(Continued from “GMT+2: Istanbul”)
After a 2-hour flight, I was finally reaching Tbilisi. Passport control officers and taxi drivers alike greeted our large delegation in English – and switched to Russian at the first look at yours truly. Is my Russian origin written on my face? Some would call me lucky, I guess.
The drive from the airport to Marriott Hotel took around half an hour. The area around Tbilisi airport reminded me of home – Riga – with its tall residential structures typically associated with Soviet architecture. One building with glass walls and a funky flowing shape stood out in that grey background. It turned out to be the police department, with glass walls meant to symbolise – you guessed it – transparency. Don’t ask.
The hotel receptionist addressed me in rather broken Russian. Georgians of my generation and older still remember the brilliant Russian they were taught in the olden days – the youngsters though tend to focus on English. Like everywhere else, I guess.
The time was approaching 7pm, and the minibuses were already waiting outside the hotel to take us to the restaurant for dinner. And what restaurant! Located in the historic part of Tbilisi near the Mtkvari River, Kopala specialises in traditional Georgian cuisine and offers glorious panoramic views over the city. The food – of truly unforgettable taste – was the first episode in the series of our 3-day long Georgian feast. Everything was simply presented and served in meze-size dishes. Flat lavash bread came with mixed tomato and cucumber salad, Georgian dumplings (khinkali), traditional sulguni cheese, mushrooms (soko kecze), mashed vegetable/walnut/spinach/beans pressed together (pxali nigvzit), lamb sausages wrapped in thin dough (qababi), bean stew in a pot (lobio qotanshi), Georgian sashlyk (mtsvadi), aubergines dashed with garlic (badrijani nivrit) and so on. Georgia was certainly not the country I would choose to lose weight!
With all my due respect to every item on the menu, there were two dishes I particularly appreciated. First, the khachapuri – the one and only khachapuri, a “Georgian pizza” as one of the locals popularly described. It is basically bread stuffed with cheese, with a resulting heavenly taste. After I loudly announced my utter agreement with the inclusion of khachapuri in the menu, a full (8-people-worth) serving appeared magically in front of me. I gathered I had to be careful expressing appreciation in Georgia! Pleasing the guests was taken very seriously there.
My second peak moment came with the appearance of the Tarhun drink. Those of you who have lived in the Soviet Union will remember the fizzy, sweet, bright green (children’s) drink so popular back in the days – and so forgotten in certain corners of that long-since extinct country. It had been almost twenty years since I had my last Tarhun. It was my moment. I must have consumed at least a litre straight. Georgia was ranking high in my books within barely a few hours.
As the sun approached the horizon, the beauty of central Tbilisi gained intensity. The changing sunset colours, mixed with the haze of a day’s heat, made a fantastic view.
Sunset Tbilisi II
Sunset Tbilisi III
Most of the city’s landmarks – the Metekhi Church, the Narikala Fortress and several bridges – were cleverly lit to stand out in the dark. I was not so sure about the TV tower, though. Sat atop the highest hill around Tbilisi, the tower looked rather modest during the day – but made quite a circus during the night. Lit in bright red, yellow, orange and blue (wait, it gets worse), it changed the pattern from blinking sparkles to white light rings spiralling upwards. The New Arbat in Moscow would have envied the amount of cheap neon involved! Much amused, we teased a French colleague that the comical structure was “better than the Eiffel Tower”. To be fair, he didn’t find it quite equally amusing.
Day 6: More Tbilisi
On Wednesday, the work meetings did not begin until 10am. My hands (or feet, rather) were itching to explore Tbilisi on my own. I got up at 6:30am and set off to the Eastern part of the city. Walking along the city’s principal street – Rustaveli Avenue – I first reached the Freedom Square, crowned by a rather bright golden-plated statue of a saint on horseback (which later turned out to be St. George – the patron saint of Georgia). I continued towards the Old Town, hoping to reach the famous statue symbolic to Tbilisi – that of a woman holding a goblet of wine and a sword – the “Kartlis Deda”, or “the Mother of Georgia”.
