December 2013: I visited Georgia twice. Once on a 4-day trip to see Kazbegi and Gori in 2013 via a private car and driver I hired and again in 2018 to travel across thee far west of the country for a few days from Armenia to eastern Turkey. I knew that when I first visited Georgia in 2013 that the country was unique and with its mix of Asia, and Europe being at the crossroads between the two and the towering Caucuses Mountains to its north that Georgia would become a huge draw for tourists in the future.

 

 

My route

Georgia was previously part of the Soviet Union and is one of the few ex-Soviet Union countries to have a democratically elected government. Unfortunately for the government, it became to pro-western and only a few years before my visit, Russia’s Putin sent in an invading army that would end up taking a third of the country from Georgia. The country was still rebuilding from the war and loss of territory and was one of the poorest and most corrupt states of the Ex-Soviet Union.

 

 

To the Mountain Village of Kazbegi

I arranged a car and driver to take me to kazbegi, a mountain village near the Russian border. We drove up over the mountain passes via snowstorms, and forests with huge European like castles and medieval watchtowers that were once used to watch for invading armies.

 

 

Watch tower

Watch tower

Castle

Georgia being part of the Soviet Union also had plenty tacky Soviet era monuments symbolizing the strength of the people as a cohesive unit, revolution or of the triumph over the Nazis. These monuments were usually neglected with rebar sticking out of cracked concrete slabs.

 

 

Soviet era monument

Near white out blizzard conditions on the mountain pass to kazbegi 

WWII Monument symbolizing POW’s of the nazis that died on the road 

Soviet monument of Georgian and Soviet friendship

Driving through a mountain pass on the Georgian military highway

In Kazbegi, we found a homestay where we were the only guests, and our host family cooked a massive home grown traditional Georgian meal and I have never eaten better borsht in my life. Then we had vodka to wash down the meal.

 

Kazbegi Village

Kazbegi 

Kazbegi House

Many of the monasteries were looted by the government during the Soviet Union of their accumulated treasures and claimed by the government. I was told that the monastery in Kazbegi was able to successfully hide most of its cultural and monetary wealth from the government and it still exists today, so a monk lives in the monastery to guard it.

 

1000 year Old Monastery in kazbegi I hiked up to

Me on the pass

My driver and the Monk Living in the Monastery 

Monastery Kazbegi 

To the Hometown of Stalin-Gori

From Kazbegi we drove to the lowlands in a more temperate climate without snow to the hometown of Stalin-Goris. The drive was half the fun. We passed by the border of South Ossetia, a region that Georgia lost when Russia invaded. Now there are refugee camps along the border of displaced Georgians who lost their homes. My driver, who was in the war expressed his regret for possibly killing a man who he had to shoot at. It was something he said he still struggles with every day.

Goris and the villages around it were very poor and the economy was in shabbles. Crumbling Soviet era apartments were commonplace and abandoned factories dotted the landscape. Even though Stalin was born in Goris, it was not a fact he was proid of because he wanted to be seen as a Russian not a Georgian and he did his best to conceal it and even according to my driver had all of his old neighbors fromthe neighborhood he grew up in sent to gulags for exterminations so that no one would know he was from Georgia. We visited the small house where he grew up and the train cart that he travled around the Soviet Union in when he was Premier.

 

 

South ossetia border

Man selling puppy dogs

Typical Lada carrying chickens in rooftop cage-The only thing that this picture doesn’t capture is the babushka sitting in the front seat.

Portrait of a young Stalin

I met this Georgian villager on the side of the road and I asked to take his photo. My driver translated this request to him and he responded,” but I look so ugly, why.” My driver then told him, “no it is ok, he doesn’t care , he loves to take photos of people as they really are.” He was right, I do. I took this man’s photo and shook his hand afterwards and the whole time he smiled. I doubt he has ever been asked by anyone for his photo, especially by a foreigner and I think he was a little flattered. Then just like that I said goodbye, got back in my car and left. I’ll never know this man, his name or see him again, but I feel honored to share a moment with him and to be given permission by him to take his photo which I will always have to remember him by and the people of Georgia.

While driving around in a depressing village, I came across several murals of Stalin that I had to get out and photograph. 

We attended a church service in one of the 1000-year-old churches, and it was one of the most beautiful services I have ever attended. Between the giant old murals, dim candle lit atmosphere and angelic harmonic singing of hymns from parishioners, the experience was very spiritual for me.

 

 

1000 year old church

Attending church service in 1000 year old church

Weeping Cross

Attending church service in 1000 year old church

We also visited an underground village where the early Christians lived when they were persecuted. The homes were inside a network of underground tunnels and catacombs that were fun to explore. 

 

 

A modern church built on top of the underground city

Me exploring the cave city

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