From Bishkek to Tbilisi

From November 2016 to April 2017 I was working in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as an English teacher. This was my second experience of living in a post-Soviet country as I had spent the third year of my Undergraduate degree studying in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Suffice to say that the contrast between Russia’s ‘window to the West’ and Bishkek, a city nestled in the foothills of the Tian-Shan mountain range, predominated by old, crumbling Soviet buildings, was quite striking.

However, what Bishkek lacked in aesthetics it more than made up for in other ways. Being so close the mountains gave you easy access to skiing in the winter and trekking in the summer. Kyrgyzstan has the fourth-highest average elevation in the world (2750m above sea level) and 90% of the country is located at over 1500m. I don’t think I ever could have gotten bored of walking out of my door in the morning to be faced by an endless range of snow-capped peaks. If mountains are your thing, there are few better places to go! Kyrgyz culture, too, was like nothing I’d seen before. Historically, the people inhabiting modern day Kyrgyzstan were nomadic and a significant portion of the population continue to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle. For this reason, once you leave the hustle and bustle of the capital, you see hillsides scattered with yurt camps and men on horseback herding their livestock. No drive in Kyrgyzstan is complete without getting stuck in a crowd of goats and sheep, winding their way through the mountains towards greener pastures.

A yurt camp in Osh Region
A view of the mountains to the south of Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan was also an ideal base from which to explore the rest of Central Asia, so I was able to explore the other fascinating countries of the region: Kazakhstan, with its never-ending steppe and bizzare capital, Astana, that seems to have been designed by someone who reads too many dystopian sci-fi novels;  Uzbekistan, pocketed with ancient silk road cities characterized by their old, blue-domed mausoleums and madrases; and Tajikistan, as naturally astounding as Kyrgyzstan and home to the Pamir highway, an incredible road that snakes it way through one of the world’s great mountain ranges. Sadly, Turkmenistan remains on my ‘to-do’ list due to its highly restrictive visa regime. For such a relatively unvisited region of the world, Central Asia has so much to offer to the more adventurous traveler. Each country has something special, but Kyrgyzstan holds a special place in my heart after spending half a year there. After such a positive experience of living, working and travelling abroad, the bar was set quite high for whatever came next.

A Tajik family sat for tea in the Jizeu Valley
A blue-domed mausoleum near Termez, Uzbekistan

So, now I find myself in Georgia. On paper, these two countries share certain similarities. The geographies of both countries are mountainous, both are relatively small , both used to be part of the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian empire. Kyrgyzstan and Georgia have also both suffered from tumultuous political situations in their post-Soviet years. Both countries experienced coloured revolutions (Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in 2005), both have overthrown two of their previous presidents, and the most recent former presidents of both countries currently live in exile and are wanted on criminal charges in their home countries.

The capital cities of these countries, however, are worlds apart. Whilst you can still find plenty of typically bleak looking Soviet apartment blocks in the outer districts of Tbilisi, wandering around the centre you almost feel like you are in a Mediterranean city. The Old Town has sprawling, cobbled streets lined with small brick houses sporting wooden balconies. Unfortunately, as is typical of any beautiful European city, the area can be spoiled by massive throngs of tourists. Nonetheless, the architectural beauty of the area is undeniable. The city is also incredibly busy, walking through the centre at rush hour you can be overwhelmed by the noise and amount of people on the streets. Bishkek, however, had always been a relatively quiet city, even on its main road. Another striking difference is that whilst Bishkek had plenty of bars and cafes, Tbilisi is home to the kinds of trendy (and sometimes pretentious) places that would feel perfectly at home in one of London’s most hipster areas. One evening I found myself at a photography festival in a converted Soviet sewing factory, the inside of which was filled with various bars offering various elaborate cocktails and shops selling everything from skateboards and spray paint to handmade ceramics and vintage posters. I almost forgot that I was actually 2600 miles from Dalston! Tbilisi is also home to Bassiani, a club that is hailed by some as ‘the new Berghain’. Located in the Dinamo Stadium, it uses a disused swimming pool as its main dance floor. Last night I went to an affiliated venue underneath the Stadium to see Nicolas Jaar! Somehow, I can’t imagine that Bishkek is going to be on his tour schedule anytime soon.

