Words by Drew Gough
Ahh, Georgia. The deep south: the land of Spanish moss and grand houses, of soft, warm breezes in the evening on cold drinks on grand verandahs. Linen suits and debutante balls on plantations.
Err, wait. No, it’s not that Georgia.
The deep Southern Caucuses, then: the land of scrubby low brush and disused petrol stations, of interpretive driving, of long nights drinking foul wine in wood-clad rooms. It’s that Georgia, a sliver of crumbling mountain away from Russia, a verdant valley from Turkey, and an easy cab ride (really) from Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It’s a place where a quick drive to the mountains can be delayed for hours by grisly shepherds moving their flocks along the lone north-south road, where toothless farmers gape and wave warm welcomes at the end of dirt tracks. Georgia is almost always friendly, often collapsing, and generally pretty weird.
The first can be explained easily: Georgia trades in its hospitality. Official tourism websites and the drunker locals insist that hospitality, like wine-making, has 7,000-year-old roots in Georgia. There’s a historical argument to be made that its position on the Silk Road forced ancient Georgians to be welcoming to the hordes of long-distance traders hauling bits of silk and religion back-and-forth between the east and west. That welcoming spirit is currently aimed squarely at the European Union as a buffer against Russia, which is draped along the northern frontier, but in any case the hospitality has hung around.
To explain the collapsing and the weirdness, the last point matters. Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin, was an important (at least propagandally) part of the Soviet Union. Since its disintegration, independent Georgia—pestered by occasional Russian invasions, sure—has maintained its own steady falling apart. Or at least it looks to. The capital, Tbilisi, has a veneer of growth in the form of shiny new skyscrapers teetering over the river, but on closer inspection many of the buildings are shuttered or falling apart. It’s a place at once under construction and being dismantled. That makes bizarre sights, like the ancient baths in the Old City bedecked with neon signs and new scaffolding on a 500-year old bathhouse beside a collapsed wall and a pile of sleeping stray dogs.
But nowhere do the collapse, the hospitality, and the weirdness exist in such harmony as on Georgia’s brilliantly named Military Road, the S3 highway north from Tbilisi to Kazbegi National Park on the doorstep of Russia. (To be fair, the Stalin Museum in grim Gori—wrapped around the childhood home of the man born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili and complete with one of six golden death masks and the dictator’s private rail carriage—comes a close second.)
The best way to see any country is by car, pounding the windy pavement away from the touristy cities through the small towns that show a place for what it is. In a week of driving Georgia, the Tbilisi-Kazbegi road proved the most revealing. For a start, what Georgia had revealed a hint of in its cities it laid bare in the countryside and villages: entire blocks lay abandoned, businesses were mere skeletons. More than one gas station lay empty by the roadside, the odd hospital here, an apartment complex there. It was half gone, and this no more than 50km from the capital. Further up the Military Road, over a series of switchbacks in breathtaking mountains, more strangeness: Gudauri, the Georgian Alps, or at least the Georgian ski resort, shuttered for the season or just out of business entirely. Then further on to the world’s ugliest peace memorial, a half-viaduct, half graffiti wall overhanging a cliffside, promotion peace between Georgian and who knows?
For centuries, this road was used by armies invading south and traders heading both directions. Now, the Military Road’s invaders are more… ovine. The 200km road from Tbilisi to the resort town of Stepantsminda should take two and a half to three hours to drive. On a sheep-free day, that might be true, but the both our northern and southern trip were interrupted by angry shepherds rerouting their herds along the highway, preferring the potholed streets to the muddied fields. With traffic ground to a halt through the rubbly valleys of the high Caucuses, the emboldened sheep overtook cars and lorries while massive sheepdogs kept the travellers at bay. In that sea of filthy sheep Georgia began to make sense. It’s an improvised country plastered over mountains where the boldest actor gets their way and the meek sit and watch, idle and impassive.
Yet for the traveller, it’s glorious, up here in the breathtaking mountains on the road to Russia, the sheep squeezing your car toward the ditch and the foul smell clogging your nostrils: this is weird, wonderful Georgia, a destination on no one’s wish list but a worthwhile detour.