Report from Tblisi, Georgia, distributed by email 23 November 1999
On the bus from Batumi on Tuesday I sat beside Manana, an English speaking lady going to Tbilisi to meet Levan, her seaman husband, (she has known him since grade school) who was flying in from Istanbul for a two week visit with her and their kids. Yesterday, Sunday, I had intended to spend the afternoon at the Prospero Bookstore sending and reading email, but she called and invited me to join them because they were returning to Batumi tomorrow.
Levan and Joseph met me in the lobby of the Ajara Hotel, where I stayed the first night; it was a place we both knew. They had tried to find me there before but I had checked out to move into a private flat. (another story).
Levan and Joseph are both very large men, and when they walked up to me in the lobby (I was expecting Manana) I thought they were either police or Mafia. If I had met them in the subway at night I would have been scared. However, Joseph turned out to be a large teddy bear, and before the evening had ended, he had bought me a picture, from an artist exhibiting on the street, of the bridge and river near where we ate dinner. And Levan was a gracious host. We were joined at the restaurant by Manana, her grade school friend Wanda, Joseph's wife, and her friend Marina, whom she met while studying near Moscow. Also another large man, Levan's cousin joined us.
The meal was very interesting with some type of sausage which you wrap in a kind of tortilla, and there was something else I can only describe as dumplings with meat in the center which you eat with your fingers. There was also an ample supply of beer and vodka.
After dinner we walked along the river then caught a mini bus back to Marina's house for dessert where I got to speak with her daughters, one in my limited Spanish and the other in almost perfect English.
It has been an exciting week, meeting people and figuring out how to survive in Tbilisi.
I met two twins, university students studying communications, who helped me find and rent a flat which was much cheaper than the cheapest hotel that I had found but did not like. So having a fine time...even if it is lonely and difficult at times. And Ellen will be pleased to know that I am not eating as much or as well as we ate in Turkey.
Contrary to all the stories and warning, I have found Georgia to be very safe and the people kinder and friendlier than most of the places I have been. Tbilisi has great potential to again become a fine place to visit.
Your wandering friend,
Message from Tblisi dated 24 November 1999
While I had been warned about the dangers of traveling in Georgia, I have found it to be very safe, and I now feel comfortable going anywhere in Tbilisi at any time of day or night. There are still areas on the northern and western border that may not be safe, but I don't plan on going to find out...only because I don't have the time.
Crossing the border was a breeze. While I had been warned that they would take me from table to table and ask for $5 for each stamp on a useless piece of paper until they felt they had taken enough, my experience was quite different. There was a charge of $2 or $3 (I can't remember) for which I got a receipt with an oval stamp on it. This was requested at the customs check and the final passport control station, where they kept it. There was no other request for funds, although at one point I heard someone standing outside but next to the passport booth say $5, but I said and did nothing, just kept my eye on the guy with my passport. He stamped it and gave it back to me and I went on.
The first taxi wanted $30, then lowered the request to $20 to take me Batumi. I kept saying I wanted a dolmus (a shared van, which they call mini-buses in Georgia) and they kept saying no. Then I went a little further and asked some more laid back taxi drivers. They wanted $10, lowered to $8. Finally they gave up and one of them took me across the way to a mini-bus which wanted $3. I think I finally paid $2 or less.
I have learned this is the way of the world...whether crossing borders, arriving at airports, or getting off of a long distance bus at a bus station. Now I just keep on walking and asking until I find the locals' transportation system.
The mini-bus transportation system I find remarkable. There are buses to everywhere. Once you know where to find them, the system works well. Within the city of Tbilisi there must be close to 400 different routes, judging from the numbers on the front of the vans. From any point in the city to any other point, there is probably a route. Seems like they know all the routes by heart. If I ask someone what mini-bus to take to get somewhere else, they just tell me the number and point to which side of the road. The difficult part is knowing where I want to go. The mini-buses stop at about 10 P.M.
The Metro is clean, fast and frequent from 6 am to midnight. While the embassy warns about the danger of being robbed on the metro, I have not seen or heard of any problems.
I generally carry little, have change available, watch my pockets, pay attention to those around me, pick those I want to be near, and try to make a friend sitting or standing near me.
While I saw lots of bicycles in Batumi, and missed mine, I have hardly seen a bike at all in Tbilisi. If I had mine I think I would have used it. The main arteries are generally level, very long and wide with often nothing parked along the side. The side roads are often steep and rough. Although the some of the drivers drive somewhat crazy, and the rules of the road seem a little loose. I have seen only a couple of accidents, one in town and the other on the open road.
Yesterday I took the metro to the last NW station where I caught a mini-bus to Mtcketa, the old capital of Georgia. It was a small town which I could cover well by foot. The walled church in the middle of the town was filled with activities. It was a national holiday: St. George's day. In one corner within a small room there was a series of weddings being performed. There was a stretch limo for one couple, a taxi for another, and a beat up wreck of a car for another. Some appeared in ordinary clothes and others in their best finery. In another corner baptisms were being given to changing groups of parents with their children. I walked to the edge of town and followed the river for a ways, visited another church with almost no activity, then climbed to a high point which was a graveyard overlooking the town, highways, rivers (two joined) and the main church. The area was surrounded by ragged steep mountains with lots of rock formations. On the ridge lines I could see other churches and fortifications overlooking the area. All in all a pleasant day, but I forgot the camera.
