Silk Road (2): Could beautiful nature and ancient history create a false sense of entitlement?

The first thing that struck me in Georgia was the Toyota Priuses. I think that literally every third car was a brand-new Prius. That was in stark contrast to almost all other cars which were very run-down Opels, Fords, BMWs, etc. You could still see the old Soviet Lada, Jiguli and Volga too.

We took the ‘marshrutka’ (minibus) from the border to the rented apartment in Batumi. Needless to say, the exchange rate at the border was much worse than anywhere else in town, so apart from exchanging our leftover TRY and having enough (50 EUR cents = 1.5 GEL per person) to pay for the ride into town, no more money was necessary. The marshrutka itself was a leap into my past – the early 1990s in Bulgaria – I think the vehicle was even older than that. Moreover, it boarded at least twice the allowed capacity and our Turkish driver on the other side of the border was an angel compared to this Georgian one.

The second thing that struck me was that pretty much everyone was reluctant to speak Russian, regardless of age. The military conflict with Russia had left a big impression of some resentment but mostly bewilderment (“What possibly could the Russians want from us?”). The caretaker of the apartment where we stayed however, brightened up when I told him I am originally Bulgarian and gave us a very nice bottle of local homemade red wine.

Batumi has an impressive beachside boulevard where we spent our day strolling about and riding on mini-scooters. The scooters had their own designated lane but at 20-25 km/h they could still pose danger to the pedestrians who walked nonchalantly in the area: I presume this was part of the Georgian driving experience anyway. Hiring the scooters ‘broke’ our daily entertainment budget but that was an offset from the transportation budget from the day before (the ‘marshrutka’) and the free ride to the train station later which our host was nice enough to offer.

Apart from the popularity which comes with its name from the old Soviet times and the casinos which I presume tourists flock to, I am not sure what else Batumi has to offer though (BTW, again, the bid-offer spread in some exchange bureaus is less than 1%). Yes, the skyline looks impressive and even the modern buildings have a very nice style, which actually blends well with some of the older architecture still visible across. But the beach itself is large rocks and no sand at all: Kobuleti, a half hour drive East, has a better beach.

The train to Tbilisi is very modern with free Wi-Fi and outlets for charging devices. It is not as fast as Istanbul-Ankara, though, as it takes one hour more to cover 100km less in total distance. But then the mountainous landscape does not allow it. The ride immediately after leaving Batumi train station runs for several kilometers literally along the beach where there are still the old Soviet style (very rundown) blocks of apartments alongside some impressive villas. If the mountains on the Turkish side of the border reminded me of Switzerland, this side of the border looked much more like Costa Rica – almost tropical. And while the Turkish side has much more order and the houses looked generally nicer, everything looked rundown in Georgia.

Tbilisi, however, also has a touch of Italy when it comes to its old city (and, of course, the wine): it is a quirk combination of art, imposing buildings, beautiful natural landscape and historical artifacts. It is a city for romance, full of balconies (on a visit to the city during the Cold War, M. Thatcher allegedly said, “Everywhere else they are building shelters, you are building balconies”) and night lights – the stroll to the Sulphur baths is a must. In hindsight, actually, we should have stayed longer in Tbilisi to enjoy its full splendor.

We were very lucky to meet up with a friend of a friend who spent the whole day showing us the city and its surroundings. She was amazing, such a nice and positive person. Most Georgian people in the service industry, however, looked rather miserable and even bitter somehow. I am not sure whether it was my Russian that made them so. That attitude, which sometimes merged into outright rudeness, obviously will not help business: most tourists are Russian. And knowledge of any foreign language is a plus, especially one which is spoken by hundreds of millions of people (Georgia’s population, on the other hand, is just around 4 million).

While in Turkey, I fully expected to be bargaining when engaging in an exchange as part of custom. In Georgia, the bargaining felt as if it was more about not being taken advantage of. Our host in Tbilisi, for example, offered to charge $280 (4 people) to take us to Yerevan (5 hours drive) and lied how much the ‘marshrutka’ would cost ($50 per person), when the actual price was not only $13 per person but there was plenty on offer as long as someone bothered to go to the taxi stand at the bus station.

In the local street flea market my daughter’s leaning to touch an object provoked an extreme reaction by the shopkeeper – she yelled so violently that passers-by stopped to see what happened. In one shop there was even a sign in English that said “Customer is not always right”!

I am only guessing here, but all this could be related to a sense of entitlement, also very common in my home country, Bulgaria. Small countries like these, which are lucky to have amazing nature, are full of ancient history and once had very sophisticated culture, but which were more recently easily conquered by other more populous, but less ‘ancient’ nations, do maybe tend to feel superior and to blame external forces for their issues. In that sense, Georgia is both an old and a very new country at the same time: having gained its independence from the Soviet Union only a few decades ago, it still lacks the proper institutional infrastructure and framework to really make decisions in its own interest. It is naïve to think that having exited one ‘union’, joining another would automatically solve all problems.

Before passing a real judgement about the way a traveler is treated in Georgia, however, I feel we need to complete our journey and revisit, under the light of new experiences, this first opinion I formed.