“The California of the Caucasus” is perhaps the most tired comparison made in writing about Georgia. These are the exact words used by The New York Times to pitch this emerging travel destination — followed closely by the fact that the country “is slightly smaller in size than South Carolina”. As we drive towards the eastern edge of the country, this thought makes me laugh: the only station I can get more or less continuously on the creaky car radio is Voice of America. A presenter with thick American accent is weighing in on Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance. At a small gas station, we’re greeted by a middle-aged man in light blue jeans, denim shirt and baseball cap decorated with flames, speaking very clear Russian. But if there is one thing that truly links these lands to California, it is the sweet feeling of being at the edge of the world.
Just outside Telavi we pass an enormous tin sculpture of a grapevine on the side of the road, with yellow grapes the size of industrial barrels. We’re in Kakheti, wine country, and a few of the places we drive through have passed their names on to celebrated Georgian wines like Tsinandali and Mukuzani. Fruit trees and crosses welded out of lead pipes flick past as we drive through villages bathed in golden sunlight. Driving on narrow roads involves a lot of overtaking of old, repaired vehicles, rattling motorcycles and large trucks. One of these is filled with what I mistake at first for dirt; as I look closer it turns out to be white grapes, perhaps a few tons' worth. It’s October, the height of harvest season.
As we drive on, the road gradually straightens and gets wider. The fields are framed by rosy mountains, white peaks only just showing through the haze. The rows of slender cypress trees cast long charcoal shadows. There is a faint smell of smoke in the air. Apart from the wine, Georgia is likened to California thanks to its outstanding natural beauty and the variety of its landscapes. For a passionate driver, though, it does lack one thing: scale. A humble three hours in a car leaves you with an itch to keep going. But as you drive towards Lagodekhi, something changes, and there is an inexplicable sensation of expansion.
In Lagodekhi it feels as though the great unknown is just within arm’s reach, just over the hill, like the unseen ocean
In Lagodekhi it feels as though the great unknown is just within arm’s reach, just over the hill, like the unseen ocean. There is no ocean here but the border with Azerbaijan is just four miles away, and all around is a vast nature reserve. The streets of Lagodekhi are laid out in a grid and, apart from the main road through the town, mostly very quiet. Behind rusty gates large family houses are surrounded by lush gardens: fruit trees, grapes, banana palms and flowers in the evening sunshine, sometimes dry pools, intricate shadows on raw concrete. The town is like a forgotten piece of some tattered heaven.
The house we are staying in has a lush garden too. There is a hammock under a dogwood tree, fallen berries staining the grass red. Above the front patio grapevines form a thick green ceiling. Old clay amphorae are scattered around the lawn. It’s an old family house with a few bedrooms renovated to accommodate tourists, now called Guesthouse Gardenia. The woman who runs it says we should feel welcome to eat whatever we find in the garden. The dark grapes taste sweet and rich. Her husband works in finance and drives an old silver Mercedes. He also makes his own wine, something common to the majority of Kakheti households. The wine cellar is still in the same place as when the house was first built, and maintains the same temperature throughout the year. There are four clay vessels (qvevri) buried in the ground, 250 litres each, for making wine the traditional Georgian way, plus two large, tin rectangular boxes for making European wines. The large amphorae lying around in the gardens are not solely decorative – they used to serve for wine-making too.
There is a hammock under a dogwood tree, fallen berries staining the grass red
The main reason why people come to Lagodekhi, a town of only around 8,000 people, is the vast nature reserve, established in 1912. Its history shows how closely intertwined nature is with human politics. The explorer, zoologist and botanist Ludwik Młokosiewicz, happened to end up here as a Polish army officer in the 19th century, and later couldn’t forget these lands. He eventually returned and spent the rest of his life living with his family in a cottage in the forest, studying local flora and fauna. Lagodekhi nature reserve was established three years after his death.
Today in the reception area of the park, strange old pieces of taxidermy sit side by side with brand new posters in English, and you have to put down your name on a piece or paper that counts as a register. At one point Młokosiewicz was banned from the country and sentenced to six years enforced residence in the province of Voronetz, and the issues of borders and nationalities are still present. The park is located on the southern slopes of the Caucasus, bordering Azerbaijan and the Dagestan Republic, which forms part of of Russia. For a walk among waterfalls and woods, you have to take your passport.
I think of all the people crossing borders today, scrambling across rocks; so many on their way to peril and oblivion, just like the Machi dukes and everyone who used to live here
A short ride away from the town a path leads into the forest. The woods are just like those in a fairytale, time pausing briefly on black branches or oriental hornbeams. After about an hour of walking, a man in khaki uniform hails us from the top of ivy-covered hill. To get to him we have to climb an improvised staircase of thick tree roots. The trees here are taller and seem to support the sky itself. The green border guard’s tent is perched on the top of the hill like something out of The Lord of the Rings, with the addition of AK-47s and walkie-talkies. They examine our passports and let us go on, to the ancient Machi fortress. The fortress is not much more than a ghost. It was burnt down in the 17th century, and only a small church survived – hardly any people lived in this district for the next 200 years.
From the top of a cliff I look down at the ash-grey riverbed covered with pink wildflowers – the border with Azerbaijan. I think of all the people crossing borders today, scrambling across rocks; so many on their way to peril and oblivion, just like the Machi dukes and everyone who used to live here. On the way back, the border guards smile and give us some of the large-capped mushrooms they have foraged for dinner. They put them in a white plastic bag that rustles along the way. The evening sun comes out and illuminates every ivy leaf like an emerald.
The wilderness around Lagodekhi is full of the most extraordinary things: waterfalls and black mountain lakes, clean streams to swim in and paths that never end because the paint marking the trail has worn off. It’s not just what we see but what we feel – the powerful presence of wilderness, the human connection, the ever-present possibility of loss. It’s also about things we create and then forget to question, like borders, or the old myth of California. In places like this we may finally be able to separate one from the other.