Ancient gold artifacts from the National Museum

Museum exhibit on the Russian Occupation of Georgia

Rustaveli Square

Abandoned cable car station

Abandoned cable car station

The president's residence overlooks a new park by the river

Victory Park

Mamadaviti Church

Mamadaviti Church

Tbilis from the abandoned funicular to Mtatsminda Park

Ferris Wheel in Mtatsminda Park

Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's house

Fountain in Mtatsminda Park

Supports prevent a house from crumbling to pieces

New bridge over the Mtkvari River

Tsminda Sameda Church

Tsminda Sameda Church

Tsminda Sameda Church

Clock on a street post

Opera House under renovation, questionable color scheme

Parliament building

Facade of Sioni Cathedral

Inside Sioni Cathedral

Inside Sioni Cathedral

Norasheni Church

Tbilisi from the top of Narikala Fortress

The old walls of Narikala Fortress

Church of St. Nicholas inside Narikala

Ruined church in Old Town

Freedom Square

Tbilisi, Georgia

Georgia - The Country

June 18, 2012

You've gotta stand for something

Or you're gonna fall for anything

- John Mellencamp

Arriving in Tbilisi after a miserable layover in Baku was like a godsend. The cool air at 1am felt amazing as my taxi driver barreled down the road at nearly 180 kilometers per hour. At this hour the city was relatively quiet but it still felt like a real city, not like the artificial feeling that Aktau provided. The next morning when I walked down the main street, Rostaveli, I was impressed by the old buildings, the new stores, and how European it all felt. I suppose that feeling was relative after weeks in small Central Asian towns and cities and might not have been a fair comparison. There were many differences but also many similarities.

There were buildings with a colonial character to them and while only a few were well maintained the varying states of decay of the others provides a very lived-in sensation. Just off the main streets this goes to extremes with buildings that are literally being held up with external supports and appear as if they may crumble to pieces with slightest gust of wind. Clearly, building codes aren’t well enforced or even existent as whole houses are warped and staircases twist upwards to what must surely be unsafe lodgings. On the main streets some of these old buildings are being renovated, others have been abandoned, signs of the better times when the Soviet Union was pouring money into the country.

The Old City shows evidence of prosperous times long before that and of the present day resurgence. On a hill in the Old City, Narikala fortress dominates the southern end of the city. From the high walls you can see the Mtkvari River cutting through the center of town, spanned by a new futuristic bridge, with a large new park under development on the river bank. The old and the new clash with the presence of a cable car designed to make the hilltop more accessible. While the Narikala fortress is indicative of the power the city had in the past, further west along the hillside is the $50 million present day fortress of Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who just joined the political race to be the country’s next president in this year’s elections. From his house Ivanishvili looks across and slightly upwards towards the residence of current President Mikheil Saakashvili. The election will be later this year and in a recent visit and speech at Batumi on the Black Sea coast, Hilary Clinton expressed hope that this election will be a fair and democratic one. Time will tell.

Equally mixed sights are seen throughout the city, the run-down Victory Park that used to have cascading fountains and pools filled with fish is now dry and dusty with weeds encroaching. A brand new McDonald’s highlights a beautiful new building across from an old abandoned Soviet era building, part of which used to be a cable car to the top of the mountain. On top of the mountain a giant aging TV Tower looms over the city with chipped and fading paint. At its base is Mtatsminda Park, with mostly working carnival rides and a higher elevation that provides some relief from the heat and humidity. The old funicular railway that used to run up the mountainside is no longer operational but the steep track provides clear and unobstructed views of the city all the way to the opposing hills.

From anywhere on the mountain the enormous Tsimba Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral can be seen, perhaps symbolic of the development of Georgia and Tbilisi, its gold dome shines brightly in the sunlight. If only everything were so optimistic. While foreign businesses continue to enjoy a favorable climate in Georgia things are still developing and a contentious election could bring many changes. The political uprisings of the past are not all that far behind.

The National Museum highlights another challenge with its exhibit on the Soviet Occupation. During the Soviet purges hundreds of thousands of Georgians were killed or sent to the Gulags. While Soviet rule officially ended with the fall of communism the foreign occupation is still ongoing with the recent annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia. Photographs in the National Gallery also show the troubles in Chechnya on Georgia’s northern border and the physical and emotional destruction that that conflict has brought about with refugees fleeing the bloodshed and fighting. All this shows that stability is not something to be taken for granted in this region, but for the time being it is as enjoyable a place as I have been in quite a long time.