Breakfast in Georgia is an exercise in physical endurance. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the food – indeed, by the end of my two weeks there, I was a firm proponent of the belief that Georgian cuisine is some of the most unique and richly flavourful on the planet – but rather the sheer quantity of walnut-stuffed eggplant, dumplings, and freshly baked cheese-bread that land on your plate in endless waves each morning. The goal seems to be that no one can leave the table feeling in any way unsatisfied – or possibly just not leave the table at all. All those centuries of vengeful mountaineers wreaking havoc on neighbouring villages with dagger and rifle, when all they really needed to do was send in one grandmother with a particular good recipe for khachapuri.
On my first woefully unprepared encounter with the perpetually regenerating plates of the average Georgian breakfast, I was in a guesthouse just outside Kutaisi, where I suspect the satisfied pigs snuffling around outside might have had to take the baton from me after I retreated from the table in defeat. The owner, Tornike – a college-aged local who’d given up the study of psychology in the capital in order to move home and run the guesthouse on the death of his father – had already informed me that I was the first Irish guest he’d ever had, so I could move on in the full knowledge that I had probably single-handedly destroyed his regard for my people’s gastronomic prowess forever more.
Compressing a bag full of leftover lobiani into my backpack, I made my way over to Kutaisi airport, where I’d arrived on an international flight in the middle of the previous night. My goal now was to hop on a small Cessna up to Mestia, a mountain village in the remote northwest of Georgia, only recently joined to the rest of the country by air and not too long before that by road. I’d been warned that flights were frequently postponed or cancelled on short notice due to the weather – specifically, the wind and fog that often sweep through the valleys of the upper Caucasus – and, sure enough, I got to the check-in desk to find that today’s flight had been cancelled. Ostensibly on meteorological grounds, but given the brilliant blue skies stretching off to the horizon in all directions, I couldn’t quite discount the possibility that the pilot had gotten into some of the local chacha the night before. Regardless of the cause, the flight was cancelled and the next one was three days away, so I set about getting to Mestia by a more circuitous route.
The first step – finding a taxi from the airport into Kutaisi itself – proved to be surprisingly difficult, as, in contrast to the hordes of drivers that swarmed people after landing the night before, the airport and its environs seemed to have turned into a ghost town during the daylight hours. After the prolonged set of roadside semaphore that eventually drew the attention of a passing taxi, actually conveying where I wanted to go (and navigating the ensuing, soon-to-be-common conversation: “Ireland? Good rugby!”) was no problem at all, and 30 minutes later I was wandering through the streets of Kutaisi. The ancestral capital of the ancient kingdom of Colchis, where Jason and his Argonauts once wrestled fire-breathing dragons and sowed the soil with dragon’s teeth in their efforts to claim the Golden Fleece, modern Kutaisi is, from an infrastructure and architectural point of view, distinctly rugged and chaotic in that typical post-Soviet way. Tattered facades on the buildings, holes in the foothpaths, and little-to-no adherence to traffic rules, with both frustrated honking and entire conversations taking place around and through the market stalls that sprawl out onto the roads. And everywhere you look, the Georgian script, all stark loops and interlaced spirals; one of the very few unique writing systems in the world.
In contrast to the vast number of languages spoken actively across the world today – anywhere between 3000 to 6000 depending on who you ask, and where on the contentious territories of language vs. dialect vs. dialect continuum they plant their flag – there are remarkably few unique writing systems. The overwhelming majority of the world’s languages are written with some variation of the Latin alphabet (all of the languages of Western Europe, and those of the Americas, Africa, and Australasia touched by colonial endeavours), Cyrillic (Russia, much of Eastern Europe, and almost all of Central Asia), Arabic (Middle East), Devanagari (Indian subcontinent), and the scripts of East Asia that derive from Chinese hanzi. In a world of staggering linguistic but ultimately quite limited orthographic diversity, Georgian has one of the very few writing systems that stand alone; a script used here and absolutely no where else.
After haphazardly deciphering a departure board full of those same loops and spirals, I was moderately certain that I’d accurately determined which minibus was heading north into the mountains. Which gave me 90 minutes to sit back and observe the messy but absolutely functional machine that is a Kutaisi bus station, which in this case amounted to a roughly graveled car park behind a McDonalds. Everyone reversing and manoeuvring at impossible angles, with impeccable special awareness throughout – aided by a healthy dose of honking and bellowing to ensure that no one was in their path – as old women shuffled around selling people bread, socks, and sponges, and stray dogs lounged in the sun and perked up whenever anyone threw them a treat.
