Getting from the Crimea to the Republic of Georgia presents several problems. I had been told that one way was to get to Trabzon on the Black Sea Coast of Turkey, and then take a boat to the coastal town of Batumi in Georgia. A guidebook had warned that foreigners could not cross the Georgian-Turkish border.

There were no flights to Trabzon from Simferopol, and I ended up on a small twin-engine prop plane loaded to the gills with passengers and merchandise bound for Istanbul. I do not recall anyone weighing anything and was thrilled when I felt the loaded plane heave itself into the air. Turkey is the shopping center for all the nearby republics of the former Soviet Union, and these chartered unscheduled flights were regularly filled with traders, taking what little might interest the Turks and returning with much sought after consumer goods. From Istanbul I took a modern jet to Trabzon and set about finding the Georgian consul general who was to ease my way to Batumi. He was, however, in Batumi, and while I waited for him to return I explored Trabzon, a town I recommend highly.

The pace is much less frenetic than that of Istanbul, and Trabzon is of a size you can get your imagination around. The town was colonized by merchants from Miletus during the eighth century b.c., like any number of sites around the Black Sea. Pursuing the various merchant explorers from different civilizations was one reason for my interest in the whole area. After all, it is the hope of new business that drives most exploration. Goods coming in by ship to Trabzon now find their way to Georgia and Armenia overland.

Another import is Russian women, all dubbed “Natashas” by the Turks. One afternoon I was looking around Boztepe Park on a high hill above Trabzon and some young Turkish men invited me to take tea from a big samovar in the center of their table. One or two were geologists, one a Black Sea captain, and one a teacher at the police academy. They were busy kidding each other and the subject of Natashas came up. The teacher confided that he loved the Russian women. His salary was about $130 a month and he spends $100 for one night a month. When I exclaimed that this was three quarters of his salary, he replied, “Yes, but they are wonderful.” I suggested he come to America where amateurs had knocked the bottom out of the trade.

Chance had it that I ran into a Canadian paramedic and an Irish doctor who worked for the Georgia-British Oil Company. They told me it was nonsense about not crossing the border by land, that they had come that way, and if I wanted a lift I was welcome. Next day I was racing along the beautiful coastal highway toward the border. First we had to pass the polite Turkish officials. Then, before the Georgian guards, there came a separate set of Russian border guards who were characteristically snotty and gave everyone a hard time. With their loss of prestige in the world, Russian soldiers have become even more touchy. After this brief unpleasantness, we were greeted by the Georgians and straightaway I got a taste of the famous Georgian hospitality. Much more of it was to come.

Leaving the coastal road, we drove through farmland, some of the highest cornstalks I have seen, and citrus groves. Since people are allowed to have their own cows now, a driver must stay alert for what amounts to open range. The Irish doctor was in a hurry to get back to Poti, their headquarters, before nightfall, and so I waved goodbye from the back door of the Intourist Hotel. I had arrived with no contact, having no Georgian or Russian at mv command, and no reservation. As I discovered over and over, the younger people often spoke English and with little prodding a group of young women in the lobby pleaded with the desk clerk on my behalf for a room. He insisted he did not have one, but after more pleading, he said I should come back in two or three hours and perhaps there would be something.

Nothing to do but go across the street to a very large park filled with people, fountains, and occasional classical music over a public address system. After a bit I found a place on a park bench beside a couple with a baby. Not having the languages I didn’t try to strike up a conversation, but soon was making American noises to the baby who stared my way, all of which led to the couple introducing themselves. He was an out-of-work scientist. Part way into our conversation there was a big stir as a group of armed bodyguards accompanied some big shot.

I asked the woman on the bench whether she thought it was all right for me to take a photograph and she replied, “Why not? Of course.” By now it was twilight and when I took a shot the flash went off automatically. At once a wide-bodied giant came hustling over with his weapon making lots of unfriendly noises, but the right Georgian words were said by others and he departed grumpily. It turned out I had photographed the main man in town, the godfather, Asian Abashize, ruler of the Ajara region. Not good. Shortly after, a young fellow scientist by the name of Tengiz Gogelia came up and we all headed for a cafe and three bottles of champagne under an umbrella while a soft Georgian rain began to fall. Yes, I did think of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” but kept it to myself. Before the evening was over I got a hotel room, and Tengiz and I became fast friends at the “Heineken Bar” where we took our late night dinner. Several hours earlier, I had known no one in Georgia; now I had several friends. Tengiz was to provide mv avenue to any number of interesting people in Tbilisi.

