Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Better Know A Georgia, Part I - Geography. Or: Cauc-Ask-Us About Our Verdant Topography!

They have a story, here in Georgia. It goes like this: When God was handing out all the land on Earth, dividing it up among his peoples, the Georgians were at a supra(1), doing a lot of eating and drinking and toasting and whatnot. After they finished(2), the Georgians approached God and said, “Hey, dude, what happened to the whole giving-of-land business?”(3) And God said, “I have already given out the land. Where were you?” Replied the Georgians, “We were toasting to your name and to the majesty of your creation.” So God said, “That’s super sweet. Here, have the land I was saving for myself.” Thus, the legend goes, the land called Georgia was begat unto the Georgians. Of course, this tale cannot possibly be true, because we know that mankind is descended from monkeys. A prehistoric monkey probably beat up another prehistoric monkey and claimed Georgia as his own, after which he evolved over millennia into the race that is today referred to as “Georgians.” The prehistoric monkey who lost probably spawned Armenia. Take that, Armenia! Of course, this is all guesswork. We cannot know for sure, because of global warming.

Speaking of Armenia, you are probably asking yourself, “Why did he bring up Armenia?” Do not kid this blog; you have no idea where Georgia is, whether or not it is near Armenia, or for that matter where Armenia is. This presents a problem for your continued education.(4) Please look at the map, which displays Georgia’s geographical location, helpfully labeled in War On Terror terminology.(5) As you can see, Georgia is surrounded by Russia/Chechnya to the north, Azerbaijan to the southeast, Armenia to the south, Turkey to the southwest, and the Black Sea to the west. The Caucasus Mountains stretch from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea in this area, and Georgia sits between mountain ranges that run along its northern and southern borders. The entire region is called “the Caucasus,”(6) or “the South Caucasus,”(7) or, perhaps more concisely, “that place that’s not quite Europe and not quite Asia? Or something? Where the hell is that place?”

For such a small country, Georgia has an impressive array of different landscapes. Ranges of the Caucasus Mountains, as mentioned before, lie in the north and south, plains lie in the east, and hilly regions with near tropical climes lie in the west(8). As the hills slope towards the shores of the Black Sea, the geography and climate is almost Mediterranean; there are even beaches(9) along the southern portion of the coast.(10) It can get brutally cold in the East, and especially in the northern mountainous areas(9), but west of “the tunnel”(10) it tends to stay pretty warm. For instance, after my recent doomsday post heralding the onset of winter, it, um, warmed up again, and has been perfectly pleasant recently. But I am going to Gori this weekend, and I am packing my warmest moleskin underwear. However, in the west, especially close to the sea, it can tend to rain all winter.(11) For instance, today [I am writing this on Friday, 26 October] it poured all day in Chokhatauri. I had to carry around my Halloween costume, which is made of cardboard, draped underneath a windbreaker. This confused the hell out of everyone, especially because (as I am sure you will see soon enough) this particular part of my costume consists of bear ears in a box.(12) “Look at that American boy,” everyone was probably snickering. “He probably threw away all the other parts of that bear. Americans are so wasteful.” But I digress.

You are probably becoming bored of this particular post. Hell, I’m getting bored of this particular post. I’m not doing a very good job of describing what is, in fact, a stunningly beautiful country. Where I live, in a village nestled on top of a foothill of the southern mountain range, you can see the snowcaps of higher peaks nearby, you can take a 30 minute drive to a mineral spring that is the source of a Georgian bottled water company’s product(15), and you can even drive up to the top of a nearby mountain in about an hour, to a “resort” there called Baxmaro(16), which is just a gorgeous place to see -- and where the photo to the left was taken. But perhaps I should do some actual research on this issue, to better educate you. And where better to do research than Wikipedia?

From Wikipedia, regarding the mountains of Georgia:
“Mountains are the dominant geographic feature of Georgia. The Likhi Range divides the country into eastern and western halves. Historically, the western portion of Georgia was known as Colchis while the eastern plateau was called Iberia. Due to a complex geographic setting, mountains also isolate the northern region of Svaneti from the rest of Georgia.

