“In their country the winter torrents are said to bring down even gold, which the Barbarians collect in troughs pierced with holes, and lined with fleeces; and hence the fable of the golden fleece”.
Strabo, The Geography
Ancient Colchis – modern day Georgia. They are one and the same.
According to the myth, Jason must travel beyond the edges of the known world, to the land of Colchis, and bring back the Golden Fleece, the fleece of the gold-hair winged ram, which was the symbol of authority and kingship. At times, as I wondered this incredible country, I too felt as if I were perched on the edge of the world, bewildered by the startling magnificence of the mountains, stirred by the raging torrents of the rivers and glacial melts, soothed by the purity of untouched landscapes, and hostage to the fabulous hospitality of the people. Even now, this country holds a magic deep within its soul, and I can only imagine what Jason must have discovered upon entering that fabled land so many millenia before. (Click here for a fabulous investigation into the myth).
“The Caucasus illustrate perfectly how political geography may be used as an instrument of power…the Soviets divided closely related people’s from each other, pushed enemies together, made one people subordinate to another, created areas of discontent and resentment and so ruled”
Tony Anderson, bread and mountains: a walk through the mountains of Georgia
Welcome to Georgia. A land of legends and history. The gateway between Europe and Asia.
A country with a foot in each world. Centuries before, winding its way to and from China, one arm of the Silk Road passed through the mountains here. It was home to the great Queen Tamara, who presided over its Golden Age, and called herself King. It is a wild land which has been inhabited by man for centuries, coveted by every nation around, ravaged and invaded, fought over, won, lost and regained. And one that continues, even today, to be an area of intense conflict. (For fantastic and informative journalism on the whole Caucasus region, check out the work of the wonderful NGO Chai Khana, based in Tblisi).
But ultimately there is really only one true mistress here…
The Georgians tell a story about the creation of the world which goes something like this…
When God was dividing up the earth and giving it to each nation, the Georgians arrived late and there was nothing left. Their excuse?
“God, we were only late because we were so busy feasting, toasting and drinking to you”.
God was so moved by this that he gave them the last piece of the earth…the most beautiful part, which he had been saving for himself!
Welcome to Georgia. Country of Nature’s wonder. Where mountains rise supreme as if from an artists tapestry, and vivid greens cloak the land in every hue imaginable, a forest which man cannot even begin to touch, nor comprehend in all its complexities. A rich and fertile oasis, where water gushes forth from the very pores of the land, the lifeblood of the earth. Here humanity is infinitessimal in the eyes of Nature.
I knew almost nothing about Georgia before I set foot there, except that it had been torn apart by wars, has its own alphabet, a rich wine history and that there are incredible mountains to visit. It was enough to get me started. Little did I know that I was about to encounter a country that was more foreign to me than any before.
But as I became accustomed to their customs, and began to understand the reasons behind them, my early misgivings were replaced by a profound respect for a culture that continues to esteem traditions in this ever changing, fast flowing world.
Originally I came to Georgia for one reason: to walk in the high Caucasus Mountains. But soon it was not just the mountains which enthralled me. I found myself captivated by the people and their country, its history, and traditions.
It can be very easy to judge others by our own standards, before we have the full picture. We grow up believing that we should live in a certain way, and that those that don’t should be made to. Indeed we see it every day on our television screens, in the news and our every day life. We believe that we have a right to walk into other countries and tell the people how to live and what to value in life…because it makes sense to us. As a traveller, one of the greatest challenges is to embrace these differences, rather than project my own ideas of what is right or wrong. After all, I am a guest within these countries and I am travelling in order to broaden my own horizons. It’s better not to travel with too much baggage, in every sense! That’s when the problems start, and you become weighed down by all that you are carrying. Instead of looking around and accepting what you see, instead you are thinking how it could be better.
At first Georgia confused me. It was my first encounter with a post-Soviet world, and for a while I was wondering if I would ever feel comfortable with the ghost of Russia still hanging around in the air. It was a regular occurrence to see banged up Soviet trucks rolling by, kicking up dust clouds, and leaving a trail in their wake. I wouldn’t have been surprised, to see them stop and vomit out balaklava-clad Special Forces to surround me, kalashnikovs pointing in my face But thankfully, and rather unsurprisingly, this never came to pass. Instead they thundered by, incredibly still in one piece, the sound of their engines immersed within a roaring river, or fading away to leave a slightly bewildered wandering Englishman coated in a thick layer of dust.
My first impressions in general were quite comical: why for instance, was half the country driving around in huge, right-hand drive cars when they quite clearly drive on the right? Well apart from the fact that driving on the right seems to be more or less optional, it’s really a simple question of economics: more bang for your buck. Or in laymans terms… because they are imported from Japan you can have a bigger, more powerful car. And in a macho society, where men like to show they are men, size matters!
And on that subject, I noticed a strange thing. Many Georgian men seem to keep themselves in very VERY good shape – I mean they wouldn’t be out of place in a gladiator ring. I encountered a 16 year old in the mountains who looked like some sort of Hercules, his muscles literally bursting through his t-shirt. Then something happens some time around the age of about 30. They let it all hang out. Quite literally. Suddenly the belly expands and, as if it’s a sign of prowess, you see groups of men sitting on the side of the road, t-shirts pulled half way up to expose the spare tyre in all its glory, proudly rubbing their expansion.
