From Bishkek to Tbilisi

From November 2016 to April 2017 I was working in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as an English teacher. This was my second experience of living in a post-Soviet country as I had spent the third year of my Undergraduate degree studying in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Suffice to say that the contrast between Russia’s ‘window to the West’ and Bishkek, a city nestled in the foothills of the Tian-Shan mountain range, predominated by old, crumbling Soviet buildings, was quite striking.

However, what Bishkek lacked in aesthetics it more than made up for in other ways. Being so close the mountains gave you easy access to skiing in the winter and trekking in the summer. Kyrgyzstan has the fourth-highest average elevation in the world (2750m above sea level) and 90% of the country is located at over 1500m. I don’t think I ever could have gotten bored of walking out of my door in the morning to be faced by an endless range of snow-capped peaks. If mountains are your thing, there are few better places to go! Kyrgyz culture, too, was like nothing I’d seen before. Historically, the people inhabiting modern day Kyrgyzstan were nomadic and a significant portion of the population continue to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle. For this reason, once you leave the hustle and bustle of the capital, you see hillsides scattered with yurt camps and men on horseback herding their livestock. No drive in Kyrgyzstan is complete without getting stuck in a crowd of goats and sheep, winding their way through the mountains towards greener pastures.

A yurt camp in Osh Region
A view of the mountains to the south of Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan was also an ideal base from which to explore the rest of Central Asia, so I was able to explore the other fascinating countries of the region: Kazakhstan, with its never-ending steppe and bizzare capital, Astana, that seems to have been designed by someone who reads too many dystopian sci-fi novels;  Uzbekistan, pocketed with ancient silk road cities characterized by their old, blue-domed mausoleums and madrases; and Tajikistan, as naturally astounding as Kyrgyzstan and home to the Pamir highway, an incredible road that snakes it way through one of the world’s great mountain ranges. Sadly, Turkmenistan remains on my ‘to-do’ list due to its highly restrictive visa regime. For such a relatively unvisited region of the world, Central Asia has so much to offer to the more adventurous traveler. Each country has something special, but Kyrgyzstan holds a special place in my heart after spending half a year there. After such a positive experience of living, working and travelling abroad, the bar was set quite high for whatever came next.

A Tajik family sat for tea in the Jizeu Valley
A blue-domed mausoleum near Termez, Uzbekistan

So, now I find myself in Georgia. On paper, these two countries share certain similarities. The geographies of both countries are mountainous, both are relatively small , both used to be part of the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian empire. Kyrgyzstan and Georgia have also both suffered from tumultuous political situations in their post-Soviet years. Both countries experienced coloured revolutions (Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in 2005), both have overthrown two of their previous presidents, and the most recent former presidents of both countries currently live in exile and are wanted on criminal charges in their home countries.

The capital cities of these countries, however, are worlds apart. Whilst you can still find plenty of typically bleak looking Soviet apartment blocks in the outer districts of Tbilisi, wandering around the centre you almost feel like you are in a Mediterranean city. The Old Town has sprawling, cobbled streets lined with small brick houses sporting wooden balconies. Unfortunately, as is typical of any beautiful European city, the area can be spoiled by massive throngs of tourists. Nonetheless, the architectural beauty of the area is undeniable. The city is also incredibly busy, walking through the centre at rush hour you can be overwhelmed by the noise and amount of people on the streets. Bishkek, however, had always been a relatively quiet city, even on its main road. Another striking difference is that whilst Bishkek had plenty of bars and cafes, Tbilisi is home to the kinds of trendy (and sometimes pretentious) places that would feel perfectly at home in one of London’s most hipster areas. One evening I found myself at a photography festival in a converted Soviet sewing factory, the inside of which was filled with various bars offering various elaborate cocktails and shops selling everything from skateboards and spray paint to handmade ceramics and vintage posters. I almost forgot that I was actually 2600 miles from Dalston! Tbilisi is also home to Bassiani, a club that is hailed by some as ‘the new Berghain’. Located in the Dinamo Stadium, it uses a disused swimming pool as its main dance floor. Last night I went to an affiliated venue underneath the Stadium to see Nicolas Jaar! Somehow, I can’t imagine that Bishkek is going to be on his tour schedule anytime soon.

