Sunday, 27 September 2015

Tbilisi, Georgia. Deep Traditions and Growing Change.

I am listening to your requests so this post will have a lot more pictures and be from more of a Travel Agent perspective. I have been in Tbilisi Georgia for a little more than three weeks. Inga has been away in Moscow working and so I have been left to my own devices. The apartment is clean and I haven’t burned the place to the ground despite it having a gas stove. It is has been pretty uneventful and while I would like to make something up to make this blog a little
more exciting. I will leave that to my fiction writing.

Speaking of my writing. The latest MSS is finished its second draft. It is currently out with test readers. I think the actual new term is Beta Readers. I prefer the latter as I am testing out ideas. Not everyone got the same MSS either. Some included the alternative ending and others the beginning. I am not sure which to use just yet, or if I’ll use either. I read a little bit of Donald Maass’s book on 21st-century fiction while the power was out. I’ve read it before but having just finished the MSS I was looking at it with a new light. I had just received a tweet from Bob Mayer about never writing ‘The End’ on your work as it is never really done. Well, the two things motivated me to take a big risk and write and alternative start to the project. Personally I think it is a pretty cool beginning to a very different military story. I like it, but we will have to see what the test readers say.

            The power went out today in the apartment building I am living in. Not really an unusual occurrence in the city. I take something frozen out of the bottom and put it in the top without thinking about it too much anymore. The bucket bath, a skill I picked up from my time in Anapa, made easier as we have gas so ‘WOOF’ a little missing arm hair and I have hot water. When the power came back, I went to take the garbage out and on the ride down it went out again. The old Soviet era elevator stopped. No drama. But also without an emergency descend to the bottom and open feature. I took stock of my garbage and found a two-liter bottle and some dried bread. I was in good shape. I could pee politely and had food. So I got comfortable in the corner and sat thinking. Not much else to do. No call button and no way in hell anyone would understand me if there was. It kind of struck me that life was similar to being stuck in an elevator. You have a planned floor to go to, but the doors could open at any minute and present you with other levels, other possibilities. The garbage you drag onto your personal elevator was just garbage a minute ago. Yet could come in handy during the trip and that you really have no control. I know we all love the illusion of control, being the master of your own destiny and all that crap. But in reality we don’t. All we have are intentions. I intended to go to the bottom floor and toss my garbage. Now I am running Die Hard scenarios out in my brain trying to find the hidden access door on the roof of my cell, and pondering climbing up and out of this mess. Luckily I didn’t find the access door and thirty minutes later the power returned and so did my journey. Perhaps I was channeling the fictitious Forrest Gump, but it did kind of strike me as a strange parallel. Remember I do believe everything happens for a reason. Like they say “Sometimes it is because you’re stupid and make bad choices.”

            I made the choice the other day to go for a walk and see what belonged to the fancy lights I could see in the distance. Not having Inga at home I had to go in the daylight as I lacked sufficient backup. I had been looking at this building in the distance for a long while and at night it is truly remarkable. It is out of place in the blend of the cities architectures both in design and the fact it is all lit up. It is also out near me, which is out in the middle of nowhere as far as the locals are concerned. If you have ever walked anyplace in Las Vegas, you will understand that big things look a great deal closer than they really are. There is probably another life parable here, but I will resist as I think I already have filled enough page centimeters for all the pictures you’ve been asking for.

