I came to Tbilisi at the end of July when it’s hottest and most humid. I felt the stickiness the moment I landed, at 3am. Irakli, a friend’s friend’s friend and a travel operator, greeted my blurry self at the arrival hall and sorted a few important things for me – phone and money. I had introduced myself as a seasoned traveller to him as I contacted him prior to the trip, though after seeing me just leave my passport at the telephone counter, he might have a second thought.
Will waited at the airbnb (the most beautifully done airbnb I have been to!), lugged my suitcase 5 floors up and made sure I could see myself to bed before leaving the house.
I went to bed that night thinking what a wonderful land it was here!
Irakli suggested a packed itinerary formy 3 days in the city but judging my exhaustion, i skipped Mtskheta (“mit-s-khe-ta”) and Gori. In my view, including a few day trips, you would need like at least 5 days in Tbilisi. The city is big, beautiful and full of stories.
On my first late afternoon, I rode the ever-going-down escalator to the metro system completed by the Soviet in 1959. As it turned out many other tunnels were built during this time, including some that are used as wine cellars nowadays. The train is fast, cheap and clean. As I emerged at the Liberty Square and strolled down the street in search for khinkali – soup dumplings, a stable of Gruzia cuisine, I stumbled across the weekend flea market over the Dry Bridge park. Art works, tapestry, fake antique, real antique, communism artifact, crafts, tamada horns, etc. Many things and noone tried to sell – how wonderful! I found my khinkali, ordered 10 and finished all with a pint of beer. Khinkali s similar to xiao long bao but with thicker skin, like a momo- juicy, tasty & can be spicy. I didn’t eat the knobs as they were just boiled flours and chunky. Later I found out that the correct way as you needed to leave the knobs as proof of how many you had eaten, esp in khinkali eating contest.
By 4.30pm, I joined sa walking tour following Kate’s guide , an American girl who used to go to Georgia during her exchange term in Russia and decided to come back. In countries like Georgia where the economy is starting to bloom 20 years after war-torn period and especially with Georgia currently petitioning to join the EU, English study is in its high and so is the demand for English teacher. I would imagine in a few years traveling to Georgia will be so much easier when more people can converse with you in English. Currently I found it a little like traveling in China where quite some efforts are needed when out on the street. The Georgian language sounds like rough Russian, looks like Arabic (to me), has 33 letters in their dominant Alphabets (there are more!), and have things that are so confusing like mama means dad and dada means mum. It has its own writing system, one of the 14 in the world.
Kate took us through different parts of the city based on the religions. Apparently Georgian is the 2nd most religious country in the world just behind Thailand, biasedly as young Georgian want to appear good. I saw some beautiful orthodox churches, a Catholic Church, the famous “tamada” statue as well as the big cathedral. Water fountains are everywhere seeing delicious water, people are nice, fruit vendors serve yummy figs and mangos and peaches. I ate Churchella for the first time and I couldn’t stop. By 5.30pm, only an hour into the tour, I had myself a takeaway mojito while the other pouring into a watering hole bakery. Really? In that heat? I would save khachapuri – “Georgian pizza”, flat bread with lots of cheese and served super hot with a raw egg on top for dinner. Little did I know then I would not have dinner!
The majority of Georgian practiced Orthodox Christianity and their saints are Saint George and Saint Nino. It is the tradition to name your first-born son George/Gorgi/ Jorgi/ etc. There are many of them! Saint Nino, when she flew over to Georgia long time ago to spread Christianity, she arrived realizing she forgot something, something quite important. The cross! What a thoughtful woman she was! So to fix this, she took 2 branches of grapevines and tied them with her hair. That’s why the painting show a slightly curve/crooked cross. And Nino definitely looks like Nicholas Cage! During the Soviet Union time, as no religions are allowed, all the churches were used as army barrack or storage. Need not to say as Georgian is famous for not being very careful with fire, many of the existing architecture were rather new compared to its rich history due to fire and rebuilt. The country, in deed, boasts a constantly changing scene during the course of its history.
