Caucasian Tales

So long is liberty oppressed by laws,
so will the tribes resist until they’re free:
at length the smoldering Caucasus will be
unburdened by this monstrous foreign cause
Pushkin

Our Free City Tour guide in Tbilisi, the lone local guide who was not an actual local but a Dutch guy who fell in love with a Georgian girl and relocated, warned us toward the end of our lengthy walk around the city to be careful: crazy things happen in this country. He meant this not in a “jihad in the mountains” kind of way, but in a “you might wander through and stay here forever” kind of way.

And so, a strange thing or two did happen in this unique and rugged country, and I left with a long to-do list of things I did not have time to fully explore.

The day we drove out into the mountains to Kazbegi, I felt as though I was on a time-warp road paved with nostalgia. To explain it would be to fail immediately. I spent my week in this country floored by the experience of being surrounded by others with strikingly similar facial features (I had never experienced this before to this degree, Georgian people are unique genetically and I am not one, though we share a diverse yet heavily Slavic contemporary blend); being out in the mountains forces you to fully appreciate the incredible falsehood of the word “Caucasian” listed on American documents. Caucasians are pale, with light eyes and dramatic features; often large aquiline noses and dark hair. This is the land of white exotics.

I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone in this place; a beautiful albeit steaming hot one (Tbilisi means “warm place” for its natural hot springs) filled with bread and cheese and dumplings stuffed with mushrooms you know someone picked with his or her bare hands. The ruggedness of the Caucasus reminded me in many ways of Alaska: the primitive individuality of the land and the people. Over 300 kinds of wine call Georgia their home; and much like Bosnia, I could have happily stayed forever… except with Georgia, I would be a face the same as everyone else’s. I have always loved the idea of absolute anonymity, of no one looking twice. Of being a ghost. I thanked my bizarre good fortune every time a street hawker harassed my Mexican companions while ignoring me entirely.

I remember reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them and chuckling often at her commentary on the ‘Stans. I’ve spoken many times with a friend of mine often about our diverging ideas of beauty: mine is crumbling, decrepit buildings and stray dogs, bright clothing strung over errant clotheslines. His is more the clean lines and what to me has always been overwhelming orderliness and sanitized existence of a city like Boston. Boston always felt like a sterile cage to me; at night, it seemed as though no one lived there, especially downtown. Tbilisi is its opposite.

Tbilisi’s old town is what is supremely beautiful to me: periods of time and style built atop one another… the Eurasian-Persian-Byzantine-Soviet aesthetics all smashed together into a hot decrepit mess, though a mess that is cared for with tremendous love… winding streets with the odd can or bottle, dust flying around in the breeze, and panting dogs and lazy cats lounging in the shade. I would come back here again, with my DSLR.

With all the rugged landscapes and the country’s oppressive history (the Russians most recently invaded and reclaimed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008), Georgians are incredibly kind, gregarious and welcoming people. They have a cultural tradition of sharing homemade wine on their beautiful balconies with neighbors and strangers alike and helping visitors and newcomers get around and learn about their country. The protective but individualistic culture that is so well-known in Alaska exists here as well: live and let live, but always lend a helping hand. The country is extraordinarily safe. My friends commented that Bosnia (we had flown to Tbilisi from Sarajevo) was a lot more questionable comparatively. I initially scoffed, though by the end of the trip I concluded they were probably right.

Georgia has built a robust tourism industry, though their tourists are primarily Russians. And their food is to die for; one of my regrets (other than not staying longer) was not eating more. I had wanted to try legit khachapuri for a long time. Life can be a real let-down sometimes when you have great expectations… khachapuri is not, nor is their homemade wine, which has a sort of thick, mead-meets-raw apple cider taste and costs practically nothing (even their “good” wine is a few dollars a bottle at the most).

We found a bizarre tour of the old mining town of Chiatura, which has fully in-tact cable cars from the 1950s and ventured out to ride them. The country is riddled with monasteries and Orthodox churches (the country is 90% Orthodox, so they lack the kind of internal friction you can feel in every waking breath in Bosnia). The Stalin Museum in Gori (Stalin’s hometown) eluded me, and I was sad to hear it will likely close as the tone of the museum is a bit gauche for what they’re going for tourism-wise. As our guide said, “There’s no Hitler Museum, so there probably shouldn’t be one for Stalin.”

I don’t love every country I venture to; I wouldn’t return to Macedonia and definitely not to Albania. I could leave Serbia, Western Ukraine and Romania indefinitely off my re-visit list as well. I’ve long grown bored of Western Europe. Georgia, I will go back to. The Caucasus are wild, and real: an amalgam of familiar things from different stages of my own life.

In these past two years, two countries have far exceeded my high expectations: Bosnia, and Georgia, for entirely different reasons. It took a long flight on a vintage-upholstered plane and one in my party being detained for awhile for having a terrorist-looking neckbeard. He swears he won’t go back, but I surely will.

Bonus: they’re big on importing cars, and there’s a pretty solid rally culture, so there were quite a few WRX and STI spottings throughout the country.

Bonus reading: How Russia’s writers saw the Caucasus, Financial Times
Up next: back to Bosnia

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