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Originally published October 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 14, 2008 at 10:41 AM

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The real Georgia: Visiting a wondrous land few Westerners ever see

Search for the original Georgia on a map and Web sites, and you usually land 6,000 miles from where you want to be. It's frustrating, but just...

Special to The Seattle Times

Georgia

Getting there

British Air, KLM, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines serve Tbilisi from Seattle, though none directly. If you can, take Georgian Airlines for the final leg (from Paris, Amsterdam, Athens, Vienna, Frankfurt or Tel Aviv); new 737s, old pro pilots, and 15-year-old flight attendants in jeans and sneakers are the only (Georgian) way to fly.

Travelers tips

You're going to be eating, drinking, and walking a lot, especially in Tbilisi, which though hilly is an excellent walking-around city with wonderful restaurants. A big appetite, sensible shoes and strong legs are recommended.

The Georgian language is unique and incomprehensible to foreigners unless you have a lot of time. Fortunately, English is now mandatory in Georgian schools, so except in very rural areas, you shouldn't have trouble being understood.

Driving is suicidal. If you get a car, get a driver. And hit the road, because there are wonderful things in every direction.

Finally, never, ever confuse Georgians with Russians. They hate that.

Search for the original Georgia on a map and Web sites, and you usually land 6,000 miles from where you want to be. It's frustrating, but just think how the original Georgians feel. They live in one of the world's most ancient civilizations, a crossroads of humanity for 6,000 years. But in the Western world, their beloved homeland is dismissed as "that other Georgia, the Russian one."

The other Georgia is just as intriguing geographically and culturally as it is historically. Although smaller than its American counterpart, the republic's attractions include cathedrals, castles, forests and villages in spectacular locations stretching from the subtropical Black Sea coast to the renowned Caucasus Mountains. And visitors will find the locals to be the best hosts in the world, who really believe the old Georgian saying that "Guests come from God."

Except there are no guests. In 2004, while neighboring Turkey had 17 million foreign visitors, Georgia had 10,000. The reasons are many. Georgia has historically been hard to get to, except by the occasional invading army. And the decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union was bloody and dangerous, as the young republic endured power struggles between a generally corrupt ex-Soviet bureaucracy and dozens of new political parties who thought their time had finally come.

Those who did visit found a nation not ready for tourists, devoid of the services modern travelers demand. News reports implied that destructive revolution was everywhere. (The breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still places to avoid. Just a week ago, heavy fighting broke out between separatist and Georgian forces in South Ossetia, with extra troops deployed along the Georgian border.)

But driving in from the Tbilisi airport last October, I was happy to see the devastation had been grossly exaggerated. The capital city looked as it did when I first saw it 17 years ago, ramshackle, loud and passionate, with horrendous traffic caused by too many drivers who treat stop lights as "suggestions." I'd been told the beautifully preserved Governor's Palace was torched in 1991, but there it was on Rustaveli Avenue, right where it's been since 1807. The only notable downtown disappearance was the giant statue of Lenin Hailing a Cab. That square is dominated now by a Courtyard Marriott, one of Tbilisi's first four Western hotels.

My friend Nugzar Ruhadze was driving, and I told him how relieved I was to see Tbilisi in all its old glory.

"Of course," Nugzar replied, taking his eyes off the road. "Why would you expect anything different?" A very Georgian response.

My first visit to Georgia in 1990 was to shoot a television film called "The Falcon," an American-Georgian co-production that was part of the Goodwill Games Arts Festival. Nugzar was in the cast, with two other Georgians.

The female lead was played by Seattle actress Erika Warmbrunn. Erika and I, along with businessman Chris Peterson, had come back to Georgia not just to relive old memories but to begin a quest to help our Georgian friends. In part, we were inspired by the first American president ever to visit the country.

"The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone. As you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you" — George W. Bush, Tbilisi, May 2005.

