Health and Safety

AccommodationDestinationsFoodGeorgiaHealth and SafetyItineraryPlanningThe Caucasus

Tbilisi for the Uninitiated

IMG_5681

The Caucasus is a region I had absolutely no clue about, except that it is where Europe and Asia converge, and where ancient man, as anthropologists and linguists posit, first walked out of Africa and into this part of the world. Georgia seemed like the logical choice when I planned this trip, along with Azerbaijan or Armenia. Time and costs narrowed it down to only Georgia and well, Doha, given the logical stopover that Qatar Airways offered. The Travel Companion (TC) bought his tickets separately a few weeks later after suddenly deciding that he wanted to come and truth be told, I was glad for his company. Georgians are hyper-social creatures; no one eats alone and a foreign woman going at everything alone would make it doubly odd—after the wary but blatant stares I kept receiving, I’d say TC helped in some ways to make me feel less like a specimen under a microscope.

We were only in Tbilisi for about a week and with this limited amount of time, day tours seemed like the most logical option. Even so, there was so much we couldn’t cover without a car. I decided on this post simply to make planning somewhat easier for idiots like me who bumbled about and probably made tons of mistakes getting around. But I’m hoping this will be a useful source of information for anyone planning a short, compact stay that wouldn’t take too much out of you.

How we got around

By taxi

This was our primary mode of transport. A taxi is pretty much any guy with his own car and a lit sign that says ‘Taxi’. Completely unregulated, you simply haggle for a fare before you hop in. We’ve taken a few through Tbilisi, using fingers and body language to negotiate and the taxi drivers typically range from grumpy to grumpier. Saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Georgian helps a lot. The general rule I’ve learnt is that a trip around the city centre should cost no more than 5 GEL, which anything outside can be anything between 7 and 10 GEL. The airport is a completely different story though, so be prepared for inflated prices that would cost about 35-40 GEL, be it a taxi, a hotel car, or a pre-arranged driver from one of the tour companies.

By metro

Tbilisi has just 2 metro lines, tunnelled so deep into the ground that you can probably develop claustrophobia and vertigo just by riding the long, long escalators. The Avlabari and Rustaveli stations have long, long ones that take at least 2 minutes to clear them all, which can be a horrifyingly unpleasant experience. Built in the Soviet era, they retain that grim, bleak look that made me wonder if Tbilisi really left that bit of their past behind yet. 1 GEL takes you anywhere, for a single trip. 2 GEL for the reusable Metro card, which can be returned at a ticket office after showing your passport.

Bus & Marshrutka

We didn’t try this at all, finding the Georgian script and the general lack of English rather daunting. There are designated routes and stops for buses, but only designated route for Marshrutkas, which pretty much stop wherever people want to get down. But there are numbers on these little yellow things and there’s also a website explaining the routes, but there’s only Georgian on it.

Where we stayed

Hotel Piazza

Just a couple metres off Avlabari metro and in the heart of the old Armenian district, the location and its breakfast are pretty much the hotel’s perks. The staff were lovely and incredibly accommodating. In their 24-hour shifts, I think we bothered them the most with questions and odd requests and all of them had no problems with what we asked for. But it was impossible to open our room window without getting a fragrant whiff of the constant cigarette smoke that swirled around the ashtray just outside. Workmen came on the third day and worked till late at night and tons of (loud) tourists who were mostly Russian came back drunk and loud late at night—clearly not the best thing we could have hoped for when we were already so much in need of uninterrupted sleep. Breakfast started at 9 am (!), so early-risers, you’re straight out of luck if you want to start out early for your day trips.

Automated/self-service laundromats were impossible to find, but the hotel did laundry for us for 5 Gel/kilo, and it was amazing how much we actually spent washing our dirty clothes.

Tours we did

Free Tbilisi walking tour

At noon every day at Freedom square, there’ll be a guide who will walk you around the city for about 3 or so hours, explaining Tbilisi’s and Georgia’s history. These guides survive on tips, so give what you think they deserve.

Colour Tour Georgia

We booked 2 tours with them—one into the Kazbegi mountains and the other into the Kakheti wine region. Both tours were very different in their own ways and the driver/guide are always accommodating to what you want to do on the way. Another driver/guide we considered was Makho (sourced from Tripadvisor), who has a Facebook page. Colour Tour’s slightly lower costs won out in the end.

Culinary Backstreets

Trust Paul Rimple to take you around. If anything, you’ll get an expat’s view of Georgia and Tbilisi but he has been living in Tbilisi for so long that he’s practically one of the Georgians. Paul’s interesting stories help make the hours fly past, and you get to sample all the food he shows you in the Deserter’s Bazaar.

