Caucasus Journey VI: From Batumi to Kutaisi

April 11, 2009
Despite all my plans to leave Batumi on Thursday, I ended up staying an extra day. There were two main reasons for this. First, there were anti-government demonstrations taking place all over the country on Thursday, and a number of people had warned me that the roads between cities might get closed if the protests got too large or unruly (after all, it’s been just five years since street demonstrations overthrew Georgia’s last president), and in any case I didn’t feel like getting caught up in the middle of a protest while trying to find a hotel and get into town from the bus station. Secondly, it had been pouring rain in Batumi for two solid days, and most of my clothes were soaked. I decided to stay in (the archive was closed anyway because of the state holiday). I rigged a clothesline by tying the six-foot long electrical cord from the spanking-new television (mounted near the ceiling in a corner of the room) to the wardrobe by using a small portion of dental floss. I had to do it this way, because the only heat in the room came via a small electrical fan on the wall, which only warmed things directly in its path. While my clothes dried, I worked for several hours on an article of mine that I’ve been meaning to send out for publication.
I spent the whole day indoors, listening to the rain pour down incessantly. Finally, in the evening, it let up a little bit and I decided to go out and get some dinner. The plan was to just grab something light, then head back to the hotel and get some sleep.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Sitting alone at dinner, I was adopted by the group sitting at the table next to mine. We spent the next several hours talking and pounding shots of homemade vodka. This was followed (stupidly) by more drinking of homemade wine. By the time I got up to leave and looked at my watch, it was almost two o’clock. 
I woke up in the morning with a splitting hangover, made all the worse because I had no water to drink when I got back to the hotel. I’d hoped to get up at around nine and even set my alarm, but just couldn’t bear it. Finally, I got out of bed at ten-thirty or so, cursing my slothfulness. I had breakfast, changed some money, and then headed out to the bus station. The previous day I’d found out the marshrutkas—vans which hold, I think, 18 passengers—leave for Kutaisi every hour on the hour, and I made it to the station in time for the twelve o’clock bus.
The trip from Batumi to Kutaisi lasted about two and a half hours. The first forty minutes or so we went north up the coast, passing Black sea beaches on our left immediately north of the city, then gradually climbing the hills inland with the sea still visible below us. We then took a right to the east, heading through rolling hills and slowly reaching higher altitudes. Snow capped mountains were visible to the left and right, but we didn’t get nearly so high. The roads we took were narrow and had only two-lanes, even though we were driving from the third-largest city in the country to the second-largest.
We rolled into Kutaisi at around two-thirty, and I got a taxi at the bus station to take me to a guesthouse I’d found in Lonely Planet. I’d called them from Batumi just before getting on the bus, so they knew I was coming. After briefly checking out the room, I headed off to the archive, which I was able to find easily thanks to the staff at the archive in Batumi. One of the staff members there knew the director of the Kutaisi archive and had called him up to tell him I was coming. She’d given me his cellphone number, and told me to call him when I got into town in order to get directions on how to get there.
The Kutaisi archive has recently moved, having previously been located on the old town square just down the street from my guesthouse. The municipality has apparently sold that building, and now the archive is based on the fifth floor of the city’s courthouse, which is a little further out from the center. As is the case in the Batumi archive, it is completely unheated. Indeed, even wearing long underwear and a thermal underwear shirt underneath my clothes, I was still pretty frozen by the time I finished working at six. It’s amazing that the people working there manage to stay so cheerful under such difficult conditions. As was the case in Batumi, I was treated with great kindness and hospitality, and they even made me a cup of coffee.
The archive here does not have all that much material for me. I ordered just fourteen documents, but almost all of them are large and seem genuinely interesting. My hope is to get through them all on Monday morning, then leave Kutaisi either on Monday afternoon or else Tuesday morning. Tbilisi awaits, and I’m anxious to get there.
Even though Kutaisi is larger than Batumi, it’s not nearly as lively. Lonely Planet describes the city as “economically depressed,” which seems pretty accurate. People here are nice enough, but there doesn’t appear to be much going on. There are a couple of monasteries and one ancient city in the area (Kutaisi itself apparently dates back to 2000 BC), so maybe I’ll take an excursion this weekend if the weather permits (the archive will be closed). My sense is I’ll probably end up doing a lot of reading and writing between now and Monday morning.   
Fun facts:
  • I have now visited a majority (eight out of fifteen) of the former republics of the Soviet Union, and have conducted research in four of them.
  • Georgia is, I think, the 41st country I have visited overall.