“Another spirit was rolled out along with some slices of green apple, but by that point I was too plastered to remember what it was.”
A lot of people have asked me why I chose to visit Georgia – a little-known country over 2000 miles away from home, sandwiched between Russia and Turkey. Its remoteness was certainly appealing; direct flights from London were only chartered this year, so after reading about the stunning mountain scenery, the warm hospitable people and the famously satisfying cuisine, I wanted to experience it for myself. Georgia is a country still working to shed its Soviet influence after nearly seventy years of USSR control and, as recently as 2008, it was in a state of war with Russia over the disputed South Ossetia region. Tensions with Russia are still high and the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are still no-go areas, but the country looks positively towards the future, with increased tourism steadily revealing the delights of this unique and ancient Caucasus nation.
Thanks to Wizzair, Ryanair’s exotic Hungarian cousin, we were able to fly return from Luton to Kutaisi, in Western Georgia, for around £200. Arriving at 3am, my friend and I were put in a transfer car with a friendly Russian couple and delivered to our accommodation close to the centre, the Hotel Balcony. To me there is nothing more thrilling than arriving in a new country late at night, knowing that the next day you will wake up and head outside with no idea what to expect.
In the morning, we headed straight up to the hotel’s terrace and stared around at a very green urban landscape with a line of mountains in the distance, framed by a perfect blue sky. I sent a photo of the scene to my Dad, to which he responded with an image of Leeds in the rain. It felt good to be so far away from home for the first time this year. Walking down the street in the sun was like being on a film set, and I was hit with a strange sense of euphoria.
Our aim for the day was to visit the Okatse Canyon and Kinchkha Waterfall, around half an hour out of the city on the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range, so we set about looking for Tourist Information. The Russian couple in the car had warned us that for pedestrians in Georgia there is no “waiting to cross”; you just have to march out and vehicles are expected to stop for you. We chose a pretty stupid place by anyone’s standards – a wide five-pronged roundabout surrounding a large ornate fountain in the very centre of Kutaisi. The initial shock of risking death to cross a road soon wore off, and within hours we were swaggering out and smirking at the mild congestion we had caused.
Tourist Information is located in a picturesque spot overlooking the wide Rioni River, with a view of the Bagrati Cathedral and Kutaisi’s famous White Bridge – at one point known as the border between Europe and Asia. After arranging a taxi at the desk, the woman who booked it took us out onto a balcony facing the river and we chatted about international perceptions of both Georgia and the UK. Her view of the British is that we are all very polite and genteel, so I presumed she’d never had to get the evening train home after a Leeds game. She feels that people only ever hear about Georgia when the news is bad – such as with the 2008 war or the 2015 floods in Tbilisi. From my experience, Georgia seems bizarrely unheard of in Britain, as most people either had no idea of its existence or assumed I was going to the US state.
The taxi, when it finally arrived, took us on a flat road through lush farmland, pausing on multiple occasions for rogue cows or pigs. The mountain ascent came very suddenly, and before long we were at a visitor’s centre in the village of Zeda Gordi, being bundled into a Jeep for the last bumpy stretch towards the canyon. Emerging from a wooded area, we reached an expanse of land surrounded by peaks and were told to follow the path down a steep flight of steps. The 100-metre deep Okatse Canyon has only been accessible since 2014, when a scarily narrow walkway was built running alongside the cliff edge. This excursion is probably not for the faint-hearted, as you can feel the walkway shake while you walk along it and there is no hiding from the Looney Tunes-esque drop directly below. It is well worth the trip out of Kutaisi however, as the view across the forested hills is stunning.
For an extra 20 lari (around £6) our driver took us further on from Zeda Gordi to the impressive Kinchkha Waterfall, a vast rock face with a narrow but powerful jet of water overlooking the valley. We were lucky enough to arrive at sunset so the driver joined us on a short walk from the carpark, clearly bemused by our incessant photo-taking as we updated our Snapchat and Instagram stories, got a few for the Camera Roll and even more on the Nikon at various angles and settings.
The Hotel Balcony is a newly furnished family-run place near the synagogue, on the east side of Kutaisi. The proprietor, a lady called Teo, and her niece, Anie, made us feel so welcome. On returning from the waterfall we told them we were going to have a drink, so Anie asked if we’d like to try some chocolate flavoured brandy. An ornate blue bottle was produced along with a plate of bread. In Georgia, as with other Eastern European countries, liqueur is enjoyed neat, often accompanied by a small piece of food to soak it up. We were then offered chacha, a homebrewed grape vodka and Georgia’s national drink, with which Teo brought out a plate of creamy imeruli cheese local to Kutaisi. After that, another spirit was rolled out along with some slices of green apple, but by that point I was too plastered to remember what it was.
