What is 30 degrees, always sunny and very hospitable? I’m sure your mind is wandering all over the globe, but mine goes directly to the small, Asian country of Georgia. Although technically in Asia, Georgians consider themselves part of Europe, due to their culture and history.
The country lies in the south western part of the Steppe Mountains, and until 1991 was part of the former Soviet Union. The region was subject to many takeovers, but in the 4th century it was settled by Christians whose descendants still remain. In 1917, Georgia declared independence from Russia, but it was short lived, as the Bolshevik revolution led to the annexation of many countries to form the Soviet Union.
Today however, Georgia is democratic, safe and filled with history. I arrived in the capital of Tbilisi and was immediately taken by the friendliness of the people. I was expecting a ‘Soviet’ type of presence, similar to what I experienced in Belarus or Russia, but was pleasantly surprised. My guide immediately explained how safe the country was. In the past ten years there had never been so much as an auto theft.
This nation of four million is very progressive, but is hindered financially by neighbouring Turkey and Russia. Ten years ago the Russians decided to take back part of the country, and simply bombed a large section of it during the night. The next day they invaded and have been there since. There was little if any mention of this in western newspapers, and if it were not for Facebook, no one would be aware of the hostilities.
Times were tough during the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Georgia was one of those countries that was simply left behind. People woke up with no electricity, little food, no protection and no government. It took several years for the infrastructure to take shape, and for three years there was no electricity or running water. Food was rationed and people were confused, but the Georgians are resourceful and continued to rebuild their country. Even today, online shopping is not available, internet use is limited and the economy is still weak.
The country however, is beautiful and should be explored to its fullest. You need at least a week to get a good feeling of the people and the beauty. Religion plays an important part, and many churches date back to the fifth and sixth century.
After spending a few days in the capital I travelled to Udabno, a forgotten village with spectacular history. I was told there would be some walking involved, but when I stood at the foot of Mount Gareja ad looked up at the 6th century Monastery, my heart sank. The climb was steep and took about 2 hours. My guide explained that most tourists stop at the bottom and never go up. Once at the top I realized it was all worth it. A series of caves, developed by monks 1,500 years ago, were beautifully decorated with religious frescos.
My guide had brought food and we enjoyed lunch on top of the world. A small, metal fence denoted the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan, and I crossed it several times… until I saw a heavily armed, Russian outpost in the distance.
On the way down we stopped at a working monastery, built into the rocks where monks live and practice their faith. All in all, the entire trip took me the better part of a day and my watch showed I had gone five km. I was tired, but would not have missed this excursion for anything.
A few days later my guide explained we would be leaving the BMW and using a 4 wheel drive, as the road was a bit rough. That was an understatement, as ‘rough’ did not even begin to describe the boulders and potholes that took us to the 14th century monastery, 2,200 metres (7200 feet) above sea level, deep onto the slopes of Mount Kazbegi.
Half of the vehicles in Georgia are right-hand drive, which took a little getting used to. On route to Mount Kazbegi we had a new driver, and I decided to sit up front with him. It was strange sitting on the left side of an SUV, while the driver occupied the right side. The scary part was when we drove a winding, mountainous highway for a few km at 80 or more kph, and he decided to pass two slower tractor trailers. As soon as he veered out I saw oncoming cars, but as he sat on the right side he did not. When eventually he could see it was all he could do to swing back into his lane. This happened a dozen or so times along six km of road. I never expected to be so glad to see the rough, empty road that would take us up the mountain.
The vistas were spectacular and the air had chilled, but remained comfortable. Hundreds of sheep roamed the slopes and the monastery was amazing. I dreaded the trip back, but somehow we made it in one piece. Again, another adventure I was so glad to have partaken of.
I can go on about Georgia for many more pages, as the sites I visited were unique and spectacular. If you want a little adventure, see something different and enjoy a unique part of the world, visit the Eurasian country of Georgia.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com