Wednesday, April 26, 2017

-- The Silk Route: Turkey via Georgia --

I wake up at times drenched in sweat, slowly getting rid of my layers of clothing in the darkness of the dark cabin. The ride is smooth yet the heating is making me sick and desperate for fresh air.

Hours after closing the books of Soviet memories, another day begins whilst the train pulls into Boyuk Kasir for border formalities. Groggy from the sleepless journey, I see how the carriage is sealed, the toilets are locked and our bags are searched, whilst a rather friendly immigration officer makes do with a cabin as an office, placing his laptop on a bunk bed and stamps all passports at once.
The train then moves slowly for about ten kilometers and stops to repeat the same operations in the town of Gardabani, the sun blasting through the windows and the cold wind punishing the arid Georgian landscape outside, dominated by the Caucasus Mountains.

'Prepare for landing in Georgia' said the BBC News advert some seven years ago. Flashing imagery of a cosmopolitan utopia in red white tones. For this was my only knowledge of yet another former Soviet Republic, one of the smallest in size.
Nonetheless, Georgia was an important playing card for the U.S.S.R. Tbilisi given priority over public works due to its strategic location in the Silk Route and in the made up border between two continents.

Tbilisi might not be as shiny as Baku. The tin roofs houses clinging onto both sides of a narrow valley, the railway zig-zagging over dry hills cleared from rubble and some naked pine trees, perhaps not the manicured welcome received in other countries.
The train/bus station looks dated, the footpaths around it crumbling and the public spaces invaded by street vendors. I love it.
The million-and-a-half people capital stretches over a very narrow valley split in half by the milk-coloured Mtkvari River. A city strikingly reminding me of La Paz in Bolivia.
Cars and minivans struggle to get through the steep streets, confusing left and right side driving wheels as the country opened the doors for cheap automotive imports from Asia.
Tbilisi is noisy, yet the mountain air and the cold sunshine constantly replenish the breath and help in combating the fatigue of a long train journey.

Georgia is a country making rapid developments, as international markets open and an aggressive pro-European policy is in place.
My few first interactions with locals present a pleasing introduction to the Georgian society, if individuals somehow working through an organised chaos that seem to perfectly work in sync, perhaps a society a bit more indulgent in both religion and Western ways than its neighbors across the Azeri border.
The new Tbilisi merges with the old in a sober balance. The colorful terraces raise from the Old Town, tastily refurbished around a narrow gorge from where a fall springs foul-smelling and sulfur-charged water, a chance for ancient medicinal baths down the road.
Europa Square dominates the Northern bank of the river, a bridge sporting a massive European flag confirming the empathy towards becoming an European Union member, whilst the funicular takes me up the hill to visit Motherland, sculpted and painted in tones of silver and overlooking formerly-known Tiflis.

After days of isolation, I meet the locals around cups of coffee, soon being driven up the hills for privileged views of the valley from Mtatsminda Park and later sitting around a dish of Khachapuri, a dish-shaped bread filled with eggs, cheese and the likes, smothered with glasses of sweet chocolate-flavoured Lagidze water, completing the (compelling) Georgian cliche.
The sunshine dies later in Mshketa, a town just a few minutes down a modern motorway and a perfect glance of old Georgian living.
The winds blows colder and the mountains turn purple. We climb up Jvari church, clinically built over a pyramidal-looking hill and watch the day peacefully vanish in front of us, providing me with one of the prettiest sunsets I have ever seen.

My last day in Georgia is spent solely walking, a trek between my hotel embedded in the busy avenues surrounding the Technical University, an area overflowing with neon signs, cheap clothes shops and a couple of McDonalds and Wendy's outlets, through the refinement of Rustaveli and its lineup of upmarket brands, to the Freedom Square and its gilded memorabilia.
Half-drunk memories unfold at Kafe Flores and its balcony hanging over Europa Square, the chilled mountain wind finally declaring truce to the clear skies and the Old Town looking prettier than ever through glasses of the best Pirosmani Georgian wine.

I return to the hotel by way of the Russian Market, where relics from Soviet times lay on colourful tableclothes placed on the bare footpaths awaiting for nostalgic buyers. I look for a Tupolev replica with no success.
The eucaliptus trees of the 9th April garden caress the air, the sunshine fading behind the tall mountains ahead turning the Tbilisi valley sadder and ending yet another day in the Silk Route.
It is a short night interrupted by a roller-coaster taxi ride to the airport in the outskirts of the city, the open-plan small terminal busiest in the morning with numerous low-cost airlines departures.

My flight on the Pegasus (Airlines) departs at the break of dawn, the valley vanishing in between the thick clouds and the flight turning bumpy at times, and sleepy for the duration of the journey over the Black Sea coast, moments before turning South to a descent over Asian Istanbul.
On descent, our aircraft floats over cotton-candy clouds, only broken by a row of buildings conquering the fog seconds before we touch the runway at Sabiha Gocken Airport, from where I transfer on a Havatas bus to European Istanbul, crossing over the second Bosphorus bridge, barely noticeable in the thick oceanic mist.
A city now very familiar, I spend the day walking from Taksim Square (where I once had beers and snacks with two Canadian girls) down to hills to Sultanahmet, through charming Beyoglu, sipping on a Turkish coffee by the Galata Tower and finally trying the grilled mackerel sandwich accompanied with a lentil soup by the Galata Bridge.

The Basilica Cistern makes for an affordable and interesting place to kill a few minutes, whilst hiding from the rain. Underneath the busy streets, a dismal world of water fountains supported by 336 marble columns covers an area capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water, sometimes vibrating at the passing of the nearby heavy trams, for Istanbul is a city that never stops.
Time for last-minute shopping, souvenirs, a box of Turkish delight for the colleagues and a self-indulgent walk through the Spice Market, my very own secret guilty pleasure, the one that instantly transports me to my early twenties, to times wandering around souqs in the Middle East mesmerized at the strong smell of delicate saffron arrangements and to the sweetness of smoke inhaled through hookah pipes.

Once again, the early morning departure to Dublin takes me home, the day turning brighter at the taste of my last Turkish (airplane) meal and the sounds of 'Lalaland' played on the screen. 
I land in Dublin shortly before midday and sprint straight into the office. My physical self checking emails, my mental self still wandering about bygone times of silk trade, of Old Towns, of saffron and incense, of Soviet parades, of classical music and of countless glasses of pomegranate tea.

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