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Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Watch it or read it or both

The Tbilisi metro is a beautiful thing. It’s a lifeline, it’s one of the few things that keeps Tbilisi chugging along, from falling into utter chaos and collapse. And it’s a miracle it still runs, despite the electric bugaloo that is Georgian politics. I can’t imagine the nightmare this city would be if it were only left to overcrowded suicide mobiles (marshrutkas) and einsturzende autobuses.

This woman prefers death by traffic to riding a suicide mobile ("marshrutka")

It was a mere accident of creation as well. It didn’t come about until the 60s, and for the sole reason of NATO expansion and unbridled Western aggression. You see, back then, Soviet policy was only to build metros in cities that had over one million people. Everyone else could have trams, trolleys, and marshrutkas (lucky them). Tbilisi at the time didn’t have a million people, but Georgia was on the front lines of NATO, sharing a border with Turkey. And that was the argument made: we need underground shelters for the people and military. A very good argument, since everyone remembered how amazing the Moscow metro worked out during World War II.

Into the underground city...

And so Tbilisi got a metro.

Riding the Tbilisi metro is interesting. It’s like a time capsule. It’s like the rest of the world moved on, but goshdarnit, not the metro. It still costs a measly 50 tetri a ride (which at once I’m glad, but also I wonder how it continues to operate), the escalators always look like they’re about to fall apart, where other metro systems have succumbed to Capitalist marketing mayhem on their heavily contended advert real estate, the Tbilisi metro stands true to its Communist roots and barely an advertisement can be seen (again, one wonders how it continues to operate) – that doesn’t mean adverts don’t have their place, but rather even the placards hung for ads often stand empty and broken. Overcrowded train cars, even at weird times like 10 pm on a Sunday, light bulbs that haven’t been replaced for thirty years, train cars that seem to bounce along the tracks, fat ladies in booths at the escalators whose only job is to do whatever the hell they’re doing that usually involves sitting on their cell phone browsing Facebook.

So much unused ad space! City Hall wtf are you thinking?!

When a city says it’s too poor to install a metro (*cough* Denver *cough*) I instantly think of Tbilisi. Not only are they too poor to have one, but by all logic they’re too poor to keep it running. But somehow it keeps going.

It’s like a metaphor for the city itself. The city is always on the edge of collapse. Not because of economics, or because of war or conspiracy theories. But because of the local culture, the absolute “I don’t really give a damn what happens outside my door” culture. It’s what I see America turning into. This urban hellscape doesn’t happen because of a failed economic system, it happens because of a failed morality.

And fellow Georgians, all this said, and I still do love living here.

And I’m still thankful that the metro exists. God I’m thankful for that.

How to Ride the Tbilisi Metro

For the newcomer and the visitor, here’s a short guide on how to ride:

1. You can recognize a metro entrance because there are usually 5 guys standing in the doorway shouting “Telavi!” “Kutaisi!” or other random cities. They don’t move out of the doorways. They assume everyone going to the metro actually just wants to hitch a ride with them. Also, if you’re handicap, you might as well give up and just take a taxi, this metro, like Tbilisi sidewalks, are not for you.

Maybe you want Akhmeta instead of Rustaveli? No?

2. You will instantly be harassed by dudes with trench coats that have a metrocard and want to swipe theirs for you. They’ll charge you the price of the ride. I’m not sure how they make money on this scheme, but ignore them because there’s clearly some funny business going on. Probably the police haven’t cracked down on them because they also can’t figure out why these guys prefer doing this to just effing getting a job at the local minimart. Does that honestly pay more? And if it does, gah, I’ve never been that pro minimum wage before, but I’ve been leaning that way lately.

3. Once in the metro, you have to buy a card. You can buy them where it says “metrocard”, big orange sign, not to be confused with the Bank of Georgia vendor that is in nearly every metro station as well. Don’t be embarrassed if you do confuse them, everyone does one time or another. Go up to the lady and say, “Minda barati” and throw down a bunch of lari. The card costs 2 lari, and every ride on a metro or bus costs 50 tetri (lari-cents) and marshrutka rides cost 80 tetri, so calculate how much you need.

This is the correct window

4. Swipe the card at the turnstile.

5. Ride down the escalator and hold on. These things are steep and fast. Apparently the Commies didn’t have safety regulations way back when, that kind of thing is clearly part of the DC/Brussels nightmare conspiracy. There will be a sign that says which cars go where, read it while you ride. Otherwise you have to go to the center of the hall and look at the wall to figure out which direction is which.

Hang on!

6. When the train cars come, notice what the locals do and follow. This means that you should push to get on the car before people get off. The more you’re in the way, the more you’ll fit right in and nobody will suspect you’re from abroad.

7. Make sure that you know how many stops you’re going. On rare occasions, the voice announcing the stops has just come back from a Georgian feast and just calls them out at random. And though this is rare, it always happens when you aren’t paying attention.

8. Getting off. This is my favorite part. I like to play the game Metro Chicken. When the doors open, people will try to rush on. This is where I like to stand firm. If you don’t let me off, you’re not getting on. Will they miss the train and you have to go to the next stop, or will they move aside and let you get off?

9. Ride up the escalators.

10. You’re free! Enjoy the rest of your day in our beautiful city.

If you enjoyed this list, make sure to subscribe to get some more insights into Georgian life or just enjoy the ride. And if you're looking for a tour, check out my audioguide of Rustaveli here on VoiceMap.

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Great article; thanks for sharing. There are plenty of travel videos and articles for Tbilisi out there, but few with such practical, step-by-step advice.

Can one card be used for multiple swipes\tickets on subway? Also on bus? We are a family of six, but if I buy six cards, four will be promptly lost. I'd rather just have two (coincidentally, the number of adults) that are used for everyone.

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Good thinking; excellent advice. Thank you.

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