return to gurjistan (part 1)

Catching up on travel stories now. Sorry for the several-month-long interruption.

We went to Georgia for Bayram. Bayram, as I may have mentioned elsewhere, is a weeklong holiday in October in which everyone takes the bus to everywhere else in turkey and visits their relatives and murders a sheep. The traffic coming out of Istanbul, I’m told, is a tentacular nightmare. Anna found cheap tickets (one way) to Tbilisi from Ataturk Int’l Airport, and we found two travel companions: Cat and Erin. Cat we found at a street art festival and agreed to go after five minutes, surely a good sign for the weirdness ahead. Erin agreed to go without hearing anything or even meeting either one of us, which was an even better sign of preparedness. The plan was to more or less fly into Tbilisi, spend a day or so there, cross the country, have some village time, see some weird georgia stuff until the nostalgia and exhaustion build up like a fluid in our lungs and we must airlift ourselves  back to Istanbul. We had no return tickets. School was on monday. The facts.

We landed in Aleksander Novaskhwieualk-shvili airport at three in the morning, and immediately things were funny, because come on that alphabet. We found a few other people from Istanbul who, similar to us, had purchased tickets on the very same flight to Tblisi (I even knew one of them from a party), but unlike us, had no idea what to expect or what to do other than drink wine because they heard the wine was good. Oh boy. We took taxis to avlabari and I messed up the numbers at least three times because come on it’s base twenty, and thus accidentally screwed the taxi drivers out of five laris. Then we purchased beers and went to the concrete guard towers near Sameba Church and drank until five or so in the morning, watching the shadows of crosses and trying not to sit on the exposed rebar, before crashing and finding a hostel. We stayed at, naturally, Tbilisi Hostel.

Rauf (or Ralph, or Ralf, or Raff, Raul, Ron, I’ve never really been sure) still works there. He came to Georgia for an oil job, and liked it so much that he gave up corporate life and bought a hostel. He’s an enormous red-bearded Azeri dude who looks a little like Coronel Sanders. The hostel is a glorious outdoor thing , with a two-floor terrace and grapevines around the staircases. We spent a very slow morning with two fresh shoti breads (large flat loaves shaped like the eye of Sauron) and some vegetables and cheese, and then decided to make our way to Mtskheta, which has the most famous churches in all Georgia and which I actually never visited. The story there is some nun found the shroud of turin and carried it all the way to Georgia in a box, and when she opened the box and touched it, she died in a flash of light and a pillar sprung out of the ground, and they built a church on it.

Anyways, we spent a little time wandering around Tbilisi and bought some drinking horns (something else which I never managed to do last year) and then hopped a marsh for Mtskheta. When we arrived, swarms of people were looking for a bus back to Tbilisi. On our slow walk towards the large rock churches visible from the highway, everyone seemed to be walking away from Mtskheta’s center. It was Mtskhetoba–Mtskheta day. It was also over. 

The trouble began when two leather-jacketed georgians invited us to drink.

“You have glass?” they asked.

“No–oh wait, we have horns!” And the horns emerged from mine and Erin’s bags, and we start to drink at the foot of the statue. One of them scampered up the monument. Pictures were taken. Chacha was consumed. They fed us cheese and mystery sausage. They went off to another party and we declined to follow, because we still hadn’t seen the churches. Drunkenly we made our way through the cobblestone streets and into the church. The stone interior felt spartan. Beeswax candles in all corners and offertories had melted into a sticky golden lace. We left and fireworks went off just as we stepped outside the church grounds. A guy grilling pork on the street offered us a meal for seven lari apiece, which we of course accepted. I cannot even tell you how much living in a muslim country makes you crave pork. And Georgian mtsvadi…oh man. The king of barbecue porks. The guy brought us through an alleyway to a courtyard and we feasted on pork and fresh shoti in the dark. Another guy who spoke good English ate with us and provided a heavy amount of wine, and told us he had no children and was lonely, and he wished to feed us and have us as guests, and we were all winedrunk and took the bus and the tblisi metro home.

Everything, more or less, was exactly to be expected from a georgian afternoon–men pushing chacha at you, old churches, great hospitality mixed with some weird sad moments, really good food and wine.


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