Places we ate at

It’s difficult to find bad Georgian food really, or we’ve been incredibly lucky for most part, to get what we wanted. We normally try to stick to local cuisine as much as we can, so there’s quite a bit of Georgian food where we’re concerned. It’s easy, however, to overload on Khachapuri and Khinkali, and then feel a little sick for a while as the cheese and meat start to take root.

You can eat cheaply, if you rely on fried food, or bread with cheese from the numerous bakeries (Tone) that could be found around the city.

The smoking ban in enclosed places hasn’t reached Georgia, so cigarette smoke in restaurants can be a problem if you’re particularly sensitive to it, as I am. Some of the places listed below do have a view over the old city; others don’t.

These are the places we visited and they’re mostly around Avlabari or the old town which we could easily reach on foot.

Pasanauri
Oat gallery & Art café 144-stairs (right below the Cable cars, but do not use the path leading up to the Fortress for it. It’s through one of the tiny backlanes called Gomi)
Ezo
Culinarium Khasheria
Saamo (Avlabari, near the Trinity church)
Zakhar Zakharich
Vino Underground
Café Flowers

A place we were recommended but didn’t make it: Machakhela, Organique Josper Bar, g.Vino

Other things we did on our own

Gulo Thermal spa

One of the best and worst decisions I could have ever made. The hammam experience was really not bad—steam from the sulphur baths helped unclog my nose and pores—though it was overpriced, with, well, rather bad service. Be prepared to face a chaotic mess at the reception as Gulo the proprietress attempts to sort out your reservation or walk-in booking with minimal English. I tried making a booking through Facebook and ended up with a heated argument between Gulo and someone called Zura when Zura didn’t manage to get my reservation down with Gulo at all. We had to wait an hour for a larger bath to be available—no apologies made—and was doubly charged until we managed to convince an English-speaking ‘bather’ that we’d already paid for our 15-minute massage and scrub, which in truth, was shoddily completed in about 5 minutes.

Visiting all the churches

See Orthodox Christianity in full swing, marvel at the richness of Christian Iconography and look at faded frescoes that are centuries-old. Walk the crumbling battlements of fortresses, step on stones that have weathered conquerers and enemies and soak in the haunting melodies of the liturgies. We walked up the Narikala Fortress (1 GEL brings you straight up there from the other side of the river) and it was a relatively easy climb and a good way to see the city in the setting sun.

Medical emergencies

I’m sort of embarrassed to say that a skin condition forced me into a private emergency clinic off the Medical University Metro stop late one night. MediClub Georgia has staff who are English-speaking, though I was tended to by residents who triaged their patients before handing them over to the main doctor on duty. Never having been in an emergency ward, I spent most of my time waiting, feeling both curiosity and dread at the somewhat dated setup, then wondering how much it was going to cost me. I got prescribed strong antibiotics in the end, something I couldn’t get on my own in a pharmacy.

read more
Health and SafetyPlanning

Travelling when ill

thermometer-1539191_1920

It’s hard to do anything when your body doesn’t want to corporate. You’re sneezing, coughing or wheezing and there’s a flight to catch, or a train to run after, or an early morning call that you have to take because you’ve signed up for an early day tour that you sort of now regret.

I’ve hard diarrhoea and food poisoning (fever and all) on board a plane and it’s far from a fun ride. Besides that, it’s difficult to think about what will happen the next hour, let alone the next day. What is supposed to be the time of your life experiencing loads of new things has suddenly turned to laboured prayers for a warm comfortable bed and much needed, uninterrupted sleep.

It’s possible to enjoy the trip laid out before you, but it does take some preparation. There are those who do have specific instructions about not travelling, but my concern here is for those who simply fall ill or feel very poorly while on the road.

  1. Pack medication that you can get off the counter. I have a huge bunch of them–antihistamines, anti-diarrhoea pills, cough tablets, aspirin, painkillers–and these are brands which I know and have used before, which I lug around. Some of them make their way into my hand-carry bag, just in case.
  2. Carry a doctor’s prescription for special medications especially if your supply is going to run out. If you have a pre-existing condition, this is all the more so important, especially if the emergency services in the country you’re travelling in need to know your medical history in a hurry.
  3. See a doctor in the country you’re visiting and depending on which country this is, access to medical care can be anything from easy to near impossible. Language barriers might worsen this problem. Admittedly, I’ve hardly done this and have always managed to ride out the illness, though this probably isn’t the best thing for more severe bouts that might require antibiotics or surgery.
  4. Purchasing travel insurance that has the kind of medical coverage you’re satisfied with in case you manage to land yourself in hospital. These vary greatly across the insurance companies and it’s not secret that there’s always some kind of balance between wanting the most coverage and the kind of premium you’re prepared to pay.
  5. Get up to date on your vaccines. Preventative measures like vaccines might go quite a long way in keeping you safe. A flu vaccine might be wise for the cold season in Europe, just as malaria/hepatitis A/typhoid/cholera vaccines would reduce the risks of infection.

