“They spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.” -John Steinbeck
In the 1970s a series of stories swirled claiming Georgia, couched between the Black Sea and the high Caucasus, and then a part of the Soviet Union, as a place of preternatural longevity. It was not a nook visited by Americans, but the myths that seeped out were that many thrived to be over 100 years old, and one man, celebrated with a postage stamp, made it to the ripe age of 168, a supercentenarian.
A lot of fake news came out of Russia in those days, but the Republic of Georgia is now an independent nation, and Georgians are indeed among the longest living societies in modern history, with more silver hair than perhaps any country in the world. On the face of it, this seems improbable, as Georgia has been beaten and bloodied throughout its long plough by all its neighbors, the Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Arabs, Ottomans, Turks, and most recently, Russians. It might seem all this pummeling, this terrible history of subjugation, would create a dark, fatalistic culture, and mood of course affects health. But when I spoke to Saba Kiknadze, a former mountaineer who now runs a tour company based in Tbilisi, he said the country is infected with hope and vitality, that the life-giving wine is some of the best in the world, and septuagenarians dance above the tree lines. Saba said I should come, bring the family, and experience for myself.
Tbilisi, the capital, is the first stop, and it showcases some of the characteristics that nourish and make a people thrive. From Stamba, a former publishing house now a Design hotel, I cross the Peace Bridge to the elegant wooden balconies and bartering voices of Old Town. Tbilisi, which means “warm,” was founded because of its natural sulfur springs, and under the Ottomans a series of sealed domed bath houses were constructed on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari river, many of which are still in operation today. The overpowering perfume of sulfur is everywhere, the element that protects the body from toxins, boosts circulation, aids with arthritic joints, digestion problems, insomnia, restores eunuchs (so they claim) and helps the baptized thrive. I visit the blue-tiled Chreli Abano bath house, where Pushkin and Tolstoy reportedly soaked, and once inside the vaulted interior, alternate between the near-boiling pot, and the cold rinse pool, until the mekise (a torturer masquerading as a massage therapist) comes in, and ferociously scrubs away most of my skin. Buffed as a newborn, I step onto the streets, feeling lightheaded and lighter. Walking down the hill, along the narrow, cobbled streets, it does feel this place crackles with energy and optimism. Wine glasses clink, toasts are made, and singing and laughter seep from inside cafes, shops and homes.
A short drive out of Tbilisi leads to Mtskheta, ancient capital of the Kingdom at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari Rivers. There is a superabundance of fresh water in Georgia, spilling constantly down the slopes of the High Caucasus peaks, and water is an essential ingredient to good health and temperament. Much of the land is volcanic, rich in nutrients, lavishly fertile, which from earliest times has allowed a sort of primitive affluence. So many regions of the world come up short in both water and good soil, and the people upon these lands have often had to spend waking hours scratching out an existence. Here, though, all the basic needs are met with some ease, from clean water to organic foods to materials for shelter, and that has left ample time to explore the creative sides of life. Georgia is a place rich in the arts, from song, dance, theater, painting, architecture and poetry. This has contributed to the viscosity of a culture that has maintained, and thrived, despite centuries of attempts to squelch by outsiders.
In Mtskheta we visit Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, where Christ’s robe is supposedly buried, and Jvari, the 6th century cross-shaped monastery built on top of a cliff. Here St. Nino, a female evangelist, made a cross from vine stems, and helped convert the Kingdom to Christianity. Georgia is the second country in the world, after Armenia, to become a Christian nation (in 324 AD), and religion remains a major element of the culture. Praying and meditating reduce stress, and according to The Blue Zones, the bestselling book that describes the attributes of communities with long life expectancies, over 98% of Blue Zone centenarians belong to faith-based communities. Regardless of denomination, attending religious services evokes a sense of purpose and belonging, and can add years to a life, as spiritedly evidenced here.
From Tbilisi we drive southeast, to a region of fields stitched together with the endless pegs and wire of vines, to Kakheti, wine country. Georgia claims to have vinted the first wine, some 8000 years ago, fermenting grapes in buried clay pots called qvevri, a method still employed today. The climate and soil are ideal, and for Russia, the Alazani Valley is its Napa. There are some 500 varieties of vine in Georgia, and virtually everyone enjoys the results. Here you can sign up for “Wine Therapy,” with treatments believed to firm the skin, and slow the aging process. Wine is very much a symbol and enabler of Georgia’s extravagant hospitality, its cult of friendship and tolerance, and perhaps another key to the mystery of Georgian longevity.
