Any Which Way You Can: Svaneti-Somerset

Well, that’s a first, I thought as I surveyed the marshroutkas which obstinately refused to materialize in their usual crowd at Zugdidi railway station to whisk passengers off to Batumi, Kutaisi, Poti or Tbilisi. Not a one.

I had braved the -15 C cold outside my home in Etseri, and more than two hours on the road down before the first sunlight appeared on the road, the first snow disappearing off it soon after. Tomorrow’s LOT red-eye would hurl me off to Warsaw, then Heathrow, followed by a bus and train to the Dorset countryside of the UK for a beloved uncle’s funeral. But first I had to get to Tbilisi, some 300 km away, and the prospects were looking a bit grim.

Apparently there was a minivan drivers’ strike organized, protesting the takeover of some portion of the transport system by a rich Turk who’d already made similar acquisitions elsewhere in Georgia, notably in Batumi. The drivers were expecting to lose their livelihood, and thus were strongly informing the public that This Would Not Do.

There was one other main way to get to Tbilisi from Zugdidi, if everyone else in similar straits hadn’t got there ahead of me: the train itself, for which tickets should conveniently be for sale right where I was, that being after all the railway station. I joined a short but slow-moving queue and began the shuffle towards hope.

Yes, there were tickets on the early evening’s “fast” train, you know, the one which matches car speed instead of taking all night and getting you there too late for your flight anyway. Being alone, with little choice, I bought one and prepared for another six hours’ wait in Zugdidi, which McDonalds’ free wi-fi and my laptop eased significantly. There was even a left luggage bureau at the station, removing the necessity of dragging around my suitcase and carry-on. It would suffice.

Arriving uneventfully, relieved, in Tbilisi, I opted not to spend a few hours at our flat there, followed by needing a 3 a.m. taxi to the airport anyway, and instead took a taxi straight to the airport, being driven in a nice coincidence by a Svan (they’re less than 1% of the Georgian population). We had plenty to talk about: he had just been in my village the week before, and I knew his ancestral home town, too.

LOT Polish Airlines no longer offers anything more than water for free on its European flights, so I settled for that, refusing to shell out crazy cash for anything edible, preferring to wait it out. With only an hour between my two flights, there was little time to do anything in Warsaw other than get from the plane to my next gate, and expect the next miraculous multi-ton metal tube to take me unimaginable distances in hardly any time, touching down within five minutes of my mother and sisters coming from Canada.

At Heathrow, however, a not totally unexpected surprise awaited me, a most undesired one: my suitcase had not been so fortunate, failing to join me there. I jumped through the reclamation hoops, warning the people that I had a funeral the next morning and my good suit was in that case! They allowed me to spend 50 pounds a day on necessities while waiting for the luggage, and even to buy a new suit, as long as I kept all receipts. Not bad, although time was running out to do even that.

Bus... train... Sherborne, my final destination for the next week, next to my old haunt of Milborne Port, Somerset. Here I would stay with old friends and have the convenience of the frequent trains running between Sherborne and Gillingham, site of the funeral. Out for a few hours that afternoon.

Back to my hosts... and there I found my suitcase waiting for me in the entrance! There must have been another Warsaw-London flight very soon after mine for it to fly in and then be driven two or three hours out into the countryside. This completely undid the unpleasantness of being without the thing in the first place; solved everything. Thanks a LOT!

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at

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

Tony Hanmer

11 February 2016 19:37