A cable car passing over the Old Town
The Mother of Georgia standing over the Old Town













One of the greatest advantages that Georgia has over Kyrgyzstan in my eyes is the food. As a vegetarian, I often struggled when travelling around Kyrgyzstan. Due to Kyrgyz culture being nomadic, their cuisine is particularly meat-heavy. Some of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous national dishes include Beshbarmak, a dish of boiled meat (either mutton or horse) served in a broth with noodles and onion, and Chuchuk, a hose-meat sausage. Travelling around rural areas often meant having to subsist on a diet of potatoes, cabbage and fried eggs, which got quite wearisome after a while. Another one of Kyrgyzstan’s culinary delights was Kumis – fermented mare’s milk, the taste of which I would liken to an acidic blend of yoghurt and salt. However, the Kyrgyz will down bowlfuls of the stuff one after another, particularly in the Summer when the quality of the grass the horses graze on is at its best. The Kyrgyz also attest to it having an improbably long list of health benefits! In Georgia, however, there are far more things that suit my pallet. The most famous of these is probably Khachapuri, a dish of cheese-filled bread which comes in a surprisingly wide variety of forms. A favourite dish of mine, which I actually first tried at a Georgian restaurant in Bishkek, is Ajapsandali, a mixture of fried aubergine, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and spices. Instead of slightly alcoholic horse-milk, Georgia has a rich wine culture and is one of the countries with the longest histories of wine making.

A mural on the outside of one of the Old Town’s popular bars

It’s impossible at this point for me to give a comprehensive comparison of these two beautiful countries, especially considering I’ve only been in Georgia for two weeks and haven’t had the chance to see much outside of Tbilisi. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice all these similarities and differences having left Kyrgyzstan so recently. Ultimately, I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about this country. Keep an eye on this space to see what the next three months have in store!

Travel stories: from Kazbegi and David Gareja to Chiatura and Armenia

During the past two months, I have luckily managed to see quite a lot of the beautiful country that is Georgia. I am really impressed by the natural variety it disposes – as you will see snowy mountains, lavish valleys, and arid semi-deserts within a scope of only a few travel hours. That being said, the nature is of an outstanding beauty, and will probably accumulatively lead to more tourists arriving in Georgia every year. In winter, however, one has to be aware of the more difficult conditions that roads might impose. Being flexible is key. As I concluded with some friends, going on weekend trips in Georgia in winter means most of the time ‘hiking through the snow, climbing up slippery stairs, overcoming dangerous cliffs and risking your life’. When you make it to your viewpoint, however, you immediately forget all your struggles, as Georgian nature never disappoints.

Ananuri Complex
The Caucasus viewpoints in Gudauri

The Georgian Military Highway

One of the first trips I made, in the beginning of February, was the Georgian Military Highway up to Stepantsminda (better known as Kazbegi). The road runs from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia, Russia), and is often described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The first stop brought us to beautiful Ananuri, a scenic castle complex some 65 kilometres north of Tbilisi. From 13th until 18th century, it was the seat of the eristavis of Aragvi, a local feudal dynasty. The fortified castle that can be discovered nowadays dates from the 17th century. After Ananuri, one follows the road that leads to Gudauri, a ski resort on the southern plateau of the Greater Caucasus. Although we did not have time to ski, we could enjoy the amazing viewpoints, as Gudauri is entirely located above tree-level (at an elevation of 2.200m). After many steep and rough sections, we arrived at Stepantsminda, at only 22 kilometres from Vladikavkaz, from where the mighty 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church can be seen on an elevated hilltop. Normally, one can either climb up a steep path or reach the church by car, but this path was completely covered with a thick icy layer, and locals secured us that without professional hiking gear we would not be successful. Being flexible was a must again. Kazbegi remains on the list and has to be revisited in another season.