A cable car passing over the Old Town
The Mother of Georgia standing over the Old Town

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the greatest advantages that Georgia has over Kyrgyzstan in my eyes is the food. As a vegetarian, I often struggled when travelling around Kyrgyzstan. Due to Kyrgyz culture being nomadic, their cuisine is particularly meat-heavy. Some of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous national dishes include Beshbarmak, a dish of boiled meat (either mutton or horse) served in a broth with noodles and onion, and Chuchuk, a hose-meat sausage. Travelling around rural areas often meant having to subsist on a diet of potatoes, cabbage and fried eggs, which got quite wearisome after a while. Another one of Kyrgyzstan’s culinary delights was Kumis – fermented mare’s milk, the taste of which I would liken to an acidic blend of yoghurt and salt. However, the Kyrgyz will down bowlfuls of the stuff one after another, particularly in the Summer when the quality of the grass the horses graze on is at its best. The Kyrgyz also attest to it having an improbably long list of health benefits! In Georgia, however, there are far more things that suit my pallet. The most famous of these is probably Khachapuri, a dish of cheese-filled bread which comes in a surprisingly wide variety of forms. A favourite dish of mine, which I actually first tried at a Georgian restaurant in Bishkek, is Ajapsandali, a mixture of fried aubergine, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and spices. Instead of slightly alcoholic horse-milk, Georgia has a rich wine culture and is one of the countries with the longest histories of wine making.

A mural on the outside of one of the Old Town’s popular bars

It’s impossible at this point for me to give a comprehensive comparison of these two beautiful countries, especially considering I’ve only been in Georgia for two weeks and haven’t had the chance to see much outside of Tbilisi. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice all these similarities and differences having left Kyrgyzstan so recently. Ultimately, I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about this country. Keep an eye on this space to see what the next three months have in store!

Travel stories: from Kazbegi and David Gareja to Chiatura and Armenia

During the past two months, I have luckily managed to see quite a lot of the beautiful country that is Georgia. I am really impressed by the natural variety it disposes – as you will see snowy mountains, lavish valleys, and arid semi-deserts within a scope of only a few travel hours. That being said, the nature is of an outstanding beauty, and will probably accumulatively lead to more tourists arriving in Georgia every year. In winter, however, one has to be aware of the more difficult conditions that roads might impose. Being flexible is key. As I concluded with some friends, going on weekend trips in Georgia in winter means most of the time ‘hiking through the snow, climbing up slippery stairs, overcoming dangerous cliffs and risking your life’. When you make it to your viewpoint, however, you immediately forget all your struggles, as Georgian nature never disappoints.

Ananuri Complex
The Caucasus viewpoints in Gudauri

The Georgian Military Highway

One of the first trips I made, in the beginning of February, was the Georgian Military Highway up to Stepantsminda (better known as Kazbegi). The road runs from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia, Russia), and is often described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world. The first stop brought us to beautiful Ananuri, a scenic castle complex some 65 kilometres north of Tbilisi. From 13th until 18th century, it was the seat of the eristavis of Aragvi, a local feudal dynasty. The fortified castle that can be discovered nowadays dates from the 17th century. After Ananuri, one follows the road that leads to Gudauri, a ski resort on the southern plateau of the Greater Caucasus. Although we did not have time to ski, we could enjoy the amazing viewpoints, as Gudauri is entirely located above tree-level (at an elevation of 2.200m). After many steep and rough sections, we arrived at Stepantsminda, at only 22 kilometres from Vladikavkaz, from where the mighty 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church can be seen on an elevated hilltop. Normally, one can either climb up a steep path or reach the church by car, but this path was completely covered with a thick icy layer, and locals secured us that without professional hiking gear we would not be successful. Being flexible was a must again. Kazbegi remains on the list and has to be revisited in another season.

