“What will be your final destination?” asked the old Ukrainian woman at the Gatwick check-in desk. When I told her “Tbilisi” she repeated the word back to me with a tone of surprise, bordering on disbelief. After checking me in, her parting words were, with genuine concern in her voice, “You be careful out there.” Georgia has managed to garner a somewhat negative international reputation, especially in Russia and her allies. Hardly surprising, considering that the country currently has not one but two Russian-backed breakaway states within its internationally-recognized borders. The open warfare that erupted between Georgia and Russia as a result of this in 2008 is probably the only time in recent history that Georgia has been prominent in international headlines. Add to this the fact that the nation’s most famous son was Josef Stalin and you can understand why there’s a bit of stigma attached to the place. To the better informed, however, Georgia is not primarily associated with war or despotic dictators; instead it brings to mind unspoilt nature, awe-inspiring mountains, delightfully hospitable people and a unique 1700-year-old culture.
Tbilisi, the capital, is most visitors’ starting point, as it contains the country’s main international airport. Many of the buildings in Tbilisi’s Old Town appear to have been left unchanged and unrennovated since the 18th or 19th century, so are in various stages of decay and are still occupied by ordinary Georgians. The general state of disrepair does nothing but enhance the character of the place. With scarcely a 20th century building in sight, one could really get the feel of Tbilisi’s former status as a provincial outpost of the Russian Empire and an important trading town in the foothills of the Caucasus, on the Silk Road. The city’s high street, Shota Rustaveli, provides a stark contrast: this grand avenue, boasting such international chains as Nike, Adidas and of course McDonalds, is possibly the only place in Georgia that could rightfully be said to feel like Western Europe. Most of the rest of the city, outside of the centre, is a post-Soviet urban sprawl, familiar to anyone who’s been to Russia.
Georgia’s main draw to tourists is however not its capital; far more interesting and appealing is what lies beyond. The best way to get from place to place is by marshrutka, these rickety old minibuses serve as the main form of public transport throughout the Caucasus, are usually crammed beyond capacity with tourists and locals alike, and have only the loosest of timetables. Add to that the fact that Georgian transport hubs are invariably chaotic – packed with market stalls and street vendors as well as marshrutki and taxis – and that a vehicle’s destination is usually only written in the Georgian script (try not to confuse თბილისიwithბათუმი), and just getting from one town to the next becomes an adventure in itself. After spending one journey on a small wooden chair placed between two of the marshrutka‘s actual seats; one with a toddler kicking me and trying to steal my chocolate; and one squashed between the window and an enormous beast of a man, I have learnt that there is no such thing as a comfortable marshrutka journey.
Like most visitors, once I’d had my fill of Tbilisi I headed to the mountains in the north of the country. The most popular mountain destinations are Svaneti, Tusheti and Kazbegi: I chose the third, as it involved spending the least time in a marshrutka, being less than three hours drive away. These are remote communities, containing few amenities. a handful of shops and cafes and one small museum formed the totality of Kazbegi’s centre. Real hotels or hostels are rare in the villages, so the usual form of accommodation is guesthouses or homestays, whereby one stays in a local’s house and is provided with authentic home-cooked meals. At the place I stayed in Kazbegi I slept in a room with ten beds packed into it, and there was no sign of any hot water, but with three hearty meals a day included in the price of 35 lari (about £13), I could hardly complain. But most importantly, the lack of amenities, attractions or creature comforts is more than made up for by the stunning scenery, offering everything from relaxing strolls to serious hikes, as well as mountain biking, horse riding and paragliding.
But Georgia has more to offer than just rugged mountains: the natural landscapes here are impressively diverse. The pleasantly sleepy spa town of Borjomi, for example, is nestled among wonderful pine-covered hills that recall Austria or the Black Forest. Just outside the edge of town is the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, the largest national park in the Caucasus and one of the biggest in Europe, with an area of 5300 sqkm. In this beautiful and unspoiled expanse of nature, where bears, wolves and lynxes roam free, visitors can hike and camp for days on end. But about twenty minutes drive south of Borjomi the land transforms completely. The lush greens of the forests are replaced by a barren, mostly brown, semi-desert landscape. It’s in this part of the country, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border, that the Middle Eastern influence really becomes evident: the walled Old Town in Akhaltsikhe, for example, wouldn’t feel out of place in Istanbul. But one of Georgia’s most alien features of all, located out in the middle of nowhere, is the cave city of Vardzia. This complex of interconnected caves, carved into a steep cliffside overlooking the Mtkvari River, was constructed in the twelfth century and for hundreds of years was permanently inhabited. Today a few caves still have monks living in them, while the rest is open for tourists to wander around freely.
My trip to Georgia barely scratch the surface of exploring this fascinating land. This tiny country of under five million people has so much to offer, it’s a wonder more people don’t go there. I think that tourism is set to increase rapidly over the next couple of years. In Poland and Israel, Georgia is already a popular backpacker destination; it’s only a matter of time before the hype reaches the rest of the world. However, with the Georgian government investing in modernization, the place’s natural charm is however being gently eroded: while improved infrastructure and more locals learning English will no doubt be an aid to travelers, the new buildings popping up around the country are often less than tasteful, and the authorities seem to have a slightly distorted idea of what tourists want to see. So in short, not only would I urge you to ignore any bad press Georgia might have, but I would urge you to do so sooner rather than later, before it inevitably becomes a bit too much like everywhere else in the world!