Kakheti: making sense on the steppe

When I was seventeen I did two weeks’ work experience in an East London workshop crafting accessories for architectural models. I was assigned to Trees where I joined a huddle of people hunching over model trees made from mattress foam and spray paint. Amongst them was a Georgian man whose name has sadly escaped memory. He was tall and gentle with John Lennon style spectacles and shoulder-length centre-parted hair. He had a fashion degree and an American accent. When he told me he was from Georgia I assumed he referred to the only Georgia I knew of: the State of Georgia, U.S.A. So when my co-worker began to mention war with Russia and the hardships suffered in Georgia because of it, I was baffled. He was not fooled by my attempts to hide confusion. ‘Georgia is a country next to Russia,’ he explained. I nodded, red creeping up my ignorant face, and saying nothing set back to my dotted springtime trees to avoid what I deemed an awkward conversation.

This encounter flooded back to memory as we sped over a lonely road in Georgia’s southern region of Kakheti. We were entering northwards from the unbroken green of the southern steppe and the first signs of changing climate appeared in the form of short sinuous trees lining the road. It must have been the purposeful splay of their branches, or the artful sprinkling of their blossom, or the starkness of their being set against the flat plain that brought back to me the mattress foam trees on the architectural models. I said in passing to my Russian companion, ‘Those trees remind me of some model trees I used to make…’ But I stopped mid sentence because like a pinprick drawing blood from a finger the sight of the trees drew the past from my conscience. The Georgian man with the John Lennon spectacles and fashion degree trickled into my mind’s eye ‘…with the first Georgian I ever met!’ Enthused by this personal revelation, I leaned back in the seat smiling at the satisfying sense of having come full circle. The large Georgian lady with whom I was sharing the back seat asked what all my excitement was about. ‘Ask her in Russian how you say ‘revelation’ in Georgian,’ I commanded. She turned to me, eyes twinkling blue: gamotsxadeba.

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My gamotsxadeba occurred at the end of a three day hitch-hiking trip from Tbilisi to David Gareja, another of Georgia’s cave monasteries carved into the dry cusp of its Azerbaijan border. Our trip took us around the region of Kakheti, best known for being the country’s wine region and for its remote, friendly inhabitants. The closest village to David Gareja, Udabno, itself means steppe in Georgian and is testament to the far-reaching hilly plains that traverse the land from here, spreading east into Azerbaijan and dissolving into the Caspian Sea. In the other direction their green undulations ascend and roll ever-greener, ever-higher into the Dagestan Caucasus. This inner part of Kakheti boasts lush floral landscapes which have given rise to the recent development of the postcard town of Sighnaghi into a tourist hotspot, attracting families of Russian holiday-makers and wine tasting tourists from near and far. It was to here that our unplanned route out of Tbilisi was dictated by consequence of an eagle strung up to a tree by the roadside: having been dropped off at a crossroad, the strange sight of the bird hanging stiffly by its spread wings with its head bowed in submission to death had drawn us down that particular road. After gazing in wonder and bewilderment at the inexplicable nature of the execution, we lifted our thumbs skyward and waited for a car to carry us away.

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It was not long before a father and his two sons picked us up in a little van, which was lucky as it was beginning to rain heavily. By the time they dropped us in Sighnaghi it had become a torrential downpour. Since we had no idea of where we were going once in Sighnaghi the driver dropped us at the place he thought best appropriate for two hungry tourists – the restaurant Nikala, which he claimed was run by an American named Johnny who would also have rooms for us. Inside was a softly lit well-heeled establishment serving, so they said, the best khinkali in town. We ordered a jug of the fabled wine, but saved the khinkali for another day, ordering instead ostri soups to warm us after the rain. We enquired after Johnny, but in fact the owner was a young Georgian lady who met us with a polite smile and explained that if we were looking for a place to stay, she had a friend with a guesthouse. ‘It is the only place,’ she continued, ‘that washes the bed sheets between customers.’ We took her word for it as we had little other choice and she was offering us a lift. Hence we found ourselves in the Guesthouse Zandarishvili, an eclectic abode offering unlimited wine with the room price (40GEL), a sumptuous breakfast spread for 5GEL and, of course, clean sheets.

