Friday 7 September 2012

Welcome to the Caucasus: Tbilisi

"What will be your final destination?" asked the old Ukrainian woman at the check-in desk at Gatwick. When I told her "Tbilisi" she repeated the word back to me with a tone of surprise, bordering on disbelief. After completing check-in, her parting words were, with genuine concern in her voice, "You be careful out there." Georgia has managed to garner a somewhat negative international reputation, especially in Russia and her allies. Hardly surprising, considering that the country currently has not one but two Russian-backed breakaway states within its internationally-recognized borders. The open warfare that erupted between Georgia and Russia as a result of this in 2008 is probably the only time in recent history (or ever) that Georgia has been prominent in international headlines. Add to this the fact that the nation's most famous son was Josef Stalin (né Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili) and you can understand why there's a bit of stigma attached to the place.

Some 13 hours on from those ominous words of advice, at 4.30am local time, I finally landed in Tbilisi. During the taxi ride to my hostel, despite my eyes being glued to the window, I could make out little of the city through the darkness. Was I in the heart of some wild, lawless land as had been suggested? The airport certainly hadn't made any such impression: it was much the same as any other in Eastern Europe.

It wasn't until the next morning that I could form any sort of impression of the place. Forcing myself not to sleep into the afternoon, I got up and was pleasantly surprised by a powerful, hot shower. Ready for the day, and armed with the worst city map that I'd ever seen, I set off to explore. I hoped to find the high street so that I could buy a SIM card, but the map was of no use whatsoever, so I ended up spending hours wandering around the Old Town. The Old Town was thoroughly charming and quite fascinating: almost no restoration work had been carried out, so the once-grand 18th and 19th century buildings were in various stages of decay and were still occupied by ordinary Georgians. The general state of disrepair did nothing but add to the character of the place. Scarcely a 20th century building was in sight, and one could absolutely get the feel of Tbilisi as a provincial outpost of the Russian Empire and an important trading town in the foothills of the Caucasus.

As I entered a small park and looked uncertainly at a statue in its centre, an elderly Georgian man started telling me in Russian about who it was of. He asked about where I was from and insisted I sit with him. I cautiously complied and general small talk ensued; I became sure that he was just a friendly old man and not about to con me or anything like that. He asked whether I had been to a sauna in Tbilisi, and when I told him that I hadn't, he told me that I should do, because there I could buy sex: "Georgian, Armenian, Azeri, Russian girls" he listed, as if reading me a menu. Taken aback, I politely declined. "Don't like girls?" he asked, surprised. I told him that I had a girlfriend and moved the conversation quickly onwards. After a bit more small talk, I made my exit, but as I walked away I really couldn't decide whether I had just been approached by a pimp or whether he was just a creepy old guy recommending one of his favourite pastimes.

After this strange episode and a great deal of wandering, I concluded that Kote Abkhazis Qucha was in fact Tbilisi's high street and, marvelling at the unprecedented lack of development or Westernization (most of the shops on that street just sell religious icons) I decided to grab some lunch. After sitting down and ordering a meat pie, a guy sitting alone at the next table asked me in English to join him. I was naturally apprehensive after my last impromptu conversation with a local, but thought it rude to decline. Definitely a good decision this time: this young Georgian man was simply keen to chat with me, to tell me about his country and to hear about mine. Rather than ending in any sort of seedy proposition, our conversation ended in my new friend insisting on paying for my meal and then personally showing me to a store where I could buy a SIM. So this is the famous Caucasian friendliness and hospitality!

When shown the actual high street, Shota Rustaveli, I realized how foolish I'd been to think that the Old Town was the whole extent of central Tbilisi: I was now walking along a very grand, very Western high street, complete with international chains such as Nike, Adidas and Mothercare (I know, Mothercare was a shock for me too). However, halfway along this street, wonderfully incongruously, I stumbled upon Georgia's answer to Montmartre: a section of the street where, sitting on stone steps, artists paint and sell their works (mostly idealized portrayals of Tbilisi's Old Town or quaint rural scenes). For me this exemplified the nature of Tbilisi: carefully balancing the old with the new, the traditional with the cutting-edge. At the moment the balance is healthy and pleasing to a visitor, but with half the city under construction and a rapidly increasing tourist industry, I can't help but wonder whether new money coming into Georgia will be detrimental to their capital's unique character.

It was when I saw McDonalds that I really realized that Tbilisi is not so distant
from Western commercialization 

On my second day in Tbilisi I climbed the stairs up the hill to the south of the city, eventually reaching the gargantuan statue of Mother Georgia that looks over her capital. From here I walked to the Nariqala Fortress and then the Botanical Gardens. The latter is a huge park on the egde of the Old Town, and is a must-see for any visitor to Tbilisi: after paying the 1 lari entry fee and tiptoing around all the digging and construction work going on near the entrance, I wiled away a whole afternoon in this place. I thought Hampstead Heath was good, but this park puts it to shame with dramatic clif faces and a waterfall. Inexpliquably, the park was virtually empty except for a few Georgians picknicking here and there, and one small wedding party taking photos in the gorgeous surroundings. Above all, this taste of nature had whet my apetite for the real Caucasian countryside.

So Tbilisi didn't confirm the negative stereotypes, and definitely didn't put me off the Caucasus region: so far, so good!
I have no idea why the Greek government would own this derelict building...

Botanical gardens

Waterfall in the botanical garden

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