Archives for posts with tag: marshrutka

Original Post, March 9, 2012:
My friend came to visit me here in Kakheti last weekend, and we decided to go on a daytrip to the tourist town of Sighnaghi.  We tried to go on Saturday, but had a false start on the marshrutka and got tired of waiting so we returned to my house (since then I have found this fabulous online marshrutka timetable for Kakheti (unfortunately now defunct)–would have saved us SO much time).  We almost couldn’t believe it when the marshrutka came, and were giddy to be on our way off to Sighnaghi!

It’s still rather early for tourist season, so the tourist areas were not at all crowded.  The main attraction of Sighnagi is the old wall.  Climbing it you can see for miles, and the view is stunning!  We played on the wall, admired the view, and took photos for quite a while.


Em on the wall at Sighnaghi (photo from Marieka)

We then wandered around the old city–the architecture there really is beautiful!  Unfortunately, we then had a somewhat unpleasant visit to one of the old churches.  It is my understanding (and has been my experience) that in Georgia, as a rule, you do not have to pay to visit a church, though there are often  donation jars, and they often request that you leave a donation for the upkeep of the building, or buy the candle you will light in the church.  However, the man in the church (not a priest) seemed to disagree with this, and, as we were leaving, rather unpleasantly insisted we give him two lari because we had visited the church.

We decided not to visit the Sighnaghi museum, though I have heard it is good, and instead had Mexican food at the restaurant in Sighnaghi (there aren’t very many places to get Mexican food in Georgia, but this place is highly recommended).  We had a happily uneventful marshrutka ride home, and went back to our regular lives.

Sighnaghi has been the target of an intense campaign for the improvement of tourist infrastructure in the last few years.  There are some very obvious and helpful successes–there are signposts pointing to the various tourist attractions and “You are Here” maps throughout town.  Everything looks quite clean and well-kept, and buildings have been renovated and restored.  There’s a central marshrutka station, and public restrooms.  But some things still need work–the fantastic marshrutka schedule should really be better advertised.  Marshrutka travel is a bit haphazard, and for a major tourist destination, perhaps something a little more formal is in order (I assume most foreign tourists are expected to go by private car or chartered tour…)  Likewise, entry fees for attractions should be posted somewhere, and if entry is free no one should be demanding that visitors pay.

Despite a few hiccups, I highly recommend Sighnaghi as a tourist destination for a day–particularly if you’re interested in sampling Georgian wine (which we didn’t actually do.  This time.)


View of Sighnaghi from Bodbe (photo from Giga)

Update May 3, 2016:

I’ve been back to Sighnaghi a few times now, and have a few updates to offer. I STILL haven’t been to the museum. It has been closed many times that I’ve visited. We spent the weekend there for Orthodox Easter, and stayed at Leli’s Guest House, which was a pleasant and affordable option. We ate 3 of 4 meals at the Mexican restaurant–it had closed for a while, but is back in business and serving up really delicious food. Definitely worth a stop. Our 4th meal was at the famous Pheasant’s Tears winery. The wine was very good–delicious, and not at all the usual fare. The food was good, though the increase in quality did not match the increase in price, and it seems that something bothered my friend’s stomach. The staff were all lovely–I’d definitely stop in again for some wine, but would be more conservative with my food choices.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that during the weekend days, there were huge groups of tourists rolling through town. It seemed that most did not spend the night, but rather returned to Tbilisi, leaving plenty of accommodation options, and quieter evenings.

I often have amusing anecdotes from my life here in Tbilisi, but I usually don’t share them on my blog because they could be misconstrued as making fun of people, which is definitely not my intention.  A big part of why I love it here is because the people are fantastic–and their amusing antics are a large part of it (I also think many of the humorous moments are purposeful).

But today I have an amusing and bizarre story that I just have to share.  I was running all over the city today–breakfast with the girls, errands, and private lessons all in disparate parts of the city.  Due to one of my errands, I was in a part of the city that I don’t frequent, and from there I had to go to the suburbs for a private lesson with my friend’s kids.  I go there once or twice a week, so I know my way to their house from many corners of the city, but since I was travelling from a new place, I had to search for the correct marshrutka to take me there.  I got on the appropriate marshrutka with little fuss, and it was empty enough that I was able to get a seat, look out the window, and quietly mind my own business.  It wasn’t long before this marshrutka began to trace a familiar route, and I was in a familiar part of town on my way to my friend’s house.  Everything was going according to plan.

