In which I am converted, or, How to Take a Bath in Tbilisi

Bath house district, Tbilisi

The bath house district in Tbilisi.

Some countries have a bathing culture. My German friends will happily list the huge variety of steam rooms available in any self-respecting town in their home country; the Finns wax lyrical about the health benefits of rolling in the snow in between sauna sessions, and won’t send their soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions without one. Some countries do not, and Britain is one of them; communal bathing being considered as an activity that is acceptable for Scandinavians and possibly sports teams, but otherwise frequently viewed with a degree of suspicion.This was an attitude I shared until recently, venturing into hamams and hot springs (oh God, that time in Tajikistan with the frogs) only in extremis. But the baths can’t really be avoided in Tbilisi, which has a whole gently steaming and distinctively fragrant bath house district nestling mushroom-like at the foot of the old fortress. They range in age from eighteenth century to Soviet, and in character from mildly sleazy to entirely luxurious. So in the name of cultural research, I grit my teeth, banished my cultural conditioning and allowed myself to be dragged along by some friends and yes, OK, fine, it was brilliant.

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Old Tbilisi

Today is Georgian Orthodox Christmas (and a day off, result), and to celebrate here are some of my favourite paintings and prints of Tbilisi in the 1800s.

In the nineteenth century,Tbilisi (Tiflis or Teflis if you’re being fancy) was simultaneously somewhere you could be exiled if you were causing trouble in the St Petersburg literary scene (*cough* Lermontov, Pushkin et al) and destination in its own right where you could take the waters and go into rhapsodies over Georgian women, wine and scenery. When this influx of reluctant and enthusiastic visitors weren’t bathing, fighting duels, inventing the Russian novel or comparing the size of their beards, they sketched and painted like mad. There appears to have been a general tendency to exaggerate the scenery, since of course everyone knew that the Caucasus was a land of towering peaks and dramatic cliffs and Tbilisi was damned well going to have both, from every angle.

Still, I love how recognisable the old town is – plonk a TV tower on top of Mtatsminda, and you’d get a very similar view today. Click on any of the photos above to start the slideshow.

Being the best you can be


The Ministry of Health is built to resemble a cobra. No, I don't see it either.

The Ministry of Health is built to resemble a cobra. No, I don’t see it either. Photo: AFP

Hot news from Central Asia:  Ashgabat has officially been named the city with the highest density of white marble buildings in the world, thus earning it a place alongside Tajikistan (world’s tallest flagpole) and Uzbekistan (world’s largest light picture made using LEDs) in the annals of the World Records You Did Not Know Existed Until Now. Still, it is good to see that the chief urban planner of Turkmenistan is receiving recognition for his work: the president has just been named “Distinguished Architect of Turkmenistan” to honour his achievements.

Addis Ababa

I am in Addis Ababa, in one piece, and taking advantage of a temporary steadiness in the office internet connection to finally update this blog. Outside, a religious meeting in the local stadium is not letting the rain get in the way of proclaiming the good news as loudly as possible. There is always either a religious meeting or a football match, whatever the weather; they sound much the same from a distance, except the quantity of hallelujahs is rather greater from the former.

That is probably a cockroach right above my head.

I arrived in Ethiopia, settled myself in my hotel room, reached an entente with the cockroaches (floor at night – if you must, wall or bed or anywhere during the day – face the wrath of my flip flop), and presented myself at the office to discover that everyone who I needed to speak to had disappeared off on a training course for two weeks. This is slightly trying as I have a lot to do and not a huge amount of time in which to do it, but I have hope that my carefully cultivated do-it-all-at-the-last-minute skills will save the day in the end. With not a huge amount to do until everyone comes back, I am spending my time at the office reading several dozen identical reports on climate change and the environment, climate change and women, climate change and the environment and women and so on ad infinitum. It is a mystery to me the way that every single NGO and think tank and international organisation feels the need to produce its own report on the subject, since they all say more or less the same thing and have no particular recommendations to make which have not been made a dozen times before, and I would’ve thought they could save some effort by pooling their resources. On the other hand, it does help immensely when you are trying to bulk up your literature review and reference list, so I suppose for the moment I am in favour of this vigorous level of productivity.

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No place like home – oh wait.

Look, it's probably a metaphor, ok.

“Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined – how is it that this safe return brings such regret?”

