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The 14th century Holy Trinity Church (the Tsminda Sameba), Gergeti, Georgia. April 2011. All photos by Matthew Asprey.
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Notes from the Underground

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On Natasha’s recommendation I walked along the river to Tbilisi’s legendary sulfur baths. They make a landscape of stone domes in the neighbourhood of Abanotubani on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari. The baths have been there for centuries, fed by underground hot springs. 


I paid three laris to descend into one of the underground baths. The smell of sulfur was thick. The locker room was full of fat, hairy, naked Georgian men. I was instructed to strip down to nothing but the sandals on my feet. In the shower room a shaft of sunlight spilled in from a small window in the domed roof onto the marble floor and mosaics of green tiles.


My masseur Gigo was a small grey-haired fellow with a hairless brown body. On his instructions I rinsed under a hot tap and stewed in a pool of hot gritty water for five minutes. Next I lay face down on a flat marble slab for a soapy body scrub and massage. I was doused with buckets of hot water and given a hard and rigorous beating. Afterwards I slid off the soapy slab, limped to the hot tap and washed off the suds. I was sent to a sauna. I sat in 60 degree celsius heat until my contact lenses started to pop out. Then I stood under a cascade of shocking cold water. I’d never felt more awake. I agreed with Alexandre Dumas, who wrote in 1859 after his experience of these baths, “All my tiredness had gone and I felt strong enough to lift a mountain.”


Back in the locker room I dressed and laced up my boots. An old man was playing an oboe badly. This made everybody laugh. There were a lot of masseurs sitting around in conversation. I was offered mint tea in rudimentary English by a chain-smoking fellow who looked like a boxing trainer and described himself probably not very accurately as a Spaniard. Another masseur with a big gut, naked but for the towel around his waist, pinched Gigo’s purple nipples and wrestled with him on a bench.


“Now you finish massage, I tell you secret,” the fat masseur said to me. “Gigo is a gay.”


Gigo blushed and denied it. They were all vaguely aware of the existence of Australia (“kangaroo! kangaroo!”) and amazed an Australian would come all the way to Georgia. I might as well have been from Mars.


The pseudo-Spaniard offered me chacha, Georgia’s national spirit. I didn’t feel the need for it, but everybody else was eager. The masseurs knocked back a few shots each. Work in Georgia is really just a pretext for laughter and conversation and camaraderie.


Georgian People


“These Georgians are different-looking people. They are dark, almost gypsy-looking, with shining teeth, and long well-formed noses, and black curly hair. Nearly all the men wear mustaches, and they are handsomer than the women. They are lean and energetic, and their eyes are black and sparkling.” - John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, 1948


A walk through Tbilisi suggests that Steinbeck needed glasses. Yes, the men are strapping and lusty chaps, but they hardly distract from the women. The typical Georgian girl has silky black hair, high cheekbones, large brown eyes darting in mischief, a coquettish and joyful smile, smooth pale skin, and long athletic legs in tight blue jeans. Georgia is home to some of the most beautiful girls in the world.


Georgians are fiercely proud of their culture. The language and alphabet are unique and unrelated to those of its neighbours. The country is also home to numerous ethnic minorities including Abkhazians, Russians, Ossetians, Armenians, Jews, and Turks. Georgia has been no paradise of racial harmony. Since the end of the 70-year Soviet occupation there have been separatist conflicts leading to massacres and forced relocations. In the early ‘90s the country endured a civil war. The secession of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Russian-supported quasi-independence led to a brief war in 2008; atrocities were attributed to both sides.


A visible Romani population live in Tbilisi. The Romani apparently come from the disputed region of Abkhazia, or else from Armenia or Azerbaijan. The Kala neighbourhood is full of Romani child beggars. I was sitting in a coffeehouse on K. Abkhazi Street when a little girl, perhaps four years old, came in to ask the customers for change. One of the coffeehouse managers, a big man, seized the little girl by the front of her mangy sweater, lifted her off the ground, and shouted in her face. She screamed. He opened the door and tossed her onto the footpath. She ran away in fright. Another time in Kala a gentle and friendly waitress turned on another little Romani girl and chased her out of the café; the waitress turned to us and said with stern apology: “These are not Georgian people.”


Down in the dank pedestrian tunnels of Tbilisi there are booksellers, elderly women selling nuts and sunflower seeds, buskers, shamed beggars, and Romani kids of two or three who sit cross-legged or lay asleep on little rugs, begging all day in solitude.


A snotty-nosed Romani boy of about ten lurked on Rustaveli opposite the Opera House. We got to know each other. His pursuit of my coins became a bit of a joke. One time the boy tried to corner me but I darted left, darted right, and managed to outrun him. We both laughed. Another night he prevailed. As Clare and I were coming back from dinner the boy seized my left leg and held on like a cat; I had to hand him a lari coin before he would let go.


Finding a Doctor


After the first week in Tbilisi, Clare and I moved across the river to the newly-opened Boombully Hostel on Rustaveli Avenue. Clare was suffering from a persistent sore throat. A friend gave us the name and phone number of an English-speaking doctor at a place called the Research Institute of Experimental and Clinical Medicine. I did a bit of web research – not an easy task due to Georgia’s unique alphabet and Tbilisi’s inexplicable omission from Google Street Maps. I wrote down the institute’s address and bundled Clare into a taxi.


