Yesterday evening I arrived back in Moscow after a short trip to the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet Republic that is located in the Caucasus. I left Friday morning to go there with a friend of mine who studies Soviet history at Ohio State. He is currently doing research in Kazakhstan, and his visa requires him to leave there every 90 days. He was going to go to Georgia for his visa compliance trip, and I invited myself along, which he thankfully didn’t reject.

We met at the gate in the airport in Moscow before flying to Tbilisi, the capita of Georgia, together. We flew on Aeroflot. There were no problems boarding the plane, and the trick of getting seats in the back of the plane worked to our advantage. I got the window and he got the aisle. As it wasn’t a full flight, we had the middle seat open. The flight was pleasant enough, left roughly on time, and was mostly smooth. We were fed a snack, which was a, um, thing? It was a sandwich of smoked salmon, pickles, and mayo? Mustard? Mustard-mayo? I made it through about two bites before quitting. I like Russian cuisine, but this was far too Russian for my liking.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I've been offered to eat on a plane.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I’ve been offered to eat on a plane.

Migration at Tbilisi was quick and easy. We then easily grabbed a taxi to our AirBnB. The trip was off to an auspicious start, as our taxi was a late 1990s Mercedes C-Class wagon. The driver was very friendly, and conversed with us in Russian. He took us to our apartment and gave us a mini tour of sorts along the way. He showed off the newer glass police headquarters, a physical attempt at transparency with the police, and an American chemical company. The American chemical company was our first taste of the current Russian-Georgian relations. The driver said that it’s just a normal chemical company, but when it was being built, the Russians tried to convince the Georgians not to allow it, that it would be making chemicals and dangerous substances. Georgia is caught at a cross-roads between Russia and the United States. Russia clearly still has a lot of influence there, but the Georgians aren’t very pro-Russian, and often look to the US. This also led to a few tense moments at times when I didn’t know which language to speak, Russian or English. I didn’t want to be insulting and assume that everyone knows or would like to speak Russian, but I also didn’t want to come across at the rude American who goes abroad and assumes that everyone speaks English. It was uncomfortable at times.

Riding in comfort and style.

Riding in comfort and style.

After riding around a series of ridiculously narrow back roads, we were dropped off at our apartment, which was right behind the old Parliament building.  It was a pre-revolutionary former noble residence. After the revolution, it was turned into collective apartments, which were eventually privatized. Despite being privatized, we got a small taste of the collective apartment experience. There was a door off of the stairwell that went into an entryway with three doors. The door on the left went to our kitchen and bathroom. The door to the right went to the bedroom/living room/dining room. The center door was to another private apartment. “Don’t worry, they have their own entrance and rarely use this door,” said Eka. We have different versions of the word rarely, because they kept coming and going through the door all hours of the day and night. They also had their TV on all the time. And smoked. Best neighbors ever!

The doors off of the entry hall.

The doors off of the entry hall.

We put our stuff down and then headed to the basement of the building, which was accessed from the street. In one basement area there was a small shop where we bought milk, juice, bread, and eggs. In another basement area was a café that cooked up home style food that could be eaten there or taken out. For about $6.00 we got two huge portions of food with potoates and a tasty sauce, which the woman called “Georgian Ketchup.” The wine was home made and complimentary from the AirBnB host.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

After food and a nap, we set out to explore our neighborhood of Tbilisi. We were essentially in a government center. We walked down and back the main road of our district, Rustaveli Avenue. There were a few examples of anti-Soviet sentiment there. The first was a plaque on the Parliament building, which talked about free elections and independence in 1918 until the annexation by Soviet Russia in 1921. Another plaque down the road mentioned a peaceful demonstration that was “gunned down by the Soviet Regime” in March 1956. The national museum even has a permanent exhibit called the “Museum of Soviet Occupation.”

There's a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

There’s a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

We ended up walking up the hill in our neighborhood up to the Funicular, which took us to the top of the mountain that is behind Tbilisi. The view was nice at night, but it was a very cloudy night, which spoiled things a little. We wandered around the park at the top of the hill and took in the fake dinosaur park and the behemoth Soviet television tower, which was quite imposing while emerging from the clouds. We also grabbed a good dinner at a restaurant at the top before heading back to the apartment to go to bed.

The mighty TV tower.

The mighty TV tower.

