01.07.2007 33 °C
20/20 hindsight is a great thing! I know that I am not the first to say it and I'm sure that at some point and time these exact words have passed your own lips as your master plan has fallen down around you as your stand by helplessly and watch the dust rise, or in my case grind to a complete halt and become a prisoner in a city I now just want to leave!
It's been seventeen days since “VISA! VISA! VISA!" Was yelled at me by the bear of a man with sweat dripping from his forehead, as he slapped my passport with paw- like hands.
"He didn't need one comrade," I said, cringing at my own bad joke, nodding at Dutchie who had just been stamped in without a problem.
"YOU VISA" He yelled unbuttoning the second button of his Soviet style uniform in a vain attempt to fight the rising heat inside his tin hut.
"Well, can I buy one?" I smiled rubbing my thumb and forefinger together using a language that knows no boarders and praying that I had not waited an hour in the hot sun, fighting my way to one small window through a maul of people only to get sent back to Turkey.
"Wait over there" pointed the somewhat more composed colleague of the first boarder guard.
After the exchange of some rather worried looks from my latest travel companions Jeroen and Tieuwen, it turned out that, ironically, all I had to do was walk across the boarder into Georgia and exchange some money for the local Lari and come back and pay for my visa.
Fighting my way back to that same window my mate stamped me in, even though my visa didn't correspond with my passport saying my name was Robert. Bemused the three of us watched the going ons under that hot tin roof as we were shepherded through search area by grim looking boarder guards. People fought and yelled as they jostled for position to have there bags searched. One woman was screaming hysterically as she went from guard to guard pleading her case only to be turned away with a solemn shake of the head and then increase her wailing by another octave.
"Jeese lads, didn't think I was going to get in there for a moment" I grinned from the front seat of the Mercedes taxi that was taking us from the boarder to Batumi.
I let the jab about how good an EU passport was lie, while I enjoyed the ride along the coast and contemplated if the Black Sea was appropriately named.
The idea of course was great in theory! Instead of back tracking to Ezerum in Turkey and picking up my visa for Iran, I would arrange to get it sent to Tbilisi. This would allow me to explore more of Georgia and even get to tack Azerbaijan onto my route. One week I was told by the visa agency to transfer collection points, perfect! With that I arranged my Azerbaijan visa and everything started to fall into place.
"Don't lose count lads!" was the common call as we counted the stops to the bus station. Seeing everything is in Georgian ,which has no aspect of the English (or in fact any European Language about it ) even the Metro has the distinct possibility of getting you lost.
Walking across the dusty tarmac pad that formed the bus station was like another world compared to the modern laid back Rustavali area in the middle of the city. Beggars and street vendors intertwined for our custom. Little tornados of dust and litter swirled around us as we negotiated the Mini Buses spread across the area like an army about to invade. Of course the lack of a common language made for frantic hand signals that sent us across the far side of the chaotic sprawl. I had to contend with taxi drivers who would beep their horns and run over trying every trick in the book to get your custom. "No mini buses to Kazbegi' or "the next one leaves in 3 hours" and they sure don't know where in the bus station they leave from. Finally we found our man, then painfully waited in the green Marshuka in the heat surrounded by a weeks worth of groceries, lengths of wood and other space hogging supplies for there to be enough passengers for us to depart.
The spectacular drive to Kazbegi along the Old Military Highway was interspersed with remote towns, high mountain passes, random stops at water falls to get drinking water and sheets of dried fruit to snack on forced upon the three unsuspecting foreigners. Finally after four hours along a winding, avalanche prone roads, that were covered with a patch work of potholes, towered over by bright green mountains with grey snow covered tops, we were taken to a guest house. Of course we had to endure an unintentional tour of the town as we dropped off every other passenger at their door step and the driver stopping to shoot the breeze and discuss his exotic cargo to friends along the way.
Kazbegi is situated in the North of Georgia 3 miles from the Border with Russia, which unfortunately for the Dutch lads who were heading that way was closed due to the ongoing tensions in the Chechen province. Besides the Russian jeeps driving around, and the impromptu rubbish dump the river has become, the small town reminds me some what of Mt Cook Village back home. Surrounded by mountains with Mt Kazbegi itself making an impressive backdrop and overlooked by a monastery perched on a hill an hours walk out of town.
