We’re in Tbilisi, Georgia. Because we love trains and Karen hates planes, we decided to take the journey by rail. We left Yerevan in the early afternoon and arrived in Tbilisi just after midnight. The journey from Armenia to Georgia is relatively short, just eight or nine hours, but it was just about the most spectacular train ride yet. It ranks just behind our 44-hour journey from Beijing to Lhasa. You can see that one here: Train across the roof of the world.
We were a bit excited to visit Georgia. It has an ancient and unique culture. It’s a country of highlands, with breathtaking mountains and it was long an important part of the Silk Road cultures. At the crossroads of Asian, Middle Eastern and European influences, it is marked by an amazing diversity. Georgia has a unique history and culture. But it feels as though they are trying to sweep it under a thin European carpet.
This small post-Soviet republic has recently become very hip. It appears on several lists of alternative tourist destinations that are “off the beaten track.” Except of course it totally isn’t. We came for the traditional culture it’s famous for. Instead we found a lot of ticky-tacky, cookie-cutter tourism. Walking around the newly renovated parts of the old city of Tbilisi, you could be anywhere. In Europe or even Toronto.
Is this Granville Island?
It’s only been just a few years, but already you get the impression that many Georgians, the ones who are not in the tourism business, are tired of foreign tourists. Who can blame them? Tourism is wrecking many countries [LINK: Guardian Article on Unmanageable Tourism in Europe].
How did they get here?
By 2003, after a horrific post-Soviet decade of endemic corruption and rampant crime, Georgia was a failed state. It had been bled almost to death by Edward Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, and his criminal cronies. A popular uprising led by Mikheil Saakashvili – the now disgraced former leader – overthrew the government. The country had pulled off a seeming miracle in 2003 and is now a safe and relatively stable country, if you leave out the fact that Russia keeps moving the northern border in a despicable covert territorial land-snatching [LINK: Georgia losing its land and boarder to Russia].
Among the first things Saakashvili tried to do was to make the country attractive for foreign investors and tourists. He built colossal (and ugly) ultra modernist public structures in a seeming scheme to mimic Northern European minimalism. Or something. In trying to scream, “Europa!” he turned the incredibly picturesque Old City into a Disney-version of itself, plowing the area and re-creating it so as to better resemble, in his words, “European streets.” Local Georgians mock this area as the tourist trap. Our local Georgian host described a nearby, untouched neighbourhood as “the REAL old Tbilisi.”
In many ways, Saakashvili’s plan worked, however. There are a lot of tourists here. They take selfies on the ultra-modern “Peace Bridge,” a structure that looks wildly out of place next to the Central Asian splendour of Tbilisi’s oldest hillside neighbourhoods. Locally, it’s known as the “Ultra,” a brand of sanitary napkins. The old city is littered with tour agencies and currency exchanges, hostels, and boutique hotels, wine bars and souvenir shops. The problem is that you could be anywhere in the world. It looks exactly the same as everywhere else. And that is selling Georgia short.
Georgia has a lot going for it. Thousands of years of cultural history, including centuries spent in the thick of the bloody events of the Silk Road and the Great Game played out for a century by Russia and Britain for dominance in Central Asia. Georgians have cultural roots going back to the Neolithic age. This was the land of the ancient Colchians and Iberians, where Jason and the Argonauts came seeking the Golden Fleece. People from Europe, the Middle East and Asia have gathered here for millennia. They had camels here. It was fought over for centuries. Tbilisi has been destroyed and rebuilt forty times.
But you really have to look for this history here. According to the minister responsible for tourism, the answer to the question, “why Georgia?” isn’t that it’s thousands of years old, or that it lay at the centre of one of the world’s most important political regions. No, according to her you come to Georgia for eating, drinking, and… skiing. Much of the tourism infrastructure being developed here is apparently aimed at the wine bar crowd who wants to ski. Except, if you are really that into wine and skiing, Georgia will not make your shortlist of places to spend money, despite the lure of Georgia’s many (many) casinos.
We don’t drink. But before you think I’m just a tea-totalling wine-hater, hear me out. Along with Armenians, Georgians have been making wine for longer than anyone else on earth. Either the Armenians or the Georgians invented it (nobody will agree on this), but it was definitely someone in this region who first came up with the idea of stomping on grapes, letting them rot, and then drinking the result. The rest is history. Viticulture is so firmly baked into the culture here, it transcends almost everything else. Even the cheese (which is amazing).
Wine-making deserves a lot of focus and Georgians are rightly proud of that history. But instead of focusing on the authentic traditions, too many places are now trying to be something else. On a walking tour of “traditional” Tbilisi, we were taken to a wine-making cellar. They’re all at basement level, a few steps underground. It had been completely remodelled. The original vaulted brick ceiling was covered in golden mirrors. Bar stools surrounded small, round high tables that had blue LEDs installed in them to light up the wine glasses from below. Obviously this was done in a sincere effort to appear “classy”. But sadly it looked like a casino bar. It had little left that looked distinctly Georgian.
The same globally beige style treatment is being inflicted on restaurants. Georgian cuisine is wonderful and rightly famous. Much like Armenians, Georgians demand that produce be fresh and cooking be homemade in quality.
A traditional Georgian oven for baking bread. The baker had invited us down into the bakery to see it as we were passing by.
