed with colourful, crumbling imperial townhouses; a plethora of ancient churches and cathedrals, snazzy new bars and boutiques (where the rest of the foreign aid gets spent) and ancient hilltop forts, all enclosed by steep, green mountains.
We spend three days here before heading north to along the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi on the Georgian- Chechen border, then south again to Gori, birthplace of Stalin.
A local hero
Gori is the only town in the whole of the former USSR that still glorifies Stalin – arguably one of the 20th century’s most influential rulers and prolific mass-murderers. A huge statue of the man stands in the main square, one of a handful left throughout the former USSR. The main street is named Stalin Avenue.
We spend the afternoon being taken around the town’s museum dedicated to its local hero by a stern matron who reels off a proud monologue in English, focussing firmly on the achievements of the great man, glossing over the minutiae of the gulags, the purges and the famines.
Only when we interrupt her to ask her questions does she suddenly soften up, genuinely pleased that we’re taking such an interest in her lifelong hero. One thing that strikes us is what a good looking lad the young Stalin was, wavy hair and dashing features – looking at these, it’s hard to imagine he was capable of committing such horrors.
In the evening we explore the streets, looking for a decent restaurant in which to eat something other than the ubiquitous and uber-heavy katchapuri.
It’s only then we notice the bullet holes.
Every building; shops, apartments and offices, is riddled with them. Rounds are embedded in wooden doorways, metal shutters are pockmarked. Strangely, all the buildings are recently painted – yet the bullet holes are newer, so new, in fact, as to have not been plastered over (generally they’re plastered over very quickly, to help local residents forget recent horrors and move on).
A little investigation reveals that Russian tanks rolled through here as recently as late 2008, supporting the secessionist rebels in nearby South Ossetia. The border is only 15km north and the civil war regularly spilled over into the rest of Georgia.
It’s a stark reminder that despite the foreign aid and fancy bridges, so long as the issues of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence (or otherwise) remain unresolved, this beautiful, hospitable little country is never far from civil war. And while Russia continues to support the secessionist regions, Georgia hasn’t got a hope of reclaiming its territories and re-housing some 400,000 Georgian refugees still holed up throughout the country.
A local, somewhat retarded and his left arm crippled, wanders past our bar. He’s got a handgun tucked into the back of his trousers. No-one but us seems to notice, or care. We finish our beers a little more nervously and make for an early bed, wondering what Armenia might hold in the morning…