MVW Travels: Day 03, Istanbul and Tbilisi

Dateline: Tbilisi, Georgia—02 Mar. 2017

Sometimes health takes priority over the best laid plans. The money I put off spending on the Istanbul airport lounge came out in Tbilisi. Getting in so early with my sleep deficit led me to spending a morning crashed out in the Freedom Square Marriot Hotel. How I got there is a story in itself.

Istanbul Air Travel

After posting the last article, I waited until my flight was assigned a gate number. When I first landed, my flight to Tbilisi wasn't even listed. There were too many flights inbetween and the board could only display about 50. It came onto the board around three hours before departure. Then about an hour before departure, the gate number showed up.

It was assigned Gate 230A. Which, it turns out, is at the far end of Atatürk Airport. And I really do mean end. Both 230A and 230B are the last gates on that arm of the airport. From the central area of the post-security the airport where the food and shops are, there's signs that give the walking times to the variouse gates. The 230s were listed as 15-17 minutes. Which turned out to be about right.

Once there, there was no flight infomation posted on the 230A side. I expected this, as the Atatürk flight boards are actually accruate. Intiallialy whne a flight is listed, no gate is assisgned. And the message next tot he the flight number is appropriately enough, "Wait for Gate." Then once a gate is assigned, the message goes blank until the crew shows up to open the gate, then "Proceed to gate" appears.

I went to the gate before the proceed message. Once the gate was listed, I had a goal and figured it was better to wait there than in the food court.

At the 230B gate a flight to Moscow was about to board. One thing I noticed that might be a Russian thing was that the boarding time was more of a recommendation. Even when that flight's status changed to Last Call, what looked like the last third of the passengers showed up to board.

Not long after that, the gate crew showed up for the Tbilisi flight. After a few minutes, we started to board. For once it wasn't a full plane and the middle seat in my row wasn't occupied. Not long after we were on the way, the crew served a panini sandwich. Turkish Airlines makes sure its passengers are well fed. There was less turbulence this time around, and I had time to watch Doctor Strange and get a short nap.

The passport control lines at the Tbilisi airport. I got yelled at for taking this picture.
The passport control lines at the Tbilisi airport. I got yelled at for taking this picture.

One difference I noticed from the North American leg of the trip was the lack of customs forms. First in Istanbul, then in Tbilisi, no forms were handed out on the plane. At the Tbilisi airport, going through customs consisted of walking up to passport control and getting a stamp. The only word I said was "hello" and the lady stamped my passport and that was it. No questions and no declaration. Once down the escalator and past the baggage carousel, there was a gate for passengers with nothing to declare. I went through it with a nod to the officer on duty and out into the main part of the terminal.

Tbilisi Ground Travel

By the exit there were two mobile phone kiosks. The first had a computer outage, but the second was able to sell me a local SIM card.

One thing Europe seems to have on America is the mobile phone prices. For a SIM card and 30 days of unlimited calls and texts plus 3GB of data, the price was 21 GEL (or about $9). So with a local number, I exited the terminal.

Outside there was a swarm of cab drivers hustling business. I waved them off to look for the airport bus to downtown. But I didn't see one. So I walked across the parking area, and at the upper road, a cab stopped and I decided it was better to get a ride than continue looking for a bus that might or might not be there. We haggled over the price, and agreed on 40 GEL.

Nikolas was my driver, and after loading my bags, he insisted I sit in the front. He also didn't seem to care much for the lane markings as the dotted while line was directly in front of me instead of to my right.

After about a mile into the trip, another cab came along side and Nikolas honked the horn and waved at the other driver. From what I gathered he was making fun of him for having to leave the airport without a fare. So the other cab began what could be called a jousting run, and swerved towards us. Nikolas moved over and we laughed about it. I was kind of loopy from lack of sleep and they both took it stride, so I went with it. Then the other cab sped up to pass us swerving into our lane to get around a car in front of it. Nikolas was pleased that he got a reaction from the driver.

After turning off the airport road, we took a detour to a roadside coffee stand and he bought me a coffee. He knew enough English to talk about Tbilisi and he continued on towards downtown. We stopped a few places so he could point out some of the sights. Being early in morning (6:00 AM or so) there was much traffic, so he could pull over and point without causing a pile up.

Once at Freedom Square, I paid and collected my bags. The only problem was that I hadn't eaten and was about to collapse from lack of sleep.

So I crossed the street and walked into the Freedom Square Marriott hotel.

The Sandman must be paid

Inside the staff was just setting out the breakfast buffet. I decided that it was worth getting and I didn't even ask the price. I loaded up a plate with eggs and bacon and ate like I was starved. Which I was.

After settling the bill, I still had almost twelve hours before I was able to check in to the room I had reserved. But luckily I happened to be in a hotel. After a quick check with the front desk, I was able to work out a half-day deal. I got a room with a check out time of around 3:00 PM that same day. After a shower, I was in bed by 7:30 AM and I passed out for about six hours.

It felt like the best sleep I ever had.

Daylight in Tbilisi

Once awake, I packed up the mess I made having just dumped my pack in the room. The previously mentioned flip-flops landed in the trash can, as I decided the room they took up was better used for the sleepy-time kit from the Istanbul flight.

For the first time I looked out the window. The clerk said she'd given me a room overlooking the square, and now I got to see it.

Freedom Square, Tbilisi Georgia.
Freedom Square, Tbilisi Georgia.
Detail of the Freedom Square statue at the top of the column. Having a fifth floor room helped to get this shot.
Detail of the Freedom Square statue at the top of the column. Having a fifth floor room helped to get this shot.