These are simple dishes made with fresh ingredients that somehow result in complex flavours. This is not haute cuisine, it’s honest food. One shouldn’t have to pay a lot of money to sample authentic peasant cuisine. But we looked high and low for local places to eat that were traditional, inexpensive and tasty. We could find expensive restaurants doing their best to dress up as modernist, European, and hip. The food was good but lacked authenticity. The kind of place you might find among the foodie-hipsterism of downtown Toronto. Inspired by Georgian cuisine and marketed to a well-heeled class that bores easily.
This is jonjoli and it’s amazing. It is a flower bud pickled and eaten in salad. Tastes a little like caper berries, but isn’t related.
We did find very simple, inexpensive places where no one speaks English, and where local food is served. There are not many left in Tbilisi’s old city. The area is becoming too expensive for real people. But they also really weren’t very good, often just very salty and quite plain. We went to places recommended by local people. And we tried the places recommended by all the usual suspects on the interwebs. It left us wondering: Where do the Georgians eat? Surely they wouldn’t put up with these choices? We concluded that the best places to eat are likely at home.
A lot of what’s wrong here has nothing to do with ordinary Georgians or the country’s amazing culture.
The problem is that a few very crooked people have been allowed to determine the country’s direction. The reformers who saved it from the post-Soviet pirates, turned out themselves to be self-dealing bandits. Nowadays, the country’s richest man, Bidzina (Boris) Ivanishvili is running the place, albeit not in an elected capacity. He is a billionaire who made his fortune in Russia in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union by buying and selling off state assets. So you know he’s super honest and well intentioned. Ivanshivili founded (and now chairs) the party that ousted Saakashvili. He built himself a little place on the hill overlooking Tbilisi. You can read about this outrageous project here: It’s an obscenity that includes a private zoo and restaurant. And he has massive development plans for the areas of Tbilisi with the greatest heritage, and that are currently a protected ecological zone. Plans include a luxury resort and spa overlooking the old city, and a golf course with new cable cars that will run right into the centre of the old city. He stands to make a fortune.
Construction site with promotional posters for the planned resort and spa that will be built overlooking the heritage district.
Ivanishvili is Saakashvili’s personal and political rival. They hate each other. Each accuses the other of corruption and of working against the interest of Georgians. Saakashvili stripped Ivanishvili of his citizenship after the latter declared his intention to run against him. Saakashvili was stripped of his citizenship when Ivanshvili won the election. He is now a wanted man living in exile in Poland.
In truth, both are the problem. Most of the development decisions made in the last decade and a half are the direct result of the personal interests of these two men. Which is largely what explains Georgia’s tourism and development approach. This is a story we’ve seen playing out all over the world, from England to Thailand. The benefits of economic activity generated from mass tourism and rampant real estate speculation are very unevenly distributed. The contrast is particularly stark in the new ‘old’ Tbilisi. When they ‘updated’ the historic district, Freedom Square got a facelift, too. Outside the Burberry and luxury watch stores, dozens of beggars, most of them very young children, spend their days trying to make a desperate living. We haven’t seen children begging in streets since India or Cambodia.
Georgia definitely deserves better.
Georgia deserves visitors who will bring much-needed economic activity to the country. But the benefits should accrue to more than just a few people. This takes work and a government willing to develop tourism into a national resource for the public good. Georgia’s Armenian neighbours provided a good example of what people can do to improve government. They threw out the self-dealing parasites that failed them. Georgians are no strangers to showing bad leaders the door.
Our experience with ordinary people here has been wonderful. Georgians are very friendly and very proud of their culture. We love the home we’re staying in. And we’re lucky because it’s traditional in style, with shared balconies, bathrooms and court yards. We’ve been told that historically Georgian’s never locked their doors. Privacy is less important than community. Your neighbours will show up any time. In fact we’ve experienced this Georgian open-door policy in the short time we’ve been here. It’s cozy and surprisingly unintrusive.
Tbilisi’s incredible neighbourhoods
The parts of the city that haven’t been developed yet are host to the most incredible neighbourhoods we’ve seen. They date from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are even older – Tbilisi is over 1500 years old. Most of the buildings are quite dilapidated but are incredibly beautiful and unique in style – a testament to Tbilisi’s multicultural history.
This is an area of our neighbourhood that is being torn up for development.
A couple of men are living on the construction site.
Latticed wooden balconies, cobblestone streets, and wide-open family courtyards make this an area you can explore for days. And we did. The entranceways of these buildings are particularly enchanting. More amazing still, despite a growing weariness with tourists, and despite the fact we were creeping around at dawn, Georgians opened the doors to these amazing entranceways for us when they saw we were genuinely interested in photographing them.
Outside Tbilisi there are many places to visit that we did not get to. We’re here in late June and it’s incredibly hot. The most beautiful places are a day’s journey away in the mountains and its not the best season to visit them. I love to photograph landscapes, but heat haze doesn’t make for nice photos. We also didn’t have much time, just over a week. Tourism is at its peak right now and hordes of tourists pile into vans, buses, and private taxis to flood the countryside’s tourism sites. The only way around it is to rent your own car, and go early in the off-hours. But even that is extremely popular here. Cars availablefor rent line the streets of the tourism district, cluttering the downtown.
So we spent our time walking the streets of real old Tbilisi. As we wandered from entranceway to entranceway for hours one morning, we wondered how many would remain in five years time. The parody passed off as the old city now was developed under the same protections that cover the original parts of the city that remain. Given the sticky fingers of the billionaires in charge of the city’s destiny, the odds don’t favour authenticity. Here’s hoping Georgia proves us wrong.
We’ve been on the road for a year, now. Hard to believe. We’ve decided to go to Vancouver to spend 2 weeks on a little staycation to recharge before we head back out again.