Updated: Feb 22, 2022
How China Spiced Up My Black Sea Holiday
Part 2: Hot Pot Port
In 2003 Batumi was a down at the heels port town and the home of a little man gangster named Aslan Abashidze who ruled the Ajara region like a half-baked feudal lord. One of the few developments he green-lighted back then was the renovation of the old Soviet Intourist Hotel, which had been built upon the ruins of the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox church in 1939. A classic Stalin-by-the-sea design with round walls, lots of windows, and large balconies, was redone into a perfect set for a 1996 Russian pop video. The hotel saw a few good chic years after Abashidze fled the country in 2004, but the bling soon molded under the giant shadows of the Marriott, Sheraton, Radisson, and others that have arrived to cash in on Batumi's promise to become the "Black Sea Las Vegas."
Today, the Intourist would be just another seaside Batumi hotel and casino begging for a coat of paint if not for the Chongqing LiuYishou Hot Pot that just opened in its west wing. Whether this is supposed to be the city's best secret in unclear. There is no sign a restaurant of any kind is here. If not for a group of loitering Chinese men in front, our curious friends would never have bothered to peek inside and stumble into quite a fortuitous culinary dimension.
The menu was in Cantonese, which the waitresses could not read. Luckily, they called the manager Irakli who studied in China, otherwise we would still be sitting around and staring at our table's propane burner, drinking beer. The waitresses brought spiced-up pots of stock with a couple dozen high-octane red peppers bobbing on top. As they simmered up, we went to the condiment table to fill our bowls with a selection of crushed chilis and ground peanuts, soy, plum, peanut and sesame sauces, chopped cilantro and onion, and several unknowns. Back at the table, the girls delivered tofu, plump Chinese mushrooms, razor thin slices of lamb and veal and fresh egg noodles, which we dropped into the pots to poach. In a few moments it was all groans of ecstasy as the fireworks exploded in our mouths. Beads of sweat rolled off our foreheads and eyelids, our tongues swelled and collars drenched as we plucked more and more delicacies from the pot and mixed them in our bowls. "More! Let's order more!"
LiuYishou Hot Pot is a global chain whose humble beginnings on “a small street” in Chongqing has expanded to over 1200 locations in 21 years. Fishing around the brick red stock for the last bits of goodies with our chopsticks, acclimatized to the heat, we wondered what a place like this was doing in Batumi. A hot pot may be street food In China, but it is no bargain in Georgia. A portion of raw meat you cook yourself is around $15. The menu indicates the target clientele are Chinese. If there is a sizable wealthy Chinese population here, we have never heard.
In the past decade, however, China has stepped up its presence in Georgia with sizable investments, like Hualing Tbilisi Sea Plaza, a new city on the outskirts of the capital that reportedly cost over $170 million. Georgians and Chinese have been shaking hands on several manufacturing deals, which may be more PR than anything else, but Chinese companies are behind much of the construction of Georgia’s east-west highway and transit projects related to the colossal PRC Belt and Road Initiative.
Our curiosity was aroused more when a party of cordial Chinese men and women converged around a chain of stove top tables assembled next to us. A young Israeli man with the entourage introduced himself as a “businessmen.” One older Chinese gentleman in jeans and a sweatshirt spoke English fluently. “I was at their hot pot in Paris and told them to put one in Georgia, too,” he said with an American accent.
High roller gamblers crossed my mind, but these people did not have that crusty-eyed look of casino hounds. And they were nice. Someone said “Dubai” and we began to connect the dots.
A couple weeks earlier, the Georgian government announced a $100 million project to build an archipelago of artificial islands, Dubai style, much to everyone’s amusement. The city is synonymous to kitsch and out of control development while its mayors routinely resign like it’s part of the job description, or like Giorgi Ermakov, they go to prison. A city planner I know couldn’t understand why he was called to advise a mayor who complained that buildings were going up illegally and could do nothing about it. Two weeks ago, nine people died after a building collapsed, a tragedy that surprised no one.
A Black Sea Vegas or Dubai, it doesn’t really matter. This old port town will never be either. Batumi is a live for the moment city, a showpiece of pastiche construction with a simple doctrine of “build it, and they might come.” No one cares what, where or how well things are built, if they did it wouldn’t be Batumi - that’s its charm. In 2012, the city built a chacha fountain that dried up almost immediately. But that's okay, there is some great acharuli khachapuri next door. Behind the fish market, there are several seaside restaurants frying up delicious barabulki, and now in the neglected Intourist Hotel there are gurgling Chongqing style hot pots packing the most delirious punch the country has ever seen. There are plenty of reasons to avoid Batumi, but thanks to a group of anonymous Chinese businessmen, we have another reason to come.