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

Czechmate

Oh hi, me again. Just returned from my second year of Brutal Assault. Having sufficiently horrified my coworkers by attending such a festival (‘Brutal Assault? OMG’), and arriving in possession of one Forever 21 panda suit (I pledged to wear a panda suit if we went back for year 2), I’m sad it will be nearly impossible to convince anyone to attend for a third year.

I’ve been to a lot of metalfests; Brutal Assault is my favorite. The disappointment in Diablo Swing Orchestra and Ihsahn canceling was fresh in our minds, but despite the searing heat and smelly campers, it was great. The lineup wasn’t as good as last year, though Arkon Infaustus alone was worth the trip; I chose to fly 10,000 miles to see them without the fast food smelling smog and 100% humidity of Baltimore at Maryland Deathfest. I felt like there were too many people, but I would go again. Just ask. I’m in.

This festival overall is (a) cheap (b) well organized (c) seems to attract metalheads that have grown out of the puking and shoving phase of metal fandom. This year had a bit too many huge metal bands, though I will say even I was charmed by tens of thousands of people tribal-jigging and bellowing ‘rooooots…. bloody roooooots’ at the end of Sepultura’s set.

The venue, Fortress Josefov, is beautiful. 100 Euros, deposited onto your RFID bracelet at the beginning of the festival, will buy you four days of beer and food (and maybe even some merch). The lodging package comes with four-star Eastern bloc accommodations, complete with windows that don’t stay open, questionable carpet stains and shower heads that sear the first few layers off your skin, ensuring you are super clean and fresh for another day of fighting the bourgeoisie. The best thing this hotel has to offer is the incredible disparity between its online photo and real life.

cernigov

Overall, there is something special about this country. City-wise, Prague is different than the slowly reforming grey spiritual necropolis I remember from my youth (at 34, I’m a huge fan of acting like I’m as old as time, but what I mean is, this Prague is so different than the city I initially visited in the very early 00s). Albert Camus wrote a lot about Prague, and his portrait is in some ways more the city I think of, although in a more endearing way. Some of us just like to travel to ominous ‘Eastern Europe.’

I will keep my hipster ‘Prague is too touristy’ whining to myself, though friends echoed my complaints this year; more positively, it’s been a pleasure to watch the capital and much of the country grow and prosper. There are vacationers everywhere, although perhaps a few too many who complain that Czechs don’t smile enough (Slavenka Drakulić actually said some funny things about Westerners expecting people in Eastern European countries to smile for no reason). You can buy a beer for less than $2. Prague is rapidly approaching Western Europe for Eastern European prices. The expanding homogeneity of European capitals is pretty lame; the cost is not.

But what makes so-called Czechia different?  The country joined the EU in 2004, alongside the Baltics, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Many of the former Eastern bloc countries are prosperous (some are backsliding, like Poland and Hungary, though those two are regressing in different ways). After a fair amount of time spent in each of these countries, it’s tough to think of one that is doing better. What is it that makes this country so prosperous? Maybe location, sandwiched partly between Germany and Austria. Maybe they are just West enough that they’re better by osmosis. I asked this question to some other people I spoke with, and was told by one person that Czechs are never satisfied with their own performance, which was demonstrated later at the festival when the shuttle admin guy told me that he was happy I liked the festival, but ‘things could be better.’ Maybe it’s just that good ol’ Protestant work ethic seeping over the border.

This blog is not about serving up answers, because I don’t have any, so that’s what I spent some time thinking about. That, and where to get my next plate of schnitzel. I happened to tag along to Český Krumlov before flying home, as well, which was a pretty charming little medieval town, albeit crammed with tour groups for the day (at night, it empties out). The town reminded me in many ways of Salzburg, which will always be superior because they have the Sound of Music Tour. (I’m not kidding: I took that tour twice. In one day).

cesky

And that’s a wrap. Next up on Post-Communist Adventure Travel for Entitled White People: Bosnia and most of the rest of those bloodsoaked, brutal Balkans in September.

Aaand… one finale-worthy meat plate for good measure. Schnitzel has its own tag in this blog, and I expect to utilize it.

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