Georgia, or Gruzia, had been under attack or occupy by the Mongolians & the Ottoman for a long time for its strategic location before taking longterm friendship with the Russian bear for 200 years, 70 years of that was under the communist ruler. In fact, Stalin was from the mountain area Gori of Georgia and this is the one part in the country (possibly the world) where people worship him. After the collapse of Soviet Union, for 12 years, the country was torn with political coupes, regional conflict and corruption till 2004 when Mikheil Shakashvili (“Misha”) came to power as the 3rd president of the Republic with a pro-western government. He ran a national hero government, cleaning the public sectors, building the whole nation infrastructure, putting Georgia on the map with the world, imported good ideas (and bad ideas), mimicking the world (some were rather bad copies), etc until he lost power in 2013. Pretty much he built the nation, so well that even in the midst of the post presidency legal allegation of embezzlement, he was appointed as Governor of Odessa (Ukraine) after his time as a lecture in the US to avoid being extradited back to Georgia for trials. Most young Georgian are not in favor of Misha reasoning that he had put the country back by hindering democracy. I thought he was pretty cool, a bit like Mr Dung of Vietnam who is known as dead corrupted but has pushed for so much of economic reforms in Vietnam during his terms as our Prime Minister including brokering the major trade deals between Vietnam and the US. I understood the anger, however, where would this country be right now without him. Then I learnt he also made some stupid copy-cat decision to build some random craps that are now empty and unused in Batumi, the Black Sea resort city. That made him a laughing-stock.
When I drove into the city the night before, Irakli pointed out 2 rather futuristic looking architecture, all glass and curvy structure – the Ministry of Internal Affair (Police) and the Presidential place – symbolizing the transparency of the new regime . The buildings were designed by a famous Italian designer. As we walked, we crossed the Peace Bridge, another glass and steel structure, I asked Kate if this was by the same Architect. Bingo! The bridge was built after the surge by Russian army to the city in 2008, while we were all watching the Beijing Olympics. It’s illuminated by many LED lights cross the Kura river, looking at the fort, some famous historic church as well as the statue of the first King of Georgia. To the right of the fort, which was renamed by the Mongolians in 13th century when they took Georgia to Narikala, literally meant “Little Fortress” (of course they laughed!), Karlis Deda, mother of Georgia, stands high guarding her country, a sword on her right hand and a glass of wine on the other. Over the last 1560 years and till forever, she would defend her country fearlessly with her sword but if you come as friend, she will host you generously.
At last we crossed River Kura again and headed back to the old quarter, exploring what I really wanted to see – Abanotubani the Bath District (yes street names in Tbilisi are extremely long!). There are a handful of them in Tbilisi, extracting sulfur hot water from the Abanotubani gorge into private bath houses, from basics to luxury, with a scrubbing lady at your service for a little extra. In the past, bath houses are where rich women socialize and also a match making place. I opted for Gulo’s thermal bath at Kate’s recommendation . I went in, booked my slot and with the 30’ waiting I asked if I could go to get a bottle of wine to drink in side. “Girl you know how to do this” – the old lady owner commented. I rushed out to Divino, certainly met my Italian friends who agreed the tour was way too long, Jorgi, and a Nortre Dame alumni as you know from my wine post. About 3 hour later, I did stumble back to the bathhouse. The lady had a good laugh. After chilling in my tub for about 20, my scrubbing lady came. Being manhandled by a chubby Georgian grandma with very short command like Stand up, Arms up, Lie down, tummy on the stone, etc and her gruesome scrubbing skills with her oddly scented soap was weird as hell, but I was clean and smooth and I loved it! Somehow in that state of mind, I made my way back to the Liberty square, having had a kebab for supper and paid 5 Lari for a cab home.
The next morning ride to Kakheti wasn’t good and after the wine and chacha tasting I returned to the old quarter for some Khinkali. I thought my hangover from the night before had rolled over on my drunkeness that nothing would help me but the big version of Xiao Long Bao.