Georgia: A Primer

Georgia is a country that exists. It probably shouldn’t, considering the amount of times the surrounding empires have tried to invade. But somehow it does. I spent three weeks in this tiny country nestled among the mighty Caucasus mountains; a land full of cheap wine, good food and incredible people. It’s difficult to sum up my time here, possibly because I was moderately drunk for approximately 85% of it. Because that’s the sort of country that Georgia is. A country whose name in Georgian (Sakartvelo) literally translates to ‘country of wine’.

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A country where each town starts with so many consonants it’s entirely impossible to pronounce (read: Mtskheta, Krtskhinvali)

A country where the most efficient way of getting around is by cramming approximately 3x the recommended amount of people into white minivans called ‘marshrutkas’ that hurtle around the country at breakneck speeds.

A deeply religious country where the marshrutka drivers will cross themselves as they pass a monastery while they do 130km/hr down a highway (and everyone is tempted to join him because there are no hands on the wheel).

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A country so tiny that most people either think it’s a state in the US or just part of Russia (including Russia itself, who invaded in 2008).  And yet it’s a country so mountainous that it takes 5 hours to drive 100km (unless you’re a marshrutka driver, in which case see above).

A country where the cuisine consists almost solely of giant dumplings, cheese pie and gigantic slabs of pork, all seemingly made with the sole intention of giving you a heart attack.

Ajarian Khachapuri, otherwise known as the Cholesterol Gondela.

Ajarian Khachapuri, otherwise known as the Cholesterol Gondela.

A country with a monastery on top of almost every single mountain or hill (and being in the Caucasus there are a lot of them), to make it difficult for enemies to attack…and so you can work off all the khachapuri you’ve been eating all morning.

A country with a statue of Mother Georgia standing tall over the capital city of Tbilisi, who holds a sword in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

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A country where wine is so prevalent, almost everyone makes their own by burying a clay pot in the ground to let the grapes ferment.

But it’s a country where the best wine comes in two litre soda bottles sold by ladies in markets for $4.

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An evening’s worth of wine in Tbilisi (just).

It’s a country where woman on rollerblades hurl branded cigarette lighters through car windows while they’re stopped at traffic lights as a form of ‘advertising’.

A country where the old men (nb: must be at least 30kg overweight) lift their shirts up over their bellies in what looks like a very animalistic mating call, but probably is just because it’s so fucking hot.

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A country where the road signs apologise for the inconvenience when there’s roadworks and wish you a ‘happy journey’ as you leave the city.

And it’s a country where the political posters look like this:

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A country with a language that looks like a Mr. Squiggle drawing and  ‘la la la’ resembles fist pumps (discovered during terrible karaoke at the Tbilisi Beer Fest): ლა ლა ლა

A country that was the birthplace of Stalin, who is still worshipped by a not insignificant percentage of the population, and where his birthplace is now a museum that is basically a shrine to his life without mentioning any of the atrocities he committed. Also, death masks:

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Stalin’s super-creepy death mask.

A country where you can make out with cute Georgian boys in ancient ruins overlooking a monastery on a hill because there are still hardly any tourists there.

A country where the tourists that are here seem to all have PhDs (and none of them are Australian).

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A country where your ride to Armenia smells so silky fresh because of the 20kg of washing powder the driver is smuggling across the border.

A country where days spent lounging by the Black Sea are interrupted by obese Russian ladies beating their children into oblivion for having the nerve to ask for ice cream.

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A country where each dinner table has a ‘toastmaster’ who makes toasts that can go for hours on end (a dangerous sport when you have to drink an entire horn’s worth of wine every time).

A country where you can flirt with the Azerbaijani border and then freak out when your phone automatically moves an hour ahead and you think you’ve missed your bus.

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And not a refugee in sight.

A country whose national alcohol (asides from wine) is called chacha, and resembles rocket fuel more than any kind of drink.

A country that has a fountain that spouts chacha for 5 minutes at 7pm every day.

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The famed chacha fountain.

A country where a gay man and a Jew can walk into the ‘Nazi Guesthouse’ and be treated to a wonderful welcome from the owner, Nazi (who actually just has a really unfortunate name).

A country where the front of cars are the best place to sell your wares.

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A country where you turn up at a guesthouse unannounced and when they realise they don’t have any free rooms they put you up in their neighbour’s house.

A country where said guesthouse owner will challenge you to five shots of chacha before going on a hike to a monastery.

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A country where you can drunkenly plan 2-3 day hikes and the hostel owner will give you all of his equipment to use so you don’t die.

A country where the cows still rule the road and are completely oblivious to all the accidents they almost cause.

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A country with mountain villages so remote and inaccessible, they’ve never been conquered.

A country where each family in said mountain villages built their own watchtowers to protect themselves during the bitter feuds they would wage against their neighbours.

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A country where the ladies at tourist information centres are still relics from the Soviet era and give out KGB-levels of disinformation. “No marshrutka. Only jeep. You must pay for jeep.” (Meanwhile there’s a sign 100m down the road advertising daily marshrutkas).

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The ubiquitous Lada jeep.

A country where three weeks is long enough to start to realise that there’s more to the place than just beautiful mountains and excellent food and cheap wine and that it’s a country where there’s still a long way to go. Where wages are still only $75 a month and minorities face a lot of challenges and the Russian question still looms over every political discussion. But it’s also a place where expats and locals will go to great lengths to show to you that despite these challenges life here can still be pretty darn good, and that’s something worth sharing. That’s what Georgia’s really about.

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Almost all of these pictures were taken with my little La Sardinia Lomo film camera.

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