The marshrutka taking us back to Tbilisi was in markedly worse shape than the one that had brought us to Kazbegi the day before.
With tablets of children’s Dramamine dissolving on our tongues, David and I hunkered down for a bumpy ride. Just a few hours and several repetitions of an incredibly explicit Snoop Dogg album later, the bus dropped us at Didube, the main marshrutka depot for travel within Georgia. The next day we would head to Armenia, and we were looking forward to a brief junket around the Georgian capital that would, by the end of the trip, become one of our favorite cities in the world.
After dropping our bags at our airbnb, high above the main drag of the city in the Mtatsminda neighborhood, the infamous Dry Bridge Market of Tbilisi called to us. An important part of any adventure for us is shopping for kitsch, and the details I’d read on the Dry Bridge Market in Tbilisi certainly deemed it pilgrimage-worthy. Slipping and sliding down the heavily frosted, steep cobblestone street from our apartment, we made our way across the city to see if there would be any activity at the dry bridge in the middle of the week in icy winter weather. Thankfully, entrepreneurism knows no bounds, particularly in the developing parts of the world.
The dry bridge doesn’t actually cross the opaque, turbulent Mtkvari River which bisects Tbilisi. Instead, it runs over a busy thoroughfare parallel to the river, and was named for the lack of water running beneath it. Looking south from the dry bridge, one is treated to a killer view of the mushroom cloud-inspired (probably) Public Service Hall, part of Tbilisi’s architectural overhaul that is appreciated by some but reviled by many.
The Dry Bridge Market was the first post-Soviet flea market we’d ever visited. I had visions of medals, paperweights, military paraphernalia, and antique posters, and the Dry Bridge Market had all of these in spades. With so much selection, overstimulation is natural, and we made some harried, not thoroughly thought-out purchases. No harm done, as you never know when a thirty-year-old, Soviet mass-produced gas mask might be useful.
Walking down the sidewalk reserved for antiques, a kind, older man greeted us warmly in Russian. I responded in Georgian, as I had foolishly tried to teach myself the impossible language prior to the trip – who would have known Russian was the smarter and more useful bet? He laughed, giving me credit for my attempt at glottal stops and words with four consonants in a row, and we all moved on to English.
This was Tamaz, the preeminent poster salesman of the Dry Bridge Market.
Tamaz spoke with a deep, resonating voice in a thick Caucasian accent. He wore a khaki, fur-lined jacket that seemed like it had been around a while, and wore a thick, bushy moustache. His deep set eyes expressed the earnestness and hardship of a man who had lived through multiple violent regime changes. He sold posters collected over the better half of a century, but he was not always a vendor at the Dry Bridge Market. His background was in ethnobiology, a subject I’d never heard of, a field in which he was prominent before the academic bubble burst with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tamaz called selling posters his hobby.
Bitter wind funneled through the trees lining the dry bridge as Tamaz regaled us with stories from his past life. His former profession linked him inextricably with nature, and city life didn’t suit him. The Caucasian people feel very close to the land in which they live (with some of the most geographical diversity of anywhere in the world, this is no surprise), and it must have been tough for Tamaz to have been stuck in an urban center surrounded by such dramatic natural landscapes.
He was enthusiastic about his hobby, however, and flipped through original, limited edition Soviet propaganda posters with alacrity. In terms of wall decor, we’re all about maps, typography, and color, and we ended up purchasing a few pieces from his extensive collection.
After a sniffly stint in Armenia rife with homemade moonshine and inhospitable shopkeepers, we returned to the Dry Bridge Market for some last-minute items (enamel pins and mildly rusted bronze wear, as it turned out) and to see some posters we hadn’t yet decided on. Tamaz was nowhere to be seen, presumably celebrating the New Year’s holiday with family. While we didn’t necessarily vow to return, David and I were in silent agreement that we’d be visiting Tbilisi and the Dry Bridge Market in the future – preferably before its inevitable gentrification.
