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Archive for January, 2013

It has come to my attention that I am now about halfway through my grant period here in Georgia, so I figured I need to start getting organized in terms of which places I should see before I go. Have I mentioned yet that domestic travel in Georgia is incredible? The variety of sites and climates, as well as affordability (you know, once you get here) are unsurpassed. The following is a bucket list of my personal must-see places to visit in Georgia outside of Tbilisi. There are several other places I am interested in, like Abkhazia (requires a fluent Russian speaker, and a male escort of you are a woman) and Racha (about which I know little aside from this awesome video), but don’t know if I’ll make it out there. But a year long grantee has no reason to miss the following amazing sites:

Gergeti Trinity Cathedral and Mt. Kazbegi

Gergeti Trinity Cathedral and Mt. Kazbegi

Kazbegi

  • When to go: spring, summer, early fall
  • When I went: August 2010
  • How to get there: marshutka (2.5 – 3 hours)
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: Gergeti Trinity Church, Gergeti glacier, Juta Valley, hiking, mountain climbing (Mt. Kazbek)
  • Tips: On the way to Kazbegi you will pass through the small town of Pasanauri, which is famous for having the best khinkali in Georgia (they’re not exaggerating), so if you can, it’s well worth stopping for lunch or dinner on the way. There are many lookout spots where you can take panoramic photos on the way up, but the best one is not far from Jvari Pass (the highest point in the military highway), and features a now-decrepit mosaic monument to “Georgian-Russian Friendship,” commemorating the 1783 Treaty of Georgievsk.
Davit Gareja complex

Davit Gareja complex

Davit Gareja

  • When to go: spring, summer, fall
  • When I went: May 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka to Gardabani (1 hour), taxi to monastery site
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: cave monasteries, desert sunset
entrance hall at the Stalin Museum in Gori

entrance hall at the Stalin Museum in Gori

Gori and Uplistsikhe

  • When to go: year round
  • When I went: August 2010, December 2012
  • How to get there: marshutka (1 hour)
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: Stalin Museum and Birthplace, Goris Tsikhe (fortress), hiking to Gori Jvari (old church complex; site of pilgrimages on Giorgoba), Uplistsikhe (ancient abandoned city).
  • Tips: Uplistsikhe is a short distance from Gori, and you can either take a bus there from the main bus station, or take a taxi (about 10-15 lari).
Vardzia cave monastery

Vardzia cave monastery

Vardzia

  • When to go: spring, summer, fall
  • When I went: July 2010
  • How to get there: marshutka or taxi (50-130 lari) from Borjomi or Akhatsikhe
  • Length of visit: day trip (from Borjomi or Akhaltsikhe)
  • Attractions: Vardzia cave monastery (open 9am-5pm), hiking
Mestia in winter

Mestia in winter

Mestia

  • When to go: year round (skiing in winter, hiking in warmer seasons)
  • When I went: July 2010
  • How to get there: overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, marshutka or taxi from Zugdidi to Mestia (5 hours). There are also domestic flights from Tbilisi to Mestia, but they are unreliably scheduled.
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: hiking, skiing, Svaneti Museum of History and Ethnography
Dmanisi promontory, with church complex and prehistoric archaeological site

Dmanisi promontory, with church complex and prehistoric archaeological site

Dmanisi

  • When to go: summer, early fall
  • When I went: July-August 2011
  • How to get there: marshutka to Borjomi (1.5 – 2 hours), taxi from Borjomi to Dmanisi
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: hiking, Dmanisi archaeological site and park
Ushguli in early fall