On Saturday morning, we were met at 8:00AM by a driver, Gaga. Some of my Italian neighbors had gone to Tbilisi last semester, and I got his number from them. Gaga is Georgian and also speaks Russian, but no English, so all of our communication was in Russia. We got into the car and he drove us north to Gudauri, a ski area up in the Caucasus Mountains. On the way, we took a quick stop at a McDonalds drive through so that he could get a cup of coffee. The particular McDonalds was across from the American Embassy. I joked that it was a convergence of two American embassies. We also stopped briefly after switching to the Georgian Military Road so he could get more gas. While waiting in the gas station, I saw a W202 C-Class towing another W202 C-Class. At least half of the cars on the road in Georgia are used German sedans and wagons that range from 10-30 years old, though the average is about 15 years old. I saw quite a few W202s and W210s, arguably two of the worst Mercedes made. There were also a good number of BMWs and a smattering of Opels and VWs. There is clearly some sort of business that buys up used cars in Germany and ships them to Georgia.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

The road to the Gudauri was harrowing. It was snowing, and we were generally on a two-land “highway” the whole way. Sanding operations on the road were also crazy. There were men riding in the backs of trucks and shoveling sand and gravel onto the roads.

Advanced sanding operation.

Advanced sanding operation.

The roads were poorly plowed and our driver was speeding like a madman. He was also aggressively passing other cars and trucks around blind curves. At times, the car would skid a little or I would feel the ABS going off as he did some rather questionable maneuvers. To make matters worse, he was driving a Toyota that had been imported from Japan. The steering wheel was on the wrong side, so it was harder for him to see around vehicles to pass. At one point, we were essentially driving down the left lane of the road for a few miles as we passed dozens if not hundreds of stopped trucks. They were forbidden from going up the steep mountain pass in the snow, so they were parked along the side of the road.

The stopped convoy.

The stopped convoy.

As we heading into the mountain switch backs, I really started to panic. I had a white knuckle grip on the seat as we weaved around corners and skidded in the snow with sheer cliff faces and not much of a guard rail. I made it through quite a few decades of the Rosary along the way, and was slightly hyperventilating as we got towards the top of the switchback.

This was literally the most scared I have ever been in a car, including that time that I was at a Mercedes driving event and went around the track with my instructor in his car. A trip that ended with him crashing his car after we had brake fade coming out of the straight. If you’re going to crash, crash in style in a limited edition Mercedes SL500. Thankfully we slowed enough through him pulling the emergency brake that when we hit the gravel pit and the deformable barriers, the airbags didn’t go off (thought they might, which is why I put my arm with the camera down in the video). It was just cosmetic damage to his car, but I didn’t think this Georgian driver would have the same skills as my instructor, plus we were on a track with safety equipment for to minimize damage and injury, including wearing racing helmets. Going off the side of a cliff or smacking into another car would have been a different story.

We finally reached Gudauri after two or two and a half hours of driving. Gaga left us to go to the ski rental, where I rented a board, boots, and helmet for about $11.50 for the whole day.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

The lift ticket was about $15.00 for the whole day. My friend was a good sport and wandered around the base area for a few hours while I went up and snowboarded. The first lift was a slow-speed quad, which led to a different base area with a higher speed, detachable quad. Both were made by Doppelmayr, an Austrian lift company.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base areas for both quads featured a variety of food and souvenir stands and restaurants. From the second quad, I asked some Russians how to get down to the Gondola, which was a little unclear. They just told me to head left, which I did and basically found the Gondola no thanks to the lack of trail markings.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The mountain itself was fabulous, the crowds weren’t bad, and the skiers were generally in control and weren’t crazy. However, the mountain isn’t quite up to American or European standards when it comes to trail markings.

Most American and European ski areas don't have stray dogs all over them either.

Most American and European ski areas don’t have stray dogs all over them either.

American mountains, at least in the North East, basically only have well marked trails. American resorts in the West tend to have more free skiing options, as do the European Alps, but the boundaries are fairly well marked. This was certainly the case in Jackson, Wyoming or Garmisch, Germany. The same does not hold true for Gudauri. Sign posts were very rare, and the limit of the trails was always unclear. I headed left from the middle quad to what looked like a trail that ran under the lift and doubled back to the side. At least in America and Germany, the small trail would have double backed into a main trail. Instead, I found myself in open free skiing. The snow itself was fabulous powder, and the area where I was happened to be rock and crevasse free, thankfully. I then went down that for a while before rejoining the actual trail.

