Georgia shares a patron saint with England, a favourite son with Russia and a language with absolutely no one. Walk the line on your own Georgian adventure
If you believe the local mythology, Mount Kazbek was the playground of a dragon-slaying demigod called Amirani. After a fest of super-human feats, he was foolish enough to challenge the Almighty himself to a contest of strength. He lost, of course, and was punished by being chained to the mountain for eternity and fed bread and wine by a raven.
As I sat on the ridge of a glacial trough trying to catch my breath, I could make out neither demigod nor raven - nor, for that matter, even a mountain. Then, without warning, a shroud of silver mist lifted and there was celebrated Kazbek, a clenched white fist punching skywards out of a colossus of blue ice. The glacier lolled below, a contorted tongue dribbling strands of ice-melt.
"When you live in the mountain wilderness, you find you can only ever think of the here and now... your beliefs, your emotions, your whole motivation for life take place on an extreme level," murmured Avto Gurgenidze, my mountain guide, (who is also an artist, poet, photographer, ski instructor and remarkable linguist), uncannily crystallising my mood.
Our hike had begun in Kazbegi, a small town high in the dazzling High Caucasus mountains, which form a natural boundary between Georgia and Russia. The ancient Georgian Military Highway - a thoroughfare for more than 1,000 years - crosses the range. Until Georgia's independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, this whole region was as much a playground for elite Russian adventure-seekers, as for dragon-slaying demigods. Kazbegi is the first town on the Georgian side of the frontier, but such is the animosity between the two countries that soldiers glare at each other across a border that has been closed for two years. So Kazbegi is, for the time being, an end-of-the-road stop rather than a staging post.
The handful of Western independent travellers and occasional hiking or birdwatching groups who make it here find a place down on its luck, albeit in a soul-stirringly beautiful setting. Pigs and goats roam streets of crumbling tarmac amid scattered tin-roofed houses. "Anybody from this valley trying to make their way in the world has got up and gone to Tbilisi," commented Avto.
From the rather bleak and soulless Hotel Stepan Tsminda in the village centre, we climbed a steep valley of boulders and tumbling streams, snaking up a wooded slope still piebald with melting snow. The welter of wildlife was a surprise: tawny-coated foxes - larger than their British cousins - slunk across our path; beech trees and tangles of wild rhododendron were alive with squirrels, while griffon vultures wheeled on thermals. Butterflies bounced over lavender bushes, and there was a background murmuring of bees.
The last sign of civilisation before continuing to the Gergeti Glacier was the isolated 14th-century Tsminda Sameba church, from where Kazbegi was a scattering of tiny dots in the valley far below. In the other direction was a geological freak show of pyramid peaks soaring to over 5,000m: monoliths of magma, seismic fissures and glaciated heights. "These are the highest mountains in Europe," Avto reminded me.
That is, if you decide that Georgia is in Europe at all. The country, roughly the size of Scotland and with a similar population, is wedged into the Caucasus between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with a Black Sea coast to the west. As parts of a single land mass, Asia and Europe are cultural rather than geographical distinctions in this part of the world.
"The truth is, we Georgians call ourselves Asians when it suits us," Avto explained; "when we are with other Asians, for example. But when we are with Europeans, or we want to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest, then we are definitely Europeans."
The flight from London to the capital, Tbilisi, took five hours and felt like a longish short-haul flight rather than the other way round (if that makes any sense).
My first impressions were rather confusing: the drive into town from the airport is along the swish new George W Bush Highway, named to mark the President's 2005 visit. We streamed through cheerless suburbs of Soviet-era tower blocks, most of them grim shades of grey; then we passed a cluster that had been tarted up and painted turquoise, orange and strawberry pink as if raising two fingers to socialist drear.
Dubya's grinning chops can still be seen on giant billboards around the city, shaking hands with chubby-cheeked young Mikheil Saakashvili, aka 'Misha', the US-educated lawyer who was elected President of Georgia three years ago, at the age of just 36. Misha embodies modern, free-market-embracing, all-things-Western-loving, Russia-distrusting, EU-aspiring Georgia. No wonder Vladimir Putin has got it in for him.
Misha's spirit is reflected in the huge city centre McDonald's, the Mercs and Lexuses doing battle with rusting old Ladas and Volgas and, most of all, in expansive Freedom (formerly Lenin) Square, where Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov has been toppled from his plinth and replaced by a gratingly garish gilt statue of St George slaying a dragon, atop a massive new column taller and thicker than Nelson's. Georgia is keen on dragons - and yes, the country shares with England its patron saint and its new national flag (well, almost - here the Cross of St George has a smaller red cross in each of its white quadrants).
Tbilisi's main boulevard is the broad, tree-lined Rustaveli Avenue, whose length I strolled on my first morning, passing fruit-sellers with their mountains of oranges and fountains of juice; spivs touting for business outside dodgy-looking poker clubs; rows of begging babushkas; sellers of second-hand books next to forlorn refugees from Chechnya in ill-fitting clothes offering ornamental daggers, drinking horns and plastic models of Mother Georgia, Tbilisi's enduring icon.
The real Mother Georgia is a glittering, 30m-high aluminium statue proffering a cup of wine with her left hand while holding a drawn sword in her right. As Georgians never seem to tire of repeating, she signifies bountiful hospitality to guests on the one hand and ferocity towards enemies on the other. She stands on the spur of the holy mountain of Mtatsminda, which took me an hour to climb to from the city centre, and from where I gazed over the cityscape.
