On June first we boarded a Turkish airlines flight for the short hop across Turkey to the city of Batumi. Batumi is in the SW corner of Georgia, only a few km from the border. [We can recommend Turkish Air. They fed us good food even on the little short hops. According to their press, they are the only European airline to get at least a four star rating in every category. -T.]
While waiting to clear passport control we met Rhys, a Canadian traveling around the area (a graduate student focused eastern european policy/politics). He had been to Georgia once before, and provided some very useful assistance those first few hours. He had a few lari and tetri in his pocket (local currency), and with his help we left the airport (which was totally closing down now that the flight had passed through- a lovely new and modern airport, just not much traffic) and caught a marshrutka into the city.
By the end of the trip we would be most familiar with marshrutkas- a minivan (Ford Transits were popular- German imports with the tradesmen sign-writing still on the sides) which has been modified to carry plenty of people and their luggage. You can fit 20 people, no problem.
[In Turkey, these are called dolmushes. There are local in-town marshrutkas that you can hop on and off anywhere along their route — just flag them down in the street — and inter-city ones that you usually catch at a depot. In small towns, the depot can just be one end of the town square, but Tbilisi has at least three, and Didube, the one we used most often, covered several acres. The larger ones will be lined with shops and stalls selling food, clothing, sunglasses, CDs, whatever, and there will be ladies who go from bus to bus selling snacks, ice creams, cheap kids’ toys and the like. Each marshrutka will have a sign in the front window that says where it’s going, but these are all in Georgian. Until we learned the alphabet, we’d copy the name of the place we wanted to go to out of the guide book and compare by eye — or else just show it to people until we were directed to the right one. -T.]
[Welcome to Georgia. Or in Georgian, “Sakartvelo”. Or in Russian, “Gruzia”. Or in Turkish, “Gurjistan”. The city of Batumi a couple of years ago put up a statue of… wait for it… Medea. Because she is “the person who brought Georgia closer to Europe.” Go figure.]
Batumi was a city under construction. It looked like they had torn up every street in the city center at once in an ambitious repaving project. Everything seemed chaotic and under construction. We eventually found the i-site, and got maps of the city. Between the gal in the iSite and the Loney Planet, we managed to find the office selling the train tickets — Stephen and Rhys had all of maybe ten minutes before they closed to find a working ATM to get the cash for the tickets.
[Batumi was frankly a bit of a shock, for me at least. It was hot and sticky, for a start, and that combined with hunger and the weight of the backpack (not that heavy really, but combined with the heat…) made me a bit grumpy. We’d left Stephen’s parents and the rest of our friends, and Hassan, who had been organizing everything for us and explaining everything, and now here we were in this uncomfortably hot place where there seemed to be no one around (and oh man, where are the toilets ?!) and we couldn’t read the signs or speak the language, and they couldn’t even pave the *streets* and there were closed shops and piles of rubble everywhere…. And the “pizza” I had for dinner was twelve shades of awful. I was seriously wondering what I’d gotten us into. Lest I frighten anyone off, Batumi did manage to redeem itself when we returned at the end of the trip. By then I’d gotten over any culture shock, and learned to tell the difference between “in ruins” and “under construction”. :^)
Tickets for the overnight train to Tbilisi safely purchased, we made our way back toward the waterfront — it really did seem like they’d ripped up every street in the city, and were re-paving sequentially, starting from the sea and working back into town from there. The waterfront itself is a pretty park, with promenades and musical fountains. -T.]
Stopping at a place for a drink we heard english- and thus met 3 sailors (Masters of Arms, force protection specialists) taking time away from their ship, the USS Grapple which was berthed at the smaller port city of Poti (about 90 minutes drive north), though they all took liberty in Batumi because it was a much better town for having some fun [and picking up some souvenirs -T.]. The Grapple was apparently the first USN ship to visit in 50+ years. [They had some great stories, and although we had only just arrived, we were the first English they’d heard spoken in months, so they were happy to run into us. –T.]
