Georgia, or George

Heather and I were observing that we have reached a point in life when we no longer try not to act like tourists. We cheerfully announce it when the circumstances call for disclosure: “Tourist!” It used to be that I’d try to fit in, or simply not to be noticed. Whether this was because I thought it was “cooler” to seem like a “local” or because I was afraid of being ripped off or of missing out on “authentic” experience, or because I just didn’t want to be bothered by touts, I can’t quite say. Probably some of all of the above.

I don’t find any trouble in fending off most touts anymore—they tend to be even more obviously touts than I am a tourist; I can’t keep up with what’s cool and don’t have the energy to try to fake it; I have no illusions about being taken for a local (not even with my fit-in-anywhere complexion); and authentic experience is whatever experience you have, as long as you’re having it with all your senses engaged, whether it’s riding on the funicular in Baku, which is a sort of souvenir-in-motion, or riding a bus that breaks down in 105-degree heat on the road into the Azerbaijani hinterlands two days later.

For the last two days, Heather and I have been in K(Q)azbegi, Georgia, taking hikes of various distances up into the heights that reach toward the eponymous 17,000-foot mountain. We’ve seen hundreds, possibly actual thousands, of other hikers on the trails. Kazbegi might be the most touristy place in Georgia. But that doesn’t detract one bit from the authenticity of the beauty of the mountain, which is rising up spectacularly outside our hotel window as I write this, the Mount Rainier of the Caucasus (I just made that up, don’t Google it) and showing yet another of its personalities in this post-rain, half-clearing, cloud-wisped, late-afternoon light.

Equally authentic is the rashly overbuilt and rather cantankerous, grubby, oddly inhospitable town of Kazbegi, which has found a way to smash one identity into another and find a third; authentic, too, the strange swamp-gassy smell one gets occasional whiffs of, coming from somewhere down on the hotel’s lawn; and, to get us here from Tbilisi, the fraught minibus ride—actually two-minibus ride, because the first minibus broke down and had to be replaced by another (an hourlong roadside delay, our second in our last three bus rides). Authentic tourism is whatever you fully observe and sense. Like George.

Last week, Heather was trying to take a picture of the mountain view from Sighnaghi, which is the Asheville of Georgia (I made that up, too, don’t Google it either but it’s true) when a guy pulled up on a motorcycle and got in the way. But the guy on the motorcycle actually looked kind of good in the picture, or just kind of good period—a real road dog, fully geared up in black and highlighter-yellow on his stylishly dusty and obviously not-from-these-parts Suzuki—so Heather took the picture because he was in it, not although he was in it.

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George. Photo by Heather Mallory.

Later, we saw this dude again, idling on his bike elsewhere in town. This time we approached and Heather showed him the picture she had taken. He gave approval. We chatted. His name was George and he was from Greece, outside Athens. He had biked all over, and lived all over. He spent time working in New York City and had been to North Carolina—to buy a piece of equipment, he explained, although he did not say what kind of equipment. George was very open and forthright but also seemed to be protecting a certain portion of himself, maintaining some amount of mystery. He could have been twenty-seven or forty-three. He was traveling solo and cheaply, camping, living a Eurasian On The Road. Heather shared to his Facebook page (“Aroma of Asia,” if you’re interested) the picture she took of him. In some other life, I might have liked to be someone like George, although it’s certainly not the life I have now, the life of a tourist. On his blog, George writes: “The most important for me was to be a traveler not just tourist. A traveler that stays with locals, eat together, share stories and enjoy the simplicity of life.”

We spent four days in Sighnaghi, twice as many as we intended. We suddenly realized how tired we were from more than two weeks of high-energy, fast-moving travel, without having had any twelve-hour stint of rest. Our longest stopover was four days in bustling, enormous, overwhelming Istanbul, where we met up with a couple of Heather’s best friends, so the time was very social as well as sightseeing-intensive. Our time in sweltering Azerbaijan (all of Europe as far as the Caspian was engulfed in a heatwave) included that long, hot, broke-down bus ride across the country, and numerous old-church visits and a lot of walking around the somewhat straggly mountain town of Sheki.

