Bijo Philip

“Chkhaveri, Khvanchkara- Racha … JOSEP STALIN …”, Lado thundered wildly gesticulating to the still green, unripe fruits of his vines. Confused by his sudden fervor, my friend joined him and tried to laugh humbly. “Yes, we like Stalin’s wine … we are communists …” Now it was Lado’s turn to wonder. “Communists …?” “How is it!” … He seems to be wondering.

Lado took us to his cellar and started the usual wine tasting in earnest. He made us taste about a dozen types of white, red, dry, semi-sweet wines of different ages, each accompanied by a high Georgian game. What followed was a feast of fried chicken, salads and a selection of local khachapuri. Lado’s family sat with us and tried to engage us in a conversation. Language was never an obstacle. Sometimes he would seek help from his daughter on his cell phone to act as a translator. Happy to make friends with a nice man and family from this strange land, we abandoned the promise to return in a week.

Lado Shavishvili’s farm is located in the Little Caucasus 50 km east of Batumi. It is located on a small stream, a tributary of the Coruh River, which originates from the mountains in Turkey and flows into the Black Sea south of Batumi. The Turkish border is a few kilometers south. Life in these countries, which can claim to be the cradles of modern civilization, seems to be developing at a leisurely pace. We surprised Lado. He was having lunch with his family on his farm when I showed up unannounced. He looked embarrassed on his bare back. A spirited man who soon welcomed us, even though we didn’t have a common language to communicate with. He gave instructions to his wife and daughter-in-law to prepare us lunch and immediately took us for a tour of his farm.

Josep Stalin was born in Gori, about 250 km east of Lado’s farm. The last time I was in Georgia was Gori and I put a rose on the Stalin memorial. Stalin, a colossus of modern times, is the native son who won the war and gave Georgia its new identity. Men seem to prefer him here. Westerners may say, “That was Genghis Khan in Mongolia or Timur for Uzbeks”. Then we don’t always have to observe colors through a prism held up from the west. “Chkhaveri and Chvanchkara are the wines that Stalin preferred,” says Lado. Or we could arrange that. It is a fact that Stalin was proud of his domestic wines and served the most exquisite at the legendary Yalta conference.

Chkhaveri and Khvanchkara Wine Chkhaveri, a dark pink-skinned grape when ripe, is one of the oldest grape varieties in Georgia. Wine making in Georgia dates back 8,000 years. The late-ripening Chkhaveri with its high acidity is grown in the southwestern provinces along the valleys of the Lesser Caucasus near the Black Sea coast and is a versatile grape variety that produces a variety of dry or semi-sweet, still or sparkling wines that can be rosé, white, amber or red. Khvanchkara was one of the most popular wines in Soviet times. Real Khvanchkara wine is a blend of two indigenous Georgian red grapes that come only from the AOC of Khvanchkara in the Racha district in the northern Caucasus. The naturally semi-sweet wine from this tiny, remote region has cult status and has been sold at high prices. The loose regulation of the post-Soviet period led to a series of imitations that undermined trust in the authentic Khvanchkara. Thanks to the government’s zealous efforts since the Rose Revolution, Khvanchkara is now gradually regaining popularity among wine lovers.

Batumi

We flew directly to Batumi with the ‘Fly Dubai’, which flies directly from Dubai every other day. The idea was to spend a few days circling this Black Sea retreat and driving to Mestia, 250 km north on the Greater Caucasus on the Russian border. My friend and family had come to us from Qatar. Our last time here was in December. The high road to Mestia from Zugdidi was then under a thick blanket of snow and we had to drive back halfway. Now in the heat of July it is a five to seven hour drive from Batumi to Mestia. True to our custom, we have rented the smallest and cheapest Mitsubishi limousine from SixT Car Rental Batumi. Car was brought to our hotel. We lost no time in setting out for the snow-capped mountains.

Birth of a nation

Wedged between two huge nations, Georgia fought for its identity immediately after the fall of the USSR. Southern Caucasian USSR with a number of wildly proud and independently minded tribes who fell into anarchy in the early 1990s. Bloody wars spawned three new transcontinental nations, namely Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although regional wars with direct and indirect support from Russia seriously undermined the stability of Georgia, the situation began to improve with the 2002 Rose Revolution. Extreme confrontations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia subsided by 2012 thanks to internationally mediated peace. These regions, although nominally within Georgian national borders, are independent, with Russia recognizing their autonomy. Georgia has since broken off all diplomatic relations with Russia. You have a thriving military for a small nation and strive to fight for yourself.

Mestia of the Swans

Mestia is the largest city and capital of Svaneti, an inland province of the Georgian Caucasus. It is the land of the Swans, one of the many tribes of these mountains. The Swans, although Christianized from the 5th century and part of many famous empires, remained isolated until recently. Thanks to the enforced isolation, these tough men of the mountains were robbed of many resources such as salt. Deprivation had made inter-clan violence very common. The Orthodox Christianity that they follow still preserves many traditions of past animism and violence. It was the vigorous road and other infrastructure development during the Stalin era that helped them become mainstream.

A curious feature of the local architecture is the towers, which rise over 15 meters high from every old stone house scattered in the Mestia Valley. Giorg, a local shepherd I met early in the morning on one of my hikes, tried to explain that it had something to do with family vengeance. Although they looked like tall chimneys, they were closed at the top. Giorg and I passed a small stone church that was hidden in the forest on the hill. It looked sturdy, even though it was a few centuries old. They use this church in wartime when the valley is occupied or threatened. Russia is less than 10 kilometers behind the mountains, but the intersection there is now permanently closed. There are brown bears and wolves in these forests. “But bears only come here in the middle of winter …” Giorg reassured me as he went with his cows. I thought for a moment and hurried to retreat quickly.

As I came down the hill, I met a pretty girl with twenty something beautiful who was eagerly wandering up. The sun was hot now. Christine comes from Germany and follows the path to Lake Koruldi, actually a puddle under the peaks. The path was marked by an obscure red and black marker on a tree or a stone hedge. I thought for a moment if I should turn back and hike with her to the glacier. The tall towers of Mount Ushba waved invitingly. Oh … it shouldn’t be! I was already out of breath and half-dead from the pre-dawn exertion. As I said goodbye to Christine, I came to a welcoming breakfast of cheese-filled thick kachapuri and honey. Our landlady has prepared omelettes and strong coffee for this. God bless you!

Our days there in Mestia were unfortunately the hottest days of the year. The hours passed slowly. Someone had died and the mourners marched through the local cemetery dressed in black. The ladies of the nearby houses were all on our host family’s lawn until late in the evening, exchanging a little gossip and wine. Our women have joined them. As the sun went down, the men joined in for a good-natured banter over a beer or two. There was a family that came from Tbilisi. George is a hairdresser and has a thriving business there. Young Emil, his fifteen year old son, spoke English and we sat and chatted this or that. He aspires to be a cook; he told me. Life is good now … George patted his son lovingly and proudly.

Mount Ushba

Mount Ushba is a huge peak that spans the border between Russia and Georgia and rises dramatically high above the Mestia Valley. The Chalaadi Glacier, which emanates from the summit, gives birth to the Mestiachala River, which flows past the city of Mestia in the gorge. The way to the glacier begins at the relic of a hanging walk over the roaring mountain stream. A couple of grazing cows looked up on cue when a wolf howled in the distance. I stood alone, bewitched. Deep blue sky contrasted the pure white snow on the high horizon. There was silence.