Food. I keep trying to figure out how to eat. I went into a restaurant and asked someone what they were eating and ordered the same. I thought it was beef, and it was some part of the cow, but I think it must have been heart. One of my daily treats is to have a fried bread each morning. It is a pastry like bread with cheese in the middle. Great when hot. I tried a fried chicken place. Well, what can you do to fried chicken? The french fries were huge, still had the skins, and were soft. Not bad, but the quantity was huge. The salad was cabbage and carrots. My landlord has cooked a couple of meals for me: some tasty baked beans, fine tomatoes, plenty of cabbage salad, and lots of white sheep cheese. I always try ordering chicken soup, and never know what I will get. Some quite tasty with seasonings I cannot identify.
Today, Marana and her Spanish-speaking daughter Eka took me up to the fort and old church above the old town overlooking the city. I now have bought a Georgian-English, English-Georgian dictionary. Sometimes communications are a little slow, but it was a fine day and I really appreciated their hospitality.
Well, someone else has been waiting to use the computer, and the Bookstore will close before long, so I will quit and let him use it.
Until next time.
Email from Ron, received 29 November 1999:
Today I left Georgia and returned to Turkey. After stopping in Hopa to pick up my copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Turkey which I left earlier, I came on to Trabzon by bus. Walking around the main square in the early evening, I was trying to decide if I should go ahead and take the bus to Erzincan and miss the view from the high pass since it will be night, or get a room and spend the night in Trabzon, which I have no desire to do. But then I saw this Internet Cafe and that settled the question, at least for an hour or two.
When I was in Costa Rica about 12 years ago my backpack was thrown out of the train as we were going through a tunnel and there were no lights in the train. Finding the Robber Brothers who lived on the other side of the mountain is another story...but the experience taught me how to travel light. All I had left was a small day pack with my book and glasses. Since then, I've started traveling with the Bike Friday, which means a large suitcase, helmet, bike clothes, spare tires, tubes, parts and tools. All in all, I went from very light to very heavy...but the bike gives me such wonderful mobility and freedom of independence and is a wonderful conversation starter to meet people.
Lugging the bikes around Turkey at times was not easy, but it was great to have them when we used them. In Georgia I saw few bikes and probably would not have used mine much if I had had it because of the distances, road conditions, weather and the ease of getting around with their transportation system.
So instead of taking a bike ride, I caught the bus north to Telavi for a day of sight seeing with just my waist pouch. The twins had given me a little book about the city including a map of the old section. The mini bus took one route there and a larger bus took a different route back. Looking at the snow covered high Caucasus mountains from Telavi and from the bus coming back made me want to explore more of the country to the north and east. But I guess it will have to wait for another time and trip, maybe when it will be safer. Manana and her brother-in-law George have convinced me that if I really want to know Russia I should visit in the winter. Now that is a challenge that will require some thought.
It is wonderful to get on and off buses with just the little day pack I bought in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Really down to basics and not the things I might need "if". Still a little room for some food. Arriving in a town I don't have to first find a place to stay in order to have a place to leave my stuff. I can just walk around, look and enjoy the sights, and when I discover a place I want to stay, it's just fine. Or I can just go somewhere else. So here I am in an Internet Cafe still wondering if I will stay here or catch a bus further. But I am also thinking how it might be nice to tour Russia with just a day pack. But in the winter?
The weather in Georgia was not good for biking: lots of rain, often cloudy, some days were bright and dry, and as we crested the mountain coming back west to the Black Sea it was snowing. The mountain peaks were beautiful. Batumi was quite different from my first visit when the weather was nice. Arriving slightly north of Batumi then taking the coast road south we came over a mountain just after sunset and I could see Batumi in the distance: the red glow of the sunset over the white capped mountains running to the sea, the lights from the ships off the coast and the lights of the port and the city, and all the snow covered valleys and hills. It must have been one of the most beautiful sights I have seen. Of course the bus won't stop and let me take a picture, so I tried one through the closed window.
When traveling in Mexico I decided I liked to stay in a town long enough to have someone to say good-bye to when I left. My last day in Tbilisi I spend some time saying good-bye to my neighbors and the two families I had gotten to know with the same names: Marina, Maka and Eka. Manana's friends were not home when I went by their home so I had to say good-by on the phone. But the twins were at home with their mother and father. I really believe I will see both families again one day. Then I caught a bus back to Batumi to say good-bye to Levani and Manana, spending the rainy and cold day in Lavani's family's home. His brother George, an anesthesiologist who could speak excellent English, spent a long time talking with me. We talked about Georgia politics, economics, their medical system and told stories. Manana's oldest son Otari also speaks English and stayed with us most of the day. He wants to study law. But then so does Manana's god-daughter Maka. I met both Manana's and Levani's mother and father, George's wife and daughter, Natalie and Mary, and Manana's other son Tornike. George's cousin came to America for exchange visits through Friendship Force, spending a week with a businessman's family in Pennsylvania then a week with a single parent family in Georgia. He said the experiences were quite different. I can imagine.
Never before in my travels have I met so many lawyers or those wanting to be lawyers. Maybe Maka and Baba will meet one day at the UVA Law School!
The Turkish keyboard is driving me nuts. The ý is where the i is supposed to be, except the capital I is in the right place. A capital i is Ý, and where the "," is, is an ö and for a "." I get a ç. When I try to put quotes around something I get é and then there is the ç Ç þ Þ ð Ð ü Ü and what ever else may turn up. They play hell with spell check. There is an Alt Gr key to get the @ sign off of the Q key and a bunch of other things on the number keys across the top (not the pad).
My feet are wet, I am wearing my long-johns, running out of reading matter and mentally I am heading home. From Erzincan I hope to catch a train to Istanbul. It will be long train ride, 34 hours, but a Dutch guy said it was a beautiful trip. I will let you know. But look for me...I am on my way and will be back soon. Looking forward to a hot chocolate, Pho [Vietnamese soup], a normal keyboard, wood heat and Ellen.
The non-bike back packer,
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