Freedom Square and St. George statue
The narrow streets were sprouting uphill, lined up by derelict-looking houses. Most looked like they were still inhabited. This striking poverty was most saddening. Life in Georgia could not be easy, and many people were surviving on very little indeed.
A house in the older part of Tbilisi
They don’t come here often
Uphill towards the Mother of Georgia
After asking an Orthodox priest for directions (and getting my Georgian-flavoured answer in Russian), I finally reached the Kartlis Deda. The views over the morning Tbilisi were most spectacular.
The Mother of Georgia
Panoramic Tbilisi in the morning
The road led left towards Narikala Fortress, which I unfortunately did not have time to see. I walked downhill, jumping over endless unpaved segments of the streets and coming across more decaying structures. Atop one of them sat an advert in Georgian – otherwise unremarkable, it featured women in Latvian national costumes. It did not take me long to figure out that “რიგა” meant “Riga”, and that the posters were promoting airbaltic – Latvian national airline. Indeed, airbaltic has neatly positioned itself as a decent carrier from Western Europe to the CIS countries. Who else would connect, say, London with the likes of Dushanbe or Tashkent? Hats off.
Peace Bridge over the Mtkvari River
It was time for me to run to that day’s meetings. Thankfully, they were anything but painful, and the working part of the day was over by 6pm. I even got to look around the Ministry of Energy of Georgia and meet the First Deputy Minister! I truly love my job.
At 6pm, I was desperately brushing my teeth and otherwise getting ready to go. Where? To see Dace, of course! My former course mate, she had gone a little wild in the past few years. First, she spent some time volunteering in the Balkans and working in places like Prishtina and Skopje. Then, just when I was about to accept the fact that I wasn’t the only Balkans-obsessed-Latvian in the world, Dace surprised the entire audience by – you guessed it – moving to Georgia. A few months later, she had changed her surname to a Georgian -shvili one. And a couple of months later still, she gave birth to a lovely little Georgian-Latvian boy. And that little treasure I was going to meet – at last.
Little blue-eyed Nugo turned out to be a most precious boy indeed. Dace had barely changed since we last met four years before. Her husband looked serious about having a family (why don’t I ever meet such guys in London?), and her mother-in-law was Heaven-sent. Where else in the world would a grandmother help young parents as much as in Georgia? Perhaps I’ll find out one day!
Unfortunately, I had to rush back to join my colleagues for yet another feast – this time, in restaurant Kolkheti some 10km outside Tbilisi. The food was again top quality. The only problem was that most of us had massively overeaten at both the previous night’s dinner and the lavish lunch. Eating in Georgia was not a light affair.
Day 7: Road trip to Paravani
On Thursday, I was rudely awakened by an exploding alarm. This time though, I had nothing in the sort of a walk in town before client meetings. Thursday was to be dedicated in full to site visits in the south-western part of the country near the Turkish border, mostly along the Paravani River.
We set off on our minibus. The highway led through Gori (the home town of Josef Stalin) and Borjomi (the town famous for its mineral springs and namesake bottled water brand) to a smaller road towards Akhaltskikhe. The surrounding countryside was modest, quiet and increasingly more mountainous the further we drove.
The concept of “the middle of nowhere” never seemed so clear
We finally reached the first major stopover of the journey – the Khertvisi fortress in the Meskheti region. The fortress sits at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Paravani rivers. Built in the 2nd century BC, it is one of the oldest fortresses in Georgia. And possibly the most renovated one.
Our group then continued visiting the admittedly non-touristy sites along the Paravani River. Georgia is a country well blessed with abundant rivers and the resulting hydroelectric power potential. One day, a new hydro power plant will stand right there, on the Paravani.
