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Published: July 10th 2004
The Garden of Eden could be close by?
Driving from the Turkish border into Batumi and all of a sudden you're in a downtrodden dilapidated Lada infested Mozambique! If you read stupid books as I do, you’ll know that in ‘The Worlds most Dangerous Places’ it states "Georgia is a wreck - seriously, the whole country looks as if somebody dropped it". This part of Georgia I later discovered is the worst of all. The buildings and everything else that was built by the old Communist govt. has literally been left to rot for the past 15 years. All maintenance totally abandoned, people apparently even sell manhole covers for scrap - the place is bleak. We bounce into Batumi feeling a little uneasy, the brain is sending messages that say ‘bad people live in houses like that’. Not a soul speaks a grain of English. The alphabet is indecipherable. The men are all dressed like 1960’s Communist Proletariat, and my girlfriend is convinced all the women are called ‘Natasha’. The strangest thing is that even though we stand out a mile; nobody seems to notice us, a truly scintillating, twilight zone experience. Time for a cup of Tea to settle down and find our bearings; allow the brain to
become accustomed to all weird and wonderful things it can’t provide explanations for. But of course they don’t have tea; only beer and 50 varieties of Vodka served with hunks of raw pig meat and XXX strength mustard-dip. But for 10 pence a pint we have a few to settle the nerves and begin our crash course in Russian, surrounded by tobacco smoke, vodka bottles and heavily drinking Georgian men who seem remarkably sober. After a few beers, nothing seems very strange anymore - I’m even tempted by the wide selection of pig offal on sale. (This is what food was like before Hepatitis and Heart Disease)We discover it’s perfectly normal for them not to notice us, and for the staff to seem totally miserable. Superficial friendliness in Georgia is seen as just that - so no ‘Have a nice day’ crap here! (And despite consuming three bottles of Vodka for breakfast, its very uncivilized to act pissed)
Fortunately Russian is the kind of language you can pronounce very badly and yet inebriated ‘undrunk’ people can still somehow understand. With their help we find our way to a very nice Hotel which is owned (we learn a couple of
nights later via the gift of drunken pantomime Russian) by a man who kept insisting “Me No mafia”! And whose brother was a Bodyguard of the local leader Aslan Abishadze of Ajara Who fled as recently as last month when Georgian tanks began lining up on his border. Aslan managed to hold onto this autonomous region of Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union with the help of the Russians who had troops stationed here, and this wily old corrupt man has become very rich because of it(most of the rest have clearly not). But since the revolution in Georgia in November, and the local elections here in Ajara just two weeks ago, people are newly optimistic about the future.
Batumi really is fascinating. Sitting side-by-side are uniformed rusting communist-eyesore tower blocks, and beautifully varied old Mansions of long deceased millionaires. The once grand promenade is populated by beach-side restaurants looking out at enormous oil tankers gathering in the port waiting to take away the black gold that will help fund not just Batumi’s, but Georgia’s future.
The hotel owner attempted to convince us to stay indefinitely at his expense; with the strange promise that not even
The highest continually inhabited place in Europe.
the police will bother us as long as we are under his care. In return we would teach him English, after which he would sell his businesses and go to America - a land he tells us, where it doesn’t matter who you are or where you from as long as you have money “Svabodny” (freedom). But how will you get a visa I ask? “With money…” he shakes his head and laughs “NO problem”!
We decline his offer, and travel to Kutaisi, a town that is tidier than Batumi but frankly not by much. We stay in the better of two Hotels, both of which are full of refugees from the war in Abkhazia. The inside of this hotel doesn’t look much better than most of the Georgia we’ve seen so far. After two days here we’re pretty tired of Urban Georgia and we make the decision to head into the mountains. In the Old Testament, The Garden of Eden is located somewhere in Georgia, so we decided we might as well have a look for it…
We decide on Svaneti, high up in the Caucuses. The most Beautiful and celebrated of the Georgian mountain regions. Inhabited by
the Svans; isolated from the rest of Georgia almost 4,000 years ago. They’ve maintained their own semi pagan customs, and unwritten language - whilst the rest of Georgia was repeatedly conquered by successive invaders. This is also, however, one of the most dangerous regions in Georgia; bordering the Warring Abkhazia to the West and the troubled lands of Osettia to the east, and a land in itself of fierce Independence and family vendettas. The guidebooks advice was of course ‘don’t go’! Describing it as another bloody Wild West with Kalashnikov toting locals - is their anything more enticing than Paradise-playing-hard-to-get? Maybe they should add the phrase ‘Free Beer’?
So we headed up ‘the most dangerous road in Georgia’ (both for its traffic accidents and trigger happy locals) Passing Russian-manned peace-keeping check points, until 5 hours later we reach a huge deep beautifully green valley, lined by the high jagged white mountains of the Caucasus.
Svaneti is not just famous for its beauty, but also its towers (see pic.) some 25 metres high, and over 800yrs old; built to protect villagers from marauding tribes and dodgy neighbours. Each village in Svaneti has them, and so successful were they, that valuable religious
artefacts were sent up to isolated Svaneti to be safely hidden in them in times of strife.
We stayed with a family in the largest town Mestia (pop. 3000). Sampling the local hospitality, excellent food and disgusting local brew Chacha (which is made from fermented bread???). The local Museum housed all the fantastic treasures that the Svan had acquired over the centuries, but all this just left me wanting more. We decided that we would attempt to walk to the last village in Svaneti; Ushgulli. This is also the highest continuously inhabited place in Europe at 2200m. Nino, the woman with whom we were staying, was terrified by this prospect and tried to talk us out of it. She pleaded with us to at least take a jeep the 55km to Ushgulli, since it would be safer. But at $40, only a two hour stopover, and nowhere near as much fun, we decided to walk. Nino gave us four days to return otherwise she would send out a search party. Luckily one hour into the walk we flagged down a jeep and we were then introduced to the insane Svan custom of drinking shrines. A cross on the side
of the road marks the spot where a drunken local has driven off the side of the road. Every time you see one of these crosses, the car stops, everybody (including driver) gets out and knocks back three fairly large glasses of Wine each in quick succession, then everybody gets back into the car and onto the next cross!
Pissed as newts we were left to walk the last 15km up the gorge to Ushgulli. It took 4 hrs before we'd arrived into a Europe I'd never laid eyes on or even new existed. Yet, in defiance of my ignorance the towers so imposing and aged rose high above the stone houses, boldly cementing the fact that they'd stood for centuries. We walked the muddied winding streets, populated by long haired pigs, sheep, goats and Cattle - all backed by the highest mountain in Georgia (Mt. Shkarra at 5200m)... this wouldn't be a bad candidate for an ancient Eden.
That night we stayed with a family who prepared an excellent meal, after which we all gathered around a small TV and watched a badly translated version of that Brazilian soap opera that’s consuming the globe. It seemed we
weren't really that interesting to our hosts anymore, and at the same time they became less interesting to us. We may have been a real-life snapshot of the 'west' sitting in their kitchen that night, and they a real-life snapshot of a European world beyond the scope of my imagination, yet in this setting a Brazilian mansion was far more exotic and glamorous... As I looked around the kitchen I smiled thinking that at least we didn't have to worry about naive notions of 'eroding' their culture by our presence...whatever that means?
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