Described variously as part of Europe, Central Asia or the Middle East, Georgia has long been a flash point for cultural and geographical collision. Its culture is ancient and built around a vast variety of influences; its people are a mix of traditional and very modern; and the food is legendary.
Its weather and landscape are a meeting of east and west. Its history is a lengthy list of empires rising and falling, of invasions, skirmishes, massacres and wars. But it is also a nation of survival, and of great natural, cultural and gastronomic beauty.
Georgia is a newly independent nation, and while living conditions are improving, they're not yet at the Western standards desired by the government. Tourist facilities outside of the capital, Tbilisi, are not highly developed and many of the goods and services taken for granted in other countries are not yet available. Despite this, and despite an area in the north of the country being basically off-limits due to separatist control, terrorist activity and an abundance of land mines, Georgia presents a proud face to the world. And as civil unrest calms, the world is beginning to notice.
Travellers are advised to monitor current events and to specifically avoid travelling near the Russian border region, especially Chechnya, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Kabarda-Balkar and Karachay-Cherkessia.
The main risks to travellers in these areas are land mines and a high incidence of kidnapping. The Pankisi Gorge area north of Akhmeta is the site of a concerted counter-terrorism campaign, and travellers should avoid unaccompanied travel to Svaneti.
The breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia should also be avoided. Crime levels are rising and the exercise of the usual commonsense precautions, such as travelling in groups, travelling during daylight hours, using major roads and avoiding displays of wealth, is highly recommended.
Full country name: Georgia
Area: 69,700 sq km
Population: 5 million
Capital City: T'bilisi
People: Georgian (70%), Armenian (8%), Russian (6%), Azeri (6%)
Language: Georgian, Russian, Armenian, Azeri
Religion: Georgian Orthodox (65%), Muslim (11%), Russian Orthodox (10%), Armenian Apostolic (8%)
Head of State: President Mikheil Saakashvili
Head of Government: Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli
GDP: US$16.5 billion
GDP per capita: US$3,200
Major Industries: Heavy industry (steel, aircraft, machine tools, locomotives, cranes, motors, trucks), textiles, shoes, wood products, wine
Major Trading Partners: Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria
Member of EU: No
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With cheap transport, cheap meals and humble accommodation, a traveller can get by in Georgia under US$25 a day. If you can afford a little more, you'll reap the benefits of a big jump in the quality of food and housing.
Almost all payments (shopping in stores and markets, restaurants, hotels and other services) are made in cash. Only the few large hotels and banks accept credit cards and cheques; they are basically useless. It is strongly recommended you travel with US dollars in cash. Locals know that travellers will be carrying cash, so keep an eye out for pickpockets. Russian roubles are also used. Foreign currency can be exchanged at special exchange shops in the streets of large towns. Currencies other than those mentioned can only be exchanged at banks.
Tips are not normally given or expected, but a customer can tip for excellent service.
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Red-roofed, low-rise and higgledy-piggledy, Tbilisi has a distinctly cosmopolitan feel, and is a major economic and cultural centre. It's famous for its historical monuments and gorgeous architecture, which include the Sioni Cathedral Church, dating from the 5th century and the ancient Narikhala fortress. Visitors can also take in the local theatre scene. Three of the city's most famous and long-established theatres are situated in Rustaveli Avenue, including the Paliashvili Opera House, founded in 1851.
Batumi is an exotic-looking subtropical city on the Black Sea. Palms, cypresses, magnolias, oleanders, lemon and orange trees, thuja and box trees grow flowering and fragrant in this thriving border town. Batumi is an industrial city and an old trading port. It has a variety of entertainment facilities, and a dolphinarium, of which the locals are extremely proud. Nearby are the botanical gardens, which are a genuine highlight. In the far southwest of Georgia, Batumi is a good point of entry if you're coming from Turkey, but mind the border guards if they're stroppy, and don't pay customs a single lari. By air, Batumi is just over an hour from Tbilisi.
Kakheti (also known as Kahetia) is a striking region of rich, fertile soil surrounding the town of Telavi. Consequently, it has become the major vine-growing region of the country. According to locals, this tradition of wine-making goes back some 8000 years. Today you can see vineyards stretching to the horizon along the Main Kakhetian Highway. A Georgian scholar described grape vines as 'the living principle which innervated the economy, daily life, vision and character of the Georgian people.' Kakhetian vine-growers cultivate some two dozen types of grape, and many offer tastings and cellar-door sales. Easily accessible by train or bus, Kakheti is about 50km (30mi) northeast of Tbilisi.
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