I met him again at sunrise with his small daughter on the gravel beach of the Black Sea, where we swam and watched an old man with his pants rolled up walking in the surf smoking a cigarette, when a Russian helicopter flew over. The old man didn’t even look up. As I was to discover, there exist five Russian bases on Georgian soil. Not many days before, a United States Navy ship had docked in Batumi. So it goes.

Later that day Tengiz took me to visit the remains of a huge fortress I had passed on the way from the border. There was an excavation in progress under the direction of the well-known archaeologist, David Khakhutaishvili. He stopped what he was doing and took us on a tour. What one can see are levels of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. The great walls, I believe, were built during the Ottoman period. All of this was built on Hellenistic ruins of the fourth or fifth century. Once again our merchant explorers from Ionian Miletus had made their appearance. Clearly in evidence were three different water systems from different occupations, clay pipe systems bringing the water from the mountains. The baths and steam rooms, I think, were from the Ottoman period. Back under a shelter where technicians were classifying the artifacts, I was shown Neolithic and Early Bronze Age tools that had turned up. As an aural background to my visit, I heard repeated artillery fire nearby and at my nervous question was told the Russian Army was practicing.

Two interesting things happened as we were leaving. The chief archaeologist said that the money for this excavation had come from Asian Abashize and if I wrote about Georgia, I should be sure to mention this. The godfather was taking care of his own. Early that summer he had paid for a production of Aida with real elephants. A minute or two later as we neared our car, two men walked up to “Tengiz and in Georgian asked to speak to him privately. I of course could not follow the conversation, but suddenly Tengiz said to me, “I need to go with them for a few minutes. Wait here.” All this seemed odd. In 20 minutes or so he returned and merely said, “Let’s go.”

He told me in the ear that at first he thought they were security men who might be asking questions about my photographing incident the day before. Instead, these men had taken Tengiz for one of the archaeologists. One of the men had been a miner deep in Siberia. At some point he had come on giant dinosaur bones and had smuggled them back to Georgia. He wanted a way to sell them for a lot of money When Tengiz then told him lie was not an archaeologist, the man became a little excited and began threatening Tengiz to keep this information to himself. Tengiz told them he had not asked for his secret in the first place. So, the mysterious Trans-Caucasus.

The next day we visited the Botanical Park. T’here is no money to keep it up now, but the flora reminded me of south Florida or parts of Louisiana. Lots of magnolia trees. Batumi in general is like south Florida, palm trees and all, plus the same air of decadence. A defunct overhead cablecar system led to the top of a small mountain where there was a hotel. Tengiz told me his father had built this hotel when he was still active. This was after his father had been wounded fighting the Germans. Now the hotel is full of refugees from Abkhaziya. This would be true of hotels in Tbilisi, too. There are nearly 300,000 refugees who have fled that part of Georgia. The Muslims were a minority in Abkhaziya, but they had been “secretly” aided by the Russian military and the security services. Now, after a devastating civil war, the minority Muslims are in charge. For a while at least. Shevardnadze said recently that if the international community will do nothing to solve this, it will have to be solved by force of arms.

Almost no one has much money nowadays in Georgia, yet when one sees all the fresh fruit and vegetables during late summer and early fall, it is hard to imagine the difficulties. Even when people in Russia were not eating very well as things fell apart, the people in Georgia ate much better. Almost half the people still live in rural areas. Before I left I had dinner with Tengiz’s aunt, having been told beforehand that she was an outstanding cook. She must have served 20 dishes, all of which required lots of preparation: eggplant dishes, tomato dishes, stews, cheeses, wonderful fruit, homemade wine. I don’t know why some peoples are more generous, more hospitable than others. It has nothing to do with having money. No people top the Georgians.

I left for Tbilisi before Tengiz, passing through Kutaisi and then Gori, where Stalin (Joseph Dzhugashvili) was born in 1879. I rented a room in a home a block and a half from the main street in Tbilisi, Rustaveli, named after a poet, and just two or three blocks from where the parliament met. And just in time for the bombing of Shevardnadze’s car at the parliament building with him in it. People were visibly anxious about what might then happen, even though there were soon pictures of Shevardnadze talking on television with only a few visible wounds.

For natives, the last time the tanks and personnel carriers started rumbling through the streets, it was the overthrow of the newly elected first president. Gamsakhurdia. Accused of becoming a dictator by his former schoolmate Tengiz Sigua, who had been sacked as prime minister in August, and Tengiz Kitovani, head of the National Guard, they, along with Dzhaba Ioseliani, led the attack which ousted Gamsakhurdia in December 1991, and in the process killed more than 200 people and destroyed many of the buildings along Rustaveli. Obviously everyone is very edgy. I was making my way past the Opera House on Rustaveli, headed toward the United States Embassy on some business, when a young soldier came toward me screaming in Georgian, waving his automatic weapon. There were two personnel carriers on the side of the street of the Opera where he came from. I finally figured out he was ordering me to get on the other side of the street.