When they came to milk the cow she said “I am an ox”, and when they came to harness her she said “I am a cow”
Welcome to Georgia. Land of the free animals. The chances are they will end up as shashlik (thats kebab to you and me), but when they’re alive, the cows rule the roads. They’re not sacred, but come pretty close (well they seem to think so at least!). It’s normal to see a traffic jam on the main roads caused by the unruly beasts. They stare down the cars, blocking the roads with a simple plodding gait, staring at the cars as if to say “hey, who do YOU think is gonna move first?”.
I could tell you a hundred stories from the 4 months I spent here: tales about the generous, kind and bewildering people I met; stories about the spectacularly beautiful country I discovered. It is unlike any place I have been, a crossroads between east and west, a world where tradition and modernity contrast so starkly, and a country which somehow, without realizing, captured my imagination, captivated my soul, and left me wanting more.
“Why do tourists always smile?” I was asked one day by a Georgian man
“Why do Georgians never smile?” I responded with a grin.
His answer was simple: It’s false to smile at someone when you dont know them, just for the sake of a smile. Of course my reaction was that smiling is contagious and makes people smile. Either that or, wandering past with my loaded backpack, walking stick and Luna Sandals, they just looked at me like I was a crazy man, with a confused and bewildered expression on their faces…which generally just made me smile even more 🙂
Spending on feasting and wine is better than hoarding our substance.
That which we give makes us richer, that which is hoarded is lost
Rustaveli, The Kight in the Panther’s Skin
The Georgian Supra (feast) is really something which defines the essence of the country. Any foreign visitor who visits cannot fail to come away inspired by the sincerity of the occasion. When I first arrived I admit I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on. I was shocked at the amount of alcohol consumed. I wondered if the the food was on the table because there was so much alcohol? Or was the table full of alcohol so that we could eat more? Or was it just a combination of both?
Of course there is so much more to it…
“To dine with the Georgians, and participate in their traditions, engaging the senses with lush colours, eloquent oratory, and savoury food, is to relearn something about human nature”
The Georgian Feast: The Vibrant Culture and Savory Food of the Republic of Georgia
I saw a sumptuous spread stacked high with dishes and women serving and sitting silently…but proudly. Oh so proudly. Meanwhile the men were drinking, and toasting in a way that is so far removed from our listless and impersonal “cheers”. There is a deference and a sense of celebration which combine to create a very unique experience. And the central character, the protagonist of the play, the eloquent and sensitive conductor of the orchestra is the toast master…The Tamada.
So many people have written endless accounts of this fantastic tradition, so I will not go into too many details here – if you are interested in the history and traditions of the Tamada, and the Georgian Supra, I direct you to this fantastic book .
Georgia has captured my heart, in so many ways, and I ended up spending 4 months there. And although it is the trek through the mountains which captured my heart and brought alive the dreams in my mind, there was so much more. I learned to make wine in Kakheti, the stunningly beautiful wine lands of Georgia, and I wandered endlessly through the mazey streets of the capital Tblisi, staring at the lop-sided houses perched together like some huge jigsaw puzzle, or visiting the many colourful markets But more than all of this I felt something which is so simple, and yet elusive so often…the ability just to be.
And through the supra, I discovered the reality behind the traditions, and the side which at first felt so foreign, has taken on a new meaning. It is the sincerity which makes it so special, and gives strength to the traditions. When you drink in this way, you show respect for everything: for your country; for your family and ancestors; for the people who brought you into this world; for the beauty all around us; for those who are no longer with us; for God, in whatever way you perceive that word; and for the tradition of hospitality.
At the beginning I didn’t see the point – with my foreign eyes I saw the consumption of large amounts of alcohol and felt those effects on myself. But I see now that there is a deep reverence, which brings life and death closer. When you toast with a Tamada, you consider life, and what it means to be here now, in the company of the people you are with. I felt why the people are as they are, and I felt a deep connection with the spirit of the Georgian people, both Ancient and modern, and the Land of the Golden Fleece.
Some things are as old as time,
Like walking, singing…drinking wine.
A Georgian feast is a thing of joy,
when the tamada speaks, you hear his soul.
Heartfelt traditions from days gone by,
we drink to God, to love, and those that have died.
We raise our glasses for our kin,
ancestors from the past, father, mother and our siblings.
Here we celebrate life and death,
those close to us, and those that have left.
The wine is poured, our glasses filled,
“next toast to the bottom” the tamada yells.
The table is spread with all lifes bounty
a taste of home, natures fountain.
Again the tamada stands to speak,
a hush descends, respectful, meek.
“A toast to hospitality and an open door,
to all the guests, from every shore”.
Down in one, our glasses are empty,
but steady on your feet,
they’re soon brimming with plenty.
With pride in his face, and tears in his eyes,
our tamada stands one last time.
Like a Mexican wave, all to their feet,
nobody sits, and nobody speaks.
“Sakartvelos Gaumarjos” is the call of our host
To Georgia, the homeland, goes the final toast.
And so we all stand, drinks held aloft,
and all call in unison
“Gaumarjos, gaumarjos, gaumarjos”.