When my younger self was compiling a travel bucket list years ago, the ex-Soviet Caucasus and modern-day Stans were not on that list. So when my husband suggested a two-week trip to a few cities just a stone’s throw from our base in Dubai, the adventurer in me said, Eh, why not?
Fast forward to a few days of researching and planning, and I could not be more excited to visit the creative Tbilisi and the mysterious Ashgabat.
We started our trip in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia which is bordered by Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tbilisi has gained momentum in the last few years, becoming the hub of a string of fashion designers and artists taking the world by storm (Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi was launched in 2015). The locals trawling the streets are creative, fashionable and stunning. Some of the best times I had in Tbilisi was sitting on a bench watching one amazing outfit after another walk by.
But the city has much more to offer than a stylish crowd. Tbilisi is a city of ancient cathedrals, crumbling forts and sulphur baths juxtaposed with modern street-art and futuristic architecture.
We started our trip in the medieval centre of the city. Our hotel was situated next to a sulphur stream and overlooked a hill with a church on the top. Cobblestone streets led to uncountable sights, from Sioni Cathedral to Narikala Fort and dozens of ancient-looking houses. A walk to Freedom Square led us to the modern part of the town, with underground passages covered with art by young Georgian street artists, including Gosha Dimitruk.
A continued stroll down Rustaveli Avenue will take you to sleek boutiques, cafes and hotels. I’d been reading about Rooms Hotels and Stamba Hotel for years, so we went in to explore and enjoy the ambiance at the gorgeous Stamba Café. Most of the fashion shows are held in this hotel which makes it ultra cool and fashionable.
The weather cools down in the evenings, perfect for a warm hilltop drink with a panoramic view. Upon the suggestion of a friend, we decided to try the funicular — a creaky tram that goes up a 700m hill to an amusement park and a restaurant complex. The creaky ride is worth it, watching the sun set over Tbilisi, eating our first authentic Georgian meal (cheese and carbs) at a beautiful restaurant, followed by fireworks was an unforgettable experience.
The next day our walking excursion continued with a photo op at the futuristic but busy Peace Bridge and the famous Dry Bridge Market. This was the stuff of dreams. Small vendors lined the bridge selling Soviet-era knick-knacks, but the real jackpot was an antiques market hidden behind a small door at the end of an old staircase. Here you can find the most interesting selection of antiques: chandeliers, candelabras, crockery, dolls… You need stamina to rummage through though, as most things are piled on top of each other and almost no one speaks English.
Our day concludes with a walk to Trinity Cathedral, the largest Eastern orthodox church in the world, and lunch at the acclaimed Linville Café of traditional khachapuri (cheese bread) and khinkali (dumpling).
Our third day was reserved for the coolest place in Tbilisi — Fabrika Hostel. The hostel has become a base for cool and creative travellers from all over the world. There is a collection of restaurants and retail spaces in the complex, but mostly it is a place for people to come together and enjoy the city. The neighbourhood around Fabrika is just as cool — with graffiti-covered walls, narrow streets and open doors.
Tbilisi is a walkable city. We only took a taxi when it was too cold for us to function (11 degrees Celsius). And during these walks we discovered beautiful, hidden streets with traditional courtyards giving us a feel of authentic everyday Georgian life. The narrow streets with crumbling buildings invoked a sense of nostalgia in me. It reminded me of Lahore’s androon shehr where I grew up.
Next, we made our way to one of the most controlled and isolated ex-Soviet country — Turkmenistan. On landing in Ashgabat, you’ll be overwhelmed by the airport’s enormity and eeriness. Our flight was the only one that landed at that time, and it had only 10 passengers. The equally quiet drive down multiple-lane highways, lined by white marbled buildings and lit up with neon lights, reminded me of Las Vegas. We noticed the grand monuments and statues dot the city, and billboards or shop signs are conspicuously missing. It feels surreal.
Ashgabat is a big city with a small population. There is almost no traffic and we hardly saw people on the streets — except children leaving school in the afternoon. Ashgabat does not get many foreign visitors so the locals are as curious about us as we are about them. They are polite, patient and always smiling.
The city has an interesting political past and present. We take a tour of the city, which apparently holds a crazy number of random Guinness World Records — world’s biggest handmade carpet, world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel, world’s largest architectural star.
At a first glance, Turkmenistan looks rich with large natural gas reserves and the infrastructure that rivals Dubai. But there is a sense of uneasy stillness in the place.
We got an idea of what life is like for an average Turkmen when we ventured out to the Kopet Dag mountain range and the sleepy village of Nokhur. We were lucky to be invited to a local family’s home for lunch in Nokhur, where Noah’s Ark is said to have passed. The hospitality of our hosts reminded me of our Punjabi roots — they eat together in a communal sitting (men and women separately) and the food keeps on coming. The family took us for a hike in the mountains; while they expertly climbed up steep ascents, I enjoyed watching them from my comfortable spot in the valley.
But there is more to Ashgabat than meets the eye. No storefronts or restaurants advertise openly, but beyond their stark white marble facades, there are hipster cafes, opulent steakhouses and bustling shopping malls. People live their lives as best as they can — with no free media, no social media, and hardly any internet access. I’m beyond grateful that I got to visit this place, which rates alongside North Korea in terms of isolation, and see first-hand how life is under a regime which we only read about and never experience.