Kazbegi

The arid Georgian south at David Gareja

In the beginning of February, with some friends I attempted a visit to the monastery complex of David Gareja, in the deep south of Kakheti. This mysterious complex was founded in the 6th century, when an Assyrian monk arrived in the region, and is known for cells, churches, living spaces and chapels that have been carved or hollowed out from the rocky surface. When arriving at Udabno, the last village before the dirt track leading to David Gareja, we were once again confronted with Georgian winter. The dirt track was blocked by metres of snow. We visited Bodbe and Signagi, the showpiece of former President Saakashvili, instead. A few weeks ago, another attempt proved more successful. One has to be very determined and willing to go all the way to David Gareja. The conditions of the road transformed a 70km-drive in 3 hours travelling. When we finally arrived, a steep hike up provided us with breath-taking panoramic views with the Georgian Greater Caucasus up north, and the arid Azerbaijani landscape in southern direction. The arid semi-desert landscape around the complex is fairly different from the rest of Georgia and provides unique vegetation and colours. The complex is actually squatted along the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, a part of it officially located in Azerbaijan. This has generated some border tensions since both countries obtained independence in 1991. The Georgian stance explains David Gareja as intrinsically Georgian and as part of its historical heritage, while Azerbaijan states the complex has Caucasian Albanian origins, and therefore belongs to Azerbaijan.

The road to David Gareja on our first attempt.
David Gareja

Chiatura: a Soviet relic

When Georgia regained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had obtained a legacy of Soviet relics. While those might generally be portrayed through the typical communist flats that one finds in suburbs, such as is the case in Tbilisi, the town of Chiatura tells another story. In the heart of Imereti, Chiatura was a bustling manganese-mining town. During the 1950s and 60s, this provided employment to the people of the region, making it a prosperous industrial town. The mining-labour character of the town made it always stood out, as had been proven during the Russian Revolution, when it became the only Bolshevik-stronghold in Georgia. Stalin was offered shelter in Chiatura and became a hero for the mining workers, who dubbed him ‘sergeant major Koba’. In the 50s, Stalin instructed the development of an ingenious cable car-system. As Chiatura is located within a deep gorge, this seemed the only feasible way to connect the different parts of the town and to get the workers to the mine as fast as possible. In 1954, the first ones where opened, providing a true modern masterpiece during the time. Nowadays, Chiatura provides a gloomy overview. Nothing seems to have changed. Some rusty and coloured cable cars are still functioning, while others hang motionless. Flats and factories look abandoned, although they might sometimes still be functioning. A true adventure awaits us. While we hear a lot of squeaky noises, and have to jump over an abyss when getting out, we had a unique experience in a town that was once ahead of its time. Nowadays, many flats remain empty and are basically valueless, as inhabitants have left for Tbilisi, Kutaisi, or other cities.

Chiatura and its cablecar system

The long Hayastan weekend

Ever since I came to Tbilisi, visiting Armenia was high on my list. Its closeness and easy border procedures made me think it would be a waste to not cross into Hayastan, as Armenians call their country themselves. However, other than Tbilisi, most parts of Armenia have a very extreme climate, with cold winters and hot, dry summers. For weeks I was checking the weather in Yerevan, just to see that another weekend with temperatures plummeting to as much as -25 °C was to be expected. Thus, I had to be patient. Last weekend, spring finally seemed to have arrived in Armenia and together with my Kazakh friends, we decided to grab our chance. As we heard good stories about hitchhiking (something I would have never tried in Western Europe), we were keen to at least try this. Although our luck was variable, we managed to reach Yerevan safe and sound with a stop at the beautiful Lake Sevan along the way. Safe and sound, that is. While our Armenian taxi driver assured us the road at the Sadakhlo-Bagratashen border crossing leading through Noyemberyan, Dilijan, Sevan, to Yerevan, was safe enough during daytime, we later found out this certainly is not always the case. The road scrapes along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border for a couple of kilometres, and abandoned houses and churches with bullet holes can be witnessed.