Who had bombed Shevardnadze? There are many possibilities. Could have been old Gamsakhurdian followers. Could have been instigated by the Russians. Where else would so much dynamite come from, where the Russian Army controls most of the weapons? Or, it could have been the interesting figure of Dzhaba Ioseliani. At one time, the story goes, Ioseliani was a professor of theater or a playwright, but now he controls the largest paramilitary organization in Georgia, the Mkhedrioni (or Florsemen). Some called him the capo di capos for all criminal gangs in the country. He travels with many armed bodyguards even in Tbilisi, all with radios. Before I left Tbilisi, Shevardnadze had stripped all the bodyguards of their weapons on their way out of town, telling Ioseliani he was free to go. In the 70’s, he had been sentenced to over 25 years for a series of robberies and manslaughter. In the 90’s, Ioseliani had been jailed by Gamsakhurdia, but had managed to escape in time to overthrow him. Ironically, he, Sigua, and Kitovani had ultimately invited Shevardnadze to head the government, although they retained control over the military. The friendship between Shevardnadze and Ioseliani reportedly went back decades.

A few buildings on Rustaveli still show the marks of shell fire, especially a famous old hotel. But otherwise, this main street is back to normal, with just the odd personnel carrier scurrying by to liven things up. Tbilisi is a very old and charming city, founded in the fourth century. This was also when Christianity came to Georgia. It pleases the Georgians to remind the Russians that the former were Christian and civilized for centuries while the Russians were still barbarians. Despite Tbilisi’s many pillages and occupations, the Georgian Orthodox Church has been a centripetal force. One Sunday I visited several churches, all full. Even for a visitor, being in fifth-century churches is awesome, especially while hearing a Georgian choir. The Georgian Church was heavily persecuted by the Soviet communists, and in 1951 the head of the church told an American reporter that out of 2,455 churches, only 100 were functioning. All that has changed as of 1995.

One day the accomplished painter Levan Chogoshvili was showing me contemporary paintings in several galleries, some of which had his own work, hi a kind of revolt, before Georgia gained its independence, he had begun painting scenes from generations of his family life as revealed in old photographs. Such subjects had been forbidden because they were bourgeois and even nationalistic, heaven forbid. These paintings could not be shown publicly. Levan said it was a kind of requiem for the family, some of whom had been killed by the Bolsheviks, others repressed because they might have graduated from a German university, for example, after the turn of the century and thus were suspect. He had arranged for me to meet David Aleksidze, another painter, who invited us to lunch at his apartment. Aleksidze had studied in Venice for a year, but he did not think there was much for him to learn there. After fruit and champagne he brought out very large canvasses of macabre nudes, often in masks or other exotic accessories, and everything I saw was highly finished. He knew his craft. Before we left, a man in his early 20’s came in, another painter and friend of them both. It turned out that he would soon be returning to study at a university in Scotland. Aleksidze smiled and said, “He’s Stalin’s great-grandson.” I thought he was kidding. He was not. As I recall, the grandson said his greatest desire at the moment was to play the steel guitar.

Tengiz soon returned from Batumi and invited me to take a ride on the funicular up St. David’s Mountain where I could have the best view of the city. There were a couple of limousines parked at the base. When Tengiz asked about them, he was told the former king of Georgia was visiting at the top. We did not see him but instead we went inside a huge restaurant that had been gutted by shell fire. I had seen this building all lit up at night from my room below. Beria, also a Georgian and Stalin’s head of security, a terrible man, had it built. Oddly, amidst all the rubble there was a folkloric triptich by a 20th-century painter, full of a crowd of citizens of Tbilisi, including the painter. It had been spared.

Halfway down the mountain, we got off the funicular and walked to St. David’s church and cemetery. This is a kind of pantheon of important Georgian heroes, statesmen, scholars, and artists. Tengiz ticked off the names of famous poets and educators as we passed their graves, and then casually remarked, “Here’s Stalin’s mother.”

Georgia has always had a fascination for Russians. Tolstoy wrote the first and second drafts of Childhood while he stayed in a German suburb of Tbilisi and received medical treatment for a recurring dose of clap. Gorky and Pushkin also visited. One Georgian described the Russian love affair with Georgia in this way: it’s like a drunk husband married to a beautiful woman, and the husband cries that he loves her and cannot live without her, and then gives her a sound thrashing.