We then managed to spend our first full day in Georgia on a long, tortuous ride to (and intensive tour of) the famed Davit Gareja monastery, back up on the border with Azerbaijan—whose military, we discovered at the top of the hill above the monastery, was prohibiting tourists from descending to the other flank, where there are old cave frescoes: a main attraction of the site. An longstanding Georgia-Azerbaijan border dispute had flared up again, and tourists were the ones being punished. We were disappointed not to see the caves, but we did get to hang out for a while around the Georgian and Azerbaijani guards at the little chapel up on the ridge, slouching in their different uniform shades of green, machine guns slung casually over their shoulders, managing the flux of disappointed visitors. The Azerbaijani guards were perfectly amiable, but there was no way they were going to be talked into letting us go to the caves: just following orders, they explained.

I didn’t want to have climbed this hill for nothing. I asked for and was granted permission to have a quick look at a little shrine, not quite in the contested zone but apparently not quite in Georgian, either, just beyond the general range of the patrolling Georgians, one of whom spoke no apparent English whatsoever beyond these three words, which he spat out over the ridge toward the disputed territory, in a profane unpunctuated burst: “FuckYouAzerbaijan!” Perhaps that was more memorable than any cave painting would have been.

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Georgian guards on the left. Photo by Heather Mallory.

What did we do for the rest of our time in the Asheville of Georgia? We slept more than we had. We took a pleasant walk down to the historic monastery a couple of kilometers outside of Sighnaghi, dedicated to St. Nino, who is buried in the chapel. She’s credited with bringing Christianity to Georgia in the fourth century, making it officially the world’s second Christian nation, according to {whom?}. (Adjacent Armenia was the first.) We did not pay 50 lari (about $20) to take a twelve-second zip-line ride over Sighnaghi’s ravine, although we watched other tourists do that. We ate three times in three days at the same restaurant, ten meters from our apartment. We drank a fair amount of the regional wine of Kakheti, for which Georgia is famous—maybe not famous in America, but famous among the wine cognoscenti, and instantly famous to anyone who visits Georgia, because Georgian wine isn’t quite like any other wine in the world.

A LITTLE ABOUT THE WINE, WHICH IS ALSO ABOUT THE COUNTRY

I’m only taking this little diversion because otherwise people would say, “Adam went to a famous wine region and didn’t say anything about it?” The first thing to know is that Georgian cuisine is really trendy right now, to the degree that even as mainstream and stodgy a publication as the New Yorker recently ran a feature. Not for nothing: Georgian food is delicious, and it came as a welcome change after Azerbaijan, where we subsisted for half the trip on piroshki (the Soviet effect, still obtaining), i.e. grease-drenched fried dough wrapped around mashed potato. The most interesting food I had in Azerbaijan was a regional specialty from Sheki, up in the northwest of the country, called Piti (accent on the second syllable). The most interesting thing about Piti, which is a essentially mountain comfort dish, is the way it’s served, not what it is. It arrives at the table in an earthenware mug (always the same shape and size) which is placed next to an empty bowl. You tear pieces of bread into the bowl, and the server (in my case, the warm-eyed owner of the place where I ordered Piti) pours the brothy part of what’s in the mug over the bread, for a pleasant soup starter course. Once you’ve consumed that, he takes a fork and stabs the slab of {something} that is sitting atop the mug. He puts this in the bowl and dumps in the rest of the contents: the remaining couple of tablespoons of broth, and a pile of slow-cooked lamb and chickpeas; these he proceeds to fork together with the broth and the slab, which turns out to be lamb fat. The second course of Piti is the resulting mush, more palatable if liberally seasoned with the deep red powder served alongside it, which turns out to be sumac (!) Azerbaijan features some pretty interesting foodstuffs: unusual spices, good fruit, great herbs, robust hazelnut production. (There is pretty good Azerbaijani brandy, too.) The problem is that no one seems to have figured out how to incorporate the country’s wide range of cool ingredients into a noteworthy national cuisine. Almost every Azerbaijani restaurant we saw served boring (and bad) Western fare or Turkish fast food.