Ushguli in early fall

Ushguli

  • When to go: late spring, summer, early fall
  • When I went: July 2010
  • How to get there: overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, marshutka or taxi from Zugdidi to Mestia (5 hours), marshutka or taxi to Ushguli (3 hours). There are also domestic flights from Tbilisi to Mestia, but they are unreliably scheduled.
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: horseback riding, hiking, mountain climbing, historic tower museum
  • Tips: While Mestia is now accessible in the winter, the mountain passes to Ushguli are usually impassable between November and March, so it is usually a good idea to visit in summer.
autumn colors in Shatili

autumn colors in Shatili

Shatili

  • When to go: summer, early fall
  • When I went: October 2012
  • How to get there: marshutka (5 hours)
  • Length of visit: 2 days
  • Attractions: Old Shatili, Mutso (clifftop fortress), Houses of the Dead, hiking.
panorama of Mtskheta

panorama of Mtskheta

Mtskheta

  • When to go: year round
  • When I went: June 2010, August 2011, November 2012, January 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka, group taxi (30-45 mins)
  • Length of visit: day trip
  • Attractions: Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Jvari Monastery
  • Tips: don’t eat in Mtskheta–the restaurants are not as good as the many roadside places between Mtskheta and Tbilisi
Bakuriani after a snowstorm

Bakuriani after a snowstorm

Bakuriani

  • When to go: winter
  • When I went: January 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka (2.5 – 4 hours)
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: skiing, snowboarding, snowtubing, ice skating, horseback riding, snowmobile rental.
view of Batumi from a hilltop church

view of Batumi from a hilltop church

Batumi

  • When to go: late spring, summer, early fall
  • How to get there: marshutka (7 hours), train (overnight–book ahead), domestic flight (Georgian Airways, twice a week)
  • Length of visit: 2-3 days
  • Attractions: beach bumming, shopping, clubbing
Riverside houses in Kutaisi

Riverside houses in Kutaisi

Kutaisi

  • When to go: spring, summer, fall
  • When I went: December 2012
  • How to get there: marshutka, group taxi (2-3 hours)
  • Length of visit: day trip or 2 days
  • Attractions: Sataplia Preserve (national park with preserved dinosaur footprints, underground caves, and beautiful views), Gelati Monastery (some of the most beautiful frescoes in Georgia), Bagrati Cathedral (controversially restored UNESCO world heritage site), new Parliament building.
  • Tips: the things to see around Kutaisi aren’t very close to one another, so it may be helpful to pay for a private driver once you arrive if you want to make it to several sites in a short period of time.
Chairlift in Gudauri

Chairlift in Gudauri

Gudauri

  • When to go: winter
  • When I went: January 2013
  • How to get there: marshutka (1.5 – 2 hours)
  • Length of visit: day trip or 2-3 days
  • Attractions: skiing
  • Tips: unlike Bakuriani, Gudauri doesn’t have much to do for non-skiers or boarders, but the slopes are very open and well-groomed for beginners. If you need ski instruction, Hostel Ski-Niki has a good package deal, with meals and professional instruction included in the cost of the hostel. On the way to Gudauri you will pass through the small town of Pasanauri, which is famous for having the best khinkali in Georgia (they’re not exaggerating), so if you can, it’s well worth stopping for lunch or dinner on the way.

Other runners-up:

Grape harvest (autumn) in Kakheti; summer hiking in Abastumani; dacha-chilling, river-swimming, and khinkali-gorging in Pasanauri.

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Although it lacks the abundance of chaykhanas (tea houses) found in Azerbaijan, cafes and tea-drinking in general have long been a part of Georgian culture. It is unclear whether the drink was popularized in Georgia via Russian or Persian influence, but domestic tea cultivation did not begin until the 19th century. With an increasing amount produced locally (including GurieliKolkha, and the hilariously-named Elitist Georgian Tea), the curious history of Georgian tea culture merits some attention.

Soviet-era tea tins found at Dry Bridge market here in Tbilisi

Soviet-era tea tins found at Dry Bridge market here in Tbilisi

The first attempt at tea cultivation occurred after Prince Miha of the aristocratic Eristavi clan traveled across China in the 1820s, became quite taken with the various infusions of tea, and postulated that his home region had a climate similarly conducive to its production. In order to circumvent laws against the export of Chinese tea plants and seeds, Eristavi smuggled seeds out of the country in lengths of bamboo. The earliest plantations were established in the 1830s, but the resulting product was not popularized for several decades.