The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range separates Georgia from the North Caucasian Republics of Russia. The southern portion of the country is bounded by the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range is much higher in elevation than the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, with the highest peaks rising more than 5,000 meters (16,400ft.) above sea level.

The highest mountain in Georgia is Mount Shkhara at 5,201 meters (17,059 feet), and the second highest is Mount Janga (Jangi-Tau) at 5,051 meters (16,572 feet) above sea level. Other prominent peaks include Kazbegi (Kazbek) at 5,047 meters (16,554 feet), Tetnuldi (4,974m./16,319ft.), Shota Rustaveli (4,960m./16,273ft.), Mt. Ushba (4,710m./15,453ft.), and Ailama (4,525m./14,842ft.). Out of the abovementioned peaks, only Kazbegi is of volcanic origin. The region between Kazbegi and Shkhara (a distance of about 200 km. along the Main Caucasus Range) is dominated by numerous glaciers. Out of the 2,100 glaciers that exist in the Caucasus today, approximately 30% are located within Georgia.”

The mountains of the north, where we went for our Supervisor’s conference in July, are breathtaking, as well as quite cold, even in the summertime. We are told that, on those mountains, one can hire a helicopter for something called “helicopter skiing,” which entails jumping out of a helicopter into untamed mountain wilderness and skiing your way down. Needless to say, this activity sounds completely awesome and is completely verboten for a Peace Corps volunteer. Also, there is a Georgian beer called “Kazbegi.” You can’t get this level of commentary and information from just anywhere.

Wikipedia on the Georgian landscape:

“The landscape within the nation's boundaries is quite varied. Western Georgia's landscape ranges from low-land marsh-forests, swamps, and temperate rain forests to eternal snows and glaciers, while the eastern part of the country even contains a small segment of semi-arid plains characteristic of Central Asia. Forests cover around 40% of Georgia's territory while the alpine/subalpine zone accounts for roughly around 10% of the land.

Much of the natural habitat in the low-lying areas of Western Georgia has disappeared over the last 100 years due to the agricultural development of the land and urbanization. The large majority of the forests that covered the Colchis plain are now virtually non-existent with the exception of the regions that are included in the national parks and reserves (i.e. Paleostomi Lake area). At present, the forest cover generally remains outside of the low-lying areas and is mainly located along the foothills and the mountains.”

I would say that the Wikipedia author’s definition of “urbanization” differs quite greatly from what an American’s would be. There are four cities in this entire country that could be designated as “urban” in the sense of the word that you are probably picturing as you read this. Urbanization, then, in the deforestation-of-Georgia sense probably has to do with (a) villages, (b) crop fields, and (c) creating places where cows can graze. Not so much in the “Las Vegas used to be an actual desert but has experienced some urbanization” sense.

Wikipedia on Georgian fauna:

Due to its high landscape diversity and low latitude Georgia is home to a higher number of animal species, e. g. ca. 1000 species of vertebrates (330 birds, 160 fish, 48 reptiles, 11 amphibians). A number of large carnivores live in the forests, e. g. Persian leopard, Brown bear, wolf, and lynx. The species number of invertebrates is considered to be very high but data is distributed across a high number of publications. The spider checklist of Georgia, for example, includes 501 species.”

I can tell you from personal experience that the entire population of brown bears in this country lives in the highly naturalized habitat of cages at gas stations and/or amusement parks. I can also tell you from personal experience that the entire spider population resides in my bathroom.

Wikipedia on Georgia’s climate:

“The climate of Georgia is extremely diverse, considering the nation's small size. There are two main climatic zones, roughly separating Eastern and Western parts of the country. The Greater Caucasus Mountain Range plays an important role in moderating Georgia's climate and protects the nation from the penetration of colder air masses from the north. The Lesser Caucasus Mountains partially protect the region from the influence of dry and hot air masses from the south as well.