[After the break we looked up the word for “train station” in the little phrase book I’d brought, and managed to get on the right marshrutka. –T.] The train station was also bright and new, but the toilets were rather frightening already. We would see this problem, were they were trying to put in western-style bathrooms, but didn’t always manage to hook everything up properly or completely. [Okay, in *some* places they had what I would call “cargo cult” bathrooms. Like, they knew that they would attract more tourists if they had “Western” style toilets (the default toilets are the squat kind. I’d managed to get through all of Turkey without having to use a squat toilet) but they didn’t really understand much beyond that. So there would be a cafe or whatever with a brand new Western toilet that had no seat, and didn’t quite flush right. It was kind of charming, actually. The Batumi train station had regular squats, though. The station itself was new, and I don’t think the bathrooms had even been finished. So they were clean, but I don’t think they’d actually been hooked up to the water supply yet, and there were no doors on the stalls, and there was this big square hole in the wall that went right through to outside. There was no signage, so I basically waited until I saw a guy come out of one door, and then went in the other. For all I know, I was the first woman to use them, unfinished as they were, but others came in after I broke the trail, as it were. It was all very weird. –T.]
We managed to sleep a bit on the train trip, the three of us (Rhys still with us) shared a cabin. [Four to a room, fold-down bunks. There was a TV screen which fortunately didn’t try to turn itself on. There were pillows, but no linen or blankets, not that we needed them. –T.] No AC though, so it was a rather sweaty ride. The crew pounded on the doors at 5AM as we were getting close, as now stops were more frequent and people were getting off at the smaller cities and towns west of Tbilisi. We got into the city at 7AM. Mind the gap- a nice half-meter between the train and platform. Health and Safety regulations are for weak westerners.
[The cool morning air, and views of the countryside improved my mood somewhat. We passed a little church perched high on a hill over a river, and I correctly guessed that we were passing Mtskheta, the old capital, and getting that right made me feel better, too.
At first, Tbilisi didn’t look much more promising than Batumi — the train station was deserted and dark. I would have expected people to be selling things in or just outside the train station. Turns out that this was just because it was too early. Rhys navigates us to the Metro, which costs a whopping 40 tetri (about 30 NZ cents, or 20 US cents), and we go three stops to Freedom Square, where Saint George has the pedestal of honor. Outside the metro station on Rustaveli St. in Tbilisi there is a more or less permanent bookfair, and much of the street-selling actually takes place in the pedestrian underpasses. –T]
[The metro here is way way underground, like in Russia, with the same long, fast escalators-that-go-to-the-vanishing-point. Some Russian tourists we met told us the trains were the same, too — from the same factory, no doubt. –T.]
We found a hostel (again with help from Rhys), the Rover, and had a much appreciated shower and breakfast. [Rhys was a godsend, those first 24 hours. He got us from the Batumi airport to the Rover, and once we were there, we had Tamara on the day shift to help us get on our feet. Bless ’em both. –T.]
Our first day in Tbilisi (June second) thus started early, and much was not yet open. Unfortunately the main museum, which was only 2 blocks away, was still closed for renovations. The “opening in 2008” sign had already been modified twice, and I am not sure if it will open in 2010.
Tbilisi is a city of faded, sometimes shabby glory. Many of the buildings in the old part of the town date to the 19th century (I guess), and are unique with lots of decorative features and built with obvious skill and craftsmanship. But all is now covered in a century of grime and neglect. The good news is that many buildings are being cleaned and repaired, and the “neglect” of the last century means that they were not modified or torn down.
Like Batumi, Tbilisi had lots of construction going on. Lots of houses and buildings getting shiny new roofs; historic buildings getting renovated.
Walking around the old town waiting for the i-site to open gave us an opportunity to visit the Sioni Cathedral, [wherein is kept the cross that St. Nino, who converted Georgia to Christianity in the 4th Centry, made out of vines tied with her own hair –T] but we could not explore within too much as a service was going on at the time. We also saw a church with wide cracks running from top lintels down to the foundation. Masonry, age, neglect and earthquakes are a dangerous mix.
