Georgia Diary: the Tbilisi airport lives at 4am
This is the first of a new series I’ll be publishing here. It’ll focus on Georgia, a place I’ve come to love a great deal over close to two-years living there. The series is a collection of memories, experiences, impressions, and observations about Georgia’s history, politics, culture, and cuisine. It might be self-indulgent, but I hope it’s a little fun, too.
Most flights to Tbilisi land at 4am. Shota Rustaveli international airport is buzzing at the ungodly morning hour. A line of beat-up Mercedes’ stretches from the drop-off gates to the highway off-ramp. Taxi drivers mob the arrivals exit, trying any way they can to block the signs that tell hapless tourists what they should pay to get to the city centre (30 Lari). If you look western the drivers try to charge you 100. If you arrive at midday, you’ll be lucky to find a driver still there, and you should know that he’ll have been waiting at the airport since at least 4am.
Georgia is a country of cheap cars. The used car market in Rustavi, a city just south of Tbilisi, is famous in the region. Shoppers from Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia’s two warring neighbours, drive north to meet each other there and buy used Mercedes’ from Germany, or used Subarus from Japan—complete with steering wheels on the right-hand side. Until a few years ago, nobody regulated exhaust. A recent purchaser would sell their air filter for an extra couple-hundred bucks before they drove off the lot. The air around the airport smells accordingly.
Inside the airport isn’t much better. There’s a smell of stale cigarettes, underneath the fresh smoke billowing from the departure lounge’s faux-German bar overlooking the baggage claim. The bathrooms aren’t filthy, but neither are they clean, and there’s a certain sewage smell that seems to come from Tbilisi bathrooms, no matter how well-washed.
That was my first moment in Georgia. 4am, in the stink of the airport, after about twelve hours of flying and an eight-hour layover in Warsaw. I’d barely slept. I was hung over. I was pushed past exhausted into something else.
There’s a slam poet and a speaker named Rives, he’s obsessed with 4am. He’s collected and curated a museum of references. He tries to find every place in pop culture that mentions 4am. He started with a poem, Four in the Morning, by Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Symborska.
“The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.
The hour when earth betrays us.
The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.
The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.”
It was at 4am that I first smelled Georgia, driven into an altered state by countless miles and sleepless hours. I felt like I was stepping into another world. I loved it.
The professor who first brought me to Georgia said that they schedule flights at 4am because it’ll attract more airlines, carriers who’d fly more lucrative routes in ordinary hours, but couldn’t fly into Munich or Tel Aviv then because of noise restrictions. It makes sense, sure, but I think there’s another purpose. 4am is a message. It’s Georgia’s way of saying “this place is different, expect the unexpected.”
If this somehow hasn’t put you off Georgia, I’m organising a tour! Contact me here for more details.