Monday: Turtles and Toasts
The week began with a headache, induced, unusually for Georgia, not by alcohol but by Chinese bureaucracy. Nico and I had headed to the Chinese consulate in Tbilisi to apply for a visa:
Official: “Are you resident in Georgia?”
Nico: “…err, we are temporarily residing in Georgia…”
Official: “So you’re tourists then?”
Alex: “…err, in a manner of speaking…how long do you have to stay here to reside?”
Official: “six months”
And that was the end of that. Having weighed up the options and discussed it with Ant, we decided to post our passports back to London to apply for them there. Nico pelted across town on his bike to post them through Fedex to Scott’s Visas in London, and that was that. We’re crossing our fingers that they will be waiting for us at Lagodekhi, the crossing point into Azerbaijan, in a few days time.
Stress over, we decided to spend some time with Tazo, our urbane Georgian New Yorker host, who took us to see Turtle Lake, a pool in the hills above Tbilisi. Ant and Nico went for a splash in the lake, while Tazo and I speculated about the origins of turtle lake. There were no turtles, and never had been. Were there any turtles in Georgia? We liked to think that the lake had been made by a meteorite strike. Maybe the turtles had arrived with the meteor, like something out of Hindu myth.
Our jaunt around Turtle Lake was followed by a trip to see Tazo’s grandfather, a celebrated interpreter of traditional Georgian dance, who had lived five years in Paris without ever feeling the need to learn French. He communicated, he told us between toasts, through emotion. And as we downed glass after glass of early evening vodka (to friends! to family! to love!), I started to see how this might be possible. We rolled out of the house an hour or so later, having soaked up some of the flavour of, as Tazo put it, ‘the Old Georgia.’
Feeling rather mellow, we decided to give Tazo a cultural experience in return. This could only mean one thing: Zulu. We had had the theme tune in our heads for weeks, and had sworn to take the first available opportunity to watch it. The sun went down to streams of Men of Harlech (not quite Harlem), leaving me feeling that I wanted to find out more. Vodka worn off, we hit deck.
Tuesday: Il Tartufo in Tbilisi
Tuesday was hit by another crisis: our electricity disappeared. Ant and Nico vanished to do some pull ups in the local park, warming themselves up for a shower (‘bracing’ as Ant put it stoically). We wandered out to see what metropolitan life had to offer. This meant ice cream. Tazo had introduced us to a great ice cream shop in his area: ‘the best ice cream shop in Tbilisi,’ he declared, pointing at his favourite flavour, presumably the best ice cream in Tbilisi (it’s called Tartufo, a nutty chocolate flavour, and it’s pretty intense)
Having whiled away a few hours, we decided to get out of the capital. it was time to see Jvari, s striking church perched on a hilltop above Mtskheta, the centre of Georgian Christianity since the adoption of Christianity by the Georgian state of Iberia in the 4th Century (I knew that Late Antique history paper would come in useful somewhere). The plan was to see Jvari at sunset, and we set out northwards, buffeted by gusts as we fought our way up the valley to Mtskheta. As the sun dipped lower, we left the outskirts of the city, and swung westwards, skirting the lazy green Mtkvari River, before turning up the winding road that leads to Jvari. At the last minute, the dense foliage opened up to reveal Jvari, perched on a bare hilltop. The sun wobbled lower as we rolled up to the church, and we set to, snapping. You can judge the results below, but we’re indebted to my friend Ollie, who provided some very helpful hints. Photography finished, we pitched the tent on a open plain beside the church, a real test of the Hilleberg, and we fell asleep with the wind whistling around us.
Wednesday: Dawn at Jvari
Dawn came shortly afters six. We hauled ourselves out of the tent into the bright sunlight to get a glimpse of Jvari in the early hours. Ant and Nico went back to bed, while I went for a wander. As I picked up my camera, I noticed a priest, bearded, broad shouldered, and dressed from head to toe in black, striding along the road towards the church. I followed him in to find him already at prayer, reading scripture in the shadow of an enormous cross. The church was dark and warm, a sharp contrast with the clear, cold air for a Georgian mountain morning.
We headed back to Tbilisi to to meet Tazo, and go for lunch with Nils, a Swedish student at business school in Paris, whom we had met a party a few nights before. Lunch down, we introduced him to our favourite ice cream joint (where they now recognise us, although sadly haven’t offered us a discount…we’ll keep trying), before heading back to the apartment.