Georgia is a very religious country, much more so than Turkey. About 15% of the population crosses themselves whenever they come within sight of a church. And religious fervor is not just for the old, the age distribution seemed pretty even. [Well, there was a generation or two of Soviet anti-religious indoctrination, and then the backlash against it. It’s complicated. But yeah, much more overtly religiously observant. My bandana becomes a permanent accessory for the rest of the trip, in part because I can use it as a head scarf when we go into the many churches. Locals visiting churches will often been seen kissing the icons, and lighting skinny little votive candles — most of the big churches will sell you these, along with paternosters, medallions of the local saints, and plain enamel rings which I assume must have either the name of the church or the name of the saint written on them. Georgia is only just gearing up for tourism proper, but religious tourism and pilgrimages have clearly been a going concern for some time. –T.]
First visit of the day was the Museum of Fine Arts (no photos allowed! Drat! I wanted some from the corner of a painting that showed a camel wrestling a dragon.) The “treasury” required the presence of a guide. Fine, but the English-speaking guide was only available the next day. [The Fine Arts museum, badly in need of renovation, had a nice collection of 19th Islamic portraiture, a nice, almost modern exhibit of 19thC and modern embroidery (and a bit of metalwork), and a tiny Egyption collection, in a corner of what was almost the basement. I was a bit baffled — there was supposed to be some pretty cool stuff here, according to the Museum of Georgia website; Where was it all ? — until we went back to the bag check, and frustrated, I dug out the pocket Russian dictionary and pointed to the word for “enamel”. That’s when they explained about the treasury and the guided tour. Oh yes. So worth it. –T.]
In Georgia we were on our own, but one nice thing was that when tired, we could just rest in a park. No forced-marching about to keep to the tour schedule. The central city has many lovely parks, most with some bronze statues scattered about. [Shady parks with fountains, plus the ready availability of cold Coke and cheap ice cream. Hard to go wrong with that combination. –T.]
Lunch was our first experience with khatchapouri. Cheesy-bread products. Georgia has a bunch of regional varieties. Good, plentiful, cheap. [He left out “ubiquitous”. Khachapuri in Georgia is like fish & chips in London, or a hoagie in Philly. It’s the default “street” food. –T.]
In the afternoon we made our way to Prospero Books, which specializes in english-language books. Tam started the process of loading up on books you cannot easily (or cheaply) get elsewhere. Thankfully we had plenty of empty backpack space! [Thankfully, I have an understanding sweetie, since he’s going to end up schlepping a lot of this stuff around the country for me.
Also on the to-do list: get a sim card for the cell phone we brought. Tamara recommends Magti, but we end up with Geocell because it’s several blocks closer, and did we mention it’s really hot ? –T.]
We made dinner at the hostel from components both from a grocery store, and from the street vendors. Very many Georgians have small plots of family land, and try to supplement their meagre incomes by selling fruits and veggies. Good, cheap, fresh. Cherries were so cheap! [When they broke up the collective farms, I’ve read that every family got a couple of acres. Certain streets are lined with women (and some men) with tables full of whatever they’re growing — tomatoes, peppers, herbs, fruit. Some stuff like the bananas must have been imported. There were women selling home made cheeses out of the backs of their cars, and the flower market was the next block down. Behind the stalls are shops where you can buy packaged foods, dry goods, and stuff like milk or yogurt (or ice creams!) that need refrigeration. We did eventually find the big grocery store, but still did most of our shopping at the street stalls. –T.]
That evening we took a walk, and discovered a local pastime is to spend the evening on a park bench snogging your SO. PDA is fine in Tbilisi. (Depending how crowded the housing is, those park benches might have actually afforded more privacy for some couples than home.) This was a big change from Turkey, where the sexes stayed well separated in public.
[Also did some laundry. The washing gets hung out in the courtyard, on the same line as everyone elses’. There are several Georgian-Armenian (as opposed to Armenian-Armenian) families sharing the courtyard with the hostel — Tamara tells us they are happy to have the hostel there, because they’re interested to see and meet all the foreigners coming through. There’s a tap and concrete basin in the middle of the courtyard — the neighbors say it used to to be a livery, and they hose down the asphalt to cool the place down in the evenings (people did the same thing with the pebble mosaic floors of the courtyards in old Antalya), though as often as not the children take care of this by having water fights. –T.]
