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Saturday October 24

My friend, Beso, promised to take me along on a trip to Kakheti to see his hazelnut farming project.  At 10:00, he arrives with his partners, David and Ghia to collect me.  Kakheti is the most fertile agricultural region of Georgian and where the best quality wine is grown (at least, according to the Kakhetians). 

Beso, David and Ghia are about midway through a project to establish a hazelnut plantation.  They have assembled 180 hectares of land near the village of Akhmeta.  I am startled to learn that we are in the Pankisi Gorge.  All I have ever heard about the Pankisi Gorge is its reputation as a hideout for Chechen terrorists and a way for them to move clandestinely back and forth across the Russian border.  Beso and the others assure me that all the terrorists have been cleared out, Georgia is once again in firm control of the area and:  “No -- landmines are no longer a problem!”  It is a stunningly beautiful place, but I notice a tendency to keep looking over my shoulder.

The hazelnut partners

Primitive means of transport

Pankisi Gorge

 

The group has spent the last several years assembling the land by buying small lots from local farmers.  The farmers are quite interested in selling and receiving the money, but not at all keen on giving the land up.  They are quite offended to discover that they can’t continue to use it -– after all they have ALWAYS grazed their cattle on this land!  Like villagers everywhere, they are suspicious of anything new and especially of strangers who are doing something new.  The partners find it almost impossible to hire workers, even though the men of the village have no work, no income and basically nothing to do but sit around all day, smoking cigarettes and arguing with each other.  During the Soviet period, everybody got paid, usually for doing little or nothing and most are unable to adjust to the new reality.  It is hard for us to believe that someone wouldn’t accept a job, just to relieve the boredom, if for no other reason.  There is a skilled tractor-backhoe operator, who is also a good mechanic, but he dives into a vodka bottle on a regular basis.  After firing and rehiring him several times, they finally talked to his wife and pointed out the advantages to the family of a substantial regular pay check.  Now, he seems to be more or less on the wagon.

Beso and his partners have put half a million dollars into this venture and are nowhere near done.  It takes five years for hazelnut trees to produce nuts.  The potential payback, though, is very attractive.  A typical hazelnut plantation generates revenue of $8,000. per hectare.  The world-wide market for hazelnuts is growing by 12% every year.  They currently have about 70 hectares planted with trees that should begin to produce in two years.  Another 100 hectares now grows corn and wheat to generate short-term revenue but will all be planted to hazelnut trees eventually. 

Hazelnut plantation – the trees are still very small

Corn crop ready for harvest

Ancient Belarus machinery

 Apart from the labour problem, they are hampered by a lack of decent machinery.  An ancient Belarus backhoe, an even older and more decrepit small crawler and a larger crawler that is undergoing serious repairs in the middle of the field, pretty much make up their fleet.  All of this old Soviet equipment is in an appalling state of disrepair.  Every seal and gasket drips oil, every hydraulic cylinder needs repacking and more time is spent repairing than working in the fields.  Even if Belarus still made parts for these models, the border is closed and none can be bought.  The company has applied for a grant, which among other things would help to buy a newer tractor or two.  However, the partners are profoundly pessimistic that their government will actually approve a grant for a project as sensible as creating employment and economic development in a terminally depressed region.

Repairs in progress

Spare parts depot

Ladies preparing corn for sale

 

Next we go to the nearby village of Akhmeta to look at what will become their processing, packaging and storage facility.  They bought a derelict Soviet-era bread factory and have spent the last year, clearing it out, repairing it and getting it ready for the processing equipment.  In the meantime, they are using the building to store their newly-harvested corn.  They have a small machine which strips the kernels off the cobs and another which cracks the kernels and bags them for sale as animal feed. 

The energy and dedication of these men to create something worthwhile, where today there is nothing is enormously impressive.  There is nothing this country needs more than people with drive, good business sense (and some capital)!

 

Sunday October 25

This weekend there is a big autumn festival called Tbilisova, featuring sport and cultural events taking place all over the city.  Dea’s brother, Niko, invites me to go with him to see an event that is deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of the city. 

In the fifth century A.D., King Vakhtang Gorgasili was hunting along the Mtkvari river.  His falcon wounded a pheasant, which fell into one of the sulphur hot springs, common in the area.  The pheasant shortly sprang out of the spring, apparently fully healed by the curative waters.  King Vakhtang was so impressed that he decided to move his capital from nearby Mtskheta to this spot.  The name, Tbilisi, means ‘warm spring’ in the Georgian language. 

During Tbilisova, a falconry competition is held in the National soccer stadium.  We sit in the bleachers in the warm sun and watch the handlers send their falcons and hawks after various prey.  The smaller hawks are set on tiny quail, while the larger ones tackle pheasants.  I have never watched falconry before, but it isn’t as exciting as it always seems in novels.  For the most part, the prey only flies a few yards before being tackled by the falcon.  Sometimes, the little quail doesn’t fly at all but falls like a beanbag after being tossed into the air.  Occasionally, there is a thrilling chase, but usually it only lasts for seconds.  The hero of the day is a pheasant that takes off like a jet fighter, clears the rim of the stadium and disappears into the city.  The falcon pursues it heroically, but gives up the chase and turns back when it realizes it is no match for the pheasant’s speed.  The crowd claps and cheers each hunt; no word on how the quail and pheasants feel about it.

