Exploring splendid Georgia
11 Oct 2016 - 12:52
By Saeed Muhammad
One of the less than desired way of being welcomed into a new tourist city is being driven from the airport to the hotel through dingy roads and sub-elegant neighbourhoods. Unless you are prepared for it, and especially in moments you long for a better deal, all your hopes of having a pleasant holiday in joyful abandon vanish. That was exactly what happened on an otherwise pleasant end-of-summer day when our airport transfer driver chose such an unseemly route for the better part of the roughly 15km drive from Tbilisi airport to our hotel in the commercial hub of Marjanshvilli area.
This was not the capital of Georgia I had conjured up from online research, tourist backgrounders and personal hearsay of previous tourists, all of which had painted the picture of a capital with a much smoother and tidier roads and presentable habitat. It took a gradual introduction to the city’s quiet infrastructure and highly friendly people over the next few days of stay and a final return drive to the airport via the well laid-out highway to eventually correct the notion.
In the meantime, much water had flowed in River Mtkvari River. (Count the consonants in the name, heavily outweighing vowels as it always happens in Georgian language. Skartveli, the Georgian name of the country and capital Tbilisi easily come to mind, as also numerous other names with consonant clusters). Mtkvari (called Kura for the obvious avoidance of tongue-twister!) is a near ubiquitous entity in Tbilisi; they say civilisations are born on river banks, but here the banks with several bridges most being traditionally designed provide splendid spectacles easily making a photo-maniac’s delight.
The only and beautiful exception to the style of bridges is the Bridge of Peace, called the Glass Bridge (where glass is not a major load-bearing component but just a panelling along the handrails). Built in 2010, and designed by the Italian architect Michele De Lucchi, the bridge is a tastefully built bow-shaped structure that stands out from the predominantly older, classical architecture that dot the city’s landscape. (Data show that its structure was all brought from Italy in 200 trucks and assembled at site). It has a lighting of 1200 LED fixtures each consuming just 8W power but emitting a non-beaming floodlight you cannot escape the sight of at night, behaving in four different pre-designed patterns. In the walk-way of the pedestrian bridge, the sensors of LED arrays light up at the passing of pedestrians. During day it becomes a favourite background for photos from different angles.
Not many of Georgia’s attractions are that modern. In fact most attractions of the country have its ancient structures with old-age charm. And Capital Tbilisi is far from a city of skyscrapers. The tallest structure of the Millennium Hotel at 150 metres is itself a 2016 recent addition. Such rare buildings apart, terrain of Georgia is marked by high altitude spots. The Mountain of Khazbegi lies 5000 metres above sea-level with catchy scenic charm and ample challenge to the trekkers, and is one of the mountains of the Caucasus.
Situated in the crossroads of West Asia and Europe, Georgia has Eurasian features. Geographically more Asian being on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea, but in visible features of terrain, buildings and people, it is heavily European. Bordered by Armenia on the south, Turkey on the southwest, Russia on the north and northeast, and Azerbaijan on the east and southeast, and flanked on the west by Black Sea, Georgia is right at the Asia-Europe meeting point, but sees itself more as European.
Its ancient capital of Mtshkheta 23km away from Tbilisi bears little semblance of once being the capital, and is more a historic relic than any current hub. It bears distinct marks of very early Christian tradition and remains the headquarters of Georgian Orthodox Church. The fortresses there may invoke historical interest, and stun by its ancient engineering. Not for nothing has it qualified as a UNESCO –protected cultural heritage – the frescoes showing signs of decay. The Georgian church on the top with its Jvan monastery would vouch for its claim as heritage of medieval architecture said to have set the model across Caucasus and the site offers splendid view of the city.