View at dawn from the Guesthouse Zandarishvili

View at dawn from the Guesthouse Zandarishvili

Residential streets of Sighnaghi

Residential streets of Sighnaghi

Under the clear skies of day, Sighnaghi presented itself a pretty medieval town engulfed within an old fortress wall. We took a walk around hoping to find the ‘gem’ of Sighnaghi. We walked past the church and over the wall, through the dappled town square and out into the quiet residential areas where the paved road fell into dust. It was my friend with his eye for all things imposing and Soviet who first took notice of the wide crenellated building plonked unceremoniously in the valley. Its symmetry was militant in the green mesh of overgrowth, and despite its evident state of decrepitude, the building remained self-assured of its own authority. A stained portrait of some forgotten moustachioed figure was leant against the door, similarly unabashed by its state of abandon. Scattered about the entrance were a few soggy pastel pink and blue booklets. I picked one up and read the name Nana Turiashvili. Inside were her details (housewife, music teacher) and library records, dating between 1985 and 1991. I would later ask a Georgian what the books were that Mrs. Turiashvili had taken out. ‘It’s disappointing,’ he commented, ‘she only took out the monthly Socialist women’s magazines that everybody had to subscribe to. She took all these out for the records and probably never read a single page. Everybody did that. I always thought what a waste of paper it was.’ The Russian grinned. ‘She was a good Communist.’

The Gem of Sighnaghi

The Gem of Sighnaghi

Inside the building the booklets continued through every dank room, piling high, creeping down the corridors. Only one large, glossy book stood out amongst the array of pastel pink and blue. It was entitled ‘The Fair Elections of Democratic Georgia, 2008.’ I lifted it out the pile and propped it against the wall on a bureaucrat’s desk, considering for a moment taking it with me. But my thoughts were interrupted by an echoing cry, ‘Ali, come see this!’ I made a snap decision that the book had been left there for a reason and turned away, following my friend’s voice towards the back of the building. Cold cavernous corridors led me right and left, before I turned into some double doors and was confronted by a flood of pale light and dust. My eyes adjusting, I made out the outline of my friend in the middle of a basketball court flanked on either side by two torn goalposts; the old gymnasium. The sea of plastic yellow and blue seats was littered with grey plastic bottles; across the court the digital eights of the 1980s scoreboard were dull and silent. Only the drip-drip of leaking water could be heard on rotting planks. We had found the gem of Sighnaghi and for a moment we felt like two archaeologists who had dug up the ruins of some long-forgotten empire.

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But time had not yet buried the empire, as we were to rediscover en route from Sighnaghi. Conversations on the road with older generations were a reminder that the USSR protruded through living memory, puncturing the grounds of political unity and tampering with the mechanics of national sentiment. Several ex-servicemen recounted nostalgically their days serving in Moscow then shrugged away the irony as they told us about their sons who now served in the Georgian National Army, training under the overhanging threat of war with the powerful neighbour. Such was a conversation we had with three old men in Saragejo, the little town lying at the crossroads between Tbilisi, Sighnaghi and Udabno, who bade us join their table in a rundown roadside restaurant. Next to the kitchen an enormous 1980s metal television hummed and flickered with feeble bluish motion pictures showing more of the empire’s unburied remnants: a building in Ukraine was silently going up in flames. The old woman and younger man who ran the establishment looked at us in astonishment as we asked for two cha-chas and a tomato for lunch. The young man filled our glasses to the brim and we were beckoned over by the old men. Several more cha-chas and some photographs later we reeled out of the sad little restaurant feeling distinctly merry and raised up our thumbs optimistically. Cars going this direction were few and far between.

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Our luck was in. Two cosmopolitan businessmen from Tbilisi were taking a Sunday drive to our desired destination, the David Gareja monastery. Driving onwards the road became noticeably worse and the land drier, the streaky red hills like tattooed knuckles punched into the land. Our driver looked at me laughingly through the rear-view mirror, ‘Ali! Did you drink a lot?’ Yes. ‘You’ll like the monastery.’ The sun was setting as we arrived and we stumbled in the half-light around the archways and caves. I stopped by a group of Tbilisians who were sharing lobiani (bean bread) with one of the monks. I stood to one side of them, swaying a little. The monk was having none of it and motioned me to join them, ‘Come, girl, eat and drink with us.’ I stood grazing on lemonade and the bean bread with the group as the sky turned murky blue ahead of us. They gave me and the monk the remaining slices, kissed his hand, bid me well and roared away to the capital. The monk made a quick blessing motion above my head before taking his own leave, still clutching his lobiani. As for me, I found my friend reunited with his fellow St. Petersburgians who happened to be making the same trip in a hired car. We were lucky for our last lift of the day. They dropped us at the only hostel on the steppe, the Oasis Club, a simple, rug bedecked bar and guesthouse run by Polish expats.

