Toasts in Tbilisi: Adventures in Caucasia

by Christopher G. Shepard
Republic of Georgia “Jame! Jame! Jame!” Georgians cry as plate upon plate of scrumptious food, stacked nearly on top of one another, vied for space on a table already crowded with wine, vodka, Borjomi water, and lemonade bottles. “Eat! Eat! Eat!” they said.

Georgian’s have a reputation for being among the world’s greatest hosts. Indeed, I was told they treat visitors “like gifts from God,” and I found out just how true that is during my two-week visit to the Republic of Georgia in May of last year.

The trip was motivated by my usual wanderlust and a strong sense of family duty (my Georgian relatives had invited me to come). I felt compelled to live up to the ties of my family, but when I left, I barely imagined I’d fall in love with the country and make friends for life.

The flight to the ancient city of Tbilisi took an exhausting twenty-four hours, but I made good use of the time reading the twelfth century, poet and philosopher Shota Rustaveli, who wrote the Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, the moral of which reflects all that Georgians hold dear: a person’s worth is based on friends and family, not money. This poem is widely regarded as a precursor to the European Renaissance.

With the hills of Chechnya in the background, Alaverdi is the tallest of all Georgian cathedrals.Waiting in line for customs clearance in Tbilisi International Airport, I thumbed through Rustaveli’s well-worn epic, relating especially to line 899: “So I resolved to wander, for life in the cave grew irksome.”

The customs officials didn’t speak a word of English. I paid $80 for the entrance visa, walked through the gate, and spied my bag alone in the middle of the floor–all the while, I was ignored by a group of uniformed police carrying machine guns. No one stopped me or asked questions. It was the easiest entrance into a foreign country that I’d ever experienced.

My cousin, Kita, fetched me from the drab Tbilisi airport and we drove to the hotel. I checked into the Sheraton Metechi Palace at 3 A.M.–the man at the front desk spoke English and wished me a pleasant stay.

The lobby of the Sheraton was a cavernous display of Western architecture, with contrasting red marble tile and three glass elevators rising up from behind the fountain in the lobby. Each floor afforded a magnificent view of the triangular-shaped modern atrium. I felt like I could have been in Atlanta or Houston–but in Tbilisi, it all seemed somewhat out of place. I followed the bellhop to my room, made a cocktail from the mini-bar, and collapsed in the comfortable queen-sized bed. From my room on the eighth floor, I had a sweeping vista of Lotkini Mountain and a closer view of Svanetisubani, a sprawling hilly area of Tbilisi that featured honeycombed houses with red terra cotta tile roofs.

Calmer moments as the Georgian Military Highway wanders through the Caucasus Mountains.The first day was much warmer and sunnier than I had expected. Beautiful skies promised crisp fresh air; however, driving with the windows rolled up on congested Rustaveli Avenue to the appropriately named Tbilisi Restaurant, I discovered that Georgia is the land that the catalytic converter forgot. Almost every vehicle belched out huge clouds of black smoke. But combined with the ubiquitous cigarette smoke in all vehicles, the exhaust fumes were a welcome relief.

There are few working lights on the roulette wheel that is the Tbilisi system of roads. Every intersection was an adventure, with the highlight of the trip being an evasive maneuver into oncoming traffic.

The first night I begged jet lag to my host, but Kita convinced me to go out with him. We went to a few stylish pubs and ended up in Georgia’s version of the Hard Rock Café–called The Beatles–which is located in the heart of Rustaveli Avenue. At the door I was asked two questions: “Do you have a gun?” and “Can I frisk you?”

Inside, there was a DJ spinning the latest grooves from Moscow, and young women dancing under the strobe light, while packs of young men surrounded them dancing together or by themselves. This bar was known for its low lights, anonymous romance, and expensive (by Georgian standards) drinks. After a few plates of potatoes, a bottle of wine, and a few vodkas, I asked for the bill and was told that Georgians are obliged to pay when they are with visitors to their country. I found that, much to my dismay, during my two-week visit I was unable to pay for a thing!Tourists are warned not to go out at night in Tbilisi. However, I discovered that with a taxi arranged through the hotel for the evening, or with a Georgian friend, I was safe. Never once did I think I was in danger.

Despite their Formula-1-like driving, seventy years of harsh communist rule, and the copious daily consumption of wine and cigarettes, Georgians are among the healthiest people in the world. According to census figures, Georgia boasts more than 100 people over the age of 100–more per capita than any other country in the world.