In a roundabout way, the Crimean War had perhaps the biggest hand in developing a Georgian tea industry. In 1854, an English military ship was wrecked off the Black Sea port of Poti, and its crew was taken hostage by the local garrison. One of the hostages, a Scottish officer named Jacob McNamara, married into the Georgian gentry and remained in the country. A true Scotsman, he missed the availability of tea and proposed increased production on the Eristavi estate in Ozurgeti and Chakvi. By 1864, “Caucasian tea” was presented at an international exhibition in St. Petersburg.

Later in the 19th century, Konstantin Popov, a wealthy merchant in charge of almost the entire Russian imperial tea trade, became interested in the idea of growing tea along the Black Sea coast. He bought vast plots in Chakvi, not far from Batumi, and dreamt of establishing massive plantations with internationally-competitive exports.
early Georgian tea factory staffed by Chinese workers

early Georgian tea factory partially staffed by Chinese specialists

In 1892, he traveled to China in order to study large-scale tea production. Popov hired a team of experienced workers from a factory in Guangdong, including an ambitious director named Lao Junzhou. After a three-year term, all of the specialists returned home except for Lao, who was determined to see the project achieve its full potential.

Popov and Lao had yet to perfect the conditions and methods for quality tea, and low-quality tea was derisively referred to as “Lao-class.”
Undaunted, Lao visited home and returned to Georgia with his family, and was
also accompanied by several other Chinese tea-growing families
, who brought not only new
 tea seedlings and seeds, but banana,
palm, bamboo, persimmon, and tung tree seeds.
portrait of Lao at the plantation in Chakvi

portrait of Lao at the plantation in Chakvi

After several more years of hard work and research, Lao’s tea was awarded a gold medal at the 1900

 Paris World Expo. As

Georgian tea increased in economic importance, the Tea and Subtropical Cultures Research Institute was founded in Anaseuli, where more new varieties of tea were grown, focusing on aromatic varieties.

Lao became the manager of a new factory in 1901, and was awarded an order in 1911–becoming the first person of Chinese origin to receive formal recognition from the Tsar. Years later, in 1924, the Soviet government awarded him the Red Banner Order of Labor, recognizing him as the founder of tea culture in Adjara and developer of a valuable economic resource.
Lao with his imperial medal at Chakvi in 1907

Lao with his imperial medal at Chakvi in 1907

In 1926, Lao returned to China with his family permanently (it is unclear whether this was for political or personal reasons), but tea continued to be a major industry throughout the Soviet period.
some delicious-looking bricks of "Stalin tea" ready for export

some delicious-looking bricks of “Stalin tea” ready for export

Tea growers in Chakvi lament that Georgian tea went into decline under Khrushchev, when the factories were worked mercilessly to meet planned production figures. The resulting low-quality tea was often sold to the military, while higher-quality Krasnodar tea (from plantations near Sochi) was sold to the general public. “Brick tea” remains the lowest quality product of all: it consists of tea leaves of any grade, steamed and pressed into two-kilogram bricks sold for about .60 USD. This unusual product is almost entirely exported to Mongolia, where it is known as “Stalin tea” for its trademark sickle-and-hammer stamp, and is customarily brewed with milk and drunk with salt and butter.

Soviet-era ad for Georgian tea

Soviet-era ad for Georgian tea

Today, Georgian tea production is on the rise in terms of both quality and quantity, with emphasis on the pesticide-free, organic growing process and increasingly popular marketing technique.
Sources
Butrin, Dmitry. “Georgia: Fleece, Wine, and Mimino,” Kommersant, 2003.
Liu-Kandareli, Mali. “Tea Culture Sources in Georgia.” Chinese Business in Georgia, 2010.

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Gudauri Good Aura

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Today I joined a group of expats who go up to Gudauri, the Caucasus’ premier ski resort, every other Saturday throughout the season. You can get there by renting a private marshutka if you have a large enough group, or take a regular public marshutka from Didube station. Either way, the trip up the old military highway takes about 1.5 to 2 hours.

After the dormant post-Soviet period in the ’90s, Gudauri received significant investment towards the creation of a year-round mountain resort–controversially, a fair amount of funding and support came out of the Tbilisi City Hall budget “savings.” Based on what I saw, however, the investments have been successful in attracting plenty of domestic as well as international tourists (the place is crawling with новый русский 20-somethings, as well as dedicated skiers from across central and western Europe).

