“So, does Georgia feel more like Europe or Asia?”
We were halfway through our free walking tour of Tbilisi when Anna, our Ukrainian-born guide, came to an abrupt halt and popped the question.
It’s a legitimate question. And innocuous enough, it’s a loaded question that requires a thoughtful answer. Although technically part of the Asian continent, Georgia is a country that has always looked to the West. One of the state’s proudest achievements last year was securing passport-free access for Georgian citizens to the Schengen countries, Anna tells us. In celebration, the Bridge of Peace – the impressive but rough-around-the-edges steal and glass flute on the Kura River that we’re currently staring at – was illuminated in midnight blue and gold LED lights as a tribute to the European flag. Every inch Georgia makes towards Europe and away from the East is celebrated as a victory.
THE GEORGIAN FLAG.
I knew this, so I didn’t miss a beat in answering Anna: Georgia feels more like Europe. But honestly, I’ve had to stop a few times today to remind myself where I am.
And where exactly is that? Is this Europe, or are we still in Asia?
Apparently Georgia needs a qualifier – Georgia (country) – to distinguish it from all those other, better-known Georgias. Lesser-known Georgia is a country I myself knew very little about before I started actively researching it. Few travellers have written about Georgia. I only know one person who’s actually been here. The country seems to simply be missing from the traveller/expat/digital nomad collective consciousness. Maybe that’s because of the awkward place in the world Georgia occupies: right on the threshold between East and West, not quite European but not Asian, either. Georgia is hard to classify.
I’ve heard Georgia referred to as the ‘missing puzzle piece’ between the two continents. A place where the culture and traditions of Asia and Europe overlap and intermingle and fold into a weird, beautiful thing all of its own. The cobbled streets, the austere apartment blocks, the food and the weather all scream of Europe. But there’s something else – that ‘everything everywhere’, ordered chaos I’ve come to associate with Southeast Asia… I also feel that here in Tbilisi.
I can’t help but try to draw parallels between Tbilisi and Phnom Penh, and today I’m finding more than a few.
VIEW OF TBILISI FROM NARIKALA FORTRESS, ACCESSIBLE BY CABLE CAR FOR 1 LARI (0.40 USD) ONE-WAY.
Geographically, Georgia is part of Transcaucasia, sandwiched between Russia to the north, Armenia and Turkey to the south, Azerbaijan to the east, and the Black Sea to the west. One of the first things you notice about maps of this region is there are a whole lot of dotted-lines: Unofficial countries, unrecognised territories and permeable borders.
Until recently, Georgia was a republic of the USSR, and there are many palpable leftovers of the soviet occupation to be seen on Tbilisi’s streets. On top of this, aspects of Georgian culture and the climate echo the Mediterranean, and since Georgia is only a stone’s throw from Iran and was at one time part of the Persian Empire, there’s also a strong Middle Eastern influence.
Our free walking tour has so far taken us past orthodox churches, catholic cathedrals, synagogues and one of the few mosques in the world where Shias and Sunnis pray together. Past domed sulfur baths straight out of Istanbul, trendy cafes straight out of Paris, hipster enclaves, and huge wet markets that rival Bangkok’s talats. Ladas and mercs; beggars and aristocrats. And a very eclectic skyline.
EUROPEAN GRUNGE. A TYPICAL CORNER STORE/BAKERY IN TBILISI.
There’s a little bit of everything going on in Tbilisi.
You’d think this overload might produce confusion in the wary traveller; but so far I’m finding it exhilarating. Georgian culture, unique and still wholly unknown to me, seems to cut through the chaos and unite the country around a particular set of characteristics: wine, cheese, bundled-up babushkas, sassy teenagers, humongous street dogs, laundry precariously strung from precariously perched balconies (ok, this is just a list of things I’m bound to see within sixty seconds of leaving my apartment).
Georgia wants to be European; but maybe it should aim higher. Maybe Georgia is something more; a completely paradoxical, geographically obscure cultural dimension that has arisen from a particular mix of particular competing influences and particular points in history.
I’m still not quite sure where I am; but thankfully I have the next three months to try and figure it out.
You may have noticed that I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from blogging so far this year. In the interim, I finished my contract in Phnom Penh and officially said goodbye to Cambodia. I spent a week at home in Brisbane catching up with family before flying out to Tbilisi last week. Ross and I will be here for a month before travelling more extensively through Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. I’ll be posting more regular updates on the blog from now on.