The arid Georgian south at David Gareja

In the beginning of February, with some friends I attempted a visit to the monastery complex of David Gareja, in the deep south of Kakheti. This mysterious complex was founded in the 6th century, when an Assyrian monk arrived in the region, and is known for cells, churches, living spaces and chapels that have been carved or hollowed out from the rocky surface. When arriving at Udabno, the last village before the dirt track leading to David Gareja, we were once again confronted with Georgian winter. The dirt track was blocked by metres of snow. We visited Bodbe and Signagi, the showpiece of former President Saakashvili, instead. A few weeks ago, another attempt proved more successful. One has to be very determined and willing to go all the way to David Gareja. The conditions of the road transformed a 70km-drive in 3 hours travelling. When we finally arrived, a steep hike up provided us with breath-taking panoramic views with the Georgian Greater Caucasus up north, and the arid Azerbaijani landscape in southern direction. The arid semi-desert landscape around the complex is fairly different from the rest of Georgia and provides unique vegetation and colours. The complex is actually squatted along the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, a part of it officially located in Azerbaijan. This has generated some border tensions since both countries obtained independence in 1991. The Georgian stance explains David Gareja as intrinsically Georgian and as part of its historical heritage, while Azerbaijan states the complex has Caucasian Albanian origins, and therefore belongs to Azerbaijan.

The road to David Gareja on our first attempt.
David Gareja

Chiatura: a Soviet relic

When Georgia regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had obtained a legacy of Soviet relics. While those might generally be portrayed through the typical communist flats that one finds in suburbs, such as is the case in Tbilisi, the town of Chiatura tells another story. In the heart of Imereti, Chiatura was a bustling manganese-mining town. During the 1950s and 60s, this provided employment to the people of the region, making it a prosperous industrial town. The mining-labour character of the town made it always stood out, as had been proven during the Russian Revolution, when it became the only Bolshevik-stronghold in Georgia. Stalin was offered shelter in Chiatura and became a hero for the mining workers, who dubbed him ‘sergeant major Koba’. In the 50s, Stalin instructed the development of an ingenious cable car-system. As Chiatura is located within a deep gorge, this seemed the only feasible way to connect the different parts of the town and to get the workers to the mine as fast as possible. In 1954, the first ones where opened, providing a true modern masterpiece during the time. Nowadays, Chiatura provides a gloomy overview. Nothing seems to have changed. Some rusty and coloured cable cars are still functioning, while others hang motionless. Flats and factories look abandoned, although they might sometimes still be functioning. A true adventure awaits us. While we hear a lot of squeaky noises, and have to jump over an abyss when getting out, we had a unique experience in a town that was once ahead of its time. Nowadays, many flats remain empty and are basically valueless, as inhabitants have left for Tbilisi, Kutaisi, or other cities.

Chiatura and its cablecar system

The long Hayastan weekend

Ever since I came to Tbilisi, visiting Armenia was high on my list. Its closeness and easy border procedures made me think it would be a waste to not cross into Hayastan, as Armenians call their country themselves. However, other than Tbilisi, most parts of Armenia have a very extreme climate, with cold winters and hot, dry summers. For weeks I was checking the weather in Yerevan, just to see that another weekend with temperatures plummeting to as much as -25 °C was to be expected. Thus, I had to be patient. Last weekend, spring finally seemed to have arrived in Armenia and together with my Kazakh friends, we decided to grab our chance. As we heard good stories about hitchhiking (something I would have never tried in Western Europe), we were keen to at least try this. Although our luck was variable, we managed to reach Yerevan safe and sound with a stop at the beautiful Lake Sevan along the way. Safe and sound, that is. While our Armenian taxi driver assured us the road at the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border crossing leading through Noyemberyan, Dilijan, Sevan, to Yerevan, was safe enough during daytime, we later found out this certainly is not always the case. The road scrapes along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for a couple of kilometres, and abandoned houses and churches with bullet holes can be witnessed.

Sevanavank and frozen Lake Sevan

Arriving in Sevan, we witnessed a completely frozen lake. According to locals, this was a unique event that had occurred for the first time in twenty years. We arrived in Yerevan after sunset and could immediately enjoy the great view on the city we had from our apartment. Yerevan cannot be compared to Tbilisi in a lot of perspectives. Where Tbilisi boasts an old city centre, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and clubbing culture, Yerevan seems a rather conservative and impromptu capital. It possesses over lavish avenues, an impressive Republic Square, fancy shops, and great restaurants with great hospitability and tasty Armenian food, but at the same time a real core seems to be absent. As Yerevan only started to gain independence after Armenia rose as an independent state for the first time in 1918, most buildings are either in Soviet or post-Soviet style. The several monuments and references that refer to Armenia’s very troubled past seem to actually hold the country back in this past. An understandable sense of sadness, combined with boundless militancy seems never far away. However, this clingy nostalgia often feels like impeding Yerevan from truly becoming a 21st-century capital, regardless of how many new skyscrapers may be built. The feeling of loss becomes ultimate in Khor Virap, an ancient Armenian monastery complex close to the Turkish border. Its opponent on the Turkish side is the mighty Ararat, the long-lost Armenian symbol. Everywhere you go in Armenia, the Ararat is present. It is an intangible religious, cultural and heroic symbol for the Armenians, but which now finds itself located within the boundaries of another state. Armenia, being one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world, is definitely a very interesting place to visit, and stirs many different, often opposed, sentiments and emotions.

