29 December 2011

Tbilisi

Tbilisi (თბილისი, in Georgian script) is a city of roaring generators, flapping tarps, tumbledown buildings, faulty mufflers, ancient balconies, fruitsellers, military police, diceplayers, homemade liquor, endless construction and dozens of churches. This is a city at the crossroads of the Caucasus - at the heart of the borderlands between old Russia, Turkey, Persia, Christianity, Islam, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Here, the end of the Bridge of Peace, brand new and leading from nowhere to nowhere - an incomplete park at one end, a semi-deserted jumble of leaning structures at the other.
Georgia's capital has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. It's an ongoing process, with much to work out and patch up after the 2008 war with Russia and the revolutions and civil conflicts of the 1990's and early 2000's. We landed here after over twenty-four hours of travel from New York, finding ourselves at the eastern extreme of Europe, breathing hard-edged fumes and the excitement of the exotic.
These ramshackle balconies, a Tbilisi fixture, are part Persian and part 18th century Europe, most built in the period after 1795, when the town was razed by the Persian khan Agha Mohammad.
The Georgian tourism bureau will have you believe that the frequent blackouts and electric grid problems are a thing of the past. The many generator vendors and repair shops tell a different story, though, and a lot of buildings seems to be hardwired to puttering power sources. We passed a whole engine district, where lawnmower skeletons sat discarded on the sidewalk, their innards repurposed and for sale in the open-fronted shops.
Georgia was one of the more independent republics of the USSR, and the cement-fisted reach of the central planning department came down lighter here than in other places. There aren't as many blocks of slab in Tbilisi as we expected, but they do exist, with all the soviet signatures. Rubbish and curtain clogged window-ledges, imposing facades, squared shoulders, blank stares.
Tbilisi feels like an outpost more than anything, though it's really the de-facto capital of the region. An outlaw speediness shapes the landscape and the action always seems to be happening at the fringes of your vision. It's the kind of city where one feels watched, and where shadowy figures flit at the periphery of consciousness. The main boulevards are soulless and bland, the alleyways abound in activity.
Like Minsk, St. Petersburg and Chișinău in particular, the city has an extended series of underground passages and arcades, constructed both for pedestrians and to house little shops. Apparently desolate intersections are often crowded with commerce below street level.
Georgia is the oldest Christian country on earth. Converted wholly in the early fourth century, it remains devout and almost uniformly orthodox. Nearly eighty five percent of the country's inhabitants belong to the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church. In Tbilisi, there seems to be a church on nearly every corner - some grand, others in bad disrepair. We wandered into this Armenian church, where every inch of wall and ceiling had been painted and coated with gold leaf.
We were surprised, last night, to find ourselves talking about how hopeful Tbilisi feels. It's amazing, in a city so repeatedly and recently bloodied, to find a sense of progress and communal expectancy. New businesses are sprouting up and fresh paint is being splashed everywhere.
On our trip in from the airport, an enthusiastic taxi driver brought us on a long, unbidden tour of the capital's newer buildings - he was extremely proud of them, even the gargantuan presidential palace and the futuristic central police department. He drove us for more than an hour, in the darkest part of night, talking constantly about what had changed and what was planned.

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