I handed the bus driver a 1 GEL coin and he shook his head no.
I took this to mean he wanted 50 cents and couldn’t make change from the lire coin I was handing him. Dude I’m cool with that just keep the change.
“50-” and then he said a word that might have been “higher.”
Wait are you saying the bus is 50 lire? That would be insane, that’s like 20 bucks. You’ve just gone from me thinking Georgian buses are shockingly cheap to thinking they’re the stretch limo of Georgia. Make up your mind.
Other people behind me wanted to get on the bus so the driver just dismissively waved at me to sit down. Score! Free ride!
When I thanked him on my way off the bus he scowled. Huh. Maybe not a free ride? I mean, it’s free either way now, try to catch me sucker!
I stepped off the bus into the Tbilisi night.
“Dammit Sean stop going to places I can’t pronounce.”
Tuh-buh-lee-see. It means “warm location.” 1.5 million people. Capital of Georgia.
“I thought Atlanta was the capital of Georgia.”
The address for my AirBnB was just a rusty gate keeping a pitch-black alleyway from spilling out into the city and eating tourists. This can’t be it. I made a couple passes along the sidewalk, looking at the numbers on the surrounding buildings. This can’t be it. I stopped into a travel agent’s office and asked them if I had the right address. I did. Shit.
The gate swung open like Dracula taking off his pants. I hoisted my roller suitcase awkwardly over the railing and disappeared apprehensively into the black.
At the end of the alleyway there was a small, dark courtyard facing the backsides of several run-down flats. I looked around. Well, shit.
I wandered around in a small circle and looked up at the moon. A woman hanging laundry on her balcony up above waved to me. Hello. She pointed toward a small hut in one corner of the courtyard. Oh yeah? She nodded.
My key opened the door. Welcome to Georgian hut life.
It took me far too long to recognize that I’d spent this entire trip picking my way through the corpse of the Soviet Union. Growing up during the cold war, the USSR didn’t seem like a place you could visit. It was just a big mystery box. Now, it’s over a dozen mystery boxes. In 1991 the Soviet Union fell, Georgia and 14 other countries were born, and people keen on visiting every country in the world got kicked right in the balls.
No one seems certain why Georgia is named Georgia. It may be from the Persian for “Land of the Wolves.” It may be because they’re really, really into St. George there.
That part can at least be verified with a quick walk around Tbilisi. There’s a pillar in the central square topped with a golden statue of St George stomping a dragon, with the Greek inscription “I just cancelled your ass like a stamp.”
Likewise, many of the local churches pay homage to St George. I wandered into Jvaris Mama and had the dim, peaceful stillness inside all to myself.
Another church nearby was closed for the minor persnickety reason that it had no floor at all.
A hike across town brought me to Holy Trinity Cathedral, one of the largest churches in the world.
I was most impressed by the strange, cartoonish style of the art inside.
Just when you’ve run all over Central Asia for weeks and got yourself used to seeing the Cyrillic alphabet everywhere, and have accepted that you can’t read anything even though you recognize most of the letters because those letters all make completely different sounds in Cyrillic, then you’re punched in the face by Georgian.
Are those even letters? I.. I can’t even, Georgia. I congratulate you on having the balls to base your entire alphabet on a doctor’s handwriting but I can’t join you in this madness.
Georgia is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and wine. Sounds like a party.
Tbilisi features an interesting mix of the old and the new. Most everything is old as hell, which makes walking across the river on the bizarrely futuristic Bridge of Peace even stranger:
This confusion lasts until you get to the cornucopia-shaped whoozumwhatsit on the other side.
A Japanese tourist stopped me on the street to ask what the hell this thing was. We shared a moment of cross-cultural bonding over the both of us having no idea what the hell this thing was.
After wandering through a few alleys that may or may not have been private property, I ended up at the Presidential Palace, which is an appealing sight up on the hill but absolutely not anything you can blunder your way into. The guards were nice though.
Soon after that I found myself in a tunnel under the city full of outlandish street art.
When I was planning my brief visit, I was trying to figure out how I would get from the airport into town. In the process, I ended up being completely charmed by the Tbilisi Airport website, which goes out of its way to boast of their laser clock and “comfortable trains made in Georgia.” It turned out the comfortable trains only run twice a day at completely bizarre times, so it was the less-heralded bus for me.
After figuring out the transit card system I hopped aboard the aerial tramway and was lifted high up above Tbilisi, on the way to my date with Mother Georgia.
Mother Georgia holds a bowl of wine in one hand, a sword in the other. Sounds like a party.
My favorite thing about the statue was that it’s made from aluminum. I like the idea that I could have carried it off when no one was looking.
From there it was a short walk to the ruins of Narikala Fortress, and from there down the winding path descending the back side of the mountain and into the National Botanical Garden, passing the Dzveli Sulfur Waterfall along the way. I wasn’t sure if the Sulfur Waterfall was a tourist attraction or if it was more of a friendly warning, like “You probably want to avoid this area, there’s a waterfall of sulfur. Yuck.”
I wandered around the Botanical Garden, enjoying the radiant flowers and the peaceful views of the fortress up on the hill and the city off in the distance.
Following the winding path all the way back into the city took me past Tbilisi’s famous sulfur baths, which are definitely a tourist attraction and not (just) a warning of impending stench. I didn’t have time to get all rotten egged up before my flight to Kiev, but I enjoyed walking around on the domed chimneys up above the baths.
Walking through the streets and back alleys of old Tbilisi, I imagined what it would be like to turn a corner and suddenly get stepped on by a giraffe. Georgia squirted into world consciousness in 2015 when a massive flood in Tbilisi resulted in 300 animals escaping from the zoo, ending up with lions and a hippo wandering the city streets for days.
Tbilisi’s winding alleys are charmingly chaotic. At one point I found myself trapped in one corner of the city by some kind of construction/demolition that was blocking several streets that were my only way out. It all looked a bit like photos I’d seen of freshly-bombed European cities during WWII. I wandered through the active construction zone to the complete lack of consternation of the work crews, ending up in someone’s back yard before I turned around and found my way back out through all the twisting alleys I’d come in through, like a rat escaping a maze.
My last stop was a vegan café in the old city, where I had my first real meal in two days and weirded out the nice girls working there by ordering two entire meals like I had invited my invisible friend to lunch.
From there I dropped some postcards into what was apparently a purely decorative mailbox since they were never delivered to anyone, checked out of my hut and it was a hop, skip and a shit I missed the bus wait where does the bus to the airport even stop? I’m on the wrong side of the street. Okay, here we go, on the bus with my suitcase, that wasn’t too tough, doot de doo- wait, shit, this is the bus that’s coming FROM the airport, I’m on my way to Azerbaijan. Oh well. I hear the huts are nice there.