Monday, November 01, 2010

Notes from Tbilisi

Photo by Rita Willaert / Flickr
Imagine a Vilnius, more dilapidated, but where all Lithuanians are removed by an invisible hand and replaced by dark-skinned, dark-haired Caucasians -- this was my first impression of Tbilisi.

As soon as our train passed the Azerbaijan-Georgia border and customs control and reached once a model Soviet industrial town of Rustavi, all the Georgian passengers rushed to the windows and started to stare at its ruins.

Not that Rustavi has seen any wars in its approximately 50-year-long history, but the town, at least its industrial section, lies largely in ruins. Abandoned buildings and warehouses, collapsing apartment blocks, thrown-away machinery and rusting railway carriages lie all along the Baku-Tbilisi railway track. And the cheerful Georgians all view it with a kind of strange silence and optimism, occasionally interrupted by a child's voice or a lady's gag in Georgian.

It is as if they contemplate the signs of a past that gradually becomes really a past. Citizens of new Georgia, look at the remnants of old Georgia. As if an open-air museum telling how a state should not be run.

At some point a handful of teenagers throw stones at the train and show middle finger to people at the windows. A Georgian passenger quietly tells her fellow traveler: "Eto Armyane!" -- these are Armenians stoning the Baku-Tbilisi train.

We have incredible impression after the customs control, so that not a stone thrown at our train can spoil our mood. I am particularly surprised about Azerbaijani customs officials -- they processed our train faster than their Georgian colleagues and had extreme politeness and efficiency matching those of Georgians. No bribes, no rudeness, no unnecessary questions or advice.

Many things that I had heard about Azerbaijani customs before, proved not to be true, but perhaps I should wait for my return from Georgia to be completely sure.

Arriving at Tbilisi’s half-renovated Central Railway Station, you won't see big construction or renovation projects that have closed down half of Baku "temporarily" -- but you start to witness all those small changes that indicate Georgia is on the rise and all that accumulate into one big force driving the country forward.

You feel the city has its own spirit, it is not all kitsch and fake grandiosity that Baku consists of, after huge oil windfall left its marks on its façades and killed its unique spirit.

But -- what a pity that Rustaveli Avenue is starting to get all that kitsch.

And one last remark for today -- Russian is almost forgotten in Tbilisi. We entered a store in Rustaveli Avenue and one corner shop in Kaczynski Street -- the shop assistants couldn't speak or even understand any Russian. I can't imagine a shop in central and even peripheral Baku where Russian wouldn't be colloquial.

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