Just as with people, I often find my first 24 hours in a new city tends to set the tone and emotion for the rest of our time together. If that's the case, then I have to say I'm quite enamored with Tbilisi and Georgia thus far. The most impressive facet about Georgia so far is not the architecture, though it is surprisingly gorgeous; nor the food, though it is wonderfully rich - it's the people, how incredibly nice they are to total strangers like us. While "hospitality" is quite a cliched term in travel guidebooks, even I was surprised by just how spontaneous and genuine their affection have been for total strangers like ourselves. Though I no longer consider myself a road newbie at this point, I was still humbled and touched by just how generous they were; once again it proves the adage that there are truly nice people everywhere in the world.
Case in point, we've only been in the city for 24 hours, and already we've had more than our fair share of serendipitous encounters with strangers. Normally when I get one in a day, I'm counting my lucky stars. Getting a handful feels simply…overindulgent. Last night, when we were lost trying to find our hostel, a random guy off the street kindly escorted us all the way there, despite it being almost midnight. In the morning, a policeman very nicely helped us purchase our metro ticket to Rustaveli, and asked another stranger to take us through the station. Coming out of the sublime Obeliani baths, a very cute Georgian girl waved us into her shop for free (!) wine tasting. Sadly, her co-worker did most of the talking after we came in, I guess her mission was accomplished once we walked in. While buying water tonight, the women manning the register were only too happy to give us some travel advice around her homeland…just too many examples to count. In general, between Eric's fluent Russian and my non-existing Georgian, we probably only understood 2% of what anyone says to us. Nonetheless, almost everyone treats us with with seemingly infinite patience, and a wide wide smile at our feeble attempts of Georgian. If this first day is any indication, we're going to be spoilt rotten by the end of this trip.
The wonderful people aside, I have to say Tbilisi is definitely one of most charming cities I've ever been too. A total hidden gem, probably what Prague was like 30 years ago before it was crushed by tourists. The Mtkvari river runs through the heart of the city, and with the Narikala Fortress and Sameba Cathedral on the hilltops by the river overlooking the Old town, it reminded me a lot of Budapest or Vilnius. The country is by no means rich, and the capital reflects much of its hardship in recent years. Walking around, we would see scores of dilapidated buildings, torn-up streets, stray animals, and an occasional power outage or two. Nonetheless, the city has preserved much of its historical architecture, and has also invested in highlighting some key landmarks such as lighting up Narikala fortress and Baratashvili bridge at night. And most of this was quite tastefully done, so the dilapidation does indeed add a rustic charm to the streets, as clicheish as that may sound.
One of the highlights of today happened while we were wandering the streets near Freedom Square. While I was busy taking pictures, Eric wandered into a completely run-down building, which turned out to be the home of the Tbilisi Royal Theatre. While it looked like it was next to an apartment of crack addicts, when we stepped through the entrance, it really felt like we were just magically transported back to the 1920's (Midnight Paris, anyone?). Akvar the watchman very enthusiastically insisted on a tour, and started us at the foyer, which held a piano and an ancient movie recorder. On the other side was the cafe, which held some genuinely faded B&W photos of famous troupes & actors. Sadly it was all in Georgian, so we couldn't understand very much, but I can only guess it was a list of who's who who've come through the theatre. The extremely disorienting contrast of the exterior decay vs. the interior opulence, plus the wafting period opera music in the background, made me want to really step outside and check I'm still in the right century. Turned out Akvar was quite a student of history, and he very eagerly wanted to talk about Mao, Chiang, Stalin and their pals. Apparently he was drafted into the Soviet army at 17 and served for 3 years, is a pacifist at heart, and was no fan of the Russians. He was of course also very interested in the whole Taiwan vs. China issue - ("China? Taiwan?" hand gesture - clasping together). We scratched our heads and did our best to insist on the difference between the two, with copious amounts of hand gestures & word parroting. But I think we managed to conclude with handshakes and smiles all around - one for amateur diplomacy!
Another highlight was hitting the Obeliani baths, which is a Turkish bathhouse that Pushkin once called "the best bath he's ever had" (quoteth LP here - believe at your own peril). But there was definitely some truth to it. There's nothing that soothes the sore legs more than a nice bath at the end of the day. At 3 GEL a splash (<2 USD), it's was truly something everyone could enjoy. And indeed I think we saw variety of guys in there, the youngsters mixing w/ the senior citizens and everyone enjoyed chatting up in Georgian. After the bath we worked up quite a hunger, and stuffed ourselves with a feast of dish after dish of various meat products, and a serviceable bottle of wine with just 12GEL at this fabulous restaurant by the Mtkvar river. One can certainly get used to a life like this.
K, time to hit the sack.