Ushguli, the top of the world. We ate for the last time at dawn, and in the afternoon, after the all-day tour it would be good to have something, but between the deserted fortresses we could only milk one of the skinny cows, because there is not a single store or restaurant. “Let’s go in a house here, if nothing else, they will give us bread and cheese”, proposes our jeep driver. The hostess immediately plants us at the kitchen table, she strips from the freshly risen dough a portion for three, and within minutes she puts in front of us a freshly baked khachapuri with meat. Her father-in-law, the former Soviet pilot now, at the age of seventy, teaches Russian language in the village school to the Svan kids. He pours us home-made Georgian brandy again and again, he says three times a solemn toast to the guests, to the family, and that there be no war in Donetsk, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In Mestia, the society of Polish-Georgian friendship runs their own pub in the main square, with Polish-Georgian bilingual signs. The Polish and Georgian members of the society are here only in the summer in the guise of tourists, and now, in the winter, you can find only Svans inside. Their dialect is different from Georgian, to the level of mutual incomprehensibility, but it exists only in a spoken form, so it is not included on the signs. The waitress is a Kurd of Yazidi religion, whose parents fled from Iraq to Kars in Turkey, and from there here, Svanetia. Instead of “yezidsky” she always says “yazichesky”, that is, ʻpagan’, thus in a Freudian way referring to why their sect has had to continually flee the orthodox Muslims, from the Midddle Ages to the new Middle Ages of ISIS. At the bar, a giant bearded man, the doctor on duty in the small hospital opposite, whose main passion is to demonstrate the relationship of the Svan and Sumerian languages. His other passion will be revealed only when he takes us around in his car to see the hotels proposed for a visit by our future group. In the car we listen to classical music with the best performers. “I have all the CDs of Jordi Savall”, he says in awe. “Of course, from the Russian pirate sites, for it would be impossible to get the original ones here.”
Logistical duties, choosing and visiting the hotels for our future group. The young proprietress of Gora Hotel startles me, saying “I’m also Hungarian”, as we drink a toast with chacha in the dining room, with the lights of the nighttime Kutaisi under us. “At least my grandfather was it. He fled here from the war.” “From which war?” “In forty-four. He was twenty-four then.” “Well, I do not think he fled then. He must have come with the Germans, either as a soldier, or as a prisoner of war.” “I do not know, we never talked about it in the family.”
The Stalin graffiti show well the ambivalent relationship to the recent past. In the popular “Putin is a dick!” stencils, the Russian president is a smaller matryoshka edition of the Soviet general secretary, while the portrait of the Generalissimus, carved with an experienced hand into the plaster in the Svanetian village of Kala, imperiously bears witness to the glorious era when the Georgians were massacred only by executioners from among themselves.
Kutaisi is always mentioned as the fifth oldest continuously inhabited European city, although the main proof for it is that at the mythical dawn of Greek history the Argonauts came here for the golden fleece, to Colchis, so it necessarily must have been inhabited. The only surviving relic of ancient Colchis is the beer Argo, which is black, like the Black Sea, from where Jason and his companions arrived here on the ship Argo, which appears on the label.
In the former city center, between the decaying palaces, a passage from the turn of the century, with the label “Mon Plaisir” on its Art Nouveau gate. In the place of its former elegant shops, now there are pubs, eating houses, emergency flats, and voids with benches, scenes of the social life of teenagers. The other end of the passage was closed and at the same time opened to the other street with an arcade. The huge concrete spiral staircase, completely incompatible with the Neo-Renaissance arcades, was probably built under them in the seventies. It rises up from the ground with a sweeping dynamism like a giant drill, in order not to lead anywhere after the collision with the vault of the arcades.
Between the houses of the old city, a small courtyard, with some of the typical large statues of the recent past inside. I take photos between the grids. “What is this?” “A gallery. Our national artists”, explains a squat Georgian in black leather jacket chatting with his friend in front of the house. “Are they old?” “Well… not from today.” “But they surely did not stand here earlier?” “Well, they stood both here and elsewhere.” “In squares?” “Well, the Mayakovsky statue, for example, stood in the square in front of the council hall.” “Er… look, I am from Budapest, Hungary. There, after the change of regime, they collected all the Communist statues and put them into one museum. Is this like that?” “Of course!”, he shouts, pleased to see that I finally realized what it is all about.
In the Jewish street, beautiful houses built from carved stone, and two synagogues of ashlars. One of them is open for the Kutaisi Jews regularly visiting the city from Israel and founding joint ventures, but the other already closed down. In front of the latter, another beautiful stone-walled house, which, judging from the style, also belonged to the Jewish community. The old woman sitting in the doorway beckons to us. “Hebrews, from Israel?” she asks in Russian. “No, from Hungary and America”, we reply, at which she changes back to Georgian. “The back door is not closed, you can enter the synagogue. Have you seen also the great synagogue at the beginning of the street? And if you go ahead, there is the third synagogue, the Georgian one, dedicated to the Holy Archangels”, she points at the church standing on a cliff.
The Kutaisi Cathedral is enthroned on a high cliff above the Rioni river. It can be seen from all parts of the city, and it gives an extra connotation to the most unexpected views: the Jewish street, the slum, the inner courtyards of the old town running down to the river. One can climb up to it in twenty minutes in the steep little streets, but with a taxi it is just a few minutes away from the riverside. Every quarter or half hour a black taxi stops in front of it, a young couple gets out in their Sunday dress, just before they become engaged, and they solemnly go into the church, lighting thin honey-scented candles before the icons, asking for wisdom concerning the decision, and a blessing upon their relationship.
The soles of my Chinese boots fall off on the rocky mountain road. “Where can I buy cheap shoes here?” “Buy?” The taxi driver’s eyes widen at the thought of such a waste of money. He turns right up to a small shoe repair kiosk, I can hardly find room inside next to the cobbler and his Chinese dog. He snorts while he stabs around the two shoes with the awl. He asks two euros for thirty minutes of work, and he proudly stretches the thread which could not be torn in a thousand years.
Gelati, Motsameta, medieval monasteries in the mountains above Kutaisi. King David the Builder’s tomb, a wonderful mountain landscape, but I could write this every day. People come up from the villages for Sunday Mass. We get acquainted with two Russian-Ukrainian-Georgian sisters in the small bus, and after Mass they invite us for a coffee to their dacha above the monastery. The children of the village run together to see us, they stand around, they let themselves be photographed.
Kutaisi is waking up. Here, it is eight o’clock, in our minds it is only five. After just two hours of sleep we start up to the mountain. In our backpacks, a bottle of excellent Georgian wine, a gift to each passenger from the Georgian passport control (!) We will drink it on the peak to the health of all our future hosts.
Budapest is covered by freshly fallen snow, ice patches on the street, as we start off for our midnight flight. In Kutaisi, it is fifteen degrees Celsius, and the oranges blossom on the photos of the Russian bloggers. The way there is six hours, but back it will be only ten minutes. We will try to report regularly, as often as we get internet. Because in Tusheti province, for example, at the Chechen border, they have not even introduced electric power yet.