Georgians told me the secret to their longevity was simple: they eat food without preservatives; drink plenty of wine; walk the hilly terrain; enjoy Borjomi mineral water; and have a deep love for their family, friends, and God.

The weather is moderate in spring and summer with the rainiest month being May. In Georgia, the climate runs the gamut from subtropical in the east by the Black Sea, to a drier temperate climate in Tbilisi, to year-round snow in the Caucasus. Daytime temperatures in Tbilisi range from 40° to 90°F; the warmest months are May through September, and during the summertime in Georgia, it stays light until 10:30 P.M.

Bell tower of the cathedral at Ninostminda.Within Tbilisi, there are many museums to visit, albeit most without electricity and with guides who speak only Georgian, Russian, and German. There are also many historical sights to visit, including ancient fortresses and spectacular churches.

Georgians are one of the ancient people of the world. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was chained to a rock in the Caucasus. Jason steered his ship the Argo to Colchis (now known as the region of Mingrelia, on the Black Sea coast) in his quest for the Golden Fleece. There, he married Medea who helped him steal it.

Historically, Georgia was an integral part of the Silk Road. This trade route linked Asia and Europe from 100 B.C. until the seventeenth century. Like today, silk was a highly desired commodity and the Silk Road provided an overland passage for this valuable Asian product. Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Marco Polo, and Genghis Kahn all used the Silk Road during their bloody conquests.

Prince Murat, dressed in a traditional Georgian military uniform, singing a Mingrelian love song.Today, Westward-looking Georgia is in the news because the United States has sent in 100 military advisors to Tbilisi to train Georgian troops to fight terrorism. The U.S. has also given $1.5 billion in the past few years to improve the infrastructure, specifically the roads in the country. In Tbilisi, now free from marauding invaders but rich in history, it is best to strike out on your own and walk the hills of Old Tbilisi. Explore the narrow cobblestone lanes; numerous open parks; and the unique combination of Georgian, Arabic, and Soviet architecture.

Once a major commerce center on the Silk Road, Tbilisi is well situated as the locus of day trips by car to famous places in and around Georgia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Iran are all within a day’s drive, if your kidneys can handle the vibrations from the many potholes.

Forty miles north of Tbilisi is the eleventh century church of Mtskheta–in the ancient capitol of Georgia–the site of a presumed miracle. Beggars greeted me at the gate and even the poorest gave to those who had even less. Mtskheta was littered with people praying and crying, whispering and lighting the ubiquitous thin mustard-colored candles that were bought at the church’s entrance. “Georgians call this church ‘Jerusalem the Second’,” Kita said as he led me past a wedding in progress. “And now, I show you the miracle.”

Kita explained in a low voice that according to legend, after Christ’s crucifixion, his robe fell into the hands of a merchant from Mtskheta who gave it to a rabbi who, in turn, brought it back to the ancient city. At the city gate, the rabbi’s sister Sidonia took Jesus’ robe in her hands and died on the spot. She was subsequently buried at Mtskheta with the robe.

With this in mind, Kita took me to the rear of the church and pointed to a group of people. I looked closer at an icon of the Madonna hanging over the crowd and saw two tears streaming from her eyes. Next to the small crowd of believers was a statue of Jesus with holy oil dripping from his foot.

As we departed, I thought about the “miracle.” One month earlier, there was a terrible earthquake in Tbilisi that registered 6 on the Richter scale. It caused a lot of damage to Tbilisi and killed three people. It was after the earthquake, Kita said, that the icon started crying.

One day we rented a car and driver for a trip to the beautiful savannah of Karheti, Georgia’s wine region. The Georgian proverb about the region’s fertility is that, if you plant a pencil in the soil, it will grow into a tree. The weather was incredible, and each sight more spectacular than the last.

The final stop of the day was Alleverdi–a sixth century church within spitting distance of Chechnya. After touring the amazing church we gave an old beggar woman from Azerbaijan and a priest, who was at least 90 but looked 65, a lift into town. We ask them about the Chechnyan war and the Russians.

The priest told us that the Chechnyans are good people when left alone. “But,” he said with a smile, “you wouldn’t want to fight them. As long as you are not Russian they’ll always take care of you.”

We dropped them off and continued back toward Tbilisi. At 9 P.M., the sun was still a few inches above the horizon, and we cruised the 180 kilometers back to the capitol marveling at the glorious countryside.

The highlight of the trip for me was a weekend excursion to Kazbegi to visit a mansion that once belonged to my family. During Soviet occupation the “family home” was converted to an ethnographic museum, which, in post-Soviet Georgia, is called the Alexander Kazbegi Museum.

