By Jamis H. MacNiven
In my ever widening quest to travel to the furthest capillaries of civilization I teamed up with my frequent traveling companions Kevin Kelly and Will Milne to find another corner of the globe where it’s our practice to go to the end of the reasonable road and beat on the driver’s head (gently, but persuasively) to keep going beyond the point of common sense and find out what the real story is. This time we went to the one-time Soviet state of Georgia. Our driver, Georgie of Georgia needed no head pummeling because he drove as if to get to his pregnant wife who was delivering a child on the edge of a volcano, during an earthquake surrounded by sharks. Plowing through a foot of snow on the edge of a cliff was, in his only English, “naut a porbulm.” We got used to clearing oncoming vehicles by millimeters and following so close to big rigs we could see the whites of the other driver’s corpuscles. Over five days he saved us about 23 minutes which we spent standing in snow filled churches which had just caved in 600 years before.
We loved him and our snappy Georgian guide Salomé who was 22, worldly (she had once lived in Fresno) and could quote all of Rick and Morty which even you, dear reader probably have no clue what I’m talking about (if you do see me after class). We also had in our retinue Will’s son, Gary and Nasser Sagheb who’s a Palo Alto guy but lived for years in Azerbaijan, our final stop.
Kevin is compiling a masterwork of photography in a book called Disappearing Asia. When it’s finished and Taschen publishes it it will already be too late to visit some of the people we met because the future is erasing the old world at an ever increasing speed.
Georgia is the crossroad between the Black and the Caspian Seas in Central Asia. The country itself has never been a powerhouse and with the Silk Road running through it it’s been trampled on by passersby since the dawn of civilization. Although the Soviet empire has been disbanded (I wonder if Karl Marx meant this when he said the “state should wither and die”) the current regime is relentlessly moving the fence and has taken 20% of Georgia back since the USSR went poof! in 1991.
OK, some facts: The U.S. state of Georgia was named for King George II who took his name from a Roman Christian saint named George as did the real Georgia. In nonbanjo Georgia they still think St. George is hot stuff but aren’t interested in King George even a little and they don’t find it funny that a good deal of their mail ends up in the dead letter office in Atlanta (I’m serious). Another thing that puzzles the Georgians we met was the notion that they live in the Caucasus and that white folk are called Caucasians. They’ve not heard the term. It seems some 19th century German scholars divided the races of the world into four types and white Europeans ended up being named for a band of blond blue-eyed Aryans who had, so the story goes, perfectly formed skulls. Hummm. These people never existed in the place these scholars had never been to. History, fun, no?
The Golden Fleece was supposedly from Georgia and sheep are still a big deal there. Also pigs, goats, cattle and horses and once you leave the cities you slip back into the 15th century. By far the most interesting place for me was Svaneti Valley. It was the edge of winter and we drove in light snow up a gorge which had been Swiss-cheesed by relentless Russian hard-rock miners drilling countless tunnels some of which we explored. Topping one rise we found the first of many 10th century villages. The roads, walls, roofs and especially the towers were all made of stone. Oh, except that in every city, town and some villages they decided to modernize the police stations and in a move to make government transparent they literally built the stations and court houses with glass walls. Many of these ultramodern structures are next to prostrated stone barns and cabbage patches. This is a country that is maybe 25% ruins from Zoroastrian temples from thousands of years ago to Middle Ages castles to collapsed Soviet factories from the 20th century.
Most notable were the stone towers which sprouted from many of the homes. They were generally about 20 feet square and 60 to 80 feet high. They were constructed from the 9th to the 13th centuries and because the villagers couldn’t agree on a central castle each homeowner built his own. This was amazingly difficult as the stones had to be cut from the surrounding mountains and laid without mortar. The idea was they were redoubts to lock up their daughters and some food then rain rocks and insults onto the heads of raiders from the lowlands. The towers are in near perfect shape and the villagers still live in the stone houses, some over a thousand years old. This is a weird and wonderful place with a few restaurants and guest houses. There are over 200 of these mini castles and if you can push your way through the packs of the snarling dogs you can go up in them and dump a couple of rocks over for old times’ sake.