Yerevan concrete
Khor Virap and Mount Ararat in the background

Tbilisi wanderings

Every time I went on trips and came back to Tbilisi, it felt as coming home. It’s a strange feeling how fast this city seems to have accepted me and made me feel comfortable. In a relatively short time, I managed to make a lot of new great friends, interesting contacts, and see a lot of this bubbling city. In many senses, Tbilisi is one of the new places to be! Rarely I have seen a city developing so fast, becoming so vibrant, and inspiring. It boasts over great history, a well-maintained old centre, chic modern neighbourhoods, many cultural events, and an exciting nightlife. It is the exact opposite of what people might expect when they think of Tbilisi as a former Soviet outlet in the Caucasus. Tbilisi is special. It unifies many cultures, and it is becoming more cosmopolitan every day. When I complained to my colleague Ana about the lack of bookshops in the city, she wanted to prove me wrong and took me on a ‘bookshop tour’. And although those places might not always be on the most central locations, they indeed exist and possess over a variety of books in Georgian, Russian and English. You just have to know where they are located and what they are specialised in. As copyright laws are not so strict here, Ana also taught me how to differentiate real editions from fake books. Even in Georgia, 8GEL for Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel seems to be too good to be true. While sadly very little of Georgian literature has been translated, it is definitely worth trying to find something. Shota Rustaveli’s ვეფხისტყაოსანი (The Knight in the Panther’s Skin), a national epic poem, is probably Georgia’s most famous work.

Tbilisi book hunting

Tbilisi’s ‘Italian’ Courtyards

When wandering around the older neighbourhoods of Tbilisi, one easily stumbles on hidden corners. These mysterious passages often lead to leafy and wooden-rich courtyards. The origin of these architectural gems can be found, once again, at the crossroads of cultures that is Georgia. When the country in the 19th century became part of the Russian Empire, imperial neighbourhoods with neo-classicist and cosmopolitan arose next to the older quarters. Sololaki, south of Liberty Square and bordering Mount Mtatsminda, might be the clearest example of this style. These facades often came with the trendy in style French balconies, ready to house Tbilisi’s bourgeoisie. Yet, these did not accord with the wishes and traditions of most Georgians. This is when Georgia found itself at a junction of crossroads again. These ‘modern European’ facades were clearly made to impress and aligned with the streetscape of other cities within the empire, while the courtyards were to meet with the colloquial and informal lifestyle of the Georgians.


Those courtyards were (and are) typically a gathering of wooden structures around a small plaza, sometimes just portrayed in a small tangle of alleys, but in other cases with a leafy retreat, accompanied by a small garden or a fountain. This ‘traditional’ Georgian housing structure, replaced by modern European facades on the front side, is primarily influenced by the Persian caravanserais, with the developed need of interaction, negotiation, and spending time together. While caravanserais almost always were square shaped, this is not the case for the Georgian backyards. As stated, they might carry out some unpredictable pattern, more looking like a vector of small alleys, with overhanging bridges, arches, staircases, exterior galleries, and other wooden, glazed and stony structures. It provided Tbilisi with a certain tolerance, from a static and luxurious outside, to more relaxed, informal, and intimate inside, at the same time creating a unique atmosphere. The facades on the streets were rivalling with the architecture in other big European cities, while the backyards provided an intrinsic oriental character.