And then the marshrutka stopped.  This isn’t particularly odd in and of itself–I assumed someone had flagged the driver down, or he was stuck in the snow, or pulled over by a cop, or something….  The driver got out of the vehicle and walked around it slowly, so I assumed he suspected something was wrong with the car–maybe a flat tire?  I was a bit worried about being late, but basically considered the situation normal.  Then the driver started lobbing snowballs at his windshield, so I looked around at the other passengers to see what they thought, only to discover that I was alone.  I decided to wait it out for a bit.  I’ve seen plenty of odd ways of cleaning the windshield in Georgia, so I wasn’t too suspicious.  As I suspected, a few snowballs later the driver returned, and we set off down the expected route–and continued going right through the light where we should have turned to my friend’s house.  So I sat up a little bit straighter and began looking around confusedly (probably appearing a little like a curious meerkat).  At this point the driver noticed me and asked which micro-region (section of the suburb) I was going to, to which I replied (very eloquently):

“Ummm…I dunno.  It’s over there”
::waving vaguely towards the right::

“The third?  The fourth?”

“No, I don’t think so…over there…Jussec”

So  I called my friend and asked her which micro-region she lived in, and she confirmed that it was neither the third nor the fourth.  I know exactly where she lives, but I have no idea what the address is.  Addresses aren’t such a big thing in Georgia.  I don’t even know the name of the major street near her house.   After a minute of confusion, since she knows I know where she lives, she realized why I might be calling, and told me to just give my phone to the marshrutka driver.  After a brief exchange between the two, the driver returned my phone and turned around with the apology “Sorry, I thought it was just me.  We’ll go straight there”.  So, I got a direct ride to my friend’s house.   She very charmingly greeted me by saying “What was going on?  Why are you confusing people?”

Yup, that’s what I often do as a foreigner in Tbilisi–confuse people.

hey gogo

One of my favorite marshrutka entertainments is the Public Radio International podcast The World in Words.  I particularly like it while I’m on my way to teach, because it puts me in a language-y (or “linguistic”, if you’re against word coinage) frame of mind.   The October 1 edition about the Hobson-Jobson dictionary, a compendium of linguistic borrowings in the British holdings in India, made me think about word borrowings–not across languages as a whole, but among specific groups, such as ex-pats.  Around the same time, I stumbled across an old article from Mental Floss on words English doesn’t have but should (ZEG) which made me think of the strange linguistic borrowings and conglomerations that my friends and I (both foreigners in Georgia and English-speaking Georgians) start to invent and use.  Living in another place changes the way you speak, even in your mother tongue, so I’ve compiled a short list of Georgia Ex-pat-isms.  Please feel free to contribute anything that I’ve forgotten (or am perhaps not cool enough to be a party to) in the comments. Some of these poke fun at life in Georgia, and the difficulty of explaining our lives to those back home, while others fill a gap in the English language due to different cultural circumstances.

to get dajeki-ed: to be told by a very well-meaning Georgian to sit down, or “დაჯექი”.  This is not impolite in Georgian, but many foreigners find it quite annoying.
khachapuri hips: weight gain caused by eating too much Georgian food, in particular khachapuri
marsh: a shortened form of marsh(r)utka that I’ve only heard used by foreigners
to marsh(r)utka it: a casual verb form–to travel by marshrutka
modi man: the man in a florescent yellow vest assisting cars in parking and leaving their parking spots by telling the driver “Modi! Modi! Modi!” (მოდი! მოდი! მოდი!) (Come! Come! Come!)
Tbilisi tummy: the Georgian version of Montezuma’s revenge or Delhi belly. Happens to the best of us…

It’s not a new fusion vocabulary word, but I’ve noticed some foreigners using the vocative cases of bidjo ბიჭო (boy/guy/dude) and gogo გოგო (girl) to refer to their friends, or adding ra რა (what) to the end of things.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to stop myself from calling a friend from home “gogo” because she’ll have no idea what I mean.

