Our journey began at the Brisbane domestic Virgin Airlines check-in. Just escaping a downpour, we scurried inside with our minimalist luggage and fronted up to the ‘International passengers’ sign, hoping our luggage would be booked right through to our final destination-Tbilisi.
‘Tbilisi?’ Said the gorgeous airline attendant, behind the counter ‘Where’s that?’ Even prompting with ‘Georgia’ didn’t seem to elicit any enlightenment. She had enormous dark eyes, full, red lips and dusky skin. Dressed to the nines in her red and purply blue uniform and fully made up to enhance her beautiful features, she charmingly engaged us in chit chat while she looked up the airline code -TBS- muttering ‘How do you spell Tbilisi?’ under her breath and checked if we needed visas.
She resisted saying ‘What are you going there for?’ but it’s a question several people have asked, including our next door neighbour on the long haul leg from Sydney to Doha. We say we blame Michael Portillo that inveterate train traveller on SBS who travelled through Georgia and Azerbaijan and inspired us with stories of beautifully tiled Orthodox churches and snow capped mountains where peasant farmers still made their own cheese. Added to this was Joanna Lumley doing Georgia on her Silk Road journey. We counted at least 18 fabulous outfits she wore as she wafted through ancient caravanserais. It is a beautiful country straddling the east and west but with a history of early Christianity, less volatile than Turkey and more tolerant than Russia. It seemed the ideal stopping point en route to Germany.
We survived the long haul flight and disembarked at Doha Hamad airport, a glistening vast terminal perched on the edge of the Arabian desert overlooking the Gulf. Even at 5am, the desert haze blurred the skyline as the huge Qatar airways Airbus touched down. We could see nothing for miles but 100’s of Qatar aircraft all lined up and ready to whisk us to a myriad destinations. We walked about 2 kilometres to our Tbilisi departure gate past elegant cafes with brass samovars and exquisitely packaged Arab sweets – dates, Turkish Delight and honeyed pastry. Overhead two monorails stealthily sped the 5km between departure wings. At our gate, the familiar Strine accents were predominant. We were all travelling to Georgia with TripADeal.
There’s something reassuringly familiar about Australian travellers- slightly daggy, always rumpled by the huge distances they love to travel and often quite elderly. You can always spot the Katmandu gear, the battered backpacks. And their ordinary, unsophisticated conversation so willing to be shared with whoever might be listening. Eternally friendly and mostly polite, they’ll strike up a conversation with anyone, apologising in case they’ve caused offence. Just plain dags!
We took off again and the harsh desert landscape gradually gave way to green rolling hills and farmland. Distant mountains were snow capped. On the tarmac were ancient Russian aircraft, a museum of past conflict. Wind ruffled the grassy fields around the airport. We had arrived in Tbilisi. Our guide Eka (Ekaterine ) in green T-shirt with TripADeal logo met us as we exited customs. We were in the green group and were rounded up by the ebullient Noelene, a regular TripADealer who made sure we were all on first name familiarity before we left the airport. Loaded into our minibus the 10 green groupers were whisked the 25 kms into Tbilisi, the wonderful Eka providing a fabulous commentary on Georgian history as she pointed out landmarks en route. Russian style giant apartment blocks and lumpy concrete official buildings gave way to more graceful European buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. We passed the wall of the old city dating back to 6th century.
Tbilisi had become a reality and our adventure here had only just begun.