Back Up

Sunday September 21

Today Jimmy and Nana arrive to take Brunhilda, Denis and I on another tour of the countryside.  We head southeast out of Tbilisi into Kakheti, the south-eastern province of Georgia.  Kakheti is the main farming and wine-growing region and it is very fertile and quite prosperous. 


Our first stop is at a roadside market to buy some churchkela because we all want to try it.  Churchkela is a traditional delicacy associated with rtvela, the grape-harvest season.  Nuts are threaded on a string and then dipped repeatedly into a hot mixture of boiled grapeskins, grape juice and other, not necessarily specified, ingredients.  The process is similar to making candles and, in fact, the churchkelas look like rows of brown candles hung up on racks for sale.   They taste a bit like candles too, though they have quite an interesting flavour.  They are the original trail mix; soldiers  carried them into battle as concentrated, high-energy rations.






Next we go to Tsinandali to visit the Chavchavardze Estate (left).  The estate has had a large commercial winery for generations but, during the 1930’s, the nobleman who owned it, began to build a botanical garden containing as many of the world’s trees and other plants as he could collect.  The guide speaks no English but he is quite fluent in Plant and I wish Susan were here to translate.  We are supposed to tour the winery and taste the various types of wine but our small group is pre-empted.  A very large tour group of Americans, traveling in three huge buses arrives just before we do. Astonishingly, the tour is escorted by a battalion of Georgian soldiers, presumably to protect the tourists.   The soldiers are in full combat uniform and carry AK-47’s.  None of us can figure out who or what the tour needs protecting from and Jimmy and Nana think it is hilarious.  The soldiers seem to think it is a lark, too and grin sheepishly at us when the tour officials arn’t looking. Obviously, the soldiers think it is just as ridiculous as we do.  We later see the tour driving down the road: huge buses, several army trucks and even an ambulance in a big convoy.  I bet none of the people in that tour ever get to talk to even one real Georgian person.



 Next stop is at a country restaurant on the outskirts of Telavi, for a lunch of khinkhali, a Kakhetian specialty.  Khinkhali are bell-shaped dumplings made of dough, filled with spicy ground beef, pork, lamb or occasionally, cheese and then cooked in boiling water.   One eats them by holding the twisted end of the dough and trying not to let the juice run down one’s chin.  They are very good indeed!  Curiously, the restaurant, in the middle of wine country, has no wine!  Every Khakhetian makes his own wine which, of course, is MUCH better than anybody else’s wine and nobody would ever BUY wine when their own was so much superior!  So Jimmy drives off to a local farm and buys some wine.  He brings it back in a plastic coca-cola bottle.  In Khakheti, wine is stored in kvevri, large clay jars like Greek amphorae, buried in the ground with just their lids showing (right).  In these jars, wine stays at a perfect, constant temperature (obviously they don’t get three feet of frost in the winter).  The wine is removed from the kvevri with a special long-handled wooden dipper.  The kvevri can be as large as 600 – 800 litres and in commercial wineries, much larger.  A lot of wine is drunk in Khakheti!




Next we visit a very beautiful, little church at Ikalto.  The monastery was founded in the sixth century by one of the 13 Syrian fathers.  In the 12th century, King David-the-Builder constructed an academy, which became one of the leading centres of learning in the Christian world.  Many famous historical figures from Europe and elsewhere studied here.

Beautiful little church at Ikalto


From Ikalto, we travel a few miles to the magnificent Cathedral of Alaverdi (left).  Unlike most Orthodox churches, which are built on mountaintops for defense, Alaverdi sits on the flat Alazani Plain. The plain is a broad valley between the Lesser Caucasus and Greater Caucasus mountain ranges, and has been the site of many an important battle.  In all too many of them, the Georgians were defeated by yet another invader, who then laid waste to the country. Joseph of Alaverdi, another of the Syrian Fathers, established the first church on this site in the sixth century.  The present cathedral is the tallest church building in Georgia and the second tallest in the entire former Soviet Union.  It is very majestic!   During the Soviet period, most of the frescos were destroyed or covered with whitewash.  The interior is very plain, now, but a few frescos have been restored.  If the original frescos still covered the entire interior, it would be breathtaking. 