Falconry competition in the National Stadium

 

One of the highlights of Tbilisova is a performance of Magic of the Dance at the State Concert Hall. President Sakashvili and 2200 of his close friends attend this Riverdance-style spectacle.  I am fortunate to get tickets and even more fortunate when my lovely friend, Nina T. accepts my invitation to accompany me.  I met Nina on my last visit and she was very kind to me, showing me around the city and making me feel welcome.  I was hoping for an opportunity to see her again and it made the concert doubly enjoyable to have her company.  The performance is different from the classic Riverdance show, but just as fabulous and the dancing is truly beyond belief.

 

Monday October 26

Today, I am a serious tourist.  Dea arranges for a car and driver to take me to see some sights.  Erakle shows up at 10:00 and we head out of the city.  Our first destination is the pleasant small town of Gori, about 80 km from Tbilisi.  Gori has a castle on a hill that was besieged by the Roman general, Pompei, in 65 B.C., but that is not our goal today.  In more recent times, Gori was the birthplace of Josef Stalin and there is a very good museum devoted to his life.  Stalin is not history’s most popular world leader, but there is no denying that he played a dominant role in the politics of the twentieth century.  An elderly lady with heavily-accented, but understandable English, is my guide.  The museum was built in 1957, a few years after Stalin’s death and it is a beautiful building.  Modern Soviet architecture tends to be neoclassical, monumental and bombastic rather than elegant and this building features huge pillars, an arched arcade and a grand marble staircase.  The interior makes me feel like a character in a Russian novel.  I ought to be wearing a fancy cavalry officer’s uniform, maybe with a sabre!

Outside the museum building, is the tiny wooden house where Stalin was born and spent his childhood.  The single room contains original furniture and artifacts used by his family.  I get my picture taken sitting in a wooden chair at the kitchen table where the family ate their meals.  Next to the museum building, is the private rail car, in which Stalin, who refused to fly in an airplane, traveled about the country.  He used the railcar to visit the Front during the ‘Great Patriotic War of 1941 – 1945’ and the Potsdam Conference where the terms of the German surrender were hammered out.

The Stalin Museum in Gori

Stalin’s private railcar

 

The main city square of Gori still has a huge statue of Stalin – the only one remaining in the entire former Soviet Union – all the rest having been pulled down and destroyed.  A fierce debate rages locally; some want it destroyed too, while others think it should be moved to the museum grounds and preserved as an important historical artifact.  The Georgian version of the ‘redneck’ still considers Stalin to be a hero and Russia’s greatest leader.

Stalin’s chair inside his private railcar

Interior of the tiny house where Stalin was born and lived as a child

Last remaining Stalin monument

 From Gori, we move on to the fabulous cave city of Uplis-Tsikhe.  In this area, the river Mtkvari runs through a valley bounded by high sandstone cliffs.  The soft stone has many natural caves eroded by wind and rain.  Archaeological research suggests human occupation of the site began during the first millennium B.C.  and it became one of the most important centres in the Caucasus.  At the height of its development in the middle ages, it was a flourishing community of 20,000 inhabitants and stood on an important trade route linking Byzantium with India and China.  Marco Polo stopped here on his way to the Orient.

An entire town (streets, churches, storerooms, palaces and residential dwellings) was carved into the cliffs.  A wine press, separate channels for fresh water and sewage and even a small theatre, complete with wings and a backstage are clearly evident.  In the southern part of the town is a market area with merchants’ stalls.  The northwestern part of the town contains a palace where the town’s rulers lived.  It features stone pillars, still standing and a stone roof, with the ceiling carved to simulate wooden beams.

Cave city of Uplis-Tsikhe

Theatre

Stone ceiling like wooden beams

 

At the very top of the cliff, is a tiny church, dating from the ninth century.  The walls were once covered with frescoes, but they were destroyed in the nineteenth century by the Russian campaign against the Georgian Orthodox church.

Palace of city rulers

Frescoes inside the church

 

At the lowest level of the complex, we enter the secret tunnel that extends for 45 meters through the rock down to the river.  The tunnel provided a source of water when the city was under siege from its enemies.

The city began to decline in the thirteenth century after Tamarlane and the Mongols conquered the area.  A number of earthquakes and the decline in trade caused by the collapse of the Byzantine empire weakened the city to the point, where by the fifteenth century, only shepherds used the caves as shelter from the elements.    A major earthquake in 1929, with its epicenter a few miles away, caused major damage.  Uplis-Tsikhe is one of those magical places where, if you listen very closely, you can still hear the faint voices of the people who lived there so long ago.

Erakle knows a very good restaurant, off the beaten track, where we go for lunch – and eat way too many kinkhali!