During the Soviet times, the Georgians were eating up the romantic Italian movies that seeped into their live-worlds. The movies provided an idea of Mediterranean European life, complete with the informal Italian lifestyle of balconies, courtyards, and open-air retreats. It was in that period that Georgians began to name their courtyards ‘Italian’, as they recognised their own way of living and culture with the one portrayed in those Italian movies. Perhaps, it could also be a way of clinging on to something intrinsically European, despite the fact the structures itself are more Persian than anything. In today’s modern times, those courtyards first and fore mostly perform a symbolical function of the past. While they may still provide a place for interaction, they do not always match well the current fast life on Tbilisi’s big avenues, including the infamous traffic congestions. Some may be found in an ever-more decaying state, waiting to collapse or to make a place for modern structures. Tbilisi would definitely lose one of its unique faces if the courtyards disappear, as they form part of its unique cultural heritage.


(Special thanks to Edisher Baghaturia)

Georgian success: aiming for reconciliation?

When you live and work in a country that only managed to restore independence in 1991 and which is developing at a fast pace, it’s no wonder you will experience days on which something live changing and historical happens. Last Thursday was such a day. The European Parliament voted and approved the visa-waiving policy for all Georgians travelling to the Schengen area, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Cyprus. The fact that the policy was approved with 553 votes in favour, and only 66 against and 28 abstentions, shows a definitive EU-backing of Georgia and its current politics. Giorgi Kvirikashivili, Georgia’s prime minister, showed big gratitude and assured Georgians would take the decision as a big responsibility, stating they would become ambassadors of the Georgian nation. Tbilisi lit up shortly after, with the EU-flag being projected on various important monuments and landmarks. The visa-waiver means Georgians can travel visa-free within the listed countries for a maximum of 90 days. However, if this maximum would be abused, or substantially more asylum applications would be made, Georgia could be deprived of the visa exemption again.

Publicity in Georgia promoting the visa-free travel to the EU.

Caucasian frontrunner aiming for reconciliation and reunification?

Following the Western Balkans (except Kosovo) and Moldova, Georgia is the next country within the EU-neighbourhood to obtain visa-free travel. It’s noteworthy that Georgia has managed to do so before Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, and also Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, making it an exception in the Eastern Europe and Caucasus region. Kvirikashivili has translated this to ‘a Georgian pride’, and ‘invaluable European support for Georgia’, opening the path for ‘greater wellbeing, greater democracy, and greater energy and enthusiasm’, as well as even more support on Georgia’s rapid development.The most important part of Kvirikashivili’s speech was perhaps his words on Abkhazians and Ossetians. He called the achievement ‘a success of all Georgians’, and of which all Georgians, including Abkhazians and Ossetians, will benefit. He underlined all the people in Georgia will be unified by the close relations with Europe, be it for travelling, business, or educational purposes. Such a reconciliatory speech seems to be the new path to follow for the government in Kutaisi. After the various wars and conflicts with the breakaway regions, Georgia seems tired of negativity and conflict. The only way forward might actually be showing what Georgia has to offer to the Abkhazians and Ossetians, doing so on such positive and historical days. This was done yesterday in a bold, broad, and courageous manner. Geopolitical challenges still lure and conflict seems to be never far away, but Georgia is trying to take a different approach. This includes an inclusionary position when it comes to relations with the EU, but also good relations with the regional bigger (Russia, Turkey and Iran) and smaller players (Armenia and Azerbaijan). Hopefully, such a positive and reconciliatory discourse could make a change in an otherwise troubled and conflict-ridden region.

From my point of view, this treatment of Georgia by the EU is not only a practical one, and a reward for Georgia’s development, but also a symbolical one. As already stated, Georgia is the first Caucasian country, and after the Baltics and Moldova, only the fifth former USSR republic to welcome visa-free travel. It strengthens believe that Georgia is on the way forward, both in economic and political developments, as well in people’s mentalities. While Georgia has never hidden its ambitions to become integrated within the European Union, it has been carefully designing a path of not alienating its direct neighbours. While the wounds of war and strife may still feel fresh, the Georgians are carefully carving out a 21st-century mentality, aware of their geopolitical location, which requires a balanced position in the international community. Those balanced policies and moderateness, avoiding any type of hostility or extremity within the Caucasus, have brought Georgia this tangible result of progress.

