The transition from opulent Dubai to the post-Soviet landscape of Tbilisi was a massive culture shock. Red rusting steel and bulky concrete apartment blocks popped in and out of my view as our driver took us from the airport to our Airbnb. Our home for the next 5 days was in need of major repair. The entrance hall contained deep cracks in some of the floor and walls. Electricity panels stood uncovered with snipped wires exposed to the cold Georgian air. Immediately upon entering our room, it reminded me of something I had seen in a History channel special for post-Soviet Russia. Naturally, our visit occurred during a week we needed to do laundry and it was 30 degrees outside. Hannah and I used the furniture in our room and several saved shoestrings to create a web of laundry lines. This was neither the first nor the last time we invented a solution. Every day of our trip necessitated critical thinking and problem solving.
A hospitable people is my best descriptor of Georgia’s population. When we arrived via airplane, the customs officials actually gave us 2 small bottles of Georgian wine as a gift and “Welcome” to their country. The history of Georgia has seen destruction or occupation over 26 times, yet somehow its citizens were some of the most welcoming we had encountered during 10 months of nonstop travel. Smiles and greetings were typical, free shots of Cha-Cha (more on that later),and offers of assistance were common and unbridled by any expectation of reciprocity or payment. In fact, a monument overlooks Tbilisi holding a sword in one hand and wine in the other. Its meaning is emblematic for Georgians who are both prepared to fight off enemies, but share wine with friends. Naturally, the choice is up to the visitor; we chose the wine!
In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and independent republics regained a resemblance of independence throughout the far Eastern Europe and Central Asian corridor. Former Soviet autocracts controlled these areas and communist philosophy remained the governing force. Georgia awoke in 2003 during the Rose Revolution. It was a bloodless revolution that turned the power over to the people and western values began seeping into the country. While 16 years brought substantial change, the ever present mother Russia still inhabits 20% of Georgia’s territory, according to our tour guide. Just about 200 miles to the north of Tbilisi lies Chechnya, the autonomous region that was annexed by Russia in 2008, causing international outrage.
Much like our Airbnb, many of the buildings in Tbilisi’s Old Town were showing their age and many looked unsafe. We were told that some are actually very nice on the inside but it is too expensive to renovate the exterior. There are stringent requirement for rehabing them since they they are in a historical district and have to be repaired in a special way to maintain the historical value and authenticity. There is a program the government has started to help repair the buildings but our guide indicated any government program will likely be a very slow venture. Nonetheless, the rustic feel still felt charming and genuine as if each broken shutter told a story of the country’s history.
On Tbilisi’s roads, both highway and local, drivers made their own lanes, often straddling several during a drive and using their horn and lights to signal others to go ahead or move over. It was anarchy, but yet they made it work. We picked up on a few additional items while visiting. The Georgian language is extremely unique, and difficult to learn. It resembles something akin to Arabic in its design, but sounds something more similar to Russian or other Slavic languages.
On our very first day, we joined a walking tour and became fast friends with a British/Canadian couple living in London: Christopher and Jalene. We ended up spending the next several days or evenings together over drinks, dinners, and exploring the city together. Making friends along the journey always accentuated the best parts for Hannah and I, and Christopher and Jalene left quite the lasting impression. Because of them, Georgia will always be one of my favorite countries. On their final day, we promised to stay in touch and make plans for a London visit in the future.
As the title would imply, Georgia is a foodie’s paradise. There are several tasty dishes that leave you dreaming of more. The first is kachapuri, which is best described as a bread loaf shaped into a rounded diamond with copious amounts of cheese and 1 sunny side up egg in the middle. The next are khinkali. These are Georgian soup dumplings that traditionally contain different fillings from beef/pork, a smoked cottage cheese, potatoes, or a mushroom spice mixture. Friends we met were told by local Georgians that a Georgian man could typically eat 24 in one sitting. I think on a hungry day, I ate 11, and that was pushing the envelope. Several other dishes consisting of red beans, walnuts, aubergine, and cucumber were common as well. Hannah and I picked up a cheap Georgian cookbook written in English so that we can try to recreate the recipes back home.
The major draw in Georgia is the wine. Georgian wine is different in that it is brewed in large clay pots, then buried underground for several weeks/months/years. Their specific breed of grape and fermentation methods create a unique earthy aroma and taste. It was one of the best wines I have had in my lifetime and I hope I can find more when I return to the United States. The same grape mash is dipped on a string similar to a wax candle to create a sort of gummy candy with nuts that is a delicacy in Georgia. Another drink favorite was called cha-cha. It is best described as fruit infused vodka made in Georgia. It warmed the insides on a cold winter day. What made the wine taste even better was sharing it with great company.
Hannah and I explored the local Tbilisi flea market on our own and a second time with Christopher and Jalene. Old Soviet era relics such as dull bronze coins and war medals lay strewn in boxes beside crafted drinking horns, painted tapestries, and old bronze door knockers. It was a far cry from other markets we experienced in Marrakesh or Dubai where vendors relentlessly hassle you to buy product. In Tbilisi, locals seemed unconcerned whether you bought an item or did not, and it made for a better experience.
The boulevard leading to Freedom Square finally lit up its Christmas lights on our final 2 evenings. It delivered the Christmas spirit my wife desperately craved since we could not be with family. Blue and white icicle lights, Christmas ornaments shaped like planets, and small vendor shacks did the trick. Eastern Orthodox Christianity does not celebrate Christmas until early January, but we were thankful for the small glimpse we received while there.