Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Escaping Tbilisi as the Russians advanced

The following text is taken from an article I wrote on our return to the UK. If you have the patience please read on and I've included a few pictures at the end of this blog although the are a touch sparse and random . Taking pictures was not at the forefront of our minds and I'd run out of camera memory.
You can try this link to see what one of the UK red top papers had to say about our adventure.

Our trip to Tusheti in July/Aug 2008 proved to be even more eventful than 2007 and sealed our passion for Georgia as one of the most magnificent countries in the world. Everyday events on our journey put our life into perspective, such as my horse slipping on the mountainside leaving me hanging from tree as she scrambled for her life. Taking part in the ritual sacrifice of Rams for the summer festival or watching young lads race bareback at breath taking speed to prove who is the finest horseman. Even our daughters stealing a horse from the neighbouring village and riding bareback at a gallop in the dead of night started to feel like an everyday event.
Such adventures and many more were as much as we could ever expect to experience until our return to Tbilisi for our flight home. After a bare-knuckle ride through the mountain pass to Tbilisi we arrived after an eight-hour drive back into Georgian civilisation. On our arrival, at our familiar guesthouse, we realised everything was not as we expected. Within moments of our arrival our Georgian friends had got wind we were in town and were on the phone. They informed us all flights were cancelled from Tbilisi since the military airport had been bombed, furthermore Ossetia had been invaded by the Russians and who knows what will happen next. After a swift and very unsatisfactory conversation with the British Consul I established we needed to get out of the country first thing in the morning. Tbilisi was a war zone with expected attacks from Russia. That night we met up with the acting Belgium Consul who gave us the inside story and how best to get out of the country. On our way back to our guesthouse the streets were flooded with patriotic Georgians all anxious to know what was happening. Soldiers paraded in their armoured tanks saluting with fists clenched. The atmosphere was electric and somewhat concerning.
That night I counted the bombs going off around Tbilisi as jets flew overhead taking out the telecommunication systems. In the morning mobile phones were dead and ATM machines were no longer working. This was for real and without cash or the ability to make contact in and around Tbilisi life was going to grind to a halt.
After a frustrating morning I managed to get our flights transferred to Yerevan in Armenia, we just needed to find our way there but again everyone else seemed to have the same idea. One harrowing moment while waiting for flight information was when a woman came to Melissa pleading with her to take her baby to the UK but with no visas we felt as vulnerable as she did. Stripped of our usual confidence I gave each of the girls a hundred US dollars with instructions, if we get separated to make their own way to Yerevan. It was at this point we met with the Sun reporter who could no believe his eyes. Blimey a plucky British family making their way home from war torn Georgia, well you could see the headlines. We were happy to share our very brief experience and even share some of our holiday pictures, never thinking our story would be told to the nation.
Equipped with flight tickets we caught a cab to the boarder where we were dropped off as close as we could get. The tailback of traffic was considerable but if we walked on foot we could save a days wait. In the sweltering heat we waited patiently for our visas. The Armenian boarder was not set up for such an influx of hopeful immigrants, after a few hours we were over the boarder. What next?
As luck would have it we found a man with a car who had just made his way across the boarder. All sign of normal cabs had vanished. With a deal struck the Wills family were free of the Georgia boarder and ready for Yerevan. Nothing is ever so simple. Within1.5 hours our car gave out an almighty bang and ground to a halt. We were a great distance from anywhere, it was very late in the day and we were all very tired. Melissa pointed out we had sleeping bags and after our recent trip in the mountains we could handle anything. After watching our driver play with Sellotape for what seemed an eternity I got out of the car to see if I could help in some way. I discovered our driver was trying to stick the engine together with Sellotape .Not a silly as it sounds since the chamber where the exhaust gases are reused had exploded and to his mind Sellotape was all he had to hand. I swiftly realised his valiant efforts were never going to work due to the heat of the engine but as every traveller in dodgy taxis will know, there is always a way to get the dam thing working. I searched through out medical bag and found a real of Elastoplast tape. Very sticky, exceptionally strong and never comes off when you want it to. Within minutes we had the engine taped up and roaring into action and on our way, albeit very slowly to Yerevan.
With two days to kill before our flight we set off to discover the delights of Yerevan, feeling confident that we had left any unlikely events behind us. On the morning of our flight we all felt relieved that there were to be no more heart stopping moments. That was until we arrived to check in. The desk was closed but how could this be, we had our tickets. The receptionist looked at us as if we were stupid. She pointed out there was a flight but we had missed it. I looked at my watch and confirmed the check in time. The penny then dropped, Armenia does not share the same time zone as Georgia and we were an hour late since we had not moved our clocks forward. Who would have thought it? Thankfully the receptionist informed us all was not lost, our airline had put on a special flight for British Embassy staff and this would be leaving in the afternoon. Hooray for exiting embassy officials and thank goodness for the additional flight since they only leave every three days and our patience was wearing thin with Soviet style Armenian customer service.
Flying back Business Class was a significant change from what we had become used to and BMI treated four very scruffy and intrepid travellers as if we were kings.
Stepping of the plane and collecting our bags all seemed well with the world until we discovered India’s bags had been lost in transit. Small beer, we were just happy to be home.

Mikheil became a daily feature of our lives and the lack of knowledge expressed by the world press was incredible.

I just love these cars. This one was spied on the way to the Armenian border.

Our very smart taxi from Tbilisi who could go no further. It was down to us from here on.

There is always someone who has an excess of the good stuff even when things are looking tough.

I just liked this shot.

Shepherd fairy and Banksy eat your heart out . Even in Armenia there's a rip off

This is a typical evening in Yerevan with a light show in the Central Sq.

Armenian music is to die for but only when it is played well and these guys are world class .

The view from our very Soviet hotel. Don't ask me the name, I was hoping never to remember .

A farewell picture of Melissa and the girls before we left for the UK after what had seemed an age in Yerevan.


Anonymous said...

Lazy Saturday afternoon, feeling naughty I ask Google to fetch me images of "bare tush." I end up with you in Tusheti. An hour later I'm back and exhausted. What a trip. Thanks SO much for this magnificent travelogue!
-Sean in Honolulu

Anonymous said...

hello.My name's George and i am the oldest grandchild of Gogi (the owner of the guesthouse "Omalo2005").I am very happy you enjoyed your time. thanks for this incredible story and feel free to contact me with anything.