Some place names change across languages.  An example that immediately comes to mind is the area of Vake known to foreigners as “UN Circle”  which is called “Round Garden” მრგვალი ბაღი mrgvali baghi in Georgian.

Another common cross-language word exchange is referring to the Georgian language as kartuli ქართული while speaking English (this is the Georgian name).  This actually really annoys me.  I briefly did this while speaking in Russian (rather than using the unpopular Russian form грузинский gruzinskij), and was called out for it.  As it was explained to me “We don’t like that that’s the Russian word, but it IS the Russian word, so go ahead and use it, otherwise you sound silly.”  I feel the same way about people who say kartuli in English, especially since “Georgian” doesn’t have the negative connotations that “gruzinskij” does.  My annoyance at this particular usage is compounded by the fact that it is primarily used by people who don’t actually speak “kartuli” very well, so it strikes me (and not just me) as pretentious.

Although I haven’t heard any ex-pats actually use it in conversation, I think I’m going to take Mental Floss’ advice and try to make zeg (ზეგ=the day after tomorrow) happen. This is the only Georgian word that I give my students blanket permission to use in class. (And Regina replies “Shut up, Em.  Stop trying to make zeg happen. It’s not going to happen)

Friday morning my commute went horribly awry.  I left the house at the usual time, and went down to the street to wait for my marshrutka.  There were plenty of marshrutkas running, but mine was nowhere to be seen.  After 30 minutes (far longer than I should have waited), I realized that waiting for my normal marshrutka was futile, so I ran up the hill across the river to try and catch the other marshrutka which comes more frequently (but which I usually don’t take because it requires starting my morning with a steep uphill trudge).  After another 10 minutes without seeing that marshrutka (at which time there were only 35 minutes left to make my usually 45 minute commute), I hailed a cab and parted with a substantial amount of lari to make it to work on the far end of Tbilisi.  As we were approaching my office, we drove along Kerchi Street in Gldani and saw quite a kerfuffle–crowds of people milling around, and the police holding them back to keep the road passable.  I knew something was up.

Of course, as soon as I got to work, I asked my boss what in the world was going on.  She told me that the marshrutka drivers were on strike–starting in Gldani, where we work.  (This is why many marshrutkas passed me, but not mine–the Gldani routes stopped first. so central routes, such as most of the ones near my house, were still running).  The Gldani marshrutka routes were all shut down, and the drivers were picketing at the bus station on Kerchi Street.  By the time I left work, there were no more yellow city marshrutkas running at all.  The strike has continued through today (Tuesday, January 29).  The buses and metro have been more crowded, and people with private cars have been giving their friends and co-workers rides.  I’ve also seen some “scab” marshrutkas.  Minibuses with cardboard signs with the route number on them running that route…I don’t know what they’re charging, since I haven’t taken (and won’t take) one of those.

The drivers seem to be striking to achieve three main goals:

  • 1) higher take-home pay
  • 2) lower licensing fees and repairs (1 & 2 are clearly related)

As I understand it, the marshrutka drivers pay a daily fee to the Tbilisi Marshrutka Company in order for the rights to run a certain route, drive a yellow marshrutka equipped to accept MetroMoney, etc, and in turn receive some money (I’ve heard conflicting reports for how their pay is determined–one source said they receive 10 GEL a day flat rate plus a percentage of their fares, others suggest their only income is their fares).  They claim that with the current system, they barely make enough money to pay their fees.

  • 3) lower fares for riders

Though to me this seems illogical given goals 1 and 2, the drivers claim that lower fares will encourage more riders to take the marshrutkas and increase their profits.  However, as a frequent marshrutka rider I must say that I don’t see how ridership can increase…as it is, the marshrutkas are always crowded to the point of discomfort, and I’ve never seen a truly empty marshrutka except for at the very beginning or very end of a route.

At least regarding me, the strike has backfired as a way of making people realize how much they rely on the marshrutkas.  Since I’ve had to take the metro the past few days I’ve learned that taking the marshrutka doesn’t actually save me any time (despite having to walk both to get to the metro and to get from the metro to my office, whereas on the marshrutka I only need to walk one of those legs), costs me more money, and is far less comfortable. Oops.

