The riverside ride down run down the Mtkvari from the mountain valleys holding Chiatura through to the capital of Tblisi was a telling progression through the history and settlement of Georgia. We met again with Asli in Stalin's birthplace of Gori, from there the anthropological tour started with the ancient caves of Uplistsikhe. Where a a ridge of beige sandstone above the river valley had been riddled with 200 man-made cave dwellings, from distance it looked like a termite mound on it's side, deep cavities inset inviting inspection.
The complex is the oldest concentrated settlement known in Georgia, and it's extreme antiquity has veiled the place; the respective uses and functions of each of the carved burrows can only be guessed at from their rough form and size. The current site belies it's previous scale: an earthquake in the 1920s caused more than 3/4's of the dwellings to cave in upon themselves. Before the intrusion of Christianity in the 5th century, Uplistsikhe was the cultural and economic centre of the land, it's centrality was now saluted by the busloads of tourists that scuttle across it's surface as the new temporary termite-like trogladytes of the place. During the Mongol and Islamic conquests the caves were again used as a bolt-hole and centre of resistance by the fleeing inhabitants of Tblisi.
The next formation of the Georgian State we were to cycle through that day was Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia in it's early Christian phase, until the King Dachi shifted the honour to the more easily defensible site of Tblisi at his father's dying behest. Situated at the confluence of the river Mtkvari with the Aragvi, the complex of cobbled streets, convents and monasteries bulge on the riverbank around the Orthodox centre-piece of the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral - the coronation church going back a Millennium. The Cathedral was fortified by an outer wall and thus doubled as the town's keep, today this feature preserves a differentiated and more reflective atmosphere for pilgrims and tourists alike. Inside the Cathedral is less densely decorated than the Romanian or Bulgarian equivalents I've seen, but holds an immense looming figure of Jesus painted across the entire vault of the nave, from toe to halo the mural is 40-50 feet high, and its optical power is enhanced by the concave vault so the painting towers over and above you emphasising the religion's duality - the distinct 'God above man' - in an overbearing way.
The proximity to Tblisi has tourismed the city, and its share of crooks and sharpers have accompanied the influx of foreign wallets. Asli found this out when she lost her sunglasses to a trained monkey and parrot pick-pocketing duo whilst posing for a photo, only an insistent shop owner in the mold of a fierce Georgian auntie was able to get them back for her, admonishing the wides in a fiery barrage of consonants.
That night we reached Tblisi, the contemporary centre of the Georgian nation, in the stresses of a storm, an indecipherable muddle of frantic one-way roads, and a domestic disagreement that had distracted me from the dangers of the the two above concerns. As such our entry into the City as reckless and dangerous as any of the cycling so far on this trip - a textbook of how not to's.
Continuing our theme of cultural progression, the furthest forward and most futuristic edge we could find in Tblisi was at Fabrika. A place so hip and doused in Zeitgeist that it would have been the cool jewel in the crown of Shoreditch or Brooklyn let alone in this perceived global backwater of the Caucasus. The post-industrial conversion was smattered with graffiti subtle enough to give the desired impression but not to fix the eye specifically on a single ungainly piece. The being space of the hostel lobby incorporated the right distribution of beanbags, industrial light fittings and way old-skool arcade machines and other such touches, so that no single element shone through too forcefully as to break the emerging spell with cliche or contrived authenticity. 'The church is it's people' fits Fabrika well: the tribe of digital nomads of all ages were diluted in correct proportion by the 'true traveler' anti-tourists, and just recently a tiny pick of actual tourists that nicely blurred the line of irony.
The inner courtyard was lined with a hipster's starter kit of shops and bars. A home-made ceramic store with a modern Japanese aesthetic was displaying the largest single collection of incense holders I've seen; the barbers had a beard-trimming specialist and an inbuilt bar top packing more craft-ales than most London pubs; whilst the street-wear skate shop had less stock on show than a designer hand bag boutique. Ramen and gourmet sliders fueled the place from a couple of sleek outlets, the denizens were distracted by the niche and rare board games on offer from one of the bars, or by the canine selfie-photography of in the Crufts for fashionable lap-dogs that was playing out in the center of the space.
The place was the epicenter of the 'new no work' as our Gori host Georgi so succinctly put it: 'one hour computer work big money'. A 60 year-old man of the world and it's women, clad in top-to-toe black tracksuit Georgi was enjoying his later years from his functionally designed walled city villa. He had an especial way with English likely stemming from his teacher being the three year-old daughter of one of his 'great sex' anglophone girlfriends. Precisely because of his minuscule vocabulary, he was able to distill points and ideas to their absolute essence, and tell a story with no fat, so as to keep the audience captivated by the content and intonation alike.
In Fabrika, Rob and I found a mecca to the great desire of our demographic, where work enhances lifestyle and location, not constraining it. The globalism of this desire and it's material accouterments can be unnerving where 'national cultures' are subsumed into a constant eclecticism of trends, where only the currency and climate hints at the true location. This was the real fruit smoothie, to the from concentrate corporate response of salaried 'flexi-working' that gives a morsel of life-choice back blended with the anxiety of compromise.
The other utter major cultural landmark for us in Tbilisi was the puppet show that Asli and I got last-minute no-show tickets into the apparently world-famous Rezo Gabriadze Puppet Theater. Unbeknownst to us Tblisi had been renowned as a pinnacle of puppetry excellence for hundreds of years, and now a recent puppetry renaissance had occurred with Rezo Gabriadze, who in the last 39 years since opening has swept shows, audiences and plaudits in New York, London, Sidney and many of the other major cultural stadia of our civilisation. The rolling program dealt with grand and tragic content, for example a re-imagining of Stalingrad, or as in our case a dark and deeply tragic comedy on Communist-era Georgia. These heavy themes were only made possible by the virtuosity of puppetry, the extensive model-cast and the defyingly creative devices employed to set scene and add detail in action. The hand-held nature of the performance provided a more powerful and poetic outlet for the artist, where the theatrical constraints of a living and breathing cast are lifted. If you ever have a chance see this company in action grab the opportunity with both hands, there are a few strings attached however.