Georgia – land of mountains, music and good food
In the port of Ilyichevsk near Odessa we were on board about eight hours before the ship was ready to set sail across the Black Sea for Georgia. While stowing the bike in the hold I had got chatting with Igor the chief deckhand, a weathered, gruff but friendly Odessa man in his sixties. Igor had spent a few years working on the Cork-Swansea ferry and had picked up some English. Spending most of his time at sea he had a base in Cork, and spoke with some fondness about his time in there. But was delighted to be back in his native land. “I am at home every weekend with my wife”, he smiled. I had been put into a 6 berth cabin with a Georgian family – which didn’t suit them or me – and the chief purser, a stern woman was quite firmly demanding the extra charge of $100 for an upgrade. After we put to sea I prevailed upon her to sort me out with a private 2 berth cabin. For $20, no receipt expected. Mentioning Igor’s name may have eased the process.
The fare included food and the three days were framed around morning, lunch and evening meal time. And welcome they were too, substantial and tasty if a little unimaginative. The passengers were mostly Georgian truck drivers but at my table were three ageing Polish motorcyclists with very little English, two young Austrian PhD graduates in bio chemistry touring in an old Mercedes and an Armenian Georgian pair, migrants who had met up in Spain. Katerina from Armenia was returning home to her six year old son after having saved some money working in Spain, where she had met up with Teodr from Georgia. The ferry was their first bed in over a week since they’d left Spain, having driven all across Europe, sleeping in the car at night. The first few nights on the road had been difficult but Katerina laughingly recalled that eventually you were so tired there was no problem sleeping in the seat.
Besides an extravagant electrical storm late one night providing a brilliant show – lightning sheeting across the night sky, occasionally punctuated with vivid forks arcing to the earth on the Russian shore in the distance – it was a pleasant if uneventful crossing. But as the days and nights passed it felt like an event for me – I was leaving Europe, crossing the Black Sea, another step towards Asia.
At 1 am on the third night the lights of Batumi on the Georgia shore came closer and closer. It is a low-rise seaside town but a few landmark monuments and towers were lit up like Christmas trees. It was Saturday night. The ship according to Igor was the largest RoRo passenger vessel in the world. Really impressive manoeuvering of this huge oceangoing vessel into the small harbour involved just one tug, with another hanging back on standby. I was in awe at the skill involved, slowly easing the bow and then the stern past pier ends and docked ships, into place alongside the quay with just metres to spare. And gently butting the stern up against the wharf without the slightest bump.
Georgian Immigration officers had set up shop behind the reception desk with a portable camera lens mounted next to them and when my turn came I was asked to look into into camera, my passport was stamped and the officer allowed a slight smile to break his officious, solemn expression. “Welcome to Georgia”, he said. It was appreciated.
Unhitching the bike’s front brakes and bending slightly the front mudguard I managed to cycle the few kilometres into town ignoring the scraping sound. A few characters hung about outside bars in the port but I waited until I was in the town before trying to figure out where to go. It was 3am and there was little life around. Hmmm. This would be interesting, finding a place to sleep at this hour. I had an address of a hostel from someone on the ship but of course any taxi drivers or shady characters skulking in doorways hadn’t any English and I had no Georgian.
The hostel actually didn’t exist, but with the kind direction of a couple of friendly ladies of the night I eventually found a cheap and secure dormitory bed. It had been eight hours since we’d been fed on board, and I could have murdered a beer, but it was with exhaustion and gratitude I crashed.
The following morning the only thought on my mind was whether my wheel could be repaired. The accident boarding the ferry had been sitting like a heavy undigested meal in the back of my mind. What did it mean for my trip – did the rim need replacing, would I get one in Georgia or should I order one from someone like Chainreactioncycles.com and get it shipped here, how long would that take, was there someone who could build a wheel here, or in Tblisi the capital…? These were the unanswered questions awaiting me. And it was Sunday.
