Day 36 (2): The Caucasus Challenge

Batumi Travel Blog

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The Black Sea coast near the Turkish/Georgian border
People I met here and/or travelled with: Tiko (Georgia)

I've been dreading this day for months. The reason being that I am still not entirely sure what to do. The original idea was to travel from Turkey into Iran. However, as there are three small former Soviet republics lying directly north of these countries, so it didn't make sense to bypass them, now did it?

Travelling through the Caucasus region is not all that easy though. Armenia, the middle of the three countries, does not have open borders with either Turkey or Azerbaijan. This means that if you wish to visit all three countries, you will always have to backtrack through Georgia. So far no big deal.
However, Azerbaijan has very weird visa regulations. You can easily get a visa on arrival if you fly in, however, coming overland you need to apply for a visa in advance, which you will only get with a hotel booking.
Black sea coastal road
And hotels in Azerbaijan (and especially its capital Baku) are expensive. So I had booked a hotel for 4 nights, applied for a visa for 7 days (explaining I wanted to visit more than just Baku) and got a visa for... 4 days only...

And now this four day restriction sticks out like a thorn in a sore thumb. Because of my slight delay in Turkey, it means I only have 9 days to get to Azerbaijan. 9 days in which to visit two countries. And travelling to Azerbaijan first, and then backtracking into Georgia and go to Iran via Armenia doesn't make much sense either, since I need to be in Iran before June 1st, once again due to strict visa regulations. *Sigh* - makes you wonder if these governments even want tourists spending money in their countries...
I wanted to be able to use my Iranian visa to the max.
Finally on a train again
The last thing I wanted was another Turkey experience where I felt like I was running out of time all the time.

So in order to travel these three countries as effectively as possible, I would need some serious planning. And I hate planning ahead. The reason I hate planning is because I am not very good at it. Or perhaps I am very good at it, but I'm very bad at sticking to a plan.

So I arrived to Batumi without having formed a clear plan. Ideally I would travel straight to Yerevan, Armenia tonight. That way I would have the most time to make my way to Georgia's capital Tbilisi with a minimum amount of backtracking involved.
With Tiko on the train

So plan A was to find a bus to Yerevan for tomorrow, so that I could spend one night and a morning in the popular beach town of Batumi (popular with Russians, but a very lively city nonetheless. As per the description of the Norwegians I met in Sumela: like Trabzon, only nicer).
Plan B would be to try and catch the nightly train to Tbilisi instead and travel to Armenia from there, even though that would mean backtracking to Tbilisi after Armenia again.
Plan C ultimately would be to stay in Batumi for a day, then travel to Tbilisi by day and probably head to Armenia after a couple of days.

However, before I could even try and put any of these plans into action, I had a far greater challenge: crossing the border from Turkey into Georgia. Or well, the crossing wasn't the issue, what happened afterwards almost put a big damper on my plans.

I had a last little farewell present from Turkey at the border. Crossing the border itself was easy and straightforward. It is one of those borders where you have to carry all you luggage and walk through passport, customs control and across the border yourself, while the bus gets stripped apart in search of contraband in some other.

At the Georgian passport control I got asked a lot of questions about what I was doing here, before the official smiled at me and said “Welcome to Georgia!”. At the customs control I had to open my bags at customs to show them that they really contained clothes.

When I emerged on the other side of the border my bus was not there. At first I thought it was still being searched, but then I realised none of the other passengers of my bus were there either. There had been a lady from my bus right in front of me, but I got held up at customs, while she was allowed to walk straight on. When my bags were being checked I did hear the horn of my bus being honked, but didn't pay too much attention. I mean, they wouldn't leave a passenger behind, now would they?

But as it turned out the fuckers had really left without me! I couldn't believe it! Every other bus trip I had taken in Turkey there had been the attendant making sure everyone was aboard before the bus would continue after a stop. But on this bus the attendant had left the bus two towns before the border, and just before the border there had been a driver change as well. I had already noticed the new driver had been in a bit of a hurry, not stopping for people who tried to flag down the bus in the street (another thing I had never seen before). But gheez, to have him actually leave without all passengers being on board? And none of the other passengers had noticed me missing?
I just couldn't believe it.

But it was true. I was stranded at the border. I got approached by several taxi drivers, but I figured I just wait for another bus or dolmuş for Batumi. However, the taxi drivers were quite persistent and soon I found out that taxis in Georgia are a lot cheaper than they are in Turkey. One driver offered to drive the 30 km to Batumi for 10 euros. In Izmir I had paid that amount to get from the bus station into the city!

So we agreed on a price and set off. To make matters worse, Georgia is an hour ahead of Turkey, so I had lost another hour. The sun had set and it was near dark - chances of me finding onward transportation seemed pretty slim.

The taxi driver was quite helpful though. He brought me to the bus station where several mashrutka's (minibuses) were waiting, ready to drive to Tbilisi. However, I wanted info on transportation to Armenia, preferably tomorrow.
Well, public transport is slightly less efficient in Georgia than it is in Turkey. In Turkey there are dozens of desks at a bus station, and if one company doesn't go to your destination, they will point you to the correct company. In the Batumi bus station there are desks, but they were all closed (it was 8 pm) and the ones that were open would not give any information about the destinations of other companies.

After checking out the options at the bus station we drove on to the train station to check my options for plan B. Here I had a bit of luck: there was a night train leaving to Tbilisi just an hour later. So I opted to skip Batumi and travel on to Tbilisi, so that at least I wouldn't waste another day in what essentially was just another seedy port town.

At the train station I met a Georgian girl, Tiko, who works as translator for tourists in Batumi. She was heading to Tbilisi for work and she offered to help me get there. This was quite welcome, since Georgia has its own alphabet, which in no way looks like anything my limited brain can read. I'd been alright in the countries with cyrillic script, but Georgian is just a collection of swirls and curls to these eyes. I mean, Georgia is spelled საქართველო in Georgian - now how are you supposed to make anything out of that?

Biedjee says:
Posted on: Sep 28, 2010
nonna says:
I had the same problem with the alphabet and wish I'd had the sense to buy a book/dictionary while I was there.
You've written a fantastic blog - so interesting.
Posted on: Sep 26, 2010
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The Black Sea coast near the Turki…
The Black Sea coast near the Turk…
Black sea coastal road
Black sea coastal road
Finally on a train again
Finally on a train again
With Tiko on the train
With Tiko on the train
photo by: mskaye