VISIT TO THE GEORGIAN WUSHU FEDERATION SUMMER CAMP IN KOBULETI & INTERVIEW WITH FEDERATION PRESIDENT & TAOLU HEAD COACH GIORGI VERULIDZE, THEIR SANDA HEAD COACH LASHA SUMBULASHVILI & SOME JUNIOR NATIONAL TEAM MEMBERS
July 29, 2016 - Say Georgia to most Americans and they think of the lovely state next to South Carolina and Alabama. Well, this is other Georgia, the country which by the way is much older, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia on the east coast of the Black Sea, just south of Russia, northeast of Turkey, north of Armenia and northwest of Azerbaijan. Got that? For about 800 years Georgia was a major Silk Road transit location. It is part of the Caucasus nations between the Caspian and Black Seas and is home to the Caucasus Mountains. The Caucasus became a significant metallurgical and mining region in the second half of the 4th millennium BC at the start of the Bronze Age.
According to UNESCO information:
“The Caucasian route gained importance in the 6th century (AD) after confrontation between Byzantium and Iran started – it became unprofitable to deliver silk to Byzantium and other Mediterranean countries via Iran both from economic and security reasons. Under such conditions the issue of the alternative route became very urgent. Central Asian merchants that provided Byzantium with Chinese silk tried to explore new routes, namely the one going to the north from the Caspian Sea, crossed the Caucasus range (via Dariali gorge or other passes in the West Georgia) and proceeded to Byzantium via Georgia. It is known that the first caravan loaded with silk passed this route in 568.
”The new road was much more difficult than that via Iran, but from the political and military point of view occurred to be more favorable. Archeological excavations in the North Caucasus confirmed that in the late 6th century and the first half of the 7th century the significant part of the Chinese silk was delivered to Byzantium through Caucasus.
”The Caucasus branch of the Great Silk road was explored after the 7th century as well, even when Georgia was under Arab control. Lately, after the 14th century this branch of the Silk Roads lost its importance and the great caravan routes seized to traverse Caucasus.
According to a sign in the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi:
“Since time out of mind Georgians were well known as excellent warriors. This is universally proved by Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Turk, Persian and Armenian chroniclers. They have noticed numerous historical facts proving Georgian’s victory of outnumbering enemy. Georgia was crossed by numerous trade and military routs. It was like a buffer zone between Asian Muslim and European-Christian states. Therefore each tried to subjugate this country, placed in the heart of the Caucasus… Influenced by these circumstances Georgian art of war acquired various specific elements.”
After my interviews and tour in Azerbaijan I hopped the train back to Tbilisi Georgia, and from there took a bus to Kobuleti, an absolutely beautiful resort town on the Black Sea. At the bus station I was very kindly greeted by Georgian Wushu Federation President Giorgi Verulidze, one of his top coaches Lasha Sumbulashvili, and a translator named Baiya. From the bus stop we drove to their camp.
But before going on to that, a couple of travel notes. On the “midnight train to Georgia” (ha, ha) back from Azerbaijan I shared a compartment with a young Irish traveler and a Greek, Russian, Georgian “babushka,” (grandmother) who was charming and delightful but spoke no English. Fortunately the young Irish fellow knew some Russian and Georgian, so we also had a lively and interesting journey. Thus, traveling between these countries was quite entertaining.
Back to Kobuleti!
We got to the camp around 7:30 PM and this was the last evening of their two-week camp but fortunately I was in time for their last training session. I photographed the youth doing quite a variety of Taolu with a few of the older ones training in Sanda for about an hour before they stopped and I interviewed some of them. Most of them spoke English reasonably well, which is pretty good considering their ages ranged from around 11 to 18. In a few cases I was assisted with expert simultaneous translations by Anna Kiknadze.
