The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Page 28 (10 pages)
We are inching through an October snowstorm along an icy, narrow portion of the Georgian Military Highway, navigating hairpin turns and keeping maximum distance between our rented Rav4 and the underwhelming guardrails that separate us from precipitous drops into gaping ravines.
As we crawl through Jvari Pass (at 2379 meters, it is the highest paved road in the former Soviet Union) behind an ambulance, a squall rises up, delivering near white-out conditions. We crest a short incline and are suddenly mired in a rat’s nest of cars, trucks and minivans, each chaotically jockeying for position, spinning their wheels on the un-salted, un-sanded peak.
A Jeep has run off the road. Its driver stares blankly into the distance, a limp nylon line draped across his hood. A large truck towing a car with a double-knotted rope tries to insinuate itself into a nonexistent breach between two nonexistent lanes. Several drivers get out of their cars and start issuing contradictory and confusing instructions. No one is in charge and the situation looks hopeless. The only saving grace may be that, if we do get stuck on the mountain for hours, days perhaps, at least there is an ambulance nearby.
The Republic of Georgia is a place of exquisite paradoxes – sometimes they are lovable, but just as often they are infuriating.
The nation’s four million souls inhabit a land of stunning, diverse natural beauty that in places rivals Switzerland or Napa, yet the country – often called “The Pearl of the Caucasus” – is like a stunning jewel in a gaudy brooch, due to its unlucky geopolitical setting. To the north lies Russia (which also occupies roughly 25 percent of Georgian territory), with whom diplomatic relations were severed after the countries’ 2008 war; just over the mountains to the east are war-torn Chechnya and Dagestan; to the west is the Black Sea; and to the south is Turkey, a NATO member embroiled in the Syrian morass.
But the paradoxes do not end there. Georgia is the birthplace of wine and yet enology comprises less than three percent of export revenues. Tourism is a crucial lifeline (some seven percent of the economy), yet the very hospitable country can be very hard to get to and its intricate language and non-Latin script are intensely intimidating. Georgia aspires to EU membership and modernity, yet it is plagued by a deeply embedded rural conservatism and crippled by the imprint of 70 years of communist rule.
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