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Phespirit goes to Georgia
Tbilisi     May/June 2008

Phespirit's first impression of Georgia could have been better. It was mid-afternoon when he arrived in the capital after travelling overland by bus from Yerevan to Tbilisi. The weather was poor, spitting rain and blustery, and the sky dark grey as he was taken by car to his hotel. This turned out to be an identically-named but less well-appointed modern neighbour of the nice historic hotel in which he was expecting to stay. And something in the faces of the people that loitered in the side streets around his hotel made him feel conspicuous and out of touch. All trivial stuff, though. Over the next few days his negativity would be utterly swept away.

After a leisurely walk around the old city for orientation and to pick up some Georgian 'lari' currency, Phespirit began the process of cheering himself up by splurging on a meal at a posh restaurant. He settled down in the Puris Sakhli and ordered a 'roast young chicken' and a good bottle Georgian white wine. He was dining alone and when ordering a whole bottle of wine in such circumstances it is not unknown for waiters to look mildly surprised and offer a half-bottle or carafe instead. In Tbilisi, however, his Georgian 'hostess' (so said her badge) asked, "Just one bottle?" It had Phespirit suspecting there may be an intemperate drinking culture in this land .....

After a good meal and a good night's sleep, Phespirit awoke the next morning to find Tbilisi bathed in brilliant sunshine. He had the whole day at leisure so he set about enjoying a thorough ramble around the city, taking in churches, cathedrals, museums, monuments and national institutions. Most remarkable are the churches. These are alive with a ceaseless flow of pious Georgians of all ages, but primarily the young. They enter, cross themselves, kiss icons, light candles, kneel, pray or contemplate, each according to their own system of devotion. This is not for show or to conform with social conventions. It is real and quite daunting in its conviction. This whole day was illuminating in every regard and highly enjoyable.

Over subsequent days he ventured further afield. As in Armenia, the touring party was three-strong: Phespirit, a driver and a local guide called Natilya. The first trip took in Mtskheta, the holy capital of Georgia; then on to Gori, birthplace of Stalin; and finally to Uplistsikhe, a fascinating complex of man-made cave dwellings. The day started brightly but clouded over between Gori and Uplistsikhe. No sooner was the visit to Uplistsikhe done than the heavens opened, throwing down rain the like of which Natilya said, "we only get maybe twice a year", and then usually in Autumn. On the way back to Tbilisi the car was pulled over by the police. The offence? Nobody was wearing a seatbelt. Phespirit was on the back seat, which had a belt but no socket. The driver handed over his papers and after an eternity, during which the rain came even harder, the policeman returned and gave him a bright yellow official document, which Phespirit assumed to be a fine. The driver seemed quite moody about it so Phespirit didn't ask. Natilya merely observed, "we are not used to that".

Two things happened overnight: the foul weather cleared completely, and a seatbelt socket appeared miraculously in the back of the car. The next day's trip was east from Tbilisi into some of the most lush, beautiful countryside the region has to offer. The aim was to visit four historic religious sites (church, nunnery, monastery, monastery), but it would have been pleasure enough just to drive around and admire the scenery. A lot of that went on anyway as neither driver nor guide knew the best roads to take for each destination. There were many stops to ask for directions, but it all added to the charm of the day. Phespirit just sat back and enjoyed it.

The final trip was the best: to the rock-cut monasteries of Davit Gareja on the ridge marking the southern border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. The complex is in an isolated area a long way from the nearest main road, and there's a reasonable amount of hiking involved to see all the caves around the main complex. It was first inhabited by monks around fifteen hundred years ago. Several of their caves were decorated with colourful frescoes that remain visible in varying states of preservation. Bored border guards patrol the ridge on the Georgian side, but Phespirit saw no signs of activity on the Azeri side. Just green plains stretching out for miles.

The day at Davit Gareja was scorchingly hot with sunshine throughout. The whole area is described as semi-desert but as Phespirit was visiting in the middle of springtime the hills all around were rich grassy green with little patches of blue, yellow and red flowers. Apparently the flowers had not been there a fortnight ago and were not likely to be there in two weeks' time. Phespirit did not know whether he felt lucky to have caught it in such a rare colourful state or whether he would have preferred to see the stark landscape that exists for the majority of the year.

On his last day in Tbilisi, Phespirit looked around Narikala fortress and Vake park at opposite ends of the city. These were the last major landmarks that he had wanted to see. He was winding down and ready to move on. When the job was done he returned to his hotel to wait for the pick-up that would take him to Tbilisi station, from where he would be travelling overland by train from Tbilisi to Baku, on the night train to Azerbaijan. He liked the sound of that. After some quality time in Azerbaijan he would be flying off to Latvia before returning to England. This, then, was merely the halfway point on his Caucasus tour with a Baltic detour. He was still a long way from home.

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