Friday, 8 April 2016

The Amazing Race 28, Episode 7

Garni (Armenia) - Yerevan (Armenia) - Tbilisi (Georgia) - Mtskheta (Georgia) - Tbilisi (Georgia)

When you hear, “Georgia”, do you think, “wine”? If not, why not?

Georgia is about to host the UN World Tourism Organization’s First Global Conference on Wine Tourism later this year. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the national ministry for the promotion of tourism persuaded The Amazing Race to visit. Georgia is one of the countries that claims to have had the world’s first wineries — in 6000 BC. Georgia is not just a major wine producer but a major wine exporter: Wines from Georgia and Moldova were considered the best of “Soviet” wines, and continue to be bring premium prices over domestic wines in Russia, Ukraine, and most of the rest of the former USSR.

The most distinctive and traditional Georgian wines are those fermented and aged in “qvevri” — giant clay jugs buried up their necks underground to maintain constant temperature. This method of wine-making has been included of the on UNESCO’s list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. (‘Fess up: You didn’t know that list existed, did you? Neither did I. It’s an interesting list to browse.) Some qvevri are large enough for a person to climb into, down a ladder lowered through the neck, in order to clean out the grape seeds, stems, skins, and other fermentation residue between batches. Each team on The Amazing Race 28 had to clean a qvevri to the satisfaction of the winemaker before they could continue to the next checkpoint in the race.

So why have so few people outside the “Second World” of the former USSR and its neighbors and allies heard of Georgian wine? And why haven’t you seen Georgia on more wine connoisseurs’ “bucket lists” of wine-producing regions to visit around the world?

The Second World remains a parallel universe in many aspects of technology and culture, for reasons including — as I discussed in relation to the previous episode of The Amazing Race 28 in Armenia — the inertia of infrastructure and language. Despite major shifts in trading partnerships, it also remains a largely self-contained economic world, at least in some industries including agriculture. Russia, with its wealth of fossil fuel, minerals, and other natural resources, remains the economic superpower of the region, and the dominant agricultural export market (like it or not, mostly not) for most of the rest of the former USSR. Russia has used restrictions on exports of Georgian wine as a tool of trade war, but that only goes to show the importance to Georgia of wine exports in general and of wine drinkers and buyers in Russia (and the rest of Russian sphere of influence) in particular.

Georgian wines are available in the USA, but not in most wine shops or liquor stores, even ones with relatively diverse stock. The parallel distribution chain extends all the way to the retail level, where Georgian wines are sold in “Russian” specialty grocery stores, delicatessens, and other “ethnic” shops.

The “heavy lifting” is in sourcing these wines and importing them to the USA. Mainstream stores and dealers could buy Georgian wines from their US wholesale importers and distributors to the Russian ethnic market. But they don’t. They don’t see demand for them from mainstream customers.

Tastes and preferences are culturally determined. In Russia and the rest of the ex-USSR, and to people around the world whose tastes in wine are shaped by Russian and ex-Soviet norms, Georgian wine is (a) a known quantity, not a novelty, and (b) viewed as premium wine, just as Moldovan champagne is viewed as “premium” champagne compared to other “Soviet” varieties.

I’ve often said that one of my goals for my first trip around the world was to get a better sense of my ignorance. As I continue to travel to new places, I continue to be reminded that the world is larger and more diverse than I can imagine. There are universals — everybody everywhere needs to eat and drink something — but there are important places, important ideas, and, yes, superlative foods and beverages and complex cuisines with rich traditions that I had never heard of until I tasted them.

It’s hard to remember that lesson, however, when we are surrounded by a Eurocentric culture that takes for granted that French cookery is the epitome of “haute cuisine”, while relegating entire universes of world food (Chinese, Indian, etc.) to a ghetto category of “ethnic” if it acknowledges them at all. Chinese culture, of course, views European or European-American cooking in about the same way: exotic and sometimes fun, but barbarian and not to be taken too seriously.

The same goes for beverages. Why are single-malt Scotch whiskeys (of all alcoholic beverages distilled from fermented grain) available in bars, restaurants, and liquor stores — and advertised on billboards — around the world, but their equally distinctive counterparts among drinks distilled from fermented sugar cane, artisanal cachaças, are essentially unheard-of and unobtainable at any price outside Brazil? Even Brazilian-American specialty stores generally sell only mass-market cachaça for use as a mixer, as during The Amazing Race 18, not the premium small-batch pot-still sipping varieties aged in barrels made from an extraordinary variety of tropical hardwoods that impart fruit, spice, and other indescribable flavors and aromas.

