My first time in Georgia was sometime in 2007. We flew from Kyiv on a Soviet-era Georgian Air flight that had perfectly round, porthole-like windows covered by curtains that probably belonged to someone's grandma. The yellow cabin lights flickered throughout the flight, and men would walk to the bathroom at the back of the plane to smoke. The cigarettes, dim interior, and floral patterns made the flight seem distinctly like a dive bar. We landed at the old airport -- basically an oversized government office building -- and drove around the city in beat-up Ladas. As I wandered around the broken streets, Georgians would stare at me, seemingly unfamiliar with the sight of an Asian person. It felt like I had landed in another world, and my experiences felt so magically my own.
The second time I went to Georgia in 2008, I flew on a Boeing into the new glass-and-steel, Turkish-built airport. Work was ongoing on a 5-star Kempinski Hotel, and we drove on newly repaved city streets. One of the first hipster restaurants, Pur Pur, sprung up soon after to cater to the cool Georgians and expats.
Georgia, circa 2018. An Indian business man next to me at the airport is dictating a "30-second postcard" on his phone, telling someone about real estate investment opportunities in Georgia. Dunkin Donuts, Wendy's, H&M and Inditex brands are everywhere, but Ladas have disappeared. At Fabrika, a converted factory-turned-hipster complex, one can buy ramen and work in a coworking space.
We spent the past few days in the mountains of northern Georgia, seeing a tour bus of elderly Korean tourists with selfie sticks and smaller groups of young Chinese tourists wearing impractical pink hiking boots. One of these tourists did various ballet poses in front of Mt. Kazbegi for, I assume, her WeChat profile photo. The small Kazbegi village, near the border with Russia, was now full of people wearing "trekking gear" walking amidst old Georgian couples tending to their gardens.
The pace of change really blows my mind. I had no idea that Georgia had become such an attractive tourist destination so quickly, and am saddened by the thought that many of these tourists are just there for the photos and checking it off their list, rather than any interest in Georgia. I'm reminded of my last work trip to Kathmandu, where all the guests in my hotel looked like they'd just gone to an outlet sale at REI. "It's kind of insulting," said my Nepali friend as we went out to dinner. "Do they dress like that in their own country?"
I hope the friends who came for my 40th birthday celebration left with some appreciation of Georgia the country. I know they definitely left with an appreciation of the food. The celebratory dinner, on the rooftop of an apartment-turned-restaurant and wine cellar, had all of the Georgian classics, done perfectly: flavorful phkali, crispy pork, mushrooms cooked on the ketsi (shallow round clay pans), and of course adjaruli khachapuri and khinkali washed down with chacha. My friends gave little speeches throughout the night on how they knew me and why they liked me, which made me almost blush with embarrassment. Harsh criticism, I can take. Sincerity and compliments, I want to run out of the room.
This week was a whirlwind of experiences, and I really do plan to come back to Georgia again soon, to see what's different next time.