As part of standing with free and democratic Georgians, I proposed another joint Georgian/American co-production, a travelogue this time. The government is stable now, led by a dynamic young Columbia Law School graduate named Mikhail Saakashvili. (Maybe not so stable. Last week the now-arrested ex-defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, accused Saakashvili of corruption and a murder conspiracy. Thousands of Okruashvili's followers are protesting in the streets, calling for the president's resignation. Unlike previous confrontations with previous presidents, this one is nonviolent. So far.)

The facilities for tourists have greatly improved and continue to expand. And with the 2014 Winter Olympics coming to Sochi, less than 20 miles from Georgia's border, Chris, Erika and I think what our friends need is a loving, movie-length commercial that will show potential visitors worldwide the wonders Georgia has to offer. On this trip we wanted to see some of those wonders, and do business, especially, meet and greet Nodar Grigalashvili, the Parliament member in charge of tourism.

At our meeting I tried to get him to talk about plans for tourism to come, but he preferred telling me things he thought I needed to know. He was particularly eager to point out that two of Columbus' crew members were Georgians. Grigalashvili's message was, "Our people discovered your country five hundred years ago, so it's high time your people discovered ours."

For the rest of the week, we played tourist, escorted by co-producer Ghia Mchedlishvili, a quiet, perpetually bemused Tbilisi businessman. Erika and I visited some old haunts, and a few of the many scenic sites we didn't have time to see in 1990. And we tried to show Chris, who had never been to Georgia, why we think the place is worthy of our time, energy, and resources. But we didn't have to try very hard. Georgia easily seduces its visitors all by itself, with attractions like these:

Museum of Georgian Folk Architecture, Tbilisi

Seventy-five years ago, Georgian historians realized that the Soviets were throwing up factories and other eyesores in their country and destroying the unique, native architecture. So they sent flatbed trucks across the country to scoop up ancient houses and meeting halls and bring them back to Tbilisi, to be installed on a hill above the city.

The architecture museum now has more than 70 dwellings, real houses that real families lived in hundreds of years ago. And in almost every building there's a knowledgeable guide. The museum has also become a cat sanctuary, with hundreds of fat, happy cats hanging off the rafters and curled up on the antique furniture.

Old Town, Tbilisi

Tbilisi is a big city (1.2 million) in a spectacular location, the hillsides leading down to the Mtkvari River. The Georgians have made the most of the city's site by plopping castles and churches on top of its promontories.

Spectacular urban vistas are unique to Tbilisi, but for me the best part of the city is Old Town, a warren of narrow streets, small shops and centuries-old houses with tiny balconies that look like they wouldn't support two Chihuahuas.

Old Town reflects Tbilisi's unique melding of European and Asian influences. And this Old Town hasn't been tarted up for tourists as have so many similar old towns around the world (including Seattle's). Tbilisi's Old Town is as it has naturally evolved over the centuries. And that reality is just as compelling as a lot of red bricks.

Mtskheta

Twenty-five kilometers north of Tbilisi, Mtskheta was the capital of the Georgian kingdom of Iberia 2,000 years ago. For Georgians, it's the nation's spiritual heart, and now a pleasant town of nice homes, museums and famous churches.

The 11th-century Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral was built on the site of Georgia's First Christian Church, and is allegedly where Christ's robe is buried, having been taken from the crucifixion by a Georgian Jew named Elioz. In Mtskheta, he gave it to his sister, Sidonia, who instantly died of a "religious passion" and was buried clutching the fabric.

Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral is undergoing a major renovation, but most of Georgia's famous churches — and there are dozens of them, as befits the second oldest Christian nation on earth — have not been restored.

They reflect centuries of continual use by the devout. In the Armenian church in Tbilisi, for instance, the wall behind the altar has priceless, ancient portraits of saints. But smoke damage from hundreds of years of brazier fires and candles have so dimmed the images that from a distance they look like odd black circles painted on the wall. One can mourn the artistic loss of these paintings, as well as hundreds of other images fading or now completely gone from Georgia's churches. At the same time, as in Old Town, a visitor gets a rare glimpse of reality.