Interview with Loka (Locas) Khotiashvili (Age 14) – “How long have you been doing Wushu, and why did you start?” I asked. “I started two years ago and wanted to do Wushu because I like Kung Fu Panda and Jackie Chan movies! That’s who I am, funny guy that likes Wushu!” He said all that in English by the way. “Do you think that Wushu training has changed you in any way?” “Wushu helped me understand China more, and also Shaolin life. I think it can help me become a champion like Bruce Lee; maybe I can become one of the legends of Kung Fu.” Having observed his Taolu earlier I can only say this young man is a “quick study,” and pretty funny too!
Mirian Tormannidze – “I’m 14 years old and started when I was 8 years old. I was at school and the Wushu team did a performance. They offered a scholarship and I started going to classes. I really liked it. So, I never stopped. “How many hours a week do you train?” I asked. “Nine, usually,” she responded. I found out during the interview that Mirian has entered nine Georgian national competitions, and won 9 gold medals. She entered three International competitions and won another three gold medals.
Valer Gobejushuili – He started Wushu training at age 5, and is now 18. In the beginning he did Taolu but these days mostly trains in Sanda. His favorite is Changquan. He’s a five time Georgian national gold medal winner. Next year he’ll be competing in Russia, and the next year the European Championships will be in Georgia where he’ll also compete.
Guram Pirtskhalava – At age 12 Guram has been practicing Wushu for five years. She specializes in Drunken style, but when asked said she “never tried alcohol.” This got a laugh from everybody. She’s taken first place in the Georgian Championships, 2nd and 3rd in the European Championships and 1st in the International Championships.
I also talked with their Sanda Head Coach, Lasha Sumbulashvili. He’s currently age 40 and began Wushu training at the age of 12 with the same Chinese coach as Federation President Giorgi Verulidze, a Master named Suan Jiao Shan, who was trained at Shaolin. Though he started his training in Taolu, in recent years he’s transitioned into Sanda. He is a veteran Tai Chi Taolu champion, e.g. a World Championship in Tai Chi in 2009 and silver in Bulgaria in 2015. When Georgia became independent in 1992, Lasha helped the Federation transition to its new form by working as a General Assistant. He’s married and has two children.
After that, Georgian Wushu Federation President Giorgi Verulidze, one of his daughters, Lasha, another translator named Anna and I went out for dinner. Before dinner I had time to briefly interview Giorgi Verulidze. Originally from a city called Kutaisi, third largest city and legislative capital of Georgia, Giorgi first saw Wushu in 1989 when he was a high school senior. I asked if at that time he ever imagined he’d ever one day become the President of Georgian Wushu Federation and he laughed and said, “No.”
Sanda Head Coach Lasha Sumbulashvili on left
Back in high school he was doing a lot of sports, which included three years of Karate, not coincidentally I think because many of the Wushu and Taekwondo masters in Central and West Asia started their martial arts training in Karate. He was 18 when he started formal Wushu training with the same master as Lasha, Shifu Suan Jiao Shan. Since then he trained at Songshan Shaolin and several other locations in China and has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of Wushu Taolu including many “sport and traditional style” Shaolin forms and Chen style Tai Chi forms. Asked to name some of his favorites he mentioned: Da Hong Quan, Baji Quan, Fan Xi Chuan, http://www.kungfumagazine.com/forum/showthread.php?63256-Shaolin-Mei-Hua-Dan-Dao" style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; outline: none; list-style: none; border: none; color: rgb(0, 82, 99);">Mei Hua Dao, and a lot of others that were too quick for me to write down. He holds a 5th Duan ranking. Judging by the medal count of his young team, his teaching style must be as masterful as his own Taolu skill. The first president of the Georgian Wushu Federation was Teimuraz Shervashidze in 1989 and Giorgi is now the 8th President starting in that position in 2014.
During our interview I found out there are currently 27 certified Wushu training centers around Georgia with some 625 participants, which might not seem like a lot, but the population of the entire nation of Georgia is less than 4.5 million, that is, about half the number of people living in New York City.
About this time dinner came and we were all quite hungry. After dinner we were all pretty tired as they’d been training hard non-stop for weeks, and I’d spent the previous night on a train, and all day on busses to Tbilisi from Azerbaijan, and then from Tbilisi to the Black Sea coast city of Kobuleti. For those who might like to visit, Kobuleti is quiet, beautiful and small resort town. For those who like a bigger sea side city and a little more action, Batumi is only an hour away, also on the Black Sea and has many forms of entertainment.
