It is early morning in Kutaisi, a city that lies astride the River Rioni in western Georgia. The country’s second largest city is a place that most people just pass through — a way station on the long drive along the M1 highway from Tbilisi to the coast.
In the middle of Kutaisi, down by the riverside, an assortment of battered old marshrutki (minibuses) are lining up, all rusting paintwork and wheezing engines — these vehicles have survived the worst of Georgia’s rutted roads, along the way clocking up mileages that surely equate to several circumnavigations of the world. Once they were smart, but now they live out their days kicking up dust on Georgian back roads.
Given the curious complexity of the curvaceous Georgian alphabet I am grateful that my destination is a simple three-letter word. I scan the signs on the vehicles looking for any evidence of ONI. It is always reassuring to have one’s destination confirmed in writing. After ten minutes striding up and down the line, I see it — ONI — or, rather, its counter-intuitive Georgian equivalent, on a destination plate propped in front of a steering wheel amidst a scattering of Georgian pop cassettes. (The Georgian language, ancient and mysterious as it is, is often counter-intuitive: where else does mama mean ‘father’, deda ‘mother’ and papa ‘grandfather’?)
I buy a ticket from a man seated at a trestle table and climb on board to grab a window seat. I am grateful to be seated at all, as even before leaving Kutaisi we are hugely overloaded with passengers standing in the aisle hanging on to whatever or whoever they can. The minibus is an 18-seater and I try to count the actual number on board but give up after reaching a tally of 31 plus driver. At least there is no need for safety belts as my travelling companions in the aisle brace me firmly in place — a taut bridge of compressed shoulders stretching window to window.
Oni lies several hours north of Kutaisi in Racha province, a beautiful mountainous tract of land that stretches from the lower lands of western Georgia up to the High Caucasus at the border with North Ossetia. Racha’s fluvial backbone is the Rioni River, which flows through Kutaisi and which we follow first north then east all the way upstream to Oni. Along the way, we make frequent diversions to clatter down dusty tracks to pick up from nameless (or, rather, sign-less) villages that lie away from the main road. There is clearly a dire shortage of public transport in the region and so this marshrutka provides a valuable service. No wonder then that it is so oversubscribed. Many of the passengers seem to make use of it for local travel between villages and, as far as I can tell, I am the only one aboard going all the way to Oni.
Racha may be little known outside Georgia, but the province occupies a special place in the Georgian mind. It nudges up against the mountain ridges of the High Caucasus and thus boasts some fabulous scenery. It is widely seen as a province that maintains traditional Georgian values and customs — for the plains-dwellers, Racha is a province noted for its traditional religion, its honey and its inhabitants’ distinctive accents.