I found a small bicycle workshop on the edge of town. The fact it was Sunday didn’t seem to affect any businesses bar banks, and the bike shop was buzzing with activity, four guys occupied with various tasks. The owner – the aloof, well dressed one with pot belly who was deferred to and who accepted and dispensed cash from his shirt pocket – took on the task. Sitting himself down at the wheel-truing frame he tightened, loosened and tweaked spokes, all along spinning the wheel, occasionally laying it on a wood block to – disconcertingly – give it a quick smack or tap with a hammer cushioned by another block. He would be interrupted by questions from customers, listen to them and respond brusquely. Money would change hands. But he didn’t lose his concentration on my job. I was watching the work intently, wondering was a miracle possible. It was out of my hands.
Then abruptly he handed the wheel to an assistant and walked away without addressing me. I tested it on the wheel-truing machine – remarkably the warp seemed to have gone although the rim where the brake pads slide was still damaged. A bit of filing sorted that. The charge was $6, and I had difficulty pressing another few on the assistant. The owner diffidently accepted my gratitude. An hour after arriving I was cycling off on a steady wheel, disbelievingly. I felt ten pounds lighter. What had been a major weight pulling at the back of my mind was released – I had my bike back!
It was a pleasure to be on the road again, even though within an hour the coast road climbed steeply. Georgia was a mountainous country I was reminded and this would just serve as a little introduction. It wasn’t too long and was manageable.
A few things had made an impression at this stage in this new country. The food was interesting and tasty! Khachapuri – a bread filled with cheese, khinkali – steamed meat parcels in broth, delicious casseroles, and above all tomato, onion and cucumber salads everywhere – what a relief after the diet across eastern Europe. The all inclusive greeting when someone entered a cafe; the ubiquitous vodka toasts, difficult to avoid being included; gold teeth… The other impression that grabbed me once I started cycling was the enthusiastic greetings and welcomes I was getting from the roadside and from passing motorists and truckers. Faces lit up when people saw my approach – the culture just seemed so unconstrained and demonstrative. Coming from a tradition of the previous few months of blank stares and non expression this was so refreshing. Waves and shouts greeted my passing. Even young women would smile and wave spontaneously – that was a surprise.
My route brought me past the ancient town of Vani, mythical land of Colchis, to where Jason and his Argonauts sailed in search of the golden fleece and met the legendary Georgian princess, Medea. Gold dust used to be panned in the rivers here on woollen fleeces, hence the basis of the story. An account I came across from 1939 reckoned that the mines of gold, silver, copper and iron around the region would have been “reasonable motive” for an expedition by Jason.
I stopped a night in Georgia’s second city, Kutaisi to visit a warmshower host. Marcus, an interesting guy in his forties, had been a jet pilot in the US Navy but now spent his time as a volunteer for the Peace Corps, teaching English in various parts of the world. With the trademark American extroverted manner he looked the caricature of a US military officer – buzz hair cut, trim and muscled and I wasn’t surprised to hear he had played pro football in his younger days. Though he had done some long distance cycles, his love was trekking, already having hiked the Appalachian trail in his home country and planning the much tougher three month trail up the Great Divide where for weeks on end there is no shelter or supplies – real survival stuff. The afternoon I was there he asked me to participate in one of his classes in the university to give students an exposure to alternative accents. That was fun, chatting and learning about the students’ lives, attitudes, concerns. I enjoyed Marcus’ company and hope our paths cross again.
Continuing east the hilly region rising up to my left was Tshkinvali, a no-go area for foreigners. In 2008 in escalating tension the Georgian premier Saakashvili ordered Georgian troops to attack the capital of the autonomous region. This was the excuse the Russians needed to go to war with Georgia. There was only going to be one victor in that one. The region now claims to be independent as the Republic of South Ossetia. From a number of comments it appears people believe Saakashvili had a rush of blood to the head. He had been a popular premier having cleaned up the notoriously corrupt police and military, but the disastrous war, along with the plunge in the economy due to the global recession ended his reign.
I was being entertained on my iPod by that old Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard, one of the ‘outlaw country’ singers from the days of the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters’ in Austin in the seventies. Recently re-emerging with an album, while not exactly ‘blessed with a golden voice’, he still was telling his tales. Lines like, “The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations… I have some happy days”, and “God outsourcing his work to the devil” made me smile.
