One of the oddities of expat life is needing to leave Turkey every six months to keep my drivers license valid. Normally that would mean catching a quick flight, jumping on a ferry to a Greek island, or just driving across any nearby land border. This being a time of PCR tests, vaccines, closed borders, and cancelled flight routes, it wasn’t quite so simple.
Out of the few workable exit options I could find, I decided to go for a nine hour stay in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. One of the things that made me especially interested in visiting Georgia was something I had read when researching the history of Van Castle. I was trying to verify a story I had come across of Tamerlane throwing some 7,000 of the inhabitants of ancient Van from the cliffs and walls of the city (sadly this story was true), and so I read Tovmas’s “The History of Tamerlan and his Successors”. In the account, the monk Tovmas describes the regular campaigns of incredible death and destruction Tamerlane wrought against the Georgian people, sacking Tbilisi, and massacring the inhabitants numerous times. Despite the destruction, the Georgians somehow managed to rally back, rebuild, and mount another defence. To visit the site where so much of this sad history took place just after reading it seemed like a great opportunity.
Landing at Tbilisi airport it was immediately clear that I was in a situation I hadn’t been in a long time: I was in a place where I couldn’t understand or read a single word of the language. The Georgian alphabet is unique to Georgia and, while beautiful, I couldn’t make out a thing on any of the signs. After failing to communicate anything with the bus driver I decided to try my luck with the only bus at the airport and get to the city proper.
Getting on the bus I noticed a second issue: I had no internet. While I paid for international cell coverage it wasn’t working; this meant I had no way of translating anything or finding my way around. It was weird to think that I had backpacked around Europe for months without internet; we just made it up as we went along and everything seemed to work out fine.
A guidebook I had read had mentioned something about a George W. Bush Highway connecting the airport to the city, so I knew I was on the right track when I saw a giant picture of Mr. George W. smiling above me as we rolled past fields and into Soviet style suburbs of vast apartment blocks. Nestled between these patches of Soviet history was a giant icon of capitalism: a shiny new mall, complete with signs for what I assume was Georgian for KFC and McDonalds as well as an American film reference with a Lebowski bowling alley.
What was really fascinating to me about this short drive through the countryside was the numerous cupolas, the conical roofs of churches, peaking out through the trees, above houses, and crowning hilltops. Unlike the ones I’ve seen in Van or Kars, these churches were in good repair.
Getting out near the city center I made my way through an old neighbourhood of tangled streets lined by old homes fronted by wood-lattice balconies towards the city’s grandest landmark. Tbilisi Cathedral, officially known as The Church of the Holy Trinity, is an astounding modern addition to the Georgian architectural tradition, one that sits high above all the surrounding buildings, rising to a total of 87 meters. As someone coming from Turkey, what makes this church particularly remarkable is that it is quite new, only completed in 2004.
While the atmosphere was hushed, the church was full of activity. The sound of voices chanting echoed in the high domes as scarf covered women lit candles and visited various saints along the walls and black robed monks walked by briskly. The human activity, smell of incense, and shining floors were a stark contrast to the silence of Turkey’s church ruins with their smell of manure and the chisel marks and pits of looters.
Descending from Tbilisi Cathedral into the river valley where the old town is I could see the remains of a fort and a number of old Georgian Churches on a ridge above the far bank. Having misjudged how hot and humid Tbilisi was going to be I was already a sweaty mess and opted to skip a hike up the steep hill and take the Gondola for an unknown cost (without internet I had no idea how much the Lari was worth). Riding above the city I could see the labyrinth of streets, massive buildings with quiet green courtyards, more churches, the grey-blue ribbon of the Mtkvari River below, and, towering above it all, the shining white form of a woman smiling down upon the Tbilisi.
Built in the 1950’s The Mother Georgia statue looks over Tbilisi with a wine bowl in one hand, welcoming those who come as friends, and a sword in the other for those who come as enemies. At the foot of Mother Georgia I found a winding stair that took me back down into the old city, passing ancient churches and monasteries along the way.
After wandering through some of the old districts, visiting museums, eavesdropping on an English-speaking tour guide explain a strange clocktower, I came across the most welcome sight of all: an airconditioned mall with wifi.
Once my back was dry and my maps downloaded, I again braved the heat and headed out to find something completely unrelated to my experience of Georgian history in Turkey. Not far from Tbilisi is the town of Gori, best known for one of its most famous citizens, Joseph Stalin.
From 1921 to 1991 Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union which left a deep imprint on the Georgian cultural fabric. Popular with visitors to Georgia is picking up Soviet memorabilia from the flea market that covers the sidewalks of one of the city’s numerous bridges. While I didn’t find many of the items for sale to be particularly interesting, there were some old Beatles records in Cyrillic, gas masks, old Soviet Rubles, and tons of medals. Some were worn out with their ribbons missing while others were in good condition complete with documentation. These medals were given out for everything from WWII VE Day memorials to being a good truck driver of the Soviet Union. While the old records were cool, medals and coins fit much more comfortably in my backpack.
With the likeness of Lenin in my pocket souvenirs were taken care of, leaving one last essential tourist experience to check off my list: local food and drink. While there were numerous dishes to choose from (I was curious to try the Georgian take on Turkish Pide, a canoe-shaped pizza with an almost-raw egg plopped into the center), I had skipped lunch and so only had time for one.
I opted for a plate of Khinkali, a boiled beef-pork dumpling, and a glass of local Georgian wine. When the Khinkali arrived, I cut into one only to be met with a torrent of Georgian from the woman who brought my plate. Naturally, I didn’t understand a word of it. The blank look on my face making it clear here explanations were in vain, she quickly left and came back a moment later with another waiter. In halting English he explained to me that you do NOT simply cut into a Khinkali. Instead, you pick it up by its stem-like top and bite a small hole in the side, then drink the light parsley flavoured soup that’s been boiled inside. Once all the precious juice is consumed, only THEN you may begin cutting in with fork and knife.
While the Khinkali was delicious and far more interesting to eat than expected, it was really the Georgian wine that I was excited to try. I won’t pretend to be a sommelier or even to be particularly knowledgeable in the qualities of various renowned wines, but I do love history and know that Georgia is one of the oldest known wine-producing regions in the world. The earliest evidence of wine production is traced back to jars with residues of wine in them, dating back to 6000 BC, found just south of Tbilisi. To be able to have a glass of wine, a drink that has played such a unique role in the development of ancient cultures and religions, in the place of its birth was as good as the wine itself.
With my time winding down and still no idea how I was going to get back to the airport, I set out in search of a bus and said goodbye to this amazing city. While I travel regularly, this whirlwind trip to Tbilisi was a completely different experience. I’ve gotten used to being the expert, knowing more about the historical sights than many of the locals I meet, knowing the language, and knowing how to do what I want to do. Georgia, with a language I know nothing about, its beautiful swirling writing, and a culture I was totally ignorant to, was a return to being the obvious tourist, gaping at the architecture, bumbling through social interactions, and getting lost.