Taxis are like dodgems in the streets of Tbilisi; Georgian driving is of a uniquely fatalistic style. Seatbelts, if they exist, are usually torn and re-knotted to their pulleys, unadjustable. Our first driver took us at my request to the Research Institute of Experimental and Clinical Medicine at Tbilisi State Medical University.


We walked into the institute and asked for Doctor Tsira. Three women pointed down a corridor to an office suite. We knocked on a door and were admitted. Behind the desk was a middle-aged woman with dyed black hair and a green sweater. She motioned us to sit. We did.


“Are you Doctor Tsira?” Clare asked.


Since the woman did not speak English, we figured she wasn’t. After a while she led us to another office. There were, as usual, three women. Two stood idly behind a desk. A seated woman said to us in English:


“How can I help you?”


“I have a sore throat,” Clare said, preparing to stick out her tongue and say “ahhhh”.


“Well, you need a physician for that,” said the woman.


“Aren’t you Doctor Tsira?”


“Who is Doctor Tsira?” she said. “I’m the Dean of the Medical Faculty.”


We were in the wrong place. The Dean took Doctor Tsira’s number, called it, and wrote down precise directions in Georgian script for a new taxi driver.


Ten minutes later we were at Tbilisi’s other Research Institute of Experimental and Clinical Medicine. This one was near the Central Train Station and food market. We found Doctor Tsira, a young Georgian specialist. She arranged for Clare to consult a General Practitioner and sat in to translate. The diagnosis? Clare had laryngitis.


After the consultation, Doctor Tsira asked Clare if she was insured.


“We have travel insurance,” said Clare.


Several nurses looked at each other with alarm.


“We must call your hostel,” said Doctor Tsira. “We must confirm your visitor status. This process may take some time. There will be paperwork.”


Clare frowned. “How much did the consultation cost?”


Doctor Tsira checked. It was 30 lari, or about US$18. Clare paid the bill in cash.


We taxied back to our hostel. Clare retired to bed. The sun was glorious. A Georgian friend, Gulisa, helped me search the pharmacies on Rustaveli for Clare’s prescribed medication. We walked to Freedom Square. Passersby were making the Sign of the Cross on sight of the the distant St. Trinity Church. Two happy young strangers with a video camera came over and asked Gulisa and I to record a birthday greeting for their friend.


I asked Gulisa about her life in Tbilisi.


“I sing with a band,” Gulisa said. “Every day my friends are having parties. I becoming alcoholic, yes?” She laughed. “I want to go to Europe, but it’s hard for Georgians to get a visa. I’ve only been to Turkey. I always travel with my friends because Georgian women are sometimes kidnapped and sold as prostitutes.”


Curios and Canvases


When Clare was feeling better we walked to the antiques market in 9 March Park by the Chughureti Bridge, where ruined cars live on as permanent market stalls. On the bonnet of an old brown van were ranked swords, canes, and pick-axes; on the van’s roof were stuffed badgers and raccoons. I was sold a handsome hardcover English translation of the 12th century Georgian epic, The Kinght in the Panther Skin [sic.].


The market was an abundance of curios. For sale were rusty pistols and muskets and swords, diatonic and button squeezeboxes, 8mm camera equipment, kantsi ram’s horn drinking vessels (you can’t put ‘em down), plastic drink trays inlaid with pictures of ‘70s Soviet film starlets, cigar boxes decorated in Polynesian kitsch, century-old adding machines, fur hats and Soviet military caps, pirated porn DVDs, statues of Indian goddesses, posters of Lenin and Stalin, tikis with owl faces, and backgammon boards illustrated by Oriental scenes or mother-of-pearl marquetry. There were boxes of gemstones and locks and bolts and bells and doorknobs and electronic switches. I liked the look of a blue-and-gold samovar but my budget was too tight and my backpack too full.


Down in the park was an open-air exhibition of paintings. Most of the works were kitschy Tbilisi panoramas aimed at tourists, but some paintings were startling and original. Life is not easy for local painters. On 12 March the English-language Tbilisi newspaper The Financial reported:


“Georgia is unfortunately a country where only a few paintings are sold a year, where there are no museums of modern art or proper exhibition places, masterclasses or potential buyers. The difficult environment in Georgia has led to many painters leaving the country to pursue their careers elsewhere.”


Back on the Prowl


After our Kazbegi excursion, we returned to Tbilisi to fly out of Georgia. The night before departure we had a late night conversation with a quiet Austrian guy in the kitchen of the Boombully. As global prowlers go, Hubert Weissinger is the king. The Guinness Book of Records recognised Hubert for visiting a total of 243 countries between 1993 and 1999. He’s ventured to even more countries since.


I asked Hubert if he had been to Burkina Faso? Sure, 1998. Turkmenistan? 1999. Saudi Arabia? 2001. He had not managed to get into South Ossetia on this Georgian trip, but had tried.


Clare and I shook hands with this intrepid adventurer, said farewell to the Boombully Exiles, and slung our backpacks. Next stop: Istanbul.

Matthew Asprey is the author of the novellas Sonny's Guerrillas and Red Hills of Africa and the editor of Jack London: San Francisco Stories. Check out www.matthewasprey.com and Matthew's blog, Honey for the Bears.


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