Georgia (to return to my intended digression from a secondary one) has no such shortfall of gastronomic identity and character, and you can tell as soon as you cross the border, which we did last week: vines! Grapevines everywhere! Also roadside produce stalls—it’s melon season here, as it is back home in North Carolina—most of which also have a motley row of assorted used plastic drink bottles of various sizes and shapes, all filled with homemade wine.

The Georgia tourism board, or whatever you call it, likes to claim that their country invented winemaking eight thousand years ago. Could be true, probably isn’t, and misses the point, which is that however long Georgians have made wine, and whether or not they were the first to make it, the method has not much changed in all that time. They grow hundreds and hundreds of varietals, most of which are unheard of outside the country (and some of which the Georgians themselves can’t really identify, either). After harvest, they throw the grapes into big clay vessels called qvevri—something like amphorae, which can range in capacity from a few dozen liters to a few thousand—bury the qvevri in the ground, and mostly forget about them all winter.

Allowing fermenting grape juice to sit on the pomace (skins, seeds, etc.) for that long, in porous containers that allow for a lot of breathing, yields a really funky wine. Traditional Georgian whites are actually deep amber in color. They’re usually served at room temperature, like reds, and they’ve got tannic dryness like reds. Some of them even smell like just like reds if you close your eyes, but not like the reds you drink in your country. Georgian reds are seriously tangy, as though some percentage of wild vinegar is in them; their flavors are feral, organic, confrontational. Both the whites and the reds often taste (to me) strongly of roasted nuts, which I surmise has something to do with either the juice’s extended contact with grape solids or with some alchemy having to do with the months the wine spends in qvevri.

Because Georgian wine has such distinctive qualities relative to the rest of the wine world, it can be easy to overlook that quite a lot of it tastes more or less the same, as you might expect of a country with a very specific and unusual fermenting approach that tends to influence the wine more than either the grape varietal or the terroir does: this is qvevri-driven wine. A fair amount of Georgian wine is in my opinion demonstrably not good, and even the good stuff is really not for everyone, or even for most people. A lot of it is merely strange, even accounting for à chacun son goût. It’s absolutely itself, though, unmistakable for anything else, and it goes really well with Georgian food, which is, as my old employer was famous for saying, not afraid of flavor. My favorite Georgian dish so far has been the powerfully aromatic Sacivi: chicken cooked in a walnut sauce (lots of walnuts in Georgian food) that is heavy on fenugreek, coriander, possibly crushed marigold leaves, and other seasonings that give Sacivi a slightly curry-like quality. There are also wonderful vegetable dishes here, made of good fresh produce, and delicious bread that is sometimes grilled after it’s filled—with cheese, usually, but best when it’s wrapped around a pork-scented bean fondu of sorts for a specialty called lobiani.

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A painting whose title I forgot by the eminent Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli, on exhibition at Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku.

I’ve been working in the food business for two decades. I confess that I am unfortunately a foodie—I say unfortunately because in some essential way that isn’t worth laboring to articulate, food actually bores me most of the time and I find myself working harder to care about it than I want to. Perhaps it’s better to say that when you’re really immersed in life, food isn’t very important, unless the thing you’re immersed in at that moment is specifically about food. It should be healthy and taste good and otherwise not preoccupy you very much, I think. My memory of the food I ate in Albania is mostly cucumbers. At home, I eat oatmeal for breakfast and eggs for lunch about five days a week. Most restaurant food, especially in the US, appears diverse but really falls into a handful of categories within which there’s virtually no variation—the upscale places over which people wage foodie war are to my eye (and palate) pretty much all the same save for almost imperceptible degrees of difference and quality. And of course our country has no national food culture to speak of, except fast food. Related to that lack, and worse, far worse, is the American coercion toward and irremediable dependency on an industrial food supply chain that delivers ingredients which are dead on arrival.

Georgian cuisine is alive. That’s cardinally true of the wine, of course, some of which tastes like it’s still in some kinked and possibly dangerous developmental process and might very well leap out of the glass and rearrange its chemical chain right on the table. It’s noticeable in the food, too, not just in the ingredients and the dishes but in how the food is situated in daily life. During our time in France in 2015 and 2017 (and Heather’s in years prior), periods long enough to give us a pretty clear sense of what was going on, Heather and I frequently and unhappily dined on “traditional” French cuisine cooked lackadaisically (and on one memorable occasion, downright abominably) by one restaurant after another. The famous café culture was still active, but the coffee was mostly bad; for lunch in Paris, you saw a lot of people simply wolfing down prefab sandwiches on the street.