Democracy and Freedom Watch: A Third of Minibus Drivers in Tbilisi on Strike
Democracy and Freedom Watch: Tbilisi Minibus Strike Continues
Georgia News: Mini Bus Drivers Not Going to Stop Strike Till Monday
Georgia News: Tbilisi City Hall Increases Number of Public Transport while Mini Bus Drivers are Still on Strike

+Facebook, word of mouth, and gossip

UPDATE FEBRUARY 6, 2013:  Check out this great infographic from JumpStart Georgia that explains the economics and conditions of marshrutka drivers–it’s supposed to be updated as they get more information.

Last week I had a day off, so I took the opportunity to go up to Telavi.  For me, it was the perfect place to go for a day trip: it’s one of my favorite places to visit in Georgia (the view of the Caucasus is incredible); it’s relatively close to Tbilisi; I know the way well (when I lived in Kakheti my supervisor was based in Telavi), so I didn’t have to do much work to prepare for a trip; one of my best friends lives there; and they’ve finally finished the construction downtown!

The Caucasus Mountains from Telavi (from March 2012)

The Caucasus Mountains from Telavi (March 2012)

I took a marshrutka from Ortachala station for two reasons. 1) It’s in a neighborhood I know well and 2) sometimes those marshrutkas go through the Gombori pass (as S and I discovered back when we were new to the marshrutka thing), and I hadn’t been through the pass yet and wanted to see it.  Unfortunately, I wound up on a long-haul marshrutka, but  I was in no hurry and appreciated the opportunity to see what my old stomping grounds look like in fall.

When I arrived in Telavi, I met up with my friend and her friend, and we went to lunch.  The food scene in Telavi has exploded since last time I was there.  The cafe where we ate, Blitz, is apparently the place to be.  They always serve shwarma and pizza, and often have daily specials–I’ve heard tales of lasagna and curry.  I ordered the best pizza I’ve had in Georgia–it bore no resemblance whatsoever to khachapuri, had an excellent thin crust, and was even dusted with Italian herbs–highly recommended.  My old supervisor was there eating lunch, too.  After lunch we went for a stroll down the newly renovated main street.  I thought it was nice, but my friends who live in Telavi weren’t impressed–they say it looked fine before, and looks fake now.  I’d only ever seen it covered in scaffolding, so my frame of reference is quite different from theirs.  We wandered to a lovely new park that is sadly already falling apart–this project was certainly “completed” in a rush.  The view, however, was unaffected by the sloppy construction work, and it was incredible.  Sadly none of us had a camera to capture the mountains that day–it was a somewhat gray day, but though the Alazani Valley was filled with mist, and the Caucasus themselves were clear.  It looked like something out of a fantasy novel.  Then we paid a visit to the Giant Plane Tree.  I wasn’t expecting anything special, but that tree really is giant! It’s not a  place to spend a long time, but it’s certainly worth taking a gander.

I returned home via shared taxi, a first-time experience for me.  My friend thinks they’re more comfortable and less hassle than marshrutkas, but I don’t know if I agree.  The catch for me, though, was that the shared taxis almost always take the Gombori Pass and the ride is much shorter (it also costs 3 GEL more).  I finally made it through the Gombori Pass as the sun was setting, and it is a beautiful part of Georgia!

Tbilisi City Marshrutka near Didube Station

I’ve posted before about marshrutkas—that lovely form of public transportation that will cheaply and efficiently (if a bit crudely) sweep you away to another city.  This post is about the Tbilisi City marshrutka system: a different beast entirely.  While I’m quite fond of the regional marshrutka system, I have a suspicion that city marshrutkas will forever haunt my dreams.  A large part of this problem is NOT inherent in the system: the new yellow marshrutkas themselves are quite nice (some even have TVs!), it’s the simple fact that demand for transportation by marshrutka far outstrips the number of marshrutkas on the road.  This leads to people crammed into marshrutkas like sardines, standing, bending and contorting themselves into every available bit of space.  This is not an ideal situation for lovers of personal space, and often results in sweaty, smelly, cramped conditions.  The stop-and-go nature of a marshrutka ride, combined with the enthusiasm for speed of marshrutka drivers often leads to a stomach-churning and unpleasant journey.