Departure time came, and we were off, luggage lashed tightly to the roof and the finest Tbilisi techno blaring from the stereo. Five hours of kamikaze overtaking, khinkali pitstops, and impromptu road-crossings by five different types of animal (including a dozen varities of increasingly nonchalant cow) later, and we arrived in Mestia. This entire region – called Svaneti, after the local ethnic group that speaks a language only marginally related to Georgian and almost entirely less so to anything else spoken on the planet – is the highest inhabited in Europe, and is in fact only a stone’s throw from the highest mountain on the continent, Mt. Elbrus. Although that is across the border in neighbouring Russia, so maybe don’t throw stones.
Mestia is the main village in the region, although it’s still very small and comprised almost entirely of winding, roughly cobbled streets, medieval stone fortress-towers that act as a stark reminder of the enthusiastic and still-active Caucasian tradition of inter-familial blood feuds, and hidden Eastern Orthodox churches, with alternating gangs of dogs and cows affably roaming throughout. Despite Mestia’s remote location, it is an important base of operations from which people launch mountaineering expeditions into the nearby peaks, as well of tours of Svaneti as a whole, so it does have a more extensive tourist infrastructure than I expected. Including the local Café Laila, with its English menus and walls covered in grafitti’d memories from previous visitors from all over the world. Latvia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Switzerland, Russia, China – all represented on Laila’s walls. Initially I thought I might have been the first Irish passer-through here as well, but then somewhere during the second glass of local beer, I spotted a small drawing and accompanying message tucked away in a corner, left by a couple with at least 50% Irish membership: “Bia agus grá” (food and love).
Churchbells in the Sky
Down in the lowlands around Kutaisi it was most definitely spring, but up in Mestia the snows last almost all year round. By noon on my second day in the village, I was up to my waist in it, as I trudged my way up the mountainside to the peak of the nearby Mt. Tskhakvagani. The gargantuan breakfast in Martina’s Guesthouse had duly lived up to the standards set by Tornike’s grandmother, with lobiani, hard-boiled eggs, a heaping bowl of porridge, and a kind of cold carrot and cabbage salad all vying for position on the table alongside fruit slices, cherries in syrup, yoghurt, and a giant basket of bread at various points. Although I didn’t even come close to finishing it – and was relieved to see that the Brazilian couple at the nearby table were no more capable in that regard than me, so I wasn’t the sole disappointment to Martina’s sense of Georgian culinary pride – the small market stall worth of food I did manage to put away nonetheless served as more than adequate fuel for the subsequent haul up through the foothills of the Caucasus.
On the way up, I passed a group of Belgians who had turned back due to deep snows. Knee-high, they said. After getting some beer recommendations for the next time I’m in Leuven, I continued on up through the scree-strewn paths and lightly forested slopes, up until the valley below became shrouded in fog and nothing could be heard except the odd distant churchbell, up to where knee-high snow would have been a luxury. I had intended to go all the way up to Koruldi Lake, but the snow was only going to get deeper and the trail even less distinct from that point on, so once I reached the observation deck at Tskhakvagani I contented myself with heading back down into civilization. Although just to ensure that I didn’t make too many sensible decisions that day, I then proceeded to slide feet-first down the labyrinth of branches and mud on the other side of the mountain, tearing my gloves to shreds and freezing my hands solid in the process. There might come a day when I’m sensible enough to do this with proper snowshoes or skis, but that day was most certainly not it.
That evening, the linguistic mix in Café Leila continued to be surprisingly diverse. In the midst of all the German, Italian, Mandarin, Hebrew, and Flemish dancing at varying decibel levels through the hubbub, the highlight was a meeting between what appeared to be a Georgian-Japanese couple and their in-laws. The local half of the couple had to interpret between both sets of parents with what sounded like remarkably proficient fluidity, leading me to wonder exactly how many people on the planet have Georgian and Japanese as a language combination.
Given the seemingly arbitrary cancellation of the flight to Mestia, I wasn’t holding out too much hope that my planned flight ahead to Mtksheta would go ahead either. There were multiple buses leaving the village daily, so I wouldn’t have been outright stranded in that case, but it was an option I was keen to avoid if at all possible. The road to Mtksheta, rather than leading directly east as I would have expected, instead ran back through Zugdidi and Kutaisi, and then on through Tbilisi – the direction from which I’d already come. On closer observation, this seemingly pointless inefficiency became more understandable, as the main road from Mestia cuts through South Ossetia, a region annexed by Russia during a 2008 border conflict that saw Georgia lose a sizeable chunk of its territory. So while this highly circuitous detour might have at least been grounded in some geopolitical common sense, it didn’t render the prospect of a 10-hour bus journey (half of which involved retracing my steps) any more appealing.
