Wednesday, June 6, 2018

გუდვილი, საქართველო (Goodbye, Georgia)

I'm sat here, on the floor, by a power point at Tblisi International airport thinking what to write about the last 36 hours in Georgia. Is it going to be a positive on or a negative one? I guess, like life itself, it's both. Good and bad. Ups and Downs. Optimistic and Pessimistic. Rich and Poor. Hypocritical and honest.

Just around the corner from where I'm sat now, it started, after saying goodbye to the lovely group from Armenia who were on the same flight as me to go to a wine maker's marketing workshop. Round the corner is the Avis car hire desk.

I planned to hire a car for a couple of days to go driving in Georgia. Why did I do that?

St George's Cross x 5 (Georgia's flag since 2004)

Previous flag

The main reason was that I wanted to see more of Georgia than just its capital city. If you Google Georgian tourism you'll see endless images of gorgeous countryside. Green hills and valleys. Sprinkled with mystical looking ancient churches. I wanted some of that. I also wanted to see Stalin's birthplace and go to a winery.

The hire went smoothly enough.

"Do you want to add GPS?"

"I have a mobile and use Google. Does the car have a USB socket?"

"Yes it does"

"How much is the GPS?"

"3 Euros a day"

"OK. I'll have that too. You never know. I don't have a local SIM card"

"I think it's best"

So that was it. They showed me the car. Cheapest. Smallest in the range. Good enough for me. And off I went. I looked for the USB port to plug in my phone but there wasn't one. At the gate of the car park the Avis guy was waiting to let me out and say goodbye.

"Where's the USB port?"

"Ah sorry. This car has no USB".

Not the complaining type, I rolled my eyes and drove off. Mistake no 1.

Within 2 minutes. Garmin (shouldn't that be Garbage) GPS system told me to stay right as I approached a junction with seconds to go. Too late. I'd stayed left and went down onto the "motorway" that connects the airport to the city.

Never mind. Garbage was recalculating the route to Gori. As one expects these days, it did so in seconds and offered a new alternative. 

"In 800 meters take the next right"

Seemed good to me.

The turn off was taking me in the right direction according to the map and my sense of geography. Gori is over on the other side, to the west of Tblisi. My plan was to spend the night there ticking that off the list giving me a day and a half to explore. 

Then Lady Garbage announced in her North American accent.

"In 500 meters turn left into Residential street"

Seemed odd. But technology knows best so I turned left as suggested.

But half a k on the road ended at a factory gate. Maybe I'd made a mistake and missed the turn off "she" meant.

No. All attempts failed.

Maybe if I'd stayed right as she requested when leaving the airport?

Tried that. Took time to find my own way back to the airport but when I did I followed the suggestion to go right. This time the GPS just took me onto the motorway heading in completely the wrong direction.

Not a good start.

I figured I knew the way to Tblisi so if I got there the GPS would be able to show me the way from there.

So, ignoring repeated advice to take the next right, I found myself in the City in the middle of the craziest rush hour.  It was like Paris 2016 all over again but this time in tiny narrow streets and with  GPS that didn't seem to be up to date with the road network.

Crazy traffic in Tblisi

I hate Garmin

Some of the driving techniques of the locals was astonishing. Lane discipline? Giving right of way.

Whatever "Highway Code" they learn here, it's got nowt to do with ours.

In the traffic I turned on my mobile to see what Goody-two-shoes Google would say and it was quite different from Lady Garbage. I soon learned to use Google two-shoes sparingly to set my route and Lady garbage just to see a constant map and position.

What's that great quote from Apollo 13?

"It's like trying to fly with an elephant on your back but we're learning all over again"
A bit like that.

I was getting hungry and thirsty and needed to recharge my phone so I stopped for some delicious Kinkali (Georgian dumplings) and a massive pot of tea at a service station.

Kinkhali, kinkhali, kinkhali moya!

As I sat and ate I re-hatched my plan and decided to get my Surface Pro in to check a few things I'd stored on it.  As I went out to the car to get it I was approached by a Hitch hiker.

He said

“Where are going? You going West?”

“Sorry. I’m a tourist. I don’t know where I’m going”

He didn’t look impressed.

I was, in fact about to head north. My new plan was to get the walking in spectacular country bit sorted early in the morning. The most spectacular areas are in the Caucuses to the north of Tblisi. So if I headed as far north as I could (as it was now dark I might as well just drive), I should be able to find somewhere to park the car and get some sleep in it. Then, I should wake up in the middle of some spectacular scenery. I did this before in Massif Central in France.

Stalin would have to wait.

Once I’d got the map from Google in my head, it was easy to set Lady Garbage’s destination to a town at the end of the motorway so even “she” wouldn’t keep offering crazy alternative routes.