Gudauri

 

The slopes at Gudauri are very open and well-groomed, and there are a lot more trails of varying difficulties (there are currently seven lifts, mostly chairlifts and towlines along with a new gondola line) than at Bakuriani. Basically, it’s great skiing for a fraction of what you would pay in the US or EU (30 lari for all-day ski rental and another 30 for an all day lift pass–so, under $50). I am a total beginner, and recommend the first slope (essentially an extended bunny hill), and the fourth slope–which, although steeper and narrower in parts, is more open, straight, and free of tantrumming children than is the first.

While close enough for a day trip, Gudauri is worth spending the weekend or a few days. As far as lodgings go there is the “Austrian House” (at the top of the second chairlift, off to the right), which has an amazing panoramic view, in addition to a good restaurant/bar that even serves mulled wine. It’s hostel-style, but if you have a  group of 6 or 8, you could rent out a whole room for about $30 a head. A friend of mine also recommended Hostel Ski-Niki for beginners, as both lessons and meals are included in the cost.

 

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Georgian food is a fantastic, if unfortunately little known, cuisine–although that is changing, with restaurants beginning to branch out from enclaves in Moscow, London, and New York. While it varies from region to region, the Georgian diet is heavy on bread and cheese, along with many varieties of stew.

While the list below is by no means comprehensive, I have endeavored to put together a visual guide to traditional Georgian (or, arguably, regional) dishes that are most likely to come up at any supra, restaurant menu, or home-cooked meal.

Bread

Bread is a staple of the Georgian diet. As in the other Caucasus countries, bread is viewed as sacred and it is considered taboo to throw leftovers or stale pieces in the garbage (as a result, you may find scraps of bread left on the street for birds, or in a little bag neatly tied to the side of the neighborhood dumpster). Most neighborhoods have a tone (“toe-nay,” or oven, shown below) where you can buy fresh bread daily for 50 tetri-1 lari. Georgian bread is known as tonis puri (oven bread), dedas puri (mother’s bread), or shotis puri (?). I am not clear on the differences, although Georgian bread may be long and skinny, rounded-rectangular, or like the ones below. All are delicious!

tonis puri

tonis puri

Pies (Khachapuri and Lobiani)

While not as iconic as khinkali, khachapuri (cheese pie) is probably the most ubiquitous traditional Georgian dish. It is made at home as well as sold in cafes, high-end restaurants, and on the street. It is so widely eaten that ISET (International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University) publishes a monthly “Khachapuri Index,” charting the country’s economic health by the fluctuating prices of ingredients for the three most common regional varieties: Imeruli, Megruli, and Adjaruli.

khach index

Khachapuri Index ingredient lists

Khachapuri Imeruli

Khachapuri Imeruli

Khachapuri Adjaruli: the perfect breakfast

Khachapuri Adjaruli: the perfect breakfast! Influenced by a similar dish from Turkey, which borders the Adjara region

Khachapuri megruli: like imeruli, but also topped with cheese (so...white pizza)

Khachapuri megruli: like imeruli, but also topped with cheese (so…white pizza)

Khachapuri Osuri (Khabizgina): like imeruli, but the filling contains both potato and cheese. Delicious with satsebeli.

Khachapuri Osuri (Khabizgina): like imeruli, but the filling contains both potato and cheese. Delicious with satsebeli.

kubdari

Kubdari: variety of khachapuri from Svaneti, filled with cheese and meat (often lamb or beef)

Lobiani: resembles khachapuri imeruli, but stuffed with spiced red bean paste

Lobiani: usually resembles khachapuri imeruli, but stuffed with spiced red bean paste

Penovani: variety of khachapuri often sold individual size to go. It has a croissant-type dough but the same cheese filling

Penovani: variety of khachapuri often sold individual size to go. It has a croissant-type dough but the same cheese filling