A diversion was to the town of Gori, not of Wexford but the birthplace of a certain Joseph Dzhugashvili, better known as Joe Stalin. And the museum to the big man. Which was certainly impressive in scale funded during Soviet times, although the celebration of the man’s achievements were a little toned down. There were some citations in English – I read of his expulsion from a local seminary for revolutionary activities, his rise to power, and saw pictures of him with Ribbentrop and Molotov signing the Soviet-German non-aggression pact. There was still a slight air of reverence for the cobbler’s son who went on to rule for a quarter of a century the largest country on earth, possibly the most influential and powerful man of the 20th century – certainly responsible for the most human suffering – for the local boy made… if not good, then certainly internationally notorious.
The odd thing was that Stalin was no friend to his native people. I later discovered in the capital at the much more impartial national museum’s Soviet Occupation section, in the twenty years from 1921-1941 an estimated 72,000 people were shot by the authorities and 200,000 deported. After that the shootings eased but the deportations increased in an attempt to stamp out any nationalist inclinations. And organised religion. Th persecuted Ambrose, the Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia – equivalent to the pope for European Catholics – in a famous quote declared, “My soul belongs to God, my heart to Georgia, and with my body you may do whatever you please.”
After five day’s cycle from the coast I entered the country’s capital Tblisi. Surrounded by mountains it is one of those long cities where you are cycling for ages following the river through the built up outskirts, past factories and warehouses, then into more residential areas, by very modern shopping precincts, massive bill boards with very European images of happy couples, the men suave and well-dressed flashing a toothy smile, women like supermodels. Negotiating the five lane traffic at rush hour – the usual timing for me entering a big city – with cars racing in and out of lanes, entering from side roads, jockeying for position, needed all my wits about me as I trundled along but was good fun. Eventually, I ended up in the cobble street centre and found the Nest hostel, not the cheapest at €10 a night but in a lovely, typical verandahed Tblisi building in a quiet part of the older town up the hill.
I spent my time in Tblisi doing a little sight seeing – the old quarter in particular was so photogenic – and in pursuit of an Iranian visa. I had submitted my application with payment to the embassy in Dublin before departing, with the assurance there would be no problem. Paddy a good friend in Dublin tried phoning and visited them twice but drew a blank. Needless to say my emails went unanswered. My only hope – forlorn though I knew it to be – was my application was in the system and could be accessed at any of their embassies. At my third visit to the Iran embassy in Tblisi – the first at 12.10pm on a Friday was a few minutes late, and I was told to return the Monday, which happened to be the Prophet’s birthday and an Iranian national holiday – I was finally given an audience with the consul. Ushered in through tight security at the gate I stepped in to the compound of what must be one of the most impressive embassy entrances anywhere in the world. Two low, squat buildings of granite and glass in clean lines flanked an open courtyard. Waiting for me at the top of the wide stone steps to the patio was the neatly dressed consul, the backdrop to him a forested hill side across the narrow valley. As I reached the top step he held out his hand in greeting. It felt like I was in a film.
That was about as far as the co-operation went. Inside the office I declined his offer of tea. Despite his obvious efforts at courtesy he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, understand my situation, no matter how simply or clearly I tried to explain. It was clearly an irregular one and his English just didn’t stretch that far. He kept recommending I apply through the website, and that actually a new ruling meant it would take 4-6 weeks if you are not applying in your home country. But I’ve already applied and paid for the visa in Ireland, I repeated with exasperation. When I eventually realised there would be no progress and shrugged my shoulders in defeat, he seemed to relent and suggested conspiratorially that I apply through a web-based agency, Iranianvisa.com. They would process the application he assured me, supply an authorisation number from Tehran by return and that would be it – the embassy could issue the visa. I thanked him for his time and left.
I had initially applied for an Iran visa in Dublin as I was unsure about co-ordinating a notoriously unreliable ferry across the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan with the very restrictive transit visa they offer. The only other apparent way to continue my journey through Central Asia to Uzbekistan was through Iran. So now the Iran possibility was out. That narrowed the options. I subsequently heard no Iran tourist visas – in any embassies – were being issued until the national elections were over. That must have been the reason Dublin had stalled on mine. I just wish they told me that.
