Saturday, 10 December 2011

Georgia - first impressions

Everyone we had spoken to who had been to Georgia had raved about it, so we had high expectations when we crossed the border. Our first impressions of Georgia were fantastic. This was the first country we had travelled in that didn't require a visa. A quick glance at our passports, the satisfying sound of a stamp and we were on our way. As we entered Georgia we were surprised to see the EU flag flying. Throughout our journeys across Georgia we never saw a Georgian flag flying without the EU flag next to it. It was a strong signal that the Georgians considered themselves European and, despite the current crisis in the EU, still very much wanted to join. Some small print meant that they were able to fly the EU's flag.

Suddenly we were in a place where we couldn't read anything. The Georgian script (ქართული დამწერლობა in Georgian), as you can see, is totally unique, and completely baffling for a visitor. Catching a marshrutka from the border town to Tbilisi turned out to be equally baffling. Plenty of vehicles were heading for Tbilisi, that wasn't the problem. The problem was that the marshrutka driver didn't want to take us, or any of the other passengers, but mainly us (I think it was our bags which he was most offended by). He had a complete meltdown, stamping his feet, gesticulating and then refusing to get in the vehicle. Everyone was left bemused and another driver had to be drafted in to take us.

The drive took us through the vineyards of Eastern Georgia. It was harvest time, and lorry loads of grapes trundled down the road. We arrived in Tbilisi as the clouds blackened overhead. By the time we had emerged from the metro it was pouring with rain. Sheltering in the metro station until it had passed, we then headed out into the dark, sodden streets. The whole area was a building site and we picked our way around shaffolding and muddy puddles, disorientated. A student saw that we were lost and pointed us in the right direction of the hostel we were looking for. We found another lost Brit on our way and together eventually managed to find the hostel. Two motorbikes were parked in the courtyard, one of which was Morten's. We had first met Morten whilst queueing at the Turkmen embassy in Tajikistan. And then again he had been refused a Turkmen visa in Uzbekistan and this had resulted in an epically long ride through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and then a ferry across the Black Sea to Georgia, where we met again. The hostel was pretty average, the temperamental white cat sat on the toe of my boot to avoid sitting on the freezing floor. However, it was great to see Morten again and we went out for a good meal and a few beers.

The next day we invested a bit of time in finding a better hostel. We got up early and wandered the deserted streets. We tried to find a coffee but nowhere was open - it was 1030 amd we wondered whether we'd missed changing our watches. Walking around the city we couldn't find any pedestrian crossings and nearly got run over several times trying to negotiate the roads. When we tried to use the metro there were queues out of the door to buy tickets. And then there was the dog poo - dog poo everywhere. But worse was to come. At lunch time James headed into an Internet cafe only to emerge an hour later to find police tape everywhere and a forensic team. A man had been shot dead in the street after being pursued down the road by two other men. This was our second day in Georgia and was not only no improvement on the first but it was worse. We were disappointed (and a little bit concerned that people got shot on the main road in the middle of the day).

That day we did, however, find a better hostel. Dima was slouched on a comfy sofa surfing the net as he read out a review of the hostel, 'This is the best hostel I have ever stayed in. The guy who runs this place is amazing. He is really the best guy EVER,' he read. 'Who would write this shit,' he continued, and then shouted over his shoulder, 'Misha did you write this yourself?'

Misha was a 6ft 6 Pole who had a relaxed attitude to hostel running and was helped by a German, Benjamen, and Dima, a Russian. Misha was incredibly knowledgeable about the area and passionate about Georgia. He explained a few things to us. Firstly, Georgians don't get up early, nothing happens before 10am and cafes only start to fill up after midday. Secondly, there were underpasses, just they are not well signposted, so there was no need to risk our lives every time we crossed the road. Next, shootings were unusual. And finally, the queues at the metro were due to the President trying to woo voters by giving out free credit on their metro cards. And as for the dog poo, you just had to watch where you were walking. After we understood this and had moved to Why Not? hostel, life in Tbilisi became a whole lot more enjoyable.

Flowers at the market

Looking over the baths in old town of Tbilisi

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