Vegetables

Pkhali: vegetable paste usually made from spinach, beets, or cabbage

Pkhali: vegetable paste usually made from spinach, beets, beans, or cabbage

Salati: Georgian salad is usually comprised of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and parsley. It may also be "nigvzit" (with nuts), and have a bazhe-type walnut dressing

Salati: Georgian salad is usually comprised of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and parsley. It may also be “nigvzit” (with nuts), and have a bazhe-type walnut dressing

Lobio: spiced red beans baked in a clay pot. Often served with mchadi, a dense cornbread

Lobio: spiced red beans baked in a clay pot. Often served with mchadi, a dense cornbread

Soko: stuffed mushrooms fried in a clay pot

Soko: stuffed mushrooms fried in a clay pot

Badrijani (nigvzit--with nuts): marinaded eggplant topped with walnut sauce

Badrijani (nigvzit–with nuts): marinaded eggplant topped with walnut sauce

Ajapsandali: stew made from eggplant, potato, bell pepper, tomato, and herbs.

Ajapsandali: stew made from eggplant, potato, bell pepper, tomato, and herbs.

Tolma (known as dolma in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey): peppers, cabbage, or grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of lamb, rice, onion, and herbs

Tolma (known as dolma in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey): peppers, cabbage, or grape leaves stuffed with a mixture of lamb, rice, onion, and herbs

Meats

Khinkali: the ubiquitous Georgian dumpling, usually filled with meat, onion, herbs, and broth (although mushroom and potato varieties are often available)

Khinkali: the ubiquitous Georgian dumpling, usually filled with meat, onion, herbs, and broth (although mushroom and potato varieties are often available)

Mtsvadi: Georgian shashlik or kebab (usually beef, pork, or lamb), grilled over a fire and served with onion

Mtsvadi: Georgian shashlik or kebab (usually beef, pork, or lamb), grilled over a fire and served with onion

Kababi: another variety of kebab; for this, ground meat is formed on a skewer for cooking, and is served on a lavash with onion (and usually some kind of pinkish-red vegetable-based sauce?)

Kababi: another variety of kebab; for this, ground meat is formed on a skewer for cooking, and is served on a lavash with onion and satsebeli sauce

Katleti ("cutlet"): may be Georgian-style (beef/pork with herbs and onions) or Kiev-style (chicken stuffed with butter and cheese). There are many variations using different herbs and other ingredients like bread crumbs or potatoes.

Katleti (“cutlet”): may be Georgian-style (beef/pork with herbs and onions) or Kiev-style (chicken stuffed with butter and cheese). There are many variations using different herbs and other ingredients like bread crumbs or potatoes.

Satsivi: chicken breast stewed in bazhe (walnut sauce)

Satsivi: poultry stewed in bazhe (walnut sauce)

Bozbashi: mildly spicy tomato and herb broth with meatballs made with lamb or beef, rice, and onion.

Bozbashi: mildly spicy tomato and herb broth with meatballs made of lamb or beef, rice, and onion.

Muzhuzhi: pork offal (feet, ears, and tail) marinaded in vinegar and garlic

Muzhuzhi: pork offal marinaded in vinegar and garlic

Ostri: mildly spicy beef stew with pepper, tomato, mushrooms, and herbs

Ostri: mildly spicy beef stew with pepper, tomato, mushrooms, and herbs

Chakapuli: slow-cooked stew made with onions, tarragon, tkemali (plum sauce), white wine, and braised meat (usually lamb)

Chakapuli: slow-cooked stew made with onions, tarragon, tkemali (plum sauce), white wine, and braised meat (usually lamb)

Kharcho: traditional meat (often beef) soup, including rice, walnut, plum sauce, and various spices. The thicker Mingrelian variety  is reminiscent of tikka masala

Kharcho: traditional meat (often beef) soup, including rice, walnut, plum sauce, and various spices. The thicker Mingrelian variety is reminiscent of tikka masala

Sauces, Desserts, Other

Adjika: a spicy sauce reminiscent of red pesto originating in Abkhazia, made from red peppers, garlic, and herbs. A drier version is known as "Svanetian salt"

Adjika: a spicy sauce reminiscent of red pesto originating in Abkhazia, made from red peppers, garlic, and herbs. A drier version is known as “Svanetian salt”

Bazha (Bazhe): heavy walnut sauce used to make satsivi, but also liberally used as a condiment at supras

Bazha (Bazhe): heavy walnut sauce used to make satsivi, but also liberally used as a condiment at supras

Tkemali: sauce made from stewed plums

Tkemali: sauce made from stewed plums

Satsebeli (lit. "sauce"): a lighter variety of adjika, with tomato, pepper, vinegar, and onion. Used liberally on meat.