Before sleep I reflected on Georgia and its truly remarkable martial history. Before my trip to Azerbaijan I’d spent a week in Tbilisi, the capital city and a day at Georgia’s former capital city called Mtskheta poised at the merging of two great rivers, the Aragvi and the Mtkvan. Mtskheta rests peacefully below the ancient Jvari Church/fortress which seems to float in the sky above on a great hill. The ancient Svetitskoveli Cathedral (Cathedral of the Living Pillar) was built on the remains of a Zoroastrian temple and is a reminder to all that Georgia is an Eastern Orthodox Christian bastion poised between Muslim Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Cathedral was originally built in the year 337, has original frescos from the Byzantium era, and besides being a holy place of worship and pilgrimage site was also used for coronations and burials of the monarchs of Georgia. Mtskheta was a major Silk Road stop in its “day” which lasted about a thousand years from the fifth to the 15th Century.
Narikala fortress at night.
In Tbilisi I visited the gemstone Fortress Narikala, the geo-political-economic nexus point at the cross-roads of Europe and Asia. Originally built in the 4th Century it glows with a golden light at night high above this nation’s capital. The evening was warm, the moon almost full, there were lots of sweet smelling trees, bushes and grass after a light rain earlier, and the other people in the tour, some Russians, Koreans, Germans, and others were all very friendly. Inside one can see the St. Nicholas Church which was rebuilt in 1996-1997 owing to the original 13th Century church having been destroyed by fire. Persians built the foundation of this majestic and creatively designed fortress, while the walls were constructed sometime later when Arabs ruled the city. Naturally the Emirs palace was located inside the fortress which due to its location on a good sized hilltop has a splendid view of Tbilisi’s old town below.
After about an hour with the tour, I bid them farewell and walked back through the “party town” of Tbilisi to my hostel. And, a party town it is as people from all over the world come here for vacation, so it’s definitely got an exciting very active night life in addition to its’ fabulous history. While on the tour I got a few night photos of “Kartlis Deda,” the “Mother of Georgia,” a huge statue of a lady erected on top of the Sololaki hill in 1958 to celebrate Tbilisi’s 1,500th Anniversary. Looking up at her one can see that she’s smiling, and holding a cup (of wine) in her left hand to greet those who come as friends, and a swords in the right for those come with “other” intentions. With these thoughts in mind, I slept deeply with the sounds and smells of the sea only a hundred meters away there in Kobuleti.
Georgia Wushu Federation President Giorgi Verulidze - front center.
July 30, 2016 – I woke in the beach resort hotel around 6:30 am, ate an apple and went outside to swim with the mostly junior team. Around 7 we hit the beach and I dived in quite joyful to be back in the sea, and most notably a “new” sea I’d never swam in before. When we first stepped onto the beach Anna, the excellent translator from the night before mentioned that the black sand there was magnetized and this magnetic sand was good for joint problems like arthritis. She said people come from all over the world to get the curative benefits of the sand there.
CONTACTS — Georgian Wushu Federation
Around 8, I came in and we all walked back to the hotel, more specifically the communal cafeteria for breakfast. I had the opportunity to meet Giorgi’s wife (and personal assistant) and we had a scrumptious breakfast, much of which I couldn’t identify for sure, but there was something like really delicious cream of wheat porridge, hard boiled eggs, great “French” bread, sour cream, cottage cheese (the real thing, not from a store), with butter and yummy honey and of course, tea.
After breakfast we all took pictures and so on and pretty soon I had to go. Fortunately for me, Giorgi and his wife kindly drove me to the small bus station in Kobuliti, where I caught a minibus to Batumi. There, we parted, and I caught the bus to the Georgian side of the Turkish border crossing called Sarpi, before another short bus ride to the Turkish Immigration Station and naturally another entire spectrum of exciting new adventures!