Rankings are possible only if those doing the ranking agree on the rubric. If one team is playing baseball, and the other is playing cricket, how can you say which is the “better” team, or pick a single list of the “best” players from leagues in different sports? Even similar seeming details (“Who’s the better batsman?”) can be hard to compare if the tools, techniques, and goals are different.

I prefer sweet Moldovan or “Soviet-style” champagne to dry French-style champagne. Does that mean I’m a cretin, by some “objective” standard? Or is that a matter of taste?

Georgian wines are made not only with different techniques but from different varieties of grapes than are grown in most other countries. That’s what makes them interesting and worth trying, but that’s also what makes them hard to rank according to the criteria for other wines.

The reality-TV travellers took an overnight train from Yerevan to Tbilisi. It looked like none of them had been on a train with sleeping cars before, but they appeared to find it quite comfortable. It’s certainly a safer option than a night bus.

Many people like the idea of an overnight train, but don’t know how to find information about routes, schedules, frequencies, journey times, accommodations and services onboard, or ticket prices.

The last time I reported on train travel in the former USSR in 2009 when The Amazing Race 14 was in Russia, summary information on the most important passenger trains throughout the region was still available in English in the venerable “Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable”.

Unfortunately, Thomas Cook suspended publication of the Overseas Timetable in 2010, and of the companion European Timetable in 2013. Some former Thomas Cook staff members started a separate new company that has resumed publication of a European Rail Timetable and Rail Map of Europe (extending as far east as Moscow and Ankara) similar to the former Thomas Cook versions. But the new European Rail Timetable has only a cursory section on selected trains “Beyond Europe”, and the publishers have given no indication of any intent to resurrect the undoubtedly less-profitable Overseas Timetable.

That leaves The Man in Seat Sixty-One as the closest thing to a global passenger rail information portal in English, supplemented by whatever country-specific information you can find on other English-language Web sites, guidebooks, or anecdotes from other travellers. The key thing to keep in mind is that none of this information can be relied on as authoritative.

Both the Armenian South Caucasus Railway (operated by the Russian Railway under a privatization concession) and the Georgian Railway have Yerevan-Tbilisi schedules on their Web sites in English. That’s useful, but there’s no guarantee — even if people tell you that the schedules posted online in Armenian, Georgian, or for both countries in Russian are reliable — that someone remembers to update the translated English summaries whenever the underlying information in local languages changes. It almost certainly doesn’t happen automatically.

Trying to buy tickets on Web sites like these is risky, and my advice remains to buy tickets at the departure station, or through a local hostel or travel agency. Navigating a site like this which has been translated (not necessarily completely) from a language in a different alphabet has many pitfalls, such as finding that the name of the city or station you want has been transliterated differently than you expected, places are listed by station name rather than city name, or names in English are listed in alphabetical order as they are spelled in a different language or alphabet. A credit card with a foreign billing address may or may not be accepted. Error messages are among the elements of Web content that, in my experience, are least likely to be translated, which can leave you uncertain whether your card has been charged or a ticket has been issued.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 8 April 2016, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Just as a matter of interest, Russian Railways RZD now has an extremely easy to use web site, In English, on which it is possible to compare the available trains between A and B, buy tickets, book specific sleeping berths, and even in some cases to download the necessary boarding cards to print off at home (in other cases you have to get them at a station).

But as you say, Georgian and Armenian rail travel is best booked there on the spot, although it is fair to say that generally speaking timetables for long-distance (mainly overnight) trains tend to remain broadly similar year on year, so information on a current web site or in a recent guide will usually give an indication of frequency and times which can at least form the basis for general advance planning.

I still keep a a 2000 Overseas Timetable on my bookshelf, at least it gives some idea of what routes might be available.

The Russian Railways web site worked fine for me and the information is very comprehensive. I booked seven seperate train journeys in the Volga region and it all went like clockwork, apart from the fact that I hadn't realised that a couple of the journeys required the boarding cards to be obtained at a station or railway office. I don't know what made those two journeys different from the ones where I was able to print them off at home along with the tickets. For the first train it applied to, the conductress let me board as it was near departure time, but made me get the boarding card printed at a station en route where there was a long stop. I got both 'missing' boarding cards printed at the same time so was sorted for the other journey as well.

Current exchange rates make train travel in Russia (and Georgia) ludicrously cheap for the distances and facilities involved!


Martin Barlow

Posted by: Martin Barlow, 21 April 2016, 10:10 (10:10 AM)
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