It was 28 degrees metric when I started out on the journey. For the imperially educated that is hot. I walked on the roads I knew and it took me a round about way, but you all know I love walking. First I started seeing something I haven’t seen since home in Vancouver. Chinese people. First just one Chinese person, and then a couple, and soon a bunch. I thought I’d stumbled on a hidden Chinatown. In a way I had. The Hualing Group is a  private development group from XinJiang China and they have started a massive development in Georgia. By huge I do mean HUGE. They have set up a customs-free zone, built roads, a large market-style mall, hotel, recreation center, and housing in this out of the way area of Tbilisi. Having lived in Vancouver all my life I am used to how the Chinese do things. I think they probably invented the idea of “go big or go home.” The Great Wall comes to mind as an example. The quote “go big or go home” probably sounds better in traditional Hanyu as well. The pictures I have posted gives you an idea of the truly epic scope of these projects.  The mall market complex is almost finished and included stores that were open and staffed, actually overstaffed with Georgian sales people. I walked and looked inside a few shops and stopped to grab a Pepsi at one place that was set up as a café and playroom for children. Inside two men were speaking Mandarin and looking over a Hong Kong newspaper. I asked for a Pepsi from the salesgirl and they stopped talking, hearing me speak English. Both asked me, at the same time, where I was from. I confirmed that I did not know George. They had both been to Vancouver and loved it. I asked a little about the massive project and with obvious pride they explained that Georgia was quickly becoming a toehold in Europe for the Asia Pacific expansion. The company had bought controlling interest in a Georgian bank and had confirmed plans with the current Government. I asked about how the locals were reacting and both men looked at each before saying things were ok. Things are only ok when they are at a crossroads. I understand the local people need work as over 15% were unemployed according to the latest figures.  This development provides that, but I also know how Vancouver sometimes reacts to significant foreign investment and development. Georgia is no different and compared to British Columbia is significantly smaller. Georgia is 70 thousand square kilometers and British Columbia is 944 thousand square kilometers. Georgia’s population is 4.4million people and Vancouver’s is 2.93 million.

  I continued up the large, wide road used by many to test the mettle of their cars and bodies, and to my spied destination, past the massive ongoing development. I was very surprised to see that it was a Preference Hotel. Preference hotels may be relatively unknown to North Americans. They only have one hotel on the continent, and it is in Montreal. It is a French company that started in 2000 and focused on bringing true luxury to the traveler’s experience. This focus on experience has provided many awards to the properties they have. 

           The Orwellian architectural design is at both times foreboding and fitting. Hotels never want to be referred to as foreboding. But I use the word carefully. Georgia is a former Soviet State, and this historical reality is everywhere you look in building designs and signage. So this  beautifully foreboding building strikes a perfect balance between that history while not having to copy the bland older residential buildings in the district. It compliments the newly erected Hualing Tbilisi Sea New City residential buildings behind it. This feat would be similar to correctly matching a bow tie and jeans, with a traditional Cheongsam-inspired ladies polo shirt. The thought and design that went into creating this perfect blend reminded me of a story about making tea in a paper bag. If it is done perfectly the water prevents the bag from burning while over the fire as the tea steeps. 

This Orwellian theme dissolves the moment you walk into the expansive lobby of the hotel. The staff are attentive. Security was aware that I had walked into the hotel with running shoes, dusty from the long journey, and a moderately soaked dress shirt. I was slightly underdressed for a five-star hotel but apart from being noticed was not made to feel this way by the staff. Security and guest safety is an essential feature of any upscale hotel. But you do not want to be asked for a visa card when you come back from a jog or walk either. Again we see this balance in action, by the expertly trained staff.

A large reception of business types was going on and I grabbed a seat and watched how the Georgian team worked. I love showing up unannounced at a hotel and getting a real look at service levels. If you call ahead and say “Hi I am a travel consultant for Brave New World Travel and I’d like to arrange a tour of your property” you get a show. So I never do this. I like to sandbag the experience and see the reality. The staff was slammed with this impromptu meeting and handled it perfectly. While I watched the hotel General Manager walked by and said good afternoon in French. I responded in French and then introduced myself in English. Petter Lillvik switched to perfect English seamlessly and asked where I was from and if I was a guest. I explained my situation and he made the time to show me around the wonderful property without making it appear like he was making time. While I knew, he was an incredibly busy person I was made to feel like I was the most important person on the property at that time.

