Published: September 13th 2011August 31st 2011
Time to leave Azerbaijan and see what Georgia has to offer. Ilgar's brother in law had collected me from the bus station on arrival, but Ilgar assured me that is was an easy walk back. It was down hill, but when carrying about 20kilos of luggage, a 30-40min walk is a long way. I stumble across the bus station accidentally as the directions I was given were wrong. The next minibus to Balakan is not for an hour, and it says Zaqatala on the front. It means I get a seat anyway which is good, many people have to stand and I am too tall for these minibuses. Also means that my legs are too long too so the ride is uncomfortable whichever way I travel. Only two hours to Zaqatala, there is meant to be another minibus to Balakan, but instead I get a shared taxi as three women are waiting for a fourth passenger. The driver wants to know where in Balakan I want dropping, but only speaks Azeri. I finally convey that I am going to Georgia so he bargains 5 Manat to the border. He drops me off and I walk across. Quite a painless border process.
Strange that the Azerbaijani side take ages checking my passport stamp by stamp, they didn't do this on the way in which should surely have been more important. What will they do if they find a stamp they don't like? Make me stay??
I walk across the bridge with the trucks and get a quick stamp into Georgia, they even allow me to choose the page as I am down to two free pages so prefer page sharing, they even welcome me to the country in English, I can tell I am on the tourist trail now. There are a number of people waiting for the minibus to clear border control and one woman who speaks English tells me that there is one spare seat, phew! Turns out I needn't have worried though, a German diplomat was crossing the border at the same time and dreaded the thought of me cramming into a packed minibus so he offers me in a lift in his air conditioned BMW. Much more comfortable! It's about 2 hours to Tbilisi but we take a scenic route so that he can show me Sighnaghi, a town which has always been independent and has recently been
renovated to look spectacular while retaining the rustic charm. We have a walk around the old buildings but get a glimpse at the inside which is unchanged, similar to the Azerbaijanis, they refurnish the facade only to appear more developed. It's a race in the Caucasus, to be the most modernised country, not sure who is winning. We also stop at Bodbe Convent, apparently it has too many applicants to accept them all.
We pass through the wine country and many plantations. There are many stalls by the side of the road selling watermelons, some cars are driving along full of them. Like a cartoon, the back seat is full to the roof, the boot is jammed open by overflowing watermelons, you can barely see the driver in the car, hilarious! The German has helped start plantations of olives and limes, all of which used to grow here but were destroyed for corn fields during the Soviet era. He explains all of the Georgian delicacies but warns me of the awful service. The best beer is apparently Natakhtari, which I taste later and agree. The red wine is darker than ours, and I haven't found one I like yet. They
all taste like weak port to me, so slightly sweet. He tries to find me a cheap B&B but turns out that it's not finished yet, the Georgian's seem as helpful as at Azeraijanis as while we are wandering about looking for the road and man offers to drive us to it even though he could have pointed to it as it's only 2 streets away. In the end we stumble across a hostel, Waltzing Matilda, so I stay there instead. Great afternoon's ride for free!
I follow my guide book’s walking tour to see the most of Tbilisi. The centre of town is very cosmopolitan and the main road, a dual carriage way is lined with familiar shops, some high end brands. The street is tree lined and clean with lit underpasses to cross the road. First I visit the Historical Museum, the same strange practise happens here as in Azerbaijan, the displays are in rooms behind large closed doors. It's very difficult to know which doors are for public access and which are staff areas, there are no signs. I spend a while trying to open a door which says Medieval Georgia, to find out that it
is closed. The Soviet era exhibition is very interesting but disturbing. I particularly disliked the videos of people being shot! I continued the walk through the old town passing the churches. Kashveti, Anchikhati and Sioni. Then stop off at the underground baths, Abanotubani under the stone domes at ground level. Luckily the woman at the kiosk speaks English so can arrange the services. 2GEL for entry, then 10GEL for scrub and 10GEL for massage. I go down into the women's baths, as usual it is full of fat, old, naked ladies. The woman who will massage me is wearing a dinner lady style overall. She instructs me to strip, locks my belongings away then sends me to the hot shower. She comes into the shower room in just her bra and pants and tells me to sit on the rough stone bench, she then scrubs me very roughly. A strange experience as she grunts over me with my hand resting in her cleavage. I'm then sent to shower again, then back to lay on the hard bench face down. She soaps me up and sort of massages me, quite tricky when slimy with soap. Not relaxing as the stone is
digging into me, I end up with bruised ribs as she hits my back a few times as part of the routine. Front massage including face which was nice, then turn over again for another pummelling on my back and bending my legs backwards and forwards. Then back into the piping hot shower. I do feel refreshed but somehow exhausted.
A pricey lunch in the scenic back streets of the old town then a climb to Metekhi Church and an even steeper climb to the Narikala Fortress which overlooks the city and the Kartlis Deda statue. Enough hard work for one day in the burning heat, in the thirties, so I get a taxi to the Holiday Inn. A one day pass to the pool and gym is 50GEL, very expensive, but well worth it. The pool is fantastic on the third floor of the hotel, surrounded by wood and posh loungers, you wouldn't know you were in the heart of a capital city. The clientele is mainly beautiful women with unruly spoilt children and their hairy husbands sporting medallions. I have a huge padded lounger and a mojito (with lime, the norm here is to use cheaper lemons) so
I more than happy. After sun down I use the state of the art gym as well, all to myself. A great afternoon of luxury. Finish off my stay in Tbilisi with a traditional Georgian meal in Dzveli Sakhli by the river, while listening to Georgian music sung by a male four piece choir.
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