Sevanavank and frozen Lake Sevan

Arriving in Sevan, we witnessed a completely frozen lake. According to locals, this was a unique event that had occurred for the first time in twenty years. We arrived in Yerevan after sunset and could immediately enjoy the great view on the city we had from our apartment. Yerevan cannot be compared to Tbilisi in a lot of perspectives. Where Tbilisi boasts an old city centre, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and clubbing culture, Yerevan seems a rather conservative and impromptu capital. It possesses over lavish avenues, an impressive Republic Square, fancy shops, and great restaurants with great hospitability and tasty Armenian food, but at the same time a real core seems to be absent. As Yerevan only started to gain independence after Armenia rose as an independent state for the first time in 1918, most buildings are either in Soviet or post-Soviet style. The several monuments and references that refer to Armenia’s very troubled past seem to actually hold the country back in this past. An understandable sense of sadness, combined with boundless militancy seems never far away. However, this clingy nostalgia often feels like impeding Yerevan from truly becoming a 21st-century capital, regardless of how many new skyscrapers may be built. The feeling of loss becomes ultimate in Khor Virap, an ancient Armenian monastery complex close to the Turkish border. Its opponent on the Turkish side is the mighty Ararat, the long-lost Armenian symbol. Everywhere you go in Armenia, the Ararat is present. It is an intangible religious, cultural and heroic symbol for the Armenians, but which now finds itself located within the boundaries of another state. Armenia, being one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world, is definitely a very interesting place to visit, and stirs many different, often opposed, sentiments and emotions.

Yerevan concrete
Khor Virap and Mount Ararat in the background

Tbilisi wanderings

Every time I went on trips and came back to Tbilisi, it felt as coming home. It’s a strange feeling how fast this city seems to have accepted me and made me feel comfortable. In a relatively short time, I managed to make a lot of new great friends, interesting contacts, and see a lot of this bubbling city. In many senses, Tbilisi is one of the new places to be! Rarely I have seen a city developing so fast, becoming so vibrant, and inspiring. It boasts over great history, a well-maintained old centre, chic modern neighbourhoods, many cultural events, and an exciting nightlife. It is the exact opposite of what people might expect when they think of Tbilisi as a former Soviet outlet in the Caucasus. Tbilisi is special. It unifies many cultures, and it is becoming more cosmopolitan every day. When I complained to my colleague Ana about the lack of bookshops in the city, she wanted to prove me wrong and took me on a ‘bookshop tour’. And although those places might not always be on the most central locations, they indeed exist and possess over a variety of books in Georgian, Russian and English. You just have to know where they are located and what they are specialised in. As copyright laws are not so strict here, Ana also taught me how to differentiate real editions from fake books. Even in Georgia, 8GEL for Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel seems to be too good to be true. While sadly very little of Georgian literature has been translated, it is definitely worth trying to find something. Shota Rustaveli’s ვეფხისტყაოსანი (The Knight in the Panther’s Skin), a national epic poem, is probably Georgia’s most famous work.

Tbilisi book hunting

Tbilisi’s ‘Italian’ Courtyards

When wandering around the older neighbourhoods of Tbilisi, one easily stumbles on hidden corners. These mysterious passages often lead to leafy and wooden-rich courtyards. The origin of these architectural gems can be found, once again, at the crossroads of cultures that is Georgia. When the country in the 19th century became part of the Russian Empire, imperial neighbourhoods with neo-classicist and cosmopolitan arose next to the older quarters. Sololaki, south of Liberty Square and bordering Mount Mtatsminda, might be the clearest example of this style. These facades often came with the trendy in style French balconies, ready to house Tbilisi’s bourgeoisie. Yet, these did not accord with the wishes and traditions of most Georgians. This is when Georgia found itself at a junction of crossroads again. These ‘modern European’ facades were clearly made to impress and aligned with the streetscape of other cities within the empire, while the courtyards were to meet with the colloquial and informal lifestyle of the Georgians.

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Those courtyards were (and are) typically a gathering of wooden structures around a small plaza, sometimes just portrayed in a small tangle of alleys, but in other cases with a leafy retreat, accompanied by a small garden or a fountain. This ‘traditional’ Georgian housing structure, replaced by modern European facades on the front side, is primarily influenced by the Persian caravanserais, with the developed need of interaction, negotiation, and spending time together. While caravanserais almost always were square shaped, this is not the case for the Georgian backyards. As stated, they might carry out some unpredictable pattern, more looking like a vector of small alleys, with overhanging bridges, arches, staircases, exterior galleries, and other wooden, glazed and stony structures. It provided Tbilisi with a certain tolerance, from a static and luxurious outside, to more relaxed, informal, and intimate inside, at the same time creating a unique atmosphere. The facades on the streets were rivalling with the architecture in other big European cities, while the backyards provided an intrinsic oriental character.

