War, revolution, civil unrest; these are all the things the youth of Georgia have grown up with. That's not including the generation before them who had to endure the Soviet Union and it's collapse which led to an era of gangland warfare. It's no surprise then that Georgians are some pretty hardened people, who can make jokes about the darkest of times. They are also the most hospitable, welcoming people I have encountered anywhere in the world. The nations of the Caucasus' are famed for treating guests like "gifts from God". Indeed, wherever I travelled, even in a run down village in the middle of nowhere, there was always someone willing to offer up a beer, some food, and a (stilted) conversation. Even some kind junkies gave me a lift back to my hostel, politely asking if I wanted to pick up any "marijuana, coke, or heroin" on the car ride.It's a pretty great place to go as a traveller.
Georgia can best be described as one of the most mythical, hidden countries, aided by it's extraordinary history and scenery. It is said that Jason's golden fleece came from the gold rich kingdom of Colchis, today part of the West coast of Georgia, where sheep skin was used to collect gold from rivers. Even travelling around the most mundane parts of the country still feels as if you are in Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Unsuspecting castles and cities carved into rock-faces rest amongst stunning hills and mountains, completely untouched by tourism. The spread of Christianity within Europe began here and as a result churches from as early as the 5th Century still remain intact. It feels ancient. Their language is one of the oldest in existence, with the alphabet resembling the closest thing we have to Elvish! Their culture is strong and so is Georgia's national identity. One of the reasons I believe that the country is so nationalistic is down to it's geography.They were surrounded by immense empires; Turkey, Russia and Persia. Georgian men were known to be skilled warriors, thanks to their culture of knights, and were enslaved by the Persians to be used as generals in their armies. Russia on the other hand, attempted to force out the Georgian language, replacing it with Russian in the 19th Century. This didn't go down so well, as seen when a Russian priest claimed that Georgian was a language for dogs, and was promptly stabbed to death that evening by his Georgian students.
In more recent history, the country gave birth to the leader of the Soviet Union, Josef Djughashvili, later known as Stalin. Still a much debated over figure in Georgia, you can visit his birthplace and home town, Gori. A rather suitably named place for a man who led a bloody rule. Although the communist years were hard on the people of the country, I was informed by Georgian friends that it wasn't as I had imagined. Georgia was the party place of the Soviet Union, and people used to travel here to have a good time, something that is still very much present today. Georgians are excellent partiers, and definitely know how to hold them. The capital, Tbilisi, has a very cool clubbing culture, with some very unique venues. A new semi-Western subculture has influenced the youth, and I wouldn't be surprised if in the next 10 years it takes on a Berlin-esque vibe. However, we missed out on peak clubbing season, and instead experienced a Georgian house party on the first night of our arrival. My friend spent the whole day cooking traditional food, and guests arrived along with their homemade wine and Cha Cha (a lethal flavoured vodka) in abundance. I managed to impress her group by holding myself well with the Cha Cha, and not throwing up in the toilet, like my British friend. Although, I soon learnt the rule that if you leave something on the table, such as your fresh packet of cigarettes, that means it communal and will be shared out amongst everyone in need of a smoke.
The sharing culture is actually very important, and I realised that people will share anything; whenever and wherever. On one occasion, walking through the hills around a castle, we stumbled across a family having a picnic. They invited us over, offered us food and filled up a hollowed out rams horn with wine. They made a toast, downed the wine and then filled it up again, repeating the process another three times, making our walk back down the hill much more pleasant.
The country has become less violent in the past decade and really is a wonderful place to visit as a tourist if you are interested in extraordinary history, good food and spectacular countryside. That's not to say there isn't still a lot of trouble in the country. Gang culture and politics are still very much intertwined. I thought of writing a piece about it, but out of respect for those I met, I won't. However whilst I was there, a mafia boss was executed in the centre of Tbilisi, in the middle of the day. Someone told me that they suspected the currently exiled former president, Sakkashvili to be behind it. Whilst incidents like this are less common now, it's still no surprise to anyone. Outside of the capital, tensions in the region of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still ongoing. I expand on this in my Untold comic series, if you would like to know more about the current situation. Otherwise I throughly recommend the country as a place to visit, as long as you are respectful with good manners. Etiquette is very important and you may find yourself in a lot of trouble if you go wrong!