A local in Khertvisi
Paravani River valley
My foxy-looking new friend near Khertvisi
A bird view
After the work part of the trip was over, the majority of us voted in favour of combining the utility with pleasure and visiting the Cave City of Vardzia. Vardzia is a cave monastery dug into the side of the Erusheli mountain on the left bank of the Mtkvari River. It was founded by Queen Tamar as far back as 1185 and is maintained these days by only a handful of monks. Definitely not a site to miss.
We travelled towards Vardzia in almost unbearable, dusty heat. The road was in the process of becoming a major tourist route – but presently unconstrained by any kind of pavement. Up and down we jumped inside our minibus like potatoes, reacting promptly to every curve of the dirt road.
Vardzia was worth (almost) every bump though. It opened up to us, in all glory, glancing curiously with its many black openings, the ancient caves. As we came closer, we noticed some fellow enthusiasts camping by the river. Not sure how they were surviving in THAT heat and without decent food supplies around (a single stall nearby was selling a modest selection of ice-cream, beer and soda drinks).
Vardzia Cave City I
Vardzia Cave City II
Vardzia Cave City III
Vardzia Cave City IV
A kind of a “city” built in rock, Vardzia reminded me slightly of Petra in Jordan – and was referred to as a “poor man’s Cappadocia” by a tourist nearby. The cave city’s major drawback was its visitor unfriendliness. I slipped in one of Vardzia’s endless, steep tunnels and hit my arm on the wall. Watching the upper part of my elbow turning blue, I wished that the Georgian authorities would install some handrails and warning signs on the site, or something. For one of the country’s major historic heritage sites, Vardzia looked somewhat neglected.
By the end of our exploration, we were happy bunnies, though tired and visibly starved. For about an hour’s drive to the Romantica restaurant in Akhaltskikhe, our conversations mostly focused on food.
It was shortly before dark that we hit the road back to Tbilisi (view the full photo set for the road trip to Paravani). I was exhausted from a day’s worth of wandering around historic monuments and sites of future hydroelectric power plants alike. My last memories from that night were mostly of endless road signs emerging from and disappearing into the dark – “Yerevan”, “Baku” and “Tehran”, all blending together.
Around 11pm, we finally reached the hotel. Unbelievably, I still found the strength to have a drink with the colleagues (hot chocolate for me, emphatically) before going to sleep. But when I hit the bed, I did it for real.
Day 8: Last day in Georgia
On my last day in Georgia, I did not even have two hours in the morning for a final look around the city. This time, I headed west along the Rustaveli Avenue towards the Rose Revolution Square. Cars were zooming by noisily; local boys were diving into the fountain on the square, to vocal approval of elderly observers; beggars were silently stretching out hands. Tbilisi was waking up to a new day.
I walked past the Rustaveli Monument and the McDonalds at the corner, towards that famous TV Tower on top of the Bombora hill. I had no time to climb the hill, and wandered around the steep streets around it instead. Locals were selling fruit and vegetables out of old, crumbling houses. Despite the obvious poverty, the people did not seem hostile or depressed; my awkward foreigner’s behaviour and inability to halt the photographic activity at any time attracted quite a few smiles.
A morning scene in Tbilisi
Just off Rustaveli Avenue
My final stop that morning was the small souvenir bazaar stretched along the steps of a Stalin-style building opposite the McDonalds. One ceramic stall was presided over by a middle-aged woman who addressed me in Russian. We started talking; my new acquaintance had a degree in Economics from Moscow, spoke four languages but could only resort to selling souvenirs in the streets. She sounded deeply disappointed with life, loudly complaining that her husband would resist leaving Georgia. I was told there were hardly any jobs left, especially for older generations.
It was time to leave; the souvenir lady hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek (view my full photo set from Tbilisi). In a few hours, I was once again boarding a plane – this time to take me three time zones back, all the way to London. I was feeling like I had been away for months. Was I even in Italy in the beginning? Did our Istanbul visit really happen as recently as a couple of days ago? And did I finally manage to set my foot in the Caucasus? It had been one active week. I am extremely grateful for the unexpected (and at that even more amazing) travel experiences I had been given! Stay tuned for the recap of the next one.