Saturday, June 6, 2015

5 Worst Things About Tbilisi

Disclaimer: This list is not in any ranked order, it is written by me, an "amateurish traveler and writer," and thus reflects only my observations, opinions, and some gathered viewpoints from others. If you disagree, don't take it personally; this is about preferences and everyone's preferences are different. 

(Alternatively: The Best Things About Living in Tbilisi)


1. Walking
Tbilisi could be a very walkable city. It's not too big, it's packed with character-filled buildings and people on every street and corner, and there are lots of sidewalks! 

In reality, however, Tbilisi is a city suited more to cars than people. 
Public transportation is very cheap (about 35 cents for a metro ride), but not very good. Buses are ancient, dirty, and crowded beyond belief, which is almost unbearable in the summer heat (particularly considering the infamous Eastern European nonchalant attitude towards rancid body odor). 
The metro is manageably small, but there are no maps, and the few directional signs are confusing and often faded or broken. The trains are pretty slow, and the stations are not in the style of Soviet grandeur that you see in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and even Tashkent! Even putting advertisements in the empty spaces on the grey, concrete walls of the Tbilisi metro escalator tunnels would be an interesting diversion.

Walking is difficult for three main reasons

obstacle course on the way to work
  1. The city is hilly as all get out.
    Prepare to be out of breath hobbling up and down cobblestone lanes. Many women still manage to rock the post-Soviet 'heels everyday, everywhere' mentality, but I can't suffer quite as stoically. 
  2. The sidewalks are sad. Did I say sidewalks? Sorry, I meant parking lots. Sidewalks are very poorly maintained, filled with gaping potholes, chasms, tree roots, construction work, and exposed pipes. In Saint Petersburg, cars occasionally park on the sidewalk, and I always found it rather amusing, but here, it's sometimes literally easier to walk in the middle of the road than on the sidewalks. Where there aren't cars, there is probably a pothole, or a group of people shuffling idly, or the sidewalk might unexpectedly end, or there is a geyser shooting out of a public water fountain (seriously, it's been 3 days and the fountain right outside the MAIN GOVERNMENT BUILDING still is running constantly...).
  3. Crossing streets is scary and dangerous.
    Cars have the right of way, not pedestrians. Local pedestrians are so brave. The best tactic is to find a local, preferably an older person, and stick to them l
    ike a human shield when they cross the roaring lanes of traffic. There aren't enough crosswalks, the few crosswalks on side streets are ignored, and the main avenue is a 6-lane highway that only has two inconveniently-placed underpasses, so people mostly just scamper across traffic. I've actually gotten quite good at it, it's an adrenaline rush- "will I get hit today? Who knows!" 

(This article further discusses the issue)

2. Smoking 
While this is (very) slowly improving with time, as more restaurants realize patrons would prefer not to sit in a cloud of tobacco smoke, and the health risks of smoking start to be taken seriously, smoking is still a major problem in Georgia. Most women don't smoke (in public), but according to World Bank data from 2011, 55% of Georgian men over age 15 use tobacco. There are very few regulations on smoking- people smoke inside restaurants and bars (nearly unavoidable), although some cafes have been starting to restrict smoking to certain sections or ban it altogether. People smoke copiously on the street, blowing clouds into your face as you walk. People smoke in cars, in homes, at university...it's grim. If you have respiratory problems, it is very hard to go out and be social in such an environment. Cigarette packages are printed with health warnings, so people know they're killers, but they don't seem to care, and I have seen absolutely no concern for the way smoke affects other people. In the US, smokers generally try to angle their toxic plumes away from non-smokers, and are often a bit sheepish about their habit, but in Georgia I've had people exhale directly into my face...lovely. 
A couple ideas about the lingering popularity of smoking here:
  1. in Soviet times, everyone smoked (in the US too), and the brand of cigarettes were a status symbol- if you could get western brands smuggled in, you clearly had money and connections. There are probably still some residual status-related elements to smoking now.   
  2. smoking is extremely social. I've met several expats who picked up smoking when they first came to Georgia in order to meet people and participate in social situations. 
  3. unemployment in Georgia is at 13.7% (2014), led by middle-aged men. The Soviet system equipped workers with a certain type of capital, capital which is largely irrelevant in today's economy. The jobs available to men without adequate education, experiences, or connections include mainly things like shopkeeper, taxi/marshrutka driver, construction worker- jobs that mean a lot of sitting around idly, and thus create a perfect environment for picking up a tobacco habit.
*Update: July 2017 stricter smoking laws will take effect!

3. Air Quality
Tbilisi has tragically poor air quality. Despite the verdant hills surrounding the city, fresh air is hard to come by, polluted by a combination of tobacco smoke, car exhaust, or dust from crumbling sidewalks and half-demolished buildings. Yesterday, waiting at a light to cross Pekini St. (one of the few actual above-ground road crossings), there was so much dust and diesel exhaust in the air that I started to choke and my eyes were watering violently- and I have absolutely zero allergies or respiratory issues, so I can only imagine how it would have affected a less healthy person.
(Compared to major industrial cities/metropolitan areas, the air here is wonderful, and I think on the whole the quality is not bad, but at mouth-level on the street, it's something I notice and that bothers me)



