A journey through Georgia is like a trip into the past. To discover the modern side of Georgian life, you need patience and determination.
Now one of you has to make a toast,” says Irakli Pruidze, “I’ve already made so many.” And yet the 54-year-old knows full well that toasting is an art form no visitor masters quite like a Georgian – the folk poetry of it, the well-judged pause before the glass is tipped. Pruidze is a thin man; his contours are barely discernible beneath his shirt. He radiates a calm that renders all measure of time meaningless. When no one responds, he lights up another cigarette, raises his glass, and speaks: “All right then, let us drink to the future, to what will come and to meeting again one day, right here.”
Like Fabian, the photographer, I want to get to know this country between Europe and Asia, its people, its landscapes and characteristics. We are sitting in the afternoon sun beneath a wild peach tree in Kakheti, a region that extends across the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains and is one of the oldest wine-growing areas in the world. I imagine Tuscany must have looked something like this in the 1950s before all the agriturismo fans and water-color amateurs arrived.
This country of proliferating wild herbs looks untamed yet serene beneath a brilliant sun that warms both skin and heart. Before us on a rickety table are a plate of bread and cheese, a single glass for white wine, two for red, a water glass and three bottles of Pruidze’s wine. The first is a young white, unfiltered and cloudy; the second, crystal clear and sweet as a summer’s day; the third a red wine, dark and dry. A rooster crows next door, and the sweetish woodland smell of a campfire fills the air. To the future, then!
Pruidze is actually a physician who has healed children, devised screening programs and advised institutions. As a sideline, he and four friends, who previously knew nothing about farming, bought this property in Bakurtsikhe village and buried qvervis – huge, big-bellied clay pots – in the sun-parched earth. This is how the people of Kakheti have fermented grape juice for several thousand years. Pruidze and his friends have made 6000 liters of wine, or “Our Wine,” as they call it from mzwane and rkaziteli grape entirely without additives, yeasts, sulfur or sugar – or chemicals fertilizers and pesticides. “We had absolutely no idea how to make wine or how things would turn out,” says Pruidze, as we tramp across the land, past rampant blackberries and a dog dozing in the shadow of a fig tree. The friends made their first attempts at wine growing in Soviet times, fermenting bought grapes and drinking the wine themselves. “Once the Soviet Union was finished, we started again from scratch, but properly.” Today, they send their wine all over the world – to Italy, Canada, Japan and Australia.
Sitting at a different table, two days later, we hear the same words: “We started all over again when the Soviet Union collapsed.” We are in Tusheti, in the outermost reaches of northeastern Georgia, just ten kilometers from the Russian border. After leaving Pruidze’s vineyard, we drove deep into the Caucasus Mountains and I found my mind wandering not to Tuscany, but to the Alps of 100 years ago, when life in the remote mountain villages was still tough. We drove through one Caucasian village after the next until the asphalt ended, then continued on, for hours, along dirt roads beside the Stori River, passing waterfalls and crossing the Abano Pass, which at 2950 meters is the highest pass accessible to road vehicles in the Caucasus and marks the border between Kakheti in the south and the Tusheti region in the north. In the end, we switched to horses, which are small and agile here, and move about the narrow paths like mountain goats. They climbed slopes, leaped rocks and waded through streams until we arrived at the tiny village of Vestomta, roughly 2300 meters up and home to just 12 families.
Georgij Karsamauli lives in Vestomta. His family has owned sheep for generations, and today they have a herd of 1200 animals. We sit in his cool kitchen on wide wooden benches with a soft covering of sheepskins. At night, the benches double as beds. Three puppies play outside in the sunshine beside the small cabin where tourists can stay. Soon, the puppies will grow up to become big Caucasian shepherd dogs.
At 2300 meters, the air smells clean. The mountains outside the kitchen window look as though they are covered in pale-green velvet dotted with dark flecks – coniferous forests. Karsamauli has visitors; neighbors have dropped by, as well as some friends from Tiflis. Together, we knead khinkali, drop-shaped pastry cases, which people here fill with lamb seasoned with cumin and salt.
