We had to travel via Georgia as the border between Turkey and Armenia is permanently closed. It was Scott’s turn to organise transport so he took on the challenge and got online the night before, in the miserable hotel in Kars. There were two borders where we could cross, and the nearest was a few hours away high up on the plain near a village called Posof. There was no public transport but we could try to find a Marshrutka, which is a large shared mini-bus with no timetable, to take us to there, and then hitchhike over the border. It had all seemed possible and now it didn’t. No wonder no one goes into Georgia via this route. Scott was hoping to prove himself, as he was still smarting over the rip off in the taxi in Istanbul – for a Mancunian, not being ripped off is a matter of honour. The hotel receptionist had been decidedly unhelpful when we checked in and told him that, no, we were not in Kars to see the famous Ani ruins, but to leave again as fast as we could.
We had a breakfast of strings of tasteless white fibres which I think was cheese, and turkish tea, as we prepared to get the hell out. I was imagining the glass of wine that awaited me at the other end of the journey in Tbilisi, 395 kilometres away and about 6 hours in a car if one had one. Despite the traveller posts of doom and gloom about the Tolkeinesque impossibility of the journey, it was a doddle in the end, which I let Scott take credit for. The receptionist had recovered from our snub, and told us about his mate who was driving in a mini bus to Georgia that very day, and did we want him to give him a call. Less than an hour later and down by approximately 25 euros for both of us we were speeding away from the grimy streets and cow carcasses into the green plains and climbing high up into pockets of snow from last winter. It was bright and bleak, dotted with coloured houses, strings of electricity cables and distant peaks. The minibus driver drove at breakneck speed and I bashed my head on the window trying to take photographs. Now and then we stopped for a lone elderly man to hop on – heaven knows where he could be going as there was nothing up there.
We had to walk across the border into Georgia for a reason I couldn’t fathom. As we waited for our minibus we sat near the customs hut and breathed fresh autumn air. It was such a beautiful time to travel with the trees flickering in yellow and orange and red. We phoned a hostel from Lonely Planet and booked a room in the old town. The journey through Georgia was pleasant, if stomach-churning. After six hours through fluttering trees and sinuous roads between mountains, rocks and quick rivers winding through the valleys, we arrived in Tbilisi.
The buildings climb the rock face in Tbilisi and the river is deep and wide and has sheer rock sides which have not succumbed to the city. We walked with our packs into the old town through tumble-down buildings which were on the dilapidated side of quaint. We stayed in one of those very buildings in fact, with a man who I immediately took to. The guesthouse is called Skadeveli and after the previous few nights, the cleanliness and a good bed were a welcome relief. Our host, Irakli, had round eyes which I came to notice were typical of Georgian men, and a sensitive face. He had this touching quiet humility and confidence as he wandered along the old wooden veranda in his dressing gown. He sat quietly rolling cigarettes. There is something about people having been invaded, oppressed, that imprints a humility on them which leads to kindness, an acceptance of others. I felt that strongly talking to Irakli and I remember thinking the same thing in Poland, listening to a tour guide in Krakow. They know how bad it can get. They know when they are lucky. In Britain, long been an island in all senses, racism and prejudice are bubbling to the surface and taking us all by surprise. In the end nature will re-balance, always.
‘Separate bathroom’ is a thing in Georgia so we’d booked luxury without knowing it. After the moving squat toilet on the train and the musty nylon bedspreads of the business hotel in Kars, I spread all my belongings around the floorboards, had a long shower and lay down to rest my back.
