A bit after midnight an old, yet seemingly sky worthy Wizz Air craft bounced onto the tarmac at Kutaisi international airport. The plane offloaded via a hand pushed rolling staircase. It was a short, unsupervised walk over to a small door reading ‘customs’ in English below a long string of unrecognizable characters. There were no formal lines so the mass of people piled into a tiny hall where two customs agents rapidly stamped passports with no regard for what kind of document was handed to them. Georgia’s government is all about tourism these days, and their eagerness to let outsiders in was obvious. Bags arrived promptly on the lone carousel. Before even checking if the airport had WiFi I was in and an armed police officer strapping well-worn soviet firepower was happy to watch Abi and I bobble around the unfamiliar language, eventually setting us up with a taxi. I had no idea, not even a preconceived notion, about what I would see outside the airport. The road was dark so first impressions included nothing more than a straight road ahead and the occasional dim, fluorescently lit, petrol station.
Why Georgia? People have asked me this a lot, often followed by inquires of where Georgia even is, and how the heck one gets there. It’s not surprising. Of all the places in the world one can go during their undefined, unrestricted travel, especially an American traveler, Georgia is not a common front runner for consideration. So, again, why Georgia? Along the way through Patagonia I met a couple who had been traveling around and around. For over four years they backpacked though most regions on the planet, yet with definitive confidence they claimed Georgia as the must go backpacking destination and the place they return to again and again. In response I asked the same questions above. They relayed tales of delicious food, rich culture, lively cities, grand mountains, succulent wine, and the famed Georgian hospitality, all at a price point far below anything in South America. I was sold instantly, and as the original plan of visiting South East Asia was foiled by timing and a pesky thing called monsoon season it was settled; Georgia was my new heading.
Kutaisi is not much of a tourist city, but it’s where the cheap flights go so it is where my Eurasian adventure began. Morning came and the imagery was that of a post-soviet city. Medium sized, unfinished looking, cement block apartment buildings lined dusty roads. Though slightly crumbling the infrastructure comes across as relatively good. Wide roads, robust electrical work, proper plumbing, sturdy bridges, etc... Kutaisi, at a time was a booming metropolis and an important point for trade; that time was in the 1100s. Since then the city has been ransacked and destroyed by Persians, Mongols, Armenians, Ottomans, and Russians. Though the twisting old town roads and wide Soviet drags are home to modest structures in various states of disrepair, nearly universal dressings of grape vines and lush fig trees give life to an otherwise down and out town. Only in the past few decades has a proper refurbishment started, and it’s a slow process.
Hungry from the previous day’s travel and excited to try the Georgian cuisine I had heard so much about I grabbed a table at a popular local restaurant. An important thing to note about Georgia is that tourism, though beginning to boom, is relatively new. As such pricing and offering on most things is pretty standardized from place to place. A restaurant at the entrance of a main attraction compared to the nicest place in town, compared to a hole in the wall, generally, will offer the same dishes at the same prices. The variability lies almost entirely on the person doing the cooking and the region they are from. I got lucky with my first pick and ended up having some of my best Georgian food on day one. Prime examples of two classic Georgian dishes were served up in a gigantic and delicious manner. The first, and probably the most common dish was Kachapuri. This can come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and styles but is generally a baked or fried cheesy bread that potentially is topped with butter and an egg. Hearty and delicious it can also be heavy and nap inducing. To balance out the carb and fat blast an order of Badrigani is a must. Sautéed eggplant strips stuffed with a garlic and walnut hummus-like paste often topped with pomegranate is a nutrient rich, protein packed delight and quickly became a staple of my diet.
To fully understand Georgia’s food one needs to look at the cuisine in two contexts. First is through the lens of the Georgian Orthodox religion and second, taking into account the long history of shepherding and culture of self-sufficiency. A devoutly religious country, the vast majority of people follow some form of Georgian Orthodox and that comes with pretty strict rules. During many holidays, and for the most devout, certain days of the week an almost vegan diet is mandated. Fresh vegetables and non-meat protein sources are staples at every meal. Home cooking is predominately vegetarian. And because most people, outside of the few major cities, maintain at least some form of livestock (sheep, cows, goats, etc...) homemade dairy products take center stage in most meals along with plentiful beans and walnuts. Animals are breed and fed in the spring and summer when it’s too hot to prevent spoilage if slaughtered, so meat takes a back seat and is mostly reserved for the cooler fall and winter months. Georgia is a vegetarian friendly, fresh dairy slinging, farm to table mecca and the entire country’s cuisine reflects these historic norms. It’s also important to note that as a key player in the Silk Road trade route wild herbs are everywhere as are fruit and nut trees. The food is fresh, delicious, ultra-seasonal and a good enough reason alone to visit.
