Crossing the border into Georgia was a quick formality; 10 minutes to exit Turkey and thank the smiling customs officers for their lovely country, then a short queue where we were questioned by two Georgian uniforms; when we explained our purpose they moved us to the top of the queue. Five minutes later we had a one-year tourist visa for Georgia and were waved on our way by more smiling officials. I hope all future borders are like this one!
Given that we’d only decided to visit Georgia last week it was a place we knew very little about and consequently had almost zero expectations, which we have found, in the past, to be a good thing. It was our first ever visit to a former USSR Socialist Republic and the only famous Georgian we knew of was Josef Stalin who was born (we learned) in the appropriately named town of Gori. We weren’t even sure if the country is in Asia or were we going back into Europe? According to a BBC article “One definition of Europe marks the Caucasus Mountains as its border, putting Georgia firmly in Asia. Other definitions place the whole Caucasus region, including Georgia, in Europe, which is where most Georgians feel it belongs.” Indeed the EU flag is prominently displayed at many public buildings and this is probably more of a statement that they never want to go back to the Soviet times. My favourite description of Georgia is that it is like a little balcony of Europe, overhanging into Asia.
The change in the country beyond the new frontier was immediate. Gone were the mosque and the minaret, the glittering red flags and (thankfully) no more trash and landfills. Georgia welcomed us first with huge flashy billboard ads for casinos in Batumi, our first stop and then proceeded to try and kill us with multiple attempts on our lives by the most maniac drivers we’ve come across anywhere. Okay, okay, we knew the driving would get worse as we progressed east and I’m sure this is not a patch on what we’ll encounter in India but it’s still a shock. We were not required to purchase bike insurance at the border because there isn’t any. While we’re on the subject, Georgia has only recently introduced a driving test; prior to this anyone could ‘have a go’ and boy does it show.
The result is mayhem on the roads. Everyone just goes for it, full throttle, taking advantage of each and every opportunity to make progress as fast as possible. There are no rules on the roundabouts where ‘who dares wins’. Most of the time it sort of works but impatience is deadly and we’ve had ringside seats to a number of breath-sucking, suicide overtakes; flash cars overtaking at high speed approaching the brow of a hill or a blind bend. You just know if anything is coming the other way, then there is absolutely nowhere to go and a horrific accident will result. After a few days we saw our first ‘aftermath’ on the road to Gori; a Toyota Landcruiser that had been in a head-on, police everywhere trying to clear up the mess. The car looked brand new and it had been folded in half such that the front wheels were tucked under the belly pan, touching the rear wheels. Everyone slowed down to have a look but then a few miles up the road they’re all at it again and obviously the sight of the recent carnage has given no cause for any moderation of driving habits.
Georgia we also discovered is the land of the Ginger Cow. There are thousands of them and they are everywhere. Now I like my cows; big bright-eyed bovine things with pretty lashes, giving us all that lovely dairy product, beef and leather. And who doesn’t like the sound of a Moo? But here in Georgia these rusty moos are free to roam, turned out onto every street, road and major carriageway. As if the nutters in the cars aren’t enough to contend with we’ve also got these dandering cows adding to the list of road hazards. Occasionally they will be tethered outside a property so they can graze the grass frontage. Unfortunately this means they can wander just about half way across the road, tether now taut, ready for the unwary…
If I had to sum up Georgia and our time here in one word, that word would be ‘incongruous’. Everywhere we have travelled we have met the unexpected and seen sights that have baffled and bewildered, which all makes for a fantastic travel experience. The first incongruity was Batumi; sizeable city on the Black Sea coast and our first stop in from Turkey. Former Soviet republic, casinos? We were expecting something slightly run-down and seedy, possibly rendered in concrete and block. We were met by a monstrous skyline of impressive modern skyscrapers and towers and there has clearly been a lot of investment here with all the major chains present; Hilton, Radisson, Crown Plaza etc. The architecture is certainly love-it-or-hate-it but it is an impressive sprawl. The culture shock on arriving from Turkey was a giant leap from bygone biblical to the latest Las Vegas.
