First Impressions and Sights In and Around Tbilisi

Sunday, July 1st

All 7 of our study abroad group in Georgia describes a similar arrival experience: being driven from the airport, surrounded by a seemingly alien language, in the middle of the night. Then, some hasty greetings (and perhaps food after 24+ hours of being in planes or airports), and finding some brief comfort before an orientation late the following morning. Consequently, most of us had slept just a couple hours when experiencing the city for the first time during an unnatural 100-degree heat wave. It was quite the slog, but provided several of us to see one of the first major sites in Tbilisi.

Sameba Cathedral

After a brief walk down the rustic Avlabari neighborhood, the gate to Georgia’s largest church suddenly opens up to a large, bright beige structure that resembles a matryoshka nesting doll — with layer built on layer built on layer, with a prominent dome rising above. This is the modern symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church, an institution that is taken very seriously here, as we would soon learn. Indeed, just after stepping in to the cavernous interior, you are greeted with a huge representation of Jesus and his disciples on the altar wall. People can be seen paying respects: one man kisses pictures of religious figures while a woman crosses herself and prostrates on the floor. Meanwhile, a priest lightly chants and spreads holy incense. It is quite the contrast to three Americans wearing shorts (technically against the dress code, as we would discover). Still, it is a fascinating introduction to the traditions and reverence of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In the following days, class begins. We all have a little trouble adapting to a 3 hour class, but the material is riveting enough that the hours (and our accustomization to local time) soon don’t matter. The 15-minute break halfway through is much appreciated for my regular stop by an underground supermarket for a 1.5 liter bottle of Bakuriani water, the classic Georgian brand. It is only 80 tetri (about 30 cents), giving me little guilt in buying a chocolate snack with it. This may be one of my favorite features of Georgia: cheap transportation and meals. I know I will experience a bit of reverse culture shock getting used to American restaurant prices again! After the class, we all head out to lunch in town, and spend the first few days trying new places that catch our eye before we become regulars at a couple establishments. The staple Georgian foods of khinkali and khachapuri are always worth trying.

Lake Lisi

A little break for American culture is taken on the Fourth of July as American Councils hosts an evening picnic at a local lake. I am immediately struck by the beautiful atmosphere: up on a hillside with views of the Caucasus foothills, it feels pure and most importantly, cooler and breezier than the last couple days in the city. Our group meets several others that are studying abroad and we have a great time roaming around. There is cool, refreshing water to swim in, trails to walk, and plenty of little restaurants and bars to have some food or drink. What feels ‘American’ — enjoying time on the grass/beach with newfound friends on July 4th — becomes a universal pleasure in Georgia. There is no doubt that many other families there are simply out for a nice time on a Wednesday evening, regardless of the American holiday. It is definitely a hangout spot to return to. The time to leave on the bus comes too soon, but some of us remain for a nightcap in the city and share stories to end a great day.

Jvari Monastery by Mtskheta

The first full weekend begins with a trip away from Tbilisi less than an hour to the north. We head to a church built nearly 1,500 years ago and learn about the roots of Christianity in Georgia, including the legends of St. Nino, the woman who converted much of the ancient kingdom. Her makeshift cross was said to have been held here and was the great early symbol of Georgian Orthodox tradition. Her legend continues today simply based on the prevalence of names in Georgia (one notices quickly the amount of people named ‘Giorgi’ and ‘Nino’.) This site also provides amazing views from its mountaintop perch of nearby Mtskheta and the confluence of the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers.

We then head into town to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a medieval church that now serves as the capital for Georgian Orthodoxy. Many ancient kings are buried here, and we also learn about the Georgian wine tradition and see some exposed amphorae that have lasted for millennia. Other stops include a discussion at a South Ossetian refugee camp just outside of town and a lunch in a pleasant pavilion before our visit final of the day.

Stalin Museum in Gori

About one and a half hours from Tbilisi is Josef Stalin’s hometown of Gori. Likewise, it is not the place for well-rounded look at the former leader of the Soviet Union. It is fascinatingly surreal for a look into how some Georgians view his complex legacy. Many residents of Gori — and the Stalin Museum — seem to focus on the fact that one of the 20th century’s most influential figures grew up as a Georgian, and that this is something worth celebrating, regardless of Stalin’s purges and policies that caused widespread famine. Still, it is very intriguing to get such a different perspective. Stalin’s statue was not removed until 2010, and the street by the museum still bears his name. We see his face everywhere around the museum, and some opulent gifts he received from regional and international leaders late in his career.

Since this incredible visit, we have seen several local museums in Tbilisi and had the opportunity to explore on our own. I have looked for and found some great views at the top of the Tbilisi Funicular and at Turtle Lake, which is connected to town and the idyllic Vake Park by a very inexpensive cable car (or even a quick but grueling hike). I am excited to see much more in the next 3 weeks. If possible, I hope to go to Kazbegi, a region in Georgia’s far north that holds great views and hiking of the Caucasus Mountains. I have been very interested to learn about the relationships of Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two separatist regions in Georgia. The next 3 weeks should bring a lot more excitement and learning, including in my own introduction to the Russian language.

By: Drew Booker

Program: Peace and Security in the South Caucasus

Term: Summer 2018

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