Despite these discomforts, demand for marshrutkas is high because their routes are very convenient.  The metro is limited to just two lines, and the city buses run primarily in a hub-and-spoke system, while marshrutkas criss-cross the city in all manner of patterns.  To get from one side of the city to the other by bus, you would probably have to transit through a central location and switch buses.  Though marshrutkas often go through these central depots as well, they will continue past them and into other neighborhoods.  Marshrutkas also reach far-flung neighborhoods that don’t have metro stations or many bus routes.

If you’ve read this far and still plan to take a marshrutka, this is how you do it.  Generally, it’s easiest if you know the number of the marshrutka in advance.  People who take marshrutkas frequently will have an impressively encyclopedic knowledge of which marshrutka will take you where—at least in their neighborhood.  I’m even starting to develop a mini-encyclopedia of routes myself.  UPDATE 11/12/12 There is now a website (currently in the test version) of marshrutka routes including a route finder here, but if you don’t know in advance your route number, you will have to try to read the sign on the marshrutka as it whizzes past.  A tip: metro stations where the marshrutka stops will have a red “M” symbol next to the name—not all metro stations on the route will be labeled, but concentrating on the words with an “M” next to them may help you get an idea of where the marshrutka will go.  Beware!  Often marshrutka drivers will forget to flip over their sign when they turn around and run the route in reverse, so these signs might not even offer you a shred of helpful information (this is how I accidentally found myself at the Tbilisi Mall last week.  I was not pleased).  You can always ask the marshrutka driver where they’re going, but they tend to get cranky about this (marshrutka drivers in general seem to be a crankier bunch than the general population).  Once you have found the correct marshrutka, you sit there and enjoy the ride (or stand there and try to keep the contents of your stomach under control).  If you have to stand, I recommend attempting to do so at the back of the marshrutka—it’s generally more stable there, and there is more air.  You need to signal the marshrutka driver when to stop (yell გამიჩერეთ!—gamicheret!).  This can be tricky if you’re standing, because you will not be able to see out the windows.  You may need to ask other passengers where you are, or contort yourself to glimpse out the window.

A city marshrutka costs 80 tetri, payable by MetroMoney or cash (marshrutka drivers will make change).  Under the current pay scheme, a subsequent ride using MetroMoney is 65 tetri.  There are some marshrutka routes (usually short routes to specific residential areas) that cost 40 or 60 tetri.  If this is the case, there will be a sign over the payment area.  The price on these marshrutkas does not decrease on subsequent routes.

City marshrutkas are an advanced topic of life in Georgia.  If you’re just here for a short trip, I highly recommend that you take a taxi!

The only real trick to riding a marshrutka is finding it.  After that, the process is quite simple.  So, how do you go about finding the right marshrutka?  First, you need to know which station serves your destination.  This is sometimes harder than it sounds, because there isn’t always a centralized place to find this information, and even smaller cities may have more than one marshrutka station (Telavi, for example, has three–all very close to each other).  I’m halfway convinced that Georgians get this information through a system like the Voice of the Tribes in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall—they all just have a mind-meld every evening and exchange important information about public transportation and when events start.  If you aren’t able to break into this system, though, never fear.  Some marshrutka information is available online, and I predict that the amount of information available online will only increase in the near future.  Tour books tend to include this information in their “getting there” sections.  Another good, though sometimes intimidating, way to find it is just to ask someone.  Friends living in Georgia, hotel staff, and random passers-by are all likely to be able to help you find the right station.  Once you reach the marshrutka station, your next task is to find the right marshrutka.  For this part, it is very helpful to be able to read the Georgian alphabet, or at least be able to match two sets of unfamiliar symbols.  Major tourist destinations may have a sign in Russian or English, but the vast majority of marshrutka signs will only have the destination written in Georgian.  If you can’t read the sign, or are unsure if you have the right marshrutka, just ask!  Georgians are, in general, very hospitable towards visitors and happy to help you with things like getting on the right marshrutka.  I’ve also found that standing around a marshrutka station looking confused will usually result in plenty of offers of help in finding the right one.

My local marshrutka station–not much to look at, really.