Kutaisi offers a few interesting sites making it worth staying for a day or two. Bagrati Cathedral, dating back to 1003 plays backdrop upon an overlooking hillside. A few other fine examples of Georgian churches lie just out of town, easily accessible via marshrutka (shared mini bus). Further out two large canyons draw in tourists as well as a recently renovated cave complex: Prometheus Cave. Having not been in a proper cave since my early years I decided to check it out. A tiny entrance opened up to massive damp caverns that echoed with each drip of stalactite building water. Moody color shift lighting, like a low budget Disney attraction, created interesting shadows and offered just enough brightness to snap a few photos.
Kutaisi was a literal landing point, and just a quick layover on the way to Tbilisi, Georgia’s thriving capital. In route I caught my first glimpse of the Caucus Mountains and my heart skipped a beat at the sight. I had been concerned that the range wouldn’t meet the lofty expectations I had built up, especially after spending so much time in the Andes. In one instant through a marshrutka window all concerns were forgotten. The mountains zipped by as did farmland, vineyards, and small towns. As is tradition on the roads of less westernized countries than my own, reckless and aggressive driving in hardly roadworthy vehicles was in full force. Overtaking multiple cars at once with visible oncoming traffic ahead gave the driver no pause. He went pedal to the metal in his gutted and rebuilt Ford Transit (the people mover of choice in the region) nearly bottoming out the depleted suspension on takeoff. Close calls were plentiful up to the last moment as he pulled into a Tbilisi bus terminal.
To be honest, I had never heard of Tbilisi before I already committed to visiting Georgia and I knew nothing about this capital city. I had never seen a silhouette of its skyline on a coffee mug, nor saw a headline come across my news radar. It never even caught my eye blurring past as I wasted time exploring Google Earth in middle school. The only information I was going on was that it had been described as “a livable city” and “a good place to relax and explore”. I was once again arriving blind, but this time a post-Soviet work in progress was not waiting for me on the other end. Busy streets were loaded with an endless sea of Toyota Priuses regularly dotted with a wide selection of very high end automobiles from Germany, Italy, and beyond. An incredibly efficient public bus system, seemingly brand new, boasted electronic fare cards to tap on and off at will from the air conditioned, spacious, clean, and USB charger equipped vehicles; the MTA could learn a thing or two from these guys. Free WiFi was everywhere; the friendly tourist SSID: Tbilisi Loves You! giving me a laugh every time I logged in, and lovely tree lined streets mingled the ancient bones of a city as old as time with all the modern fixings one would expect to find in hubs across the globe. Parts were lovely with boutique shops and hotels intermixed with tasty pastry shops and well stocked groceries, and others so hipster it hurt. Between the cracks it’s a city ever changing, the bones of a different time are everywhere. Balconies of old buildings look like they may collapse if you breathe too hard, but a block away major restoration has revamped dead zones into prime commercial space.
With all this comfort, and all so new, one would expect a bit of price gouging on tourists but that simply isn’t the case. A premium Americano, piping out of a La Marzocco espresso machine in an all-white super chic cafe / comic book store ran four Lari (GEL) or roughly $1.50 USD. Gourmet ice cream a dollar, delicious feasts for two at nice restaurants less than a Chipotle Burrito. The greatest pork BBQ kabab of all time, served on its own or wrapped and dressed in a shawarma, practically free. Hostels could come in below five dollars a night. Abi and I quickly swore off dorms and started a new, high brow life of private rooms. Tbilisi had the comforts of home at prices that made Bolivia look expensive. I still do not know how such a phenomenon can be possible, and suspect for any traveler to Georgia, your first visit is the best as I see no way that a major tourist industry boom is not imminent. The running joke amongst travelers passing through the city is asking how often one inquired about property costs; it would be a lie to say I didn’t look.