Georgia part 3: moving around in Georgia
The train from Tbilisi to the Black Sea coast is Big, very Big. Twice as wide and twice as tall as any train I’ve experienced. Also twice as slow, at least, pulling that great hulk of space with the power of pure Georgian electricity. Are Russian trains this big, or was this train converted from a cargo tranport? Whichever, the space was well used. Before we left the wide aisle filled up with a thronging bazari of bread, drinks, more bread, magazines, and one old spritely woman draped with flashing beeping electronic toys. Saleswoman thronged the platform, selling through the windows; mostly it was women creating the informal markets sprawled across the city.
Tbilisi Train Station itself is a huge hulking, space age sweep of a structure. The upper level offices, like the upper decks of an ocean liner, but given over to a patchwork construction of refugee apartments from the western conflicts; the whole thing a derelict heaving space ship, readying for take off to some new Georgian future.
We heaved out of the station imperceptibly, and were on our way. It was pleasant. We gorged on a basket of raspberries from the market (which might have later given us severe stomach illness, but they were so tasty). The train was kitted with TVs and ran a music video show, in Russian and Georgian, and then from people’s interest what I think is a well-known Georgian film about a well-known Georgian myth-history. In the opening scene, the hero chases down an out of control horse and carriage, saves them from dropping off a cliff, but ends up diving over himself into the river below before the passengers can even thank him. Seems to sum up much of ideal Georgian culture.
The electricity went out for the whole country, just as the train neared the Black Sea coast and short of Batumi. The conductors responded in fine bureaucratic fashion, by not telling anyone anything and sitting down for a smoke. We eventually figured it out, by the mass exodus from the train to the nearby bus stop.
Now there are private minibuses everywhere. Yes there are public buses in Tbilisi, repaired so much in bits and pieces that little of the original remains in the rusting wheeled containers. The private minibuses work extremely well. Flag them for a pickup from any point on the route, and call for your stop any time. They get crowded, but are cheap and plentiful enough. There’s no agency controlling how many buses on a route, or how often they run; this emerges from agreement and conversation among the drivers and to meet the daily and seasonal fluctations of rider demand. The spike in this free market wet dream is that the routes, the direction through the city and the designated number, are “owned” by government officials who demand payment in a mobile fiefdom.
The other problem with minibuses is that they are a favorite spot to rob tourists (the streets themselves are pretty safe). Or at least (2) attempted robberies in our case. These were intercity routes, the countryside and mountains a cover. The first time, I noticed 3 guys dressed in all black unsubtly oriented themselves around us as we waited for the minibus. I was sure they had designs when the lead dude took some sunflower seeds from an old woman sunflower seed seller, without payment. Sure enough, they boarded the same bus as we. I just held tight to the bag, until Anna asked for the water and luckily this was just the thing. I pulled out the water, but didn’t stop there and pulled out the toilet paper with a flourish, then some dried fruit. TP is great, they stopped the bus and left.
The next lame robbery attempt happened in the mountains, from Batumi to Borjomi. Four dudes flagged down the bus, the driver hesitainting to slow. Anna got a phone call, then suddenly one guy got up in this packed minibus and made like he mistakingly pathetically dropped a bunch of coins around our seat. Guess he wanted us to get up without our bags for a rummage around. He didn’t get anything, but it was unnerving, they were more physical. Everyone was aware of them, so they quickly got off. The other passengers were great with recovery, we started sharing food. Fresh hazelnuts, still wrapped like presents in green leaves and shell.
Mainly in Tbilis, we took taxis. Traffic, and taxis especially, take a very fuzzy approach to lanes, lights, and other vehicles. Taxi drivers are very religious, fervently crossing themselves at passing churches. It’s wise, because driving is absolutely insane and dangerous. Being a pedestrian is also dangerous, a mad dash to cross unpredictable traffic. Apparently, there’s a subway in Tbilisi, though it makes no impression on the city landscape and was unnoticed.
Anyway, here’s a more official view on transport in Georgia from the World Bank.
Tragically, a colleague of Anna’s at FOE was in an accident with a minibus in the mountains, flipped over to avoid a head on collision. We hope she recovers well!