Country number: 150
Territory number: 175
When? October 2017, coming from Armenia, going on to Azerbaijan
How? Train, bus, on foot
Who? Group tour on train
‘There was a huge moon over the western mountains, and it made the city seem even more mysterious and old, and the great black castle on the ridge stood out in front of the moon. And if there are ghosts anyplace in the world, they must be here, and if there is a ghost of Queen Tamara, she must have been walking the ridge in the moonlight that night.’
John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal
Georgia on my mind, though not the American state, which is what Google overwhelmingly throws at you if you type Georgia into the search engine. I’m finally on the train. The railway station is dark and embarkation is far more subdued out here, on this border outpost, than it was on my Moscow journey when there was a VIP lounge with champagne, a harpist and a brass band. But opulence still rules ok. We still get the cute cabin attendants standing on red carpets to help us into our cabins, which are still all swags, lace and brocade. My attendant has a husband to help her too. He lugs all the cases. I wonder if they squash into her tiny cabin together.
There’s still a huge bowl overflowing with fruit at the end of the corridor, and too much to eat. The caviar welcome dinner involves vodka and champagne in crystal glasses and tiny delicious blinis with cream. Some of the staff are the same as on my last trip. I have photos to prove it. And we have three chefs, one Russian, one Chinese and one Ukrainian on board. This trip is not cheap and my fellow passengers are an affluent bunch. Some have some on the trip of a lifetime. Most are movers and shakers. Laura, for example, is a VP of the most well known companies in the world. Those in Imperial Class get a separate car and guide, so they don’t have to travel in the bus with us. I’m in lowly silver class. I can’t find anywhere in my cabin to put my clothes, but otherwise it’s comfy. My compact bathroom is a wet room that converts to a shower cubicle by unfolding a curtain all the way round. Amazingly, it works. Four of us, who occupied the back of the bus have formed a breakaway group called the Riff Raff Club. Shane, who is part of our group, was a big wig at a very large American company. Farida runs her own business in Uganda. And Tino is the train’s doctor, so that’s useful.
There is medley of architecture in Tbilisi; a startling amount of it is space-age. Here is yet another president (Mikheil Saakashvili) with a preference for flashy prestige projects to impress foreign investors and politicians. There are towers, statues and cupolas aplenty (illuminated at night of course). There are a pair of long steel and glass tubes that were going to be museums and may or not get completed. There is a new parliament building- a concrete bubble, and a futuristic bridge that has unfortunately, (according to Lonely Planet), been nicknamed the Always Bridge, because of its curvy shape. The spanking new police stations are all glass and see through, symbolic of Georgia’s aspirations for democratic transparency. The modern side of town has boulevards lined with crumbling shabby chic villas, many dabbling in art deco. It’s all a complete contrast to the maze-like, cobblestone streets of its old town, on the other side of the Kura River, which bisects the whole of Georgia. Perched above are the domes of the sulphur spring bathhouses, tiled and terracotta and a fortress and mosque. The mosque is the only one, so is unique in being used by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. There’s plenty of churches, the Sioni cathedral, 13 renovated caravanserai (mostly now converted to shopping malls) and a lively balconied street full of cafes and restaurants. Slightly incongruously, Leonard Cohen is playing in one of them.
Then there’s a very long lunch- again. Most of them last two hours and involve mezze of different kinds of flat bread, baked on the premises, tomato, cucumber and herb salads, dolmades, aubergine rolls and soft cheese, before minced patties, stew or kebabs emerge and some roast potatoes. Dishes arrive one at time so there is never a complete plate of food English style. There’s a really good inside out cottage cheese pastry or pizza. Finally, out comes a bottle of chacha, the lethal Georgian schnapps.
The Georgian language is very different. Georgians have their own alphabet, possibly (like the Armenian one) based on the Ethiopian. Mama means daddy and dadi means mummy. (Honestly.)
Dinner is in yet another local restaurant and involves much the same food as lunch, accompanied by a lengthy dancing performance involving many changes of costume, cossack leaping in long black boots and fake plaits.
Today, we head into the countryside, where the Caucasus mountains, still snow-capped, frame our back drop and farmers scratch out a subsistence living that’s very different to the show of Tbilisi. Some of the roads are narrow and windy and in need of repair. It doesn’t help that last night’s repast is disagreeing with me badly and I have to ask for the bus to halt at a gas station before the planned toilet stop.
Georgia is famous for the ancient wine-growing region Kakheti. The Tsinindali estate is a former aristocratic family residence, now a little museum, with wine-tasting of course. It has views over the Caucasus, as does Kizikhi, and Shumachmann’s Winery with lunch and more wine tasting. It’s a long and tiring drive with a final stop at Sigani, a royal town containing a multitude of wooden balconies with sloping tiled roofs. There are more good views, this time across the lower part of town, with a fortress and church and the longest defensive wall outside China.
All this time our train has been parked in Tbilisi station with an outlook onto grim concrete platforms. I’m beginning to wonder if this really is a rail journey. We’ve come 80 km on the tracks so far.
Overnight, the train has moved 100 kilometres to Gori. This involves much crashing and banging, as the engine is shunted. The rails are clearly not in very good shape. At one point all my clothes come showering down from their overhead niche and land on my bed. It’s a rude and much too premature awakening.
We’re again on the bus, which is taking us back to Tbilisi, where the train will have already returned. First, the Stalin Museum; and it’s a timely visit. It’s the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution and there are a plethora of Stalin based books, video and radio programmes around in the UK at the moment. (Iannuci’s film, The Death of Stalin is particularly good.) In the museum, is more or less every object you can think of that might possibly be emblazoned or engraved with pictures of Stalin. Laura rightly points out that in his youth Stalin looks like George Michael. In most of the pictures his small pox scars and withered arm are airbrushed out. Though I think they called it retouched then. Gori is his birthplace and he is still revered, despite being responsible for more deaths than anyone else in the history of the world. His old house is encased in a neoclassical villa in the grounds, which are home to numerous dogs, all tagged and cared for by the town. We are told that this is because Stalin liked them, but I’ve also read that he used to attach explosives to dogs and send them into the Nazi camps.
It’s a diverse itinerary today. There are two churches of course, in and above the old capital, Mtskheta, where a multiplicity of weddings seem to be taking place. Before this, the ancient city at Uplistsikhe, a warren of cave homes, halls and temples dating from the sixth century BC. The weather is still, beautiful, much to the guide’s surprise: ‘But it’s always windy up here,’ and we are shuffling around, sweltering in the big coats we wore, as instructed. Lunch is inserted in-between and follows a sealed menu (rolled and tied with gold ribbon), with more Cossack style folk dancing.
Back on the train, we lurch on to Azerbaijan.