Georgia– Mustang Avenue: A Travelogue

In my personal experience, roads have always organized a city. Back at home in Minneapolis, I’m able to type in an address on Google Maps and immediately visualize where in the city it’s located. That’s because back in the US, cities are mostly laid out in grids with streets alphabetized vertically by name and organized horizontally by number. But in Tbilisi, the streets run like lay lines– providing a route between the city’s highest points of energy. It’s set up like a functional labyrinth– catering to the whims of wanderlust tourists while also remaining expertly navigated by the many cab drivers.

In fact, it wasn’t a rare experience for our groups’ numerous cabs to all speed off in opposing directions– only to end up at the shared destination having taken completely different routes.

The most notable street in Tbilisi is easily the centralized (and commercialized) Rustaveli Avenue. Although the historicity of the street may be overlooked due to the now present Dunkin’ Donuts and Zara– Rustaveli Avenue is a living relic because it showcases how a newly renovated Radisson and an old Parliament Building can exist in the same place and simultaneously play an important role in Georgia’s narrative.Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 10.58.16 PM

I remember passing the Radisson on the first day, curious as to why our guide, David, decided to camp us there. The mildly tall glass building stuck out like a sore-thumb among the surrounding stone buildings, and over the constant buzz of car engines David began to speak.

The sleek Radisson was a relatively new addition to the street, he explained that before it existed in its current form, it had been overtaken by refugees fleeing conflict in the region. But the story didn’t stop there, as our Professor then went on to explain that he had actually stayed there back in the early 90s when it was the only hotel foreign visitors were allowed to stay at. He dove into anecdotes of bugging, espionage, and a black-market system where American denim was more valuable than fur. Standing there on Rustaveli Avenue, opposite that unexceptional glass structure, I had my first glimpse into the unconventional history that lay beneath my feet. I had long been accustomed to flashy art museums, well-funded historical centers, and long-standing architectural feats, but there, in Tbilisi, I gained an unexpected appreciation for a Radisson– and even more so for the bustling road separating me from it.

We paused briefly across from the Ballet and Opera Theatre of Tbilisi. It was a beautifully intricate building with a red and yellow color scheme, and ornate carvings on the facade. Although this structure wasn’t original, as it was reconstructed due to a fire, the builders were intent on recreating it exactly as it had been before. However, David pointed out that the original acoustics were so precise and complex that they weren’t able to be recreated, and so they remained an unfixable part of their history, one that was lost forever– a stark contrast to the food, language, and dance that had resurged and survived the country’s many occupations. Rustaveli has been paved and patched numerous times over the years, but it has always remained somewhat intact. It has withstood bombs, bullets, brawls, beatings– and in that sense unquestionably earned its place as a truly Georgian fixture.

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As we passed the Old Parliament Building, we saw a poster-filled chain-link fence and several accompanying protestors. David seemed to quickly brush over their qualms of police brutality and the uninvestigated deaths of several Georgian men, but it was hard not to notice their small encampment in the background of his speech. Even though presently bookended by shopping malls, the street clearly hasn’t shaken its reputation as a forum for the ongoing grievances of  mistreated Georgians.

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Inside the Old Parliament building

We then made our way to Liberty Square, the aptly named (or re-named to be precise) starting point of the historic 2003 Rose Revolution. 99% of the time this roundabout functions as just that, a roundabout for cars making their way. But, as David talked, I could begin to see the other 1% of the square’s history. The hordes of marginalized citizens taking to the streets in order to make their voices heard. Armed only with roses back in 2003, they proved that transition of power could be peaceful, and the will for change fulfilled.

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Liberty Square

The group walking tour wasn’t the only time I found myself wandering down Rustaveli Avenue. In fact, it’s numerous attractions (both historical and commercial) allowed me to explore the best of Georgian culture while indulging in certain Western comforts (H&M, Dunkin’ Donuts).Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 11.00.21 AM

New experiences were juxtaposed to familiar ones, and all along one street. I was able to stop along the route to enjoy the delicious juicy, meat-filled khinkali, and then pop into the English bookstore, Prospero’s, just a block down.

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Prospero’s Bookstore and adjoining cafe

Tbilisi is one of the safest cities in the world, so it’s no surprise that at night the avenue is crowded with restaurant patrons, youth, and eager tourists outside shops advertising “free wine tastings.”

However, there is a darker history behind this safety. Situated directly near the midpoint of Rustaveli is the infamously known Café Gallery. Popular among partyers (and police), Café Gallery was the subject of one of the numerous police raids on popular Tbilisi nightlife hubs in the Spring of 2018. Backlash from these crackdowns lead to scores of youth taking the street and protesting the oppressive and strict drug laws. As tourists, Google reviews warned us quite bluntly that we probably wouldn’t be let in. The nightlife spots in Tbilisi aren’t only for drinking and having a good time, but rather they serve as one of the few tolerant and accepting scenes for women and the LGBTQ+ community. Partying in Georgia is not merely a “fun time,” but actually a form of protesting. Both strict “face checks” and pre-registration online are used to weed out people who might be there to infiltrate and disrupt these late-night safe spaces for minorities. Just as roses were the tool in 2003, raving has more recently become a way to peacefully protest the police and government.

