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Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters


Patrick Gill
Tbilisi's power supply had failed that particular weekend, but nobody showed much surprise. In Georgia, this was business as usual.

Having landed uneventfully in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi from Moscow and passed through the airport’s arrival formalities without incident, I knew my journey couldn’t stay smooth much longer.
I expected the problems to start when I emerged into the airport’s chaotic parking lot to negotiate my taxi fare into town. Friends had told me not to pay more than 20 dollars for the ride, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first driver to approach me offered to take me for the Russian rouble equivalent of 15. Even before I could agree to his price, however, another driver was ushering me toward his car for less than 10 dollars.
Pleased with my progress through the parking lot, I climbed in to the passenger seat of his beaten up Lada. The journey into Georgia’s capital of 1.2 million people confirmed the scare stories I had heard about Georgian driving, but the suburbs passed by quickly as the driver complained in heavily accented Russian about the rising price of gas and the lack of jobs in Tbilisi.

Within half an hour we were approaching the city center. Having stopped for me to change my Russian roubles into the local lari currency, we were soon on our way to Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main drag where I had arranged to meet my friend.

Then the problems started. We pulled up at the end of Rustaveli, and I handed my driver the local equivalent of the 200 rouble fare we had agreed on. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It will be 300. I’ve taken you all the way along Rustaveli to the far end. 200 was only to the other end of the street.’ As the difference in distance was no more than 2 minutes drive, a surcharge of 3 dollars seemed somewhat excessive.
‘I said I was going to Rustaveli,’ I explained. ‘I didn’t say beginning, middle, or end. And you agreed to 200 roubles.’
By now my man was getting quite worked up, his broken Russian becoming harder to understand as he grew more animated.
‘Anyway,’ I protested, ‘I can only give you the 200, because that’s all I changed into lari when you stopped a few minutes ago.’
After a few more minutes of heated debate, by which time the driver was somewhere between tears and violence, I agreed to give him an extra dollar or so in roubles. The relatively small but outrageous surcharge would be worth paying to bring the journey, and the confrontation, to an end, I reasoned.
I handed the driver the extra cash and jumped out. No sooner had I got a few steps away from the car, however, than he had caught me up and was throwing the handful of roubles back at me.
‘I don’t want this stinking Russian money! I don’t even know how much this is! This is an affront!’
The argument had gone as far as it could, and I continued walking off. After a couple more minutes my man tired of halting the car every few paces to remonstrate with me as I walked along the pavement, and I arrived at my rendezvous point. A chaotic trip had begun.

Georgia’s 5 million people inhabit a mountainous country that split away from the Soviet Union in 1991. With an estimated 17 percent unemployment rate and just over half the population living below the poverty line, the nation squeezed between Russia and Turkey has had a tough time since becoming independent.
The first thing the outsider learns in Georgia is how corruption affects everyday life, often crippling the functioning of services. The sporadic supply of heat and electricity, not unusual in Tbilisi, turned out to be particularly acute during my three-day visit.
‘Why are we sitting in a bar with no lights wearing hats and gloves?" I asked Guram, the driver who would take us out of town into the provinces the next day.
‘They’ve just had elections in Armenia and needed extra power supplies to cope with the demand,’ he said. ‘Officials here in Georgia sold the power off to Armenia and made a tidy profit for themselves.’

Many locals harbored the same suspicion about why Tbilisi's power supply had failed that particular weekend, but nobody showed much surprise. In Georgia, this was business as usual.
Ingrained corruption is far from the full extent of Georgia's myriad problems. With the country’s recent history scarred by a bloody war with the would-be breakaway province of Abkhazia, Tbilisi is now home to waves of refugees who have fled the rebel region for safer lodgings.
The once respectable Hotel Iveria in downtown Tbilisi now houses such refugees and stands as a reminder of the damage the conflict has brought to what used to be one of the more prosperous Soviet republics. Broken down and hideous, the refugees’ makeshift home is all the more disturbing for its position by the city’s main thoroughfare, a few hundred yards away from a luxury 5-star hotel.

On the road from Tbilisi to Gori, we pass numerous police checkpoints. Our driver refuses to be delayed en route to our destination, however, and merely flashes his lights as we speed on past the armed militia.
‘Flashing your headlights is a sign that you are connected with the police too,’ he said, without elaborating. Sure enough, it worked every time. The checkpoint militia never gave us a second look after the mysterious flashing headlights trick. One could see that Georgia might not be the worst place to be on the run from authorities.
Gori is something of a blast from the past. The dilapidated town was the birthplace of Stalin, and the former Soviet leader is still respected here some 50 years after his death. Gori's central square boasts a huge statue of Uncle Joe, possibly the only remaining Stalin monument anywhere in the former Soviet Union.

Sunday afternoon found the large Stalin museum empty except for the small team of women whose job it is to show visitors round and look after the dead leader's memory. No mention here of the millions of Soviet citizens he sent to die freezing labor camps – only memorabilia demonstrating how he created a superpower out of the Soviet Union.
The museum curator tells us that Stalin’s grandson Yevgeny, something of a local hero, was here just an hour ago on one of his regular visits to the site.
If Stalin’s ghost were to roam the streets of his home town in its modern day neglected state, he would not lack arguments to persuade the locals to return to the days of communism. Economic decay is not confined to Gori, however, but the norm throughout the country.

With time to kill before checking in for my flight back to Moscow at Tbilisi airport the next day, I wandered up to a huge window with a view over the runway. As I peered out at the gray February afternoon, a voice from behind me piped up: ‘What are you doing?’
I turned round to find a short, uniformed official staring at me.
‘Looking out at the runway,’ I replied, stating the blindingly obvious.
I handed over the passport.
‘So, you are English. But we have no flights to London today. What are you doing in Georgia?’
‘I’m a tourist. Visiting friends. I’m flying to Moscow.’
‘What is your job?’
‘I’m a journalist.’
‘Do you have any journalist’s documents?’
‘Not with me.’
‘Strange. You say you are a journalist, but you have no such documents. You are British, but you are flying to Moscow. What are you going to Moscow for?’
And so the questions went on, with the official thumbing through my passport all the while. I could see where all this was leading, and I didn’t intend to pay a hastily devised ‘exit tax’ as a farewell gift to the Georgian airport authorities.
‘You must come with me,’ he said, motioning toward a room across the hall. There was no way I was going to follow him to be shaken down for a bribe for infringing some imaginary law. I grabbed my passport back and made my excuses, hurrying off toward departures. My final brush with Georgian officialdom served as a reminder that corruption still rules supreme in the Caucasus nation.

© Patrick Gill April 2003

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