Satsebeli (lit. “sauce”): a lighter variety of adjika, with tomato, pepper, vinegar, and onion. Used liberally on meat or like ketchup on fried potatoes.

churchkhela

Churchkhela (“nutcicle,” “Georgian Snickers”): nuts on a string dipped in boiled, flour-thickened grape paste. Often eaten at New Year’s.

Gozinaki: caramelized nuts (usually walnuts) fried in honey. Like churchkhela, very popular during the Georgian holiday season

Gozinaki: caramelized nuts (usually walnuts) fried in honey. Like churchkhela, very popular during the Georgian holiday season

Nushis Namtskhvari ("nut cake"): is a sweet biscuit made with almonds, and when fresh is the perfect balance of crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside

Nushis Namtskhvari (“nut cake”): is a sweet biscuit made with almonds, and when fresh is the perfect balance of crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside

Ghomi: a thick porridge (often with cheese) much like grits

Ghomi: a thick porridge (often with cheese) much like grits

Matsoni: traditional fermented milk product, like a heavier Greek yogurt

Matsoni: traditional fermented milk product, like a heavier Greek yogurt

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Me Miyvars Saqartvelo

If griping were a sport, expats would be the undisputed victors. We complain about reckless driving, airlessly smoky bars, dental hygiene, demobilized civil society, airfare, bad attempts at ethnic cuisine, customer service, lechy men, the language barrier, people not covering their mouths when they sneeze on the bus, local work ethic, and each other. But whenever I hang out with expats working in Armenia or Azerbaijan, I remember to count my blessings when it comes to living in Georgia:

