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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?’
‘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.’
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.