Travel Memories: Letting Adventure Happen in Tbilisi

FYI: I went on this adventure two years back. So some of the details are as blurry as the pictures I took on my low-quality camera phone. But it was a great adventure so I want to tell the story anyway.

Sometimes I go traveling with specific goals in mind, and other times the questions I ask in the moment lead me down unexpected paths. Maybe the most unexpected path my curiosity has taken me down is through the streets of Tbilisi and right to the doorstep of History. Ok, maybe that's a little theatrical. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Cass in Tbilisi, taken by Laurynas Rimkus
Cass in Tbilisi, taken by Laurynas Rimkus

This particular adventure began with the desire to go on my very first solo trip. The plan was to have no plan. To throw myself completely out of my comfort zone, to say yes to everything and see where it led me. So I booked the cheapest flight out of my home in Abu Dhabi and a week later I was staring at clouds out a double-paned window. Next stop: Tbilisi, Georgia. When I landed I would be in a country where I knew no one, that spoke a language I didn't know, a country that a week ago I couldn't have pointed to on a map. It was a total and daunting unknown.

I gave my taxi driver from the airport an especially curt and cold greeting (my attempt at discouraging the thoughts of kidnapping I was sure everyone I met would have). Despite that, he welcomed me warmly to Georgia. As we drove through the city, he pointed out all the places I had to go and visit during my stay and even wrote down a couple of key phrases in Georgian that would help me survive the week.

Once I made it to my hostel dorm room and before I even had time to put my things away in my locker, I was invited out to dinner by a group of other solo travelers. Not exactly the lonely, scary start I was told traveling alone as a woman would have in store for me. Our international group consisted of a Canadian (me), a Russian, an Emirati, a Brit, and a Lithuanian. The night began in an underground wine bodega with a personal tasting tour and history lecture from a young Georgian wine expert and ended many hours later with a drunken attempt at a game of charades in an empty billiards bar. As if our entire night of multi-lingual communication hadn't been a massive game of charades in and of itself. And somewhere in between, there had been a pitstop for khachapuri, which is essentially a bowl made of bread and filled with melted cheese and egg. It's as coma-inducing as it sounds. Night one was a resounding success.

View of Tbilisi from Narikala fortress and church, t
aken by Cassandra Mitchell
View of Tbilisi from Narikala fortress and church, t aken by Cassandra Mitchell

But all of this was just the warm-up for what was to come the next day. At breakfast the next morning, the Russian girl of our group came to us with a proposition. A Russian blog she had read recommended a 'Communist Museum'. Few others had mentioned it and all the blog provided was a picture of a dilapidated shack sitting on a bald little patch of grass. The others were skeptical and unenthused. I, however, was not. So the two of us set out alone. We were adventure bound!

Our taxi took us twisting and turning through neighborhood after neighborhood of the city. Finally, we reached our destination and there we were standing on the sidewalk, vaguely nauseous and very confused, as the taxi rolled away. What stood before us was a homely cement house, identical to all the rest on the little residential street we had stopped at. There was not another car in sight. I decided to let the question of how we would get home be one for later. For now, we were looking for a museum. Or the shack from the blog's picture. This townhouse did not look like either. And in fact, we would have walked away if I hadn't noticed something on the top right corner of the front door before turning around. It was a little sickle and hammer bumper sticker. Not exactly the clearest welcome sign, but we figured it was enough to warrant a knock on the door.

The knock echoed, and it took a long while before we heard the shuffling of feet on the other side. A leathery face with hollowed cheeks, framed by wisps of white hair and untamed eyebrows greeted us through the sliver he cracked in the door. My friend greeted him in Russian. He seemed surprised to hear the language but it put a smile on his face and he answered fluently. It only took a few more exchanges of words before the grand wooden doors swung open to expose what would have once been a majestic entrance hall. Past the remnants of a large chandelier, hanging precariously by a loose wire, I could see that the hall opened up to a three-story stairwell. At the top was a massive skylight whose little windows refracted the sun like cut crystal. The stairs below descended into darkness. We took a turn into a small office. It seemed to be the only room with electricity, and the room glowed.

