“The driving here is something special; only India is worse.” – Anonymous, on the rules of the road in Georgia
The more we travel, the more stories we collect about Georgian driving habits. For example, one of the Mongol Rally teams traveling without a map of Tblisi, decided to hire a taxi to show them the way through the city. After a harrowing bob and weave through town, “rather like a video game,” the rally driver asked the taxi driver for a hotel recommendation. The taxi driver, thinking they were looking for prostitutes, replied “How much time do you need? One hour? Will that be enough?”
Georgians are known for possessing a Mediterranean attitude, including a manana approach to life marked by groups of men sitting around doing nothing. When these men get behind the wheel, however, something else takes over and manana turns to mania. Of all the warnings we received about the dangers of traveling in Georgia, driving was second only to drinking cha-cha (Georgian grappa).
Wheels Up, Mestia to Tbilisi
A hellishly frightening ride from mountain-tucked Mestia to Tbilisi takes 8 hours, rather than the usual 12. At one point, we're certain that we're “wheels up” and about to fly right off the mountain, a la Thelma and Louise. If we had, we would have become one of the many roadside shrines in Svaneti serving as memory to those that have died in auto accidents. Worse yet, these shrines are often stocked with full bottles of vodka. The idea is to pay a visit to the shrine, throw down a shot to your lost buddy, and hop back in your car.
Seat Belt Rules
Wear your seat belt as little as possible and always take off your seat belt upon entering a town or city limits. Buckle back up only when you exit town limits. Don't worry, if you forget to unbuckle, the driver will literally reach over and unbuckle it for you – repeatedly – as ours did to Dan on our way from Tbilisi to Kakheti. If your car is not equipped with functioning seat belts (most old Ladas are not), simply drape the belt over your chest to humor the occasional onlooking police officer.
Gas Station Safety
Always exit your vehicle at a gas station and move away as far as possible. When we asked a fellow passenger about this curious practice, she answered, “It’s for our safety. You never know when the car will explode.” This might have something to do with all the guys smoking cigarettes while pumping gas. Mobile phone use is prohibited near the pumps, though.
Gas costs a fortune in Georgia and taxi drivers are a thrifty bunch. Rule: Drive with the car turned off as much as possible. This gas-saving and life-threatening practice is especially popular in Kakheti and around Akhaltsikhe. This can get dicey when your taxi is barreling down a windy mountain road in a 20-year Volga whose brakes have never been inspected. During a three-hour drive around the hills of Kakheti, our driver easily turned the car ignition on and off over 100 times.
Water, Water Everywhere
Every driver seems to keep several empty plastic bottle scattered about and ready to fill up at springs along his path. When he stops, he invites all passengers to do the same. Great, until you have to get rid of all the water you just guzzled. For all those pleasant water stops, there are few, if any, offsetting potty breaks for the ladies.
Finding Religion: Borjomi to Akhaltsikhe
Georgians are a pious people, often crossing themselves when a church is in view. We knew one barreling marshrutka ride was no ordinary ride when, with no church in sight, the entire bus load crossed themselves repeatedly, arms colliding in a devout tangle.
Georgian-Armenian Math: Tbilisi to Yerevan
Q: What does it take to count 10 pasengers on a bus?
A: 5 people and 20 minutes. The bus driver and his sidekick simply could not agree on the number of passengers on the bus. So, after each count, an Abbott and Costello-style argument ensued and another person was brought in from the street to re-count (in three different languages). Fortunately, we were only 10. If our bus had been full, it would have departed after it was supposed to arrive.
So next time you visit Georgia and board a marshrutka, taxi or bus, we recommend that you wear your blindfold, take a plastic water bottle, cross your legs, bring a calculator and enjoy the ride.