Alaverdi Cathedral

Our guide,wearing the traditional felt hat of Khakheti, is very proud of the Cathedral and so anxious to describe its history to us that Jimmy can't get a word in edgewise to translate for us.


From Alaverdi, it is two hours of Georgian traffic, bad roads and potholes.  We arrive in Tbilisi at 9:00 PM and we are glad to be home.







Monday September22

Today, the group wants to take me out for dinner to thank me for my efforts on their behalf and to say goodbye.  We meet at 4:30 and drive to another lovely restaurant built on a riverbank, similar to the one in Mtskheta.   All of the workshop participants come to the dinner and Ghiorghi Bagrationi brings his wife, Marina and Dr. Boris brings his wife, Marina.  At every Georgian supra (dinner or banquet) there must be a Tamadan; we would call him the toastmaster.  The Tamadan proposes an endless series of toasts to all manner of subjects.  Merciful God, we are drinking wine and not vodka!  As it was, I come in for some criticism for not emptying my glass with each toast.  Georgian people, at least the men, traditionally drink a great deal, but they have little respect for anyone who becomes obviously drunk or acts silly.   Besides, I notice that most of the others aren’t really drinking very big toasts either. 


Dr. Boris
Dr. Boris and his wife, Marina

Each time Mr. Darchiasvili makes a toast he ends it by saying:  Alaverdi, Bob.”   My translator explains that this means I am obligated to make a follow-up toast on the same topic.  As most of you know, I rarely pass up a chance to make a speech, so I have the opportunity to hold forth on a number of topics:  Georgian-Canadian friendship, the future of the Georgian trucking industry, Georgian women, you get the idea. 

Finally, I am asked to respond to an eloquent toast to the Country of Georgia.  I remind them of one of our workshop topics, Professionalism in Trucking , where we talked about customer service.  I speak of the importance of customer service to the future of Georgia and then I mention the toilets in KakhetiEverybody nods and smiles.   Even Georgians think the toilets in Kakheti are disgusting.  I make “clean toilets” a metaphor for customer service.  I tell them that there are a million tourists in Europe who are looking for interesting and beautiful places to visit and each one is going to spend several thousand Euros during their visit.  (I can see everyone mentally doing the math).  But European tourists won’t come to Georgia if the toilets are dirty.  They demand “customer service” and they will accept nothing less.  “Please drink a toast with me to “Clean Toilets”!  Everyone applauds and several say it was a very fine toast.

Mr. Darchiashvili Nino, my translator, (right)
 and her friend, Taimuna


 The whole evening is loaded with good will and I think that everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.  They seem to be impressed that someone like me would take the trouble to travel to their country and offer to help them and I am sure that I have acquired a whole group of lifelong friends.


Tuesday, September 23

This afternoon, I go in to the TransManager office just to use the computer and get a real surprise.  One of the things that has been rather difficult is that Mr. Dariashvili, who is my official host, speaks no English.   Every thing we say to each other has to go through the translator.  On this day, there is no translator available and it is a bit strained.  In his efforts to communicate, Mr. D. blurts  out a couple of words that sound familiar.  Iam astonished to discover that Mr. D. speaks some German!  I’m a long way from fluent, but it is my second-best language.  It seems that in 1969, Mr. D. was the Director of Mercedes-Benz in Georgia.  It certainly makes things easier and I wish he had mentioned it a week ago.


This evening, Denis and I go to a concert at the Philharmonia Concert Hall.  This is another beautiful classical concert hall, with pillars and balconies, gilt and scarlet brocade – just like in the movies. The concert is part of an annual cultural festival called Autumn Tbilisi.  The Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra performs along with a boy’s choir, a soprano and a mezzo-soprano.  The highlight of the evening, without a doubt, is a 14 year-old pianist, Alexandre Vasadze, who is absolutely brilliant.  I am sure he could play in any concert hall in the world.  I am sure he will!


