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Dispatch #1 March 3, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
The tired elevator refuses to move until I slip 10 tetri (less than five cents) into the box on the wall inside the lift. The coin keeps dropping into the coin return and I keep trying to feed it back into the coin slot. Finally, after pounding on the box for 30 seconds, the coin is accepted. The secret was to pound the box just as you turn the coin loose. The elevator shakes and rattles and begins ascending to the sixth floor. It refuses to stop on the fifth, my floor, so I grab my bags and take the stairs down a flight. After dropping off my bags in the Soviet-style apartment in downtown Tbilisi, Georgia, the driver, Paata, two American colleagues and I head to the mountains. Less than an hour after my arrival, I’ve been invited to a dacha by a Georgian colleague, Maia and her husband.

Maia and I had never met, but as soon as I arrived, I was treated like family. There was shashlik (kebabs), vegetables, homemade wines, Georgian cognac (very tasty) and plenty of Georgian and Russian songs – as the guitar was passed around the table. I’d heard about Georgian hospitality, but was amazed at how quickly I was making new friends.

Sara, an expat, practicing law in Tbilisi, who rode to and from the dacha with me and Paata, later gave me a quick tour of the city-by-night. Tbilisi is breath-takingly beautiful at night – with the lighting highlighting the ancient churches and the remains of the fortress on the hillside overlooking the city. There are restaurants everywhere with every kind of cuisine from Argentine to Thai.

Sara chose a Georgian place for my first dinner. It included khachapuri -- a Georgian cheese pie that looks like a pizza, badrijani -- an eggplant salad with walnuts and garlic, a bean paste dish called Lobio that is served in a clay pot and cheese dumplings. Even though this is a very high fat diet, I was amazed that most Georgians are thin and don’t even exercise – yet they eat these foods daily.

I’d had most of these dishes before at a little Georgian restaurant when I lived in Tajikistan, but there was no comparison to Georgian food in Georgia. The food kept arriving and I kept eating. It was truly a feast and as we were leaving, we noticed several men seated at a table, start to sing. Impromptu acappela singing at restaurants and even on the street is quite common. (A few days later, I wandered into a 20th century church on the main street in Tbilisi and heard a Georgian men’s choir – it is truly a heavenly experience – with each of the seven singers performing a different part.)

The next morning, I was up earlier to meet up with Dato. Several friends in Baku, Azerbaijan and Tbilisi had recommended that I call Dato if I wanted to see the Georgian countryside. He was the second person I called upon arrival. Three people from the Dutch Embassy had already booked him, but he convinced them to allow me to come along – since we were all going to the same place – the Stalin Museum, about 80 kilometers northeast of Tbilisi, in the town of Gori.

The museum was like a tomb, a huge marble structure with no heat. It was freezing cold, but the tour guide, dressed in a long, thick overcoat, paced herself – as she slowly walked from one exhibit to another – dozens of photographs of Stalin with his cronies – gifts from other countries to Stalin on his 70th birthday – including a pair of red wooden shoes from The Netherlands. The strangest exhibit of all – Stalin’s death mask. It lies in state toward the end of the tour – in a room with red carpet. It was made shortly after his death.

Stalin’s personal train carriage sits on tracks outside the museum. The green carriage had a deathly smell.

Back on the road, Dato, treated us to tea and snacks at a tiny picnic table on a cliff overlooking a river. On the hillside above, a young boy had climbed into a tree and was shaking it violently as nuts pelted the ground.

Our next stop was Atenis Sioni – an ancient church that sits on a hill overlooking a bend of the Tana River. To get into the church, we walked through a stone gate and along a path lined with fruit trees. My guidebook said the exterior of the church had been built in the 7th century and the nearly faded frescoes were painted in the 11th century.

The highlight of the day was Uplistsikhe – it had once been an enormous cave city – one of the oldest places of settlement in the Caucasus. Founded around 1000 BC, it was a major center of paganism before Christianity arrived in Georgia. There are numerous pits dug into the sandstone hillside – where both human and animal sacrifices took place. Our guide pointed to one pit where he said each year, one family in the village sacrificed their eldest son – in order to keep the gods happy. Farther up the hill, a huge pit in the stone mountain was used to make wine -- the largest pit was used to stomp the grapes – and a trench cut into the rock – sent the grape juice into a smaller pit.

At the very top of the hill is a 9th century church that sits on the site of a pagan temple.

Georgia is dotted with churches that sit on the tops of hills and mountains. It is truly an incredible sight. All that climbing, definitely kept the worshippers in top condition and their seemingly inaccessibility no doubt helped them survive the Stalinist period when many places of worship were destroyed.