Wednesday October 28

Today, I take a cab downtown to renew my acquaintance with Tbilisi’s old-town.  First, I stroll down Rustaveli Avenue, easily my favourite city street of anywhere I have ever been.  It is a lively place, crowded with happy people and shaded by huge old sycamore trees.  The buildings are all about five stories high and seem to mostly date from the turn of the last century.  Many of them display elaborate architecture and are in a very good state of repair.  I walk past the Georgian Parliament, the Opera House, the State Theatre and the immense Hotel Tbilisi, destroyed in the 1992 civil war and now undergoing a massive restoration.  I stop at Prospero’s Bookstore, a little gem of a place, a cozy English-speaking island in the Georgian sea.  A short passage at #34 Rustaveli leads into a tiny, sun-filled courtyard.  Prospero’s is a small shop but well-stocked with English books and also features a gourmet coffee shop.  I finally find a Tbilisi street-map that I have been seeking for days and enjoy a cup of excellent coffee.

Prospero’s bookstore

Beautiful building on Rustaveli Avenue

Tbilisi old town with Narakila Fortress above

 

Then I set off into the back streets of old Tbilisi.  It is like stepping through a doorway into an earlier century.  In its earliest days, the town developed below the walls of the Narikila Fortress, on the slope down to the Mtkvari river.  The old city is a wonderful maze of twisting, crooked alleys that lead to dead ends, unexpected squares and little courtyards.  Old wooden houses crowd and jostle each other for room.  Most houses are characterized by deep, elaborately carved wooden or wrought iron balconies.  Sometimes the balconies are cantilevered out over the street and sometimes they wrap around three sides of the house.  Internal courtyards often feature balconies with glassed-in verandas.  Wrought iron spiral staircases join one story to another.  The neighborhood reminds me very much of Havana.  While the architecture is beautiful, the majority of the buildings are in a desperate state of crumbling disrepair.  As in Havana, here and there a building has been restored to its original pristine condition.  I take dozens of photographs; I can’t walk fifty feet without seeing another picturesque building, just begging to have its picture taken.

     

 

This evening, I invite Asmat and Vakho, CESO’s Country Representatives in Georgia, to have dinner with me.  Asmat chooses a pizza restaurant about a fifteen-minute walk from my guesthouse.  I suggest that we could have gone to a fancier restaurant, but she assures me that the food in this, rather plain place is much better than most up-scale establishments.  She is right! 

We have a great time.  We discuss politics (as if there is any other topic of conversation in today’s Georgia).  Vakho and Asmat share with me their opinions of the current government and its leader (not to be repeated on a public website) and I regale them with tales of my visit to Guria.  The fact that Asmat is yet another tall, slim, striking Georgian lady, doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the evening. 

 

Thursday October 29

I don’t really have anything special planned for today and then – a nice surprise!  Nina T. calls to invite me to join her for lunch.  She works in an office on Chavchavadze Avenue, a part of the city with upscale shops, expensive apartments and many buildings of the Georgian State University.  I take a cab and meet her in front of Mango, which seems to be THE hip ladies’ wear shop in Europe this year.  We walk a few blocks up the avenue to a small cafe, owned by acquaintances of hers.  We have a tasty lunch and pleasant conversation. 

In the evening, Beso and Nino S. stop in for coffee and to say goodbye.  Beso, as usual, has many interesting conversations to share, most involving business, politics and the challenges of economic development in a country that has little history or tradition of free-enterprise.  Nino gives me a DVD of traditional Georgian folk dancing – sort of a sampler of dances from various parts of the country.  This dancing is very impressive and its traditions go back centuries.  Apparently, the Riverdance people watched some Georgian traditional dancing and were surprised and amazed by it.  They intend to incorporate some of it in future productions.

I also have an opportunity to talk to Nikoloz, Dea’s brother, who shares the apartment with Dea and their mother.  Niko is an M.D., an eye surgeon and a Professor of ophthalmology.  In his spare time, he and some colleagues are trying to set up a brokerage network on the internet that would allow people to source medications at prices that are closer to the normal in other countries.  By doing so, they hope to break the monopoly of the one or two major firms who pretty much hold the people to ransom.  It is an ambitious and creative approach and I hope it works out for them.

 

Friday October 30

The alarm rings at 02:30.  Good thing I declined most of the chacha that was being passed around last night.  George arrives at 03:00 to drive me to the airport for my 05:00 flight to Munich.  Thirty hours and nine time zones later, I arrive in Winnipeg.  It’s a brutal trip going in this direction.  The day just never ends.

My Georgian experience was just wonderful!  I met a whole countryful of kind and generous people, who take strangers into their hearts without reservation.  This trip offered a super opportunity to see some of the country outside of Tbilsi and meet people in the villages.  If it is possible, the villagers take their traditional duties of welcoming strangers even more seriously than their city counterparts.  I have made a whole new set of friends, all of whom demand that I return for another visit as soon as possible “…and bring your wife, next time!” 

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