Guy Livingston reports live from the Republic of Georgia.

Connection problems (phone line noise, degraded infrastructure, brownouts and frequent power failures due to heavy rains) on the ground prevented us from providing more timely news coverage.
Day One: Arrival
Day Two: Cage and Mud (mushrooms, too)
Day Three: Painters of Tbilisi
Day Four: The Georgian Language
Day Five: A Day at the Opera
Day Six: Night Train to Tbilisi
The Last night: 'Gagvimarjos!'
Current weather in Tbilisi
Related Websites
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Arrival in Tbilisi

Ikalto Monastery
La Georgie comme vous l'avez reve'.... (Georgia, just like you dreamed it!)

Tbilisi: guaranteed excitement!

I feel like I could be writing travel slogans.

Tbilisi is really the wild (Russian) West. We are kind of in shock, but that will wear off. Internet access and even electricity and water are all in short supply.

We had a nightmarish arrival, complete with a terrifyingly rough 3 am touchdown in the fog, old-fashioned Soviet-era prop planes, and decommissioned French busses from the 60s escorting us to the terminal. There, we were greeted by a platoon of surly thugs who were obviously the best that customs could muster for the graveyard shift. Heavily armed, in fatigues and old soviet policeman caps, they were a humorless bunch, and not impressed by our story of being contemporary musicians. But we managed to make it through 5 am, after filling out endless paperwork...our visas are even marked "urgent entry!"

We are staying in the most spectacular building, a palatial residence of a local film-maker/sculptor who spends half his time in Amsterdam. The 5-story house, an old one like almost everything else in this run-down city, has been (unlike the rest of the city) gutted on the interior, and refitted with reinforced concrete curving walls, steel staircases, balconies, terraces everywhere, and the most eclectic collection possible of contemporary art, metal-work furniture, Caucasian rugs, bamboo poles, Japanese lanterns, just a museum of odd nooks and crannies and vistas and astonishing juxtapositions of objects.

More as we get connected here, and dig the cars out of the mud.
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Cage, Mud, and a few Mushrooms

The ancient fortress of Narikala in Tbilisi, overlooking the old city, was built in the 4th century, and has been reconstructed many times since.
Yesterday on the flight in from Turkey (we had a stopover in Istanbul during what appeared to be a low-level hurricane), the inflight video displayed periodically our position, ground-speed, elevation, etc. Most intriguing were the maps. The little red icon symbolizing our plane was at the top of an all-too familiar collection of flashpoints: Bagdad, Teheran, and the rest. "Good grief;" said my travelling companion: "We're in the CNN studios!"

However, the dangers have been greatly exagerrated. There are no Western tourists here at all, but there are tons of artists this (and apparently every) week, all having a grand time: The entire Bonn Symphony, soprano Elizabeth Laurens, 40 guitarrists from around the world (for a jazz guitar festival), pianist Vladimir Feltsman; and five theater troops from Greece, Holland, and elsewhere. I myself am travelling as a journalist and friend of the Belgian new-music group Q-O2.

We are lucky to have such elegant accommodations. Many people are staying in guest houses that do not offer much in the way of running water or electricity. The shortages here are acute, and the influx of refugees from the North has not helped the situation any. Georgia traditionally received power for free from the Soviet Union's huge gas resources...similtaneously, Georgia was the principal supplier of tropical fruits, wine, and prestige bottled water to Moscow, which generated substantial income for decades.

The collapse ten years ago of this subsidized economy left the new Georgian Republic piteously poor. There are many dams in the mountains, but these do not begin to cover the power needs of the country. Meanwhile, Russia can no longer afford to import the Georgian luxuries of wine and food, and the result is staggering. Despite peace in the city of Tbilisi, it looks war-ravagged. Virtually every building is falling victim to decay. Paint and hardware are priced out of reach, and fundamentals such as metal and concrete seem almost unobtainable.

The four former Intourist hotels, as well as the upper levels of the train station, have been converted into emergency housing for refugees from the civil war in the north. It has been difficult to obtain reliable information on this conflict, but many Georgians accuse the Russians of fomenting further violence in order to destablize the country. More on this later.

After a depressing morning discussing these and other problems, it was a relief to enter the faded but still grand conservatory and settle into an armchair for some totally irrelevant but very beautiful Cage, as performed by the Q-O2 ensemble from Brussels. Afterwards, we had a feast at a local cafeteria that serves excellent food: the highlight was home-made spicy sausages in a wild mushroom sauce. Also, the world-famous yogurt that is supposedly the source of the longeivity of many Georgians and Azerbaijanians...

more later...

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Paintings and Food

The Gelati Monastery is a treasure house of medieval art.
This morning we visited two artists' studios. One was the personal studio of a Mr. Mitsaschvili, an elderly and extremely courtly gentleman who received us warmly, even so far as giving us pastel drawings as parting gifts. He also served us a wonderful tea, accompanied by a panoply of unusual (for us) items: Sogumi, a cheese which resembles italian smoked mozzarella; cherry jams and candied fig preserves to eat with the already sugarred tea; fresh miniature mandarin oranges; and ritz crackers for that cosmopolitain touch.

Georgian food is incredibly varied: a sophisticated cuisine, nothing at all to do with the depressing image of russian food. Since the climate ranges from mediterranean-tropics to alpine-mountains, the Georgian markets are full of a spectacular array of fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh and dried fish from the Black Sea, and lamb, chicken, and small fowl from inland.

The second studio we saw, in the same street, is a museum devoted to Elena Akhvlediani, a painter who passed away some years ago. The highlight was the gigantic Bleutner grand piano, also played by Sviatoslav Richter, one of her many talented friends. However, she had little talent except as an illustrator, and was an abysmal painter. Nonetheless, because she embodied Georgian independence and resistance, she remains one of the prides of Georgia, a country deservedly proud of its free sprit, its saints, politicians, fighters, and artists.