Upon checking out, the bill was $75. I would've gladly paid double that. To save my cash, this went on the card.

Just down the street was the National Museum, and it looked like a good place to kill a few hours before my overnight room was ready.

The National Museum of Georgia, featuring an exhibit of the Soviet Occupation.
The National Museum of Georgia, featuring an exhibit of the Soviet Occupation.

A majority of the exhibits were devoted to ancient Georgia, but on the fourth floor are artifacts from the Soviet occupation. Upon walking into the hall is part of train boxcar riddled with bullet holes. It was used to assassinate prominent Georgians who were loaded into it before the machine gun fire started.

The rest of the hall was filled with pictures of the dead. The museum doesn't flinch when describing what happened. At the bottom of each, instead of saying "died on X date" like a Western museum, it just says "was shot in 19xx." The brutality is laid bare. To say it was moving is an understatement.

After checking a few more exhibits, I settled down in the cafe to use the wifi and start this article. Then I headed back out to explore the area around Freedom Square.

There are several tunnels underneath Shota Rustavelli Street. They keep the pedestrian traffic away from the car traffic. The tunnels are also home a lot of shops and food stands that line the walls. I saw everything from pay toilets to electronics shops. The low wall around the stairs down into the tunnels are covered in books. These impromptu bookstands had an odd mix of English, Russian, and Georgian books. I didn't take more than a quick glance, as I wasn't buying because of lack of room in my pack.

As I explored, a late lunch was on my mind. One place that was down a flight of stairs from the street had a sign out with prices of its various plate. One caught my eye, chicken filets with a beer for 7 GEL. Sold.

The underground restaurant which will remain unnamed because I didn't ask.
The underground restaurant which will remain unnamed because I didn't ask.

The restaurant was cave-like with a low domed ceiling. I hijacked a wall plug to get some juice into the iPad. I had forgot to charge it at the hotel. Once I had food in front of me, I dug in.

It was a plate of fried chicken tenders and fries and a what I guess is a local version of cole slaw. I ate it all. The beer was of an unknown variety, I wasn't asked what kind I wanted and I didn't ask when it was served. I decided to just shut up and eat.

It was approaching time to find out where I was sleeping for the night. I had downloaded the Maps.me app, and saved the Georgian map for offline use before leaving home. The nice thing is that it pulls in the location of all the Booking.com places. I was able to locate Nana's Homestay and plotted my trip.

The Tbilisi Metro

First I had to find the subway (Metro) to go four stops north. The entrance was just up the street from the Marriott. Mostly I just followed the after-work crowd. Once inside, I only had 1 GEL coins for the 2 GEL fare. The problem was that the turnstiles only took fare cards. I showed the coins to the attendant after not seeing a drop slot. She pointed back towards the entrance. So I fought my way back to the ticket window, and bought the card for 2 GEL and put 3 GEL on as fare money.

Back at the turnstile, I beeped my card and got the green light. After going trough, I found what looked like an escalator descending into the bowels of hell. From the top I couldn't see the bottom. It also moved fast enough to cause me to stumble a bit when I first stepped on. Soon enough I was at the train platform. The signs listed the stops in both Georgian and English. My train was to the left.

I didn't have to wait long. But it was also rush hour. The trains were jammed, and I guessed they'd all be this way. So I piled in with everyone else. I didn't even attempt to find a seat, and grabbed the hanger near the door.

At the next two stops more people pushed in. At the third stop I learned why. It was a transfer station to the westbound train. Quite a few got off, leaving me with some breathing room. I left the pack on my back and might have smacked a few people as we were jostled around. The train's suspension didn't help.

I've ridden surfboards with less wave action. The train would start to bounce and continue to bounce for a good ways after the first bump. The driver also used the throttle as an off-on switch rather than a pedal. The stops were harsh enough that even the seasoned riders would stumble to catch their balance. But they got us to the stations in record time.

Walking Blind

At my stop, I took a similar escalator upwards and walked out on the street to look for Nana's address. I knew I needed to head north, so I did. After passing a few side streets, I check the map, and counted off the number of streets I had to go. If there were street signs, I didn't see them. Even without GPS the Maps.me app could locate on surrounding wifi signals and give me a rough location.

I turned down what turned out to be the right street, and found myself not far from the address. A quick phone call got me the rest of the way. She could see me from her window, and directed me into the building.

Nana's building. It was built in 1983 during Soviet times.
Nana's building. It was built in 1983 during Soviet times.

Her flat was on the sixth floor, and I started up the stairs while still on the phone. She laughed and said to use the elevator. I had missed it on my way in as it was up a half-flight of stairs and off to the right. I had started up stairs figuring I would take them all the way.

The elevator was small. Very small. Two people would be cramped. Three would need to be in a relationship to fit. I was also old and best described as threadbare. But it did its job and I arrived on the sixth floor in one piece.

I dumped my pack and headed into a hot shower after briefly greeting my host. Not long after I was asleep again. I delayed writing this article until afterwards only to awaken and find the internet had gone out.

So instead I socialized with Nana for about two hours. She spoke enough English to where we could discuss some current events happening in Georgia. I asked about staying another night, but she had already booked the room. I'd have to find wifi and another place to stay. I should've asked earlier.

Then around midnight, I was in bed for the third time of the day.

What's next?

Tomorrow is open, my main goal will be to find a place to stay.


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