I found the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments – a catchy little title – up a small backstreet in the old quarter and spent an interesting hour being guided around the exhibits. And learned of the national instruments – the gudastviri bearing a similarity to our uileann pipes with air pumped into a bag by the arm; the santuri, like a hammer dulcimer; and the garmoin or buzika, an accordion instrument which came to the Caucasus from Germany via Russia, but played using a locally developed Georgian scale. The guide sat down at an organ and played me a piece with the distinctive drone-like sound from here. From where does Georgian music draw its influences? From the east? Its influences are from Iran, Turkey, Arab and definitely Europe (reciprocal) but the guide maintained it’s still not understood.
Unfortunately there was no information about Georgian choral performances, and no-one in the museum could help. Maybe try such and such restaurant… A little disappointed I was leaving when I heard a cry. Kety Baiashvili the museum’s director, an older lady with blond hair and rouged cheeks, was hurrying after me. She hadn’t been able to come up with any helpful suggestions inside but then wondered if the small choir she was in charge of would be of interest? They were rehearsing a little later when the museum closed. Well what a fortuitous turn!
Returning with a fellow hostel resident who happened to be passing outside – she had only that morning arrived in Tblisi – we were a privileged audience of two to a magnificent, moving recital of Georgian male voice, polyphonic singing. Quite intense in fact, particularly I’m sure for young Natalie who was a little sleep deprived after an overnight flight from France. And it wasn’t just a passive experience with no context – Kety was giving us a commentary on each song. “This is a traditional Caucasus song from Svaneti”, or “I learned this from a Kakheti community”. There was obviously a folkloric angle on their choice of repertoire – the songs seemed to represent and were an attempt to preserve various traditions around Georgia. It was all a capella, unaccompanied by any instrument – “Music here, it’s all about the voice” said Kety – until one of the choir members walked across to a far wall and took down a lute-like instrument and struck up a rhythm. A couple of hours previously my guide had been explaining the instrument’s provenance, over a hundred years old.
After an hour there was a natural break as they deliberated on a selection for an upcoming visit by a choir we decided to let them continue rehearsals without our scrutiny. I thought I heard Kety say ‘Ireland’. Indeed there was a Dublin Georgian choir coming to sing with them in three days time. “I’m Irish”, I blurted increduously. “Well you must come”, she commanded. I postponed my Tblisi departure and was there to meet the recently returned Georgian ambassador to Ireland and Louise Brennan and her Zurmukhti Ensemble – Andrew, Irene, Catriona and the others. (They rehearse at the Lantern on Synge Street off the S. Circular Rd on a Monday and are looking for bass voices!)
A visitor to the hostel was Irena, an American in her mid to late twenties with a Jewish Russian background. Having a Georgian grandmother she was involved in a Georgian choir in New York. That was part of her reason for visiting the country, to learn with her choir who were coming to join her. But her interests were more extensive – a PhD anthropology student her current research project involved a small Chechnyan community in the inaccessible and mountainous north east of Georgia. I was fortunate enough to earwig in on a conversation she was having with a couple of Tblisi women and grew more fascinated when she played some recordings she’d uploaded to Youtube of a group of about ten local women singing. Informally performed in someone’s house – the camera was set up in a corner with no apparent preparation – various women drifted in and out. One was egged on to do a favourite, another kept a rhythm by beating her hands on the floor – the whole was quite otherworldly.
I could see the respect Irena commanded from the women here in the hostel. Undertaking all of this on her own, her Russian obviously helped with communication but the fact she was Jewish didn’t seem to hinder her in the Muslim Chechnyan community. She had even been invited to learn these age old songs from the Chechnyan women. Like many traditions throughout the world, the interests of the younger generation are pulled elsewhere and the traditions are being lost.
Travelling by bicycle in an easterly direction across the country, there were areas I was missing, particularly in the high Caucasus mountain range. So leaving the black Cadillac tethered and secure in the hostel I hopped on a mashrutka or minivan for the four hour ride up into the mountains to the small town of Kazbegi. The accommodation recommended to me, the unfortunately named Nazi guesthouse, was at 1750m altitude already.