Sun and perfect snow.

Sun and perfect snow.

The way down from the Gondola was easier to decipher. I wish I had had more time to ski the mountain all day. The runs were pure joy, some of the best skiing I’ve experienced in my whole life. I stuck basically to blues to the whole way, though, as I was skiing alone. The blues were super easy, more like an American green. They were all wide trails with good snow. There weren’t any icy patches at all, and they weren’t that steep. Had I been with a partner, I would have ventured off into the more difficult stuff, but I wasn’t going to push anything while alone on a mountain in a country with questionable medical facilities. The mountain was also interesting in that it has allegedly affordable heliskiing. The heliskiing tracks were super visible off on the mountains to the side. My favorite ski conditions are heavy powder, so I was sad to not get to track the fluffly stuff on this trip. But if I get the opportunity, I would definitely come back here and would totally recommend the place to others.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

After skiing for a few hours, I met my friend at the base. He had gotten an order of food for himself earlier for about $8.00, which was a giant portion of khachipuri and potatoes. He couldn’t eat it at all, and got the rest to go. When I joined him again, he gave me some of the food.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

After the harrowing drive up, we asked the driver to take us back to Tbilisi, and at a slower speed. He had wanted to take us up farther into the mountains, but we were too afraid of the roads and didn’t want to be riding on them at night. Visibility during the day was bad enough, and there were hazards like cows, dogs, or people riding horses that we had to avoid on the way to and from the mountain. The driver relented, and took us back to Tbilisi. Along the way, we stopped at Ananuri castle complex, to see a 13th century castle and church.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

In Tbilisi, the driver took us around the city for a while and showed us stuff from the car before taking us to the Memorail to Georgian History at the top of a hill. We climbed up and explored it for a while.

An imposing monument.

An imposing monument.

There was a great view of Soviet Tbilisi from this hill.Tbilisi itself is an interesting mix of national, pre-revolutionary architecture and Brezhnev blocks. After the memorial, he dropped us off in the center so that we could see the Museum of Soviet Occupation.

Soviet Tbilisi.

Soviet Tbilisi.

The Museum of Soviet Occupation was a permanent exhibit in the National Museum. It consisted of two rooms that portrayed a very bleak picture of Russian-Georgian relations. On one side of the first room was an old train car with bullet holes in it, in which hundreds were allegedly shot. Our AirBnB host later told us that this was a fabrication, it was a mock train car and had holes drilled in it. There was also a video showing the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and Russian bombings in South Ossetia. The next room was mostly just copies of archival documents that were execution orders for Georgian citizens, nobility, and clergy. Essentially, the Bolsheviks shot the majority of the Georgian nobility. It listed thousands of people who were shot during the Soviet era, as well as the 400,000 Georgians who died during WWII as victims of Soviet occupation. The final part of the exhibit was about continued Russian occupation with the contested territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are under Russian military control. Oddly enough, the museum didn’t mention anything about Stalin or Beria, two Georgians who initiated many of the killings that took place in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Gaga had let us borrow a metro card for the night, which was topped off, so we took a ride on the Tbilisi metro to see what it was like. It’s fairly small, and was initially built in the 1960s. It runs the same cars as the 1970s style ones of Soviet design, though they’ve been renovated with newer interiors and exteriors that feature Georgian pride.

We also popped into a wine store to get some wine. We wanted to get some red Georgian wine of the Kindzmarauli semi-sweet kind. The store had nice Kindzmarauli on tap, so we got two plastic 1 liter bottles for about $7.50, which provided us with drinks for the two remaining nights in Tbilisi.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

The next morning, Gaga met us at 9:30 to take us to Gori, Stalin’s home town so that we could go to the Stalin Museum. The museum was oddly built in 1957, four years after the death of Stalin and during Khrushchev’s campaign of de-Stalinization. The museum has a major building of exhibition halls chronicling his whole life and death. It starts with his birth, features and exhibit with the 6th of the 9 official death masks, and a giant hall of gifts from his 70th birthday.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

One of the funny pieces was a model of his secret, underground printing press.There is another copy of this exact model in the Lenin Memorial Museum in Ulyanovsk. I’m not sure whether or not to be impressed or distressed with myself for recognizing the model, though I’ve been to the Lenin Memorial three times.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin's train.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin’s train.

