I awoke in my top bunk, the sun penetrating through the curtains into my retina like a laser, nose not more than 15cm from the ceiling but feeling refreshed from what was, inexplicably, one of the best night’s sleep of the trip so far. After a morning ensemble of yawns, grunts, explostulations, pleas for coffee and bed manoeveuring, I spent the last hour approaching Tbilisi talking with my fellow compartment dwellers. With one man I managed to sustain a dialogue revolving around his giant crucifix necklace and meanwhile a woman added interesting recommendations on my map whilst referring an alarming number of times to Georgia’s geographic neighbors from all directions, over the last few centuries and now, as ‘enemies’.
We walked through the run-down area near the train station in search of the hostel. After wandering inadvertantly into wrong courtyards, receiving menacing stares from very old women, becoming convinced that my desired street did not exist, a good samaritan led us to a pink house on the corner which was to be our inn for the next few days. The owner Jakub proved himself to be one of the world’s more solicitious and zen figures. I accepted a cup of tea, made in the British style. In a rare moment of moderation, I politely refused the wine and the chacha (brandy), mainly because it was eight in the morning but I was assured that whenever I wanted it, it was free.
As Tbilisi loudly woke up and we wandered the streets, I began to fall in love with the ramshackle beauty of the city’s buildings.
‘Faded grandeur’ is a term apparently created with Tbilisi in mind.
Tbilisi is a large city (in total it covers over 250 square miles), so what else on a sunny morning but to keep wandering and…maybe buy some swords? Welcome to Dry Bridge Market.
For a country that suffered under the crushing tyranny of Soviet Russia for
close to seventy years, I still think it incongruous to uncover pockets of nostalgia for the ‘good old days’. Or perhaps I find it difficult to believe that this is solely for the benefit of cheesy, misguided tourists (such as the numerous stalls in Berlin piled with old German Democratic Republic trinkets or the old ladies at Belgrade bus station selling Milosevic and Mladic badges to you before you hop on the bus to Sarajevo).
Rustaveli Avenue is the Champs Elysee of Tbilisi. It is where one can find the glitzy boutique shops, the high-end hotels, the national gallery and the parliament. The parliament was ghostly quiet outside which defies it’s violent and bloody past. On the night of April 9, 1989, following months of peaceful protests demanding independence, the crowds were brutally repressed by teams of Soviet forces many of whom used spades as weapons. Twenty were killed either by direct violence or trampled underfoot amidst the subsequent stampede. More recently, it was the scene of Georgia’s ‘Rose Revolution’ of 2003, so-called as Saakashvili and other reformists burst into the parliament building demanding for the resignation of Shevardnadze and holding roses in their hands. The videos are worth watching – a crowd carrying Saakashvili pushes its way through the parliament doors, met with heavy resistance by government officials, whilst the President is giving an address. They then push forward and Saakashvili screams at him to step down immediately. More reformists surge through the doors and the President is rushed to safety by a large group of his leather jacketed security. Days later the Rose Revolution had been realised. Whilst this is an extremely important event in Georgians’ minds, about which many exhibit immense pride, currently Saakashvili is not enjoying the wave of popularity as before. The rise of Saakashvili’s discontents has its background in the 2008 conflict with Russia, which many blame not only on Russian aggression but government arrogance. But also, the President himself has been accused to stifling political dissent. Here we go again?
At one point during the extended walk across Tbilisi, we stopped into a bar and encountered what is increasingly a ‘typical travel scene’ and that is two Polish guys who have been travelling thousands of miles around the world on bicycles. I have lost their names alas, but these two friendly chaps had spent most of a month traversing Georgia and Armenia on two wheels and this was their final day before flying back. They received the best hospitality around the Lake Sevan region in Armenia, at the pleasure of the chief of police (fortunately at his house, not the local jail) and spent other happy nights drunkenly prancing around the mountains. They spoke of the warm people they encountered, and the stunning scenery they witnesses and wished us luck. This was ironic, because as soon as we were leaving, the manager came over to berate them in Russian for parking their bikes in a deserted corner of the patio, even when her partner had already given them permission to do so.
We left and our trip descended into the maze of yet more tumbledown houses. This was Old Town, in the shadow of Narikala Fortress, which having reached dusk at this point, was proudly illuminated. I don’t know how long we walked, but if I have ever wanted to be a cat anywhere in the world, it was in Old Town Tbilisi.