In a dusty corner shop in downtown Tbilisi, amongst the cute but useless souvenirs, Stalin beamed back at me. The Man of Steel, butcherer of countless millions, 'Uncle Joe', had been reduced to a label on a wine bottle. I suppose I could think of worse ways to be commemorated, but it seemed cheerfully fitting that this champion of Marxist revolution should now be used as a marketing tool in his home country of Georgia.
Nausea was setting in thanks to my traditional Georgian breakfast of Katchapuri, a colossal boat-shaped hunk of bread, knuckle deep in melted white cheese and fried eggs and drowned down with a large glass of coca cola. I wasn’t sure if it was the heartburn, lactose intolerance or a sudden urge to vomit, but for a brief and miserable moment I was forced to consider the benefits of veganism.
On all my travels, I had experienced a few moments where my life could have ended rather absurdly- falling from a pirate ship at a rickety theme park in northern Syria; a bad case of food poisoning- not obtained in a third world country, but rather in a quaint little Indian restaurant in central London; and falling into a drain in a nondescript village in Guatemala. I began to wonder if Katchapuri would be the end, and how it would look on my gravestone: ‘Died (not so tragically) of gluttony, somewhere in the southern Caucasus.’
Luckily Georgia’s other famous dishes managed to save me from certain death. Ken, me and two Swedes that we had met at the border (Viggo and Jens) were recommended a local restaurant by our hotel owner. In the basement of a shop in central Tbilisi, we found heaven. Though the waitress couldn’t speak a word of English and the menu was in the completely undecipherable Georgian, we pointed at a variety of dishes which were translated in the guidebook. With no idea of the prices or food quality we ended up stuffed to the brim with melt-in-your-mouth juicy dumplings, eggplant with walnuts and garlic and shashlik, skewers of marinated, grilled pork… all washed down with a litre of fine local wine. We received the bill with trepidation, wondering what this ‘top five best meals of our life’ would cost us. $30 for the lot brought it swiftly to the top of the list.
As we had crossed the border from Turkey, I noticed the roads degenerate and the skirts get shorter. Now that I had spent some time wandering the streets of Tbilisi, the contrast in cuisine, religion, landscape, language and culture became much more obvious. Georgia stands out for all of these reasons- a mountainous, mineral rich country with varied landscapes and climates- from sub-tropical to continental- making it ideal for everything from skiing to wine making. Although Muslims make up a sizeable minority (around 10%), Orthodox Christianity remains dominant and is widely practiced. The Georgian language is blessed with a beautifully curvaceous script and unique pronunciation, making it virtually impossible for travelers to understand. I did learn the Georgian word for ‘thank you’- ‘madlobt’ (თჰანქ yოუ) - although I still managed to forget it so many times that I would accidently merge it into an indecipherable blend of Turkish, Russian and Arabic phrases.
I only had two days in Tbilisi so I wanted to make the most of its fantastic food, cold beer, cobbled streets, hilltop cathedrals and suburban markets. Although the country’s capital and home to close to 1.5 million inhabitants, Tbilisi seems very small. We were told that Georgians love to flock to the Black Sea coast when the weather warms up, and as it was the height of summer, it may explain why the city centre felt eerily empty at times.
While strolling past the parliament, we somehow ended up in the middle of a protest. It seemed the entire police force of Georgia had turned out in rather severe looking riot gear for this day. It turned out that US Vice President Joe Biden was in town, and the Georgians weren’t happy. Since April the opposition had been gunning for the resignation of their president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and they wanted to make it clear to Biden that their authoritarian, warmongering president was guilty of human rights abuses and a failure to initiate promised democratic reforms. Mock jail cells had been erected across the front of parliament, protesters lined the streets and police had closed areas of the city and the central city metro line. We waited around for awhile but in the end the protest petered off undramatically.
We spent the last night in Tbilisi at an English pub, of all things. Sitting outside in the balmy evening air, talking to a homeless Chechnyan woman and listening to some young Georgians attempt karaoke, it couldn’t have felt further from England.
The next day Ken and I said our goodbyes to Jens and Viggo, the two Swedes whose black jeans and even darker humour I would miss. They were heading to Armenia while we were off to Batumi on the Black Sea coast. I’d had my fill of monuments and museums, my money was running out, and I was looking for a relaxing seaside end to my eastern journey before heading back to Istanbul.
Thanks to another unfortunate food poisoning incident, my lasting memory of Tbilisi’s bus station was of lying half conscious and crumpled in a stifling minivan waiting for it to fill, and finally on the sidewalk, begging Ken for a quick death or at least a pretty toilet. So to McDonalds we went, where I emptied my stomach before making my way back to the hotel to sleep off a raging fever. By nightfall I was feeling human again, so we headed for the railway station to take the night train to Batumi.
I woke to the morning light and soft drizzle tapping at my cabin window. Peeking through the curtain, I was greeted by a verdant collage of sub-tropical rainforest and the dark mass of the Black Sea looming forth.
Batumi is the last stop on the Transcaucasian Railway and is the largest port in Georgia. It’s also on the Baku Pipeline, making it an important player in the oil industry. Less than 30 minutes drive from Turkish border, it’s an interesting mix of local and Turkish vacationers and businessmen who come to stroll along the palm lined promenade and painstakingly tan themselves while standing upright on pebbled beaches.
I’d read about Batumi’s botanic gardens, a spectacular 111km mass of flora and fauna on the shores of the Black Sea. A lush wonderland of species from across the world, I was surprised to find it had a New Zealand Garden, even if it did consist of a few randomly placed ferns next to the gum trees that made up the Australian Garden.
It’s a compulsory cultural experience to see inside the depths of a nightclub in an ex-Soviet country. As much as I detest these manmade abominations, I felt it was my duty to endure a night on the town for the sake of research and bizarre entertainment. Batumi’s nightlife is centered on its beachfront clubs blasting dreadful techno music to vodka fuelled teenage girls. It could have been the music, hefty entrance fees, lack of sleep or jealousy at the ability of Georgian girls to totter through sand on six inch heels, but I didn’t last long on the town that night. Maybe I’m just getting old.
Ken and I parted ways the following day. After a week of Ken’s heroic rescue attempts from starvation, sickness and strange men it was time for me to find a home and a job back in Istanbul, and for Ken to continue on his way across central Asia. I’d miss my dear travel friend, whose unfortunate travel experiences and cheesy grin outdid mine hands down.
The rain was falling with unwanted vigor the day I left Georgia. Soaked to the bone and still full from my last dumplings, I said my last goodbyes to this strange and beautiful land.