So it turned out. The drive itself, after my Kinkhali stop, was about three hours, I suppose and most of it was plain sailing. Unfortunately, Georgia doesn’t have the best roads – they’re terrible, actually – and so every now and again, about 100m after a road sign indicating road works, the sealed surface would just disappear and, in its place, was just the bare ground, kind of levelled with a bulldozer but with boulders and pit holes all over the place. So you go from doing 110 km/h down to 10 or so. At one point the stretch of bumpy road seemed to go on for half an hour or so and, as I hadn’t seen another car coming in either direction for a few minutes, I began to panic thinking maybe the road had closed and I’d just missed some Georgian squiggles telling me so. As I was only going 10 km/h and had full beam on, though, I didn’t fear that I’d plummet over a cliff edge though.

Generally, though, there’s quite a bit of traffic on this “Russian Highway”, it’s the main road from Tblisi to Russia and so there are lots of lorries bombing up and down, often with scant regard for tiny little vehicles like I was in.

At around 11 pm I started to tire so I pulled the car up in a deep lay by away from the main road. I turned the engine off and put the seat back. After I realised it was getting cold I put my jumper and jacket on to get nice and snuggy warm. I find it’s actually quite comfortable and I was soon dozing off. Unfortunately the traffic isn’t regular enough to become a background drone. Every minute or so a big lorry or a flash speedy driver would shatter the silence and it would often wake me up. But I did manage to get some sleep.

At one point I woke up to realise that there was another car in front of me and a couple of (I think Russians) talking to each other. I was a little freaked out, I must admit, but they were just have a “natural break” I think and soon sped off again. About an hour later, another car pulled up with a more serious problem. I think they had a flat tyre and were struggling to get the wheel off. After a couple of minutes of banging I decided that I should continue my journey north as I was still quite away from my target destination.

By 1:30 I was there. I found another layby and repeated the process before. This time I slept quite well.

When I woke up, around 6 am it was very light and I was delighted to see that my plan had paid off. 

The car was surrounded by spectacular hills (not quite mountains) and it was a beautiful scene. I got out the car to stretch my legs and went for a short walk.

I had planned to go a little higher, ideally to try to see some snow covered mountain tops but it was soon obvious that even if there were any out there, they were covered in cloud. So I set off back down the foothills of the Caucuses with Gori still my destination.

On the way, there were endless gorgeous views and at several of them I’d stop the car and do a little walk around the country side and then back in the car to continue the journey.

The road is often cut straight into the rock, leaving a cross section of it exposed for all to see. It’s clear that the Caucuses are layer upon layer of sedimentary rock. Some of it flakes off in your hand, other layers are more robust. I didn’t have time to find any fossils that might be there but  it was interesting nonetheless. The Caucuses mountain range is the result of the Arabian continental shelf pushing into the Asian one, causing massive uplifting and occasional earthquakes. What is today the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea was once one great ocean that is called the Tethys. Amazing to thing that were I was poking around at the side of the road was just part of that sea 20 or so million years ago.

There was also the lovely Ananuri Fortress which I had a quick stop at. Tourist city. I took the essential photos and scarpered. I had an appointment with Iosif Djzhgashvili.

Orthodox church in the center of the fortress - you need to pray when you're under attack 
Still feeling guilty at taking a photo in a church (Catholic upbringing)

At around 9 am I stopped for some coffee, some brekkie and to connect to the internet and recharge my phone. The place I stayed at was run by some Russians. It was very nice. I had Turkish Coffee (nice but too sweet) and some Kachapuri, cheesy bread cakes – too much to eat – and a pot of tea.

Kachapuri if you can

Coming down from the hills there was often another hazard in the road - animals. Sometimes roaming free, sometimes in great herds.

So that was it for the Caucuses on to the next leg of the trip.

I’d told Lady Garbage to plot a course for Gori and everything was fine whilst we were in the hills but as it started to get flatter, the sat nav got crazier.

“In 500 meters take the next right to Avgorabivili Street”

What? Why?

I ignored a few of these before finally taking “her” advice only to be led down the garden path (almost literally, one of the roads recommended seemed to end at someone’s house.)
I decided that was the last straw for Lady Garbage. I kept it on just so I could track my geographical position in real time on a map, but as for her instructions, they just became a source of amusement in the same way Tom Hanks started having a relationship with his volleyball “Wilson” in the film 
“Cast Away”.

“In 500 meters take the next left to Residential Road”


“Take the next left”

“Fuck off!”

Anyway, I later realised that, in fact, there are at least three Gori’s in Georgia and I’d actually set it to the wrong one, a tiny village in the hills. (“Gori” means hill, apparently).

Sorry, Lady Garbage!

The Gory Stalin Museum

When I arrived in Gori I found a town that still looked quite Soviet. It would seem at least some of the people there long for the good old days when the Soviet Union was big and strong and their local hero ruled over all of it.