During the tour, he explained the hotel's soft opening and that the grand opening was in the future. He took pride in the property without appearing to be boastful. He told me the Chinese restaurant called be Ensemble had culinary experts from various regions in China and could handle private groups as well. The hotel was booked to near capacity. That size limited, as many rooms were not yet finished. One room was available, a regular room, and together we took the elevator to the floor as he explained the yet to be completed projects. The large recreation center is going to have the largest hotel indoor pool in Georgia and boasts yoga classes and saunas. The hotel's commitment to ‘Green’ energy usage demanded strict guidelines as well. All the air-conditioning is done with natural gas and the lights in the huge hallways are motion controlled.
The price point of this property is significantly less than other “like” venues and I put that word in quotes as this property is a five star using the Chinese standard and not the European one used by other properties. The old Marriot compares, as does the Radisson Blu. If I were to suggest a property to my clients, I would defer to this one because of its attention to guest experience and location. It is closer to the airport and has a daily shuttle to Old Tbilisi. It is in a quieter location and with its proximity to  Tbilisi Sea has much more to do. The locals all say the air is much better up here as well.

Tbilisi itself is a magnificent city and Georgian hospitality is as advertised. The locals like visitors and, generally speaking, go out of their way to help you experience the city. I have wandered all over the place and have yet to encounter any truly negative situations. Cabs are a bit of a challenge. But then they are in many European and North American cities as well. For the most part, they are un-metered and require a bit of haggling for locals and tourists alike. But then they are cheaper than any of those cities as well.

The Metro or subway is of old Soviet design and is an excellent way to cheaply see different areas of the city. You have to buy a card, and that costs two Lari and then a ride is.50 Lari. You can’t get the money back for the card unless you keep the paper receipt but for two Lari it is a cheap souvenir. The main line travels roughly East to West and a second line approximately North and South. A third line out to the airport has been under construction for years. The signs and announcements are in both English and Georgian and if you end up going the wrong way you can just get off and cross the platform. You can also leave the station and if you swipe again within an hour and a half from your first swipe, it is free. There is no need to swipe in and out like the silly system in London.

A Funicular also operates up to Mtatsminda Park and this is a splendid way to get one's bearings in this old city. You need to buy a card and again get another souvenir. But, the views and sights are well worth it. At the top, they have many restaurants, a nightclub, and many things for children to do. One of Tbilisi’s richest residents' houses is on display from this vantage point. The silver and glass house is owned by one of the richest men in the country and is truly beautiful in design. It even has its own enclosed heliport!  They also have a ride like the London Eye yet here it is on the top of the mountain and the views incredible. The easiest way to get to the Funicular is to follow the signs from Liberty Square and its magnificent monument of Saint George.

Tbilisi is a city in transition, expansion, and conflict. One could argue that this has been the case for centuries. Georgia wants to become a member of the United Nations and in all rights it should be. It holds deeply, traditions and traditional Orthodox beliefs and these bring it into conflict with the newer generation. The influence from the USA brings many of these traditionally held customs into question. Music and dress are influenced and, as in America, bring youth into disagreements with parents.  The speed of this transition is different. The instant share nature of the new world is placing challenges in this society without the support of the influencing nations. Bringing Georgia into the fold of the UN would relieve some of these pressures.

The youth all are taught English in school from grade one. The older adults speak Russian from their past education or occupation, depending on the point of view held. Children are now getting Russian language training as well in school starting in grade three. The strain of learning three languages is evident. A friend of mine, Magdalina, runs an English Language Club for children after school and it is very popular. She speaks English very well and her husband Alex speaks well enough.

While growing up speaking many languages is something I wish I had done, the support for such skills is left up to the individual families. English needs practice as many of the words and word prefixes make little sense. Mice, Mouse, House Houses, Moose Moose, the common plural Mooses has been dropped for being irksome. As well it should be but I believe you see the point. Practice is the make or break point for ANY language and with one as varied as English Magdalina is a real oasis in Tbilisi. She is enthusiastic and this rubs off on the students lucky enough to have found her. I shutter to think about higher learning and grammar usage as English is so fluid a language that it is always changing. That is at least my own excuse when I commit a faux pax and have a hundred people point it out via messages! Angela, Tim, David come to mind! But in truth I am better for the experience and my own writing as sloppy as it is allowed to be in a blog has got better for it.

I am going to leave this here, as it has already been over a month since my last blog. I will write more on the separate districts of Tbilisi and the countryside of Georgia as a whole in the future. Enjoy all the pictures you have requested.

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