This summer, the best-selling adventure travel author is heading deep into the Georgia Caucasus, with family in tow. Week one of a series:
Tell someone you're spending the summer in Georgia, and their eyes invariably light up.
Visions arise of the fabled subtropical American state, setting for Gone With the Wind, land of palmettos and tobacco estates, former home of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Of course, there is another
Georgia, but come on, who goes there? So common is the misunderstanding that our four-year-old son, Bodi, now routinely describes our upcoming destination as "the other Georgia. You know… the Republic of!"
Earlier this week, my wife and I packed up our two young sons and flew to Tbilisi. Our plan is to soak in the famous hot springs (where Alexander Pushkin claimed to have the best bath of his entire life), to buy a packhorse and wander for the next 2½ months through the remote pastoral valleys of the High Caucasus. The reports we send back to Globe Travel each week will be our only contact with home.
Some, upon learning of our plan, seem genuinely excited. A few toss out Georgian tidbits: birthplace of Stalin, among the world's fastest-growing economies, unrivalled drinkers. Many grimace, their unspoken question clear to see: Why, on God's good earth, that Georgia? Are you nuts?
Such trepidation is understandable, for this tiny nation is as maligned as it is mysterious. Tucked between the Black and Caspian seas, with Russia to the north and Turkey to the south, Georgia and the neighbouring Transcaucasian states of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been overlooked by the modern world. These are the lands in between, delineating a hazy border between Europe and Asia, between Christian and Muslim, between ancient and modern, between democracy and dictatorships.
Recently, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia plunged into poverty. What was once the USSR's richest republic, famous for feting visitors to their Black Sea resorts with caviar and champagne, suddenly found itself among the most impoverished nations, unable to supply even the basic essentials of heat and electricity to residents. Independence also brought the horrors of civil war and mass migrations, as South Ossetia and Abkhazia struggled to break away.
In the years since, with the eyes of the world focused elsewhere, the country has gradually risen from the ashes. After the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003 - named for the flowers carried by the peaceful demonstrators - U.S.-educated lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili has steadily steered the country toward security and prosperity. While tourism remains in its infancy, things are changing fast. In January, The New York Times ranked Georgia a top 2011 destination, ahead of Oahu, Australia, Singapore and, yes, even Whistler.
With a varied geography (from a prolific, yet little-known, wine district to glaciated peaks higher than anything in the Alps) and complex ethnicity (more languages exist in the Caucasus than the European Union), the one thing every visitor seems to agree on is this: Georgians may be the most welcoming people in the world.
So legendary is their hospitality - and affinity for spontaneous day-long toasting sessions - that my biggest concern is not the bears, brigands or high mountain passes, but remaining sober enough to set up our tent each night. With Christine nursing our infant son, I alone must face the bottle-toting farmers and villagers mano a mano.
But this doesn't completely answer the question: Why Georgia? For that, I need to introduce my children.
When Bodi (now 4) and Taj (just 10 months) arrived, Christine and I - like every other parent in the world - had no real idea what the future held. Rather bull-headedly, I declared kids were not going to slow us down. So off we set, with them in backpack and canoe, to the heights of the Bugaboos and the coasts of Chile and Vancouver Island. By the time Bodi was 16 months, he had spent a quarter of his life in a tent.
While my motivations were terribly self-interested, one fundamental truth quickly emerged: Kids arrive in our wired-wimpy-latte-sipping world as natural and very able little outdoors people. Both our boys spring to life in fresh air - eating well, sleeping better, whining less and imagining more.
Just as marked are the benefits to our family. Gone are the distractions of the modern world; e-mails, tweets, televisions. Together day and night, we are a small team navigating a strange world, and the sense of camaraderie and intimacy that arise are profound. I unreservedly believe we are all - as individuals and a family - better for our sojourns together.
After a friend suggested Georgia for our next adventure, I hauled out the atlas and was soon ordering crates of antiquarian books online, and drowning our local librarian with inter-branch loan requests, as I read everything possible on the Caucasus.
The landscape appears staggeringly beautiful and untrammelled. Dotting the countryside are castles, churches, mosques and palaces. The leafy, balconied cities - most thousands of years old - now boast thumping nightclubs and modern architecture. Best of all are the reports that Georgians simply love children.
John Steinbeck, who travelled through Russia in 1947, hinted at the treasures waiting in this southern republic: "Wherever we have been, the magical name of Georgia came up constantly. People who had never been there, and who possibly would never go there spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and great admiration. They spoke of Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. They spoke of the country in the Caucasus as a kind of second heaven. Indeed we began to believe that most Russians hope, if they live very good and virtuous lives, the will go not to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die."
Our plan for the summer is purposefully vague. We'll start in the western mountains, and wander east, following our nose. If something doesn't feel right, we'll turn around. We'll trust our instincts.
So we start in the Caucasus as we have on every other journey in our lives: heads brimming with visions that almost certainly will bear little resemblance to reality. It is the discovery of what is, rather that what is imagined, which remains the essential gift of travel, and its greatest joy.
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