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During the Soviet times, the Georgians were eating up the romantic Italian movies that seeped into their live-worlds. The movies provided an idea of Mediterranean European life, complete with the informal Italian lifestyle of balconies, courtyards, and open-air retreats. It was in that period that Georgians began to name their courtyards ‘Italian’, as they recognised their own way of living and culture with the one portrayed in those Italian movies. Perhaps, it could also be a way of clinging on to something intrinsically European, despite the fact the structures itself are more Persian than anything. In today’s modern times, those courtyards first and fore mostly perform a symbolical function of the past. While they may still provide a place for interaction, they do not always match well the current fast life on Tbilisi’s big avenues, including the infamous traffic congestions. Some may be found in an ever-more decaying state, waiting to collapse or to make a place for modern structures. Tbilisi would definitely lose one of its unique faces if the courtyards disappear, as they form part of its unique cultural heritage.

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(Special thanks to Edisher Baghaturia)

Cultural caravanserai vs. linguistic uniqueness

My first weeks in Georgia have been a blast, so it’s definitely time to share some thoughts about this unique country. Starting with its capital, Tbilisi, one can feel an atmosphere that radiates cultural, social and architectural versatility. Within Edward Said’s framework of orientalism, such a place could easily be dubbed as a space ‘Where East meets West’ (and vice versa). While this indeed covers the idea of Tbilisi finding itself at a geographic, cultural and political crossroads, it fails to explain the blending which has taken place in Georgia’s capital throughout centuries. The Caucasus region, Georgia not being an exception, has always been a plaything for bigger regional powers. In fact, the Georgian national identity heavily relies on its heydays in the so-called Georgian Golden Age (between the 11th and 13th century), as it never regained independence ever after until 1991.

The predominance of Turkic tribes, Persians, Ottomans and Russians, however, has left its traces, and could be pictured as a cultural, political and economic melting pot, which in this region has often been embodied in a caravanserai (etymologically originating from the Persian kārwānsarā, and in Arabic often translated as fanduk). A caravanserai back in the day was an inn where travellers could rest, but primarily share information and negotiate with one another. They were primarily located along the Silk Road and other trade routes in Asia, Northern Africa and South-eastern Europe. ‘Tiflis’ found itself at a junction between the different regions and roads, and thus possessed over a bunch of caravanserais. One of the largest ქარვასლა (/karvasla/, in Georgian) of the city can be found in the Sioni Street and now hosts the Tbilisi History Museum.

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Tbilisi has steep hills, and reaching different neighbourhoods can be a hefty climb, as is the case here in Avlabari (‘Havlabar’ in Armenian), which was already mentioned in chronicles from the 11th-13th century and could for a long time be seen as the Armenian nucleus of the city.

The Kartvelian perseverance

Although the Georgian equivalent of caravanserai, as can be noted above, is borrowed from Persian, the Georgian language (ქართული, /Kartuli/) is less of a blend when comparing it to Georgia’s history and culture. Georgian belongs to the Kartvelian languages, unique to the Southern Caucasus. In fact, they are not related to any other language group and are only spoken by roughly 5 million speakers worldwide (Georgia itself has around 3.7 million inhabitants, of which 85% are ethnic Georgians). The modern Georgian script, called Mkhedruli, is the used writing system for all four Kartvelian languages (Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian and Laz). While the script is unique in its appearance, and its origins are not known, some sources state Greek might have influenced it, as the alphabetical order in both scripts is similar. There is a fairly overall consensus about the Georgian script emerging out of a trend in Eastern Europe and the Near East to create an own script during the process of Christianization. In the Southern Caucasus, this led to the creation of the Georgian, Armenian, and Caucasian Albanian alphabets. Caucasian Albania was the territory comprising most of modern-day Azerbaijan and Russian Dagestan before their conversion to Islam under Persian rule.

