One of the pleasures of running is in exploring cities. As one of my Washington based colleagues recently said, although I’ve been working here for only a fraction of the time that she has, I know Tbilisi far better than her due to all my explorations on two feet. Thanks to my generally good sense of direction even in new cities I will just head out and go exploring, usually finding my way home to the hotel, although sometimes after more than a few false turns.
I had planned to go running on Sunday afternoon with the Tbilisi Hash House Harriers and so arrived at 15:00 at the meeting place looking forward to some new exploring, with a few false trails. There was a new Hash Master, Steve, who had just taken over from the World Bank’s Country Manager Roy. I was disappointed to find that there would be no run today as that morning it had been raining and they had not put out the trail! This was a real surprise as there is never a good reason to cancel a Hash. Even more when the day turned out as nice as Sunday did. By way of consolation the Hash retired to Steve’s house where we had a social. It was a nice afternoon, but I had missed the run. I made up for it a few days later with a good hill run.
Tbilisi is surrounded by hills and so is a great place for lung bursting hill running. The kind which remind you of the film ‘Rocky’ when he conks out running up the stairs to the Philadelphia museum. My route would take me down from my hotel towards the old town with the salt spring baths, then up to the old fort wall before descending towards town again. From there it was a steep climb up towards the telecommunication tower above Tbilisi before descending again to town. I then would do some additional distance before back to the hotel. As you can see from the elevation profile below, it was a very hard first third!
There was almost no traffic when I left in the morning and the only sound was the heavy thump of my feet hitting the cobblestone pavement. I passed an old fellow in a beret who pointed out to his wrist in the universal gesture for time. I used my extremely limited self-taught Russian to call out 7:30, then followed with hand gestures which I hoped he understood. Undoubtedly much easier to follow than my Russian!
After I passed the salt baths I started ascending, past this unusual building which is half church and half mosque. It has a minaret on the top so looked like a mosque but one time I saw some scantily dressed women going inside for a wedding so I knew it wasn’t Muslim. Apparently this arrangement has lasted for many years.
Like most of the roads in old Tbilisi it was paved with large cobblestones so not the easiest to run on, but soon I was on the path ascending to the old wall and was rewarded with a grand view of Tbilisi in the early morning. I had the place to myself, unlike in the evenings when I wander up and disturb young couples having a quiet cuddle.
There is this fascinating tradition in Georgia of what I call a ‘prayer tree’. This is a tree where people hang off pieces of cloth as a prayer. I stumbled across one of these and took the photo to the left. I’m not sure if you remove the cloth once the prayer is answered, but I suspect not given the condition of some of the cloth. The Georgians are very serious about their religion. Most seem to stop and cross themselves when they pass a church on the street.
I continued up to the statue the ‘Mother of Georgia’ which overlooks Tbilisi. With a sword in one hand and a wine bowl in the other she sends the message that Georgians are friendly but don’t mess with them! There were a few lonely guards near the statue – I’m not sure what they were guarding.
The road was flat for a short distance and then it descended towards town, past a very new and posh apartment complex. There was an articulated truck backing in having come from Belgium – I had passed him at the start of my run as well so I waved again. After heading downhill my warmup was over, as it was time for the hard ascent to the tower.
There were stairs as far as I could see and so it was time to be like Rocky 🙂 And, like Rocky at the beginning of his training, I was unable to make it all the way to the top without three short stops. My heart rate was at its maximum and I had visions of someone out for a walk with their dog finding the body of a runner. Yes, even for me discretion is sometimes better than valour.
The run took me through pine forests with great views of the city. I didn’t pass a single person and after some frenetic days the tranquility was really appreciated. After reaching the top of the first rise I could see the path stretching off to the horizon, with more stairs but the promise of the communications tower at the end.
Eventually I reached it and then began the steep downhill segment. I watched my footing as with four knee operations I didn’t want a fifth, and it is exceptionally easy to blow apart a knee going downhill. In fact, most people have heard of ‘Heartbreak Hill’ on the Boston Marathon, but more people are out of the race after injuring themselves on the downhill section which follows.
Part way down the hill I came to a station on the funicular railway. This runs from Tbilisi to the top of the hill, or should I say ran. It is no longer operational having had some form of accident a few years go, apparently involving Japanese tourists. It is a pity as the view from the top is magnificent and it should be a great tourist attraction. Just requires some investment and marketing.
This is a special church for Georgians as it is where their most special people are buried: poets, artists, etc. Adjacent to the church is a garden resplendent with statures in memory to these people. Particularly poignant was a plaque which listed a number of people who died in 1937. I was told later that this was one of Stalin’s purges of the intelligentsia.
By now some people were out and about and I passed several on their way up to the church. Reaching the main road I hung a left and headed westward. Although it was a hard run over the hills I still felt quite good and had decided to do some more exploring of Tbilisi.
I ran along Tbilisi’s narrow and relatively empty streets, which were still quite hilly, albeit much less than what I had just been through. As I said before, Tbilisi is a good place for training for the Boston Marathon. When I had done 5.5 miles I decided it was time to head for home so I headed down a block and turned 180 degrees.
It was fascinating to see the different shops, people out getting their morning bread and fruit, but also the complete absence of anyone else exercising! The most exciting moment was when the watering truck to clean the road passed and almost gave me a shower. The driver was very kind though, he gave me a honk when approaching.
I eventually reached Rustaveli Avenue which is the main street in town, and followed this back to my hotel. For once I had my asthma inhailer with me and after a few puffs I was ready to start recovering. It was a great run exploring a fascinating city. Above all, it gave me the chance to escape the city to the tranquil forests above the city with their great mountain views. Now I only need to be like the trained Rocky when he makes it up the stairs without stopping!