“To the future!” is a toast you regularly hear in Georgia
Karsamauli earns his living from tourism and by making sheep’s milk cheese, which is matured in sheepskin pouches stored in a shed made of wooden posts and plastic tarpaulins. I try some with the freshly made khinkalis – it has a natural, elemental flavor. This is a cheese that needs no herbs and certainly no flavorings. After the meal, I walk over to the well to fetch water. The path runs along the garden fence Karsamauli made from crooked branches and takes me past a line of drying laundry. Is everything here still rooted in the past?
I set out in search of modern Georgia – and end up right back where I started – in the past. This time, I find myself in the Soviet era, in the years of promises, of superlatives, of megalomania. Two-and-a-half hours west of Tiflis is a colossal monument that squeaks and rusts where the paint is peeling off. The words “Chiatura, my pride” are written in towering letters on a cliff outside of the city. Concrete blocks rise like avant-garde installations in the foreground. Cable cars connect the city center with the districts in the foothills. Stalin built Chiatura in the 1950s, when manganese mining had its heyday. Chiatura is situated in the Imeretia region at the foot of the Greater Caucasus, where one of the world’s largest deposits of manganese was found. The metal was needed for use as a fertilizer, for coloring glass and bricks, and for tempering steel. The ore was transported down the mountains by the ton, bringing in money and along with it pride, hopes and dreams.
In downtown Chiatura, a large theater still testifies to the monumental splendor that was built to last an eternity. But the ornamental pool at its entrance is empty, and instead of water, dry leaves cover its blue tiles. The future came all right, but not the one people had hoped for. Of the few cable cars intended for passengers, two are still in operation and still exactly as they were in 1954. The population is said to have halved since 1990, and only 16 000 people live in Chiatura today. A paste-up on the wall of the cable car’s valley station in the city center depicts the silhouette of a miner leaning on his shovel. Gold paint is peeling off the cable car that’s rumbling in. The combined effect is like a work of art on the subject of hope and the search for happiness. On a small poster beside the paste-up, I find a reference to the originator of the work; the artist duo Sadarismelia. And this is how I find the future in the end.
Tiflis, the following morning. It’s Saturday and we are walking past a club where people are still partying to a droning bass beat. Next to a mural of a girl knitting a sweater for a wolf, someone has sprayed the words “What to do with all this love.” If the walls were plastered, you might imagine yourself in Berlin, London or New York.
I meet up with Mariam Natroshvili and Detu Jincharadze, the artist duo Sadarismelia, whose trail I picked up in Chiatura. We meet in the inner courtyard of a literature café. Natroshvili, who does most of the talking, keeps getting muddled and loses her thread, but always manages to pick it up again. She talks about Sadarismelia and Jincharadze’s work, about her own as well, and about the collaborations they curate. Their installations have names like “Museum of word” and “Illegal Kosmonavtika” (Illegal Astronauts). Most of them take place in Tiflis, where there are gallery spaces and a growing group of people for whom art and discussing art are gradually becoming the norm.
In Chiatura, the city of forgotten mine workers, art is not as widespread and is still the exception. It would have been unheard of not so long ago for someone to stick or paint personal statements on the walls, to make critical social statements or even to individually inhabit public space. Sadarismelia did just that with historical photos, with installations that traveled up and down the mountains in the cable cars; with graffiti and by exhibiting paintings in public. “We wanted to show the people of Chiatura that their city was special,” says Natoshvili. “You only have to change your perspective a little bit to see its beauty. With our work, we aim to set processes in motion. It’s not so important where those processes actually lead.”
Natroshvili and Jincharadze have led me back to the present, to a time when people are taking back their country and shaping it with their own hands. And perhaps they will also take me with them into the future because I already know that I would like to visit this transitioning country again. Who knows, maybe wine grower Irakli Pruidze’s toast will also come true and we will meet again, glass in hand, beneath the wild peach tree.