Surrounded by twenty warriors clad in medieval uniforms, I felt as if I’d stumbled into a kung-fu movie. Only this isn’t China, it’s Georgia (the other one). I’m about to get a hands-on lesson in Europe’s only martial art, providing I can keep my arms from being wrenched out of their sockets, and my hands from being twisted right off my wrists. I am wearing a heavy, scratchy 200-year old outfit, resurfaced along with other aspects of Georgian culture repressed under decades of Soviet rule. The warriors move closer. To learn how to punch a man, I must learn how to take a punch. I crouch low, breathe deep, and steady myself for the blow.
Men in the mountains of medieval Georgia practiced a fighting technique as effective and powerful as any Asian counterpart. They developed reputations as amongst the fiercest fighters in all Christendom, which is not surprising considering practice sessions would often result in broken bones. Now known as Khrilodi, the fighting style is being revived as Georgia re-establishes its traditions, with schools beginning to pop up around the country. Head butting the pieces together is Lasha Kobakhidze, and he’s invited me to an old Soviet gymnasium outside of Tbilisi to learn some moves. For starters, warm-ups involve acrobatic leaps, and punching each other hard enough in the face to hear the echo reverberate around the gym. It’s all about focus, strength, and positioning. One arm is tied behind my back, and I participate in a fight not unlike thumb wrestling, only the object is to rip the thumb out of the hand of your opponent, and break several vertebrae in the process. One of the students gets a little enthusiastic with me, slamming me to the floor. His punishment is to be placed in the middle of the group and have the crap kicked out of him. “Wow, that looks like fun,” I say under my breath. Pity the Turk, Persian or Arab invader of yesteryear. I can imagine what their bones sounded like cracking throughout the mountains.
The class progresses to the 4th century Narikala Fortress that overlooks the city. It’s an impressive setting to bring out the weapons that truly gave Georgian warriors their edge. Jagged knives, spikes, hooks, iron balls, axes, chains, arrows, and a terrifying sort of spiked knuckleduster. All were designed to mortally wound, and cause the maximum amount of carnage to intimidate the enemy. I am handed a small shield and a short sword, its edges rusted and sharp. Ducking and thrusting, each sword is basically tetanus on a stick. Two fighters step up in a ledge as the late afternoon sun battles to break through thick cloud. Demonstrating a fight at full speed, it is just as impressive as any fight scene in Lord of the Rings.
Despite my namesake, I sucked at the bow and arrow, so focused instead on the tabari, the largest and heaviest weapon. This axe could decapitate anyone who came within 5ft of its holder, and if I wasn’t careful, could slice my neck off too. The headline: “Travel Writer Decapitated in Freak Medieval Weapons Accident” does have a nice ring to it.
Khridoli is all but unknown outside Georgia, although I expect it could be a big hit in the world of mixed martial arts. As for the Georgian military, Soviet instructors have made way for American instructors, but Lasha is hopeful Khrilodi will once again become integral to Georgian defence. In the meantime, old uniforms are being sourced from the mountains, and new weapons are being sharpened. Georgian legend believes a famed local warrior defeated champion samurais in medieval Japan. Curled up in a ball at the wrong end of punches and kicks, it’s easy for me to understand why.
Facts About Georgia
Population: 4.7 million
Location: Surrounded by Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Black Sea.
Religion: 82% Orthodox Christian
Language: Georgian (script is called Mkhedruli and looks almost Asian)
Known for: Hospitality, food and wine traditions, August War with Russia, 2008
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.