A roadside chacha stop, inhabited by one Irekle

A roadside chacha stop, inhabited by one Irekle

We awoke at dawn the next day to the tweeting of birds and the snorting of cows. The dreadlocked French bartender invited me to join him for yoga on the plains to which I obliged – nothing like shaking off a hangover with some spine twisting contortions. By the time we finished, the grey mist had lifted and both the sun and the herds were out in full force. My companion pointed to a fine white cloud on the horizon, ‘I hope that herd is coming our way.’ His hopes were fulfilled. When we left the hostel an hour later, we were face-to-face with a bleating, blade-crunching mass of wool flanked by two tawny young shepherds. They paused to acknowledge us before curiosity got the better of them and they stopped altogether to ask where we were from. The one on horse back, the older of the two, caught me eyeing up the horse. He offered me the reign, ‘Do you want a go?’ I certainly did.

I had never herded a flock of sheep before, and my horse-riding experience was negligible, so it was no surprise that both horse and sheep took the opportunity to do their own thing. The mare took up a lackadaisical stroll and the sheep began to scatter outwards. The shepherds did not seem much concerned and continued their job on foot, steering the sheep, the horse and myself onwards towards the mountains for the next hour. I trotted up beside one and ventured a conversation, ‘Who is Inga?’ I asked, nodding to the tattoo on his bicep. He shrugged, ‘The first one.’ We continued on wordlessly until we arrived at the road. I dismounted the reluctant horse and thanked Giorgi the shepherd for his generosity. He shrugged again, but smiled this time. We shook hands and parted, he to the mountain and I to the road where we would be picked up by the yellow car with the large, blue-eyed woman in the back seat.

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And so heading back to Tbilisi I came full circle. As I gazed at red-dashed poppy fields and yellow-spattered trees, I pondered my first Georgian encounter. All I wanted right then was to be back in the workshop in East London – only for a moment – to be able to look up from the model trees, turn to the Georgian man with the John Lennon spectacles and continue where we had left off, ‘Ah, Georgia, the little country next to Russia with its rolling steppe and tattooed shepherds. Yes, that war; was that why the Sighnaghi gymnasium was abandoned and why Nana Turiashvili finally threw away her magazine subscriptions? But now he could give me no response, so I was content to turn to the blue-eyed large lady and smile with some understanding. She patted my hand affectionately in return; ‘And you, girl, how did you come to be Georgia?’

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Borjomi: life in season

During summer days the Borjomi sulphur pool is jam-packed with tourists, but on that autumn evening I was the only visitor, although someone had been earlier that day and left the tell-tale scatterings of crisp packets and carrier bags. I surveyed the scene of older, soggier specimens lying farther afield and submerged my eyes beneath the water. Looking upwards from below was plastic-free and picturesque, which is the expectation one holds for places such as these. All that could be seen from here were shimmering pine treetops, their forms fragmenting as the light bent through water and into my eyes, and an unbroken teal sky. The water was warm and thick as to be almost slimy. It is collected in a concrete pool in the ground, carried from its source by a gushing pipe. When it needs replenishing the water is let free from the pool through a wooden slide contraption and discharged into a gurgling stream below. Satisfied, I let the last bubbles of air escape my nostrils then plunged upwards, breaking into the cold air. I dressed without fear of being seen and made the forty-five minute woodland hike back to the town feeling fresher than when I arrived.

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Borjomi is one of Georgia’s many pride and joys, being as it is the fertile land of the healthiest water around and home to one of the country’s largest exports, the ‘Borjomi’ water brand. So plentiful here is water that everyone wastes it all the time. There is water everywhere and empty bottles are sold at every stall and store so that one can stroll down to the water pump, which runs straight from the stream, and fill up your vessels with the curative liquid until your heart be content. The first sip comes as a shock to palettes dulled by years of fluoride and chloride. Straight out of the river and into the mouth, this water is a luke-cold flat fizz tasting like mud and blood. But this is the medicine; locals and corporation alike swear by Borjomi’s water for relief of a long list of bodily malaises. According to the history books, it is said to have cured a number of Russian royalty of various ailments, whence they turned it into the empire’s leading holiday destination for elites. This was a trend which the Soviets maintained, in their turn advertising the town as a paradise where workers and family of the USSR could come to enjoy their well-earned holidays.

