Notes #5: Georgia

Notes #5: Georgia

November 23, 2019 4 By Lane

Mashrutkas

Turkey and Georgia both have an incredibly extensive system of van sized minibuses called mashrutkas (dolmus in Turkish). While not as comfortable as a full size bus or train, they are fast, versatile, and allow for frequent departures. Additionally, they never fail to provide experiences that, let’s just say, I wouldn’t have had anywhere else.

Perhaps my favorite example occurred when I was on my way to the Kutaisi Central Bus Station with a Lithuanian chap. When we boarded the the mashrutka, the short and barrel-chested driver was talking quickly to a very drunk, sullen fellow who sat in the seat nearest the sliding passenger door and facing the driver.

As the bus started rolling, they both fell silent for a short time. Then the silence was broken by a slurred, drunken sentence. This appeared to unlock Pandora’s box and suddenly the two were screaming at each other, pointing and spitting insults. The driver was leaning entirely out of his seat and the van was swerving wildly across the road.

The driver slammed it to a halt at the curb and shouted for the drunkard to get out of the mashrutka. He did not, waving and shouting even louder. The driver threw the van back into gear and dumped the clutch with a vengeance. The fury of the driver was palpable in the air.

To everyone’s surprise, the drunkard opened his mouth once again. The driver could take no more. Pulling off, he opened the passenger door, flew out of his seat, grabbed the man by his lapels and bodily hauled him out of the van as it continued to roll in neutral. He gave the drunk one last push away from the mashrutka and kicked him as hard as he could in the ass.

While this wasn’t a typical mashrutka ride, they are always fun because they’re a way to watch how the locals interact with one another, see the countryside, and save a lot of money. That being said, I really have no idea how I’ve never missed a departure or ended up in the wrong place. Departure times and routes are almost never found on the internet and if they are, they’re almost certainly out of date.

Hostel owners are a good resource for finding mashrutka timetables, but even they are often wrong. The only thing you can do is simply to show up at the bus station and start asking the men standing around which bus will go to your destination. If the direct route you were told about doesn’t exist, they’ll put you an a bus and the driver will help you find your connection, move your luggage, and make sure the next driver knows where you’re going.

Prime Real Estate

Have you ever found yourself pondering the question, “If I were a super villain, where oh where would I build my lair? Obviously, it should be budgetary so that you have plenty of funds left for your evil deeds. For me, I always picture a location like the house in the motion picture Ex Machina. Absolutely remote, surrounded by a verdant green forest with snow dusted mountains rising in the distance. Bonus points if the lair can be built into a cave for added insulation and intrigue.

Friends, if this describes your ideal lair location, look no further than the mountains and valleys of Georgia. Not only would finding a comfy cave be uncomplicated, but you could even choose from a variety of climates.

By the Black Sea, above freezing temperatures in the winter months bring Russian tourists south to thaw, perhaps providing a source of kidnapping revenue to fund your villainous ventures?

In a strip along the border with a Turkey and Armenia, the Small Caucasus Mountains provide a terrifically tinted backdrop for the more artistically inclined villain as varying mineral contents color the dry slopes green, red, brown, and yellow. This region is also prime real estate for the most reclusive reprobates.

Like a broad green brushtroke across the center of the country from the Black Sea east, the land lies lower in elevation with many wide, fertile valleys. This region comes highly recommended by super villains who enjoy nurturing a small peace garden or persimmon orchard on their free time.

Lastly, the truly cold hearted can surely find a home in the snowy Kazbegi region for which the nation’s second highest mountain is named or in South Ossetia. However, all be warned that any lair you build there is at imminent risk of being overrun and occupied by the Russian military.

What Do You Want For Nothing?

In Georgia, you can get a whole lot better than a rubber biscuit. By far the cheapest country to travel that I have been through, the most expensive part was the food and the price for a full meal and drink would set me back $5. While good food could be cheaper in Turkey, accommodation in Georgia was almost inconceivably cheap. A bed with breakfast in a Tbilisi hostel goes for $3 and a private room with breakfast and a view in a smaller town for $6. For a four hour ride in a mashrutka, expect to pay around $4. Sitting in my $10 hostel in Bangkok, I’ve been spoiled into feeling like I’m overspending!