That's all for today... send me an email if you'd like to comment or ask questions...
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The Basque Connection?

The Ikalto Monastery, a cultural centre of medieval Georgia.
The Georgian script is absolutely beautiful to look seems to resemble a cross between Cyrillic and Hindi, and yet it has no relation to either of those languages. Most bizarre, there are unexplained connections between Georgian and Etruscan, as well as with the Basque language. Go figure. The language is fairly complicated, to the point that Russian is used in business conversation, and particularly in counting and in daily business transactions, as the Georgian numbers are apparently fairly unwieldy.

Today’s highlight was the visit to two monasteries on the site of the ancient city of Tbilisi, now a tiny village, but once a thriving capital in the early middle ages. The monasteries remind me in their quirky carvings and sometimes humorous details, in their faded naive frescos of Christ and the apostles, in their mix of rough stone and brick; of many monasteries in Ireland. Indeed the parallels between the two countries are many. At that period, both were besieged: the Irish by the Vikings, and the Georgians by the Mongolians and other tribes from the north and east. Both had thriving economies which were utterly destroyed, and both retained a small core of culture preserved in monasteries like these.
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A day at the Opera

Bebris-Tsikhe: remains of the medieval fortress in the vicinity of Tbilisi.
This afternoon we were invited to the magnificent Moorish-style opera house to see the Georgian National Folkloric ballet. It was truly an incredible performance, but of questionable authenticity. The influence of a century of Russian ballet technique seemed only too obvious. However, we might have confused cause and effect. Afterwards, our hosts told us with great pride of the Georgian influence on the Russians, and we were intrigued to learn of the concentration of Georgian artists in Moscow, even today. And the great choreographer Ballanchine was Georgian.

The ballet itself was danced all on point. Lavish costumes, illuminated a magnificent, fairy-tale dream of folkloric grandeur and patriotism, untouched by Broadway or even (apparently) communism, really a genre of its own, in line with the grand Russian touring groups of the early part of the 20th century. Astounding technique, and corps de ballet -- this is the essential classical training. There were no stars as such in the show, but every one of the 50 dancers on stage was astounding. The men especially, showed an astounding bravura, dancing at high velocity, and whirling with drawn knives, swords, and flaming torches, all of which they launched and threw with flawless accuracy.
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Night Train

The moorish-style Tbilisi Opera House: destroyed by fire and rebuilt three times in 150 years...
The night train from Batumi to Tbilisi takes 11 hours to go 400 kilometers, at an average speed of 35 kilometers per hour. We had the night from hell on the outbound trip...the train car, a soviet relic which looked fabulously romantic from the outside, turned out to be appalling from the inside. Thieves are such a risk that the conductor kindly gave us a stout wooden bar in order to wedge the door shut. Even so, we passed a sleepless night in our square-wheeled train. The noise from the neighboring compartments was unbearable: apparently we were adjoining the local football team’s all-night victory party. Plus, the train stopped so abruptly at every station, that it was difficult not to fall out of bed. And there were a lot of stations. At 9 am, we arrived in a daze, astonished to see the tiny suburban station of Batumi out one window, and the sun-drenched Black Sea out the other.
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Up and down the mountain, and many toasts.

Tbilisi by night
Our last day in Tbilisi was full of excitement: we hopped on one of the passenger vans that ply the city as versatile substitutes for inefficient busses, and rode up the tortuous roads to the summit of the ridge that overlooks the city. The eccentric, paysanne van stopped constantly to let people on and off, and at one point, a woman jumped out, ran into a bakery, and returned, out of breath, with a stack of round breads just out of the oven; the hot fresh smell permeated the bus and had us all salivating.

A brisk walk through an abandoned park (everything in this country is abandoned, or looks it) was restful after the hubbub of the chaotic city below. We were the only curiosity seekers up there on an overcast Monday afternoon. The one person we saw was a stooped old woman picking mushrooms, and she seemed to have quite a crop, no surprise given the rain and humidity of the past week. We walked past an antique and ominous Soviet listening station, and through acres of neglected park.

For our descent, we could not find the scenic path, and so asked two lone soldiers--these arrogant fatigue-clad kids sent us off down the 55 degree funicular viaduct. We could have died, but it was fun, creeping down the long vertiginous causeway, and we were in no danger of being runover by the long-since rusted-away trains.

Yet another astonishing dinner awaited us at the foot of the mountain (not to mention a local avant-garde theater production). Dinner, found after a long search by our hosts that took us to 7 ‘unacceptable’ restaurants over 2 cab rides and about 4 km of walking, was the best meal we had the entire trip. The two highlights were sturgeon in a dark molasses-type Pomegranate sauce, and then various eggplants and red peppers with a side-order of hot walnut sauce. Also, the various sausages, spicy and not were a treat. Our hosts, exhausted at the conclusion of the festival, were as drunk as we were, especially after endless toasts, during which it was obligatory to empty one’s glass. The night resounded with cries of “gagvimarjos!”, the call to raise ones’ glasses, and many were the toasts, and there was much goodwill and much drunkenness...

Tomorrow a.m. we leave on the 6:30 am plane. We’re hoping there are no more power outages at the airport.

Thanks for tuning in to the Tbilisi feature... please feel free to email me with questions or comments! - Guy L.
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Current Weather in Tbilisi

The Rock and Jazz Arena of Tbilisi
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Related Websites

Gelati Monastery
The Lonely Planet Site
Georgian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Georgian Parliament
Georgian Alphabet
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Copyright 2000 by Paris Transatlantic. Photos courtesy of the Georgian Parliament.