4. Heat
"Tbilisi has a humid subtropical climate with warm to hot summers and relatively cold winters. The city's climate is influenced both by dry (Central Asian/Siberian) air masses from the east and oceanic (Atlantic/Black Sea) air masses from the west. Because the city is bounded on most sides by mountain ranges, the close proximity to large bodies of water (Black and Caspian Seas) and the fact that the Greater Caucasus Mountains Range (further to the north) blocks the intrusion of cold air masses from Russia, Tbilisi has a relatively mild microclimate compared to other cities that possess a similar continental climate along the same latitudes." -thanks, Wikipedia
"asphalt-melting, earth-parching,
brain-scrambling heat of midsummer"

-
Justyna Mielnikiewicz for The New York Times

What this means, basically, is that winters are lightly snowy, not too far below freezing usually, and summers are hot as balls. You might look at average summer temps: hovering in the high 70s to high 80s, and think "that's not so bad," and you'd be right...EXCEPT- there is no  infrastructure to deal with heat. Winters are much more tolerable, because everyone has heaters in their homes, but almost no dwellings have central air, and few even have window units. Included in this problem is: un-temperature controlled public transport, no AC in most mini-markets/produkty, no bug-screens on windows (so choose either sweating to death with no air circulation, or sweating to death with warm air and moths and mosquitoes circulating), the general public's lack of body-odor awareness/concern, lack of personal space, (only my?) tendency to walk most places, and the inappropriateness of certain heat-friendly clothing (shorts on men, barely-there dresses)...so yes, now it's clear why those who can afford it skip town for most of August and head to mountain-dachas or seaside resorts, and no work gets done.

5. Complex Social Norms and Expectations 
I don't want to get into this too much... it's a sensitive issue that I can't do justice in this small space. If you live here, you know what I'm talking about. If not, consider Georgians' violent aggression towards gay rights and homosexuality in general, relatively high rate of hymen-reconstruction surgery for young women before marriage to maintain the necessary illusion of virginity, or the incredulity of male-female friendships and the lingering taboo in some places (mostly in the countryside/mountains) on any sort of unchaperoned male-female interactions. 
Some Georgian social norms are awesome- supras, hospitality, culture of relaxation, etc., but sometimes it feels like I'm floating in a sea of judgmental neighbors and too scared to reach out for a life raft because it might be culturally unacceptable...mostly it's fine, but I think I have scandalized a few people through cultural missteps (sorry, 5 am-shift security guard on my street).

Scared yet?
Honestly, Tbilisi is a great place to live. I was going to make this a 10-worst-things list, but couldn't come up with anything else.
People complain about lots of things, including: copious Roma beggars (one of them literally stole food off my friend's plate the other day), "laid-back" (super slow) service in restaurants, lack of access to certain Western goods/brands, the communication barrier, Georgians' frequent inability to form a polite line, etc, but I don't think those are sufficiently bad/inconvenient/frustrating to make this list.

Think I missed anything? Misrepresented something? 
Let me know in the comments!



8 comments:

  1. Though I live in Tbilisi and the things listed here are somewhat true, I could not agree with these generalized statements. I would suggest you to look beyond obvious and try to explain why the things you mentioned are present ( people reading your articles may not have visited Georgia and a foreigner reading this will definitely not want to visit). True traveler does not base the opinions on what the eye sees or the ear hears, but he/she tries to connect with people, talk to different classes and find out what they think and why. I do not want to seem like I am defending my city in any form. My opinions are objective and I think that yes, the roads are not great, yes we have beggars on the streets but that does not make Tbilisi look bad. Unfortunately we are not in the best situation economically or politically, but what we can offer is beyond streets, parking or these superficial things. I truly hope that this article will not influence any travelers coming to Tbilisi cause we can give a lot more than physical things listed here.

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    1. Hi Mariam, I am planning my trip to TABLISI within next week or so. Please guide me for better experience and more fun there.

      My email is: qkhan.it@gmail.com

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  2. So it sounds like you don't really like Tbilisi at all? Please, for everyone else's sake, don't travel to an underdeveloped country if these things bother you immensely in a pretty developed one.

    I also think it is a bit rude to generalize that an entire population has bad hygiene. You don't know why this is or someone's living situation or access to water- it really makes Americans look bad when an entire population is generalized (it happens to us and it is very unfair... we shouldn't do it to others).

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  4. I will be visiting Georgia in a few weeks from now do u guys know any tourist guide? i dont need him/her to stay with me just as a reference if i need any info or where to find something .
    sahly.h@icloud.com

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  5. I think you are maybe a spoiled American expecting American values to exist everywhere. I just visited Tbilisi - I loved it including many on the quirks that you regard so lowly. Sorry but you come across as a stereotypical 'ugly American overseas'

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  6. Yes mostly I agree with the article, main message is correct and we as citizens have to deal with these issues, actually city has been a disaster in 90's but now it has become a good destination for tourists. I can not agree with #4 Heat and #5 complex social norms. I think most buildings in city are conditioned well, so you can easily avoid visiting small suburb stores, such stores are same all over the world. Social norms are complex anywhere in the world they may be as good or as bad as Georgian ones. On the other hand I totally agree with #1, this issue is so severe that citizens have initiated campaign "shameful drivers" (something like that), this campaign has grown from Facebook to the streets. It seems administrative measures are not effective. #2 and #3 are somewhat connected, no smoker culture is yet to come to Georgia, I'm heavy smoker like most Georgians but I feel the need of such no smoke campaigns. As you said in article air quality is fair in city but it will be spoiled if municipality will not make adequate measures.

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  7. I really would like to visit there one day, along with Batumi (where my descendants are from). while i also would like to use my super rich!? Georgian vocabulary :D

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