On the day of truth, the weather was everything a hungover pilot in hope of a sleep-in would have dreaded – clear blue skies, with sunlight blazing away every last trace of fog from the surrounding mountains. I figured that if the plane wouldn’t fly on a day like this then it would never fly, but remained cautiously optimistic at best. After extending my losing record against Martina’s breakfasts, I grabbed a lift with the neighbours over to the nearby Queen Tamar airport, and went straight to the check-in desk to learn how my next 48 hours would look.
Flight confirmed, all would run according to plan.
And with that, immense relief that I wouldn’t have to hang around organizing transportation for another day, and then subsequently spend the bulk of the following one on a bus. The pilot (one of two, hungover status undetermined) gave the safety announcement in Russian and brutally minimalistic English. The warning and info signs on the plane itself, incidentally, were in Polish.
Wine and Incense
The spiritual centre of Georgia since the fourth century AD, Mtksheta also holds the distinction of having the single most hard-to-pronounce name I encountered during my time in the country. While other towns might have longer names that ultimately roll off the tongue quite easily, Mtksheta’s throaty expulsion of consonants is something I stoically persisted in mangling right until the very end. The taxi driver that drove me in from Nathaktari airfield had presumably heard every potential combination of pronunciations before, and immediately grunted in acknowledgement of the dubious expectoration that was my attempt to specify a destination.
The town’s religious heritage was immediately evident, centred as it is around the millennium-old Svetitskhoveli (Cathedral of the Living Pillar) – built in 1029AD and currently the symbolic centre of the Georgian Orthodox Church, having survived everything from medieval invasions by the Arabs and Tamerlane to attempted Czarist whitewashing along the way. The interior of the cathedral conformed to what I’d observed in the much smaller Orthodox churches tucked away in the back-alleys of Mestia; very stark and austere, all shadow and dust and cracked murals, dimly burning candles and faded icons and stone engravings. It was a striking contrast to the ornate, imperious finery of something like St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, or the gold-laden kitsch of the Frauenkirche in Dresden (which my girlfriend wonderfully described as “like walking through a wedding cake”). Orthodox churches feel far more like authentically ancient sites of worship in comparison to the structures of Western Christianity, which often seemed more intent on bedecking themselves in architectural splendor in order to make a visual statement of power and influence.
Once outside the cathedral, my primary observation was that Mtksheta – or at least the streets around the main historical attractions – has a much more capitalist edge than the places in Georgia I’d visited so far. In Mestia, in particular, the locals very purposefully did not bother me, to the extent that they would usually even avert eye contact whenever I made an attempt to nod a greeting. Something I found surprising given their historic and contemporary reputation as hard-edged and confrontational, prone to igniting and sustaining clan feuds that last for anywhere up to 100 years at a time. In the centre of Mtksheta, in contrast, it felt like everyone was trying to sell me their own particular brand of churchkela, or hire a taxi, or just give them money. The latter requests came almost exclusively from the old women begging outside the cathedral, most of whom sounded like they were quite literally cursing me if I happened to walk past without tossing a few lari in their plate.
Further out of the city, I proved to be more the source of the disturbance myself, as I ended my climb up to Jvari monastery by tearing out of the bushes into the middle of a group of startled Germans, picking thorns out of my shirt and grunting something about the lack of snakes. On the road out there, I had passed a sign for Baku (638km) and Tehran (1239km), which was as good a sign as any that I was wandering far from home.
On my final night in Mktsheta, I covered a table in the nearby tavern with maps, ticket stubs, and info leaflets grabbed from various museums, and attempted to write up some travel notes for the previous days – a process aided admirably by a few glasses of the local wine. Georgia in fact claims to have been the earliest producer of wine on Earth, and they do indeed have sufficient archaeological evidence to render that claim quite plausible. On that evening, however, the exact start date of Georgian viticulture was less immediately impressive than the heaping quantities the barmaid was pouring into my glass whenever it started looking unacceptably light.
The cumulative effects found the perfect arena in which to flourish on my way back to the guesthouse when, upon hearing the booming sounds of a ceremony being broadcast from an external loudspeaker, I wandered into Svetitskhoveli to find an Easter ritual in full swing. Incredibly immersive both aurally and visually, with baritone chanting echoing off the centuries-old walls, illuminated only by bursts of candlelight arcing their way through the swirling clouds of incense. I melted into the shadows with the rest of the participants, and enjoyed one of the most psychedelic experiences of my life – a ritual unchanged since the days of Byzantium.