That being said, the symbolical aspect should also be taken into account when discussing the visa waiver itself, which does not mean Georgians have the right to cross European borders without limits. There is still the fair share of paperwork involved that Georgians have to provide at the border, such as a return ticket, a bank statement and their address directions within Europe. The real difference is that there is no application in advance at the embassy of the respective Schengen country required anymore. While this could water down optimism, making place for sarcasm and negativity, I underline the importance of this decision as being symbolical. Only thirteen years ago, the Rose Revolution took place. Only nine years ago, the country still found itself in a war with Russia. Georgia has made rapid progress ever since, including better legislation on human rights and freedom, and a ‘reset’ of bilateral relations with Russia.

The Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi lit up in EU colours after the decision was made.
The Bridge of Peace in Tbilisi lit up in EU colours after the decision was made.

Cultural caravanserai vs. linguistic uniqueness

My first weeks in Georgia have been a blast, so it’s definitely time to share some thoughts about this unique country. Starting with its capital, Tbilisi, one can feel an atmosphere that radiates cultural, social and architectural versatility. Within Edward Said’s framework of orientalism, such a place could easily be dubbed as a space ‘Where East meets West’ (and vice versa). While this indeed covers the idea of Tbilisi finding itself at a geographic, cultural and political crossroads, it fails to explain the blending which has taken place in Georgia’s capital throughout centuries. The Caucasus region, Georgia not being an exception, has always been a plaything for bigger regional powers. In fact, the Georgian national identity heavily relies on its heydays in the so-called Georgian Golden Age (between the 11th and 13th century), as it never regained independence ever after until 1991.

The predominance of Turkic tribes, Persians, Ottomans and Russians, however, has left its traces, and could be pictured as a cultural, political and economic melting pot, which in this region has often been embodied in a caravanserai (etymologically originating from the Persian kārwānsarā, and in Arabic often translated as fanduk). A caravanserai back in the day was an inn where travellers could rest, but primarily share information and negotiate with one another. They were primarily located along the Silk Road and other trade routes in Asia, Northern Africa and South-eastern Europe. ‘Tiflis’ found itself at a junction between the different regions and roads, and thus possessed over a bunch of caravanserais. One of the largest ქარვასლა (/karvasla/, in Georgian) of the city can be found in the Sioni Street and now hosts the Tbilisi History Museum.

Tbilisi has steep hills, and reaching different neighbourhoods can be a hefty climb, as is the case here in Avlabari (‘Havlabar’ in Armenian), which was already mentioned in chronicles from the 11th-13th century and could for a long time be seen as the Armenian nucleus of the city.

The Kartvelian perseverance

Although the Georgian equivalent of caravanserai, as can be noted above, is borrowed from Persian, the Georgian language (ქართული, /Kartuli/) is less of a blend when comparing it to Georgia’s history and culture. Georgian belongs to the Kartvelian languages, unique to the Southern Caucasus. In fact, they are not related to any other language group and are only spoken by roughly 5 million speakers worldwide (Georgia itself has around 3.7 million inhabitants, of which 85% are ethnic Georgians). The modern Georgian script, called Mkhedruli, is the used writing system for all four Kartvelian languages (Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian and Laz). While the script is unique in its appearance, and its origins are not known, some sources state Greek might have influenced it, as the alphabetical order in both scripts is similar. There is a fairly overall consensus about the Georgian script emerging out of a trend in Eastern Europe and the Near East to create an own script during the process of Christianization. In the Southern Caucasus, this led to the creation of the Georgian, Armenian, and Caucasian Albanian alphabets. Caucasian Albania was the territory comprising most of modern-day Azerbaijan and Russian Dagestan before their conversion to Islam under Persian rule.

Going back to the uniqueness of the Kartvelian languages and their perseverance, it’s noteworthy that Georgian national identity is heavily rooted within this language family, and the root –kartv– is used to denote all things ‘Georgian’, such derivations being /Sakartvelo/ (Georgia, საქართველო), the previously mentioned /Kartuli/ (the Georgian language), and /Kartveli/ (a Georgian person, ქართველი). While Georgians themselves firmly hold on to this Kartvelian character, it is interesting noting that their geographical denomination in other languages has no Kartvelian origin. The word ‘Georgia’ seems to originate from the Indo-European Persian gurğān (‘wolf’), indicating Georgia as Gorgan (‘land of the wolves’), which was later adopted by most other Indo-European languages.