At around 10pm a few of us decided to leave Lolita, a bar across from our hotel (Rooms Tbilisi), and take our chance at seeing the notorious Café Gallery for ourselves.

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Inside Lolita

After a short eight-minute walk, the four of us cautiously approached the bright blue door. There didn’t appear to be a bouncer, so we climbed a flight of stairs and found ourselves inside the bar area. The room was small, and other than the dormant disco ball hanging in the center I had no idea how the small space could possible function as one of the city’s most popular clubs. It was a Thursday, and the bar was mostly empty, save a few tables that were finishing their meals. The room was painted a stark white, but people had taken sharpies of various colors to the walls and inscribed pictures, sentences, and signatures. After a round a drinks we headed up to the patio area, and ran into the bulk of people there. A few groups of people huddled around their respective plastic-bottle-bongs and took turns enjoying what I can only describe as “Georgia’s newest legal activity.”

It wasn’t long before last-call was announced and just after that we made our way out of the bar and back onto the street. It was about midnight and not surprisingly the only thing still open was McDonald’s. After a quick, obligatory burger pit-stop, we made our way back to the hotel. Taxis and cars whizzed by and although foot traffic was sparse at that hour, Rustaveli still felt oddly lively.

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Neon signs in Tbilisi

It was at that moment, when I looked down the lightly-illuminated stretch pavement that something struck me. Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi, and even Georgia itself– they were all roads.

Say whaaaaaaaaaa?

Hear me out. Even before it was given borders, Georgia was an integral part of the Silk Road. Now, it serves as a byway for oil-pipelines from Azerbaijan to Turkey. Newly modernized and increasingly globalized, Georgia’s hospitality and friendliness has always fostered a culture of welcoming passers-through. Take for example the Soviet-Era statue of Mother Georgia: She holds wine in one hand, and a sword in the other. This is because if you greet Georgians with a sword they will fight back, but if you greet them with kindness then everyone can drink together.

Rustaveli isn’t the only important road in Georgia, or even Tbilisi for that matter. On our excursion to Stalin’s hometown of Gori (Yes! Stalin was actually GEORGIAN, not Russian), we were on one of Georgia’s busiest highways yet a stone’s throw away from an ongoing border dispute. Our guide David pointed out divided communities and restricted areas, all as we sailed by unobstructed on our bus. It felt like a hyperreal version of the country’s past, visible from the safety of our mobile cocoon.

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Stalin’s childhood home in Gori. The tour guide really liked our group, so she actually let us take a look inside as well– a rarity!

On our way back to the airport, we drove on the President George W. Bush Street. A road that not only functions as a direct route to the airport, but also as a bridge between Georgia and the US. It’s easy to look at Georgia’s trade deals with the EU and China as focus points of the nations efforts to globalize– but a tangible road named after a former US President exemplifies a zeal and dedication in a wholly different capacity. This road must be traveled in route to the airport from central Tbilisi, so therefore it’s impossible to leave the country without first facing its goal of integrating not only into NATO, or the EU– but the global scene entirely.

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As someone who spent just a week total in Georgia, I don’t feel qualified (or capable) of speaking completely of their oppression, struggle, or resilience. So for that I’ll defer to the experts– specifically Georgian poet and author, Guram Odisharia, who’s novel The Cyclops Bomb centers around a fictional Georgian news cameraman during a height of the country’s strife. Although fiction, this text opened my eyes to the turbulent lives of everyday people during conflict, and helped exemplify the danger and difficulty many press and media workers faced in pursuit of reporting the truth. In one passage he comments on the importance of Rustaveli Avenue, but as a visitor I found that it actually summed up Georgia’s entire transition quite well: “In this place– on the avenue in front of Parliament– any gathering at any time has a black leader colour, and it’s been like that for about twenty years. An untraversed, untamed space, a sort of mustang. Mustang Avenue.”

Submission, and its wicked spouse complacency, have long been seen as the most effective reigns of control. However, when a country’s identity stems from a unique culture and unbreakable sprint, those means of suppression grovel at the people’s unwillingness to be borne into compliance. The people of Georgia have consistently shown their need for independence. As a country that has constantly had to fight for its sovereignty it’s truly a marvel that, as a foreigner, I’ve never felt more welcomed by a country’s people.

As visitors and students we focused on steadfast staples of Georgian culture: Supra, dancing, wine, and language. These all exist in tandem to form a collective identity that defines Georgians. We also looked at the economy and international relations as signs of transition and growth. All of these topics proved to be worthy markers of progress, but I think if we had taken the time to simply admire the various roads we treaded everyday– I believe that we would’ve appreciated their own unique contributions to Georgia’s identity as an independent country, a growing country– a mustang country.

Roads: walked, paved, or constructed– they’re often seen as a cornerstone of mobility. They’re also often unfairly reduced to just a means for people, goods, and ideas to travel vast spaces– but roads, especially in Georgia, serve a much greater purpose. They themselves are vehicles for remembrance, protest, and even revolution.Screen Shot 2019-07-18 at 11.05.27 AM.png

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