Chaos in Kyrgyzstan: I’m not there yet

We are back. As the title suggests, this series will detail my exploits in Bishkek, the noble capital of Kyrgyzstan. However, this first print deadline has come up before I’ve managed to get there, so I’m going to talk about Georgia instead. During my time in Yerevan, Armenia, I paid two delightful visits to Sakartvelo, as the Georgians call it. Two stints in Tbilisi and one sojourn further north in the mountains were enough to convince me that Georgia really is one of the most fabulous countries in the world.

I believe I’ve already written about my first journey to Tbilisi, an ordeal involving a bus at sparrow’s fart that wouldn’t stop squeaking and a brutal hangover. It was slightly lessened, though, by my semi-hallucinatory enrapturement at the autumnal forests of Dilijan in the morning light, to the eminently suitable accompaniment of Lana del Rey. I had returned to hike two weeks later, and it was exceptional.

The second time I decided to be a bit more adventurous with it, and booked a place on the night train. If there’s a night train you can take, you should take it, I felt. So, one chill evening in Yerevan, I hastened down to the station, one of those grand Soviet-era buildings, replete with colonnades and a terrific tower, surrounded by men flogging all manner of local produce out the back of a Lada. I had opted for 2nd class
on the train, which meant a bed in a four-person kupe. My bunkmates were a very cordial couple of Yekaterinburg and an Armenian man with his son. After a half hour of pleasantries and chatting (it was already 10pm), we began the cramped dance of folding the beds down and making them, before settling in to get some shut-eye before the inevitable rude awakening at the border.

The awakening was indeed rude, as a typically gruff border guard stormed in and demanded our passports. Armed with a passport-reading gizmo and a stamp, the man formally exited us from the Republic of Armenia in a refreshingly easy process. The Georgian border, however, required us to de-train and wait in the cold by the tracks. It was a nice break from the perverse intimacy of the kupe, and they even provided dogs to help the passengers, bedraggled and half-asleep, through the wait.

When I woke up, the sun was rising over Tbilisi. Tbilisi truly is a city unlike any other. The centre is an elegant blend of medieval churches and fortresses, 19th century backstreets and squares, where seemingly every house has an adorable wooden balcony, and massive Soviet boulevards, lined by an array of brutalist and art-deco fronts. Then there’s the modern stuff too. The Friendship Bridge drapes over the river Kura like a glassy turtle, a hot air balloon type thing rises and falls over Rike Park nearby, and further along the river is the flower-like ‘House of Justice’. When looking down from Narikala Fortress, your eye falls on the centuries-old church domes and shiny, futuristic structures in turn, before finally resting on the immense, gold-domed Holy Trinity Cathedral on the opposite hillside.

Beyond being a feast for the eyes, Tbilisi is a feast for the (other) senses too. Food-wise you can’t go wrong with the varying forms of stodge on offer: khinkali, essentially doughy dumplings with meat or cheese inside, khachapuri, cheese-filled bread with a token egg on top, lobiani, sort of a flatbread filled with beans and a personal favourite. Delicious stews, flame-grilled kebabs and occasionally salads follow too. Of course, no Georgian meal is complete without a hearty amount of wine, and the local drop is good. Round it off with a couple of shots of chacha, the Caucasus’ answer to grappa, and you’ve done well.

The fun doesn’t stop at dinner though. Tbilisi is home to a host of groovy bars, where the beer is cheap but the wine is cheaper. Mozaika and Warszawa are vibey, always heaving on the weekend and play good music, although there’s also Brown’s Bar, where an angry Northern Irishman does a pub quiz every Wednesday. Tragically, we only managed third, after a dismal showing on movie villain quotes.

The club scene, however, is where Tbilisi truly sets itself apart. The city has become a bit of a techno mecca in recent years, with the cavernous Bassiani leading the way. As clubs go, it’s a pretty mental one. The club is actually situated in a network of tunnels underneath the 50,000-seater Dinamo Stadium, a drained Olympic-size swimming pool serves as the main dancefloor. It’s dark, it’s loud, it’s confusing but
the drinks are competitively priced and everyone’s on a wavelength. If you’re a fan of hard techno and getting home mid-morning, it’s unmissable. I hope that’s a solid advert for Tbilisi, I really can’t recommend it enough. But there’s an equally fantastic Georgia beyond the capital too. Mtskheta, a mere 40 minutes outside Tbilisi, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been continuously inhabited for 2500 years. Centuries-old Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is a stunning site, abounding in history, and Jvari Monastery, perched on a nearby hilltop, supplies the best view over the town. Overall, Mtskheta is a must-do day-trip and a terrific insight into Georgia’s rich past.

Kazbegi, up in the Greater Caucasus mountains, is another top destination. I made my way up there one cold December morning, suffering through the methanic Avlabari Metro and the sweet chaos of Didube bus station, before bagging a spot on a marshrutka. The drive there on the ‘military road’ is a gorgeous one, especially as you ascend up to the Gudauri Pass. The town itself isn’t remarkable, but it is surrounded in every direction by snowy ridges and peaks, which does lend the place a pleasant aesthetic. Mt Kazbek, over 5000m in height, towers over you at all times. It’s also where the Georgian version of Prometheus was all chained up, and Jesus’ manger was apparently stored in a cave there too. The highlight, undoubtedly, is Gergeti monastery. Hilltop church, you get the picture, but it’s an especially good one. Hopefully a photo will make it in.

I’ve not had time to venture anywhere else in Georgia, but stories of Soviet sanatoria near Kutaisi, Batumi in summer, hiking in Mestia, the heart of the winemaking region Sighnaghi have all made it to my ears. I’ll certainly be back to tick those off, hopefully some of you will do the same.