If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Turkey

Aug
22nd
2010

BATUMI, GEORGIA — After yesterday’s exertions at the Sochi ferry terminal, I kicked back on the top deck and watched the moonlight play upon the churning water. The boat pitched and heaved its way across the Black Sea, and I prayed that the Hamburglar had been tied down tightly enough down in the hold.

Aboard the overnight ferry from Sochi, Russia to Trabzon, Turkey

It occurred to me that my tour through a tiny slice of Russia had been far too short for me to get a handle on the place, and that the bulk of my interaction with actual Russians was with surly border officials and hoteliers. Next time I visit, I won’t treat it as a hunk of real estate to be gotten across on my way to somewhere else.

My hard slog across the Russian vastness, as denoted by the red line

I got to talking to a friendly Dagestani guy on the ferry, and he ventured that my afternoon of fun at the border was by no means unique. Indeed, it seems that everybody, Russians and non-Russians alike, gets the shaft when dealing with petty officialdom there. He did mention that things weren’t always like this; during the freewheeling Yeltsin years, things noticeably relaxed across Russia, and only under Putin’s rule did authority figures start throwing their weight around again. He shrugged and said he just accepted it as a fact of life. If Putin’s approval ratings are any indication, this widespread stereotype of Russians being able to heroically withstand abuse — and come back for seconds — would appear to still have some currency.

I went back to my cabin to find it at least 40 degrees in there, and alive with the sounds of strangers snoring and farting. Which is to say that I wasn’t at all bothered that some dude had stolen my bed; I grabbed my Therm-a-Rest-brand air mattress and sleeping bag and went up to snooze on the deck. When I came to, the sun was up, and the ferry was being poked and prodded into the port at Trabzon by a pair of skilfully piloted tugboats.

All told, I spent half an hour getting into Turkey. The customs guys were all smiles; the immigration officers, breaking a sweat with their frenetic passport stamping. It was a wonder to behold. My only beef is that Canada is alone among nations in having to fork out $60 for a Turkish visa; the next most expensive nationality starts at $20, and it only goes down from there. I’m very curious to know what we did to deserve that.

Great to be here, but sixty bucks for Canucks is a bit much

I then rode up the hill to downtown Trabzon to hit an ATM, fill up with gas, eat some breakfast, and visit a barber. The $6 shave-and-a-haircut is one of the best things about modern Turkey, and it’s available on most any street corner. I didn’t really need a shave and a haircut, mind you, but sometimes a guy just wants to feel pampered.

A little off what's left on the top there, Ahmet

Relishing my close shave, I hit the road towards Georgia’s seaside playground of Batumi. I was worried about problems with the road, or getting tied up at the border, because I was slated to meet my friend Jon, AKA The Giff, who was flying in from Budapest. But this coastal highway couldn’t have been more different from the one leading to Sochi: it was perfectly paved, beautifully engineered, four lanes wide, and on that lovely day at the height of Ramadan, utterly empty. The Hamburglar gave it its all and we held steady at 101km/h all the way to the Georgian frontier. Total time in Turkey: under four hours.

Getting out of Turkey was even easier than getting in, and then the Georgian border raised the bar even further when I managed to squeak through in about ten minutes. The only holdup was when the friendly customs guy insisted on chatting with me about my bike and where it had been. He then got on his walkie-talkie to call his colleagues over; they, too, wanted to see this weird bike and the even weirder weirdo riding it. There were handshakes all around, and they wished me luck, and I cranked the throttle past a row of Cross of St. George flags and into the country.

Georgia is famed for its mountains, its hospitality, its food, and its wine. I’d like to add utterly insane driving to that list. Once I’d left the relative calm and order of Turkey behind, the road in front of me devolved into a video game in which I had to avoid being sideswiped or T-boned by German-built sedans missing at least one major piece of bodywork, all the while threading the needle between potholes, patches of sand, cows, and goats. Batumi wasn’t too far away, though, and I quickly met made it to centre of town — an attractive grid of colonial architecture that’s undergoing a very thorough (and noisy!) overhaul after years of neglect. If you squint hard enough at these two-storey, 19th-century structures with their ornate balconies, you could be fooled into thinking you were in New Orleans.

Jon heard the Hamburglar rumbling up the street and came out to meet me. I got the obligatory picture, and we headed off in search of food and drink.

Jon’s in the food business back in Budapest, and a trip to Georgia for him was a pilgrimage to one of the world’s great food meccas. I like food too, but I was too lazy to do my homework, and so I was lucky to have Jon to show me the ropes. Georgian food, or at least the small cross-section I had over the course of a week, is far too regionally varied to give a full accounting here, but my favourite that’s not limited to any one region is khinkali, a massive steamed dumpling filled with meat and a very large mouthful of said meat’s residual juices. The act of eating one can be obscene for the beginner, what with all the slurping and sucking involved, but after a while you get the hang of it. The object is to eat everything but the stem, and not waste any of that precious juice on your plate or your lap.

Between meals, we had time to see the town. U.S.-educated Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rode to power during the 2004 Rose Revolution, and in the meantime his administration has famously managed to wipe out low-level corruption. Every Georgian will tell you that it’s impossible to bribe a cop nowadays, and they’re justifiably proud of this achievement. Meanwhile, high-level corruption is just as endemic as ever, and Saakashvili appears to have a knack for directing foreign investment and aid towards things like presidential palaces, fountains, stylish footbridges, and other hallmarks of the benevolent tinpot dictator. During his time in power, there’s also been an astonishing amount of money thrown at the Batumi coastline, which now features a kilometres-long, immaculately built boardwalk complete with thousands of imported palm trees and a few dozen acres of multi-hued fountains. Given the sorry state of so much other, more essential Georgian infrastructure, such as roads and electricity supply and driving schools, it seems like a bit of a waste. But it’s impressive nonetheless.

We also stopped by the Stalin Museum in Batumi, there presumably because Joseph Stalin had spent some time there as a youthful revolutionary; the main museum, meanwhile, is in his hometown of Gori. This larger museum was something I thought I’d give a pass, because it allegedly glosses over the pesky fact that he, you know, murdered 20 million people and stuff. If I were Georgian I’d definitely try and distance myself from this resurgent cult of Stalin, and his recent rehabilitation on the part of some Georgians, not to mention Russians, remains a real head-scratcher.

Uncle Joe: so misunderstood

This was my last stop on the Black Sea, and I’d certainly had my fill: the last six weeks were spent goofing around in four different countries on the same body of water. It was time to head inland and go where the non-tourists had homes, jobs, and regular lives. Jon took a train back to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and I planned to meet up with him a day later. First I had to get across some serious terrain, and I had my fingers crossed that the Hamburglar was up to the task.


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