At the very end of the valley a couple of miles from the Russian border we discovered a forlorn church in the very definition of nowhere. Old, cold and you could see the soft polish of the stone floor from centuries of penitents kneeling on the granite.
The food in Georgia is somewhere between good and quite good. The food is hearty, plentiful and one fills up fast…then they bring the main course and it’s a battle to stay under 10,000 calories a day.
Man, they really lay on the feedbag. The first course generally consists of the very finest fresh bread/pizza crust called khachapuri; it’s filled with eggs, cheese and butter. Then there are rounds of various roasted meats, stews, plates of cheese and olives and a smattering of vegetables for color. Then more bread and baklava. My normal diet includes almost none of this except for the vegetable smattering so I, of course, refused these fantastic dishes. “Just a glass of water and a tomato please.” No, I cast my good intentions to the dogs and gained, I’m not kidding, a pound a day. It was that or starve, right? And I didn’t want to be unsocial so I just gave up. One of the best meals we had was when we stopped by the side of the road and Gary fished small bread loaves from a wood fired oven with a hook and we filled them with the salty feta cheese they make next to the bakery.
Our trip began in the capital city of Tbilisi, a vibrant place both very old and quite different from California. We arrived on the weekend when they were holding church services in all of the churches, most of which are still sanctified including one that was established 1,500 years ago. The priest told us they rebuilt it in 1,400 so it’s considered nearly modern. Most Georgians are Orthodox Christians and this influence dates to the 4th century in the region (a few are Muslins but they are barely hanging in there). The service is a lovely operation. The priest waves the incense burner and the crowd chants. In one church the high windows admitted the low winter light and the rays lit up the place as the hundreds of worshipers joined in communion, lighting bees wax candles, side stepping the many tombs set in the floor, corralling fidgeting children and kissing the hundreds of crucifixes and icons wrapping every surface. I find piety in community extremely moving and we all felt privileged to be admitted. A universal truth about these Catholic services the world over is that the choir boys always sport modern tennis shoes under their robes which always gives me a chuckle.
One of our stops was an ancient community of caves cut into the cliffs where people had been living for thousands of years. Some were quite elaborately carved and unlike Petra in Jordan there is no Roman or Greek influence. Here, and in fact, everywhere, one sees lots of stray dogs in the cities in the countryside, everywhere. Georgians just love stray dogs. In fact, one is constantly surrounded by animals on and about the roads; a perennial parade of fur and feathers especially sheep in staggering numbers. We saw one flock of perhaps a thousand on the highway herded by road-hardened shepherds with a few donkeys and horses carrying their tents. The wave of muddy wool flowed down the road and our driver just pushed slowly through them. Then another flock even bigger streamed by.
Georgia has a population of 3.7 million and half live in the capital; the rest are spread out all over the countryside. They heat with wood so there is a pall of smoke in many of the valleys. Most of us had paid scant attention to the itinerary and really had no idea where we were going on any given day. Our directive was to ‘take it to the edge’ and to witness the places not generally visited. So when we got to Svantei we were pretty happy. Some of the string of villages are more or less inhabited and have only a family or two living in the ruins and some seem almost vibrant by end-of-the-world standards. In our hotels the power would go on and off with regularity and then we just used candles.
Located so vulnerably between Turkey, Iran and Russia—Georgia has a long history of ass kicking as the kickee not the kicker. The Persians, the Romans, the Mongols, Mr. Tamburlaine, dozens of miscellaneous tribes, the Ottomans and finally the big-booted Russians all came a callin. They do have natural resources such as gold, silver, copper and iron but now their real superpower is falling water and the entire grid is powered by hydro.