Tbilisi city itself, said to be established in 5th Century CE, may boast more legacy than modern engineering. The Meydan and Sulphur baths right in the heart of the city attract considerable tourist treading. And Rustaveli Avenue, one of Tbilisi’s main shopping districts, has most smart brand outlets tucked inside old buildings rather than with protruding signboards. On the contrary, that squeezing of wares in congested spaces can be seen more in the busier hub of Marjanshvili Street. And because our hotel was in the latter’s neighbourhood, there was no dearth of eateries catering more to the palates with a Turko-Arabian bend, and looking for halal cuisine, kabab dominating of course. Well, that wouldn’t stop any from getting ample flavour of the typical Georgian, and delicious, varieties of khajapuri, the Georgian pizza version, with flour and cheese. A rather heavy delicacy there, but something no visitor to Georgia should miss.
Language would definitely pose a problem for foreigners, English being a bit rare to find except in tourist-frequented spots where shopkeepers have a smattering of it, and with smart shops manned by fluent speakers. The use of English, and focus on it in education, is also said to be on the rise of late.
English or no English, the people of Georgia are extremely tourist-friendly. The natural tourist instinct to mistrust local populations for fleecing and cheating in bargain has no reason to exist in Georgia. For that matter, there is very little ‘bargaining ground’ for items like souvenirs which mostly sell for nearly the same price everywhere. Most things are cheap too in the country, more so its hotels, food and transport – things the tourist easily get a feel of. This writer was surprised to see the distance covered by a chartered taxi to reach the ethnographic museum from the city for just 10 Georgian Lari (GEL) less than $4.5. That said, Georgia is keen to bring in tourists. Most nationalities can obtain visa on arrival. In fact, the passport control desk in Tblisi’s modest but clean airport, though not manned by the best of courteous officials, turned out to be the fastest ever immigration clearance for yours truly – no forms to fill, least of queries.
Christian history abound in Georgia. In fact to a tourist, the Orthodox Christian culture will show itself as deep-rooted in the people, visibly in people’s body behaviour — with nearly every cab driver seen raising hands to draw the cross at the sight of a church or cross or sculpture: of which the country has enough.
Overlooking Tbilisi is the giant figure of the Kartlis Deda, the mother of Georgia, standing 20 meters high in aluminium, and with a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other,that cannot be missed in any part of the capital. To get to the top of the hill of Sololaki where the status is, and beside the Narikala fortress, one can take a 2-minute cable car ride with nice views of the city on the way. Some may recommend a walk up, but not recommended for the gasping variety. But the descent, as they say, may be better done on foot for a still better view of the scenery below.
Georgia would ask its visitor for plenty of road journeys along highways. A drive along Georgian Military Highway, leading eventually to Russia along the Caucasus, is a not-to-be-missed experience where the road traverses alongside the turquoise Zhinvali Reservoir and passes beautiful Ananuri and the Gudauri ski resort before crossing the 2,379 metres high Jvari Pass then descending the Tergi valley to the small spectacular town of Kazbegi, a superb base for walking and climbing. And of course, in the process one cannot miss the thick dots in distant valleys which as you approach turn out to be close flocks of sheep.
To have a mixture of good road and bad, one should visit Borjomi Spa resort to breathe enough of fresh clean air and may be again a ride up the hill by cable car. And as they say the higher you go the deeper the mercury, but at the bottom you can taste from the profusion of spring water in the preserved garden. If the word ‘spring water’ may entice you to pure water, when the care-taker’s glass is extended to you, you are in for a surprise when you flavour thesour taste in nature’s direct unprocessed supply. And the road-journey shy lot can have equal nature treat in Turtle Lake, just on the outskirts of Tbilisi.
Some of the more endearing, and enduring, features of Georgia for the tourist are of its highly friendly people — despite their unfamiliarity with your link language such as English. Noticeable are: the relative stability of prices of popular items at different attractions despite bits of haggling which may still be needed at some places, inexpensive hotels, food and transport. There may not be much special to buy off Tbilisi, but its flea market may arouse some tourist curiosity. And those still for the upmarket outlets, the Tbilisi Mall and East Point may not disappoint you.