After two days of mainly sleeping and resting in Erzurum (Turkey’s coldest city – more to come on Erzurum in the next post) in the North-East of the country, I still haven’t received the code I need to get my visa at the Iranian consulate there. Rather than hanging around in sub-zero temperatures, it’d be better to explore a bit of Georgia (or Gürcistan as the Turks call it) while waiting for the code so I leave the cheap, grimy motel with relief early one sunny morning to start hitching towards the border. With the bright weather and quick succession of lifts, the day goes well. At one point I’m picked up by a fella the spit of Clint Eastwood circa 1971 and [what I assume are] his parents. They stop along the way at a small isolated restaurant/tavern for lunch and despite having no English, they seem happy to be helping a turist. The owner of the place, a nice chap, tells me how lucky I am to be travelling, as life is ‘static’ here. He’s been to Germany years ago and has now settled down but doesn’t seem content with his cosy, rustic tavern in the mountains. For me passing through, it seems a beautiful place to make a living but I understand where he’s coming from and what it’s like to feel trapped. He tells me I should come back to visit in the summer when there are more people around. Clint and his parents take me further into the mountains as I admire the scenery and they stop at a viewpoint to allow me to take photos. Before they drop me off they invite me, through hand signals, to stay with them for the night in their village but I politely decline the offer and thank them for having brought me this far.
As half an hour goes by with few cars passing on the quiet mountain road, I begin to feel regret for not having took them up on their offer to stay with them. It’s freezing in the shade of the steep rocky surroundings but this is Turkey and you don’t wait long for a lift in Turkey, no matter how quiet the road. Just as I’m beginning to lose faith, I get picked up and the car travels for about 15 minutes before having to turn back due to a land slide further ahead. The driver and his mate stop at a restaurant, insisting I eat something with them. It’s pointless trying to explain I’d already eaten and I manage what I can while they chat amongst themselves. When we return the road is cleared and after another lift on the outskirts of a mountain town (from an off-duty cop), I make it to the grim border town of Hopa after dark, in the pouring rain. I intend to cross the border but the monsoon-like conditions make it impossible to hitch and I can’t find a bus so I hunt down another grimy motel for the night. The next day I cross the border with ease and hang around Batumi till the evening in the hope of catching a late train to Tbilisi.
Batumi is nearly as grim as Hopa but has more life about it. I spend the day sheltering from the continual rain, mainly in an internet cafe. Even fewer people speak English here than in Turkey and the Georgian language sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. On first impressions and without having any point of reference, it sounds more like a series of growls than an actual language. I try to learn the word for thankyou but it’ll be another week before I remember it. I somehow manage to get a bus to the train station only to be told (after much confusion and hand signalling) that the train is full and there won’t be another one till the next evening. The only other option is to take a mashutka (a ford transit van with seats closely packed into the back of it acting as a minibus – this is the most common mode of public transport in Georgia) and it leaves at 10pm. While waiting to leave, I chat the only other foreigner in the van…a Nigerian student who also had planned to take the train. Our conversation is soon drowned out by a small TV set overlooking the passengers, bearing out dance remixes from the 90’s. Shite tunes I hadn’t heard in nearly two decades continue for a couple of hours while I reminisce about childhood discos. Soon after the TV is turned off due to a young woman having a panic attack (I assume that’s what set her off), we collide with a Mercedes and we all get out to watch the driver of the Merc shout abuse at our driver. Looking at his car there doesn’t appear to be any damage apart from a missing panel at the back (I was relieved we only clipped a car…from the sound of the impact in the dark, I had imagined we hat hit a person who went over the bonnet and roof). Due to this and many breakdowns, a journey that should’ve taken four hours takes nine. I don’t sleep a wink along the way.
In Tbilisi I go straight to a hostel and sit on their sofa in a daze nursing a coffee while I wait for a bed to become available. I’m soon joined by an eighteen year old Ukrainian girl in her nightie, chatting to me in her broken English while twiddling a lock of her fair hair. While she tells me she’s leaving the hostel this morning, I’m wondering to myself if I should scrap my plans for Asia and head to Eastern Europe instead. After near-puritanical north-east Turkey, it’s a shock to the system to be in Tbilisi, in a hostel. It feels neither part of Europe or Asia here…Eurasian would better descibe it (although they like to think of themselves as European).
In complete contrast to Turkey, I hardly get talking to any locals here at all. In the hostel I spend some time with other English speakers and even join a couple of Antipodeans and a Welshman on a day trip to Stalin’s hometown of Gori (how apt the name). I instantly regret going as I realise on the way I’m not really interested in the life of the mass-murdering psychopath, especially in a county where they still have a strange type of respect from him. The museum is appropriately freezing and creepy. After a quick sojourn up the old fort overlooking the town, I’m glad to be on the road back to Tbilisi.