Return to the Dry Bridge Market, 2017
Until about April of this year, Georgia wasn’t part of the itinerary for our time in Eastern Europe. Our original route took us through the Ukrainian Carpathians, Romanian Maramures and Bucovina, and Moldova before flying to Kharkiv. Georgia rang, however, and our plans had to change to accommodate a much-needed reunion with the Caucasus. While we traveled under the guise of returning to see the mountainous region of Svaneti, the ramshackle airline that was to fly us from Kutaisi to Mestia cancelled our flight. Svaneti (and the even more remote Tusheti region) remain high on our travel list, but the unfortunate weather conditions gave us the perfect excuse to laze around Tbilisi for five days.
For whatever reason, it took us until the our last day to return to the dry bridge. With our friend Gloria in tow, we made the same trek from the same airbnb we had stayed in two years previous to hunt for treasures only the Dry Bridge Market could unearth.
Though much about Georgia and Tbilisi had changed since our last visit, the Dry Bridge Market was nearly identical. Exchange May’s thick and sticky air with December’s bitter cold and wind, and the scene could have been identical. Walking past the rows of vendors selling old silver, bronze bowls, drinking horns, and Astrakhan caps, David and I exchanged anxious glances – we’d talked earlier and wondered if Tamaz would be there to greet us as he had over two years before.
Sure enough, it didn’t take more than a couple minutes zig zagging through vendors for Tamaz to find us. He recognized us almost instantly, and even remembered the posters he’d sold us. Per usual, our purchase intentions were nebulous, but that’s why we had Tamaz – not only to showcase his monster collection, but to guide us in the right direction with a combination of romance narrative and on-point sales techniques. Cue the cartoon wings to fly away with our Georgian lari.
We ended up purchasing a few things – a couple of maps and propaganda film posters – but the real treat came from our friend’s request for a poster with very specific content. Gloria’s boyfriend is a herpetologist, so she was on the hunt for anything snake-related. Fortunately, like any good antique salesman, Tamaz had an encyclopedic knowledge of his inventory. Vendors at the Dry Bridge Market appear to rely on the mind’s vault, rather than computer-based inventory and financial tracking systems.
Fortunately, the rain had let up, and Tamaz led us to his warehouse – in this case a locked and shuttered display case a short walk from the dry bridge and immediately adjacent to the riverbank. These same types of “warehouses” lined the cracked cement walkway along the Mtkvari – at the time we visited, only a handful were opened and manned, selling mostly books touting Socialist ideology from a bygone era. Filled to the brim, posters cascaded out of Tamaz’s storage container upon opening it. Tamaz rifled quickly through his lot, and presented Gloria with the Russian theatrical release poster from a Swedish film on anacondas made in 1955.
As far as Soviet/Georgian antique posters go, prices were cheap – at least when in comparison to anywhere you could find similar items online or in the USA. Volume discounts most definitely apply at the Dry Bridge Market, and we ended up paying around $100 USD for four posters that could easily demand that same price per on Ebay.
We chatted with Tamaz, and exchanged contact information in case we were interested in more loot after leaving Tbilisi. I reached out to him when writing this article, but I imagine he checks his Yahoo mail account about as often as my father checks his Hotmail – twice monthly, maximum. If you’re interested in meeting Tamaz and seeing his fantastic collection of posters (or maybe even just for a chat about Georgian history), it’s probably best to just amble down to the dry bridge yourself once in Tbilisi – I wouldn’t try to contact him beforehand. There is no need to look for him, because he will find you. From Rustaveli Avenue, walk toward the Mtkvari through the 9 April Park, then follow the West side of the street that runs perpendicular to it. Tamaz typically hangs out at the top of the stairs that lead to the park beneath the dry bridge, before you reach the bridge that actually crosses the Mtkvari.
But more than just the consumerist elements of our shopping experience, we valued talking to Tamaz and hearing about the breadth of his life experience both in Soviet and independent Georgia. Getting the opportunity to interact with real people in a place is always a treat, and our talks with Tamaz in both 2014 and 2017 allowed us to understand the Georgian experience on a deeper level. Here’s hoping to a return before 2020, and additional wall space in our house to be occupied by more of Tamaz’s treasures.