This is a story from my first trip to Georgia in 2003.
Read part 1 here
After a few days in Tbilisi, I settled in, made friends, and felt comfortable exploring the city.
A communications tower that stood high on a bluff over the city was a leftover from Soviet times. It was a rusty-red color with a large circular lookout deck near the top.
I wanted to explore the area, so I proposed the idea one morning to my new friend Grigory who I had been staying with (he offered me to stay with his family for free and took me away from Mama Nazi, she wasn’t happy about this).
“Grigory, let’s go check out the old radio tower today.”
“Funicular broken. Only stairs,” he replied.
“Common Grigory, it will be fun. Plus, when is the last time you’ve done something like this?”
My question planted a seed in Grigory’s head. From the few days I spent with him I realized that his world was small. It revolved around the church, video games with his friends, and his mother’s cooking.
“Ok, we can go,” he said with an equal balance of hesitation and excitement. “We go in fifteen minutes, after breakfast”
I knew by this time fifteen minutes meant two hours In Georgia. By early afternoon we surfaced from the metro near the start of the hillside.
We walked up to the base of the funicular and started climbing the stairs.
“Peter, this difficult. I no fitness,” he gasped while puffing on his cigarette for assistance, inhaling it like it was oxygen.
“Why you no breathing hard Peter?”
“Grigory, we have only gone up a few stairs. Plus I don’t smoke; it doesn’t help your breathing.”
“Oh…” he said like this was new news. He picked up his cigarette, examined it with his head tilted, put it close to his face, and looked at it from all angles.
I let Grigory catch his breath as he put his hands on his knees and hunched over. Once he put himself back together; I turned around to continue upwards.
Out of the corner of my eye, a blur flew past my periphery. A whooshing sound loudly entered my left ear; I felt a swift breeze touched my skin.
“Shit!” Grigory said.
I looked back and saw a large rock smack the concrete about a hundred stairs below us. Grigory grabbed my arm firmly and yanked me off the stairs and into the bushes. My stomach was flying. High above us some young men at the top of the funicular quickly disappeared. We waited in the bushes.
I felt my heart beating in my ears. I sat in a squatted position carefully peering out from the undergrowth to the top of the funicular. I reflected briefly on how the rock that just missed me—by less than an inch—most likely would have shattered my skull.
Grigory’s cigarette eventually burnt out; he peered out from behind the bushes and walked out slowly.
“Peter, it okay, now.”
We got back on the stairs. I looked up and scanned scrupulously for another airborne rock. The men had left.
As we got close to the top of the stairs my calves burned and Grigory breathed like a dying horse. An old red funicular car stood parked in a concrete tube. Narrow stairs climbed around the station and up to a grand balcony built on top of the funicular structure. We rounded the corner of the building and three young men approached us.
They looked suspicious like they could be the same guys that threw the rock. Two of them were around my height, but much skinnier than me. I wasn’t too worried about them.
But the third guy looked more dangerous. He was shorter, stockier and appeared to be more pissed off than the others. His eyebrows connected thickly in the middle of he is head like sheep’s wool and cast a shadow over his hardened face.
The young men stared Grigory down and sneered at him. They then gazed at me and sized me up. Their faces changed from hostile to puzzled as they realized I wasn’t Georgian. The short stocky guy asked Grigory for a smoke in a demanding way; Grigory complied.
Tension mounted as they kept racing their eyes between Grigory and me. We stood placidly; face to face with them. Grigory and I were bigger, but we were outnumbered.
There was a brief moment where they were deciding what action to take, and Grigory and I were waiting for their decision. But they hesitated, and we walked past them; to our luck, they didn’t follow.
We reached the vacant building with grand arches and columns surrounded by a large patio. The expansive views of the city were magnificent. Grigory told me that in Soviet times the area was beautiful and full of flowers and thriving cafes.
“This was the place to be on weekends,” Grigory said nostalgically.
“Now just shit,” Grigory said as he looked off into the woods.
I started to walk into the park off to where he was looking.
“Why, what’s wrong?” I said.
“If you go farther, you cross line.”
“Safety line. In park they rob you. Robbers take money and split money with police. They work as one here.”
“Oh,” I said slowly as I picked up my feet lightly and turned around.
“You must know where and where not go outside of city,” Grigory said instructively.
“Many bad people here.”
I stepped back toward the building. There was one policeman walking around in the park that looked at us. His hands tucked behind his back as he kept a tight frame on our movement.
“This part of park ok,” Grigory said as he waved his hand immediately in front of us.
A few older ladies walked by with handmade brooms. They slowly swept pine needles and leaves out of the pathways.
Grigory snapped out of his melancholy as he peered over the edge. His eyes widened as he looked back at me tensely. This was the first time I saw him move quickly.
“Peter, guys wait to beat us!”
I felt a jolt of adrenaline pump through me. I looked over the edge. The three young men stood anxiously for us at the top or the stairs. They craned their necks in different directions waiting for our arrival. The more dangerous-looking guy clenched his fists and gritted his teeth.
The flashback of events hit me. The rock. The stair-down/bizarre moment at the top of the stairs….
“Peter, they will beat us; or pull knife. Come! Hurry!”
We ran the opposite direction on an empty road that led us into the woods. Large pine trees canopied the road and giving it shade and mystery.
We made some distance from the building, but when I looked back I could see the three men in pursuit. They must have heard us when we looked down on them. They made it to the road and were sprinting after us. We had thirty seconds on them.
“Peter, keep running, don’t stop!” Grigory said as he fell behind me.
The road started to gradually wind; old curbs and rusting streetlights began to line the way. Sunlight filtered through the canopy of tree branches.
I looked back again and they were gaining. I ran as fast as I could; a weird combination of fear and excitement coursed through my veins. Grigory also looked back, but only fear was written on his face. It sounded like he was trying to get all of the air in and out of his lungs through a narrow straw.
We rounded another gradual bend in the road; an apartment building to the right emerged from the forest. Civilization felt comforting. The timing was right: my legs were burning. I looked back again and estimated that we had twenty seconds on them. The stocky guy fell back.
An old bus exit from one of the apartment buildings. We waved it down eagerly. The bus driver saw us and came to a screeching halt. Metal screeched on metal, it sounded if the brake pads wore off many moons ago. The bus driver opened up the folding door and gazed forward with a stoic look. We ran up the stairs.
The door slammed shut and he started driving before we had a chance to sit down.
I looked down the aisle through the back window of the bus and saw the three ruffians quickly closing in. The bus driver didn’t see them; momentum started working in our favor. They came up to the back of the bus and banged on it. Second gear engaged. A plume of think diesel smoke blasted out of the tailpipe as the bus jerked forward. Third gear.
Grigory and I looked at each other in disbelief and then through the back window at the thugs who lost the day.
We sat down with sighs of relief.
“Khinkali,” (a traditional Georgian dish) Grigory said with a smile.
“Khinkali,” I replied with a wide grin.
We relaxed safely on the bus seats on the way back to the city in route to our favorite restaurant.
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