The Georgian Military Highway

By American standards, this almost straight line up the center of the country through the Caucasus to the Russian border is not a highway. In some spots, it's not even a road. However, Erika says I'm being an asphalt snob. She points out that hundreds of Georgians travel the GMH daily without complaint, and she's right. But they are famously tough folks, Georgian mountaineers who have scraped a living from a little livestock and less land for centuries.

Ananuri

An hour north of Tbilisi on the GMH is Zhinvali Dam, blocking the Aragvi River and so creating a huge reservoir and a lot of Georgia's hydroelectrical power. The reservoir lies below green, forested hillsides dotted with ancient watch towers. Coming around the northern end of the lake, we were suddenly confronted by one of Georgia's most photographed places, the pocket-sized fortress of Ananuri.

It was built 400 years ago by the dukes of the Aragvi to control the road going by and provide sanctuary for warriors. Still in use in the early 19th century, the upper and lower fortress and the two churches that make up Ananuri are outstanding examples of the architecture of the period.

Kazbegi/Stepantsminda

At the northern end of the GMH but still less than a hundred miles from Tbilisi is a town once called Kazbegi that recently changed its name back to Stepantsminda. Stepantsminda is the departure spot for mountaineering in the region, especially on Mount Kazbek, which looms, large and ominous, over the town.

Or so the Stepantsmindapolitans claim. We spent 24 hours in Stepantsminda and never once saw the famed peak because of a thick fog. Our hotelier assured us the fog would eventually clear, that the mountain wasn't a myth, and it would surely burst forth for our perusal. (The myth associated with Kazbek is that, as "Mount Caucasus," it's where Prometheus was chained by Zeus as punishment for the fire heist.)

"Maybe the mountain will come out later this week," our host sort of promised.

So it's beginning; Georgian hoteliers are learning how to mollify disappointed guests just like their more experienced tourism counterparts around the world.

The missed mountain was the only real disappointment on this return to Georgia and the Georgians. They are the wonderful people in the wonderful places I remembered. And there's no doubt their country will some day be overrun with tourists. To this they will adjust. Georgians have a long history of adjusting to invaders. I won't adjust, though. I'll want to be able to sit in Ananuri's peaceful sanctuary as I did this time, alone except for the fading portraits of saints on the walls and the old woman who hissed at me to take off my hat. But the days are ending when an obvious tourist draw like Ananuri will be practically deserted. And though I'll mourn the loss and probably turn into one of those dreary old goats forever talking about the good old days, I'm also going to do whatever I can to see that Georgia's good old days of obscurity are over.

For those who wonder why we want so much to help the Georgians, something happened on the way to Stepantsminda that I hope answers the question. On an isolated stretch of the highway near Jvari Pass, Ghia bounced into a pothole, destroying his Mercedes' oil pump. We coasted to a stop, and then sat there in the rain and fog, waiting for help. Eventually an old blue truck rolled up. Inside were two young men and a very old woman, all dressed in black. The men — obviously Georgian mountain folk — talked briefly to Ghia. Then they hooked a rope to the car and towed us five miles back to the ski resort of Gudauri. Then they rejoined the old woman, who never got out of the truck or even looked our way, and drove off.

A few hours later we hitched a ride north again. Not far from where Ghia's car died, our driver slowed down, because the blue truck was parked on the side of the road. The two men were out and peering over the edge, down a very steep cliff into the chasm below. Our driver explained that their brother had disappeared four days before and they had been looking for him ever since. Earlier that day they spotted his jacket 200 feet down the cliff face.

Driving back to Tbilisi the next morning, we passed the brothers again, now joined by a dozen of their fellow villagers carrying ropes and harnesses. "They found the body," said our driver, "and need help to get it back."

I love Georgia because a mother and her sons, searching for their lost brother and already fearing the inevitable, came across a car full of tourists with a trivial problem. And stopped.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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