Georgian foodways are far more limited than France’s. The same ingredients recur in many dishes, and most restaurant menus are pretty much the same. But there’s a gusto, a sheer presence and exuberance that is easy to love and hard not to notice: it’s a participatory culture, and it’s not just in the extravagant “supra” feasts for which the country is famous. In Tbilisi, the capital, old women walk down the street braying what sound like prayers or lamentations and carrying what look like alms baskets, but really they are going around the neighborhood selling the morning’s blackberry harvest. Some of the bakeries are halfway underground. They look like wholesalers, not retail establishments, but they are open for business. You order from these tiny places by stooping down and calling into the low sliding windows, as though toward a subterranean, diminutive race of bakers, who come marching up from their stokeholes to street level, stick a hand out of the window at shin height, take your coins and hand you an enormous stingray- or huarache-shaped loaf that’s sometimes so hot you have to wrap it in a bandanna in order to carry it—and then you can’t help eating half of it while you walk down the street, pulling it like steaming taffy.

That’s George’s, and Georgia’s. “simplicity of life,” and it’s examples like these that make the country feel like a place where you might like to be a little more (or a little less) than a tourist, if you can. Heather and I built into our trip enough leeway to drop anchor for an extended stint, if we found the right place to do it. We decided, after we leave Kazbegi, to go back to Tbilisi—my favorite of the cities I’ve seen since I left the US—and spend a week or so there. Keep moving, never change: the latter requires tending when you’re on the road. I’d like to eat some oatmeal, and read a book.

That’s not to say we won’t still be fundamentally tourists. Of course we will be, and are. There’s no getting away from it even if we wanted to. One of the couples we shared our two-minibus ride with from Tbilisi to Kazbegi reappeared at the top of the monastery climb that everyone who comes here makes; we resumed chatting with them like we were old friends. (Heather found the wherewithal to ask them their names after about fifteen minutes.) An hour or so later, we saw them yet again, eating dinner in an outdoor café on the main road in town. You find novelties and surprises in the crevices between the pro forma experiences—and by pro forma I do not at all mean something negative, I mean something more like ritual—when you’re simply walking back to your hotel, having dropped tourist purpose and character for the day. On the same street where we saw our fellow minibus passengers/monastery climbers eating dinner, we did a simultaneous double take when we were passed by a guy in black and highlighter-yellow on a motorcycle. George!

He had caught up with us again, or we with him, a week after Sighnaghi. Sure, as George wrote, “the most important for me was to be a traveler not just tourist,” but here he was again, and here we were, not “catching up” but going where we all go, all on the same circuit, all being tourists, because tourists are what we are, and tourism is not by definition superficial: hundreds of us from all over the world came to Kazbegi and hiked hard high miles to a spectacular, unforgettable glacier today. Perhaps the word “traveler” implies something more deliberate, philosophical, and serious than “tourist,” but after two months as the latter I’m starting to think that the former is actually defined by some lighter, more impulsive quality, which has to do with a current of energy that never stops idling even when one isn’t moving, with a sense that one is always partly in the next place already—and, crucially, that one does not yet know where that place is.

We waved to George, too late to flag him down, we feared, as he motored up the hill past us. About a minute later, we heard his bike coming back down again—the sound made me almost as happy as spotting Lee partway up the trail from Theth to Valbona—and he pulled up beside us, his bike thrust out into the street, obstructing traffic. (“Why should I move it?” he asked rhetorically, smiling. “They’ve been trying to run me off the road all over Georgia.”) He chatted amiably with us for a few minutes, but not more than that. It was dusk, and he was headed up the mountain to find a campsite. And tomorrow? He didn’t know yet. He’d find his next destination the same way he found Sighnaghi and everywhere else he’d been: in the morning, more or less at the moment when he got back on his bike and started it up.

“We must risk our lives to save them.” – John Muir

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Kazbegi
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