I knew nothing about Georgia before I arrived. I had been meaning to check out some information on Wikipedia and read a few travel blogs, but I never quite got there. ‘Why are you going to Georgia?’, people would ask me upon hearing of my next destination.
“I had a mate that went there 2 years ago and said it was good.”
“Oh, what language do they speak there?”
“Ummm Georgian”, I’d reply not a hundred percent certain in my response.
Is that even a language, maybe you should look that shit up before you answer again. You’re going to look like a muppet if you meet someone that has actually been there, and calls you out on this.
Then before I got around to doing any research I’d bump into someone having lunch at Tasha’s.
“Gareth, it’s so good to see you. I didn’t know you were back. Where are you off to next?”
“Georgia”
“Oh cool, my parents have been to Atlanta a few times my Dad’s company … ”
“No this is Georgia, the country, in Eastern Europe”
Is it Eastern Europe? Perhaps I should get my geography right, in case people ask me something about this place. I’ll check on Google maps when I get home later, and find out what language they speak while I’m there.
A few hours later I was at the gym and I bumped into “Never-wears-sleeves-Stuart“. Actually, I don’t think that’s his real name, even the Stuart part, but that guy that I’ve known from just about every gym in the north of Joburg.
“I check you’ve been hanging with the betties down in Mexico”, he says.
“Well Guatemala, yes it’s been great.”
“Sweet, where you headed next?”
Here we go.
“I’m going to Georgia, Eastern Europe”.
“Never heard of it, what country is that in?
“That is the country”.
“Sick. What language do they speak there?”
FML.

After being in Tbilisi for a few days I was still unsure how the name of the city was pronounced.
Is it ‘tee-bee-lee-see’, or ‘ta-bleezie‘? How do I even find that out? It turns out it’s the former when a taxi driver asked in broken English how long I’d been in his city, referring to it by its name. I spent almost seven weeks in Georgia and the best way that I can describe it: is a country of contrast. I had been expecting Europe and what I got was The Soviet Union. This is the first (former) Soviet country that I’d travelled to and it has been one of the most different travel experiences that I’ve had.

Architecture

The first thing that struck me from the taxi as I left the airport towards Tbilisi, was the rundown buildings that lined the side of the road, many of them appeared to be unfinished halfway through construction. The ones that were finished looked as though they’d been built a few hundred years ago, and hardly maintained since. During my time in Georgia, it was the architecture that interested me most. Many apartment blocks in the inner city of Tbilisi were grey and derelict with little effort going into both the initial design as well as ongoing upkeep. These rundown buildings are a stark contrast to some of the beautiful domed churches that are common all across the country that, when seen by any Georgian resident without fail, result in a double signum crucis. While in Tbilisi I spent hours walking the city, taking photographs or sightseeing, and despite walking through almost every neighbourhood in the city, I saw hardly any properties that weren’t part of a highrise building. No stand-alone houses with a garden or a yard. I am sure that there are some areas where homes like this exist, I just didn’t encounter any. Most people live in flats or apartments situated in one of these multi-story grey concrete structures, myself included.

Afternoon sun on the Holy Trinity Cathedral – Tbilisi.

Highrise apartment blocks are common in the capital city of Tbilisi.

 Jvari Monastery.

Paintings inside Jvari Monastery

People

I (and my Meyers Briggs type indicator ENTJ) consider myself to be an extrovert. I enjoy connecting with and spending time with others. When I see someone in certain environments, I make a point of greeting them, and often start an informal conversation. The usual small talk about the weather or anything situational which feels like it might be an opener. Most Georgians though, aren’t like this. I first learnt this lesson in the elevator in my apartment block. Not much bigger than a broom cupboard, my apartment was on the 14th floor (actually the 15th but the lift terminated before my destination) and the first few times I shared the elevator with someone I’d start with a simple “hello” or “good afternoon”.  95% of the time these interactions were met with a solemn gaze and pin drop silence. Alrighty then.
5% of the time though, there were a few contrasting interactions and amazing connections with people who, despite having limited English would make the effort to initiate a conversation. One elderly gentleman that shared the two-minute elevator ride with me, when finding out that I was from South Africa spent the remaining 120 seconds smiling saying “rugby, rugby”. I soon realised that in a culture where people don’t make small talk with strangers, saying hello to someone you don’t know actually makes the other person feel uncomfortable, not warm and connected. I changed my strategy to attempting to make eye contact first, and if the person looked back at me I’d try a ‘hello’.