But if you’re already sniffing and coughing and miserable about it, there’s pretty much no way out but to ride it through as valiantly as you can. I’ve found it hard to give up a particular sightseeing tour if I’ve planned it for months simply because I’m laid low by a virus. So I’ve gone on stubbornly, only to pay for again later.

All I can really say is…have loads of clean water, bland food and a less intense travelling schedule – essentially babying the body until it recovers – would go a long way to shrugging off the untimely bout of flu.

read more
Health and SafetyPlanning

Have you brought it all?

all

Despite the incredibly officious sounding title, this is simply a post emphasising the importance of staying safe on the road especially when it comes to documentation and the very small but vital thing called the passport.

It has been nearly a decade since I fell prey to a squat couple in the hills of Barcelona, who managed to snatch my passport, my debit card and a small amount of cash as they squirted something disgusting – resembling bird shit – on me. I wished I’d obeyed my instincts to whip around then and off them down that steep slope.

What followed was a series of painful events that created unnecessary stress for a holiday that I now remember as the ‘godawful robbing one’. In short, I had to reapply for a temporary travel pass at the embassy (thankfully there was one in Barcelona), reschedule my plane flight, redo the accommodation, make a police report, spend hundreds on overseas calls to frantic family members and to the insurance company and generally stay unhappy until everything was sorted out.

But isn’t travel these days more perilous than worrying about petty crime, particularly when travel advisories have been rather rampant these days?

1. Don’t ignore them though. They’re important. It shouldn’t stop your travel plans especially if you’ve booked the trip months ago, but use your discretion. A bomb blast in the Southern region of Thailand doesn’t mean you can’t visit Bangkok and still stay vigilantly safe. But I wouldn’t go as far as deliberately organising a trip to Iran or Iraq just to tempt fate because my stubborn side insists that this particular trip will give me bragging rights.

2. Make copies and backups (hard and digital) of every travel document you have for your trip. Then give a whole set to your travel partners and to friends or family back home. It helps with when it comes to insurance as well, especially when you’re in a bind.

3. Which is clearly, more and more important now than ever. Choose your premiums wisely, particularly if you’re going into more extreme sports like skiing or diving or ice-climbing. Read the fine-print because the devil is in the details, even if it’s bloody tedious. Reputable companies don’t come cheap, but they also don’t offer everything, right down to terrorism coverage.

4. Let’s hope you’ll never ever have to use your emergency contacts while gallivanting. But have those handy on you. Conversely, do up a comprehensive itinerary that provides the address and contact number of the places you’ll be staying in, as well as the 24-hour helpline for the embassy for friends and family back home.

 

read more
Health and SafetyMusingsPlanning

She goes alone

womanalone

Is the world an infinitely more dangerous place for a solo female traveller?

Yes and no.

There is no succinct answer. Much of that depends on the places you decide to visit, the precautions you take and the force of a charming personality that can actually overcome some obstacles that an otherwise surly person wouldn’t.

Thus far, I’ve kept my travels to countries that have been relatively ‘safe’, but I’m never more painfully aware that the definition of this particular word differs from person to person. I’ve not taken any self-defense classes (though I wish I did); neither do I really carry mace or pepper spray or god forbid, a knife around. They’re also illegal in some places and I’d rather not spend a night in jail.

Buy a package tour, endure the extra single-bed charges and you’ll have company and the relative safety of a group looking out for you; walk around blindly as a large group and risk your pocket getting picked in the crowded streets of Rome. Plan your itinerary from start to end without the help of a tour agent and you might just find out that the accommodation you’ve reserved has suddenly been given up to someone else, leaving you on the streets at midnight with nowhere to go.

There are however, some rules of common sense that I do adhere to when I’m out alone and these aren’t exactly new or groundbreaking in any way, but they’ve worked for me.

The single rule that I’ve always gone with is that preparation is key. 

1. Do the best prep you can

I never leave it to chance when it comes to getting an itinerary all rolled out before I depart, which means that the preparation begins weeks or even months in advance. I peruse versions of a map, sometimes even going into Google streetview just to see where my hotel is, so that I don’t fumble and looking like a lost sheep after stumbling out of the airport. It does take the spontaneity out of the fun of wandering wherever I want to go, but I would rather not find myself stuck in a train station overnight when all the rooms in the area are full. Look out for festival or events that will run at the same time you’ll be in the city too – rooms go so quickly that sometimes, the only way around this is to modify my entire itinerary and skip the place altogether when there’s no place to stay that wouldn’t blow my budget.