Going back to the uniqueness of the Kartvelian languages and their perseverance, it’s noteworthy that Georgian national identity is heavily rooted within this language family, and the root –kartv– is used to denote all things ‘Georgian’, such derivations being /Sakartvelo/ (Georgia, საქართველო), the previously mentioned /Kartuli/ (the Georgian language), and /Kartveli/ (a Georgian person, ქართველი). While Georgians themselves firmly hold on to this Kartvelian character, it is interesting noting that their geographical denomination in other languages has no Kartvelian origin. The word ‘Georgia’ seems to originate from the Indo-European Persian gurğān (‘wolf’), indicating Georgia as Gorgan (‘land of the wolves’), which was later adopted by most other Indo-European languages.

Georgian, furthermore, has seven noun cases, which is rather modest comparing to other Caucasian languages, such as the Dagestani Lak, which has 56. Culturally being a blend, the Caucasus can also linguistically be seen as a rich region, hosting six language families. In Georgia itself, it is noteworthy that besides the Kartvelian languages, Abkhazian (a Pontic language) and Ossetian (an Indo-European Iranian language) are spoken in their respective disputed territories in the north, and one will encounter ethnic Armenian (an Indo-European language) and Azeri (a Turkic language) communities in the south, meaning four of the aforementioned six language families of the Caucasus are present in the country. Due to its Soviet past, the dominance of Russian should also be added to this spectrum, while the younger generation might be more fluent in English in some cases.

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Persian-influenced café in the old centre of Tbilisi.

“Georgia, the state in the US or the country in Europe?”

georgia_country-copyGeorgia_in_United_StatesThat was the first thing my friend asked when I broke the matter of
interning in Georgia. While I was still in Budapest my Georgian roommate used to picture Georgia as Europe’s most Eastern country (and not Asia!) and a country working on its future membership in the Union. So, my first reaction to this question: “Man, naturally mentioning Georgia and Europe in one sentence, you just made a whole nation very happy.”

 

What I knew about Georgia before my arrival:

  • khatGeorgians are very hospital
  • there are about 4 mio of them
  • they like being called Europeans
  • they eat Khachapuri and Khinkali
  • they have a language not similar to any other
  • they successfully reformed their country during the last 15 years
  • they have frozen conflicts with two regions, Ossetia and Abkhazia, who claimed independence
  • they are out of sorts with Russia after a war in 2008 and Russia’s continuing attempts to broaden its influence in the region

What I know now, exactly one week after my arrival:

  • khinkGeorgians are very hospital
  • there are about 4 mio of them
  • they are Europeans and at supermarkets etc. many of them speak English
  • they drive on the right side of the road and some cars also have the steering wheel there
  • I eat Khachapuri and Khinkali, fruits and vegetables are incredibly tasty and they are eaten in various combinations, they have a kefir-like yoghurt called Matsoni and a bitter plum-sauce that I put on everything… and luckily they love coriander. Even though everybody told and keeps on telling me that Georgia is a meat country I keep on treating myself with vegetarian delicacies
  • they have a language not similar to any other and I am still trying to figure out similarities…or sounds
  • Tbilisi has extremely friendly street dogs and cats
  • they (Georgians of course and not the street animals) successfully reformed their country during the last 15 years but still have to catch up in some spheres, e.g. LGBT rights
  • they have frozen conflicts with/in two regions, Ossetia and Abkhazia, who claimed independence and are under Russian influence
  • they are out of sorts with Russia after a war in 2008 and Russia’s continuing attempts to broaden its influence in the region

 

Cars parking on the sidewalk in Tbilisi

Public transports in Tbilisi

After three weeks spent in Georgia, I have experienced a lot more than I thought I would. I have explored the capital and travelled to Batumi, Gori and Uplistsikhe. I have been to museums, lakes, beaches, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. I have taken taxis, buses, metros, trains and marshrutkas. And when it comes to the latter methods of transportation, I think it is safe to say that they have made quite an impression on me.