  • Abundance of NGOs. Georgia is very NGO-friendly, which means there is a comparatively large market for “international” workers in a vast array of capacities. Although Saakashvili is generally credited with Georgia’s West-facing, pro-democracy stance, Georgia has welcomed foreign specialists and volunteers (and money) since the Shevardnadze days. While Armenia is open to NGOs, many of them are small-scale, supported by the diaspora and staffed by locals. Azerbaijan is not terribly enthusiastic about NGOs (my organization, ICOMOS, does not yet have a permanent branch office there), which makes finding jobs in social work, education, and economic development difficult.
  • Food. When you consider how often you need to eat, it kind of makes sense to live somewhere with good, affordable food. Being an expat can be frustrating, but the simple joys of good food make life a lot easier. There’s not a whole lot of variety to Georgian cuisine, but I’m still not sick of well-made khachapuri yet, and am definitely not sick of the fact that I can go out to a big dinner with friends, eat several different dishes (eggplant, salad, khachapuri, kebab, soup, mushrooms), get drinks, and end up with a tab roughly equivalent to $7.
  • Affordability/favorable exchange rate. As of today, one dollar equals 1.6 Georgian lari, 409 Armenian dram, and .78 Azerbaijani manat. The cost of living here is crazy low by capital-city standards–I pay less than $650 a month on [essential] living expenses, which covers my own downtown apartment/utilities, transport, and an overall healthy diet. Meanwhile, Baku has climbed to number 20 on Businessweek’s Most Expensive Cities list, up from number 109 only a year earlier, which means most local volunteers can’t afford to spend much time there. The only problem with this arrangement is that if you get paid a Georgian salary, you will be able to live quite comfortably here–but good luck affording anything else (making a dent on student loans, travel outside the region).
  • Visa regime. Or rather, lack thereof. Foreign citizens (or even just permanent residents) of many countries can live in Georgia without a visa or residence permit for up to 360 days. So while you need to scramble for a letter of invitation and cough up $160 just for a weekend trip to Azerbaijan (and then sweat it out at the Armenian border when the guard sees your Azerbaijan visa page and may or may not decide to admit you), you can march right into Georgia any time you want. And they might even present you with a free mini bottle of wine at the airport.
  • Domestic tourism. There are a lot of things to see and do in Georgia, one of the world’s most climatically diverse countries: forests, beach resorts, monuments covering hundreds of years of history and representing different ethnic groups, vineyards, desert cave complexes, and mountains with good hiking, climbing, and skiing. Almost everything is cheaply and easily accessible by marshutka from Tbilisi.
  • Politics. In Georgia, politics aren’t really something to worry about. While relations with Russia are still tense, Georgia is known as a mediator in the region and has fairly warm relations with Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and even Iran. Saakashvili’s pro-Western stance means that American and European visitors have been embraced for the last decade. And the recent victory of Georgian Dream proved that a peaceful, more or less democratic change of power is possible. It’s also hard to take politics too seriously when the prime minister is an eccentric, zoo-keeping oligarch with a James Bond mansion who captured the youth vote using his albino rapper son.
  • Social and cultural life. Georgia, and Tbilisi in particular, remains the “cultural capital” of the Caucasus. There is a constant stream of art, music, and film festivals in Tbilisi, complemented by artsy cafes and galleries on almost every street downtown. While the nightlife here isn’t terribly exciting, the sheer amount of things going on between expat and local events dwarfs anything in Armenia or Azerbaijan.
  • Gender norms. While I do often complain about Georgia’s Mad Men-esque gender norms, things are much better here than in the other two Caucasus countries. This is more noticeable in Azerbaijan, where it is not socially acceptable in most places for women to buy alcohol, be seen with unrelated men, or be out after dark without male escorts. While foreign women in Georgia are likely to get comparatively harmless leers, foreign women in Azerbaijan often face much more aggressive harassment on a regular basis.
  • Diversity. Race is an uncomfortable topic throughout the Caucasus. Many Georgians, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis (particularly in rural areas) have never seen or spoken with people of certain ethnicities in real life. Perceptions of other ethnic groups are generally drawn from half-digested global pop culture, from gangsta rap to Gangnam Style (yes, teenagers here do often use the word “nigger” without the faintest idea of its context or connotations). But while Georgians are more than capable of unbelievably racist and xenophobic gems like this one, they are more likely to be awkwardly curious than mean-spirited. This is not so in Azerbaijan, where even in Baku minority visitors are can face harassment.
  • Expat community. For all the reasons listed above, Georgia has become an expat magnet. While Armenia and Azerbaijan are dominated by diplomats, businessmen, and Peace Corps volunteers, Georgia has a wider range of expats working as English teachers, journalists, students, researchers, and at the many different NGOs. There are plenty of expat groups and activities (banya, Georgian choir lessons, language lessons, day or weekend trips), and I have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world and hearing the stories of how they ended up here.

So there you have it. As much as I like to make cracks about various aspects of life in Georgia, there’s no denying that life here is much better than the stereotypical “post-Soviet chaos” most people enjoy exoticizing it as.

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Weekend in Bakuriani

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This weekend, I joined some Fulbright ETA friends in beautiful Bakuriani, a ski resort near Borjomi. It’s about a three hour ride by marshutka from Tbilisi (two hours if your driver was as crazy as ours was)–marshutkas leave regularly from Didube station; the last marshutka back to Tbilisi from Bakuriani leaves at approximately 5 pm from the bus depot downtown.

IMG-20130112-00360Bakuriani has apparently been a popular place to ski since the 1930s, when the PTES (Proletarian Tourist Excursions Society) opened a “Ski School of Physical Culture” in 1935, primarily hosting university students. It was considered the premier ski resort in the region, with the first towline to be built in the Soviet Union. Its longer history as a resort means that Bakuriani has had more time to develop a greater variety of winter activities (sleigh rides, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ice skating, tubing, four-wheeling, and horseback riding) than the more prestigious Gudauri, which was not popularized until the 1980s, and even then only developed over the last few years.

