City Bookends: Tbilisi and Batumi

We began and and ended our Georgian journey in its two main cities, the capitol of Tbilisi and the former playground of Soviet Russia in Batumi.  We flew into Tbilisi from Delhi on the last day of July…we returned two more times in the course of August, making it our Caucasus base.  The city is a patchwork of tumbledown European buildings, blocky Soviet era structures, medieval sacred sites, and funky modern designs.  After five months of working our way through east, southeast, and south central Asia, it felt like culture shock to wander through this small metropolis that suddenly smacks of Europe.

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Our first time in Tbilisi, we spent two nights at the Villa Opera Hostel, far removed from the city center or the historical areas, but filled with a colorful cast of characters, including the Polish owner, the Russian cleaning woman, and Kaya the extremely pregnant dog.  We were unexpectedly charmed by the Soviet throwback experience of riding the subway.  Large sculptures and bas reliefs depicting the joys of the communist state still adorn the platforms, the escalators carry you deep underground at speeds that are slightly alarming, and the rickety subway carriages move a little too quickly and loudly for comfort.  We visited the market at Station Square, where people were selling everything from roasted peanuts in newspaper cones to old spiral cords for house phones.  Additionally, we had a bit of an adventure finding the well-hidden central post office to mail a package back to Korea and then wandering the back alleys of the wee financial district.

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After going to Armenia (be still, my heart!), we returned to Tbilisi for our second stay, this time discovering the Old Town area around Liberty Square, which was also often called Freedom Square.  Twisting back alleys with crumbling old houses led onto wide boulevards showing the sleek facades of museums and posh shops.  We found ourselves in beautiful churches and on ivy-covered lanes lined with restaurants and wineries.  Running through it all is the river, which we strolled along, snapping many photos of all the picturesque sights that caught our eyes.

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In the evenings, we enjoyed cooking for ourselves in the hostel kitchen and eating on the patio in the lingering summer twilights.  Of course, we still enjoyed investigating various dining options in town, from attempting our first khinkali to finding an ice cream shop that had plentiful sorbets and soy milk with which to make vegan friendly milkshakes.  Needless to say, one could see my giant neon purple cloud of joy from 100 kilometers away.  After a couple days of this, we headed to wine country, and then onto the northern, mountainous areas, before coming back for our third round of Tbilisi.

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Our third visit to Tbilisi was our longest, at three nights.  Kaya had given birth to her litter of 13 puppies, which we were eager to meet and snuggle with.  Of course, we returned to the ice cream parlor, where we indulged in more sorbet, but only after we scoured the city to look for the best khinkali to feed our budding addiction.  And we discovered there was much more money on our transit card than we thought, so we treated ourselves to a ride on the cable car that carries you up to the old fortress that looks over the Old City and the river snaking off to the distance.  When it was time to say goodbye to the city, we felt like we were leaving this little slice of familiarity behind.  Then again, it just gives us a home base for our next adventure to the Caucasus…I am certain there will be more.

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Sunday morning dawned bright and we made our way to the Didube bus station, just one subway stop away, for our ride toward Batumi.  For six hours we rolled through rapidly changing countryside that went from flat plains to river canyons to industrial mining complexes to dense pine forests.  We passed a small town that specialized in a particular bread, another town that specialized in clay urns, and later we passed through a village famous for its basket weaving.  In Gori, a Peace Corps volunteer from Texas got in our marshrutka and told us all about working in the mining areas there (the area is also famous for its caves).  About 35 km before Batumi, we saw the small sign for Kaprovani village and asked to get out.  A long country lane took us down to the edge of the Black Sea.  The area has special black magnetic sand, which is supposed to be excellent for health.  Two nights camping in the black sand with the sound of waves only a few meters away and towering pines overhead?  Yes, that might improve anyone’s health.

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On our final morning, I woke up for an early walk along the beach.  The sun was climbing over the horizon as I passed a grandfather and his grandson jogging on the sand, two nuns swimming in full habit, and a security guard minding the private beach.  As the sun shone horizontally across the water, a storm out at sea produced a magnificent rainbow over the water…hard to capture in a photo, but impossible to forget.  Later, just after lunch, the co-owner of the beach campground drove us into Batumi.  The lush gardens clinging to the hills give way to a view of the city jutting out into the water, looking somewhat like the Emerald City.  Batumi was the resort of choice for those in the Soviet Union…and even before.  The result is a pretty, pocket-sized city perched on the edge of the Black Sea only a few kilometers away from the Turkish border.

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Batumi has even older legendary status, as the home of the Golden Fleece of Jason and the Argonauts fame.  Apparently Poseiden also occasionally retired to this side of the sea for a break.  These days, it is a meeting point for many cultures that come here to vacation.  It is all a great hodgepodge, with women in burkas passing women clad in string bikinis on the rock beach, scruffy backpackers eating ice cream next to aristocratic yachters, and voices speaking Georgian, Russian, Turkish, Hebrew, Persian, English, and a bunch of other languages along the streets.  We only spent a couple hours wandering before we hopped in a marshrutka bound for Sarpi and the border.

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At the border, we changed the last dregs of our Georgian lari for Turkish lira, which was great fun for someone who enjoys playing with language.  And just like that, our four weeks in the Caucasus was over.  Georgia and Armenia both stole our hearts.  As always, leaving something wonderful is hard…but then again, there are so many more adventures yet to come!

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