Also at the museum are Stalin’s birth house and a train carriage. The house sits in its original location, and there is a giant stone structure built over it to protect it. The train carriage is an armored one that initially belonged to Nicholas II. Stalin left it basically unchanged with the exception of the addition of an air-conditioner. The train was given to the museum by Gorbachev sometime in the 1980s. Stalin travelled pretty much everywhere in the train car, especially as he had a fear of flying. He only flew twice in his life, from Baku to Tehran and back for the 1943 Tehran Conference with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. As our guide Georgi said, “Stalin didn’t want to be too close to God.”

The tour with our guide was great. He made plenty of sassy comments towards Stalin and the Soviet regime. We were also joined over time by a motley crew of American and Indian tourists, who I really wanted to ask what they were doing in Georgia. During the tour, our guide mentioned that the museum has its own archives, including Stalin’s original death mask. We said we were historians of the period and asked if we could somehow get permission to enter the archives. He said that they are private, but that there was a public archive that we could see. The public archive is actually just an exhibit on the crimes of Stalin, mostly the shootings of the purges in the 1930s. The guide told us that the museum was a standard Soviet one that glorified the leader and the regime without mentioning any of its bad times, so he got the permission to create this additional exhibit with archival research that he has done. The only downside to the museum was that it really wasn’t heated. There were some space heaters, but it was absolutely freezing inside. There were, however, very nice and clean bathrooms in the museum. We later rated all future bathrooms on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a dirty Turkish toilet and 10 being the Stalin museum bathrooms.

After the museum, we got in the car and rode off through the countryside to the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe. As we rode through the countryside, I was struck by how poor Georgia really is. I knew that the Caucasian Republics generally were poorer and were hit hard by the Soviet collapse. I had assumed, wrongly, that they had gotten a little better. Many of the villages were run down and looked almost like they had been bombed. People and animals were milling through the streets. Many of the houses did not have indoor plumbing, as outhouses were visible all over.

Uplistsikhe was fascinating. It was a city hewn into the sandstone of some cliffs. It was probably founded in the Iron Age, and featured a series of living quarters, wine presses, bakeries, jails, and theatres. There were even spaces for pagan ritual animal sacrifices and star worship. Our guide told us that there were some Soviet additions to the cave city, such as cement support pillars, which prevent it from being classified as a UNESCO heritage site.

The cave city.

The cave city.

I mumbled under my breath that it might have had something to do with the place being a giant death trap. We were climbing up worn down sandstone cliff faces that were covered in snow. There were no hand holds and very few places had level paths of any kind. I was worried about breaking an ankle in some places, and falling off the exposed side of a mountain at another. I’m not really a fan of heights and panicked a little at the completely open cliff face at one end of the complex. I would have lost my lunch had we been able to stop for lunch before seeing the place.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

After Uplistsikhe, we rode from about an hour through the countryside. At one point, Gaga started taking photos of the view while driving. At others, he was texting. Sometimes, he would have phone conversations without bothering to turn down the blaring radio. Eventually, he took us to a roadside café complex just outside of Mtskheta, the former capital of Georgia. It was clearly where all of the locals ate, and we again dined on khachipuri and khinkali. After lunch, we went to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, built in the 11th Century.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

Gaga came inside with us and explained different parts of the history of it, such as the lore of it being built above the grave of someone who died and was buried while holding the robe of Christ from Golgotha. While inside the church, we witnessed a traditional Georgian Orthodox wedding, which was pretty cool.

Well this is awkward, I didn't bring a wedding gift.

Well this is awkward, I didn’t bring a wedding gift. The groom was clearly calling me out for it with his stare. Also, lots of other random people were taking photos, so I figured it was OK to do so.

From Mtskheta, Gaga drove us back to Tbilisi and left us off at the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. We went inside it and enjoyed the view. We also went into a smaller church built on the complex before grabbing a cab that would take us to the gondola that runs over the city. To my happiness, we got into another Mercedes C-Class taxi. This one was a sporty W202 C180 with a manual transmission. To my regret, my seat was missing its seatbelt, which was extra unpleasant when we went down the super steep cobblestone road in a car in which the brake wear indicator light was flashing. The roads and drivers in general in Georgia are frightening. They make Moscow drivers look calm and people in the Bronx like grandmothers out on Sunday drives.