Everyone we met spoke Georgian and Russian and there is an uneasy tarantella between this vulnerable country and the Great Bear to the north. We attempted one mountain pass which was the main road to Russia. The trucks had been stopped short of the pass down in the valley and we got as far as we could but finally became marooned with many other macho drivers who weren’t going to let a little snow stop them. After some hours jammed in a snowdrift a plow freed us and we skidded and skewed down the mountain. It was edgy and dangerous and in the end we missed seeing yet another smashed up church in the middle of nowhere. Oh, phooey. Coming down from the pass we estimated the line of semis to number well over 300 and these were huge double trailer road warriors. The line was only going to get longer and they could be stuck for a week.
There are only two famous Georgians, well three if you count the composer Aram Khachaturian…which we are not. One is their sole cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchhikhin. By unlikely but miraculous coincidence I happen to own the space suit he wore and it’s hanging from the ceiling at Buck’s. I got it under the kind auspices of the head of the Russian army over 20 years ago where everything, and I mean everything, is for sale, though I have still had no luck buying Lenin’s corpse…though I have not entirely given up.
Ok, there really is only one famous Georgian and boy is he famous. Uncle Joe Stalin. He was a short man with a shorter fuse. His supporters say he killed around 2-3 million of his own people. His detractors claim more like 70 so let’s split the dif and say 35 million. That is one great pile of misery.
In Gori we went to see Stalin’s childhood home and the adjacent Stalin museum with the dilapidated bulletproof train car he used to ride around in. The shabby museum was ill attended, exhausted and dreary. If it gleamed that would have been terrible, so, good, it’s a dump. They don’t like Stalin in Georgia but since he’s the only really famous Georgian they go with it.
Will had uncovered a truly bizarre highlight he found in Atlas Obscura—Stalin’s mystery printing press where he ground out propaganda in the ten years before the Russian Revolution. This is under a house in Gori. Originally it was so super-secret one had to descend a well in a bucket for about fifty feet then get off in a tunnel which lead to a ladder taking you to the printing room. It was deep underground because of the noise of the press. Why they picked a spot in town is crazy as they could have gone out to the countryside and set up in one of the countless ruins the country is blessed with. It was a manual press and we held the handle that Stalin himself used to turn out his various tirades. I can say I felt no jolt of madman power when I grabbed the handle unlike the custodian who sits in an office above ground in an office out of time past. He’s surrounded by portraits of Stalin and Lenin with Communist flags and posters plastered over all the walls and tattered, urine-colored copies of Pravda from the 1950s on his desk. The desk also sports a nifty dial telephone and the aged gentleman positively ignited when we asked a question and harangued us with tales of the good ol days when cabbage was three cents a head and everyone was wildly happy. This cabbage price came up frequently in our time with him and he was sure that good times were going to return with the arrival of Putin at any moment. I asked him (through our translator) how many visitors he gets a month and he said we were the second in three weeks and most of them are aged communist Chinese.
Well, Uncle Joe’s pressroom got flooded a few years back and now, like the gatekeeper himself, it’s rusted and won’t be fulminating revolution for the foreseeable future. We gave him some money for his tour; enough to keep him in cabbage (the cabbages are the size of Fiats in this region) for some time.
Then we crossed the border from Georgia to Azerbaijan and had to hoof it a quarter mile down a razor wire wrapped corridor called ‘no man’s land’ because if the borders actually touch they get cooties. These two countries are supposedly great friends but there is plenty of mistrust to go around. The Georgians hate the Abkhazians, the Azerbaijanis hate the Armenians and no one likes the Russians. So basically the alliances and grievances shift with stunning regularity and always have. But look at us. Our leader tells us our sworn enemies are now the Mexicans who, in 1848, made us take half their country and are now trying to crash the border so they can steal our terrific agricultural jobs. And don’t forget the cheeten’, backstabbin’ Canadians with their fake politeness and usurious maple syrup prices.
