Dinner with Locals in Tbilisi

 

For the second last night of the trip we booked an evening with a local couple, cooking Georgian foods together and then eating and drinking late into the night. Our hosts, Mariam & Levan turned out to be amazing people, very simpatico with ourselves and the entire experience was outstanding, probably the best night of the trip.

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The spread included lots of Georgian foods that I was familiar with and lots more new dishes, Georgian food is seriously addictive.

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The Last Three Cities

(disclaimer: i know nothing about anything, these are just my impressions after short visits to each city and conversations with a handful of locals)

Beirut (Lebanon), Baku (Azerbaijan) and Tbilisi (Georgia) ended up being really good cities to see back to back in terms of experiencing the effects of differing governance on the day to day functions of each city.

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Lebanon has a functional, democratic and open government however massive corruption and the voices of dozens of parties representing dozens of religious groups has led to a system where nothing truly terrible can happen but nothing truly progressive can happen either, internet barely works, cellular is spotty, there is no usable mass transit (despite the worst traffic I have ever seen) and Beirut is forced to put up with regular power blackouts, despite having plenty of power.

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Azerbaijan has a broken political system with a nearly totalitarian grip on power by the Aliyev family but that same iron grip on power has meant that the government is able to easily focus on projects aimed at the public good, Baku is spotlessly clean and has gorgeous parks, walkways, boulevards, seawalls, architecture, fountains, etc. The people seem calm, happy and content. Debates about the ethicacy of a (mostly) benevolent  dictator have been around forever and I certainly am not equipped to weigh in here but the difference from Beirut was shocking.

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Georgia is a great place to visit politically, after Lebanon and Azerbaijan, it’s a textbook case of national change, a country that suffered for decades by rampant corruption and police abuses but fifteen years ago decided they had had enough and cleaned house. The government and police service were gutted, laws were changed and things were rebuilt from the ground up (sometimes literally, police stations were rebuilt to all have glass walls to represent this newfound commitment to transparency). Every local or expat we talked to was extremely proud of these changes.

With Lebanon’s continual slide into debt and corruption and Azerbaijan’s reliance on oil profits it seems like Georgia, though quite poor,¬† is the shining light however I really am not educated enough to know what is really what and I would certainly be happy to revisit any of these cities to learn more and see what changes can happen.

So Many Coatchecks

Tbilisi Deserter’s Market

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The Deserter’s Market (originally started by deserting soldiers) is one of two public markets in Tbilisi, somehow I missed it completely the last time I was in Georgia. We took a tour through it and saw/tasted some amazing things, herbs and spices and honey and local yogurt, really good stuff.

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Before the actual market we tasted bread made at a local monastery, the bread is hard to describe, somewhere between regular bread and flatbread with a thin crispy crust, the bread might be the best thing I’ve tried in Georgia, consistently excellent. You can see the baker below grabbing loaves from the oven (tome).

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The flour lady, a very interesting and lively woman selling all sorts of mostly cornflour flours, rightly proud of her stacks of flour that never spill.

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Honey from different regions around Georgia, all of it good.

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Butcher shop… yup, no refrigeration, was a warm day too….

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Another butcher.
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The pickle guy, really nice pickles, one common one is the pickled flowers of a local shrub, really nice.

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Nuts, spices, dried fruit. There are several spices endemic to Georgian cooking that are not really available outside the region so we picked up some marigold powder and some blue fenugreek to try and make a few dishes at home.

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This is a Georgian bar, there are rows of these, a table, a tv, some snacks that look frightening, some awful local moonshine (in the coke bottles) called Chacha and the absolute worst of the local wine, watered down turpentine. Really cool!

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Another bar.

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Sakena the Train Angel (Traingel?)

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On Saturday night Samira and I boarded Train 38, an elderly Russian night train from Baku, Azerbaijan to Tbilisi, Georgia. The train rumbles slowly and casually for thirteen hours through mountains and countryside taking us away from the Caspian Sea heading west towards Georgia’s more European flavour.

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The train loaded around 9pm, while boarding the train I made Samira pose for some “getting on the train” shots, the porter who had checked our passports and tickets got a kick out of this, she asked Samira where she was from and if she spoke Azeri Turkish, Samira climbed on board and I followed, the porter pointed to Samira’s back and pointed at my chest and gave me an approving thumbs up and a smile, I don’t know how to say “just friends” in Azeri.

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We settled into our cabin and after a few minutes the same porter (Sakena, we later learned) came by and informed us we were in the wrong one, we moved the correct cabin and Sakena hung out a bit and talked with us, she had a very, very small bit of English plus what common Farsi/Azeri words her and Samira could figure out and we got by, she asked if I was Samira’s husband and if I thought Samira was beautiful and informed me that it was time to have babies and that I only have 9 good years left before I am old.
I’m pretty sure Sakena called me “weird” while teasing me but Samira thinks no.
Around 6am Sakena knocked on our door to inform us that it was time to “stand up” for Azerbaijan border control. So very tired but we got dressed and moving a bit, around 20 minutes later Azeri border guards and dogs came on board and started interviewing and checking visas and luggage. The border guards decided that two men from Pakistan did not have the correct visas and started telling them they would have to leave the train. I can’t imagine being left behind in the middle of nowhere on the Azeri/Georgian border at 6am.
Other passengers started jumping in to try and help, with translations between Russian and English and Azeri and Pakistani all flying back and forth, Samira used my internet connection and her phone to find information online showing that the Pakistani men were correct about their visas, I gave her phone to the men to show to the border guards and various phone and radio calls were made.
In the end it wasn’t enough, the men were removed from the train and the mood onboard with the border guards got decidedly more serious with them barking orders and seeming to have lost patience with us all. The guards asked for Samira and took her to one of the cabins for her interview, Sakena came and got me and said “Go, stay close to Samira now”, it was an amazingly sweet and caring gesture, I parked myself outside the interview cabin and listened to see that everything was going ok. Samira’s interview went fine other than some questions about why I had a Russian visa but Samira did not, and why she had come from Iran but I had no Iranian stamp.
Sakena came by again after to check on us and to let us know about the upcoming Georgian border crossing. I think I love Sakena, I doubt any other car in this train has someone as sweet as her working on it. We wanted a photo with her but when our train pulled into Tbilisi Sakena was gone or sleeping already.

Baku Pics

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Welcome to Baku, Azerbaijan!
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Cool Traffic Lights!
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House of Government
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No idea but neat building
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Shisha! This one was grapefruit flavour
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Our Shisha-Man lighting us up
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Oh yeah, that’s the stuff
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Baku is FULL of gorgeous nighttime stuff
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Lovely public spaces

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My first glimpse of the Caspian Sea!
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The Flame Towers from the Old City
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Samira and the Flame Towers from the Old City
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The Flame Towers from the Old City
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The Old City Walls
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The Maiden’s Tower, build date unknown, purpose unknown, cooool
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Baku, Old City
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Lunch in the Old City
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The Flame Towers from the Old City
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Old City
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Old City
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Flame Towers up close
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Bye Baku, we loved you!