[10 June 2011]
Good Friday on the Russian Border with the Boombully Exiles
Snow started blowing on a wild wind through the snow-veined black Caucasus mountains. We were ten kilometres south of the Russian border and a two hour hike back to the Georgian village of Kazbegi. We asked a party of elderly Israeli tourists for a lift down to the village in their fleet of 4WDs. Clare and our friends climbed into one Land Rover. I found a spot in another with two elderly couples.
“Thanks for the lift,” I said as we departed from the Church of the Holy Trinity. The floor of the 4WD was a pool of icy mud.
“There’s just one condition, my Australian friend,” said a grey-haired gentleman from Tel Aviv. “You must pay your fare by singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’.”
The Land Rover stopped. The Israelis waited for me to pay my fare. I groaned inwardly like a boy at school assembly, started mumbling the lyrics, and was drowned out by the enthusiastic singing of the Israelis. The gentleman from Tel Aviv knew the words and what they all meant: swagman, billabong, billy, jumbuck. But how was my Hebrew? he challenged. I admitted I’d probably have more luck speaking Yiddish with my scholarly background in Jewish-American fiction. I knew the swear words, anyway.
“Ah, forget Yiddish,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not important.”
I write this dispatch from a guesthouse in Kazbegi. On the wall above me is a painted portrait of a late period twinkly-eyed Joseph Stalin. In the far corner of the room is a hat stand upon which hang two khaki Soviet army caps and a woollen coat with epaulettes and brass buttons. The aqua-blue wallpaper has drooped and bubbled near the gas heater. There have been a few modifications to the guesthouse since the ‘50s, including a hot water shower stall and aluminium windows still dressed in protective adhesive tape. Through the window I can see the sheer mountains soaring into the clouds. The snow, which spreads down the black peaks in shapes like hairline cracks, occasionally shades into yellow patches that look like sand but in fact indicate the presence of iron ore.
The twin village of Kazbegi-Gergeti is 157km north of Tbilisi at an elevation of 1,740 metres. The Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania begins across the nearby Darial Gorge. Very little has changed here in centuries. Clare and I are travelling with two fellow backpackers we met at Tbilisi’s excellent new Boombully Hostel, two Europeans exiled from their studies in politically explosive Damascus. One of them speaks Russian, which helps because we haven’t meet a single Kazbegi local who understands English.
We came here in a cramped marshrutka (a public minibus) along the potholed Georgian Military Road, running nearly parallel to the eastern border of the disputed region of South Ossetia. As we rattled up into the mountains the road became flanked by walls of snow. Occasionally the left snow bank would drop away and I’d gaze from the bus window into a white abyss. We peaked at the Jvari Pass (2,379 metres) and then drove on down through a canyon in the north.
In Kazbegi we climbed out of the marshrutka and into a breeze of dancing crystal snowflakes. Few people were in sight. Unattended and unpolled bulls and cows were wandering the streets like stray dogs. A few cows nosed in an open dumpster. We tiptoed past the cattle. A bull howled at us. Old clothes and tin cans and plastic bottles were heaped on the rocks alongside an icy stream trickling from the mountains into the Terek River. We checked into a local guesthouse and warmed ourselves with a few bottles of sweet Georgian red wine.
The next day we hiked to the 14th century Holy Trinity Church (the Tsminda Sameba) under Mt Kazbek. The path from the village wound by pigsties and stone cottages and then ascended for several kilometres through deep snow. At the entrance of the church a guide gave the girls headscarves and skirts to wrap around their jeans. The monastery had at one time been the hiding place of the cross of St Nino, the Cappadocian nun who introduced Christianity to Georgia in the 4th Century. During one of Russia’s occupations of Georgia they claimed the monastery as their own and redecorated its interior. But this was an obvious attempt to distort history, said our guide. He told us proudly that a monk had recently discovered evidence of an older painting beneath a Russian icon. With the help of UNESCO the newer painting was removed to reveal a 14th century Georgian painting.