Tripadvisor and Booking.com give me the best places to look for places to stay and the reviews – driven by other tourists – have been infinitely helpful in helping me to decide where I want to put my head to rest for the night.

That’s just the start. I do go into the nitty-gritty of arranging transport way ahead of time by checking out the ways I can get around, not just for cost effectiveness, but also boat/train/bus/rail timings. Mostly, I keep my moving around confined to the daylight hours and if I do indeed venture out at night, I mostly ensure there’s a clear and direct way back to the place I’m staying.

Think you’ll be in for a culture shock? Do a little reading on forums about what people expect of travellers (and single women travellers for that matter).

2. Body position, language and dressing

How do you carry yourself? I’ll never be able to blend in, say, in a place like India or in Tanzania because I don’t look remotely like the locals, but dressing conservatively goes a long way in not drawing any attention to yourself. In this case, being sloppy (my personal attire of choice) works, unless you’re too fashion-conscious and determined to strut down the cobblestones in the latest D&G to make an impression on everyone.

In crowded alleys, I’d rather look stupid and defensive than fashionable and swanky, so I do keep my backpack close to my body at all times.

I keep my guard up at all times – which makes for exhausting evenings – and by the same token, keep the same measure of caution when speaking to the locals, even fellow travellers. Don’t be too quick to get drawn into conversations with people you don’t know, although I’ve heard and read of people who’ve found lifelong friends or even partners during a trip.

Trust your instincts in general; don’t do what you wouldn’t do in your home country.

Getting hassled? I’ve been there. From crazy stalkers in Birmingham and Athens (I ducked into the nearest shop and took refuge) to even crazier carpet-sellers in Istanbul, these incidents can be anything from stressful to scary. Don’t hesitate to make a scene if you think your safety is compromised. Overreact, embarrass the fellow(s) publicly, run or simply ask for help from people around you. Invent a boyfriend, a husband or a group that you’re travelling with and say you’re waiting for them to join you.

3. Day tours

These offer a more controlled environment if you’d like to see the place while meeting other people as well. In fact, I’ve done this more times than I care to count and while some were loads better than others, I can’t deny it’s a great way to see a new place without the 9-day commitment of a tour group’s fixed itinerary.

4. Travel Gear

I’ve only recently started looking for more secure bags, but these aren’t strictly necessary. Pac-safe’s anti-theft stuff, for instance, has been tempting me for a while but they aren’t easy on the pocket, especially when you’re looking to spend your hard-earned money on other things. I’ll say it right here though, these things aren’t necessities. Keeping a good head, staying calm and generally maintaining a semblance of good ol’ common sense has helped me more than fancy equipment.

read more
Health and SafetyMusingsPlanning

Solo travel

sit

I’ve gotten many reactions when I tell people that I roam the globe alone.

But there is resistance all around. I’ve been called all the adjectives that lie between brave and foolish and there is of course, the constant nagging from the family that safety is of utmost importance. Not forgetting cost, because single travellers pay much more, for room, food and transport.

Going solo isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I had a taste of it while spending some study time in Germany many years ago and found that being alone gave me a freedom that I couldn’t explore outside the quotidian confines of daily life. It also suits my introverted yet suspicious nature and for someone who can get socially-anxious in big groups after a while. It was never fear that prevented me from doing it solo; I’d wanted to venture out on my own long before I wanted to be shackled by other travellers whose interests didn’t match mine; neither did I want to feel obligated to those who wanted to meet for meals all the time.

I managed somehow, without hitchhiking and with some strict penny pinching.

For the longest time, I’ve travelled alone. I still do, although not always resolutely so. The excitement of it is always countered by the intensity of emotions that can assail you in the chaotic mess of an airport or even the sudden bouts of loneliness that can hit after going without company for a while.

The addition of several travel companions came much later, years after I’d been on my own for years. To say the adjustment was disconcerting is to put it mildly. Then again, costs are shared, meals are far more interesting (now you can order a spread of the local fare and share) and car rental is thankfully not too daunting especially when a second driver is absolutely necessary.

Yet what keeps me going alone is the anticipation of encounters that I know I would never get had I gone with travel companions. I’ve gotten into talks with restaurant owners and other strangers who’d shown me acts of kindness, all incidentally so, I’ve had help rendered to me when I thought I only had myself to rely on and the list goes on. Each one of them had been in itself, a life lesson that taught me more about people than I ever could had I been cocooned in a group of friends.

read more

Pin It on Pinterest