The Poet and the Grapplers
The journey out of Mtksheta the following morning was entirely less weather-dependent than the one getting there, and thankfully, given the persistent effects of that historically meaningful Georgian wine, less interspersed with bouts of high-altitude turbulence. And as a destination, “Tbilisi, Rustaveli station” was also notable in the comparative absence of any prolonged vocal warmups required before approaching a taxi.
Rustaveli himself made his first appearance almost immediately upon my arrival in the capital, with not only the metro station but also the city’s main thoroughfare and a handful of theatres, cinemas, and hotels all bearing his name. The sole clues behind his identity that I could pick out from a nearby plaque were the dates of his life (1160–1220AD) and a single reference to what I initially believed was his title – the Knight in the Panther’s Skin – leading me to assume he was either one of the line of kings, or some form of military commander who otherwise distinguished himself during the period of the old Kingdom of Georgia.
It was only after getting the key to my Air BnB apartment that I was able to google him and learn that he – full name Shota Rustaveli – was actually a poet, and that “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” was not any kind of nomme de guerre but rather the title of his most esteemed work (original Georgian: Vepkhistqaosani – “one with the skin of a tiger”). The poem’s status is such that, even now 800 years later, it is still considered the absolute standard to which Georgian literature should aspire; a remnant of the golden age in which Georgia’s influence stretched from modern-day Ukraine to the northern provinces of Iran.
Back in 2017, the long Easter weekend was wreaking havoc with the business hours of Tbilisi’s museums, but the winding streets of the Old Town and its bountiful population of street-corner booksellers were open as always. As was what was, at that point, the city’s only grappling gym, with whom I had initially gotten in touch several weeks previously, and who had fortuitously finally replied the day before I arrived in town. Heading out to the gym with gearbag in hand, I wondered how the communication would work once Google Translate was taken out of the equation, but figured that, all comes to all, the two words of grappling-related Russian I picked up in Kazakhstan (“Takedown!”, “Work!”) could conceivably come in handy.
As it turned out, “breakfall” would have been an entirely more relevant word to come armed with, as the head coach, Gocha, clearly came from a judo background and thus the warmups were seasoned with a great deal of thunderous uchi matas and harai goshis. Nice taste of the standard of technique in a country with such a strong grappling tradition that it has a grip named after it. Gocha spoke only very basic English, but the warmups were easy to follow visually, and for the technique portion of the class – where more discussion and random refinements with your partner might be necessary – I was paired up with Kevin, a US marine based in Tbilisi on embassy duty. 1.5 years down, 6 months to go.
Communicating with Gocha took an unexpected turn about halfway through the class, as he approach me mid-guard pass and enquired hopefully, “Sprichst du Deutsch?”. I’m not sure if someone else had told him that I lived in Germany, or if he was just running through all the languages he knew in hopes that one would stick, but either way, from that point on the conversation became much easier and much more meaningful. It turned out he had lived in Stuttgart for a year, and had trained with some of the stalwarts of the German grappling scene along the way. Including one well-known coach who’d hosted an MMA event in an underground music venue in Freiburg a few years back; an event at which I’d coached. Gocha had only been running his own club in Tbilisi for three months, and was immensely happy to have a visitor drop by. I never did find out learn the Russian for breakfall, but the Georgian for “next task!” has found its way into my long-term memory, and will quite possibly come in useful at some undetermined point in future.
This kind of multilingual patchwork is something I’ve encountered quite often in smaller countries with a highly unique language of which very few foreigners have any knowledge, and where local levels of English are still quite low. Any interactions thus become a scramble to find some kind of linguistic common ground, with often surprising results. Russian is by far the most widely understood and spoken foreign language in Georgia, but if your proficiency in that regard is as bluntly limited as mine, they will make persistent and earnest efforts to find some vaguely tangible wisp of the Indo-European cloud on which you can both find firm footing. The following day, after leaving Tbilisi and making my way west to a much smaller city called Gori, I attempted to check in to my hotel by saying “hello” in Georgian and then “two nights” in Russian. The elderly woman behind the desk looked me up and down, and immediately responded in French. Leaving me to mentally scramble back 15 years through the jumble of crackling cassette tapes and long-forgotten verb tables to try and piece together a reply from my secondary school basics.
It turns out that the important stuff is fairly widely applicable anyway. Later that afternoon, when heading out for my first walk around Gori in the unthinkable combination of tshirt and 16°C weather, the same woman enquired concernedly if I wouldn’t be cold. “Je suis irlandais” turned out to be a perfectly acceptable answer.
