Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tbilisi, Georgia

Madisen, Cole Ryan, Austin and I went to Tbilisi by train at the end of May. Sounds adventurous and exciting, huh? The reality was much different....

The distance between Yerevan and Tbilisi is about a 6-7 hour drive depending on the border. The train is at least 15 hours and stops at EVERY town, village, and random place between the two cities - not to mention stopping at customs on both borders (for some reason the two are about 30-45 minutes away) for ungodly amounts of time. On the way back, the kids had enough time to feed the stray dogs, buy delicious cherries, find a store in town, make lifelong friends, and ask at least 250 times, "when is the train going to go?"

As I had been previously warned about the train conditions, we had a sleeping compartment - 4 sleeping berths in one private compartment. There were two upper berths and two lower ones. The train had not been updated since Armenia gained independence in the early 1990's - grimy windows, very old bed cushion and pillows, and threadbare rug. Luckily, we had clean sheets that smelled strongly of chlorine (actually, we were supposed to pay for them, but the conductor on the way to Tbilisi passed out within about an hour of our departure and I snagged four sets and blankets thinking that they were included). I was warned to use the bathroom early and not drink much as it had probably not been cleaned since the collapse of the USSR. I smugly thought we could handle any bathroom - I had a packet of portable Charmin toilet seat covers (thanks Susie), a daughter with a good attitude, two boys who will go just about anywhere, and personal experience in a disgusting Egyptian train 20 years' ago. Erica, a friend with two young boys and lots of train traveling experience throughout the former Soviet Union, advised me to bring a "pee jar" for emergencies. Thankfully my kids were up for just about anything and the boys thought peeing in a jar was a great new way to go to the bathroom. We survived the ordeal, but it is not something that either Madisen or I want to repeat.

The border crossing is pretty brutal as the customs guards wake everyone at 5:00 a.m. to check the compartment, luggage, passport, etc. One guard had the gall to ask me if I had anything else in our one suitcase except clothes. Did he not see there were three children tagging along? What exactly did he expect? After 2 hours at the Armenian border, we did the whole thing again on the Georgian side for another hour and a half.

We finally arrive in Tbilisi, hail a taxi and go to our bed & breakfast. As we walk into the place exhausted, CR trips and falls breaking the glass pee jar on the white marble steps. Thank God it was empty, he was not hurt, and we couldn't explain what it was even if we had wanted to. Our room was not yet ready so we sit in the lovely parlor with old European aristocrats framed in gold staring down at us, delicate hand painted glass and china vases, bowls, and sculpture surrounding us while our hostess plays - and sings - Georgian children's songs on a white Steinway baby grand piano. I try to be polite and smile; the kids are zombies and just stare. While our hostess must think they are unfriendly children with poor taste in music, I am relieved that at least they are not a threat to the objects d'art in the room.

The next couple of days we check out the fortress high above Tbilisi. Madisen has no real interest in climbing to the top and sits down in the shade of the church; the boys want to go everywhere despite the heat and perilous drops. We make it up and down and then go to one of the only mosques in the city. Austin gets a big kick out of the headscarves that Madisen and I wear and the fact that we all go barefoot while inside. Next, the sulpher baths which have been around for hundreds of years. We have our own room for an hour and I get a "bath" and a "massage" by some large Russian woman armed with a bucket of soapy water, horse hair wash "cloth," and a desire to show who is in charge. She orders the kids out (they actually listen) and my bathing suit pretty much off. Then the massage: part hitting, part beating, part trying to rub my skin off the bones. I come out and the kids have wrapped themselves like Romans in the sheets that were our towels, but Austin has not gotten the message that the wrap should also cover up his private parts. So, the sheet/towel covers his entire body except the parts that should be covered. Madisen takes a picture. It will not be posted.

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