Not very black that day
Not very black that day
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Batumi, Georgia - Ordu, Turkey:
Black Sea Journey (Part I)
18–22 May (Sat–Wed)
Georgia is made for driving. The major roads are adequate, the mountains and forests are stunning-green and the country-side just keeps rolling, but I have learned to be careful with the transport I select. Bus travel and train travel require different strategies.
There are two kind of buses that provide two very different experiences. The large buses operate as expected - coming from a Western society. They assign comfortable seats with a PowerPoint to charge a smartphone, and sometimes even WIFI and/or an airline quality entertainment systems, store baggage with a number tag or in separate compartments based on destination (less likely for bags to come-up missing), occasionally offer snacks, tea or coke, collect garbage, and stop at bus stations to pick-up and drop-off passengers in an orderly manner. The bus driver and the passenger manager wear white shirts and even ties. Actually, the quality of these buses are well beyond anything in the West. An 8 hour ride is $A25 - so cheap.
The mini-buses or vans, on the other hand, are a discount-circus. They start off packed even with standing passengers at times. I wonder how standing tickets are priced... Then, as people depart space appears briefly before an additional passenger is picked-up. No official bus stop just stand and wave from the highway.
I positioned myself next to the sliding door in my minibus from Kutaisi to Batumi. A lot of traffic comes through that sliding door, but the seat offers extra leg room, as people need space to enter and depart - when everyone has a seat.
An hour into our journey and we stop on the highway for a woman with three large bags. The bus driver seems to know her - perhaps he picks her up weekly - and helps her load her heavy bags behind me in the aisle. She is small and sturdy with a deep tan - she spends her life outside working - and sits next to me, as a small seat folds out of an armrest and the aisle disappears.
We don't say anything but the bags smell of mild cheese. I imagine she has a farm with many cows that are milked every morning.
After sometime, two passengers in the back depart - stepping over the three bags of cheese and forcing my seat-mate to vacate, as her seat briefly becomes an armrest again. I pick-up my small blue bag resting at my feet to make room for all this movement. Yes, it is cheese and not the dry kind but the wet kind and one bag is leaking. The floor is wet and slightly sticky.
Well, my wet bag sits on my lap for the last two-hours of this trip. She departs - with all three bags - shortly before arriving in Batumi. I suppose she is going to some kind of farmers market, as I wonder if she sells organic cheese.
This problem is completely different when compared to the Turkistan Station bird attack, as both my bag and I can still engage with civilized society. It is just a bit messy with a mild odor.
Only some clothes at the bottom of my bag are wet so off to hotel laundry. The bag is a special challenge. I wipe it down with a wet hotel towel but that was unsuccessful and so the next morning it was into the shower with hotel shampoo. Filled the bag with water and let it drain several time and then attacked it with the hotel hairdryer. Briefly, I thought I broke the hairdryer but it only overheated and came back to life. Required an hour of vigorous drying. The laundry bill was twice the price of my bus ticket - A$7 for the ticket and A$15 to clean my clothes.
The Intourist Hotel and Lounge - my Batumi home - was once THE 5-star hotel at this Black Sea resort: Hosting royalty, the famous and the wantabes of the past. Now it is well-past its prime, as many shiny and new hotels entered this expanding tourist market.
But, the Intourist has this old world - Imperial Hotel - kind of charm. Big lobby, breakfast in what was once a grand ballroom, large derelict swimming pool - no water - and a big lounge with a dance floor that appears to serve the community. The glamour remains but only locally. Perhaps the hotel once offered views of the Black Sea but the trees grew and so there is a sea-of-green outside my 4th floor room. It’s all fine. I am charmed by the nostalgia.
Batumi has three outstanding qualities and one minor flaw: It is in Georgia (not Russia or Turkey) and on the Black Sea, it has a magnificent seafront and it has beautiful one-hundred year old buildings down tree-lined streets in the old town. Minor complaint, if you are into beach culture - no sand; plenty of pebbles.
Substantial money has been spent on Batumi's waterfront. One section leading toward the sea has large water fountains dancing to music, while there is a lot of public art plus a tower that is lit-up beautifully at night. Another part of the waterfront includes a working harbor with commercial fishing boats - not for tourists, but serious fishing boats. I've visited these harbors before and usually find that they are filthy but this section of the waterfront and each boat were spotlessly-clean. This small city is focused.
So, I walk around Batumi, see some sights, take the gondola from the harbour up a mountain for grand views, organised my bus out-of-town and not much else happened really. Maybe I should try J-walking, I think to myself.
I was in the hotel lounge Monday evening and there were many young people dressed-up-smart and dancing to a DJ. They looked like university students at a prom so I asked if it was a private party and the woman on the door said it was the end of the school-year and a celebration. There was even a couple of tables with mothers to chaperone these children, as I saw several children being scolded for minor indiscretions.
As I was leaving, a woman behind the bar was pouring something out of a very large curious bottle and I asked what that was all about? She had some English and said that this was her grandfather's homemade wine - and offered a glass. I was expecting a desert wine but it was not sweet - it was just fine.
