After crossing the border, we were hounded by taxis looking for our custom to drive us the 12 km to the nearest town of Batumi. Tired and with an aching back, we checked into Hotel Boni, where, for 20 Pounds we were treated to a spacious room with balcony, TV and BATH! We watched the end of a Spanish football game, drank some of the contents of the mini-bar and fell asleep.
We woke up to the alarm at 8am and took a taxi to the train station via an ATM. We had thought that Georgia was 2 hours ahead of Turkey, but in fact it is only 1 hour ahead, however we still managed to find a train headed for Tbilisi and dined on a ‘breakfast of kings’, cake, crisps and a mars bar. The journey to Tbilisi took 7 hours and the train was very comfortable with lots of leg room, although the scenery outside was fairly unimpressive.
We arrived into the Georgian capital and took a taxi to one of the hotels in the guidebook, the Vere Inn. Unfortunately it was full, but the lady behind the desk managed to arrange for us to go up to a nearby hotel, the Edel Weiss. For 40 Pounds a night this hotel was way off budget, but it is close to the Azeri embassy, so we vowed that one night would be our limit. We had a traditional Georgian dinner of soup, salads and mince wrapped in cabbage in the hotel’s dining room with a German contractor named Heinz before heading to an expat bar we had earmarked called the Smugglers Inn, which was showing the Champions League Final – Arsenal v Barcelona. After a few pints of Murphys and an Arsenal defeat, I had to wipe the tears from Adam’s eyes before we jumped back into a taxi to take us back to the hotel.
We treated ourselves to a semi-lie-in, a 10am start and managed to get the english-speaking manager in our hotel to call the Azeri embassy and find out where it was. After breakfast, we took a taxi to where we believed the embassy was. It turned out to be an old Soviet block of flats with no electricity in the halls and a distinct stench of urine. After failing to find anything resembling an embassy, we got in another taxi, this time to the address listed in the guidebook. When we knocked on the door, an old couple peered out of their window and told us that it was back where we started. Another taxi later and we finally found the embassy, although we had to wait 2 hours to fill in our visa forms depite the fact that there were only 3 other people in the queue – thats former Soviet bureaucracy for you! We can make them wait so we damn well will!
After finally filling in our visa forms, we headed back to the Edel Weiss, collected our bags and headed to Nasi’s Homestay, a much more reasonably priced accomadation option on the other side of the river. Nasi, the owner is a former German teacher and speaks fluent German, making it easier for me to obtain information about where to go, what to see etc. The rooms are dorm style but clean although the bathrooms leave something to be desired. We headed out into central Tbilisi and searched out Prospero’s book store, a wonderful little english language book shop, where we were able to exchange some of the books we have read and buy some additional ones. On the way back to Nasi’s, we stopped in at the Whittards of Chelsea, English tea house, where we treated ourselves to a pot of English Breakfast whilst surrounded by pictures of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Our second day in the Georgian capital was spent looking around the old part of the city. We walked down the river toward the old town and then up through the cobbled streets. We visited the Synagogue, a hundred year old building almost destroyed by an earthquake, whose interior was ornate through its simplicity. A small house of prayer but nevertheless well worth a look into. We then headed to the Georgian National Museum of Money. Although this sounds like it may be a bit of a white elephant, in fact it was a very interesting exhibition, free of charge to visit, with currencies from nearly every country accross the globe as well as some excavated coins from Georgia dating back to as early as the 6th century. On our way home, we once again stopped off for a brew at the Whittard tea room before dining on traditional Georgian fare of Khinkali, spiced meatballs wrapped in dough and boiled intom dumplings. The portion of 10 dumplings which was brought to me proved to be too much for even me to finish, so I ended up cutting the meat out of the dough, much to the amusement of our waitress.
