24th May 2017
After spending fifteen hours sitting upright in a cramped bus seat, I finally reached Hopa, a small town half an hour west of the Georgian border, along the Black Sea coast. Of the few dozen passengers who’d being riding the bus overnight, only a small handful of us were left at this final stop. It was around 7am when I stepped out into Hopa’s station. Apart from a few taxi and bus drivers, who immediately began shouting at me, the town was still fast asleep. I ignored the men, as they listed off the names of every city to the west of me, and headed into the town centre, looking for a minibus going east.
I walked through the grey, overcast town, which wasn’t yet open for business, hoping I wouldn’t have to resort to taking a taxi the 20km to the border. There seemed to be few cars making the trip this early in the morning, so hitching would be difficult. As I was walking the main road, nearing the edge of town, considering trying this fallback option, I came across a minibus with a ‘Sarp’ displayed on front. Sarp is the tiny village on the Turkish side of the border. I got on, and began waiting for enough other passengers for the driver to be willing to depart.
After a half-hour wait, and a short drive through a few rural villages along the rainy, mountainous coastline, I was at the border. Thanks largely to the fact that it was so early in the morning, the crossing went very smoothly. I had my passport inspected and stamped by a man in a booth inside a small, sterile building on the Turkish side, then walked a few hundred metres through a sort of no-man’s land, along a cramped, roadside walkway, partially protected from the increasingly heavy drizzle by corrugated roofing, past depressed-looking duty-free prefabs, towards the Georgian side. The woman in the booth in the larger, more welcoming building on this side leafed through my passport, held it up against my face, then stamped an unused page.
“Welcome to Georgia,” she said, as she handed it back.
As I emerged, out into Sarpi, the Georgian border town, I quickly realised I was back to square one. After spending two months in Turkey, I had forgotten how it feels to enter a new country, with a new currency, a new language, and in this case, a new alphabet. I walked over to one of the many currency exchange booths operating in the yard outside the customs building, and handed in my final 100 Turkish Lira. The man at the desk handed me back some notes, and I stepped back to count them.
I had to look at the front and back of each note to find their value. I’d been given a twenty and two fives. I looked at the exchange rate displayed above the booth: 0.6 Georgian Lari to 1 Turkish Lira. Despite being exhausted from a lost night of sleep, I understood that 100 times 0.6 doesn’t equal a twenty and two fives. I walked back to the booth, where my 100 Lira was still lying on the counter, and showed the man the notes he’d given me. He took them, and counted them carefully, as if trying to see why I thought twenty plus five plus five didn’t add up to sixty. He changed all the notes, and handed me a new, heftier bundle. I took a half-step back to count them: a twenty, and a ten, and a ten, and a five, and a five. If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have been taken aback at how brazen the scam was. I wondered if the man tried this on every tourist; just hand them the wrong money, and hope they either didn’t count the cash, or didn’t complain if they did. Again, I stepped back to the counter, handed him the notes, and waited for him to analyse them, reshuffle them, and give me a new set. I didn’t step back this time; I stood at the window until I’d triple checked that I was holding sixty Georgian Lari.
I jumped on one of the many minibuses with a ‘Batumi’ sign in the yard outside customs, and rode twenty minutes into the small, touristic city. The contrast between the architecture of Batumi, and that of any Turkish city I’d seen over the past two months, was enormous. I immediately felt like I was back in Europe. The grand, gothic-style buildings reminded me of Ljubljana in Slovenia, or Sofia in Bulgaria. None of the women wore hair coverings here. Alcohol was on sale everywhere. The whole place had a relaxed, liberal feel to it; something I hadn’t experienced since Izmir.
I checked into Hostel Calypso, a tight, cosy, two-dormroom place near some of the most picturesque parts of the city centre. I spent most of the day relaxing in my bunk bed, watching movies on my laptop. I was feeling a bit off; partly from my long night of surviving on nuts and chocolate, and perhaps because I’d recently eaten something I shouldn’t have. In the afternoon, I went out for a quick meal and walk around town with Steffan, a german engineer who was on a two week hiking trip between jobs. Steffan had flown from Germany to Istanbul, where he’d spent a few days, before taking an overnight bus across the border, similar to me. Also similarly to me, Steffan hadn’t loved Istanbul. We agreed that the city was lively and beautiful, but, as tourists, our experiences were soured by scammers, aggressive salesmen, and a general sense of unease. Several times as we were out walking, when we’d pass by a group of young people laughing at each other’s jokes, Steffan would turn to me and say
“This is brilliant. To see people smile again.”
Perhaps his experience of Istanbul had been a bit worse than mine.