This was our third and final day in Georgia and it turned out to be an auspicious one. I woke up about an hour before sunrise in Tbilisi. Despite the darkness, I could make out these little white particles descending from the sky. It was snowing!
I checked the temperature and it said -7 celsius outside. What a way to mark my last day here in Georgia. We decided to try our luck once more that morning and searched for a minibus that was heading to Gori, a town that is famous for being Joseph Stalin’s hometown.
After doing the same routine at the bus terminal as the previous day, going back and forth and using nothing but sign language, we finally found the marshrutka heading for Gori. We were the first passengers in the van, and their system was to wait for it to fill up before it could depart (same with the jeepneys in the Philippines!) We sat there and waited for what must have been nearly an hour, hoping and praying that each and every pedestrian that passed by was looking to go to Gori as well. It was only when this group of American and British English teachers boarded that the van reached its maximum capacity.
“M-TSKHE-TA,” I shouted, pointing furiously to my guidebook. It was our second day in Georgia and the plan was to visit this UNESCO World Heritage town only a few minutes away from Tbilisi. We were at the bus station and no one around us could seem to understand a word we were saying.
a cathedral whose name i can’t pronounce, in a town whose name i also can’t pronounce
It didn’t help that everything was in Georgian writing, which is totally alien to me. They don’t even use Cyrillic like the Russians and they have their own alphabet. We would have been toast and left to board some random car that could have been headed to war-torn South Ossetia had it not been for this helpful chap. “Oh, you are going to Skheta?,” he asked. Apparently, the first two letters of this town’s name are supposed to be silent. He directed us to a row of parked minivans. The most popular mode of long-distance transportation in Georgia are actually not public buses but these speedy contraptions called marshrutka - a legacy of Georgia’s Soviet past. For 1 Lari (approximately US$0.60), we boarded one of these to Mtskheta which was just 30 minutes away from Tbilisi.
It was towards the tail-end of a great flight (one of the best I’ve been on after constant delays in my previous flights in Southeast Asia) when I first had a glimpse of Georgia from the window of the plane. Everything was covered with snow and for the nth time, I pondered on my seemingly spontaneous decision of coming here during the depths of the Soviet winter. Average temperatures in Georgia were supposed to hover at around 2 to 10 celsius, but in reality, it turned out to be a numbing -10 to 0 celsius.
I have heard about the legendary Georgian hospitality before, where visitors are believed to come from God. Even from the immigration part alone, it certainly did seem like it. The arrival formalities at the airport was a breeze. Ex-Soviet countries are notorious for gifting tourists with a lot of red tape but Georgia was refreshingly efficient and welcoming. Over 70 nationalities can enter visa-free and Filipinos can enter with a visa on arrival for roughly USD 30. It is the only European country that Filipinos can visit without needing a pre-arranged visa.