Trans Eurasia travel

Getting arround the country

BY BUS

The main mode of public transport is the bus; there are fairly frequent departures between major towns, and at least one or two a day to most villages. Cities have fairly substantial bus stations, while smaller places may just have a yard by the rail station or in the centre of town. Departure bays will have the destinations served written in Georgian, but if you look at the rear of this sign you may find (he same information in Cyrillic or even Latin script. Comfortable modern buses run from Tbilisi to Kutaisi and Batumi. Local services are often worked by 20-seat yellow Paz vehicles, usually with a large area at the back cleared for luggage, as people take immense quantities of agricultural produce or building materials by public transport. The last bus from a town to a nearby village often leaves at about 17.00 or earlier, and the last service inbound to town may well be even earlier. Fares are generally about GEL1 per 20km, eg: GEL8 to Lagodekhi, GEL 18 from Tbilisi to Batumi or GEL10 from Kutaisi to Batumi.

In addition to the public buses, there are also many private minibuses or shared taxis, known as marshrutka services, which operate both local and inter-urban routes and also offer fast, virtually non-stop services between Tbilisi and, for instance, Batumi. These charge up to double the bus fare, and have less luggage space. While long-distance buses tend to set off in the mornings, these leave later and some may also run overnight, for example from Tbilisi to Batumi. Some marshrutkas leave only when they're full, but others now run to a timetable.

Any bus or marshrutka with spare space (which doesn't necessarily mean a seat) will stop for anyone who flags it down; this can be tricky as it's hard to read the destination boards (only rarely in Cyrillic script as well as Georgian) until the last moment. Therefore (once you've learnt to read 'Tbilisi') heading towards the capital is an easier business than heading away from it! In most cases you'll pay as you get off at the front of the bus (where small change is kept stuck to a magnet), so you should remember the name of the place where you boarded. If you have a ticket you'll be expected to hand it in as you get off.

CITY TRANSPORT

City transport is also mainly by bus and marshrutka, although there are also a few trolleybus lines, and in Tbilisi there's a metro. Marshrutka fares are usually shown in the windscreen; pay the driver when you get off. City buses take a long time at each stop; drivers won't open the rear doors (for boarding) until everyone has got off (and paid) at the front, but even so some people always wait to slip off at the rear, or to board at the front. Nevertheless, the buses will get you to your destination in the end, and they are very cheap indeed. There are also plenty of taxis; in Tbilisi these come in two types, the official red ones, and unofficial ones, which are less trustworthy. Outside Tbilisi there are only semi-official taxis at best.

BY CAR

Driving is difficult, given the awful state of the roads and the excessive urgency of the other drivers. Self-drive car hire is not yet common, and the cost of a driver is not high, so this may be the easiest solution; in Tbilisi it's easy to hire a taxi (including 4x4 vehicles) at the Didube bus station. You'll pay about US$40 a day for a car with driver in Tbilisi, and US$60 a day outside Tbilisi (plus fuel, and food and accommodation for the driver). The only major international car-hire chains represented in Tbilisi are Avis and Hertz, whose agents are Caucasus Travel. A licence from almost any of the developed Western countries is valid in Georgia. Speed limits range from 50km/h in cities to 90km/h on highways, although these are universally ignored.

Contrary to general belief, Georgians are not totally lunatic drivers. They have some concern for life and limb, and perhaps more for their vehicles, skirting very carefully around pot-holes and taking bends at fairly reasonable speed. Problems so arise with laws and signals, which are widely ignored - I've hardly ever seen a Georgian wear a seatbelt, although it's now required on major roads. Problems also arise in relation to other cars; a Georgians manhood (we can leave women drivers out of the discussion, as they are so few and they only drive locally as a rule) requires him to overtake at once; so drivers in both directions try to make a two- lane road into a three-lane one, with inevitable consequences. They also drive on the horn, not the brake, as it's always the other guy who is wrong or incompetent.

There are 20,000km of asphalt roads (93.5% of the total), although it can often be hard to tell the difference as most roads are in poor condition. Fuel prices have increased enormously over the past few years, costing GEL1.50-1.80 a litre for normal, GEL1.80-2.00 for super and GEL1.70-1.90 for diesel; there's little lead-free fuel, so it would be foolish to bring your own car. Hitching is not really a practicable option except on roads that have next to no bus service, but it may be helpful to know that older cars with registration numbers beginning with A are from Tbilisi, those with В from Batumi, С from Sukhumi, D from Kutaisi, L from Poti, N from Borjomi, О from Gori, R (and now TEL) from Kakheti, KZY from Racha and PZY from Kazbegi. Now there are many private plates such as VIP, BMW and TIT; all are in Latin script, as are an increasing number of road signs. In Svaneti and other remote areas there are still lots of cars with Soviet-era Cyrillic number plates, and in Kazbegi and South Ossetia there are now many Russian-registered cars, as these are cheaper than Georgian ones.

Distances are not great: by road it's about 85km from Tbilisi to Gori, 128km to Khashuri, 230km to Kutaisi and 384km to Batumi (349km by rail).

BY TRAIN

There has been a remarkable revival of Georgia's railways, which were neglected and pounded by heavy trains transporting oil from Baku. Now the pipelines are open and new trains have been introduced, in addition to the longdistance overnight trains - although there are still enough oil trains to cause delays. The main line from Tbilisi to Senaki is double-track, and all Georgia's railways are electrified, though at one time power cuts were causing US$30,000 of damage a month to delicate traction equipment, and causing oil trains to take an average of 35 hours from Baku to Batumi instead of the scheduled 21 hours. Now new day trains run from Tbilisi to Batumi (taking 7hrs 20mins), Poti (7hrs 30mins), Ozurgeti (6hrs) and Zugdidi (7hrs 15mins), and there are now 14 trains a day from Tbilisi to Gori and nine to Samtredia.

However, it has to be said that there is a near-total lack of information about services. There's also a very poor service to Kutaisi, the country's second city, which is bypassed by the main line; you can use Rioni station, just south, as a sort of parkway station, especially coming from the west. The overnight train from Tbilisi to Batumi is one that is particularly worth considering: for the same price as being crammed in a minibus for a day (currently GEL18), you can enjoy a comfortable berth with clean sheets and good service.

The ticket offices are computerised, so you can go to any window; you'll have to give your name, so have a passport or credit card handy. The maximum fare is currently GEL40 for a first-class (SV) sleeper berth from Tbilisi to Batumi. The day trains are spacious, with overhead lockers and television in some; the seat numbers are hidden by curtains. There are three classes of accommodation on the night trains: platzkart is a hard seat, coupe is a four-bed compartment, and esveh (SV) is a two-bed compartment. Fares from Tbilisi to Batumi range from GEL15/US$8 for platzkart to GEL40/USS25 for esveh. The local electrotreny have only hard seats, and you simply pay the conductor on board; these are cheap but dreadfully slow and infrequent, and there's very rarely any reason to use one. In Tbilisi it's possible to get rail information by phoning 351003, 566119, 564717 or 883 952527; only Georgian and Russian are spoken. The Georgian Railways website (www.railway.ge) gives a brief outline of services in English, although it is not yet possible to book on line.


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