Even a foreigner wandering around underclothed in the frigid spring evening could never hope to match the notoriety of Gori’s most notable former son, however. For here in this entirely unassuming little town – far out on the fringes of the Russian Empire in 1878 – was born one Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, destined to cut a traumatic and epochal swathe across a massive swathe of the planet on an almost unmatched scale. Despite being responsible for anywhere up to 60 million deaths, in Gori the locals are apparently still oddly fond of their hometown boy, to the extent that the statue of him that once stood outside the Town Hall had to be removed in the middle of the night because the government feared that residents might otherwise gather in protest. Both his likeness and his name – specifically, the name he assumed in adulthood – are surreally omnipresent.
♫ We gonna rock down to Stalin avenue ♫
There’s a large shinto shrine right in the centre of Tokyo caled Yasukuni, which every year ends up at the centre of a storm of controversy (/occasional riot/ occasional burning of Japanese car dealerships) that sweeps across East Asia. The reason being that Yasukuni commemorates all those who died in the service of the Empire of Japan – a sum total of 2,466,532 people including, quite critically, 14 class-A war criminals like Hideki Tojo – and it is a not-uncommon practice for various Japanese politicians and decision-makers, right up to and including Prime Ministers, to go along and say a prayer for the souls of those enshrined there. Which understandably does not go down too well with the likes of China and South Korea, whose civilian populations were massacred, forcibly conscripted into wartime manual labour, and in some cases subjected to medical experimentation based on decisions made by those 14 war criminals.
While Yasukuni is controversial in its own right, nothing about it is ahistorical per se – everyone enshrined there did in fact die in the service of the Empire of Japan, and the controversy arises solely from the question of whether some of those people should be memorialised. The answer outside of Japan almost universally being: no.
The museum beside the shrine, the Yūshūkan, is another matter entirely. I’d heard that it had an often-loose grasp of the widely accepted facts, but the sheer level of don’t-give-a-shit revisionism in places was actually almost impressive. Long story short: in 1937 we went to China, behaved impeccably, and then several years later left entirely of our own volition for some reason. PS: Nanking? Never heard of it. You must be thinking of some other Japanese army.
The Joseph Stalin museum in Gori is not exactly on that level, in the sense that the facts it presents are historically accurate. He was born in Gori in 1878, he did indeed meet Lenin in Finland in 1906, he was in fact a key player in the revolution that overthrew the old Czarist regime, and he most definitely implemented a series of sweeping reforms that led to the USSR’s metamorphosis from a largely agrarian to a modern industrial power. But there is very conspicuously not a single mention of his vast and genocidal misdeeds along the way. Holodomor, haha, what is Holodomor?
So all in all, an interesting if deeply anachronistic place where, apart from the fact that Stalin’s death mask is on show, it feels like you could be walking the corridors in the 1950s, when no one could say anything bad about the big man in the Kremlin.
Closing the Circle
One final train journey west brought me back to where I had begun, in Kutaisi. Despite all the prevailing stereotypes about post-Soviet timekeeping, I remained impressed with the remarkable precision of Georgian transportation right until the end, as, apart from the initial cancelled flight to Mestia, everything (bus to Mestia, flight to Natakhtari, train to Gori, train to Kutaisi) left on time almost to the minute – a feat that, despite what pervasive rumors to the contrary might have you believe, only the most exceptional of German trains usually manages to accomplish. In that sense, the infallibly prompt departure on this particular leg of the journey was less surprising than the small village we passed through along the way which seemed to be populated entirely by a Chinese construction crew.
My last days in Kutaisi were spent eating stewed venison, being guided around the Georgian Sports Museum in an effusive whirlwind of Russodeutsch, and working my way through George Kennan’s “Vagabond Life” – an account of his months-long journey across the region in the late 19th century, containing countless interesting and still-relevant observations on the linguistic diversity and honour-driven culture of the Caucasian highlands. Incidentally, his mountain guide, Akhmet, seemed to have found an ingenious way to harness the latter to overcome the former. Step 1: Kill a man over perceived slight. Step 2: Go into hiding in faraway village for several months. Step 3: While there, learn language. Step 4: Repeat.
And with that – taxi, airport, home. Accompanied by vivid memories of fighting uphill through mountain snow and standing in the audiovisual rapids of an ancient midnight liturgy, and plans to come back and explore the region in more detail at some point in future. Ideally I would like to work on my Russian a bit more beforehand. Just need to find the right village to hide in for a few months first.