Georgia Part One

It’s kind of funny that the name of a country in one language can bear no resemblance to the name used by those who live in that country. So it is with the Georgia, or as Georgians refer to their homeland, Sakartvelo, which in the beautiful and unusual Georgian alphabet is written საქართველო.

We arrived in the Republic of Georgia on November 5th and ended up staying until the day after Thanksgiving, November 29, so getting close to a full month.

Georgia was high on my list of places to visit, but we also thought it would be a good place to slow our pace a little, take it easy, and catch up on home school. To some degree we accomplished all of those goals.

Georgia is also a place a friend of mine named Kolya from Russia visits frequently.

Kolya met us in Tbilisi after we had been there about a week and we spent the rest of our time in Georgia with him.

Kolya with my crew (Ashley taking the photo)

The Republic of Georgia is a relatively small country, about the size of Ireland, situated on the Eastern side of the Black Sea. At a true cultural crossroads, Georgia shares borders with Turkey, Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

The brown regions show the areas of Georgia currently occupied by Russia (similar to the Russian occupation of Ukraine). Georgia has a complicated relationship with Russia.

The national language is Georgian, a language unrelated to any other major language group and only spoken by 4 million people in the world. The Georgian alphabet is also quite unique and beautiful and also not related to any other.

Georgian alphabet, although the letters can morph quite a bit in various fonts and in handwriting.

A former Soviet republic, Georgia suffered from severe poverty and corruption in the 90’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It pulled itself up by the bootstraps so to speak though, and has since become a fairly popular tourist destination. A large part of the Georgian economy is based on tourism and Georgia hopes to add to that every year. Unfortunately, strained relations with Russia have decreased the number of Russian tourists, which previously made up a large percentage of overall tourists to Georgia.

Mountainous and sparsely forested (at least the parts we have seen) Georgia reminds Ashley and me a lot of Utah. It offers some of the best and the cheapest skiing near Europe.

Confluence of two rivers as viewed from the Jvari monastery.
Mountains near Gadauri

Georgian cuisine is popular as much among neighboring countries as among Georgians. Our Russian friend said when Russians go out to eat, they go get Georgian food. We’ve liked the food in general, but like much of the food in the region, it is meat, cheese, and bread heavy. Well known Georgian dishes include kharcho (seasoned beef soup), khinkali (large meat dumplings), khatchapuri (various preparations of bread and cheese and sometimes meat), churchkhela (nuts on a string covered in dried fruit puree), and lobiani (bread filled with refried beans).

Making bean-filled lobiani
The rich soup kharcho
Colorful churchkhela for sale. It’s always sold hanging in pairs like socks on a laundry line. They call it “Georgian Snickers”.
Honey is also a pretty deal on Georgia. The dark stuff is chestnut honey, the white stuff is honey that has been aged 5 years.
Nolan tipping back a cold one. This is tarragon flavored soda

Aside from food, Georgia is also famous for wine. The earliest historical evidence of wine making was found in Georgia and dates back at least 8000 years. Over 530 varieties of grapes are grown in Georgia.

Most people here with enough of a garden to grow grapes brew their own wine. They also all seem capable of cooking up their own hooch called Chacha which they distill from the crushed grapes left over after making wine. I thought that kind of home distilled strong alcohol could make you blind, but I met a few old gents who drink quite a bit of it and they seemed to see alright. Homebrewed wine and chacha are for sale all over the streets and shops.

A fifty gallon drum of chacha in the making. I took a whiff of some homebrewed chacha and it smelled strongly of alcohol and nail polish remover.

Georgia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity and religious sentiment among Georgians remains very strong. It’s common to see people stop and cross themselves when they pass a church.

The purported tomb of St Matthew near the Black Sea and within the ruins of a Roman fort. He and Andrew are said to have preached th8e Gospel of Jesus Christ in Georgia
Georgians visiting the Church of the Holy Trinity in Tbilisi
Youth choir rehearsal. Sounded incredible in person.

Saint Nino (female) is credited with converting the king and queen, and this the entire country, to Christianity in the 4th century.

Saint Nino and her distinctive cross.

According to tradition, the Virgin Mary gave Nino a cross made from grape vines which Nino secured using her own hair. Since grape vines aren’t very rigid, the arms of the cross sagged and thus the Georgian cross has droopy arms.