Georgian, furthermore, has seven noun cases, which is rather modest comparing to other Caucasian languages, such as the Dagestani Lak, which has 56. Culturally being a blend, the Caucasus can also linguistically be seen as a rich region, hosting six language families. In Georgia itself, it is noteworthy that besides the Kartvelian languages, Abkhazian (a Pontic language) and Ossetian (an Indo-European Iranian language) are spoken in their respective disputed territories in the north, and one will encounter ethnic Armenian (an Indo-European language) and Azeri (a Turkic language) communities in the south, meaning four of the aforementioned six language families of the Caucasus are present in the country. Due to its Soviet past, the dominance of Russian should also be added to this spectrum, while the younger generation might be more fluent in English in some cases.

Persian-influenced café in the old centre of Tbilisi.

Be the 8th Comrade on our Trip to the Kazbegi Mountains

6.20   Yes, a.m., nope, you can’t snooze, we have a long way to go  to Kazbegi at 7 in our private Marshrutka


9.30 First stop: Out of the lullingly warm car and out in the unexpected ‘winds of change’…of course you are wearing shorts and expected the usual 35 degrees…but the view definitely compensates for the cold you caught during the 2-minute stop.

10.30 Arrival in Stepantsminda (1740m) and always great to know someone who knows the place like the back of his hand: after a short break one of our colleague’s friends and his co-worker and friend come for us to take us around on ‘their territory’

11.00 Following the bumpy let’s say road we arrive at the waterfall after an adventurous hike through the beautiful nature of Kazbegi. And I know they say don’t look back but in this case you really should!

12.15 We start climbing up the serpentine road to Gergeti Trinity Chuch, still by car which is great given the faces of people who do it by foot. Cars coming down and the road condition are small legistical obstacles but our driver manages to overcome them successfully. Probably too small on the map, but even Google maps calculates 29 minutes for 5.7 km by  car 😀

13.00 Slightly slower than half an hour our road adventure is finished and we arrive at beautiful Gergeti Trinity Church (2170m). You just want to walk in? No, no, head and legs have to be covered but don’t worry, they offer cloths and scarfs at the door.

14.30 As beautiful as it is, we are starving and start our Georgian Barbecue. 

Georgian Barbecue, what does it mean? Meat with onions, a bitter sauce made of plums, cherries or apples (for the attentive readers among you, yes I have already mentioned the sauce in my first post), bread, salad (it seems like tomato and cucumber salad is everywhere, with and without oil), different types of cheese, a Georgian lemonade with cream flavor and of course Georgian wine!

17.00 We start our last trip of the day: ca. half an hour away from Stepantsminda we enter a formerly Ossetian-inhabited territory. In the war with Georgia, Ossetians left behind their houses and farms and moved further into Ossetian territory. What is left are abandoned buildings, some are inhabited by shepherds working in the region during the warmer seasons, more holes than road and ancient forts with the typical Ossetian towers. 45 minutes away from the main road (again the side ‘roads’ are quite challenging and cause some desperation among my colleagues) we find a monastery and a convent. Out here in the nowhere the latter generates electricity from solar batteries.

In 1990, the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast declared its independence from Georgia. The Georgian government abolished South Ossetia’s autonomy and tried to gain back control over the region. The result was the South Ossetia War from 1991 to 1992. South Ossetia relies heavily on military, political and financial aid from Russia. Georgia’s fight against the controlling forces of South Ossetia continued in 2004 and 2008. The conflict in 2008 led to the Russian-Georgian War. Ossetian and Russian forces established full control of the South Ossetian territory.

Only very few countries, namely Russia, Nicaragua Venezuela and Nauru recognise South Ossetia’s independence. Georgia and most parts of the international community regard South Ossetia as occupied by the Russian military. As my colleagues told me, Georgia witnesses a ‘creeping occupation’. Russian forces controlling the border keep on moving border fences further into Georgian territory. In February of this year, 51km of illegally erected barbed wire fences around South Ossetia were on Georgian soil (see

And to finish on a little jolly note: farm animals like cattle, horses, pigs, lots of sheep and chickens are running around freely on the huge territory. Contrary to what I know from Germany people have the confidence that their animals will always find their way back home.