Typical roadside stand features fresh fruit and vegetables.The Tergi River was swollen from the spring melt and all along the road we saw horses and mules drawing heavily laden carts with people steering from high above. Alongside the famous route through the Caucasus–the Georgian Military Highway–peasants sold sheepskin hats, multicolored woven skullcaps, fresh fruit, and the ubiquitous churckhela, a candy made from boiled grape skins and walnuts. Medieval stone watchtowers from the days of the Silk Road were still prominent on both sides of the valley.

Upon the breathtaking backdrop of the rugged Caucasus, Russian military vehicles and Czech buses spewed their putrid black smoke into the crystal mountain air, and four-wheel-drive Lada’s burned across the military highway at the bidding of their reckless drivers.

On this excursion, the Austrian ski resort Gudauri Sporthotel, about 40 miles from Kazbegi, would be our command post. Nestled in the Caucasus at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Gudauri is situated just before the Jvari pass, 7,200 feet in the Mtiuletis Kedi range known as Georgia’s Khevi region. Coming through the Jvari pass, I was treated to a brief glimpse of the 15,000-foot Mt. Kazbek, but by the time we had arrived the clouds had covered her up once again.

Table moans under the weight of food.We spent a few hours working out the kinks from the bumpy ride and ate a traditional multicourse Georgian lunch before embarking for Kazbegi and the family home. This was a smart idea since we found out only upon our arrival that the Russian-owned Intourist Hotel in Kazbegi had been closed for about a year.

The majestic Caucasus’ towering peaks, bleached white with snow, made the Kazbek mansion look like a doll’s house. Mt. Kazbek watched over Kazbegi like a silent protector from the ancient invaders of the north.

In front of Mt. Kazbek was a smaller mountain, Kvena-mta, on which is perched the famous Tsminda-Sameba monastery. In 1827, the Russian poet and author Alexander Pushkin was so moved by the beauty of this sight that he wrote a poem, “Monastery on the Kazbek,” in which he said “Torn white clouds are covering the mountain peaks, but the monastery bathed in sunshine seemed to float in the air, carried by clouds.”

I was told that it was a two-hour hike to the Tsminda-Sameba monastery, but it was rather late in the day and considering the lack of public restrooms–a common occurrence–we decided to forego the climb. We toured the Alexander Kazbegi Museum and small economically depressed village instead.

The mansion/museum was surrounded by an ornate concrete and stone wall that encompassed a bell tower, family chapel, graveyard stables, and a guesthouse. Upon arriving, we were shocked to see the run-down condition and apparent neglect of the graveyard; it seemed that it doubled as the town’s landfill. Standing in the courtyard, I let emotion wash over me and imagined what life must have been like in this place 90 years ago, before my grandmother and her mother Chakuria escaped Georgia and the Bolsheviks under the cloak of darkness in an ox-drawn cart with only the possessions they could carry.

A dirty young man approached us and offered to guide us through the mansion. I felt like I had stepped into the pictures that hung above my grandmother’s sofa when I was a child. The sprawling two-story building, a little older and worse for wear, awaited us. Gone was the ornate wooden verandah and covered outdoor staircase that characterized the face of the building in my grandmother’s day. But the stone exterior seemed as strong as the day it was built.

The house became a museum during the Soviet occupation of Georgia, and it was occasionally used as a garrison for ranking Soviet military officials. However, as early as the turn of the twentieth century, my grandmother’s great-grandfather, Nicholas Kazbek owned the mansion and the surrounding land. The Bolsheviks named the museum for his brother, the famous Georgian poet and writer Alexander Kazbek.

The church, there, was built by my ancestor Gabriel Kazbek, who played an important role in the relationship between Russia and Georgia. Historically, the various kingdoms that comprised modern-day Georgia had political ties with the southern neighbor Persia to ensure their protection. In 1775, however, Tsar Irakly II united two of the larger regional kingdoms to form Georgia proper, and subsequently broke the alliance with Persia, favoring the protection of neighboring Russia and that country’s willingness to help unite even more territory under Irakly’s rule. Gabriel Kazbek’s land started at the mouth of the Dariel Gorge and continued south through the Caucasus as far as the eye could see. The fact that he controlled the gorge was not lost on Tsar Irakly or the Russian allies to the north. Gabriel, an intelligent man who spoke many languages including English, was invited to a conference with the tsar and representatives from St. Petersburg to discuss Russian passage through the Dariel Gorge. Gabriel saw the futility of his situation: he was up against the pressure of the “great bear”–if he didn’t allow the Russians access to Georgia through his land, he would be forced to do so by the tsar and his new allies. The threat to his territory had transferred from that of the Persians to the Russians. Against the protestations of the tsar’s own son, Gabriel granted Russia permission to travel through the narrow and deadly Dariel Gorge. For his consideration, Gabriel was given the name Kazbegi and the rank of general by the Russian emperor Alexander I.

