Travel

Georgia on My My My Mind: Your Global Prowlers in the Wonderful Former Playland of the USSR

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

Under springtime sun the city of Tbilisi is 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.

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'."

“Really?”

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."

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