Tiers of wooden houses with blue-and-white balconies overhang the brown-sugar-coloured Mtkvari River, which runs through Tbilisi, and on whose steep, naturally fortified slopes the city evolved. There are medieval churches with honey-stone cupolas and an old town of red roofs and crumbling mansions.
Later, down in the old town, I weaved through higgledy-piggledy alleys which have been inhabited, over the centuries, by Persians, Tartars, Jews and Armenians. I was transported to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar by wafts of shashlik - lamb kebabs grilling on charcoal - while signs decorated in the bizarre, curly Georgian script that looks as if it is made of twisted paperclips intensified a sense of the oriental. Wherever I travel, I like to pick up a bit of the local language, but when I discovered that mama means father and deda means mother I had an inkling that Georgian - a linguistic anomaly which, like Basque, is unrelated to any other tongue - was going to be one of the most baffling.
In the evening, however, a more European mien unfolds in the bars and restaurants of the old town. Leselidze and Irakli streets have been spruced up and lined with hip bars, Irish pubs and 'international' restaurants such as Marrakech, Thailand Kitchen and Prego Pizzeria. Georgians and visitors - many Italians - were drinking, smoking and singing, as I joined Keti Aspindzelashvili, a local tour operator, for a traditional feast, which kicked off with khinkali - little mushroom-shaped money bags of dough on a stalk, stuffed with spicy meat. You grip the stalk, bite the dumping and slurp the hot juice as noisily as you can, then have a slug of natakatri, a tarragon-flavoured drink the colour of lime cordial.
"Misha keeps telling us that tourism is a priority for the national economy, and that there will be funds for cultural projects such as restoring Mtskheta, the soul of our country," Keti told me between slurps and slugs.
Next morning I headed by car upriver to Mtskheta (pronounced 'skayta'), the ancient capital where St Nino, a Turkish slave, converted King Mirian III in the 4th century, to make Georgia the world's second Christian country (after neighbouring Armenia). The small city, now a Unesco World Heritage site, reminds me of Durham - tightly clustered and dominated by a soaring cathedral, this one the 11th-century Sveti-Tskhoveli where, according to tradition, a part of Christ's crucifixion robe is buried.
The Soviets whitewashed over the beautiful frescoes and turned it into a museum. Now the faithful are back: women in black shawls are kissing golden icons and lighting votive candles by the thousands amid wafts of wax and incense and the haunting notes of background polyphonic singing.
I felt a sense of the mysterious and ethereal, which I found hard to explain. So I was surprised to hear Avto scoff: "This so-called religious revival in Georgia is mostly show. It does not come from the inside." I had met him here in Mtskheta at the confluence of the Mtkvari with the rattling Aragvi - a torrent fed by ice-melt from the High Caucasus mountains. This is where the Georgian Military Highway, which we followed up to Kazbegi and the Russian border, begins.
To the west is the town of Gori, one of the most visited tourist destinations in Georgia - because it is the birthplace of Stalin.
Ah, Stalin. The tyrant, born Josef Dzhugashvili, is Georgia's most famous son and still much admired by his countrymen. Perversely, this despot is honoured on war memorials up and down the Georgian Military Highway, causing me to bite my lip several times on the drive up to Kazbegi. The ogre's victims numbered more than those of Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot put together, but his life is still glorified in Gori. [For more on Gori, see Nick Easen's Dispatches article in Wanderlust April/May 2007.]
"Oh, who can blame Gori for making a meal out of Stalin? He is all this town has got," I heard people cry sympathetically. Just like Adolf Hitler is all Braunau am Inn in Upper Austria has got, so the defiant bust of the Fuhrer outside a museum glorifying his life must be treated with understanding?
As if! Hitler's birthplace is in fact marked with a memorial stone. The simple, moving inscription roughly translates as: 'For peace, freedom and democracy. Never again fascism. Dead millions are reminding'. Perhaps if Georgia considered honouring the victims rather than the perpetrator it might help its tourist industry.
Heading east of Tbilisi we continued out into the wine-growing Kakheti region on the final leg of my journey through Georgia. We drove through farmland and orchards of peaches and apricots, past medieval churches and farmhouses draped with mauve wisteria, and across seas of vines filling an expansive plain, bordered by the white peaks of the High Caucasus mountains just visible on the hazy horizon. More than 500 varieties of grape grow here and the area claims that the word 'wine' derives from their own ghvino. (They both came from the Latin vino, surely - but perhaps Stalin decreed otherwise.)
At the famous Tsinandali winery, I tasted strong, tannic reds fermented in their skins in huge amphora-like stone jars. Russia has historically been the main market by miles, but with Putin getting the hump about Saakashvili cuddling up to the West, the import of Georgian wine has been banned. Which is why our next visit is to the gleaming new, Italian-built and owned Bagadoni winery producing wine for Western markets.
Wine may have taken on a political potency to match the strongest of those tannic reds, but when we stopped for the night in the farming town of Telavi, I had no difficulty finding a bar to serve me a glass of crisp, chilled Mtsvane white. I sipped it, watching a lingering sunset fade from pink to violet over mountains where demigods play. It was a fitting place to reflect on an adventure that had shown me some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, and a nation on the cusp of a new dawn. The 20th century may have been imperfect for Georgia but, from this perspective at least, the future looks bright.