Attempt to Find the Tbilisi Yerevan Train Gone Awry: Eating Watermelon Eaters and Drinking Cha-Cha With Random Georgians

Attempt to Find the Tbilisi Yerevan Train Gone Awry: Eating Watermelon Eaters and Drinking Cha-Cha With Random Georgians

The mission: Tbilisi to Yerevan

My birthday present to myself was a set of extra passport pages and fortunately, once my appointment at the embassy rolled around, it took less than an hour before I had a passport bulging with 48 extra awkwardly inserted visa pages. After checking that off my Tbilisi checklist, the next priority was getting to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I had scoured the internet for my Tbilisi Yerevan options and the most obvious two: (1) going to a bus station, hoping one is there, wait for it to fill and then go or (2) take the notoriously slow night train. I decided to aim for the latter, since I like transport that run on schedules. I boarded the metro for station square, with instructions from my host, “You buy your train tickets at the mall. Just ask someone as you exit the station”. His advice sounded simple in theory… until I asked about two-dozen people and all I got were apologetic nods that they don’t know English.

Introducing the Man Responsible for the Detour
One skinny old man seemed eager to help, even though his English was non-existent as well. He seemed to grasp that I wanted to go to Yerevan and started to walk with me in the direction of a building that hovered above train tracks, which looked promising. I think I also communicated that I needed to buy a ticket and when he realized this, he animatedly proposed an alternate plan. I thought he said he was driving to Yerevan, in an hour and a half, at 7 PM. He turned us around and suggested I wait with him. The whole way back to the local joint, I asked people for “English? English?” to ensure I was understanding the man correctly but to no avail. Although I didn’t understand anything he was saying, he questioned me curiously and babbled animatedly about America. He stopped drinking after one beer and made a driving motion with his hands, which I thought looked promising. After about an hour, two younger guys joined us, one of which supposedly spoke English but not to an extent that he could de-mystify the situation. The guys ordered khinkali (Georgian dumplings) for the table to share and I tried to play Pictionary on a napkin to confirm the plan for the evening. The English speaker repeated the one English phrase he knew, “no problem, no problem”. After a few toasts that I didn’t understand and taking turns using the restroom (which looked like a good sign to begin a road trip), when the clock hit 7:00 PM, we abandoned the uneaten food and piled in the car.

The abductors... and the English speaker who didn't actually speak English

The abductors… and the English speaker who didn’t actually speak English

The old man and I eating ice cream

The old man and I in the back seat eating ice cream

Unexpected Evening Entertainment

We made a pit-stop for ice cream then they drove to the international bus station, where fortunately the ticket seller did speak English. However, the outlook didn’t look good: I was the only passenger interested in going to Yerevan so the next bus may not head out until the next morning. My Georgian guides weren’t concerned- we left our cell phone number, piled into the car, stopped at a market then all of a sudden we were at a lake. They used a plastic bag to cover a seat for me to plop down on and ceremoniously prepared the watermelon, cutting mammoth slices and passing them around. After a round or two of melon, out came the cha-cha, which they insisted I drink in the traditional Georgian manner with the old man. When he seemed eager for a second shot, it became clear that he wasn’t driving anywhere this evening.

Drinking cha-cha Georgian style by the lake

Drinking cha-cha Georgian style by the lake

And so the evening progressed… watermelon and cha cha and lots of words exchanged that no one really understood. After waiting three hours, some selfies, declined invitations to go swimming and not having received a phone call from the bus company, I gestured that I wanted to be returned home to my previous host. They repeated, “no problem, no problem” and urged me to relax. Eventually, I got them to pile in the car and handed them the written address. But a direct delay to where I wanted to go would have been too easy. First, we got ourselves stuck in a ditch and the three shirtless men and had to wave down recruits from the road to help get us unstuck. After finally escaping the weeds, they headed to the address I provided, offering to pick me up the next morning. One episode of “Hangover
-level absurdity and a failed transport transfer was enough for me so I thanked them graciously but politely declined and ran out of the car, into my previous hosts arms, apologizing if any of my watermelon stains or ice cream dribbles transferred on to his clothing.

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Reflections on Georgian Culture

And that was my last night in Georgia! I think it does accurately capture the curiosity and whole-hearted hospitality of these people. It isn’t a wealthy nation and most people don’t have much money but they share everything they have. Trying to pay for dinner or split cab fare was almost impossible for me to do in this country. When the public transportation switched to using single-swipe metro cards, people protested because the first one on the bus typically paid for his friends too. When taking a cab alone, a few drivers tried to rip me off initially (charging $20 USD for a ride to the airport which should cost half that) but warmed up instantly, switching the radio to American music and offering me a cigarette. Since I had to hang around the city for my appointment at the embassy and some of my plans for side trips fell through, I didn’t get to explore the country as thoroughly as I would have liked but I’m convinced that the most beautiful thing about this country is its people. And it’s even more amazing to think that they can be so warm and generous even after Soviet occupation, high crime rates and significant mafia activity. They maintained distinctive traditions throughout foreign invasion and other hardships but still welcome strange people from other nations. For me, the people make a place worth visiting, and it’s definitely somewhere I’d consider spending more time some day!

Song of the Moment: Niaz diasamidze- Alboom usakhelouri/33ა – ადე შეხედე ქვეყანას (Georgian reggae)

If YOU want to go from Tbilisi to Yerevan: There are many options but all require a little luck to work smoothly. There’s a night train every other day for approximately 30 lari. The train is notoriously slow but hopefully it will leave relatively on time. I went to Ortachala bus station where official and unofficial mini buses leave for Yerevan, typically when they fill. For the official mini buses, you should pay around 30 lari, you’ll probably need to wait until it fills so it will probably be crowded. A man making a private trip convinced me to join him and a Lithuanian guy, we left right away and had a spacious, fast trip to Yerevan for 40 lari. Crossing the border to Armenia was quick and smooth. Americans need a visa, which you can purchase on arrival for 3000 dram (~$6 USD, for a 21-day tourist visa). There’s a money exchange machine near by for you to pay in the local currency. It’s good that I got new pages because the Armenian visa is a full page!

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