Next we trek into the mountains, the row of gleaming white teeth called the Caucasus, where the air is crisp and clean, and the people are vigorous and enduring. I made the first descent of the Coruh River in Turkey in 1978, bringing the first whitewater rafts to the region. It proved to be an epic run, which only disappointed when we squished up against the glass border of Georgia, and the Soviet soldiers would not let us cross for the final spill into the Black Sea. So, it is a thrill now to see that rafting is thriving in Georgia. All up and down the Aragvi river there are rafting companies, and no shortage of agile and fit Georgia guides. I head out for a day of whitewater, and it is stunning how wild the canyon remains…once we turn the first bend there is no scent of a road, no signs, no signs of civilization, just a rough green infinity and a fast bracing glacial river.
Then it’s up higher into the Caucasus, into the parade of peaks that scratch the sky, 12 of which are higher than Mt. Blanc. It is here in the mountains that longevity logs its records, as the lifestyle is so damn healthy. No fitness clubs needed here. Most are farmers walking up and down every day in the thin alpine air. They tend gardens, herd sheep and cows, stride to houses and churches, and cut their own fuel.
We make our way up the Georgian Military Highway, a Russian track built to supply the army during its first colonization of Georgia in the 19th century. We switchback upwards, beneath long fingers of snow, through a series of avalanche galleries, over the 7858’-high Jvari Pass, and then down into the spacious valley of Kazbegi, where we check into the Rooms Hotel, a former Soviet sanctuary reimagined as an Ian Schrager-style boutique. With windows the size of semis, it allows views across the valley, and up to the massive bulk of Mt. Kazbek, at 16,558 feet, the seventh highest peak in the Caucasus, and the mountain where Prometheus was chained in punishment for having stolen fire from the gods and passing on to mortals. Now, the sky is on fire with sunset, and a shaft of celestial light is illuminating the twin-peaked Gergeti Holy Trinity Church kneeling on a mesa beneath Mt. Kazbek. It seems a message calling us to its doors,
So, the day following, we set out to trek up the mountain to the 14th century shrine, a four-hour steep climb up a pilgrimage path still used by Georgians, of all ages, to a parking lot where a vortex of foreign tourists has been bused. Some, perhaps affected by the altitude, never leave the vehicles to enter what some have called the most beautiful church in the world. As many in the West struggle towards something that helps humans thrive, Georgians live it naturally.
When we nose back down the slopes from the church, we take the road east, alongside the angry unrun Tergi River, through the trembling Dariali gorge, deeper than the Grand Canyon, to another sharp hike, up to the hidden Gveleti waterfall. There may be more waterfalls in Georgia than almost any other country, and that, too, contributes to this notion of thriving, as waterfalls are things of beauty and wonder, and they make us feel good.
The road then continues a few miles to the dangerous kiss that is the Russian border, a ravine once a route in the Great Silk Road, where goods and ideas flowed between East and West. A Caucasian eagle wheels lazily overhead, knowing no borders, while a long queue of trucks waits for customs clearance.
On the other side of the line is a different pot of culture, a different sensibility, a different identity, and sovereign Georgia prefers its own. Russia currently occupies about 20% of Georgia, and there is always the concern that it may come in for more, as it has down twice in the past (Georgia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991). So, how do the Georgians stay so calm and centered, so artistic and hospitable, with such a threat looming at their door? It could be similar to the dynamic in Bali, where the island residents live beneath the active volcano Gunung Agung, which periodically erupts and sweeps away lives. The Balinese know this, acutely, and rather than move away, they live with a keen awareness of the impermanence of life, and a heightened appreciation for the moment. It gives them a kind of freedom to celebrate and revel in dance, music and the creation of art. Russia is Georgia’s active volcano.
Here we turn around, and bagatelle back downhill to the dust-swept industrial town of Gori, the birthplace of Georgia’s most famous madman, Joseph Stalin. However many Georgians died under his brutal regime, the identity, soul and dignity of Georgia did not.
Continuing we trundle further back in time to the cave town of Uplistsikhe, a series of hollowed rooms in sandstone cliffs dating to the 2nd millennium BC. Ancient wine presses are carved in stone, suggesting that even then, with enemies periodically approaching from all sides, they found the means and time for a chalice or two and the good feelings evoked.
For the evening we head to Kutaisi, the center of the ancient Kingdom of Colchis, where legend has it Jason and the Argonauts came to fetch the golden fleece. As with all myths, there is some truth to the story, in that an affluence of gold was panned here using the fleece from sheep, and it turned the wooly filters a xanthous hue. During Soviet times, Kutaisi was a center for sanatoriums, establishments for the soldiers and united workers of the world to take the natural mineral waters. Now, most of the sanatoriums are closed and crumbled, or converted to hotels. We stay at the Legends Tskaltubo Spa Resort, a former retreat for the Soviet Ministry of Defense, and a facility where Stalin purportedly vacationed. With its marble staircases, Greco-Roman statues, parquet floors, it reeks of Russian classicism at its most opulent. Now it is trying to morph into a modern conjuring, with its late-night disco and cruise-ship buffet, and I must admit, I enjoy the best sleep of the trip here.