It’s 21.00 o’clock, time for the way home

The End

“Georgia, the state in the US or the country in Europe?”

georgia_country-copyGeorgia_in_United_StatesThat was the first thing my friend asked when I broke the matter of
interning in Georgia. While I was still in Budapest my Georgian roommate used to picture Georgia as Europe’s most Eastern country (and not Asia!) and a country working on its future membership in the Union. So, my first reaction to this question: “Man, naturally mentioning Georgia and Europe in one sentence, you just made a whole nation very happy.”


What I knew about Georgia before my arrival:

  • khatGeorgians are very hospital
  • there are about 4 mio of them
  • they like being called Europeans
  • they eat Khachapuri and Khinkali
  • they have a language not similar to any other
  • they successfully reformed their country during the last 15 years
  • they have frozen conflicts with two regions, Ossetia and Abkhazia, who claimed independence
  • they are out of sorts with Russia after a war in 2008 and Russia’s continuing attempts to broaden its influence in the region

What I know now, exactly one week after my arrival:

  • khinkGeorgians are very hospital
  • there are about 4 mio of them
  • they are Europeans and at supermarkets etc. many of them speak English
  • they drive on the right side of the road and some cars also have the steering wheel there
  • I eat Khachapuri and Khinkali, fruits and vegetables are incredibly tasty and they are eaten in various combinations, they have a kefir-like yoghurt called Matsoni and a bitter plum-sauce that I put on everything… and luckily they love coriander. Even though everybody told and keeps on telling me that Georgia is a meat country I keep on treating myself with vegetarian delicacies
  • they have a language not similar to any other and I am still trying to figure out similarities…or sounds
  • Tbilisi has extremely friendly street dogs and cats
  • they (Georgians of course and not the street animals) successfully reformed their country during the last 15 years but still have to catch up in some spheres, e.g. LGBT rights
  • they have frozen conflicts with/in two regions, Ossetia and Abkhazia, who claimed independence and are under Russian influence
  • they are out of sorts with Russia after a war in 2008 and Russia’s continuing attempts to broaden its influence in the region


Salafism in Georgia and World: Theological and Political Aspects

On May 16, sal4the public discussion on topic “Salafism in Georgia and World: Theological and Political Aspects” was held in Caucasian House.

Meeting incorporated several topics, including Muslim community in Georgia and Islam, in particular, one of its movements called Salafi. This topic is not new for Caucasian House, as the organization has worked on this issue from different standpoints. This year Caucasian House has conducted a research on Islamic community and state policy toward its integration, which will be published soon.

During the discussion, reporters spoke about the history of Salafi movement, the aspects of its consistent formation, religious, social and political activism of Salafi movement in Caucasus and current condition in Pankisi gorge.

Giorgi Sanikidze, the professor at Ilia State University, made opening remarks on topic: the history of Salafi movemensalt and the aspects of its consistent formation. Giorgi Sanikidze also talked about main Islamic schools and branches, distinctive theological signs of Salafi school and reasons of its transformation into the political movement.

Gela Khmaladze, the invited researcher at Caucasian House delivered a speech about Salafi movement in North Caucasus, the reasons of the popularization of Salafi movement, Islam’s reaction to pressure from the Russian government and social and political activism.

The Imam of Salafi Mosque in Pankisi, Vakhtang Pareulidze talked about the current condition in Pankisi gorge and state policy towards the Salafi population of the gorge. Imam also referred to distinctive theological aspects of Salafi movement and underlined the basic differences between Salafi and Wahhabi movements. Vakhtang Pareulidze also emphasized the Islam’s role in the stabilization process at Pankisi gorge.

Representatives of state agencies, local and international non-governmental organizations, universities, embassies and experts expressed their views during the discussion

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Meetings with Diplomats at Caucasian House

Caucasian House is launching new series of public discussions: “Meetings with Diplomats at Caucasian House”. The meetings will be held with representatives of diplomatic corps and international organizations based in Tbilisi. Discussion topics will be: Georgia’s foreign policy and role of foreign representatives in political life of Georgia; Current events of international and regional relations and their analysis. In addition, ambassadors and high-ranking representatives will share their working experience with the audience.
First guest of discussions will be the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Turkey to Georgia, Zeki Levent Gümrükçü.
The topic: Turkish-Georgian relations and Turkish policy in South Caucasus.
Time: June 21, 18:30
Venue: Caucasian House conference hall
Address: Galation Tabidze st #20
Working Language: English (Georgian translation will be provided)
Attendance is free!