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The town is a patchwork of these temporary inhabitants’ tourism incentives, seen in Tsar Nicholas’ train stations and Parisian style mansions and Stalin’s themed water park (both took up summer residence here). Whilst many of the mansions are now in states of decay, the old tsar’s residence has become a museum, offering all sorts of curiosities from mounted wildlife to models of the Borjomi water-bottling plant. The Soviet’s water park is still very much in use during high season and even in quiet winter months all its coloured lights are left flashing through the night, even though the rides are turned off and the little Russian fairytale cottages closed to consumers of cigarettes and coffee. The train station, built and developed by both rulers, remains ever-adaptable to the changing times and is now Pesvebi restaurant, a local night-time hotspot for local revellers who come to indulge in khinkali, karaoke and disco beats. Trains from Tbilisi arrive here twice daily and continue south to Akhaltiskhe or up to Bakuriani. This mode of transport is for travellers with a little extra time to spare, for the doddery Soviet-era locomotive converts a two hour road journey into a four and a half hour rail trip. The scenery (if one can see past the fifty year layer of grime on the windows) is well worth the time, and when legs become stiff with immobility, it is only a matter of dragging your feet a few yards for a beer on arrival.

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The above, however, are merely the ornate settings for a small cast of characters who provide entertainment in Borjomi the year round, three in particular to whom I shall limit my account. As a resident of four months I was carried along in their day to day lives, which, in a town with a two-hundred year reliance on tourism, naturally revolved around the coming and going of foreigners. I turn first, as most tourists do, to the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park where in the white, airy space of its visitor centre reclines Gaga in his desk chair, usually pensive and motionless, or working intently on the centre’s next big idea. Last I was there it was the latter and the idea was snow shoes for prospective winter walks: ‘You’ve seen it in green,’ Gaga grinned, ‘now you can see it in white,’ echoing the words on the poster behind him.

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Unfortunately, the tennis-racquet winter shoes took longer to arrive than was bargained for, and in my impatience I took it upon myself to ‘see it in white’ wearing a pair of high-top trainers. I marched defiantly up the first incline leading from the park entrance gate. So far, so good; who needs tennis racquets? But it was not long before I was clutching hopelessly at snow whilst my feet sank and slid uncontrollably downwards through more snow. I kept up this saga for two hours, determined to get to the peak of the hill where once in Autumn I had found a sun-dappled clearing and a peace of mind. It was not to be, and late in the afternoon I shuffled into the visitor’s centre, sodden and cold. Gaga’s eyes went wide with concern, ‘What happened to you?’

‘I went for a walk in the winter forest.’

‘In those shoes? Are you crazy? Why didn’t you take the snow shoes?’

‘What snow shoes?’

Gaga led me round to the front door. ‘They arrived yesterday,’ he announced proudly. There they were, dozens of shiny new snow shoes, ready to glide hikers effortlessly over the snowy dunes. ‘Don’t worry, we can go another time,’ continued Gaga, ever the optimist, but I was grumpy, ‘I think I’ll wait till we can go on horseback.’ He smiled, ‘Whenever you like, I will be happy to arrange that.’ And he went back inside to work further on his Georgian world encyclopaedia, business being quiet.

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After a hike (successful or otherwise), a visitor to Borjomi is likely to find themselves at the Old Borjomi Café, the kind of place where hours lose themselves in the faux-rustic décor and the jugs of homemade house wine. It is also where Borjomi’s small gaggle of foreign volunteers and young tour guides, Gaga and myself amongst them, gathered to fritter away the evenings. It was here I first spied a brooding figure chain smoking in the corner, his impenetrable stare broken by violent bouts of a blinking twitch. He was the enterprising Leo, Borjomi’s busiest tour guide, who five years ago turned his mother’s home into what is now the town’s most successful guesthouse. Leo himself is a source of admiration, bemusement or fear to all who meet him. My own time with this gem of a personality was spent over many moments driving around in his renowned Japanese van, which Leo insisted was indestructible. This conviction of his remains the cause of much passenger concern and not without reason, as I was to discover on my first trip in The Japanese Van.

We were driving with four Polish tourists aboard from Vardzia, the Samskhe-Javakhete region’s famous 11th century cave monastery and the reason most go any further south of Georgia than Borjomi. The day had comprised a long and eventful trip, as is generally ensured by the driver. On this particular journey, Leo had given us impassioned accounts of myth and mystery at every point of interest on the way. The most powerful of these told of the Mtsvane monastery massacre, where still today the bones of speared monks lie stashed in canvas bags, their skulls lined upon a shelf inside a tiny chapel. ‘Look,’ Leo picked up a stone from the stream running by the chapel, ‘you see the blood stains?’ We all nodded at the dark red spatters visible on the pebble. ‘How are they not washed away by the water in six hundred years? Because this blood is sacred, that is why.’ This first stop was a telling prelude to what was to come. More tangible relics of war, enslavement and divine magic would present themselves to us within the turrets and tunnels of long abandoned fortresses, around which Leo encouraged us to climb and ferret despite flailing light and sheer drops into the gaping gorges.