I had to pay 1 Lari (50 cents) to park the car in the carpark literally next to the museum. It’s not well sign posted but eventually I found that you went in around the back.

“15 lari” grunted the fat old Soviet type at the “Kasa”.

I asked what it included.

“10 lari for museum. 5 Lari for carriage”

“I just want the museum”

She looked annoyed as she handed me the ticket.

I didn’t want to see Stalin’s special train carriage. I’d already taken a picture of the inside at the window anyway.

The museum was really disappointing for me. I didn’t expect much but I hoped that it would at least have some honest assessment about what he did with his power. The bad as well as “the good”. The Stalin museum only gives “the good” apparently, although it’s difficult to say unless you speak Russian or Georgian. A very little was in English. It took me about five minutes to realise that it was pretty much 100% Soviet propaganda. I started to feel angry and then sad. So many young tourists coming through these halls and there is no acknowledgement of the terror he inflicted on tens of millions of people, from his own politburo down to the poorest peasant.

The Great Leader

Stalin's Mum

Very Depressing

Something I might have done myself - a map showing Stalin's geographical journey

Stalin with Dzerzhinsky

Stalin and Kalinin

Has Hitler got a museum like this? Even the thought is almost a political crime. His place of birth has been obliterated to stop neo-Nazis using it as a place of hero worship. There is literally nothing there.

The contrast with Stalin couldn’t be much more extreme. You would expect as much if this was Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, but it isn’t. I do not begrudge the people of Gori cashing in on their most infamous son but, please, at least acknowledge he had, how should I put it? … a bit of a bad side.

Anyway, feeling a bit sickened by another bus load of tourists squeezing by me, as I left, to pay their money to see a lot of grainy photos of a mass murderer, I wanted away.

The man I’d given 1 lari to for parking had obviously anticipated I’d be gone longer than 20 minutes as he’d let a coach park right behind me, blocking me in. To be fair, as soon as I turned up he got the bus driver to pull away and let me out, though.

I found a nice café to Wifiload (you know what I mean) and had a fantastic steak salad and a nice pot of tea.

Where to next? It was about 2:30 pm so time was a ticking. I still had no idea where I was going to stay the night but was thinking it was likely to be in the car again, maybe somewhere in the country around Tblisi. There is an old archeological site called Uplistsikhe which I’d though I might visit as it’s only half an hour from Gori, but in the end I decided to skip that and go to a vineyard instead. I suppose I could have done both but it is supposed to be a holiday.

I didn’t trust Lady Garbage so used Professor Google to direct me to the vineyard which had rave reviews on the internet.

By 3:30 I’d arrived at the massive gates and a guard dutifully opened them for me. As I drove through they were closed again. They clearly don’t want any local riff-raff in there.

In the car park a group of 50 or so had clearly just got off a bus for what presumably was a wedding reception.

I approached awkwardly and they seemed to ignore me so I continued towards the mansion and waked around the back to where a series of marquees had been set up in front of the vines.

I felt like a gate-crasher at some rich & famous person’s private party but no-one seemed to notice me.

Eventually I went down to the restaurant where I was told I could sample some wine. I went to the bar and asked about wine sampling.

“No. No Sampling. Can Buy”

Oh well, I had hoped to see the Georgian fermentation technique in action but it I would have to add that to my growing list of frustrations. "No tour. Only Buy".

Chateau Mukhrani - filthy rich

All the opulence of the place is in stark contrast to most Georgians, but even more acute is the fact that just 12 km or so away is a refugee camp.

I only discovered it by chance as I was searching for the location of the vineyard on Google. I noticed an odd grid like structure of roads and zoomed in. It’s quite a controversial topic in Georgia as repeated governments have more or less ignored their plight, and they live in squalor. As the country is so poor it’s hard to know what might be expected however.

What's that grid of streets there?

Yes, there

A Refugee Camp?

Yes, Tserovi - Camp for refugees from Akhazia and South Ossetia

It's quite disgusting really. 20% of Georgia's territory has effectively been occupied by Russia since the time they got their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russia's excuse, of course, is that these regions wanted their own self-determination from the newly independent states. Never mind the fact that it was the deliberate Russification of the Georgian SSR during the Soviet period that resulted in territories of the republic having large populations of ethnic Russians living there. By this logic, Riga might declare its independence from Latvia and form another breakaway republic aligned with, and secretly armed by, Russia.

Anyway, rather than drive there and take touristy pictures of poor refugees I decided my next stop would be Mtskheta, the original capital or Georgia, cited on the confluence of two rivers.

It’s a beautiful town but the Georgians do like their consonants, don’t they?

Mtskheta is mgnfcnt

By this stage I still didn’t know where I would be staying the night but the prospect of another night in the car did not appeal. I parked my car and gave an attendance 2 lari and strolled off to explore.