In our three months travels, we have seen so many churches, cathedrals, and mosques that is hard to get as excited about them anymore. But since many of the attractions both in and around Tbilisi are monasteries, we’ve ended up seeing our share here as well. The architectural style is almost identical from one to the next–so the buildings differ mainly in size, age, and inside decor. Many of the old monasteries are bare stone on the inside and it makes the feat of building the tall central dome out of cut stone seem more impressive when those stones are not plastered over.

Jvari monastery. This one is particularly old and important.
Gergeti Trinity Church in Kazbegi
Not a great photo, but it shows stone arch with arched ceiling.
Church of the Holy Trinity in Batumi
Monastery in Mtskheta that purportedly contains a bone from the foot of St Andrew.
Mtskheta monastery

I wish I had more photos, but many of the monasteries don’t allow photography inside.

Because of its small size and its location between major historic world powers, and on important trade routes, Georgia has experienced many invasions through the centuries and has had to form alliances with larger powers.

A large statue in Tbilisi, Mother of Georgia, depicts a woman holding a sword in one hand to fend off enemies and a bowl of wine in the other hand to welcome her friends.

Mother Georgia from the side with the wine bowl

It’s relationship with Russia now, the Soviet Union previously, and imperial Russia before that has been particularly complicated.

Georgia’s current governing party leans toward Putin and his cohort, while the previous party were outspoken critics of Putin, which drew economic sanctions from Russia that are still in effect. In a similar fashion to the occupation of Crimea in Ukraine, Russia currently occupies two significant regions of Georgia. Georgia is the birthplace of prominent Soviet leader and revolutionary Joseph Stalin. Prior to communism, Georgia was considered a protectorate of imperial Russia.

The birthplace of Joseph Stalin, who changed his name from Ioseb Jughashvili, in the town of Gori
Joseph Stalin still draws admiration from many in Georgia despite his harsh tactics. He was responsible for at least 20 million deaths, upwards of 40 million depending how you assign blame for Soviet casualties in the second world war, as well as a constant paranoia of being sent to the gulags for little or no reason.
Toilet paper did not appear in the Soviet Union until the 1960’s. Prior to that, newspaper was used. It is said that if you were not attentive to what was printed on the paper and used an image of Comrade Stalin for your business, you could end up in a prison camp.
Friendship monument built by the Soviets to commentate the cooperation of Georgia as a republic in the USSR. Under communist rule, Georgia was the only republic allowed to conduct official business in its own language.

The current political climate in Georgia is strained. Many people are fed up with the current ruling party, Georgian Dream, and what they see as its lack of any concern for Georgia or it’s people. Tbilisi had several demonstrations while we were there. Kolya and I walked around then a little and got a feel for the general climate. They were generally peaceful but I know later some of the protesters were dispersed with water cannons.

Protests in Tbilisi
Protests in Tbilisi. Georgian is a good language to sound angry in.
Protestors and yellow smoke on Rustavelli Avenue in Tbilisi

For such a small country, Georgia has a fairly varied climate. From sub tropical in the west along the Black Sea to more continental in the mountains in the north. You can pick mandarins and persimmons and take a dip in the Black Sea in late November in Batumi (I did both), and go skiing in the mountains in central Georgia (this year though they’ll probably have to wait at least until mid December for more snow).

A view of the Black Sea in Batumi just two days before Thanksgiving.
Mandarins in Batumi. You could buy these sweet little oranges for 15 cents a pound.
Making a snowman in the mountains
Reminds me of Utah mountains
Confluence of the White and Black rivers

The cost of travel to Georgia makes it appealing as well. Georgian currency is the Georgian Lari or GEL. Current exchange rate is about 3GEL/USD. A ride in the metro costs 0.5 GEL or about 15 cents. Most taxis we took around town were $2-3. A filling meal including a local Georgian soda (Georgian soda is delicious) in a typical cafe can be had for $3-4. A visit to the public bath house is $1.75. the nicest place we’ve stayed in by far on our trip was a spacious loft with a view in Old Town Tbilisi that we paid $40/night for, although I bet in the summer it will cost at least twice that.

So, if I haven’t convinced you to come visit Georgia, maybe I will with my next post on Georgia. I think we all had a great time there, and I was happy to visit and leave some money with the local economy.