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The pervading sense of divine magic and dark realism came to its apex amidst the chiaroscuro of the Vardzia Monastery. Here I sat for an hour on a rocky ledge of stone high up on the cliff face. Over my head was one of the many chiselled archways that supported the monastery’s carved enclaves, nothing more than a dusty wall and floor. The real treasures of Vardiza lie deep within the cliff’s belly and remain inaccessible to tourists. The view was of a hot valley, a silver ribbon of water weaving through it until the land faded into the sky. Not a crisp packet or carrier bag in sight. All that was moving were the birds dipping with the breeze, and the black robed monks gliding ethereally along the corridors below. It felt like the world had always been this way and that there never had been any time, noise or madness, yet reminders of all three were etched indelibly into the surroundings. Noise filled the single-file tunnels where Georgian soldiers had entrapped and butchered Persian and Ottoman invaders; time ate into the ruins of the 12th century slave-trading forts along the road; madness was fossilised in the skull piles of those martyred 16th century monks, and also in the bricks of the hydro-electric dam built by 20th century German prisoners of war.

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All this had left its mark on our little troop as Leo steered us at a time-saving pelt back to Borjomi. It was now dusk and the road ahead was a mesh of dark grey, blue and black. All of a sudden a greyish bovine form emerged from the shadows and the silence was broken by the screech of Japanese tyres on tarmac as Leo swerved, only to meet another cow. He swerved again; another cow. This continued around several cows, never once slowing until finally we were out of danger and I heard everybody in the back shuffle into their former positions. Gasps of relief ensued, and then silence until one of the Poles ventured, ‘Leo, you want to get us killed?’ His question was met with a critical gaze through the rear-view mirror. Leo blinked once and barked,

‘LET ME ASK YOU ONE THING: YOU HAVE DRIVING LICENCE?’

‘Yes.’

‘YOU HAVE DRIVING LICENCE AND YOU CAN’T DO BASIC ZIG-ZAG?’

The man looked exasperated and muttered something towards his chest about not needing to do basic zig-zag in Poland.

‘HOW YOU HAVE LICENCE AND YOU CANNOT DO BASIC ZIG-ZIG? OK, BUT LET ME TELL YOU ONE THING: I DON’T WANT TO DIE SO I’M NOT GOING TO CRASH THIS CAR. OK?’ Nobody questioned Leo’s driving technique henceforth, or the dependability of his indestructible van.

Finally, winter began to tinge our Borjomi days with icy roads and protracted darkness. On these frozen nights no intrepid hiker stamped their boots on the door mats of the Borjomi restaurants, and no swim-suited holidaymakers graced its sulphur pools and guesthouses. Local patrons became idle. They waited, backs slumped to the wall and arms crossed, for the hordes that would not arrive (perhaps Gaga’s newly introduced snow-hiking will improve their situation this year round). One December evening Goga, the round-headed boss of the Old Borjomi Café, lifted himself from the back wall, put out his cigarette defiantly and exhaling the last of the smoke said, ‘Let’s go somewhere else.’ He locked up shop and he, the barmaid Nina and I piled into the car. We sat for a while heating up the engine. ‘Where shall we go?’ He inquired. I did not know, for what else was there to do on a Wednesday evening in mid-winter Borjomi? The café was my only port of call. Wordlessly, Goga set the car in motion and cautiously drove us upwards until we came to the village on the hill. He parked up outside a house. ‘I have not opened this house in seven years,’ he announced, ‘since my grandfather died. It is my holiday home.’

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We tugged at the stiff wooden door with paralysed fingers before walking into a small, moth-eaten bedroom smelling of damp and age. One by one we trudged round the back of the house where a pile of wood awaited burning and together we dug up the rusty wood-burning stove from under a pile of forgotten belongings on the terrace. We set up this heating system through a rough cut circle in the bedroom window, draped dusty woollen blankets around our shoulders and huddled around the glow as darkness settled outside. ‘I can’t drive now until morning,’ said Goga, ‘it’s too dark and I’m drinking.’ He took out a large bottle of cognac, a bar of chocolate and his smartphone, and we listened to songs produced by people in New York, L.A. and Berlin. This is it, I thought not without regret, Wednesday night in mid-winter Borjomi. But then, as the heaviness of flame and cognac washed over me and as my head became filled with murmurings of a low, throaty language I did not understand, images began to flash in my mind’s eye of cave monasteries and canvas bags filled with bones; of snow-laden forests, mossy sulphur water and teal skies. It was no longer Wednesday night and mid-winter. It was Borjomi as ever it was, caught in a dance between stark reality and soft illusion, glinting first under one and then the other, depending on how the light fell.

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