Now it is time to zig-zag up alongside the crashing, boiling Enguri River, up into a vast sentinel wilderness, to the alpine adventure center of Mestia, a town dotted with 12th-century crenulated stone towers, and trails that lead up to a galaxy of glaciers. From here it is just 30 miles to Mt. Ushba, 15,450’ high, third tallest in Georgia, known as the “Matterhorn of the Caucasus” for its lonely, spire-shaped double summit. Our guide, Rusudan Varshalomidze, an accomplished mountaineer who has summited Mt. Kazbek five times and nearby Tetnuldi Mountain once, says the object of her dreams is Ushba. She points skywards, and proclaims the view of Ushba is transcendental from Mestia; it soars the soul. But all we see is a painterly, swirling mist in all directions. We stay at the Banguriani hotel, high on the slopes above Mestia, with a balcony facing Ushba. But we can’t see a trace of its white flanks, adding extratextual notes of longing to the stay. “Be patient. Wait,” Rusudan says. “Everything works on GMT here: Georgia Maybe Time.”
With the morning we load into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and start up a nod of a road that reaches to Ushguli, highest permanently inhabited village in Europe, founded sometime before the birth of Christ. The road is rough, distinguished by the size and frequency of its ruts. Its skinny shoulders are festooned with crosses and shrines for those who did not make it, and its middle is often blocked by cows, sheep, long-haired pigs or rocks that have fallen from the cliffs. Around noon, we lean over the edge of the world, and dip down into the shallow, treeless valley of Ushguli.
On a clear day Ushguli looks straight into the face of Georgia’s highest peak, the 16,627-foot-high Shkhara. But, it is not a clear day, so we take it on faith. Here we meet the Kvrivishvili family, who enthusiastically invite us into their small home for a supra, an extended meal that qualifies as a leader in the slow-food-eating movement. We are served up endless plates of cheese, bread, the bread-and-cheese pie called Khachapuri, a fragrant meat stew (chakapuli), lamb dumplings (khinkali), tomatoes, cucumbers, and the home-brewed firewater, chacha, made from bread due to the lack of grain growing on these high slopes. Everything on the table is fresh as mountain air. The folks here don’t consume refined flour, oils, or sugars, and as a result are hearty, healthy, thriving high in the Caucasus, laughing through the lunch, even though we don’t understand a word one-another is saying. Hospitality is another contributor to vitality, an entrenched part of the culture here, a survival technique in a harsh and unforgiving land, with a popular saying, “The guest is the gift from God.” Our rugose host raises a third glass of chacha, makes a long incomprehensible toast, clinks my glass, knocks it back, and flashes a thousand-year-old smile. There seems a significant difference here in the attitudes about age from where I come from. Rusudan says Georgians truly enjoy growing old. Age lends status in communities, extreme respect, and a sense of place. Even in old age, Georgians never retire in the Western sense of the word, remaining active and doggedly cheerful until they drop.
That evening, back in Mestia, we take dinner at Cafe Laila off the main square, and when the last sips of a throaty Georgian wine are taken, a group of men in the back of the crowded room start to sing polyphonically, in vocal timbres and textures that sound almost mystical. This full-blooded dissonant harmony is unique to Georgia, and dials back thousands of years. In 400 BC the Greek historian Xenophon described Georgian soldiers launching into battle singing in chorus.
Soon fiery folk dancers are spinning about the floor, and diners step in, and the whole place jumps with joy. In 2001 UNESCO recognized Georgian song as a masterpiece of oral immaterial heritage.
After a couple days in the Svan region, we still have not seen Ushba, and it is time to head back downstream. Rusudan, who has a splendid intimacy with this mountain, is not at all disappointed we did not see its magnificent face. And that may be her cliff-edge of truth. That may be why this place thrives.
It seems here folks are pleasantly surprised when something works as hoped, rather than unpleasantly surprised when it doesn’t, a version of Tom Magliozzi’s sentiment, that reality minus expectations equals happiness.
At Batumi on the Black Sea, near the border with Turkey, we take a cable car through the thick, steamy air to a viewing platform where we can see the spread of high rises, hotels, casinos, churches, mosques and the architecture of a breathless fusion culture. Near a line of palm trees is the site of the proposed 50-story Trump Tower, scratched in 2017. And, off in the distance, I can see the curl of a river as it empties into the flat sea. It is the Coruh, says Rusudan, the river I had navigated through Turkey in 1978, but never got to see its final sigh. Now there it is, curling around like an arm about to embrace the land, a singular patch that despite all challenges, thrives with a cohesive culture as its navigation star, harbors foundational memories of a proud past, and extends its hands with life-extending hope for its future.