Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hot streets, cold beer

Grapevines overtaking an apartment building (Tbilisi)
After lollygagging around Istanbul for nearly a week, I moved in and out of Tbilisi (Georgia) in about 24 hours, and on to Baku (Azerbaijan).  Each city is very different.  Though it's described as the "liveliest" of the three Caucasian capitals (Tbilisi, Baku, Yerevan), Tbilisi feels several steps beyond sleepy after the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.  It's a bit hard to explain how Soviet it feels to someone who's never been to anywhere in the former USSR, but it reminds me a lot of Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), or any of the smaller, more far-flung cities within Russia itself--like Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Baikal, for instance.

A great many buildings seem to be falling to pieces; many of the big important ones are under intensive restoration, but the side streets remain a study in architectural decay.  It becomes darkly comical after a while that wherever you want to walk, there's a hole in the sidewalk, or a fresh trench, or a small lake of wet concrete, or a man with a jackhammer, or rubble cascading from demolition overhead.  One expects that the city will look lovely in a few years, after all the construction is completed, but for the moment things are pretty grim, at least in terms of the architecture.  The locals don't seem bothered by any of this; they just keep on keeping on in that stoic Soviet way.  A surprising number of people speak English, and they're very helpful once you engage them, but the default setting is very reserved--especially after the boisterous Turks!  I may be overindulging my imagination, but it seems as if the population divides almost perfectly in half between those under 40, who go out of their way to sport cell phones and American t-shirts, and those over 40, whose eyes and bodies sag under the weight of past oppression. 

Typical Georgian lunch (Tbilisi)
Grapes growing on restaurant roof (Tbilisi)
Time didn't allow for investigations into the famed nightlife of Tbilisi, but Georgians are said to have the best food on earth, and after two meals, I'm almost prepared to agree.  I don't know why it's taken foodies in the West so long to figure out that freshness is of the utmost importance, but in Georgia they never forgot this.  The tomatoes were excellent in Turkey, but possibly even better in Georgia: I'm not sure I could do better even from my own garden.  "Cheese" is somewhere between mozzarella and feta, clearly made within days if not hours.  "Bread" is baked on the premises or very nearby, and shows the marks of charcoal and/or a brick oven.  Most interestingly of all, perhaps, "wine" is very fresh and light compared to anything I've had from Europe or the Americas, but it lacks nothing in body or complexity.  They also make excellent beer, which is extremely appealing in the intense heat (no more Mediterranean breezes in this landlocked city of the plains); pictured are the remains of possibly the best weissbier I've ever had outside Germany.

Sleeper train, Tbilisi to Baku
Istanbul to Tbilisi was covered by plane; Tbilisi to Baku by train.  My apologies to readers who were understandably hoping to see what a Georgian sleeper train looks like: it was so hot on board I couldn't even think clearly enough to get out my camera.  Long time readers, however, will know what I mean by saying that Georgian trains are very much like Russian ones, if a little worse for wear.  Sadly, the only major stop was at the border, so my dreams of assembling a picnic from little old ladies on various platforms and rural stops, as I had all across Russia and the 'stans, were squashed. 

Old City walls (Baku)
Art Deco metro (Baku)

Baku is a hard place to get a handle on.  It's nominally Muslim, yet there are no calls-to-prayer and no mosques that I can see.  Dress is flashy not in the immodest sense so much, but very much in the pursuit-of-fashion sense.  A Montblanc store almost abuts the old city walls.  It's much cleaner and more modern and prosperous than Tbilisi, and also less relaxed.  People drive like maniacs, and though the city center is dense enough to be easily walkable, doing so is not particularly pleasant.  There is a nice big park on the shore of the Caspian Sea, but it was simply too hot today to venture out from the shade to the waters themselves, especially since they're reputed to be oily.  Oil is a big industry here, and you can see how it drives the economy, as well as the somewhat rushed, all-business attitude of the citizens.  People are nice enough, but English is much less common than in Turkey or Georgia, making more than the most casual interactions challenging.

Tomorrow I join the "Across the Caucasus" tour for 15 days; we'll spend one more day in Baku before wending our way for 3-1/2 days back to Georgia, and then Armenia.  Please stay tuned.


  1. Sounds fascinating and the food wonderful...keep these wonderful posts coming :-)

  2. Your description of Tbilisi (architecturally) reminds me of Beograd.