Saturday, we had hoped to get out of the city and into the countryside around Tbilisi. As we have had to wait for our Azeri visas, we figured we had the time. We walked up to the train station, only to find that the only train to Mtshketa left at 9am and by now it was already noon. We decided to go for it tomorrow instaead and headed back to the old town, in search of the famous sulphur baths. For 20 Lari (5 pounds) we had a private cabin consisting of two rooms. One with two leather sofa, nightclub lighting and a toilet cubicle, and the other, full of steam, with two showers and a sulphur bath about 6 square feet. We bought a couple of beers and got straight in to the hot bath. After 15 minutes we were both too hot and decided a break in the changing room on the leather sofas was in order. On closer inspection it turned out the beers we had bought were 12.5% proof which might explain the exaggerated sweating! After a short break and another dip, we dressed and headed back out into the fresh air – somewhat of a relief!
On the way back into town we passed a pub with the ultimate lure outside – a Guinness sign! Having not tasted any of my beloved ‘Black Stuff’ since Sighisoara, this was too good an opportunity to miss. One pint. Two pints. Then we moved on and found another bar. We dined in an empty bar with a guy playing the piano. He sang a number of songs in english although he didn’t know most of the words. The last song he sang was Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’, which we sang with great enthusiasm, one line at a time each all the way back to our hostel.
We had set the alrm for 8am on sunday morning, in order for us to catch the train to Mtshketa. In reality, neither of us budged from our slumber until 10am. We decided that seeing as we had missed the train, we had had some time, so returned to the Wittard tea room for a sunday morning brew adn followed this up with a sunday morning brunch – in McDonalds. There are only 2 McDonalds in Tbilisi and I think they are fairly new and they are VERY popular with the locals. Middle-class Tbilisians seem to regard it as the ultimate symbol of wealth and as such it is always busy. We dined on Big Mac Meals and afterwards paid our respects to Uncle Ronald, perched on a bench outside the restaurant. As we left Maccy D’s, we hailed a cab, as we had missed the train, we thought we would get a bus to Mtshketa.
Our driver, Illie who was about 50 years old spoke no english but seemed ecstatic that he had two of Her Majesty’s citizens in his cab. At one point, he stopped in a crowded square, and left us sat in the taxi wondering what the hell he was doing. All we wanted was to go to the bus station! It turned out he spent 5 minutes wandering around just to find someone who could speak english so he could find out our names. When he learned taht we wanted to go to Mkshketa, he offered to take us there and back for the equivalent of 8 pounds. He was pretty insane but we kind of liked him so we agreed. As we left Tbilisi, Adam, who was sitting in the front tried to point out something in the guidebook. Illie grabbed Adam’s hand, put it on the steering wheel, then put on his glasses and spent a good few minutes looking at the book while Adam steered us through 3 lanes of heavy traffic. He also took the time to call his parents and made Adam speak to his mother. He was so proud to have english passengers in his taxi!
We managed to arrive at Jvari still alive. Perched on a hill and overlooking a beautiful, lush valley, Jvari is an old chapel, dating back to the 5th century. There were a number of visitors there, one of whom had brought a lamb, which we guessed he was about to kill and wanted to say a prayer first. The Georgian belief in god is supreme, so much so that everytime they so much as walk past a church, they cross themselves 3 times. On our way out of the chapel, Illie found another person who spoke english to explain to us the history of the chapel. Turns out the person he picked was a Georgian TV presenter doing a documentary for an Israeli TV programme about the links between Georgia and Israel. Of course we were also interviewed. Where were we from? Why were we in Georgia? We’re travelling overland to China? Why? People in Israel, keep a look out for us on your TV screens!