Stars and Stripes

I don’t want to encourage the idea that people of other nations consider America to be the center of the Universe as Americans do. Despite this, when there’s an American present it sometimes feels as if there’s an elephant in the room. If the conversation were a train and it was on the political track, you known which stop gonna be first.

Halfway through my flight from Tbilisi to Qatar (for a transfer), I said hi to the soft-faced man beside me. The universal ice breaker is of course, “Where are from?”. He was a Georgian and asked me if I had enjoyed my time there. I said yes very much and that it is a beautiful country. He agreed and asked my where I’m from. When I said “America”, he hesitated for a moment, clearly keeping a pleasant look on his face out of politeness and etiquette. I filled the awkward gap in conversation by asking if he had ever been. He replied that he had not, and after another moment of hesitation, he said “I am Kurdish. My parents immigrated to Georgia from Syria”.

The fact that he stated this told me plenty, but that was not all he had to say. “You know, America fell a long way in the eyes of many people. My people fought alongside yours for six years, losing thousands more soldiers than the Americans. Now this. My people will never forgive this. Many of our brothers and sisters died at the hands of the Turks. Horrible things are still happening every day.”

After the drink cart lady had poured our coffees, he added, “You know, America has a lot to fix. They have a responsibility to fix everything they broke. When you broke apart the Soviet Union, you took on responsibility for those countries.” At this I asked, “Wouldn’t many people prefer that we just keep our meddling hands out of their business for once?” To which he replied, “No! America doesn’t get off the hook that easily for what they’ve done.”

“What would be good enough, then? What level of stability would be acceptable before America withdrew political influence, financial aid, and military presence from the former Soviet countries?”

“When the people have been living a comfortable, modern lifestyle for 30 years. Long enough that one generation will see the change and their children will grow up knowing peace and stability.”

He asked me to write this for him. At one point, I asked him if he had ever been to America. He said no, but some of his friends had gone to New York City and had come running home. “People live too fast there. It is always work and money and time and work. In Georgia, we work only as much as we need to. If I need have a tool or cooking ingredient, I need it only until I walk down the street to my friend’s house. If something bothers me, there are so many people who will listen. This is how I need to live. I would not have this in America.”

Akhaltsikhe

A four hour mashrutka ride Eastward from Tbilisi brought me to the town of Akhaltsikhe. I had only gone there because it’s the best place to catch the morning mashrutka to the hillside monastery called Vardzia.

When I arrived at my $6 hotel, my room wasn’t quite ready, so the owner took me down to their family restaurant and gave me a shot of cognac and a glass of homemade wine to endure the wait. When she led me to my room, it was a three bed family room with a beautiful view of the fortress on the hill overlooking the city.

That night, I shouldered my camera and went for a walk around the older part of town. The air was that perfect cold and clear where you can walk for miles without breaking a sweat or needing a jacket. Woodsmoke wafted into the sky from the brown brick or pipe chimneys of ramshackle houses seemingly held up by the chaotic tangle of trees, chicken coops, laundry lines, piles of wood, and old cars that surrounded them.

Everywhere I walked, the townsfolk were busily chopping wood, taking in laundry, getting home from work, or just enjoying the beautiful evening. At the edge of the old town, I found a burnt out old church to explore. As if gravity were stronger on one side, the roof had begun a slow, mouldering descent to meet the floor. On the ground, a collection of framed photos, flowers, and religious objects showed that worshippers still come to this decaying church to pay their respects.

I spent the next day exploring the caves and tunnels of the Vardzia monastery. Built in the 12th century, the monastery used to be entirely recessed inside the mountain but an earthquake sheared off the cliff face, revealing the tunnels and rooms within.

Persistence

The group of states we now call Georgia were ruled by the Persians, Ottomans, and Russians, but none of those managed to erase the Georgian culture or religion. The Persians and Ottomans tried to convert them to Islam and the Soviet’s to atheism, but Georgians remain fiercely devoted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Furthermore, Georgian food remained distinct, their wine-making traditions remained, and the people exclusively speak Georgian except when interacting with tourists.

One common perspective I heard from backpackers who had only gone to Tbilisi is that the dominant characteristics of Georgia are the traces of soviet rule and development, but I really found this true only on a visual and perhaps economic level, not in their cultural identity.