Wednesday September 24

I spend the day being a tourist.  I find a flea market where formerly wealthy people sell their family heirlooms to try and survive the transition to a free-market economy.  It’s a pretty sad place!  I don’t know whether to feel badly for not buying their treasures or whether I would feel worse if I did buy them.  To cheer myself up, I buy a hot cheese pastry from a sidewalk vendor and stop for a cold Kasbegi at a sidewalk café.







This evening, Denis and I take the two CESO people out to dinner.  Asmat Abesadze is the CESO Resident Representative for Georgia and Taimuna is her assistant.  This is my first opportunity to meet Asmat because she has been in Vienna for CESO meetings since I arrived.  I corresponded with her by email all summer as I prepared for this assignment and I had conceived a mental picture of a middle-aged, perhaps dumpy, but certainly rather dowdy lady. She is most certainly none of the above! By now, I have met enough Georgian women that I began to question my early assumptions, but even so, she nearly takes my breath away. Ah, this is a wonderful country!

Asmat Abesadze (cool hat)
Taimuna and Asmat


Thursday September 25

 This morning, a rare treat:  Nino #2 shows up and takes me to visit a museum that contains wonderful artifacts from Georgia's past.  There is the most incredibly beautiful gold and silver work from as early as 3000 BC (this is the land of the Golden Fleece, after all). Then we go to the big new Marriott Hotel for coffee and she tells me about her life. Nino grew up in a wealthy, aristocratic family and is now trying to adjust to living in virtual poverty. There isn’t much call for models and fashion designers in Georgia today.  I ask her what her husband does.  She says:  “He is a very good economist, but of course, there is no work for an economist in Georgia today.  So he works in the bakery that supplies McDonald’s.”  Nino's mother is a famous television newscaster, sort of the Georgian Peter Mansfield (or maybe Wendy Mesley). She went to Cuba in 1960, to report on the revolution and Castro fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. The KGB forbade it but she still keeps the gifts and cards he sent her. 


Friday September 26

This morning, I go to the Sulphur Baths and have a bath and massage. There are natural, warm sulphur springs in the oldest part of the city (in fact 'Tbilisi' means ‘warm spring’).  From the street all you can see are small brick domes rising above ground level. The baths are below ground and the domes have little skylights, which let the light in. Jimmy is very busy and doesn't have time to go with me, but he takes me to one of the baths, explains what to do and leaves me to the tender ministrations of the attendant, Iossib. 

The Sulphur Baths on Abano Street


First I soak in a hot tub, smelling of hydrogen sulfide for about twenty minutes. Then Iossib comes in with a cup of Turkish coffee for me to sip. 

First he gives me a massage and makes all my joints crack. Next, a full body rub-down with a coarse mitt like a loofah, which removes about a pound of dead skin. After that, he scrubs me all over with soap. Between each of these treatments he poures buckets of hot, sulphury water on me and makes me get back into the hot tub. All of this takes about an hour. After a cold shower, I stagger out onto the street feeling like a new-born baby.

After the bath


There is one more museum that has been recommended so I go there after the bath.  The guide is the first and only Georgian person I meet who not only isn’t at all friendly but borders on being downright rude.  She could have benefited from my session on Customer Service.  One last stroll up Rustaveli Avenue and my Georgian Adventure is pretty much over.


Saturday September 27

What a day!  I get up at 3:00 a.m. Tbilisi time and Taimuna drives me to the airport.  Four flights and ten time zones later, for a total day of 28 hours, I arrive in Winnipeg at 7:00 p.m. Central time.

Although, just at this moment, I really don’t want to go anywhere in an airplane, I would go back to Georgia in a heartbeat.  I would really like to see more of the country outside of Tbilisi.  I would like to swim in the Black Sea, visit the archeological digs at Vani where some of the earliest evidence of human civilization was recently found.  There is the remote, mountainous province of Svaneti, the town of Gori, where Stalin was born and the Georgian Military Highway which winds high over the Caucasus mountains on its way to the Russian border.  It isn’t a very easy place to travel around as the infrastructure for tourism is non-existent outside the city, but I know enough people now who can arrange tours.   The best way would be to hire a car and driver and make arrangements for accommodations ahead of time.  It would be most interesting!

Back Up