Exploring Tbilisi, Georgia

I arrived in Tbilisi at 04:00 after a long flight Beijing-Vienna-Tbilisi.  For some reason most flights into the Caucasus countries arrive or depart   at very uncivilized hours. However, the customs formalities were quick, my bags came through right away and the image driver Ramaz was waiting for me. I was at my hotel by 04:30 and crashed for a few hours sleep. After catching up on work for a few hours I decided to go out in the late afternoon spring sunshine to explore part of Tbilisi. The weather was much more conducive to wandering around than when I was here in January and the sidewalks and roads were covered in sheets of ice.

Tbilisi has one of the most complicated layouts of any city I have visited. It is built along the banks of the Mtkvari river, but surrounded by mountains on three sides it stretches in different directions in an elongated manner. It is said that the city stretches some 30 km along the river. On a map there are a lot of green areas, but these seem to be terrain not suitable for development.

I was staying at the Mariott Courtyard Hotel in the centre of 08-04-Tbilisi-775town. Outside my window was ‘Freedom Square’ which is dominated by the statue to the right of St. George – the renowned slayer of the dragon. Some say that Georgia is named after him, while others argue that it comes from Greek/Latin ’tiller of land/agricultural’, and others Persian for the ‘Gurz people’.

While academics may argue for the latter definitions, the Georgians I asked are very clear: they are named after St. George. This is announced loud and clear from their flag which has the red cross of St. George, with four smaller crosses in each corner.

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After catching up on some sleep and my work, a beautiful sunny spring day beckoned, with temperatures of some 20 C. I decided to go exploring through ‘Old Tbilisi’, specifically heading up the hills to the south of the city where the Narikala fortress ruins were dominating the hill, along with a huge statue of the ‘Mother of Georgia’.

There are no high-rise buildings in this part of Tbilisi, just many old apartment buildings, dating back well over 100 years. Since the Soviets abolished private property, and this was only re-established in the last 15 years, many of them are fairly run down, but they still have lots of character as the photos below show.

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Tbilisi is a city of contrasts. Wandering around the old town you see many signs of poverty, but at the same time there are many new and expensive cars and areas of the city which are developing quite rapidly. One thing which surprised me was how many beggars approached me asking for money. This is something I was more used to in India, and almost never happened in China. Most were old, a reflection of the economic and political turmoil the country has had. In the north-west of Georgia is the region of Abkhazia which succeeded some ten years ago. The ethnic cleansing led to some 250,000 Georgians being displaced into Georgia, a huge number for a country of some 3.9 million people. But I digress …

I wound my way through the streets looking for a path up the hill. Eventually when I was just below the statue I saw some stairs leading up so began my ascent. image  I passed an old church and then eventually found myself at the summit. On the way up I interrupted a young couple having a romantic interlude. That was to the be the first of many such interruptions that day: this area was apparently the place for lovers to come for some quiet time together. Love in in the springtime air.

The statue was quite interesting as it was made of aluminium. Some 20 m high, it was apparently unveiled in 1958 to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of the founding of Tbilisi. There is some definite Georgian symbolism – in one hand there is bowl of wine (the national drink!) and the other a sword! One gift for the friends, and another for the enemies.

The views were excellent and the photos below give you an idea of the city.

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I wandered east towards the Narikala fortress08-04-Tbilisi-787, passing quite a few more young couples. Made me miss Lis, even more so when I later stumbled onto a flowerbed full of tulips – her favourite flower!

One thing which surprised me was a couple of trees I saw which had hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of material tied to them. When I saw the same a few days later on a visit to some roads it was explained that they were a ‘wish tree’ and that you tied something to the tree to make your wish come true.

08-04-Tbilisi-793Although the photos suggest that the fortress is in good condition, it is nothing more than two walls, with a lot of ruins. Originally built in the 4th century, it was expanded over time and saw the Georgian kings, the Mongols, Turks and others.  These walls were relatively recent – dating from the 16th/17th centuries.

I entered the fortress through a gate and wandered up past the very beautifully08-04-Tbilisi-792 restored church of St. Nicholas. If there is one thing that Tbilisi has an abundance of it is churches. No matter where you look in the city there are spires of churches. The Georgians also seem to be religious. When walking the streets I see many cross themselves as they walk past a church.

Digression #2: I’ve mentioned elsewhere that there is a lot of political turmoil here in Georgia. Very recently there was a hunger strike by some protesters against the government. The situation was apparently becoming very tense and finally the patriarch of the Georgian church stepped in and told everyone to essentially calm down and back off. Which they did. A colleague said that he is the one person in Georgia who everyone has deep respect for, for one reason that he never gets involved in politics – until now.

I took the photo below from the fortress, showing the river (and yet another church). There are all these houses built right on the edge of the cliff, and even overhanging. In old photos I could see that some had been there for at least 100 years.  Behind them you can see typical ‘Soviet’ architecture: a concrete apartment building.

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From the fortress I headed down towards town, and then turned behind the hill to see what was up 08-04-Tbilisi-802that way. I stumbled onto the botanical gardens and went in for a wander.

The gardens are essentially in a valley between two hills, with the fortress on the right and a stream cutting down the middle. It was unfortunately too early in spring for many of the trees to be in blossom, but I did find tulips and a pond with the loudest frogs I have ever heard! It was nice to be in such a quite, peaceful place in nature, only a few minutes from the bustling city. I filed it away as somewhere that I can return to in the future when I need to chill out.

08-04-Tbilisi-805  As would be expected, the area below the fortress is one of the older parts of Tbilisi, with narrow cobblestone streets. lined by ancient houses.

I had observed from the fortress a minaret and as I walked past the mosque I was very surprised to see a wedding party going in with young women dressed in a manner that I have never seen a Muslim woman dress, let alone going into a place of worship. I was later told that in fact the building with the mosque is built up against a church and I had seen the people going into the church half. It was fascinating to hear that this mosque is a joint Shiite and Sunni mosque – the two factions that are always warring with each other in Iraq. This is apparently one of the only places in the world where both groups worship together.

At the base of the hill there was a very strange looking structure which I went to investigate. It was the “Sulphur Baths”. Legend has it that Tbilisi owes its location to the hot mineral springs running under its territory. The name of the city itself also originates from the springs – ‘tbili’ means ‘warm’ in the Georgian language. Legend has it that King Vakhtang Gorgasali once wounded a deer with an arrow while hunting. The deer (or pheasant according to other versions) fell into a hot stream, was soon cured, and ran away. After examining the stream and concluding that it possessed curative powers, the King decided to move his residence to the site and called it ‘Tbilisi’. Must give them a visit before I head out.

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From there it was off to a restaurant for dinner and then collapsing at the hotel as the over travel, jet lag, and a newly developed cold kicked in. Still, it was great to have a few hours to explore this very interesting city. I’m looking forward to working here.

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