Sometimes you have to buy a ticket from the station before the marshrutka departs—if this is the case, the driver will tell you (or mime to you), and will take you to the ticket office to make sure you have the right ticket.  Usually, though, you pay the fare when you exit.  There is usually, though not always, a table on the wall/ceiling between the driver and the front passenger seat which explains the prices to different destinations along the route.  Marshrutka drivers will make change for you.

On the marshrutka, I personally tend to find the seat behind the driver the most comfortable; the driver’s window is almost always open, and you can get a nice cooling breeze.  The other windows in the marshrutka may or may not function.  If you’re going close to the end of the line, it’s better to try and get a seat further from the door since there is lots of coming and going in a marshrutka trip, and it’s easier for everyone that way.  If you aren’t used to being in a car, or are terrified of Georgian driving, you might want to sit somewhere where you can’t see out the front windshield.  If you don’t know your destination well, it can be a good idea to chat with the driver and other passengers around you to make sure you don’t stay on the marshrutka for too long.  I recommend a window seat, as well, so you can see where you need to get off.  Make sure you sit engaging both your abs and your back, since most marshrutka seats don’t exactly provide good lumbar support, and you don’t want to reach your destination too sore to have fun.

In order to get off the marshrutka, just holler “Gamicheret!” (გამიჩერეთ)  or “Stop for me!”.  Don’t forget to pay the driver if you didn’t buy a ticket when you got on!

You can also hail a marshrutka as it passes along the road, but this is a topic too advanced for Marshrutkas 101.  If you have found these directions because you Googled “How to Ride a Marshrutka” take a taxi to the marshrutka station and proceed from there.  If you are an advanced-marshrutka rider, you know the drill.

See, it’s not as hard as it sounds.  I know that the idea of marshrutkas seems absolutely terrifying to many foreigners, but once you know the basics, they’re a very convenient and inexpensive method of transportation.  Personally I love marshrutka rides.  For some reason, I feel very free with the wind in my hair (I don’t know how Georgian women manage to keep beautiful hairstyles while riding marshrutkas…), some good marshrutka music on my iPod (I like Florence + The Machine, The Clash, and the obvious choice of the Georgian band მგზავრები (mgzavrebi=travellers), and looking out the window at the mountains.

Now that I’ve travelled by marshrutka six times I’m obviously an authority on the subject and qualified to give advice on this means of transportation.  The thing is, though, I don’t think it’s really possible to be a marshrutka expert.  I’ll tell you why later.  First, what exactly is a marshrutka?  They’re a common form of transportation in the Former Soviet Union (and, I believe, other parts of Eastern Europe and Asia, though I have no direct knowledge of this).  “Marshrutka” is usually translated in English as “route taxi” or “minibus”.  They’re multi-passenger vans that provide public transportation between different cities in a region.  Their destination is shown on a sign placed in

My local marshrutka station–not much to look at, really.

the windshield.  There are marshrutka stations at the beginning and end of the route, but you can ask the driver to let you off at any point, and passengers can stand along the roadside and hail any passing marshrutka.  The driver may have a schedule in mind– a certain number of trips he’d like to make in a day, or making sure he gets home in time for dinner–but there isn’t an official schedule.  Generally, the marshrutka leaves when there are enough passengers for the driver to make a profit.  Now, this is simple enough but what always makes me nervous is the reliance on luck.  Maybe there aren’t any marshrutkas at the station when you get there, so you wait until one shows up.  Maybe the passing marshrutka is full.  Maybe you can’t read Georgian letters quickly enough to figure out if you need to hail that marshrutka or not (this is the reason I usually walk a little further to go to the stations, actually).  Although all these “maybes” always make me nervous about “marshrutka-ing it”, I haven’t yet had any problems.  On one of my trips there were no marshrutkas destined for my town, so I took a marshrutka to the next town and got off along the highway (a longer walk, but not at all a problem).  Though I remain skeptical of the system’s efficiency, it seems to work and has been working for millions of people for years…

Update May 25, 2012:
I’ve noticed from my WordPress stats that many people seem to be finding this post looking for advice on how to ride a marshrutka, so I’ve written another post dedicated to that subject just for you!