BECAUSE, Peter Matthieson, your safe return involves a bunch of boring stuff like laundry and student loans and bank cards and having to work out what to do with that huge stash of (unexchangeable) Uzbek money the you cleverly hid in your toiletries bag and forgot about (note for any ladies travelling in Central Asia: tampons scare border guards, customs officials, policemen (but not Iranian policemen, sadly) and most other people who might conceivably dig through your belongings and thus it is good to conceal things in their vicinity; their strategic placement in the top of your bag also prevents many a search from going much further) and other things that make hanging out in embassy queues for hours on end seem posititively Bacchanalian.

I’ve been back for two weeks and in that time I have accomplished almost exactly nothing. As soon as I came home my body well and truly crashed, the combination of a gut parasite (a farewell gift from Uzbekistan, ever-thoughtful country that it is), summer cold and peculiarly persistent jet-lag knocking me flat for the best part of a week and leaving me feeling absolutely exhausted. The exhaustion has now given way to lethargy, which basically means extensive lying around reading Jasper Fforde novels and internetting and feeling bad about all of the things that I’m not doing. I miss the challenge and stimulation of travel (I never, ever thought I would think this, but I miss Russian) but apparently can’t bestir myself enough to find something to replace it.

Mainly I am bothered by how normal things feel. I am telling everyone how strange it is to be back, but the awful thing is that it isn’t at all. The past eighteen months are suddenly rolling up like a snap bracelet and it’s as though I never left, which has left me scared that I haven’t changed either, and what if everything I’ve done and seen has made no lasting impression? What if I’ve just let it drift past me? What if I’ve come back no different from when I left? Intellectually I know that this is silly and of course I’ve changed, but I think I had this idea that the person who came back would be confident and assertive and proactive and have her life sorted out immediately, and that hasn’t happened yet, and the fact that I am slotting so easily back into London and falling back into old, slothful habits is making me uneasy. I’m starting an MA in September (disaster response, global warming adaptation and flood management – fingers crossed it’ll be as good as it sounds) which should provide a catalyst to do new things and meet new people which is what I think I need right now. So I’ll hold off panicking until then, I think, but for the moment I am feeling discombobulated in the extreme, and my pleasure in being able to legitimately use that word is tempered by the fact that it is not an altogether pleasant state of mind to be in.

Goodness me, I can whinge with the best of them when I get going. Positives of being home include the happy fact that no one has tried to put jam or salt in my tea, which I have been drinking out of a mug instead of a tiny bowl. No one has tried to serve me vodka at breakfast, either. Decent wine and gin and tonic are all plentiful. There are restaurants offering eight different international cuisines witin ten minutes walk of my house, and the primary ingredient in none of the dishes is mutton fat.

At some point I will write about my long and fruitless quest in Tashkent airport to find the correct person to bribe in order to get my excess luggage onto my flight (you might think this would be a relatively simple matter in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but you would be wrong); the perils of bathing in holy springs along the Pamir highway; and why your next holiday should be in Georgia and/or Armenia (sneak preview: the wine has quite a lot to do with it. Also, pretty churches). But that all has to wait. It is 2.30 am, which means it is time to redecorate my bedroom.

Day 559

Fountains, flower-arranging and opera for a dollar: the Navoiy Opera House in Tashkent.

Tashkent this summer is all fountains and flowerbeds and sprinklers and slightly unfortunate new architecture, and I bought an old coke bottle of fresh mulberry juice from the bazaar and wandered through the parks and boulevards drinking it and thinking that the Peace Corps are right to do it for two years. I feel like I’m only beginning to get the hang of things here, that I’m balancing on the edge. And I’m going home tomorrow, and it’s not enough time.

Wintertime in the city of love

And you thought the gold statues were tacky.

Of all the odd countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan is perhaps the oddest. It is known (inasmuch as it is known at all) for Akhal-Teke horses (I have to confess that this means nothing to me and here I must turn to my friend Duncan, my go-to guy on all things equine, who reports that these creatures are liable to transport you to Venus should you attempt anything beyond the most gentle of walks; this, apparently, is a good thing) and, perhaps more widely, for the excesses of its former president, Saparmurat Niyazov. Clearly a firm believer in the maxim that if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, this gentleman fully embraced all the possibilities independence had to offer when it came twenty years ago: he promptly christened himself Turkmenbashi (“father of Turkmens”), renamed the months of the year after members of his family, elevated his writings to the level of the Qu’ran, sprinkled the country liberally with large golden statues of himself, and enthusiastically promoted a personality cult that Kim Jong Il might have balked at. This combined with an official attitude of deep suspicion towards outside influences (all tourists must be accompanied by an official guide, the exception being those, like myself, transiting across the country within five days) gives rise to its reputation as one of the more peculiar countries in this part of the world.

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