The morning of the 3rd our alarm woke us from a sound sleep. The room was windowless, and nice and cool [meter-thick walls will do that –T.], and very dark. We had a quick breakfast, then began the climb up to the ruins of the old castle. It was already starting to heat up. The castle had been partly restored after a 1827 ammunition-dump explosion which destroyed it. It was not an OSH approved site! Lots of crumbling walls and towers, and you could go anywhere you wanted. Two young schoolboys passing through tried to warn us of one particularly dangerous section. [The castle, Narikala, was impressively perched up on its knife-edge ridge. Hard to imagine it as a *palace*, though the chronicles all insist it was. Met a blacksmith who’d moved into a weed-choked little yard down a truly frightening wooden ladder/stair. Along with his forge, he showed us a piece of raw wootz steel, and an old Persian dagger. I think he was planning to try and copy the antique using the lump of steel, but our Russian alas was not up to the task. The schoolboys so concerned that the dumb toursts not get killed by falling bits of castle were very sweet. –T.]
Lunch was procured form a local bakery. I have no idea what it all was (no shared language), but we pointed at various filled bread products. They were provided. We ate and enjoyed. [This was a pattern we successfully repeated several times: rock up to some food-providing establishment, point at likely-looking foodstuffs, hand over what was inevitably too much money (everyone seemed to be quite scrupulous about giving us the proper change), and enjoy the heck out of whatever we’d ended up with. This first time, I admit I cheated: I spotted a little girl walking away enjoying the thing she’d just gotten very much, so I picked the thing she’d had. Turned out to have some kind of apple mush inside. *Really* good.
Back at the Rover, I switched to sandals, because the new soles that I paid NZ$100 to have put on my hiking boots were peeling off. Grrr. Fortunately, shoe repair places anywhere in the world advertise themselves with little pictures of shoes, and we’d seen just such a one in the rows of shops behind the veggie market. It’s pretty easy for us to communicate to the shoemaker what’s required, too. He takes my boots and tells us to come back tomorrow. –T.]
The afternoon was a guided tour of the treasury, and it was a big “win” for Tam. It was full of artifacts she had seen and read about it books for years.
It was easy to see the “golden age” of local art, and how the quality of art dropped sharply after the Mongol conquests, and never fully recovered. Our guide was suffering from horrible allergies, and spent the first half of the tour sneezing a lot. She also provided us with a short rant about the current political climate, the low salaries of government workers (she only makes 250 Lari a month- about 200 NZ$- hard to live on that in Tbilisi), the very low old-age pensions, and the severe age-discrimination in the workplace against anyone over 40. She was very cynical about local politicians, and had nothing good to say about all the people in the city driving brand new Mercedes and Hummers. [She was understandably bitter that she was living on peanuts while all the money went into pretty parks and fountains and statuary to impress the tourists. I felt a little guilty for being one of those tourists, but we *do* like the parks, and we *did* come and contribute to the local economy… She’s also very supportive of the Gerogian efforts to join NATO, hopeful that that would put more pressure on the government to raise the minimum living standards, pensions, schools, etc. –T/]
In the late afternoon we found our way to the Folk Music museum- it was a challenge to find in the middle of a construction site. [It was off the same bit of road that we’d taken to get up the castle that morning — except that they’d finished repaving that road, and torn up a different bit. –T.] While the museum was small, they had an english-speaking guide, [and air conditionaing –T.] and played a DVD for us which provided example music from all the traditional instruments. Georgian instrumental and choral music is soft and subtle. The polyphonic vocals were commonly sung by village folk while working, a 3-voice improvisational style.
Apparently local music is again becoming popular among the young generation, along with the rise of nationalism. But the Georgian music system is very different, and kids raised on western pop-music phonic scales can have lots of problems with traditional musics, and need retraining.
We ended up spending a quiet evening in the Hostel talking with Tamara, the woman who works the day shift. She has excellent english (worked in London for 3 years), and actually returned from England to work at the hostel as a favor to a family friend. They wanted english speaking staff to try and pull in the tourists.