Driving Miss Dali*: Tbilisi-Mestia


Here follows a list of characteristics required or preferred for drivers of marshroutkas, or minivan-buses, on the longest daily route in Georgia: Tbilisi to Mestia.

He will seemingly always be a he; in 20 years on the route, I’ve yet to encounter a woman driver on it. Tbilisi taxi drivers, sure, but not for this trip, it seems.

He will defer to his female passengers, honor and protect them, and usually give a pair of them priority seating in the front with himself. He will maintain order and decorum in the entire vehicle, arranging passengers or helping them find seats, of which the best are near the front, where motion leading to sickness in those susceptible is minimized.

He will prohibit drinking of alcoholic beverages, or smoking, in the vehicle at all times… theoretically. He usually has a No Smoking sticker installed for all to see, and hopefully will obey it himself. Working on this. As far as the drink goes, the worst infraction I ever saw on a long-distance minivan trip was going to Poti in about 2000. A passenger was allowed to bring and imbibe a bottle of vodka, trying his best to foist it on all of us as well. A young lady from Korea was my charge, on her first visit to the country; we sat in back and, seeing the ensuing chaos, refused this kind but forceful offer. Things got rather scary, surprise surprise, and at the east-west pass near Shrosha, a middle-aged lady seemed to be having heart palpitations from fear. We stopped; the men got out and proceeded to beat up the offender, stranding him; we removed our luggage and announced the end of our journey, blaming the driver. He pulled around a bend, stopped where the van wasn’t visible, and sent back a runner to apologize and ask us back on, which we accepted. This seems to have been a unique occurrence, although it has taken years for drivers to stop their habit of drinking at the main Svaneti stop before Mestia, Barjashi.

He should have a roof rack, because there’s always more luggage than on any other trip, given its distance. Best will be not only ropes to secure things, but also a plastic sheet handy in case of inclement weather.

He will speak Russian as well as Georgian and Svan, and maybe a smattering of English, German or French too, to aid the frequent foreigners on this route, though these last are certainly not guaranteed.

He will know, of course, how to maintain and repair his vehicle, in the unlikely but not impossible event of a breakdown of some kind. If this is serious enough, he will have to call for a backup vehicle from somewhere to take his entire contingent of passengers the rest of the way. It’s an 8-hour trip, even with the improved roads from Tbilisi and in Svaneti, so they expect to arrive on the evening or afternoon of the same morning they left!

He will know a couple of good places to stop for a meal or two, and eats there for free in exchange for being a regular supplier of vanloads of customers. These will be roughly half-hour stops or a bit more.

He will NOT try to stuff in extra passengers on tiny, unattached stools between regular seats! Especially not for the regular price of 30 GEL for the trip!

He will have a cassette, CD or USB stick of all the “best” music for the trip, varying between Georgian “Estrada,” folk and Russian or German techno-pop; the former featuring either Alla Pugachova or men who are imitating bears growling, the latter focusing on Blue System. In ideal situations, this track-set will be allowed to rerun endlessly, unchanged, so that passengers can learn it by heart in one trip.

In future, I might also describe the passenger’s ideal set of characteristics as well, although some of them might be gleaned in contrast with the above data. Until then, enjoy your ride.

* Dali, the Svan goddess of hunting

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:


By Tony Hanmer

18 April 2019 16:58