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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Marshrutka Experience in Georgia & Armenia



We also have mini-buses in Romania. We call them microbuze and taking them to reach specific destinations can be an intrepid journey especially to foreigners. This intrepidness doesn’t however match that of experiencing the marshrutka rides east of the Black Sea and south of the Caucasus, in Georgia & Armenia.
How would I define intrepid? [Or the related adjectives that could apply.]
First of all, I should tell those of you who don’t know it that Georgians and Armenians drive like crazy. They are addicted to speed and they engage in pretty tricky overtake manoeuvres most of the times.
And then, I start recalling snippets of my journey there.
The time I was in Mestia, at an altitude of 1500 m, having gotten food poisoning from eating too much khachapuri [traditional Georgian cheese bread] and being sick to my stomach, yet having to catch the 4 o’clock marshrutka to Gori, Stalin’s birth place. I was so damn sick and was so fed up with the extra ‘dash’ of oil that came with all Georgian dishes, that even to this day, the smell of fried oil turns my stomach. So, that morning, the super-friendly but heavy-packing Georgians filled that marshrutka to Gori straight up. I was only thinking on how to manage not to throw up on those winding and narrow mountain roads. I also had a severe kidney ache I had discovered right before starting my journey and the last thing I needed was for my marshrutka neighbours to buy khachapuri for the road and to have a 1-year old baby crying non-stop. Not to mention the one too many stops we had on our way to Gori.
Mestia to Ushguli
Another time, we were returning from Signagi (in eastern Georgia) to Tbilisi. My boyfriend and I had been to explore the beautiful town and to have a wine tasting, which turned into lunch and… bottom line, I was a bit drunk. I don’t know about the other marshrutka passengers, but I surely enjoyed singing traditional Georgian songs during the 90-minute ride to the capital city.
Walking the cobbled streets of Signagi
That evening, we barely managed to get to the bus station from where buses would leave to Armenia: we had missed the last marshrutka to Yerevan. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones. A very young Russian documentary director was also trying to reach the Armenian capital that evening, in his attempt to get to the film festival that was being held there. After many offers from different Georgian entrepreneurs :), we decided to try our luck in the morning, searched for a place to stay in Tbilisi, and went out to wine and dine. We then managed to catch the first marshrutka to Yerevan the following morning and it was again a very crowded one. 6 hours with no Armenian money is neither funny nor helps your hunger go away. I will always remember the kindness of a Georgian lady, who shared her puri [bread] with us.
Arriving in Yerevan
Our Armenian adventures happened – during most of our days there – in shared taxis… Our closest call was missing the one and only marshrutka back to Georgia, from Gyumri – the second largest city in Armenia – to the city of Akhaltsikhe, because of the hour that had changed in Europe but not in Armenia. It was the last Sunday in October and our phones naturally switched to winter time and messed our plans up. I don’t know the number of the people on that marshrutka, but we were clearly too many. I didn’t even know how could people still be getting on without anybody getting off. My boyfriend would tell me ‘Don’t get so mad… They’re such good people, look – they’re holding their friends in their laps!’
One of my last marshrutka-related memories is the ride from Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi. I remember catching the last marshrutka and staying on it until it got full to leave to the capital city. Having visited Vardzia earlier on and clearly hungry, my boyfriend left to buy some snacks while I was desperately trying to hang on to two of the best seats on that old mini-bus. Suddenly, the driver started the engine and off we were, with me screaming and trying to explain in English – ‘Wait, wait, my boyfriend’s not here! Don’t leave!’… The guys calmed me down and explained that the bus driver was only trying to move the marshrutka to a different spot of the bus station, whose star I was that evening in my short skirt that the men were eagerly trying to get their eyes under, even with our driver to Vardzia having come to the bus to kiss me goodbye. There followed an uneventful, but still crowded and a bit smelly ride to Tbilisi.   
However odd it might seem, I miss those rides! They made me remember a real sense of life, without the comforts that give you the illusion of receiving a lot while you are actually paying the price of an inexperienced reality. Life on the road, in metal boxes on wheels, is fun, especially if you have something to feast your eyes on and good company in terms of friends that you’ve made and are there to stay.   

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