Our next stop was Mkshketa, where we visited the largest cathedral in Georgia, the Sveti-Tskhoveli Catrhedral. Illie was confused as to why I wasn’t crossing myself on entering the church and rather than try to explain I was an atheist, I just pointed to the star of David on the map which marked out the synagogue. The Sveti-Tskhoveli is smaller than a lot of European cathedrals and nowhere near as ornate, yet I still felt a real sense of majesty and the pure belief of the Georgian visitors to the site enforced this feeling. After half an hour of looking around teh cathedral, taking care not to step on the graves marked on the floor inside, we headed back to Tbilisi, where again, Adam was forced into steering while Illie checked out on the map where we wanted to be dropped. As we got out of the cab, we both recieved a kiss on the cheek from our new found friend Illie, and Adam, who had drawn a star on a piece of paper and gestured to Illie that he was a star, got a tug on his hair and a kiss on the forehead too. I’m jealous! As we looked up to get our bearings, Illie had dropped us outside the only other McDonalds i town. Mcflurrys for us then!
We used the internet and then headed for an Irish bar called the Hangar, where expats hang out and we knew we’d be able to watch the playoff final – Watford v Leeds! (Congrats Uncle Andrew!) We even treated ourselves to home-cooked english food! A nice little taste of home before we get too far away! Again, we headed for some of the local bars, which hosted musicians playing english songs, but who didn’t know the words. We made it back to Nasi’s (or Camp as it has been fondly re-named) just before the curfew.
Our final day in Tbilisi was spent driving to and from the Azerbaijan embassy at the opposite end of town. We went to drop off our passports and were greeted by the same unfriendly guards who had made us wait previously. One of the guards was particularly morose and just sat on a chair in the little guard hut staring at us. We nicknamed him ‘Porkchop’ due to his somewhat large figure. After half and hours waiting, we deposited our passports and then spent the rest of the day in various cafes and on the internet in order to pass the time before we headed back to pick up our visas. This time, Porkchop had been replaced by a different uniformed officer and we were seen almost immediately. Visas in hand, it was time to head to Azerbaijan!
We took a taxi back to Nasis and collected our bags before heading to the train station. We purchased our tickets and sat on the platform, enjoying our final freedoms before we were imprisoned on a train for the following 15 hours. As we sat and waited, a man escorted by two very large men dressed in dark suits arrived and boarded the train, leaving his entourage on the platform with their sombre glares. ”Mafia” we both thought, observing the manner of this gentleman’s arrival. 5 minutes before our 17:45 departure and we boarded the train, only to find that our travel companion for the evening was no less than Mungo Mafiosi himself! (That wasn’t his actual name but thats how we referred to him) Mungo spoke little english, but we managed to get by and even played a few hands of cards with us. He told us he was a restauranteur and had restaurants in Moscow, Batumi, Tbilisi and Baku, but we still had an inkling that there was more to his business affairs than simply selling plates of food!
At the Georgian border, we all got off the train and Mungo very kindly bought us both a bottle of beer. Not wanting to offend we obliged and drank the cold, sweet nectar – a welcome relief due to the fact that our train (a former German Democratic Republican train) was swelteringly hot and we knew that a beer would not help with the dehydration. We began to consider all sorts of conspiracy theories; Was he trying to get us drunk? Was he going to use us as mules to smuggle drugs over the border? If we blew the whistle, was he going to feed us to the fishes? After passing through the Azeri border, Mungo pulled a Kachaburi (traditional Georgian cheese pie) out of his bag and offered it to us, stating that he was on a diet and wouldn’t eat it. Hungry and not wanting to offend, once again we obliged and between us, demolished the Kachaburi. After an hour or so, Mungo stripped off down to his pants, exhibiting his large bulk and fell asleep on his bunk. We did the same and managed some kind of sleep despite the blistering temperature on the train.
I woke up at about 8:30, the sun came streaming in through the window and we were no longer in the lush green mountains of the Georgian Caucasus, but were passing through the arid semi-desert of Azeri territory. The rising sun began to heat up the compartment further and the need to keep wiping the sweat off our brows returned. We finally pulled into Baku at 10:30, said a fond farewell to Mungo Mafiosi, promising to go and visit his restaurant and said a little prayer that we had made it through the night.