Ever since I read Lermontov’s A Hew of Our Time and his description of the Caucasus Mountains and the Georgian Military Road, I had wanted to visit. Tengiz introduced me to Zaal Kikodze, a slender, bearded man, who is an archaeologist by profession and mountain climber by avocation. Zaal has been doing some very exciting research along with Professor Reid Ferring of the University of North Texas in the paleoarchaeology of Georgia. The artifacts he has discovered appear to be 1.5 to 1.8 million years old, thus pushing the usual date of man moving out of Africa.

Zaal agreed to take me along this historic highway in his four-wheel drive vehicle all the way to Kazbegi. On the way we stopped at Mtzkheta, one of the oldest towns in the world still inhabited, and the ancient capital of the kingdom. In the general area is a burial ground from the Iron Age. The most striking aspect of Mtzkheta is the great cathedral, Sveitskhoveli (the Life-giving Pillar), built in the 11th century, I believe, destroyed by Tamerlane and his merry men, then rebuilt in the 15th century.

The trip along the Aragvi River, then climbing almost 8,000 feet to Krestovi (or Djrari) Pass, then down the divide to the town of Kazbegi is worth the whole trip to Georgia. At the pass, we stop to look up and down the valley, the dizzyingly beautiful, small villages at the bottom, whereupon a group of Georgian men eating and drinking vodka insist that we have a drink with them, this at nine in the morning. We continue on our journey, and before the descent we see farmers cutting hay with hand scythes in the meadows. At one point Zaal gets out where a small stream crosses the road. The melting snow red with iron oxide becomes a small waterfall, and he catches a drink of the famous mineral water, while others who have stopped fill their bottles. Now on the other side of the divide, the river that accompanies us is the Terek.

Before we get to the town of Kazbegi, Zaal points out Mt. Kazbegi. What a mountain! Sixteen thousand five hundred fifty-four feet from sea level, 11,000 feet from the valley floor. For the Greeks, the Caucasian Mountains were probably the limit of the known world. This area has given them numerous mythical stories, that of Jason and the Golden Fleece down by the coast, that of the Amazons, and here on Mt. Kazbegi, the story of Prometheus. A Caucasian myth reveals a character, Amirani, and a plot with many points of similarity to the Promethean one.

In Kazbegi, Zaal talks with his friend, a famous hunter who finds the antlered animals that furnish the Georgians with their drinking “horns.” Afterward we climb around lateral cuts in the valley, loafing in alpine meadows, then descend to travel through the Darial Gorge cut by the Terek, and up to the Russian border. There is a no-man’s-land between the Georgian and Russian border stations, and there, while we munched on shashlik, we watched a huge load of cigarettes being transferred from one big truck to several small ones. The Georgian owner does not want to risk taking his big truck and load across the border and having them seized. All of this business is what is called “semi-legal.”

Back in Tbilisi later in the week, I attend a birthday party for one of Professor Alexander Rondeli’s students in international relations at Tbilisi State University. I talk with Professor Rondeli about Georgia’s past and especially about its future. Like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary to the west, Georgia, along with the whole Transcaucasus, is trapped between a rock and a hard spot. Russia wants the area as a buffer between Iran or Turkey. As these great powers have waxed and waned over many centuries, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan get waxed in the process. On the question of the immediate future, Rondeli said two things needed to happen. Shevardnadze, having survived the bomb blast, needed to survive the November election (which he did with a 70 percent majority) and the moderates needed to win the December elections in Russia. If ever the extreme nationalists should rise to power, there will be even more mysterious bombings, with the goal of creating instability, the reality and the image, thus discouraging joint Georgian-foreign business ventures, and thus denying a strong, independent Georgia. For example, an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Georgia is in the works. Russian nationalists do not want this. In November, a major power line was mysteriously blown up. All of this is to say, “See, the country is unstable.”

As of this writing, with 40 percent of the December vote counted, the communists have made advances, leading all other parties with 22 percent of the votes cast. Zyuganov’s communists are indistinguishable from Zhirinovsky’s (whose party captured 11 percent of the vote) in their demand for a restored Soviet Union (“the historic fatherland”). This does not bode well for Georgia. Georgians will be looking anxiously at the coming June election for Russian president.

There are many reasons for Americans to go to Georgia: the Black Sea beaches, the spectacular mountains for trekking and climbing, the archaeology, the food and wine. In Tbilisi, painting and music reflect a high degree of sophistication. There are some interesting opportunities for risk capital. For more of that to happen, Russia just needs to let the Georgians mind their own business. Meeting the people is the best reason for visiting. No people surpass the Georgians in hospitality. Go and you will return. I know I will.