A Georgian Winter in Tbilisi

Just to clarify – I don’t mean I went back in time to 18th century Great Britain – time travel is not in my repertoire yet! After my six months of bicycle and work exchange wanderings in Turkey last year, I took the opportunity to return to a country which had made a lasting impression on me during my ride from Istanbul to Bishkek in 2013 – Georgia. At the heart of the Caucasus region, with a unique language, script and culture that has survived centuries of pillage and tyranny by invading forces (as recently as 2008 when Russian forces came to within 60km of the capital Tbilisi after forcefully occupying nearly half the country) and is renowned for its food, wine and hospitality.

Having made it to the capital, Tbilisi, and dropped our bags at the hostel, I dragged Rhiannon out to the back streets of Liberty Square to try and find an underground restaurant which I remembered (hazily) from 3 years previous. It didn’t take long to retrace my steps to Racha house, and as we ducked through the low door and down the steps onto the shabby carpet beneath the vaulted red brick ceiling, I was instantly transported back. As well as its wine, Georgia does very well at producing a potent moonshine known as cha cha and at Racha it has the warm amber tones created by the process of oak aging. We ordered a bottle straight away and set about washing it down with some of our favorite Georgian dishes such as khinkali (steamed dumpling), lobio (bean stew), wild boar shasklik and grilled mushrooms. Subsequently I have to admit that my memory of the evening comes to a halt after just a few hours thanks to alcohol amnesia.

Waking the next morning in my hostel bed felt like a minor victory in itself. Rhiannon was nowhere to be seen – which was both reassuring and disconcerting at the same time – she was booked on the 5am flight back to Turkey, so I could only assume she had made it. In a strange bed, in a strange room, in a strange city in a country I had decided to adopt as home for the winter I contemplated my next steps. With a hangover of those proportions that was simple – stay in bed all day! I was relieved and somewhat amazed that Rhiannon had managed to make it back home too  and after nearly 36 hours of recovery time I finally felt able to face my new world. First things first; a walk around town and track down the staple fast-food of Georgia – khachapuri (cheese bread).

A few days later I had got my bearings in the city and arranged to volunteer at a hostel in the old town in return for a free place to stay. The plan was to spend my free time getting as much of my book written as possible until the weather warmed up enough in the spring to get back on the road with the bike in central Asia. But I struggled to get into a rhythm over the extended Christmas and new year period, which seemed to last forever in Georgia because my friends and family back home were celebrating on Dec 25th and 31st, whilst in Georgia the orthodox calendar marks Christmas as January 7th. There is also the slightly confusing concept of old (orthodox) new year on January 14th.

Christmas day was amusingly spent in the company of a few hundred cyclists dressed as Santa for a ride round the city as I joined the Tbilisi  of Critical Mass or the evening. However, December 31st was spent on my own, working at the hostel, waiting for guests and staff to return from their celebrations, listening to midnight pass in a cacophony of fireworks that shook the whole building, rattled the windows and illuminated the entire sky with exploding oranges. As seems to be the case every New year – I vowed to enjoy the next one properly.

Things didn’t really improve in the early days of 2016, so when a volunteer position came up at the first hostel I had stayed at, Pomegranate, I moved back and soon felt like I had finally found my place in the city. After a little research I found a perfect working space to write and work in away from hostel life and settled into a semi-routine. Occasionally I made short trips out of the city (see upcoming post for more details) to see some other parts of Georgia but mostly I was happy exploring the sprawling markets, tumbledown houses awaiting renovation all through the city, the graffiti and street art at every corner and the new sights and sounds that surrounded me every time I walked through the city. I found Tbilisi creatively nourishing, enjoyed the energy and style of the teenagers and twenty-something’s hanging out everywhere and started to find it normal that people would cross themselves several times whenever they passed a church (or in some cases kiss their favorite rick in the wall).

 

I also got to experience more traditional aspects of Georgian culture and I was  lucky to be enough to be invited by Lasha (who I had been put in touch with by a mutual) and his family to join them for Christmas day (on the 7th) supra  – a Georgian dining experience like no other. I had become familiar with the tradition of feasting and toasting during meals from my visits to local restaurants, but at a full-on supra it is on another level. Soon after I arrived and met members of the family and close friends, the table started to fill up with plates of food. When we sat down it was already full to bursting with all of my Georgian favorites plus other dishes I was encountering for the first time. There was grouse, wild hare, chicken liver, suckling pig, ostri (beef stew), duck, lobio, sauces, pickled tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables, fried potatoes, khachapuri and much more. Plates were balanced on more plates and it was all accompanied by a constant flow of homemade wine and pear lemonade.

No sooner had the feasting started, the toasting got underway too. The tamada is the specially selected toastmaster and in this case he was close friend of Lasha’s father who had been invited to carry out this important role. The wine glasses were never allowed to fall empty, or even 2 centimeters below the rim and as always he started with the traditional toasts to the  Georgian nation, patriarch, absent friends, men and women, before moving on to individuals around the table. Each person adds their own thanks and personal toast at this point and although I understood very little (other than ‘cheers’) as it was all in Georgian, Lasha and his friend tried to keep me in the loop and translated for me when it came round to my turn to make and return a toast. I could barely move after more than 3 hours of eating, drinking and toasting, but somehow there was still time and energy for some Georgian songs and a few staggered dances to Beatles and Queen classics as people started to disperse.

I repeated the whole process at the end of the month with my new Georgian family and friends when we headed back to Racha house for another feast to celebrate my birthday. This time Lasha insisted on bringing 20litres of his family’s homemade wine and led the toasts himself. As with previous trips to this humble, but wonderfully atmospheric tavern, my memory peters out long before the end of the evening, but we definitely made a big dent on the barrel of wine and there was more left footed dancing at another bar after!

Aside from my Georgian feasting education, the guests coming through the hostel allowed me to keep myself immersed in the travelling world and there were plenty of evenings spent sharing travel encounters, experiences and escapades. This constantly kept my feet itching and fueled my desire to return to Central Asia on the bike again in the Spring. Many of these evenings were spent in our hostel ‘local’ – a smoky bar called Pirimze, located at the top of some wonky steps just off the old flower market,  where we filled the table with cheap beer and quarter liter jars of house vodka. Meanwhile I plugged away at the story of my walk and worked at making my travel stories more accessible by developing my blog and social media sites, in the hope that this would stand me in better stead when I took the plunge and approached agents and publishers with a book proposal.

After a slightly rocky start Tbilisi had truly become another home away from home for me and it felt way too soon when the blossom started bursting open on the trees and warm sunshine replaced the ice cold winds that had whirled through the city in the winter. Spring was relentlessly unfolding and that plan to get back on the bike was nagging at me again, yet with it the uncomfortable, but all too familiar feeling associated with leaving also returned. My itchy feet were forced into conflict with my heart strings; the woe of the long-term traveler. Stay some more or go on again?

A huge thanks to everyone who made that decision so hard, particularly the staff, guests and friends of Pomegranate hostel- you know who you are and see you all again I hope for more cha cha/cognac tea, muffins from the cigarette shop, visits to the 23 and half hour shop, cake, beer pong and helping guests out of the toilet!!  🙂

 

 

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