With visa requirements looming and flights to Moscow for my Dutch travel colleagues, it was squeezed into the back of a moron Lada with the man's sister sitting in the front for the bumpy ride back to the capital on none existent suspension. Of course money had to be collected from the local shops as well as boxes that were precariously attached to the roof followed by a quick fuel stop at some guys shipping container having consulted the price at the petrol station first. A twenty liter container was produced and emptied into the Lada as the fumes filled the back seat and added to the tension of getting home in one piece. However we wound our way down the steep pass without incident and I even managed a chuckle as we started to head down the flat pot hole free highway with out a sheer drop in sight and the Georgian pair in the front put on their seat belt explaining that there were police patrols.
I collected my visa for Azerbaijan and then set myself in the routine of checking my emails expectantly for the visa authorization code so I can go to the Iranian embassy collect my visa and head to Baku. I have a coffee shop, where the girl smiles and says "double espresso David? I'll bring it out to your table." I have a beggar that leans on his crutch and pinches the skin of his throat between thumb and forefinger in the local sign for food. His eyes smile behind his bearded face despite his hard life on the street. Even though he takes it as a matter of fact when I give him money it is my source of karma that I will get my visa today. The Routine that I left behind in the UK and that I always think that I crave after a series of over night bus trips and town hopping is now driving me insane and all I want is to get back on the road again.
"So you want to come over to the baker and have some dinner?" Carlo suggested after wondering across to buy local cheese bread called Kuchapuri for dinner. Carlo was from Holland and was riding East on his motorbike. The Baker to whom he referred was called Gaylar and although he spoke only a few words of English he had shown us the local hospitality on a few occasions with dinner and a few beers.
It was a hot night and the small bakery was made even hotter by the stove as I walked in and surveyed the potentially messy scene before me. I was met by two large topless hairy Georgians, a girl called Nena who hadn't escaped the usual hard face gifted to the Caucus women and an older smartly dressed man called Trango. A meal was laid out on the small red plastic table more distressing than the site of topless barker Gaylar and his Friend Darto was the bottle of Vodka that had just now been opened. The better seats were gifted to Carlo and me while Darto steadied himself on a coke crate and beers were poured and food was served.
I would have given the first bottle twenty minutes before it was finished. Due to slight communication difficulties every time a conversation line was exhausted a toast was proposed and the Vodka had to be drunk in one go according to the local custom. Well flattered by the hospitality we felt obligated to supply the next bottle and flagons of beer and well let’s just say by the time the meal was finished and the second bottle of paint stripper like spirit with it the group was happily communicating through an international slur!
A brief conversation in Georgian was held and then Darto bellowed 'David, Carlo you leave now" thinking we had escaped with minor causalities we headed back towards the home stay only to be swept up and separated into two waiting cars. After a quick joy ride of the city stopping on the hill to take in the impressive view of Tbilisi at night we ended up at a restaurant that consisted of terraces on split levels over looking the river running through the centre of the city. Another meal is ordered and of course some beers and of course another bottle of Vodka was produced and another round of toasts were made.
Darto got up and sang a Georgian ballard and was surprisingly good, dancing took place and more toasts were made till the bottle was extinguished. This was followed by another tour through the city which through an alcohol induced haze I did show some concern when even our driver put on his seat belt and I scratched around to find that none were fitted in the back. After this random and pointless joyride around town we were unceremoniously dumped outside our home stay and I gladly crawled into bed.
It's been the same routine all week, the novelty of being a foreigner has worn off. I don't want to have my photo taken by curious strangers. Today, after another night of stress induced fitful sleep, I went to the Metro to find that the prices had doubled when I handed over my 1 lari didn't get any change. I tried to explain but after wasting my breath stormed off in a rage that I had paid two and a half times the new fee. A laughable thought with that same hindsight, as it was less than 30p I was so upset about, when I usual pay 3 quid for the same journey in London. Walking down the street I didn't get any of the challenging stares from the young men I passed, today I was the one shooting daggers and I was given a wide berth. However today when I checked my email there was my parole notice in the form of a visa authorization code and with that, the stressed melted away. I had a good laugh at myself and realized that Georgia is not such a bad place to be stuck in after all.