You must believe me when I say I have never seen more communist paraphernalia in one room in my life. I likely never will again. Soviet flags hung on every wall. Propaganda posters, photographs of party members, newspaper clippings, and golden plaques inscribed in Russian hung on every square inch of the walls.  I had walked into something that was less of an office and more of an office-sized alter to Mother Russia. The centerpiece of the room was a massive, dark, and imposing oil painted portrait of Joseph Stalin himself. I'm going to skip ahead in the story a little as I was told that the communist party was made illegal in Georgia and the internet is forever. Wouldn't want to put anyone in a dangerous situation. What I can say is that this building, once very impressive-looking, used to be the center of the Communist Party of Georgia and that the government is actively trying to tear it down and build a hotel in its stead.

Taken by Cassandra Mitchell
Taken by Cassandra Mitchell

Luckily, I don't have to censor the coolest part of the story. The gentleman pulled out a worn piece of paper with a diagram drawing of a house on it and started telling us a story.

In 1903, Joseph Stalin was exiled to Siberia for bad behavior of the 'leading violent protests' variety. As you might imagine, he wasn't pleased about it. So after three years, he escaped and went into hiding in Tbilisi, Georgia. Meanwhile, his buddy Vladamir Lenin was also in hiding in communist enclaves around Europe. So they developed a system, and this is where the diagram comes in.

Diagram of Stalin's hideout, taken by Cassandra Mitchell
Diagram of Stalin's hideout, taken by Cassandra Mitchell

The cottage he was living in came with its own well. But it had begun to dry out so they dug out a second well. They decided to take advantage of the situation. Instead of filling the old well up all the way, they just filled up the top, so that from ground level you couldn't see it. Below the cottage, they dug out a second basement below the first basement. This new room was only accessible by climbing down the first well by a rope, crawling through a little tunnel that connected the two wells at the bottom, and climbing back up the second one to a tunnel that connected the second well to this secret room. Can you imagine how buff Mr. Stalin would have had to have gotten doing this every day? Impressive. But what's maybe (definitely) more impressive is that from this room, they ran an entire illegal newspaper printing operation.

Stalin would receive letters from Lenin that he would translate into Georgian, Armenian, and other eastern European languages, and then print pamphlets and spread them around the region to keep the movement alive. Now, let me remind you that printers of the early 1900s were not a small and quiet as they are today. Don't ask me how they got the printer into the room in the first place, but what I do know is that you could hear the slamming and whirring of the printer from the street above. So this is what they did.

Two women who would sit and knit on the porch and anytime they saw someone suspicious coming down the street, they would press a button that rang a bell down below. One ring told the men to stop and be quiet. The second ring told them to keep going. Two rings meant bad news, evacuate the room and hide. Three rings meant it was lunchtime.

Cool story right? After he finished explaining, he waved his hand for us to follow him, and continued the tour. He lead us down hallways, pointing at more oil paintings and photographs, and finally, at the end of one hallway, he opened a door that led to the back yard. There it was, a dilapidated cottage sitting on a bald patch of grass. I'm embarrassed at how long it took me to put two and two together. I'll blame it on the language barrier. But there I was, standing in front of the secret hideout of Joseph Stalin himself.

Stalin's underground printing press, taken by Cassandra Mitchell
Stalin's underground printing press, taken by Cassandra Mitchell

Luckily for my chicken-armed self, they had dug out a set of stairs to get down to the secret room and I didn't have to shimmy down a rope in a well fireman style. The room was cold, wet, and eerie. The man explained that eventually the room was discovered and bombed by the police. However, the skeleton of the old printing press survived. And there it was, rusted, but still stubbornly bolted to the bricks in the ground.

Who knows how long the government of Georgia will allow that little piece of history to stay there, so I am privileged to have been able to see it for myself. Whether or not I was looking for it in the first place. Now, I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to end this a little poetically. The best adventures I've been on haven't been adventures I've made but those that I've let happen. So get out of your comfort zone sometimes, ask questions and let the answers lead you down unexpected paths, and maybe sometimes you'll end up somewhere incredible.

4 thoughts on “Travel Memories: Letting Adventure Happen in Tbilisi”

  1. Negotiate rates ahead of time, or ensure the meter is in fact working before you get in the car. If the taxi driver refuses to turn on the meter, or tells you it s cheaper without the meter, get out and opt for another driver. Not all cab drivers are scammers. Again, this common travel scam happens largely with cab drivers. While en route to your hotel, the driver will tell you your hotel is either closed or overbooked and then take you to a more expensive hotel where the driver receives a nice fat commission.

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