Much of western Georgia lies within the northern periphery of the humid subtropical zone with annual precipitation ranging from 1000–4000mm. (39–157 inches). The precipitation tends to be uniformly distributed throughout the year, although the rainfall can be particularly heavy during the Autumn months. The climate of the region varies significantly with elevation and while much of the lowland areas of western Georgia are relatively warm throughout the year, the foothills and mountainous areas (including both the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains) experience cool, wet summers and snowy winters (snow cover often exceeds 2 meters in many regions). Ajaria is the wettest region of the Caucasus, where the Mt. Mtirala rainforest, east of Kobuleti receives around 4500mm (177 inches) of precipitation per year.

Eastern Georgia has a transitional climate from humid subtropical to continental. The region's weather patterns are influenced both by dry, Central Asian/Caspian air masses from the east and humid, Black Sea air masses from the west. The penetration of humid air masses from the Black Sea is often blocked by several mountain ranges (Likhi and Meskheti) that separate the eastern and western parts of the nation. Annual precipitation is considerably less than that of western Georgia and ranges from 400–1600mm (16–63 inches). The wettest periods generally occur during Spring and Autumn while Winter and the Summer months tend to be the driest. Much of eastern Georgia experiences hot summers (especially in the low-lying areas) and relatively cold winters. As in the western parts of the nation, elevation plays an important role in eastern Georgia as well, and climatic conditions above 1500 metres (4920ft) above sea level are considerably cooler (even colder) than those of the low-lying areas. The regions that lie above 2000 meters (6560ft) above sea level frequently experience frost even during the summer months.”

This is quite a good many numbers, but all I can say is you’ll have to Wait And See regarding the weather, which I still have yet to figure out.

So, as you can see from the first in this series on Georgia, when I need actual facts, I will be using Wikipedia. Meaning you could find out much of this by just going to Wikipedia yourself. But then you’d miss out on my pithy, hilarious comments(17), and the insightful analysis gleaned from months in the field.(18) Until next time, friends.