With a ride costing 50 tetri, public transports are very cheap in the city. Whereas the metro only has two lines, buses (which look more like little vans than actual buses) are everywhere and are very frequent. Checking your journey on Google Maps prior to taking the bus is a necessity though, as stops are not announced and no map is displayed inside the bus. They are still less stressful than marshrutkas however (marshrutkas being mostly used for inter-city trips), since the latter require you to shout “STOP!” in Georgian to the driver if you want to get off. Once getting on, you also have to leave any notion of comfort at the door because, not only are marshrutkas extremely crowded (they in fact don’t leave until being overly full) but, if you have the chance to find a seat available, you will also most probably have to spend the entire ride with a stranger’s bag or child on your lap. The most pleasant method of transportation therefore has to be taxis, although you better have good bargaining skills if you want to avoid getting ripped off. While the price usually amounts to between 3 and 5 lari for any inner-city drive, taxi drivers nevertheless tend to increase their fares if they realise that customers are foreign. Another key characteristic of taxi drivers is that although they usually know their way around the city, if it so happens that they do not know the location of a street, they don’t take out their phones or type the address on a GPS. Rather, they simply stop pedestrians in the street to ask them the way – or, if no one seems to know the street where you live, they call your landlord and ask for directions (true story). And all this without you wearing your seatbelt, because apparently in the city only people seating in the front make use of them. I nevertheless decided to ignore the latter logic as soon as I became conscious of the speed with which cars operate. In fact, with this colossal number of cars rushing through the city, I cannot help but find it quite perilous to be a pedestrian in Tbilisi. Indeed, it is not only that cars don’t stop if they see you crossing carelessly right in the middle of a busy street, it is that they don’t EVER stop, even in the presence of a zebra crossing. To get to the other side of a street, you either have to walk, for ever so long, in search of an underground passage, or you simply have to run in front of cars, hoping you’ll make it to the other side alive. And it is not only crossing the street that represents a challenge; the simple fact of walking on a sidewalk can be of great difficulty as cars tend to park there, making walking in the middle of the street the only viable option.

Living in Tbilisi can surely take some getting used to. But at least after experiencing life as a pedestrian in the capital, one can only appreciate more the emptiness of the streets of Gori, and the void and spaciousness of Uplistsikhe:

Stalin Museum in Gori
Stalin Museum in Gori

 

Gori’s empty streets
Gori’s empty streets

 

Uplistsikhe
Uplistsikhe cave complex

 

Uplistsikhe cave complex
Uplistsikhe cave complex

Panoramic view from the top
Panoramic view from the top

Arrival in Tbilisi

Spending two months in the Georgian capital was quite an unexpected turn of events. Seeking an internship in the field of international security and conflict resolution, I ended up coming across an organisation, Caucasian House, whose work in peacebuilding fueled my interest. After sending a speculative application and not hearing back for some time, imagine my surprise when I finally received an email, offering me an internship position in the organisation’s headquarters, located in Tbilisi! After numerous email exchanges, stressful planning and failed attempts at light packing, there I was, sitting on a plane towards my summer destination.

It was not until I landed in Tbilisi that it hit me just how insane and seemingly surreal this whole trip was (although my mum would disagree on the timing and would remind me of the little panick attack I had prior to that, just before boarding, and of the time she had to spend reassuring me). My family would indeed side with me when I say that I am rather on the safe side, quite guarded and not very adventurous. Although I love traveling and am always enthusiastic at the idea of discovering new places and ways of life, I tend to be cautious and to find comfort in somewhat sticking to what I know. Walking alone through Tbilisi International Airport at 10pm at night, among unfamiliar faces, overhearing conversations in a language I did not speak nor comprehend, it was then that I became instantly aware of the fact that this entire experience was completely unlike me. I couldn’t help but notice the insisting looks people gave me, and I had to come to terms with the fact that my foreign nationality apparently did not go unnoticed. After struggling to find an English-speaking driver (I would later on discover that the English language is mainly only spoken by young people; older generations speaking either Georgian or Russian), I finally managed to get myself into a taxi and, after about 20 minutes, I safely arrived to what would be my new home for the next two months.

Although I might have been anxious at the idea of this trip and have at times struggled to get acclimated to certain ways of life, I cannot stress enough just how wonderful my first few days here have been. In particular, I am amazed at the hospitality and openness of Georgian people. As part of of my internship at Caucasian House, I have created this blog to describe my overall experience in Georgia and post pictures of my time here. In the next articles, you will learn more about my first impressions as a foreigner living in this country. For now however, all that is left to say is that, already, I am starting to feel at home and that I cannot wait to further discover what this country has to offer.