The monks of Gergeti will not be defeated. During the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks threw a gold-framed icon of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus into a fire. “For three days it burned,” said our guide. Yet the painting was not consumed, although it was smoke-blackened. “And when it was pulled from the flames a priest rubbed the frame with a little holy oil. And now you see the magnificence restored.”
The frame was shiny, alright.
The City That Loves You
Three weeks earlier Clare and I had come to Tbilisi. Our plane landed before dawn. In 2008 Russian bombs fell on the city’s airport during the South Ossetia War. Now Tbilisi is “the city that loves you.” Immigration was very friendly: free 365 day visa! Stamp! Now you kids go have fun. Just grab a taxi into the city—you turn left off President George W. Bush Street.
A TV tower and Ferris wheel sparkled like psychedelic glitter in Mtatsminda Park high above the city. We’d booked a hostel off Aghmashenebeli Avenue on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari River. The streetlights were so dull you could barely see through the rain blowing with gusto above the loose gravel of the pocked road. Our driver parked and led us with insistent Georgian chivalry—Clare was not allowed to carry her backpack—through a crumbling, puddly, lightless passageway into a courtyard of half-collapsed houses and wood-and-tin shacks. Lines of washing hung between the windows. As a pair of headlights swept across the courtyard, I glimpsed a wall painting of Snow White astride a magic carpet.
We checked into the hostel and slept. At midday it was still raining and still grim. We quickly discovered that Tbilisi is really two cities: under springtime sun it’s as delightful as an Italian renaissance town, but when the clouds are black it’s a decayed Oriental-Soviet underworld stinking of cold mud and acrid cigarette smoke. Walk south down the buckled footpaths of Aghmashenbeli Avenue and you’ll find the ruined former homes of Georgia’s long-vanquished nobility. Many of these two-storey residences are like miniature opera houses. They still have some of their original scrollwork – chipped urns, flower pots, cupids, dramatic masks – as well as art nouveau window frames. But the upper storey windows have sunk into the cracked and warped lower walls. The wrought-iron balconies, entwined with dead vines, sometimes hang on by a single bolt. Rubble piles up on the footpaths. The flaking mould-blackened yellow paint, the makeshift patches of rust-red tin, the mud of the cracked streets, the bare winter trees—all contribute to an atmosphere of devastation.
People still live in these old houses. In the courtyards beyond the crumbling façades you often see newish BMWs and Mercedes alongside old Porsches and rusty Soviet Ladas. That was a mystery.
The north end of Aghmashenbeli was in a different condition. The air was full of sawdust. For several blocks scaffolding and green mesh hid the facades of all the buildings. It looked like a Hollywood backlot. I don’t know whether the city is simply constructing new houses and buildings within the shells of the old, or else restoring everything. Either way, it’s a grand project.
Clare and I were thrilled to be in Tbilisi. It was unlike any other city we’d found on the Global Prowl. But could it be a viable home for an expatriate writer?
On the Banks of the Mtkvari
We looked for breakfast around K. Marjanishvili Square. Nearby were some of the many grand theatres of Tbilisi. A cobbler’s shop in a clapboard shack faced the street near the lurking place of an old beggar woman, who was several times that week provoked into hoarse screaming by rascally street urchins.
We entered a tavern full of smoke. Clare ordered a traditional Georgian Imeruli khachapuri, which is a loaf of salty bread with a slopping of cheese in the centre. The cheese was white and pungent and bubbly like soap. An alternative is khachapuri with raw egg. I had Turkish coffee. I soon learned to order lobio: beans, walnuts, and tomatoes stewed in thyme and baked in a clay pot, with a piece of mchadi cornbread.
As we ate the power cut out.
“Is this normal?” I asked one of several idle waitresses.
“No, no,” she said. “Not normal.”
I looked out along K. Marjanishvili Street. Nearly every shop had a petrol-powered generator on its stoop ready to start puttering. During our first few days in Tbilisi there were intermittent power blackouts, but these were indeed an anomaly, perhaps due to a hurricane that had hit Georgia. Things have changed since the Rose Revolution of 2003.