We stayed at Hotel Apolloni, which was a bit expensive (70 lari a night) but well worth it for 3 meals a day (plus anytime snacks and drinks if you happen to come back and find you’ve missed a meal), very nice double bedrooms, proximity to the slopes, and helpful English-speaking staff. One of the owners helped me to arrange an afternoon of horseback riding (25 lari/hour) through beautiful mountain passes to the neighboring village of Andeziti.

Bakuriani 1986 flashback! I highly recommend finding an 80s ski suit at bazroba (25 lari)

Bakuriani 1986 flashback! I highly recommend finding an 80s ski suit at bazroba (25 lari)

The next day we went to Didveli, an intermediate slope with a gondola paid for by our man Bidzina. Unfortunately it was too windy to run the gondola, so we ended up going to “25 Meter Field,” a much easier (but crowded) slope with several towlines.

Two side notes: if you snowboard, most Georgians seem to learn “goofy” (leading with the right foot), while Americans and Europeans usually board leading with the left foot. You may have to ask the rental people to reconfigure a board for you if you learned to lead on the left. Also, there really aren’t any “lines” to use the towlines at 25 Meter Field. Children in particular will flounder right on top of your skis to cut you in line, or will literally dry-hump you all the way to the gate. You can either resign yourself to this, or start using your ski poles as weapons.

Bakuriani_winter_resort,_Georgia

 

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Gilocavt Shobas

Happy Georgian Christmas!

I have to say, I prefer the Georgian way of celebrating the holidays to how we do it at home. Here, New Year’s is the day associated with the tree, the presents, the parties–or, as one of my favorite Christmas movies refers to it, “that yearly bacchanalia of peace on earth and good will to man.” Then January 7 is Orthodox Christmas (in Georgian “shoba,” or “birth”), the strictly religious holiday associated with carols and churchgoing.

Dodged that bullet, Georgians. Well played.

Dodged that bullet, Georgians. Well played.

In this way the Orthodox world has managed to cleverly sidestep the whole “putting the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas” issue plaguing Western countries today after centuries of trying to make religion fun and commercially viable. I find the Georgian approach to be more realistic and thus more inclusive. And possibly even more commercially viable, given the amount of time everyone is expected to take off work in order to celebrate.

Orthodox Christmas is celebrated with midnight mass and caroling–groups of children and teenagers going house to house, singing carols (or, more likely, simply making a racket) in return for candy and/or money. So, a bit like Halloween.

 

all hail turtle king

all hail turtle king

In Tbilisi, this is followed by a haphazardly organized public parade known as Alilo. Groups of children in choir uniforms form a parade along with speaker-mounted trucks blasting carols, various livestock, a giant cauldron of incense, trucks decorated like elephants (which were of course present at the birth of Christ), and other plaster sculptures of animals supported by pallbearers. These included giraffes and a giant golden turtle wearing a crown, the relevance of which no one was able to explain to me. The general public is allowed to follow the procession down Rustaveli to the offices of the Orthodox patriarch, who distributes toys. Don’t tell me that this weird blurring of church and secular tradition doesn’t lead to hundreds of little Georgians out there who think Ilia II is Santa Claus.

P1050468Speaking of which, Georgia has its own Santa Claus–“tovlis babua” (Grandfather Snow), possibly adapted from the Russian Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). These characters were both seen as acceptable alternatives to the capitalist/religious Santa Claus under Soviet rule. Interestingly, some holiday events in Georgia feature both Tovlis Babua and Santa Claus. You’d think this would be confusing, but Georgian parents don’t seem to make much of an effort with the whole Santa thing anyway so I’m not sure that kids over four here are really expected to “believe.”

Another fun tradition in Georgia is that of the chichilaki. These small wooden trees (made of long curly shavings from hazelnut or walnut) are for sale almost everywhere beginning in late December. Although a Western Georgian tradition, they have become universally popular in Georgia, in part because deforestation concerns have led to a ban on traditional Christmas trees. Chichilaki are decorated with candy, and are said to absorb all the bad memories accumulated in the home over the last year. On Christmas Eve, they are burnt as a way of symbolically reducing bad memories to ashes.

chichilaki

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