(1)A supra, if you are new to this blog or if this term hasn’t been used enough yet for you (you should really start taking notes; there will be a test later), is a traditional Georgian feast. Egregiously, I did not create a blog entry category for supras when I constructed my list in the last post. I will add it at some point as a Special Bonus Blog, since I rather like the VIII-VIII symmetry, because the tradition behind supras is the reason why it’s 100% cool to take shots at noon in an elementary school here. It might be the most important information about this country. I’d probably say so, because of the entertainment factor involved in discussing supras, and the Georgians would probably also say so, because they really like their supras.
(2)This is how you know the story is false; Georgian supras do not “end,” they merely slow down for periods of time so people can do things like sleep and go to work.
(3)”Dude” is a vocative term that is, of course, not used here, because even Georgians know that it is no longer 1984. They probably said something like, “Hey, bitcho,” which doesn’t look like a very nice thing to say for those of you who are such simpletons you do not know the Georgian language, but which I can assure you is quite an amusing joke if you do. Looks like the joke is on you.
(4)I plan on being very snotty about things you don’t know and utterly ignoring the fact that I did not, technically, know much about Georgia either, before I came here. True story: when my mother called me after opening the invitation from Peace Corps, she said, “How do you feel about Georgia?” I, confused, answered, “The state?”
(5)I feel confident that maybe two people realized, before reading this footnote, that this map is a recycled joke from a post I wrote months ago. So if you think I have qualms about reusing it, think again. An observation that I gleaned from the first time that still troubles me: my friend Ruth, who is by profession a teacher of children, confessed that this map did not actually help her to locate Georgia, because the surrounding countries are not labeled properly. Hopefully she has found a globe by the time of this writing and discovered the location of the Black Sea.
(6)This is the origin of the term “Caucasian,” because all white people come from here. Really – it’s true! Look it up on Wikipedia, as long as you wait until after I’ve changed it to say that.
(7)I believe the “north” Caucasus is the area of southwestern Russia north of Georgia, but I could be wrong, because I’ve done absolutely no research on this blog post whatsoever.
(8)I live in this hilly, near-tropical region, making it the most important region. Pay attention.
(9)The only sand beach in Georgia, I think, is in a lovely place called Ureki, where the sand is actually black. The other beaches, such as those in the coastal city of Batumi, are rock beaches.
(10)Believe me, there are few times when you feel less like a Peace Corps volunteer than when you’re sitting on the beach, as I have been known to do several times since I’ve been here, since I live within an hour of the coast. I think next time I go to the beach I will drink some local water without filtering it, on the theory that projectile vomiting would balance out the beach-going and bring me back to Peace Corps reality.
(11)There are two volunteers in my group who live in villages up in the mountains several hours north of where I live, and apparently that area can become literally snowed in during the winter, because of the volume of snow and the poor road quality. Apparently they both asked to be placed in remote villages. Both say that they’re not going to come down from the mountain during the winter even if they could. I don’t think I have to tell those of you from the Midwest that one of them is from…..Wisconsin.
(12)”The tunnel” is, well, a tunnel that gives the main highway across the country passage through a hill in roughly the center of the country. It’s the unofficial (among volunteers, at least) demarcation point between east and west. I don’t think I have to tell you that volunteers stationed east of the tunnel are backwater hillbillies who spend their time not transferring knowledge and building sustainability but comparing long-johns and congratulating each other on how well they can withstand the cold. Huzzah for you, easterners, but please keep the back-patting down. Some of us have work to do so we can go to the beach.
(13)I feel I should point out at this point that this is all vicious conjecture and hearsay, seeing as how I have not yet actually lived through a winter here, and have opined not once but twice about the impending melancholy of winter, only to wake up a few days later, realize that I’m uncomfortably warm, and decide that I was a little quick on the wool-coat trigger.
(14)Note: not real bear ears. They’re real panda ears painted to look like regular bear ears.
(15)And you can take a tour of the small, one-room factory where they make this bottled water, where at least ten employees stand around watching machinery do all the work. It’s an inspiring example of productivity in the modern age.
(16)My “site visit” Facebook photos, which are helpfully linked to in the sidebar, are of a trip I took with my coworkers to Baxmaro for an afternoon supra, so you can see more photos of how gorgeous the place is. I do have difficulty understanding how it is a “resort,” as it is claimed to be by Georgians, because when you get up there you mostly just see a village. Everyone in Guria claims to have a house in Baxmaro; as far as I can tell, the only extra houses there are piles of sticks that look like pillaged frames of houses. This must be what people are referring to, but I can’t for the life of me understand why they brag about these homes. These homes, literally, tend to have about half the wood required for floors and actual walls, and nothing else. When we were in Baxmaro, a coworker showed me her family’s “house” there, and we had to climb into it and hang onto a wall stud to avoid falling through the “floor.” It is undoubtedly a beautiful place, but I must be missing something about it. Georgians also think that the air in Baxmaro can cure illnesses because it is a perfect mixture of sea and mountain air.
(17)Like this one.
(18)For instance: Georgia, the country, is not at all the same as Georgia, the state. Did you know that? Its capital isn’t even Atlanta.

1 comment:

paul said...

There is a similar story told by Armenians about their lands to the God giving out lands story that you mention here.
While in Georgia's they get the land God saved for himself- Armenians are also late to the land give-out (which is typical of their not-very-punctual nature, they like to hang around and do things slowly instead). God told them oops, I gave out all the land, so you'll have to go live with the Turks or something. Oh wait, God said, I also have this pile of rocks left over from when I was making the world. You can have that if you want. So Armenians took the rocks, just to have a place of their own, and that explains why when you are driving on any typical road in Armenia you are usually staring down a 5000 foot drop on either side or about to go up something similar.