Later, the alliance between Georgia and Russia, which had been initiated in the name of expanding Georgia’s footprint, proved to be the country’s undoing. In 1801, under the rule of Irakly’s grandson David, Georgia’s treaty was formally broken by the Russians, who then took possession of the country.

Among some documents unearthed at Kazbek, were correspondence between Tsar Irakly and Gabriel Kazbek. In one letter, the tsar asks Gabriel to supervise the transportation of a present to him by Irakly–a very rare and delicate fruit called the potato!

The result of this long and fascinating history can be seen in what’s left of the Kazbegi Museum: the mansion, cemetery, and Gabriel’s own chapel. Standing there, I was so moved and excited by the breathtaking mountains and thoughts of my ancestral past, as soon as I saw the aged, cracked bell, I clambered up the bell tower and, much to the chagrin of my guide and the good citizens of Kazbegi, I rang the bell. Its jubilant peel sang out across the valley as if to holler, “A Kazbek had returned home!”

But as the echo died in my ears, I noticed Kita walking toward me. He was furious. “You must not have done that.” he admonished. “Only the priest is allowed to ring the bell!”

Within minutes, the townspeople began walking to the church for service, waiting for the priest who was not there.

My last day in Tbilisi arrived and I was treated to a fabulous tour through the Kazbek beer, lemonade, and iced tea factory in the depressed town of Rustavi, about 80 miles east of Tbilisi. Rustavi was a booming steel industrial city during Soviet occupation. When Georgia declared independence in the 1990s, the Russians ceased operating Georgian factories. This caused widespread unemployment and forced many towns into bankruptcy: 15,000 workers in Rustavi alone lost their jobs almost overnight.

Beer is a drink traditional to the highlanders of Georgia, as wine is to the plainsmen. The Kazbek factory is considered a post-Russian success story. In 1994, Gogi Topadze–known as the “Patriarch of Georgian Beer”–founded the Kazbegi brewery. By 1997, Topadze had gathered a group of entrepreneurs to finance and update a new state-of-the-art factory, where they began a bottling and beverage production for beer, tea, and lemonade. The brewery is an impressive display of Georgian entrepreneurship (100 percent Georgian owned and financed) combined with Western ingenuity (modern German brewery equipment and high technology). But even with recent upgrades, the time-honored traditions of the Georgian highlanders, the Mtieli, have been upheld.

After the tour of the factory and bottling plant, we got in a sturdy but comfortable Russian-built Volga, driven by Kazbegi’s Chief of Security (who looked like he came from central casting for the role of KGB agent), and drove through the factory grounds and into town. We toured a chapel built for the town by the Kazbegi corporation and sat down for a sumptuous outdoor traditional feast at a restaurant that was a favorite spot of Soviet and Georgian dignitaries during World War II and throughout the Soviet occupation. After multiple toasts to God, family, friends, and safe passage, we languished over fresh fish, vegetables, pork, wine, vodka, and beer, celebrating the success of Kazbegi beer, as well as my visit, in a distinctly Georgian way: with food.

We returned to Tbilisi in time to go for a massage and soak in the sulfur baths–Tbilisi literally means “hot water.” The baths, which are world famous for their curative powers, were not hard to find nestled in beautiful Gorgasali Square in Old Tbilisi. Just look for their frosted glass domes bundled together like igloos in the Arctic.

The sulfur-alkaline mineral water in the hot tub scalded to the touch. I turned on the cold water, but got a disapproving look from the Armenian masseur. Eventually, the water cooled to a bearable temperature, and I soaked for twenty minutes. I was then led to a nearby table where I was washed and massaged. A bucket of steaming water rinsed the soap off and I jumped back into the bath.

Finally, when I felt like passing out, I climbed out of the mineral water with pruned skin and collapsed in the dressing room. Just then, a woman entered with espresso and two icy Kazbek beers. I drained the Turkish coffee and held a cold bottle to my forehead. I felt tranquil and calm like never before. I was again ready to jame like a Georgian. But I was not quite ready to say, nachwamdis–goodbye.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.