Travel Weekly

When Georgia’s on my mind

September 12 - 18, 2018

Gulf Weekly When Georgia’s on my mind

There are direct flights from Bahrain to Tbilisi, Georgia. In fact, as soon as you board the plane to Tbilisi, the first thing you will notice is the high number of travellers who are transiting via Bahrain – many Saudi Arabian nationals, for instance, take holiday flights and change planes at Bahrain, writes travel writer Sufyan bin Uzayr.

Georgia offers an electronic visa for most nationalities. Also, most people with Bahraini residence permits or work visas are eligible for visa-free stay (that ranges from 30 days to 90 days or more). While my Indian passport was not on the visa-free list, my Bahraini residence permit entitled me to visa-free stay up to 90 days in Georgia. Sweet!

Upon arrival at the Shota Rustaveli Tbilisi International Airport, immigration was a breeze. The officer on duty asked for a routine set of documents, namely, return ticket, hotel booking and bank statements.

Outside the airport, there were stalls for a wide variety of things – banks, currency exchange and, of course, SIM cards. Magti, Georgia’s largest telecom operator, is well known in the region for its reliable reception and 4G+ network. The first time I visited Tbilisi, I made the mistake of going for Beeline (the queue was shorter at their counter so you can’t blame me). While Beeline is good within city limits, once you venture out into the countryside, outside of Tbilisi, you will find yourself struggling for network coverage.

Tbilisi has an air of enigma attached to it. Maybe it’s the weather or the old architecture, but one can stay outdoors all day in Tbilisi and not get tired.

Compared to central and western Europe, life in Tbilisi is slow. As a former Soviet city, Tbilisi’s infrastructure has a mix of both old and new.

The city’s metro lines are pretty good and not very crowded. Roads are fine too, but traffic lights not strictly observed, especially by the natives. 

City buses, locally called Marshrutka, are easy to find. However, most bus and taxi drivers speak little or no English. 

The people are friendly and most of them would go out of the way to help a foreigner. If you stop by to ask for directions, you can expect some free advice along the way. “Yes, take the right turn to get to the old market. Oh, and don’t forget to bargain!”

Georgians love their food. Every street has food shops, and eating between meals is a common practice. However, I had some trouble finding Halal meat products in Tbilisi.

Virtually every popular non-veg dish had bacon in it. This was more common in the upscale circles – after a while, I gave up all hopes of finding non-vegetarian food that I could eat. I started telling everyone that I’m a vegetarian, simply to avoid explaining why I was turning down their offers of bacon and beef. Things are different in other cities, such as Batumi, where Halal food is easier to find. 

Drinking running tap water is not uncommon in Tbilisi. Of course, filtered water is available, but a good number of local residents simply consume water from the tap: “Hey, our government filters it for us!” they say.

As for language, note: let’s be honest, English-speaking skills are not a metric of anything. Georgia is a multi-lingual society by all means. But considering the fact that GulfWeekly’s audience is predominantly English-speaking, it’s something that is worth mentioning.

Georgian is a slightly difficult language to grasp for a non-native speaker, so be sure to have a local translator nearby if you are venturing somewhere far out in Georgia. Russian is spoken by most people in Tbilisi, even in rural areas. Arabic speakers can be found in the city, but not in the rural areas.

With that said, in my opinion, English-speaking abilities are really below par in Tbilisi. This was a slightly shocking discovery for me – I have not had any trouble speaking in English to folks from places such as Baku, Minsk or Kiev.

Once again, knowledge of English (or lack thereof) does not matter to many people. But if your primary language is English and you are planning a trip to Georgia anytime soon, this is something that you should bear in mind.

Georgia’s economy, much like that of any other ex-Soviet country, is still recovering from the after-effects of the Cold War.

Median wages are rather low but the cost of living, in general, is acceptable. Internet, food, transport, rent, and virtually everything else that you might need to live properly is affordable.

However, two things deserve to be mentioned.

First, the banking sector in Georgia is extraordinarily well developed. You can walk in to any bank, open an account, and get your personalised ATM card, internet banking credentials and other stuff delivered to you within 48 hours. Furthermore, banks in Georgia are not averse to opening accounts for non-residents.

But it does not stop at that. Even the smallest of bank branches in Tbilisi allow users to open multi-currency accounts.

I noticed several Georgian entrepreneurs and business people chose to keep their money not in Georgian Lari (GEL), but in Euro (or very rarely, dollars (USD).

Their reasons were rather straightforward – the fluctuation of Russian Ruble has caused a trust issue with local currencies in the region. There is a very small section of entrepreneurs who wonder if their corporate money is safe in GEL. Euro, on the other hand, evokes a better sign of trust and does not seem to be collapsing anytime soon. Kudos to Georgian banks for making life easier for their customers.

Secondly, tourism plays a very vital role in Georgia’s economy. Georgians are aware of the fact that their country is beautiful and blessed with natural scenery.

With the increasing number of tourists coming to Georgia, many families in Tbilisi have made hospitality their primary occupation.

It is not uncommon for a Georgian family to rent out two spare rooms in its house and call it a ‘budget hotel’.

In fact, ‘hotel’ has become a very vague term in Tbilisi because every other household is a hotel. Got five rooms in your house and a family of three? Keep two rooms to yourself, and rent out the remaining three online! Congrats, you now have your own hotel!

Similarly, businesses related to taxis and cabs, tour guides, etc. are very common in Tbilisi. Informal currency exchanges happen quite a lot too – small shopkeepers selling cosmetics and soft drinks would gladly convert your foreign currency into GEL.

Also, Georgians are aware of the fact that Gulf Air flies regularly to Tbilisi, and they are almost always expecting tourists from Bahrain!

Based on what I saw in Tbilisi, Georgia is a laid-back country blessed with scenic beauty. With a moderate cost of living, Tbilisi is a good pick for anyone looking to get closer to Europe. This explains why many digital nomads are flocking to Georgia of late and applying for residence permits. 

For people looking for a quick getaway from their work routine, or a small holiday, Tbilisi is barely three hours’ flying time from Bahrain.

With no hassle for a visa and the availability of budget-friendly hotels, Georgia is, in my opinion, a worthy destination for your next vacation ... or a return visit!

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