Georgia’s New Horizon

Posted February 7, 2013 by Erin Ridley in Under the Radar


The former Soviet country’s hospitable people wait with open arms to share their land– from the soaring green mountaintops to the pebbled beaches of the Black Sea. 

By Erin Ridley | Originally published in WildJunket Magazine 

“A

re you American?”

The teenage boy asks me as I scale the front steps of Georgia’s largest Orthodox church, in Tbilisi. Fatigued from the sticky summer air, I muster up a smile and a confused yes. In return, his eyes beam, registering the urge for a fist-pump of sorts.

It isn’t the first time someone in the post-Soviet nation has asked me this simple question. On countless occasions, Georgian strangers have curiously inquired: “Where are you from? Do you like it here? Tell us your favorite thing!”

And it makes sense. Warm and hospitable, the Georgians have waited for centuries to share their country, which is now gradually making a name for itself in guidebooks around the globe. From the alpine Caucasus Mountains of the north, to the semi- desert south, Georgia is rich with history and its citizens even richer with national pride.

Peace Reigns

I learn the true meaning of hospitality as a Georgian friend of a friend graciously escorts me around Tbilisi, the nation’s nearly 1,500-year-old capital. Distressed art nouveau-style homes in pastel hues line the often- crumbling streets. Towering banyan trees shade every avenue. Vendors selling watermelons from cars, kiosks and carts crop up at every turn.

“In this neighborhood, we have a synagogue, a mosque and an Armenian church, all within a kilometer,” my new Georgian friend, Gocha Sakhltkhutsishvili, proudly explains. Passing through one of the city’s oldest districts, the 35-year- old father talks about his country, with sparks in his child-like eyes– a reflection of the nation’s eagerness to open its once closed doors to the world. “We are peaceful people and we want everyone to know they are welcome here.”

After spending almost the entire 20th century under Soviet rule, the Republic’s nationals indeed long for peace above anything else. Before that, and since the beginning of time really, Stalin’s birthplace existed as a virtual ping-pong ball, flung back and forth between its neighbors, all looking to benefit from the country’s opportune placement between the East and West.

After spending almost the entire 20th century under Soviet rule, the Republic’s nationals indeed long for peace above anything else.

God’s Land

More than just prime Silk Road real estate, Georgia’s swoon-worthy landscapes tempt outsiders too. A local legend says that God arranged a meeting in which he divided up all the territories on earth, saving one special spot just for himself. The Georgians
of course arrived late, excusing their tardiness by telling God they had been toasting to him with their treasured wine. Impressed, God gave his own reserved piece of land – the best piece of land – to the Georgians.

I’m not surprised by this lofty tale, either, as I begin my cross-country tour, first venturing north toward the Russian border. Thumping over an unpaved highway, our car zips past gushing springs and herds of grazing sheep, all against the backdrop of craggy moss-blanketed mountains soaring into the sky. Then, esconsed beneath one of the country’s highest peaks, Mount Kazbegi, the Gergeti Trinity Church rises out of the hovering clouds like a stepping stone to the sky.

Heading south, I take an equally border-challenged journey to another majestic mountaintop. Passing through the rocky outcroppings of the David Gareja Monastery, I arrive at the summit, which literally straddles the dividing line between Georgia and Azerbaijan. To the north, striations of jagged rock puncture arid terrain. To the south, rolling dry hills extend for miles into the Middle East. Having traversed the nation’s landscape from top to bottom, I start to think that the story about God’s land might just be true.

Westward Bound

Trading hiking trails for urban streets, I travel west by taxi to Georgia’s second largest city, Kutaisi. Strapped in by a phantom seatbelt, I say a silent prayer as the car races up curvy mountain roads, dodging livestock and oncoming traffic.

Arriving in Kutaisi, I reunite with my dear Georgian friend, Sophia Nikoleishvili, who generously invited me to stay at her family home. At 35, she has lived outside of the country for 15 years. With each return home to visit, she discovers aspects of the nation she never really knew: sidewalks paved, crime down, tourism on the rise. It’s not the Georgia of her childhood – one that required her to speak Russian and cut her off from the outside world.

Despite Soviet stifling, Georgia’s rich history holds proud.

Despite Soviet stifling, Georgia’s rich history holds proud. Sophia takes me to one of the predominantly Orthodox country’s most-prized sights: the Gelati Monastery. Inside, floor-to-ceiling murals on the nearly 1,000-year-old walls radiate such vibrant color they are blinding. As the location of Sophia’s wedding and the resting place for the legendary leader David the Builder – who, among other things, reunited Georgia’s lands – these grounds couldn’t be more sacred.

But more than monuments remain. Georgian lettering – arguably one of the most artistic of scripts – swirls, swoops and dances on storefront windows, magazine covers and even on the walls of centuries-old monasteries. And then the food, so irresistible that they even captured Russian occupiers’ stomachs, From khachapuri, a pizza-like pastry, to dim-sum-style khinkali, it’s no wonder that such delights continue to stand the test of time.

A New Age Begins

I leave Kutaisi and Sophia behind as my journey continues west. My destination is Batumi; a beach town near the Turkish border. Unlike my previous stops, the entire city center glows with signs of a recent makeover implemented by the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Intent on creating an enclave for Eastern European vacationers, he funnels money into the seaside town like a good Georgian does wine into their belly at dinner.

While mass renovations may be few, Georgia’s future has never seemed more promising. Obstacles may still abound, such as the Russian occupation of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, but for the first time, citizens feel as though they are entering an age of stability and prosperity. This optimism fuels a passion to finally share their precious country and culture with the rest of the world.

I see this dream come to life while walking Batumi’s new boardwalk, zigzagging between construction zones and newly erected beach clubs buzzing with tourists.

Paint still seems to be drying on the walls of the Radisson Blu skyscraper – opened in summer 2011 – and yet every room has been booked. Passing Soviet-era apartments, I even notice colorful decorative panels livening up the monotonous traces of a century that Georgians try to forget.

Watching the sun set on the Black Sea’s white-pebbled beach, I finally have the answers to those burning, ubiquitous questions: Do I like it here? Georgia’s captivated me so much that I can’t bear to leave.

And my favorite thing? The Georgian’s infectious love for their country that has unknowingly rubbed off on me.

 

 

This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine June/July 2012


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