#8 First stop in the Caucasus: Georgia

It turns out to be quite tricky to get out of Turkey. I have been travelling with only my national ID card since my passport got stolen in Slovenia and I was not given a stamp upon entering the country, however the border officer should have given me one on a separate piece of paper. I was probably careless and should have insisted on one. Anyway, I’m now trying to get out of the country without any proof of my date of arrival! One border officer tells me to follow him inside. In the office, a policeman is slumped in his seat with his legs resting on the desk. He inspects my ID card and looks up every now and then to give me a wary glance. I see he holds my fate in his hands. To add drama to the situation, a guy with handcuffs is brought into the room and sits down next to me, Great. I am starting to thinking they will put me on a bus to Ankara where I’ll have to visit the embassy to find a solution. Trying to be as nice as possible, I tell the officer how much I love his country and I try to show off some Turkish phrases I learnt. After what feels like forever but was probably just half an hour, he stands up, gives me my ID back and utters those three precious words: “You can go”. I don’t need to hear it twice. I make my way across the border and join Belen as quick as I can before he changes his mind. We’re now in Georgia, what a relief! Still, I really need to get a new passport. I have an appointment at the French embassy in Tbilisi in a few days to apply for one.

Immediately, Georgia provides a sharp contrast to Turkey. We’re back in a Christian country, the mosques have given way to orthodox churches. Sarpi, the small border town is full of beer, wine and liquor shops. Technically I’m further away from home and yet the atmosphere is significantly less exotic than Turkey. Cultural closeness is not a matter of kilometers. It feels like I’m back in eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans. To top it all off, European flags are to be found everywhere, demonstrating the country’s unfailing determination to join the EU. As for the alphabet, it is unlike any I’ve seen before and is used only in Georgia.

We find a car easily that can take us to Batumi, a few dozen kilometers further along the Black Sea. Batumi is a city of contrasts. On the one hand, considerable effort seems to have been devoted to make it look like a Georgian version of Las Vegas: extravagant buildings, luxury hotels, casinos, yachts, etc. On the other hand, this excessive opulence is surrounded by dilapidated residential buildings, a reminder that the average wage is a mere 250€ per month.

As I only have two days left until my appointment at the embassy, we resume our journey towards Tbilisi. Hitchhiking is not as easy as in Turkey but stills works fine and we steadily make our way towards the capital. We soon discover that Georgians are crazy drivers and overtaking is a hazardous national past-time. It’s quite a long way from Batumi to Tbilisi so we decide to stop halfway for the night in Kutaissi, one of the country’s largest cities. We go out for dinner in a small restaurant in the outskirts of the city and get to experience Georgian hospitality at its best. While we eat, the waitress starts bringing pints of beer to us that we didn’t order. She tells us that the people at the big table next to ours are celebrating a birthday and want to offer us a drink. I can’t help thinking of how unlikely this would be in France! They end up inviting us to their table and keep giving us beer, wine, chacha (traditional liquor made with plums) and more. Apparently it’s rude to refuse alcohol here, so we make our best to keep up with our new friends. Between sips, they also teach us traditional song and dance. What a night!

We leave Kutaissi with a slight headache. Against all odds, a coach coming from Turkey gives us a free lift to Tbilisi. I go to the embassy on the following morning to apply for my new passport. Within two or three weeks I should get the precious document! Until then, we’re off to explore the country.

First we found a job in a hostel in the middle of semi-desert near the border with Azerbaïdjan. Once more, the website workaway.info turned out to be extremely useful to travel on a shoestring budget. We stay one week in Udabno at Oasis Club for free in exchange of a bit of help at the restaurant and the hostel. I also take photos of the rooms for their website and work on a series of portraits of locals of the village which they will print in large format and put up as a mosaic on one of the hostel’s walls.

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Udabno, Georgian for “desert”, was built in the 1980s when the country still belonged to the USSR. The village is entirely made up of concrete houses and looks abandoned at first sight. Yet it is home to roughly 200 Svans, an ethnic subgroup of the Georgians living mainly in Svaneti, a mountainous region in the northwest of the country. “A village in Georgia” is a series of portraits spanning both sexes and all generations alongside some street scenes exploring the timelessness of the town.

We’re back in Tbilisi and find another job in a hostel. Same deal: we have to work a few hours a day five days a week in exchange of a bed and some food. Tbilisi is a relatively small capital with contrasting aspects. It still bears marks from its communist past in some neighbourhoods, but is at the same time conspicuously striving for modernity and opening itself to international tourism. The latter aspect has been on the rise especially over the past few years. The old town is now full of cafes with English names and dozens of travel agencies offer tours and day trips to the rest of the country. The atmosphere is everything but genuine and I prefer to stroll around other neighbourhoods that still retain the authentic character of the city. I particularly love the various markets around Didube or the train station selling food, clothes, and miscellaneous items. Tbilisi is great for street photography.

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With upcoming legislative elections at the end of October, the mood is slightly tense in the capital. Posters advertising the different candidates have flooded the streets and several demonstrations take place on Rustaveli, the city’s main avenue. A few activists have also been camping in front of the parliament for over three weeks. Unfortunately I speak neither Georgian nor Russian (which is still spoken by the majority of the population) and it’s difficult to find an English speaker who can tell me more about their grievances.

I make the most of the weekend and go hiking in the Caucasus mountains near the border with Russia.

After two months travelling together since Istanbul, Belen and I are now taking separate paths. She’s going to Spain and I will continue my journey through Western Asia and the Middle-East. We had a great time together and I wish her all the best.

I finally get my new passport! Once again, I realise how lucky I am to be French. I have been able to travel without a passport since Slovenia through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Georgia and I don’t even have to go back to France to apply for a new one. You don’t chose your privileges, but you certainly do enjoy them. I’m heading off towards another fascinating country. See you soon, Armenia!

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