The river was scarily fast flowing as there had been a lot of rain. It seems it usually rains in Georgia.

Anyway, I thought I’d grab a bite to eat and connect to the internet via WiFi again to figure out where I might stay the night when I suddenly realised I didn’t have my car key.


My heart started pounding as I considered the possibility that I might have dropped it somewhere.
I marched back to the car hoping that a) I’d left the keys inside and b) no-body had stolen it or anything inside it.

As I hurried back, a poor old lady held her hand out for some money. I felt bad as I shook my head as I passed her. No time to lose here.

Luckily for me, both a) and b) proved true and everything was as I’d left it. Lucky. Now calm, I walked back to the café I was going to go into. I went out of my way to find the old lady and gave her 2 lari. I wanted her to share in my luck.

Over some Kinkhali I finally decided what I must do. Drop the car off back at the airport as soon as possible and then catch the 37 bus to the city and find somewhere to stay there. If I could find a place near the bus stop it might be quicker than staying somewhere close to airport, even if one did exist.
From what I could gather from there is no decent, well priced accommodation near to the airport. Surely something they need to improve.

According to Professor Google the best way was to miss the City Center and use what looked like a city by pas to the north.  Back to the car, Lady Garbage disagreed and tried to plot a course right through the city center. Of course I ignored “her” and followed Google’s advice instead.

Soon, the “by pass” degraded into a gravel track and at other times it veered off in odd directions. Practically the whole way, the GPS recommended I turn right to go down into Tblisi city center. It can only mean that the GPS software was released before the by pass.

I was getting seriously annoyed...

Anyway, eventually I brought the car down from the hills to the north of Tblisi and close to the airport. Time to fill the tank, which I did  - or actually an attendant did. I asked him – is the airport near? Yes. He gestured it was just down the road.

But here I was on Tblisi’s main road, heading towards the centre, 5 km from the international airport,
at most, and there was no sign for it. So, I missed the turn off and had to have more fun and games turning around at the next junction, passing cars coming down the “up” ramp, doing a sharp right to go up a bump and onto the “motorway”.

Finally, I did drop the car off at the place I’d picked it up from. Handed the keys in with a note about how disappointed I’d been with the GPS and then, finally, I could relax.

I don't think I'll be hiring a car abroad again any time soon.

My Georgian Road Trip - It's hardly "Crossing Continents" but it knackered me!

Time to open the wine!

I must have drank a third of it within ten minutes, I was so stressed out.

Anyway, at the airport I used to find the nearest accommodation to the No 37 bus stop that had spare rooms and booked it.

Then it was simply a question of catching the bus to the city trying not to look like an alcoholic as I took further sips from the bottle.

When I arrived at Bambilina Guest House I was not too impressed with the owner.
He took me up three flights of steps to me room and, like me, still panting, pointed with very succinct explanations…





And then he was gone. I had a fantastic shower and got changed and then came down the stairs.
The owner heard me and shouted…

“Ay! Australia! Come!”

He was in his kitchen with another man as I popped my head in.

“Sit! Drink!”

The table was full of food and bottles of decanted wine. He introduced me to his brother.

“Drink!” he said again, pouring wine into my glass.

It felt like being with my dad again, sat around with his mates. I knew what to do.

The "boys" from Babilina
45 minutes, ¾ of a bottle of wine, some nice food and some awkward Google-Translate-aided conversation later, I had to but in.

“Georgay (it might have been his name), I have to thank you very very much for your excellent hospitality but I want to see some more of Tblisi before I go.”

“No problem” he bubbled.

I ventured towards the street I’d discovered on my first days in Tblisi and found a bar with some football on.

Yes, that’s right, a whole blog post and no mention of football yet.

Well it wasn’t good news for Georgia here either. They lost 1-0 to Luxembourg. I should note that Luxembourg are ranked 12 places higher than Georgia, so it’s no disgrace.

Luxemboug 1 Georgia 0

After a beer I went back to Babilina’s and got some very good sleep before waking up at 6:30 am and headed off to the bus stop, after a quick peek at the breakfast view I would have got.

The 37 bus was free again and I got to the airport too early really. Better safe than sorry.

Free Bus Service 
 Which brings me back to where I started, sat on the floor waiting for check in to start, tapping this away on my mobile phone (although I’m not actually, I had to type all this in again in Istanbul, remember?)

Just time for one last drama. As I was about to start queuing I realised I’d lost me glassus. Now anyone in my family will tell you the only surprising thing about this is that it hadn’t happened until now. I went to the security scan place and they said that yes they’d found them but that they had handed them to lost property which was in another building. So I had to leave the departures area and go to the building where the lost property was.

Glassus Hand-over

Luckily it was there and, tatty as it is, I was glad to get it back.

Finally, I could go.

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