May 12-13

Tbilisi Georgia

I forgot to mention the tour of the Stalin Museum at Gori. Stalin was born in Georgia. The museum traced his life as an early revolutionary, and showed us pictures of his boots and his hat and pictures of him with his various commanders. Omitted from the presentation was that he was the worst mass murderer of modern times, killing 35 million Ukrainians, and one of the most ruthless leaders in history. The Georgians are clearly quite proud of him, and all the bad stuff has been left behind.

We had two days off in Tbilisi. One day was spent on a walking tour of the city. The other day was spent largely maintaining motorcycles and taking side trips – one group threatened to go to Chechnya against the advice of our guides. The other group went to Armenia just to get their passports stamped. We are staying at a new Marriott Courtyard Hotel, located in a new square celebrating the independence of Georgia. The population of Tbilisi is approximately 250,000, and the quality of life is a big step above the rural parts of the country that we rode through earlier. Part of this improvement is from the government functions that occur here, and the rest is probably due to the significant amount of money being spent on rehabbing the city and getting it ready to be a tourist attraction.

 

There is an enormous new Orthodox church up on a hill that has taken 10 years to build and is nearly complete. It is colossal in both size and grandeur. I have not been able to get agreement on where the money came from to build it. Some say the government paid for most of it; others say that it was paid for by private individuals.

The Orthodox Christian Church is interesting. The Patriarch resides in Istanbul. Every year he lights a candle from a flame burning in a cave somewhere in Istanbul. He blesses the fire and then passes it onto the other countries that have Orthodox churches. When people come to pray, they kiss the hand of the head of the church (I don't know what they call him). There is a great deal of ritual; elaborate arm movements crossing shoulder to shoulder, kissing of cabinets containing relics, lighting candles and bowing. It is all quite dramatic. When people walk by a church, they stop and cross themselves. We also toured a synagogue and a mosque. Clearly, this country is trying to be as ecumenical as possible. But like Turkey is to Islam, this is an Orthodox Christian country. But at least they are certainly open to other religions – with Russia alienating them, they will definitely need to embrace other religions.

Perhaps the most surprising site is the women on the street. They are dressed like they would be in any fashionable US city. In spite of the poverty, the women in Tbilisi seem to be dressed to the nines in clothing that would not work in a Muslim country. One of the younger members of our motorcycle group viewed the women in Georgia, and said, "Boy, this is really an uptick from Turkey. I'll bet as we get further east it will even be better!" – he's in for a surprise.

Georgia has a severe Russian hangover. There is a vast difference between the Turkish work ethic and their culture of service and the work attitude in Georgia. The guards at the hotel are stern and frown as they look at you. You are not their customer – you are their adversary. The same is true with the hotel staff. At the last hotel (an inner tourist hotel), the lady at the desk was down right surly when I asked her for a fax. She expected me to pay for the fax without having received it, and she further told me that I was not going to receive it because the person who gets the faxes was gone, and would not be back until the next morning after we had left. The manager had the key, but it was not appropriate for him to get the fax for me. The Marriott Hotel was entirely different – excellent service as you would expect.

Another somewhat unpleasant feature about Georgia is that there are a lot of large Mercedes and BMW's with tinted windows that race down the highway. These are the Russian oligarchs who have successfully raided Russia and have come to Georgia either for their vacations or to hide their cash. They are aggressive and have been known to bump motorcyclists that are in front of them.

The highway driving in Georgia requires a bit more concentration than customary highway driving. When passing, it is considered normal for a car to pull out in front of a motorcycle, knowing that the motorcycle will move off to the side of the road. It is very disconcerting, however, because when on open road and in the center of your lane, we expect that the driving might be relaxed, maybe even routine. But here, on several occasions cars have pulled out in front of me with only about 300 yards ahead and both vehicles coming at each other with a closing speed of 140 mph – you have to move fast to get out of their way.

That's all for now.

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