We decided to spend an extra day or two meandering the high-rises and enjoying walks along the newly built ocean boulevard. Batumi also has a beautiful old town; once again that incongruity with the rest of place. Within a few blocks we’d parted Vegas and were now wandering downtown New Orleans or possibly even Havana with a neat grid of balconied ancient housing running down to the sea in sun-scorched streets, a bit run down but so full of character. Finally down by the harbour a modern art installation; ‘The Lovers’. A huge pair of statues of a man and a woman rendered in slices of stainless steel and mounted on two gear wheels such that both slowly rotate. At times they were moving away from each other until they stood remote, facing apart, irreconcilable and looking in opposite directions. But then they would gradually come together again and when they did their bodies met, at first in a kiss, then merged until they became one. It was at once a very graceful and clever piece of sculpture.
Leaving Batumi we said farewell to the Black Sea and rode east across the country. Our next planned stop was Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, but in the absence of clear street signs we couldn’t locate our intended accommodation. A foray into the manic traffic of the city centre failed to yield a suitable alternative so we set GPS to take us to a nearby town called Tskaltubo, purely on the grounds that there seemed to be a lot of hotels there and on the map it looked like a gateway to the mountains.
Once again Tskaltubo would prove to be totally different to anywhere we’ve ever been. The town seemed to be laid out in a vast parkland with fantastically wide meandering avenues, the sort you could maybe drive a May-Day parade down. GPS led us up one of the tree-lined avenues to a hotel, which turned out to be a derelict villa. We rode in through the broken gateway to find a paved courtyard whose sole occupant was an ancient rusting car laid up on blocks with wheels missing and open bonnet. The windows of some of the rooms were broken but it was clear that people were squatting here. We did a quick U-turn and left. The next ‘hotel’ was the same; another derelict villa with bed-linen airing from weed encrusted balconies like so many grey flags flapping in the wind.
On our next lap of the town we discovered a spick and span 50’s-style spa-sanatorium that wasn’t derelict but had us now wondering if we’d travelled down some time-hole. We finally found a small hotel (the Argos) with a friendly receptionist and booked in for the night as it was getting late in the afternoon. In its heyday, Tskaltubo was a famous spa resort and one of Stalin’s favourite holiday spots. In fact a lot of the senior party members and military leaders had villas here and the place was frequented by over 100,000 visitors every year; last year it had 700. Since the demise of Stalin the place has fallen out of favour and the villas gone to ruin. The ‘squatters’ we’d seen turned out to be former refugees as the place was used to re-house thousands following the genocide that took place in the war with the north-western province of Abkhazia in 1993.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia (and also South Ossetia, another province within Georgia) saw an opportunity to once again stake a regional claim for independence. It led to open war and ethnic cleansing on an unimaginable scale for these recent times. In one city alone, Sukhami, 10 – 15,000 Georgians were brutally murdered in a two-week killing spree and the net effect of the war has seen the displacement of some 200,000 Georgians forced to flee the province. The recent history of Georgia is a sad story indeed and today the country appears to have lost both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to separatists backed by Russia.
From Tskaltubo we took a short day trip into the nearby mountains to visit ‘Prometheus Cave’. In Greek mythology Prometheus was a Titan who, feeling sorry for the newly created naked and vulnerable human beings, bestowed upon them the gifts of fire and metalwork to help them in their struggle through life. His action angered Zeus who had Prometheus chained to rock in the High Caucasus Mountains to be tormented each day by an eagle that tore out and ate his liver. The liver grew back in the night but the eagle always returned to devour it afresh in the morning. Legend has it that the place where Prometheus was chained is on the high peak of nearby Khvamli Mountain so from this local association, the name has been bestowed on the cave, which was only discovered in 1984.
On entering the cave we followed a path for over a kilometer that led us through an underworld of every size and form of stalagmites and stalactites imaginable. In places they have melded to create vast cascades of stone curtains and tapered organ pipes, gracing the rock with fluidity in its form. Narrow corridors and channels linked a series of some sixteen larger caverns and a guide led our small visitor party through, explaining each form and feature in a muted voice appropriate for this reverend place. The exit route was more magic as it involved an underground boat trip that led us once again into the daylight.
Prometheus Cave was one of those places where you emerge a lot calmer and refreshed than when you went in. There is something special about entering these vast dark spaces, your mind processing the vision of the alien speleology on display, the pin-drop silence interrupted only by the sound of your own breath as you take in lungs full of chill pure air and stand open mouthed in awe at the majesty all around. In fact, road chaos aside, this is probably a good summary that would fit the whole country of Georgia itself. It really is a magical land and certainly ranks as one of the best diversions in all our travels (and we’re only half way through…!)
The corresponding photo-gallery for this blog is Georgia Part 1