A few others were there including an Israeli couple – I didn’t think of asking them why they selected the Nazi guesthouse. The usual travelling banter and questions went around the communal dinner table. Israel doesn’t really have a national cuisine as its made up of so many different influences. The guy’s parents were from Morocco, her’s were Greek and Russian. A bright young Belgian couple were quizzing me on my views and attitudes, apparently I was the same age as their fathers. These experiences I am beginning to get accustomed to. Would I prefer to be young now or in my day? They lamented the difficulty their generation faced today with too many options making choices difficult. A luxury they admitted not afforded to most of their peers in less well off cultures. And there was quiet Anna with the Swedish lilt to her accent, a civil servant who intended to go back and do a subsidised PhD on the medieval history of judges in Sweden! Apparently based on the noblemen – those who owned the property made the law of course. After four years work your academic study is supported. Does research on an apparently obscure subject like that have any relevance today? “To know how we got to where we are,” was the response.
Early the next morning it was a steep trek up to the incredibly photogenic Tsumada Sameba church perched 500m higher above the valley. Continuing on up towards the pass it was getting a little nippier with the altitude. What a pleasure it was to take a break and lie back in the warm sun, surrounded by beautiful alpine meadows looking across at snowy peaks opposite and way down to the valley below. The pass is at 3,000m and even in the middle of summer there were still patches of frozen snow crunching underfoot. The terrrain had changed to grey rock and gravel. A further half an hours walk would have brought me to the foot of a mile long glacier coming down from Kazbegi peak, but the clouds were closing in. Visibility was becoming an issue and so after a brief snooze sheltering from the wind behind a rock – I had my fleece and rain jacket on for warmth – I reluctantly turned for the trek down. What a buzz, such a treat to get up into this environment after the many months on the road. It was a refreshing and rejuvenating tonic.
In this frame of mind nearing the guesthouse I passed three backpackers strung out along the track struggling up to I presumed their accommodation for the night. The first two ignored me looking away and the unfortunate third guy was looking down avoiding eye contact when as we drew level I couldn’t resist greeting him with an over-enthusiastic “Hello”. To which he was intimidated into responding with a meek hello back. European cultural differences still amaze me. On the mashrutka ride from Tblisi a German couple in their late thirties and myself were the first of the passengers to arrive at the van. It was hot. They were immediately put out by the driver’s demand that we sit in seats near the rear of the beaten up old wreck. Having left the town of Mestia in the south ten hours previously their patience was obviously a little stretched. “We have travelled in forty four countries” – ah, he was establishing to me their travel credentials – “and Georgia has to be number forty three in rudeness!” he exclaimed. “After China. And it is said to be a country of hospitality! I don’t think so.” I actually had had the opposite experience, nothing but welcomes and friendliness. And anyway, who counts the number of countries they been in? As the van filled and we were ready to leave the driver insisted on closing the window near them, which didn’t go down well at all. They were fuming, maybe literally. It probably wasn’t a good time to off-handedly joke that perhaps he wanted it closed before switching on the air conditioning. For the rest of the trip I was studiously ignored and getting thin lipped polite responses to any overtures. Ah well, I had my iPod.
It did set me wondering about the enjoyment factor in travel – what is it that we do it for? The three backpackers, probably near the end of their tether in the late afternoon having to heft their packs up the hill were obviously not enjoying it. The German couple in the mashrutka were not having fun, in any obvious way anyway. That was a very long day in cramped travelling conditions. Was there a type of satisfaction that comes from overcoming discomforts and adversity to arrive in difficult-to-get to places off the beaten track? To be able to relate this to folks back home, or to believe oneself a hardcore traveller? And where did the cycle traveller fit in there? What is it that I get out of it?
That evening I had a kebab in a tiny hut with barely enough room for the two chairs inside. The guy had one or two words in English and served me a shot of vodka with my food. Ireland? Yes, not England – he said affecting a haughty attitude. Or Francia he continued, with a mincing, effeminate prance. He shook his fist repeating Ireland, indicating strength or passion. Ah, yes rugby was played in Georgia, who exported players to France. It was interesting to note images different nationalities had. Invariably in my experience Ireland had a positive one. In the more recent past anyway. “William Wallace!” he suddenly burst out. He’d been trying to remember. “Braveheart”. I was to come across this representation a number of times.
Back in Tblisi it was time to hit the road. I had given up on the Iran visa possibility so now it was Baku or bust. Hopefully in the capital of Azerbaijan the consuls of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would be obliging. Baku had a reputation of being an expensive, repressive and vulgar city built on oil money. I didn’t want to be delayed there too long with my budget being eaten into.