The first glass of wine was all I had hoped for. We had been recommended a wine bar by a Georgian friend Gvantsa, who now I think of her, has a similar sweetness and humour glimmering behind her eyes as Irakli, our host. A sexy and knowledgeable waitress told me all about the wine-making methods involving underground clay barrels. Apparently, viticulture was invented in Georgia. I chose a dry golden wine which was piquant and signalled the arrival back in civilization after the wastes of eastern Turkey. Relief from the disappointment of the train picnic was less forthcoming. One Georgian speciality is dumplings, which were white tasteless boiled pastry bags, filled with rancid cheese so strong my nose wrinkled. I only managed three. Scott ordered a chicken soup and as he dipped his spoon in, a chicken leg with peeling plucked skin slowly turned and bobbed to the surface. It looked like it had just been ripped off the chicken’s body and chucked in. I ruminated aloud on the chicken’s mother’s reaction to the fate of her child, and Scott said that was it, he was turning from a flexitarian into a proper veggie. (He didn’t)
We had indeed crossed the plains from Europe and arrived in the near East, exotic and strange but also familiar. The women had good shoes and there was a cultured and understated feeling to the place, low voices, an accepted contentment. Warm kilim rugs, intricate enamel in the shop windows, street sellers with pomegranates and oranges, worn stone paths and walls.
We spent the next few days walking in the botanical gardens, reached via a cable car, wandering through the old streets and drinking wine. My highlight was Scott’s lowlight unfortunately. The sulphur baths bubble up into marble walled rooms with hot pools, icy plunge pools and saunas, rented by the hour and private. Apart from the smell it was pretty luxurious. Scott was happy with the idea as no public nudity was required, unlike Berlin spas. I persuaded him that we should also book a massage as it was only ten minutes long and cheap and it would scrape away the journey. He was decidedly unsure, being no fan of bodywork. How bad could it be in ten minutes I reasoned, and ever game, he agreed to have his first ever massage. He lounged nervously in the hot sulphur pool as a sweet strong-armed woman scraped at me with a loofah so violently that she took half my spaceship and peony tattoo with her. Then she blew into a soapy bag and rubbed it all over me, finishing with a nice rub down. Because of my dodgy back I am very experienced as a massagee, and I like it on the painful side, which this was not. Still, at least I was squeaky clean and I’d been the guniea-pig so Scott could see it was nothing to be worried about. The lady pinched my cheek in a motherly way and left, as a beefy male masseuse came in and laid Scott out on the marble slab. I sat in the sauna and looked through the glass to give him a bit of privacy. His toes started tensing quite early from what I could see. I hoped it was in pleasure…The man dispensed with the scraping within a couple of minutes and then got on with the soap and the kneading. He was a clearly a master at his art, and honed in on areas of tension with professional and unyielding determination. Even I winced as I watched him work on Scott’s calves. The harder he worked the more my heart sank – I could see Scott’s whole body stiffening and tried to send relaxing vibes through the glass of the sauna. When the ten minutes was over and the man had slapped him heartily on the back and left with his pail and cloths, I ventured out and looked at Scott. He was clearly deeply traumatised.
“I told you I didn’t want a massage,” was all he said.
Emotions were running high as we left the baths and went in search of a stiff drink. I chose not to tell him how amazing the experience had been for me and that it had helped my arthritic toe no end. Instead I suggested that we check out the funicular railway that evening as it had the word ‘fun’ in it and the one in Prague the winter before had been a hit.
One of the last things we did in Tbilisi was visit a gallery full of oil paintings by an old Georgian artist called Niko Kherkeladze. His son told us that Georgians who had lived on the border with Russia each had their own military style tower – a community effort to keep out the muslims. The paintings had lots of these little towers and were coloured in dreamy purples and oranges, filled with knowing clowns and dancing elderly men, full of joy. Apparently, he has paintings in the Louvre.
We left on a Sunday and once again, had to find a packed, cracked 7 seater car that would take us across the Gerogian border, this time into Armenia. We crossed the city by a surprisingly frightening metro. It was really cheap and really old and only had two lines. It plunged so deeply and quickly into the earth that the end of the clunking wooden escalator couldn’t be seen. The sulphuric smell in the baths had felt healing, but was now a bit hellish. Lots of dangerous boys leaped the barriers and ran headlong downwards in a dystopian chase, almost toppling us. At the deepest most humid point we must have been under the river and I held Scott’s hand, remembering that I was claustrophobic. Maybe it was karma for me having forced him into his own sulphur nightmare.