My friend, deciding it was now time to show the Georgians how we drink our booze in the UK, dashed upstairs and remerged with some Grey Goose and a bottle of Sprite. They were both bemused at the idea of mixing a spirit with a soft drink, and Anie asked if she was supposed to down it all in one, which we kindly stopped her from doing. After a barefoot tour of the vines outside the hotel, we sat eating freshly picked grapes and had a cross-cultured YouTube sesh (I am aware of how dickish this sounds). Like many teenagers, Anie is a huge fan of Beyoncé & Jay-Z, and we bonded over our mutual obsession with Lana Del Rey. She introduced us to the Georgian poet and songwriter Irakli Charkviani, and we watched a few videos by Trio Mandili – a group of young women who have had huge international success on YouTube with their polyphonic renditions of traditional Georgian songs.
At around 1am, Teo and Anie said their goodnights. The fact that our first day here had ended with a Georgian style piss-up certainly boded well for the rest of the trip. My friend, by this point a drunken mess because he had not eaten enough bread with his chacha, rolled into bed muttering nonsense. With the three-hour time difference still playing with my head, I lay awake for a while listening to US singer Jhené Aiko’s second solo album, Trip, which had been released the previous week. Aiko has been known for her dreamy style of RnB for most of the 10s, but became a household name in 2015 after declaring that “you gotta eat the booty like groceries” on the summer smash hit Post To Be with Omarion and Chris Brown. Trip takes an introspective and darker turn away from mainstream RnB. You don’t even have to listen to the album to guess whom the intended audience could be. The psychedelic artwork paired with track names such as Overstimulated, Sativa and Mystic Journey – Freestyle, suggest that Georgian grape vodka might not be the drug of choice for optimum listening pleasure. I was, however, in a hazy frame of mind from all the travelling, and the hypnotic rise and fall of the album’s beat was ideal for bedtime listening.
Buddhist prayer chimes seem to play a key role on this mystical web of a record, gliding in right from the start in the short opener, LSD, and reappearing throughout in reprises and interludes. Each track on the album feels intertwined, webbed together lyrically and melodically by her distinctive lilting voice so that you can listen to it on shuffle and have a different musical journey every time without it jarring. The main single, While We’re Young, is deeply intimate and describes the realisation that she only wants to be with one person. It manages to be a catchy single in its own right but incorporates the atmospheric echo sound used across the rest of the album. The subject is presumably Big Sean, whose face she now has tattooed on her arm. Indeed, Sean pops up on the following two tracks – Moments and OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive) – with his usual slickly produced flow. One of the catchiest songs is Sing To Me which features Aiko’s daughter in a now common move made popular by Beyoncé.
The album falls into trancelike repetitiveness throughout You Are Here and Nobody, but is broken by Bad Trip – Interlude, an unpleasant number involving screaming, which led me to realise that Trip has a clear narrative arc like a film. Every song seems laced with double meaning and spiritual hidden messages. Like a lot of material released this year, Oblivion (Creation) addresses the awful state of affairs the world is in at the moment, bluntly opening with the line “the world’s a fucking mess, it’s gone to shit and I am every bit a part of it”. I’ve always found it fascinating how current affairs can be mirrored by the world of music, from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ in 1964 to Jay Sean and Lil Wayne being Down “like the economy” in 2008.
Trip is a powerful and intelligent record that no doubt will rise slowly in popularity. On first hearing it, I felt it could end up being this year’s Anti. It’s not there yet, as with 22 complex tracks, it hasn’t quite seeped into my psyche as much as Anti did. I’m not saying you have to be in the middle of a three-day hallucinogenic bender to fully appreciate it, but Trip is what it says on the tin – trippy. Listening to it is like entering a mystical forest, so in my day-to-day life I can’t always be bothered to summon up the effort. It requires commitment, and shouldn’t be mistaken for background music, which is what makes it such good quality. I’m sure I’ll revisit it at some spiritual moment in the future, but by this point Jhené was sending me to sleep and my mind was moving on to the next stage of our real-life trip: Tbilisi.
Listen to Trip here.