Despite these irregular interactions, I found it tricky to connect with and meet people during my time in Georgia. The response that I got from people when I said hello to them in the gym or in a yoga class, was the same, cool and awkward. I would catch four or five taxi rides, where the only communication I have with the driver is a grunt at the beginning and at the end of the ride. Then in stark contrast, I get into a taxi that was going to take me from my apartment to the bus station. With only a few words of English, this friendly taxi driver asks how I am, where I’m from and where I’m headed.
“Bus Station”, I reply, leaving out any words which may make my sentence unnecessarily complicated.
“Boos?”, he confirms.
“Yes”
“Where go?”
“Gudauri”, I reply
“Aaaaaagh Gudauri!!!”, his face lights up as he exclaims excitedly “very beautiful”.
ummm “Yes”
“You know normal  price for taxi?”
“No”, I lie to keep the conversation flowing.
“Normal price 240 lari”, he explains for the 2-hour long taxi ride to the ski resort that I’m headed to. I know he’s right as I had researched how to get to Gudauri by taxi, but wasn’t prepared to pay roughly $100 to go one way on my own. Taking the bus meant I could get there for 8 lari, about $3.50, but while the bus was cheap it’s a lot more of a hack. I had to get to the bus stop with my bags. Then find someone that speaks English or at least to whom I could explain that I needed a one-way ticket on the cheap bus to Gudauri, and make sure I didn’t get fleeced and sold the more expensive private buses that left from the same location.
“My price, 120 Lari”, he told me.
Times by 5 for rands then divide by 10 for US dollars, that’s about $45. This old man will drive in the snow for 2 hours to drop me off and then 2 hours back home, presumably without a passenger, for $45. I could tell he’d really appreciate the job. I decided to do it, not just for the comfort of going all the way in the taxi but also to support this friendly old man. The drive to Gudauri was great, smooth and comfortable with my driver calling out the name of landmarks as he pointed to them along the way. He even insisted that we stop at a beautiful church next to a lake en route, where he excitedly ordered me to go and stand while he took a photo of me next to the church.

Photo credit: The Friendly Taxi Driver.

A few weeks later on a cold and misty afternoon in the mountainside town of Mestia, I was walking down the street with my camera, when three construction workers shouted to me from across the street and waved me over to them. The street was empty and the sun was about to set and I was initially sceptical and cautious as I approached them.
“Photo”, was all the one guy said as they all sat down on the stairs and posed for a photo before we became Facebook friends and I promised to send the photo to them. It was possible that I may have missed had walked on and ignored them, but it turned out to be one of those beautiful encounters that you have when you travel. I was glad that I went over.

 The Caucasus Mountain Range – Mestia Georgia.


The Caucasus Mountains from above.


Mestia streets at night.


Mestia.

Snowy landscapes in Mestia.

It felt like there were moments of my time in Georgia that I felt alone in a city filled with thousands of people. Surrounded by people, but not interacting with any of them, and most of them not interacting with one another.  Then it would seem that after a few days of hardly speaking to anyone besides the odd server in a restaurant, I’d connect with someone that made me feel so welcome, I’d almost forget about the cool Soviet nature of the people around me. The people that I did connect with were some of the warmest and kindest people that I’ve met, who would go out of their way to make me feel welcome and at home in their country.

Georgian way of life.

The contrast was evident to me in other areas of Georgian life too. The capital city of Tbilisi has the Kura River running through the middle of the city. Planning a city around water I can imagine must present logistical challenges for the flow of traffic and people, but despite this, the 1.5 million people that live in greater Tbilisi have no problem with congestion, and traffic flows smoothly even during peak times. The roads on either side of the river contain two or three lanes of traffic headed in either direction and sufficient off-ramps onto bridges over the river. Cars, buses and taxis move between lanes and are courteous, law-abiding and respectful. And then, just when you start to feel relaxed, a black supercharged Range Rover will weave through the traffic with its horn blowing the entire time as some good-looking young prick with gelled back hair pushes through all the other cars presumably running late to have dinner with his over-possessive mother.

Bridge of peace at night.


Tbilisi old town at night.

Georgian National Botancial Gardens – Tbilisi.

My view from the 15th floor of my apartment

Rustaveli Avenue, the main shopping street in the capital, is lined with boutique high-end clothing stores, banks with opulent marble reception areas and the over the top, 5-star Biltmore Hotel alongside old women with empty plastic begging bowls and street children both asking for money to feed themselves. The traffic that drives down Rustaveli road is a mix of expensive SUV’s and luxury German sedans to Lada’s that have been around since the 1940’s with an old fridge and a pile of bricks, all tied to the roof of the car.

The 5-Star Biltmore Hotel alongside old, derelict buildings.

I loved the time that I spent in Georgia. I was there in winter, which meant that I was able to spend some time snowboarding which I love to do. Georgia is also one of the cheapest destinations that I’ve snowboarded in Europe. This video might explain where some of those cost savings come from. I’ve heard that it’s a different place in summer and much busier with more tourists. I love the apartment that I stayed in and the internet was amazing. I managed to get a lot of work done on some projects that I’m busy with and spent a lot of time on some personal self-development. If you’ve been to Georgia before or have ever wanted to, please drop me some feedback in the comments below, I’d love to connect with you.

Until next time.

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