After breakfast we crossed the Galaktioni Bridge and headed up the hill through Rose Revolution Square to Rustaveli Avenue, the principle shopping thoroughfare and best preserved part of the city. Here you find an incongruous mixture of 19th century European boulevard architecture and Soviet concrete. The Moorish Opera and Ballet Theatre was undergoing long-term renovations and the National Museum was closed, much to Clare’s chagrin.
At the southern end of Rustaveli is Tavisupleba (Freedom) Square. In his biography of Young Stalin (2007), Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote about this part of the city (then known as Yerevan Square) in the early 20th Century:
“Water-carriers, street-traders, pickpockets and porters delivered to or stole from the Armenian and Persian Bazaars, the alleyways of which more resembled a Levantine souk than a European city. Caravans of camels and donkeys, loaded with silks and spices from Persia and Turkestan, fruit and wineskins from the lush Georgian countryside, ambled through the gates of the Caravanserai.”
In 2011 the square is nothing more than a giant roundabout centred on a statue of St George and his dragon, surrounded by expensive hotels and banks and buildings in construction. The historical “Asiatic potpourri” is gone. But step up the hill to the Old Town or over to the old Jewish Quarter (Kala) and you’ll find the same blight we saw off Aghmashenbeli, the same crumbled relics of a lost wild time.
A Talk With an Expatriate
The main hangout for English speakers is Prospero’s Books & Caliban’s Coffee at 34 Rustaveli. Eager to learn more about living in Tbilisi, I had coffee with Natasha Randall, a translator of Russian fiction who lives in the city with her Georgian husband. Natasha is an English-educated American with an implacable mid-Atlantic accent. She has published translations of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Zamyantin’s science fiction classic We. She’s now working on a new translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
I asked Natasha about the luxury cars I’d seen parked in the courtyards of the falling-down houses of Tbilisi.
“Georgian men love cars almost more than anything,” she explained. “They won’t have a washing machine, but they’ll have a BMW they bought secondhand for four or five thousand euros. So the cars aren’t really indicative of their wealth.”
For now the wealthy and the impoverished live side-by-side, although parts of the city are definitely gentrifying. “It has to gentrify,” said Natasha. “If it doesn’t those buildings will fall down.”
What about the challenges of Georgian society for an expatriate?
“Georgians live a much freer life than we do,” she said. “When you say to someone ‘let’s meet for dinner’ it’s not like they have to be there at eight. It’s a little bit like ‘if everything conspires in the right direction we’ll be together for dinner. But if it doesn’t, if I suddenly want to soak in the sulfur baths instead, you’re not going to be offended because you’ll know I had to follow my passion and my desire. You’re going to be fine about it.’ And also—eight o’clock doesn’t mean anything.”
Natasha has found Tbilisi has little of the Western mania for efficiency.
“One thing the Soviet Union did for its people was it washed them of a work ethic,” said Natasha. “You could do your job or not do it. You could sit drunk at your job all day and still be paid. You could not turn up and still be paid. You didn’t really have to work, especially in Georgia because you have sun, you have fruit, you have vegetables, the soil here is so fertile you can drop a seed and it’ll be a tree the next day. All of Russia and the northern parts of the Soviet Union used to think of Georgia as paradise, used to come down here to sing and relax and have a wonderful time. So Georgians basically lost the flavour of work, which they’re just now regaining. But it also means that Georgia is a very good centre for the arts, because there’s a very lyrical spirit here.”
And what about the viability of Tbilisi as a place for me to live?
“I really think this is a great place to be an artist or a writer,” she said. “People here have a very refreshing attitude towards artists. They’re very indulgent of them. Not in a pampering kind of way. They really just respect your right to be free. Whereas in the West if you’re a writer they might think you don’t have a real job. Here you feel like people very much appreciate that creating art is as vital as working in a bank. As vital for life.”
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.
“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.