Having toured throughout North America, Asia, Europe and Australia, I am convinced that there is no place on the planet as well suited for bicycle touring as Georgia. Georgians are the world's most hospitable people and there is no better way to be embraced by that hospitality than to arrive on a bicycle. Unlike any other method of travel, if you arrive as a 'velotourist' you will immediately command both curiosity and respect, and you will be welcomed with consistently open arms. We literally had multiple people grabbing us, pulling in different directions, begging us to stay with them -not for financial gain, but out of a genuine spirit of hospitality. It is awesome and will deeply touch the way you deal with guests for the rest of your life. In addition, Georgian food is amazing, a joyous celebration of life itself.
Bicycle touring in Georgia by Alex Tilson
The Georgian people are one of the chief attractions of this country – their traditions of hospitality and kindness extend to everyone they meet, and until you experience a full Georgian meal with endless courses of sublime local cooking and lengthy toasting ceremonies, you can’t claim to have seen the real Georgia.
With 15 major ethnic groups (and up to 80 in Tbilisi), Georgia is the least homogeneous of the Transcaucasian states. The population is probably about 4.7 million, although statistics are unreliable, due to population movements since the 1989 Soviet census, when the population was 5.5 million, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia; many Russians, Armenians, Jews and Greeks have left the country, some Georgians have returned home but some still live and work in Russia. ^ is estimated that almost 84% of the population is Georgian, 6.5% Azeri, 5.7% Armenian, 2% Ossetian, 1.5% Russian and other groups, including 95,000 Kurds, 52,000 Ukrainians, 12,000 Jews, 8,600 Belarussians, 6,000 Assyrians and 4,000 Tatars. Germans, invited to come as colonists in the 1780s by Potemkin, first viceroy of Caucasus, were deported to central Asia in 1941 but then left for Germany. As of 2010 there are about 250,000 Internally Displaced Persons or refugees, mainly from Abkhazia. Life expectancy is 77 on average (74 for men and 81 for women), and the population is ageing, 16.4% now being over 65 years old. The birth rate is falling, due to economic disruption and the fact that many of those of working age are abroad. The population density is 78 per square kilometre overall, and up to 300 per square kilometre in the fertile plains; 56% of the population is urban (one-third of them in Tbilisi).
Overall, the Georgians are marked by what the historian WED Allen called 'aesthetic irresponsibility'; or as the writer Laurens van der Post put it, they and the Irish both 'realise the positive creative uses of irresponsibility'. They are impulsive and passionate people for whom hospitality and having a good time are the highest aims. Unlike the more serious Armenians, who have suffered from genocidal attacks more than once, the Georgians have managed to dance their way through history and come out laughing. The Georgians grew out of a blend of Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures, and the present-day nation is still a mix of very different types - the Megrels or Mingrelians in the west who are quick, smart, boastful and can't be stopped from feeding guests, the naive and funny Svans, the extremely hospitable and talkative Imeretians, the slow and careful Rachvels, the political and humorous Gurians, the calm wine-loving Kakhetians, not to mention the Karts, Khevsurians, Pshavians, Mokhevians and Meskhians. As for the Adjarians, they are said to have all the above qualities; they are ethnically and linguistically Georgian but mostly Muslim in religion.
Other groups share ethnicity and religion with the majority population but are linguistically distinct: these include the million or so Megrels, the Svans, and the Laz, most of whom (around 200,000) live across the border in the Нора region of Turkey. Related to the Megrels, the Laz are very extrovert and humorous, and tend to have reddish hair.
Georgians are among the most hospitable people on Earth, with strong traditions of chivalry and codes of personal honor. Friendship is the greatest virtue. It is celebrated in Shota Rustaveli's national epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, in which a person's worth is judged not by wordly goods, but by the number of friends he has. The Georgians are proud, passionate, and fiercely individualistic, yet deeply connected with each other through a shared sense of belonging to a greater Georgian family. Women are highly esteemed and are accorded a respect that is endowed with great courtliness. The statue of Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda) that lands overlooking Tbilisi perhaps best symbolizes the national character: in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine with which she greets her friends, and in her right is a sword drawn against her enemies.
The National Psyche
Georgians are irreverent, individualistic, enterprising, good humoured and generally high spirited – pretty much the opposite of the Russian neighbours who dominated them for two centuries. For a good demonstration of the Georgian character, stay in a Georgian home, where you’ll be treated like a monarch and fed and watered until you can take no more. Most Georgians are only too delighted to talk with foreign visitors and will go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome. In fact, few things make Georgians happier than having guests to look after.
Georgians are proud of their culture and their country, but they identify with their own regions as much as with Georgia as a whole, which is something of a mishmash of nationalities. While some dislike the influence Russia had over the country for two centuries, many Georgians (especially those over 30) speak good, often fluent Russian, are perfectly happy to talk Russian with foreigners, and find it hard to totally dismiss their northern neighbour, having absorbed so much of her culture.
With their agricultural wealth and capitalist instincts, Georgians lived better than anyone else in the USSR. Despite difficulties since independence, most Georgians still manage to live relatively well (and a few live extremely well). City dwellers retain roots in distant villages and will return from visits laden with home-grown produce. Fewer Georgians live in the drab apartment blocks widespread in other ex-Soviet countries; many city homes replicate rural ones, with a variety of small dwellings set around a courtyard.
Most Georgians outside Tbilisi live in big traditional homesteads, often housing three or more generations of a family. Friends and family are of vital importance and Georgians spend copious amounts of time simply enjoying each other’s company. Georgian women generally enjoy a good deal of freedom, holding prominent positions in government and having a large presence in the workplace. But this is hardly a feminist culture – most women are also still expected to be cleaners and cooks in the home.