28 June, 2010

Tbilisi

I passed a second day in Batumi replacing long-dead sneakers and buying a new camera. The change of perspective was dramatic. At last walking was not exhausting, and where i'd been mildly depressed and ready to give up on traveling for days, it was as though i had a new reason to be here. Taking pictures is my lifeline, the camera a travel companion by proxy.

Then i took the night train as planned. On #621 to Tbilisi, i happened to share a cabin with two other mid-twenties guys BOTH also named David. Er, Dahto, as they say it here. Two cabins away, four American students traveled with a Georgian friend they met studying Arabic in Lebanon. One of them happened to be from the North Shore of Massachusetts.

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We arrive in Tbilisi at 07:20. Central Station is a concrete massif with curving, modernist lines - the very incarnation of Soviet architecture. Tbilisi in general surprised me; the city's air more eastern european than middle-eastern, and everywhere architectural and socioeconomic evidence of the communist era lingers. Outside the station, the lot is a tangle of taxis, vans, handcarts. Past a recess in the ground haphazardly covered with corrugated metal, i wander into the largest farmers' market i have ever seen.

The morning is cool, the street choked with people. Stalls line both sides;
women tie bundles of herbs, and the air smells of dill and basil and parsley and cilantro. An old man is shelling beans that look like the Dragon Langerie variety. A dour-faced woman tends a stand selling the local walnut-and-honey confection (i only know the turkish name, cevizli sucuk). Two men are stuffing cucumbers into the trunk of a taxi until it can no longer close. Traffic leaving the station moves at a single-lane crawl between the vendors, dodging handcarts overloaded with produce. I bite into a fruit that looks rather like an apple - only to discover it's much closer to a peach. I ask locals for the name, to no avail.

Inside Tbilisi's Metro i descend the longest escalator i've ever seen through a turqoise tunnel deep into earth. Despite an attendant's directions in broken English,  i barely know where i am going, and there are no maps in the metro. All the signs are cyrillic. I have to rely on the announcer to even guess if it's the right station. (If you go to Tbilisi, ride the metro - you will not soon forget it, and it's about twenty cents U.S. - but know the cyrillic alpabet.)

We'll skip the boring and disoriented bit. At last in the old city, i dropped my pack off with the good folks at Rover Hostel (wishing i had the time to spend a night there). Then it was off to find the famous suflur baths. These natural springs were the nucleus from which Tbilisi rose, and Russian authors praised the Tbilisi baths for centuries. Having spent months in Turkiye without visiting a bath, i decided not to pass these up. The naturally warm water reached to my neck as i stepped in, and the aroma of sulfur filled the air. Half an hour's soak and a scrub massage indeed seemed to work wonders on weary feet and a lingering cold, but the flavor of sulfur lingered in my nostrils long after.

Baths, check. Nearby you will find Tbilisi's botanic park, tucked into a ravine - hard to find as the narrow street to the entrance is torn apart and choked with construction. On the same street is the city's one and only mosque, an unassuming brick building with a single minaret. The mosque is so well hidden, in fact, that a nearby bath decorated in blue tiles - Iranian style, i think? - is easily mistaken for the mosque.

I took off my shoes and stepped inside, cool and carpeted like all mosques. Though this is only the fourth or fifth time i have been inside one, i have come to feel more comfortable in mosques than churches. Despite the ornate walls and ceilings, the room bare of furnishings invites inner silence. In this case, the single room holds two mithrabs. With only one mosque in the city, Shia and Sunni Muslims share a single place of worship.

While Tbilisi has only one mosque, it has a surfeit of churches. In Georgia, the cross is everywhere, even the national flag adorned with five red crosses on a field of white. Throughout the old city steeples rise, and one towers gold and shining above the rest. At the mosque, i met only two Pakistani men, but the road to Sameba Cathedral was crowded with commerce. Roadside shops and stands sold candles, crucifixes, and other icons. Beggars flanked the gates.

Inside the Cathedral shafts of sunlight reached down from the windows dizzyingly high above. It seemed not so much a place of worship as an object of veneration. People lit candles, made the sign of the cross, touched the images, kissed them even. Try as i might i could not find the sacred stillness here, drowned out by a clamor of saints. Sameba Cathedral is a beautiful piece of architecture; a monument of culture, and perhaps to some a gateway to the divine.