Arriving in Azerbaijan the situation changed immediately. This country has a lot of natural gas and the prosperity shows. Gone are the running road pigs and caved in neighborhoods. It was south enough to be much warmer and the vast farms were lush and productive. We arrived in the late afternoon and found a young couple on their wedding day posing for photos at a 17th century sultan’s palace. One rule is that the wealthier the family, the bigger the wedding dress, but schlepping around in the rain wearing a 35-pound dress, 4 inch heels and struggling across the cobblestones was a challenge for the bride but the couple perked up when they met us. We were considered pretty exotic and easily finagled an invitation to the celebration to be held in a massive wedding hall that night. There we found several dance troops and a sizable band with singers, fireworks (inside no less) and endless toasts. I counted five videographers including one running a crane. They made us feel entirely welcome even in our travel clothes. The way they run these shindigs is all the guests pay for the wedding. In the USA this would have been $500 a head easy. There we were told it was 20 or 30 dollars. If you think the weddings here are elaborate they pale compared to the many days to-ing and fro-ing with this and that Georgian tradition.
Azerbaijan is a 90% Muslim country but it is pretty laid back with most of the women not covered up. There are a few Christians and some Zoroastrians and 6 or 7 Jews.
In some places we visited the locals spoke as many as five languages and what with all the arguing with other countries it makes for a pretty lively way to live. In Azerbaijan they tout their national pride by erecting immense flagpoles which sport flags the size of football fields.
Every town and city has a huge flag held aloft in the town square by an equally huge flagpole (hey, it was that or fund preschools) Our aim in Baku, the capital city, was to see the world’s third tallest flagpole at 531 feet (it was the tallest for a moment). It was bested by a few measly feet first by Tajikistan and later by Saudi Arabia. And it wasn’t even third for long as it was dismantled the year before we got there (can you believe it!! no one notified us) just before they realized it was about to fall over. It stood right next to their national symbol, three tall buildings which are shaped like natural gas flames which turn all sorts of colors at night. It would have been unsettling to have one these buildings sheered in half with the flag of the nation in shreds in the resultant gap as it split the building, and those in it, in twain.
Nearly all the tallest flag poles of the world are in the Middle East and Central Asia (except for N. Korea now taking third place (way to go, starving country) Oh, and one other country—the U.S. at number nine in Sheboygan. Number nine!, brother. One more reason to not to go to Wisconsin.
We did see the fabulous national museum, the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zara Hadid. She said it was inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s swirling dress from The Seven Year Itch. This is a great trick to pull on a Muslim country. I tried floating the rumor in Baku that the flag pole business is an homage to Dennis Rodman.
The museum is a vast nearly empty tribute to the late president featuring his armored limos and a lot of text and videos on the walls about what bastards the Armenians are. I would love to live in this building where I would get around in the limos.
The countries current president is Heydar’s son (we would never do that,…oh wait) and the first lady is the VP, much like a TV sitcom plot. At one point we saw her motorcade go by in front of a Trump Tower that was 97% done when the financier ran off with the money so it sits in the middle of town like a dead toad in a punchbowl.
On our last night we stayed in a hotel which featured several rooms adjacent to mine full of drunk Pakistanis who fought with their wives, punched one another and crashed about the hallway in their underwear. I had a 4 am wakeup and they brayed and howled, terrifying the hotel staff who disappeared into linen closets. The revelers consisted of four or five men and perhaps three women. I’m an American and am used to getting my way so I got dressed and went over telling them to hold it down (sound of breaking lamp). They raved on. Again I went over and this time became more forceful (crunch goes an end table). Finally, armed with a wet towel (Pakistanis are terrified of being snapped with a wet towel…or so I imagined) I went over and (uncharacteristically for me) leveled at them a double-barrel of good ol Mel Gibson redfaced rage—threatening their lives, eternal souls and a promise to hit them so hard I’d kill their ancestors. Through their plum wine soaked haze they were finally freaked out enough to solve the problem. They bundled up the women and shoved them out onto the street at 2am. Well, it did get quieter in the hotel but now the ladies were screaming from the street. So like the Mission in SF.
My take on Azerbaijan is that it isn’t rich enough to be glamorous or poor enough to be authentic so I say skip it for Uzbekistan, Georgia or Russia. Plus, the flag pole is gone so why bother.