Batumi does not have a passenger railway station, yet it still has some of the best transport connections in the country thanks to the continual supply of marshrutkas that enter and leave the city almost 24 hours a day.
These marshrutkas feed the local city marshrutka lines which see the converted vans and minibuses racing along the same routes day in and day out trying to cut journey times as though they were in a qualification session for a Grand Prix. Indeed, it would be fascinating to see what would happen should some of the world’s quickest and most renowned motor-racers attempt to drive a marshrutka around Georgia for the day.
I was only vaguely aware of marshrutkas when I arrived in Georgia. Now I am wondering how I spent my life without them. Part of the attraction is that I live right outside a marshrutka route, so if it does rain (and when it rains in Batumi you stay drowned) you can wait in the house and then dart out when a marshrutka is visible in the distance.
My admiration for the marshrutkas started with the first journey I took in one, going from Tbilisi to Batumi with a fellow TLG volunteer who shall remain nameless. My fellow volunteer was terrified and at one point was clinging to the seats – eyes closed – during the trip as the driver performed his death-defying stunts. I however, was inwardly morally supporting the driver every time he opted to overtake six cars by using the wrong side of the road whilst at the same time fending off the challenge of an articulated lorry charging straight at him. In fact the only time I felt a mild pang of disappointment was when the driver pulled out to overtake seven cars on a bridge but then resisted due to the bridge dropping dramatically, meaning no-one could see what was over the brow.
Despite the breakneck speeds the journey still took nearly eight hours to Batumi. Why? Well, it seems the driver was speeding so he could spend an extra hour eating and digesting his lunch at a roadside café. Clearly it’s not only the French who are driven by their stomachs.
The drivers are the major ingredient which give the marshrutkas character. Normally gruff and uncommunicative, they will suddenly leap into life should any vehicle dare try to overtake them, cut them up or undertake them on a roundabout (delete as applicable). Not that the drivers don’t do these things themselves. Their cavalier attitude is something to behold. No matter if a train engine is just metres away from a railroad junction crossing, the driver will simply apply the accelerator and ensure his marshrutka crosses the railway line before the engine can cross it in front of him. If the driver is too late and has to wait for a locomotive engine to move along the tracks before he can cross, he is not afraid to pap his horn as aggressively as possible to encourage the engine driver to speed up. It makes no difference to the marshrutka driver if the train lines are in a delicate condition and need to be negated slowly, that’s not the marshrutka driver’s problem or concern.
A further fascination with the marshrutka culture is the ‘eclectic’ choice of music that I have heard blaring out from the driver’s stereo system. Ever wanted to hear Georgian reggae? What about folk music with a hardcore dance beat? If you catch enough marshrutkas you will hear these genres and much more besides. One marshrutka driver from Kobuleti to Batumi had his music so loud that it was actually impossible to tell what was being gargled through the stereo systems. This led to one passenger insisting that the driver either turn the music off or allow him to leave the marshrutka. You can guess how that one turned out, although the driver was kind enough to pull into a petrol station for him, rather than simply turfing him out in the middle of nowhere. That being said, even if the passenger had have been left on a road in the middle of nowhere, the chances are he would have flagged down another marshrutka hurtling towards him just a few minutes later, such is their regularity.
No two marshrutkas are exactly the same and you can sense the pride the drivers have in the upkeep of their vehicles, as well as them adding some very clever gimmicks. These come from varnished wooden floors and extra fold out seats, through to electric sliding doors which save the passenger the effort of having to open or close the door themselves. The majority of the drivers have some form of religious icon hanging or sitting at the front with them, which swing violently when ever they attempt a sharp over/undertaking manoeuvre. In God they trust, clearly.
It is fair to say that in no other country that I have visited have I seen any vehicle even contemplating overtaking a moving police car. Here in Georgia the marshrutkas will not only overtake the police but in some cases be used by the police to clear a route for their cars when the traffic is apparently rammed. Marshrutka drivers appear to have a brazen neck complete with a sixth sense for being able to squeeze into a vacant spot which never previously existed. The police clearly recognise this and by following a marshrutka driver they can shave minutes off their journey.
It is my firm belief that if the French film “Taxi” had have been originally conceived in Georgia, marshrutkas would be world famous by now. As it is, the marshrutka is still a guilty pleasure across former Soviet states, one to be enjoyed indefinitely. It will be a culture shock when I return to my home country and try to flag down a bus or tram nowhere near an official public transport shelter and watch it ignore me as it races along the road leaving me frustrated. I can’t help but feel my home country will be all the worse because of it.