The road from Kars to Tbilisi scoops you over the still-snowy mountains and drops you down in lush Georgian countryside. Minarets be gone; this is crucifix country and the abrupt change in religion is noticeable.
Unwittingly took the meandering route. Bus started on it’s way to Posof late and slowly skirted Lake Childir on the way towards the border. Just as well the landscape is so stunning as could have been deeply frustrating. Had anticipated that I would arrive in the capital mid-afternoon, which suited me cos the one thing I hate more than cold showers is arriving in a city at night with nowhere to stay. Ain’t no panic like ‘I’m going to have to sleep in the park’ panic.
The border crossing went swiftly and smoothly and didn’t cost a penny. Unfortunately, the bus then broke down. Pleasure-pain. Bonus side trip to Vale church and a glimpse of the Georgian countryside, but undesirable ahead of the bus change at Akhaltsikhe and fading daylight.
They say that the mushetka (minibus) from the border town to the capital takes 4 and a half hours. Our driver made it in three at warp-factor something and with only one side-skid across the gravel. Bravo! As I’ve learnt from car journeys with Ma Collacott at the wheel, there’s no point looking out the windscreen ‘silently shitting yourself’* (*quote: Big Len, April 2010). Far better to enjoy the scenery outside: cue a moseying river with castles and churches perched on each bend and outcrop and a warm fuzzy sunset.
Clawed some hours back but still hopped off the Metro in the middle of town under cover of darkness. Luckily the people I’d been on the bus with ripped a map of the centre out of their guidebook for me and had drawn directions to a recommended homestay on the back. Shacked up with Granny, Mum, Dad, daughter and three elderly cats, with bickering thrown in for authenticity.
Spent a few days cruising round, exploring the city and making friends with the locals. They’re not as accessible as the Turks and don’t respond to the dumb tourist act (except for the lady who tried and failed to move me into the bitch seat on the bus – no way, Jose) but they are helpful and friendly when you get them talking. And they like to drink. Almost regretted my boastful ‘I like neat vodka’ by the fifth shot of chacha, a potent local spirit which I, in my wisdom, teamed with local beer and wine. It also impedes sight-seeing capacity so I traded a trip to the apparently delightful Mtskheta (just try and say it. Good luck.) for lazy walk-about afternoons.
Lots of beautiful architecture, glamorous women and a modern buzz to the city. As always, I want to live here already.
The churches and art galleries are world class, the wine is ok (they’re trying to promote it after Russian banned imports and they lost $$millions in a year but this isn’t Bordeaux), the beer is cheap, the sulphur baths are smelly and the food is tasty. The flea market on the river is bonza for picking up Soviet-era trinkets, bank notes and posters too.
Kinkhali are the snack of choice – a bit like big dim sum dumpling filled with fresh mince meat, herbs and chillies. Committed the cardinal sin of cutting mine up instead of biting into it and sucking out the juice. Was quickly reprimanded and given a lesson in proper kinkhali etiquette.
Made a day trip to Gori in the Georgian countryside, which is famous not just for its cave dwellings and medieval castle, but also cos Joseph Stalin is its homeboy. It’s a beautiful little town on a river, with tree-line boulevards, elegant stone buildings and countryside/mountain vistas. Coming from such a place, he should have been a mellow fellow. Where did it go wrong, Stalin?
A museum has been established dedicated to the sin sin sinner which houses all manner of Stalin memorabilia, artworks, his train carriage and story of his life. It’s all in Georgian/Russian so gringos are given complimentary guided tours explaining his life and times. I know the locals must be pleased with Stalin’s relative achievements and ambition, but I’m not sure that you can legitimately gloss over the entire mass murder chapter. Some estimates reckon that 60 million were killed for political or criminal offences under his rule yet the girl coughed ‘800,000 shot’ under her breath and moved on to family snapshots. Most bizarre. Still, it is a good museum and you can see the mentalist’s childhood home, office furniture and favourite cigs.
Left Tbilisi with a heavy head to take the night train to Yerevan, the world’s slowest train. Think I could run faster. It takes 15 hours instead of the 7 that it takes by minibus but I’m buggered if I’m getting another night bus for a while. Not sure what’s up with Armenian agriculture, but two old crones in the next compartment were travelling with about 50 boxes of tomatoes and grapefruit. Peculiar.
Arrived at the border at about 11pm on my best behaviour for the guards and customs officials. They came through the carriages collecting passports and casting thorough glances at bags. Nice customs man asked me where I was from and what my profession was, which I answered very seriously. A few minutes later he came back to ‘see if it was ok to ask me a few more questions’. Yikes.
Kicking off with a bit of Georgian history, he told me how Churchill’s son-in-law was in the country a few years back working on the agriculture policy and had been given a special cow herd coat which is now in a museum in the UK somewhere. He thinks. Two of these coats were made and his grandfather was given the other. The question? If I knew of any museums that might like to purchase this second coat. So putting it out there people. I have a seller if you know any buyers.
Turned out to be a very nice bloke and invited me to the border post for coffee and a discussion of the finer points of Bach and Mozart’s work before we dawdled onwards into the night. Toasted farewell to Georgia with some home-brew wine and chacha that two fellow French travellers cracked out. In for a penny…