The gondola ride to the top was cool. It was just before dark, so the view was still great. Jonathon put some coins into the binocular machine and enjoyed the view from it. We wandered around the top for a while and got up close to the Monument to the Mother of Georgia. When we rode down, it was dark, so we got a different view. We then walked across the river on a pedestrian bridge. We resisted the urge to invest and double our grant money at the local casino. We walked back to our neighborhood and grabbed dinner before heading back to the apartment to drink wine.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

In the morning, we had until 12:00 to leave the AirBnB. We got up and had breakfast before walking down the main road a last time. We popped into a local bookstore where we each bought a Georgian-English book to teach the Georgian language for about $10. We also walked along the street trying to buy stamps for some of the postcards that I had gotten. None of the souvenir shops had them, despite someone in Uplistsikhe telling me that those stores sell them. I asked if there was a post office, and one set of babushki told me that there aren’t any in the neighborhood at all, that I would have to walk a few blocks and then take a bus a few stops to get them. I gave up on the notion of sending some postcards actually from Georgia at that point.

After the failed stamp quest, we headed back to the restaurant below the apartment to get a last meal before going to the airport. Just after cleaning up after eating, our AirBnB host was there to collect the keys and call us a taxi to the airport. For future reference for anyone going to Tbilisi, Yandex taxi works there, and they have the cheapest rates to and from the airport.

Our driver was a nice older man who wanted to know where we were from and what two Russian speaking Americans were doing there. He complimented me on my Russian and asked Jonathon a series of questions about life in Kazakhstan. Along the way, he told us that there is more gender equality in Georgia, and that Georgian women truly have a say in their households. He then made comments about the Central Asian republics being dominated by elder males, and derogatory comments about Muslim families in general, such as Azeri women only voting for whomever their husbands tell them to. There is evidently a lot of rivalry between the ex-Soviet republics.

At the airport, boarding the plane was a bit of a free for all. The people working at the gate walked over and people just lined up and started getting onto the plane before boarding was announced at all. There was no regard to class or seat position for boarding. We then got onto the plane and proceeded to sit for a long time. Eventually, the captain said that we were being delayed due to slow boarding and baggage loading. About 90 minutes after our scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate and then de-iced before taking off (dégivrer, my favorite French word). I think what happened was the flight was not full and we waited until every seat on the plane was filled with passengers. Jonathon and I lost the empty free seat that was between us.

Argh, why is the flight delayed?

Argh, why is the flight delayed? Also, proof that we were indeed together in Georgia.

The flight itself was uneventful. It was a smooth ride and the skies were reasonably clear, so I had a great view of the Caucasus Mountains.

The sandwich this time around was better, too. It was ham and cheese with pickles and the strange condiment spread. When we got to Moscow, though, we were again delayed due to the weather. It was snowing, and we had to circle for about 20 minutes before the runways were cleared for us to land. Landing was smooth and fine. I still feel slightly weird when the whole plane erupts into applause upon landing, though. The pilot did his job and didn’t kill us, why are we cheering for fulfilling the minimum criterion for his job?

Due to the delays, I was panicking a little because I was supposed to go to the dorm and do my laundry at 8:00. We only have one working washer for the two dorms at the RGGU main campus, so if you lose your slot you can’t get another one for at least a week. We pushed to get onto the almost full bus that took us to the gate. We said goodbye quickly in the terminal, and then I rushed to immigration. I was worried that I might be given lots of questions for flying in from Tbilisi. I stood anxiously in line while the people spent forever processing some passengers from China. When it was finally my time, I had to wait three or so minutes for the staff at the window to change. I handed the woman my passport and she asked where I had flown in from. I said Tbilisi, she nodded, and then stamped my passport and migration card and sent me on my way. I then essentially ran across the airport to the Aeroexpress terminal and got onto the 7:00 train with five minutes to spare, which meant that I was back in the dorms 10 minutes before I had to start my laundry.

All in all, it was a spectacular trip. I cannot wait to visit Kazakhstan and Armenia later this semester. It’s interesting to see how these countries retain some of their Soviet past, and to what extent they reject it. I’m also fascinated by the changes that have happened in these places in the 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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