Caucasus Journey III: Crossing the Border

April 5, 2009
I woke up Saturday morning in Trabzon at about eight o’clock. After grabbing a couple of poğaças and some morning tea from the local pastane, I returned to the Nur Hotel, packed up my stuff, and headed off to the train station. It was time to head to Georgia.
Black Sea on my left en route to Hopa


As is often the case in Turkey when a foreigner pulls up in a taxi in front of the bus station, a number of touts quickly ran up to ask where I was going. I told them I was heading to Hopa, at which point a couple asked if I wanted to head straight to Batumi on a direct bus. I declined the offer, figuring it would probably be a bit cheaper and a lot faster taking my own transportation. And in any case, I think it’s pretty cool to simply walk out of one country and into another. 

I’ve walked across a number of borders in my time. The border I’ve walked across most is definitely the Turkey-Bulgaria crossing at Kapıkule-Svilengrad, near Edirne. To cross into Bulgaria from Turkey, you just go to Edirne, catch a minibus to the border, walk across, then hop in a taxi on the Bulgarian side of the crossing. In Svilengrad there’s onward transportation to Plovdiv, Sofia, and the world beyond.
One of the more interesting pedestrian border crossings I’ve ever done was between Vietnam and China. From Hanoi, I took a train up to a little Vietnamese town across the border from Nanjing (near Guilin). From the town’s train station I rode up into the mountains on the back of a motorcycle taxi, my backpack stuffed with five months worth of clothing and books pulling me backwards as I hung on to the driver for dear life. At the border, I got off the bike and walked across a bridge, then took a (car) taxi into Nanjing once I was in China.
So instead of taking the bus straight from Trabzon to Batumi, I first went to Hopa. On the bus, I made friends with a guy named Orhan, who runs a flower shop in Trabzon and who was traveling with his sister and mother to Artvin. While the two of us were chatting, the guy sitting behind us—Mehmet, who works for the Vakıfbank in Rize—joined in our discussion, talking about Turkey’s Black Sea region and how nice it is. They told me how the highway we were taking—a coastal road with mountains on one side and the Black Sea on the other—had changed the region for the better and worse. The road, they both agreed (which had been talked about for decades but only really got done since the AK Party came to power) had vastly improved communications and commerce between the cities of the Black Sea coast (as well as with Georgia and countries further east), but at the price of ruining the seaside areas of all of these cities. 
Just before we got into Hopa the attendant asked me where I was getting off, and I told him to stop wherever the minibuses going to Sarp (the border town) leave from. They dropped me off in front of a minibus that had exactly one empty seat left—perfect timing. I gave my bag to one of the guys hanging around the minibus, who stuffed it in the back, then climbed into the seat right next to the driver.
The road between Hopa and Sarp is really pretty—green, undulating hills on the right and the Black Sea to the left. The narrow two-lane road was reminiscent of the one I’d first taken out to Kapıkule the first time I’d crossed from Turkey to Bulgaria in 1992—hardly any houses, the lack of development a lasting legacy of the area’s front-line status over the course of decades of Cold War.

Heading into Batumi
When we got to the border after a twenty-minute drive, I was glad that I hadn’t taken the direct Trabzon-Batumi bus. Whereas our minibus just pulled up and dropped us off at the border crossing, all of the buses and trucks that were going through to Georgia were waiting in an extremely long and slow-moving line. Instead of being stuck in a bus for hours at the border, I walked up to the pedestrian crossing, where there was no line, and within a few minutes had been stamped out of Turkey. I then walked about a hundred yards, listening to the sounds of waves hitting the rocks on the beach about fifty yards below us, until I came to the Georgian crossing.
When the Georgian official saw my passport, the first thing he said was “We love Americans!” and then he apologized for not knowing English. I told him I knew Russian, and after a few questions—he asked me to tell him which countries I’d been to with this passport and when—he set about trying to teach me Georgian. Taking out a pencil and paper, he wrote down (in a transliterated Latin alphabet) the Georgian expressions for “hello,” “how are you?,” “thank you,” and “I love you.” He then stamped my passport and sent me on my way, only to call me back a second later to ask me for my email address.
Once I was out of the border zone, a group of taxi drivers were waiting. An old man sidled up to me and offered to take me into Batumi for $10, which I accepted without bargaining. We had a pleasant conversation during the drive in, which lasted about fifteen minutes. He was from Sarpi, he told me, the village on the Georgian side of the border.
Apparently, Sarpi and Sarp were once the same village, but had been divided at some point when the border was most recently delineated. This reminded me of yet another border I’d crossed on foot, between Poland and the Czech Republic, where a Hapsburg town had likewise been divided into two. As was the case with the town that had been divided between Poland and the Czech Republic, Sarp and Sarpi had become increasingly close to one another since the border was opened in the early 1990s. Today, Turks can travel into Sarpi and Batumi for 24 hours without buying a visa, and Hopa (and to a lesser extent, Trabzon) hosts a large number of Georgian visitors.
My driver took me to a hotel I’d found in my guidebook, then took off. After settling into my room, I took a walk around the city for a few hours before heading back home. For an early night's sleep. I was pretty wiped out.
It is now Sunday afternoon--the weather has been gorgeous, and I've been having a really great time checking out the various parts of town. I hear a lot of Russian spoken on the street, and am having no trouble getting by in the language of the old imperial metropole.
I’m still working through my impressions of Batumi, and will talk about them when I make my next posting.

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