Departed Batumi on Tuesday mid-day for a very long journey. I was more knowledgeable about choosing bus companies after my arrival and looked for a ticket for a large bus but all the larger buses going West only departed in the evening - maybe they are like sleepers - so I bought a minibus ticket from Madonna, with an assurance that it would be a very good minibus.
It was, for the first hour... A new Mercedes and it even had a seatbelt that I happily used. Again, I secured the seat next to the sliding door but this time there was no extra space, as I counted 9 people standing plus 17 people seated - including myself. The driver could not fit another passenger in this minibus. OK - at least I was comfortable and even next to an open window so I could take pictures along the way.
It is not a long ride from Batumi to the Georgia - Turkey border and all goes well. Very efficient. The Georgia Immigration officer inspects my passport and asks - in pretty good English - about my unused Russian visa. I explain that I crossed the Caspian Sea by water and so I did not need it. I told him I did not want to go to Russia and I asked him if he wanted to go? Both he and the Immigration officer in the next booth thought that was a funny questions. The three of us shared a brief moment of unity, as we laughed and agreed that none of us wanted to go to Russia.
A moving walkway between Georgia and Turkey - really. The Turkish Immigration officer looked at my eVisa, stamped my passport and welcomed me to Turkey. What next...
I'm sure proper instructions were offered in Georgian and even Turkish but not in English. I walked around looking for our minibus below Turkish Immigration - I had taken a picture of the license plate - but it never appeared. The Mercedes was gone. Guess it is too expensive or too complicated to take a van across the border - and so I changed my strategy and looked for the other passengers - eventually found several.
An old VW van pulled-up and we were off - no seat belt but no wet bags of cheese or live chickens either. Plenty of duty free cigarettes - lots and lots.
Also, we lost some passengers maybe they were not let out of Georgia or let into Turkey. Hard to say, but now we only have three standing. Within a couple of hours everyone had a seat.
This minibus did not pick-up passengers along the highway. But it did drop-off cigarettes and whiskey. The van would stop - sometimes for up to 15 minutes - waiting for someone to show-up with an empty black bag (it was always black). Friendly greetings were expressed - these people know each other - money was presented and counted, sometimes twice, and the bag was filled with cigarettes or whiskey - never both. I wondered why…
At first, I thought this might be a legitimate business where they were buying stuff duty-free at the border and then selling it at a profit. But there was one women dressed in something like a uniform - she had not been on the bus in Batumi, but got on at the border. Eventually, I concluded that she probably work at a duty-free store. She never managed the goods or took the money but seemed to be monitoring all that was going on. I began to wonder if these goods went out the back-door and the bus driver and his accomplices were selling stolen goods. I don't know, but it was an interesting side-business that probably made them more than driving a bus. Perhaps, I served as a prop in an international duty-free racket - transporting passengers as a cover for selling stolen whiskey and cigarettes.
I had been told we would arrive in Ordu Turkey by 6pm but it was about 9pm when we got into town. Maps.Me helped me make sure that the bus dropped me near my hotel rather than the out-of-town bus terminal. Eight-hour bus ride - mostly along the Black Sea - beautiful sunny day.
Atlihan Hotel was my home while in Ordu - a charming Turkish seaside community that is seriously Islamic.
Shortly after my arrival the local mosque went into 10.30pm prayer. Perhaps one must be Islamic to appreciate this experience but I found that the loudspeaker was much too loud and intrusive. I wondered what these people did before loudspeakers were invented and why this tool must be used to praise their god. Must the entire community be advised of one person's personal religious beliefs? I also worried about the 5.30am call to prayer...
In my hotel lobby a woman was dressed in fashionable-black. Her face was visible and it reminded me of Yasmin and my brief-friendship in Baku. Out on the streets, occasionally women appear completely covered, from head-to-toe, in black with only their eyes apparent. I try to be compassionate toward these feudal customs and I have read articles written by Arab women that say they feel naked when they are not complete covered in public. So.....there is no simple answer to this repressive-system that one gender imposes on another. One person's perception of feudalism is another person's holy-belief.
Turns out Ramadan's in full swing - from the 3 May to 4 June - I was told by hotel staff. No problem finding a table for lunch. And at night everyone is out eating, smoking - these people like to smoke - and drinking tea. Mixed couples having tea or dessert, while pairs of men drink tea, smoke and play board games. Everywhere.
Naturally, I was drawn to a club with a loud rock band on my first night. Everyone was drinking tea and having ice cream. It was the first time that I ever visited such a venue and beer was not on offer. I was told that all of Turkey will serve NO alcohol during Ramadan. I had apple tea and listened to rock-and-roll that night.
The contrast is surprising. Big open sea that is rarely black makes you feel free and alive, and then there is this strict regime about how life should be lived. Islam is all over Central Asia - from Western China to Azerbaijan - but it is only in Turkey, so far, where it has such a public face. This country was once famous for being Islamic and secular - separation of church and state - but it appears that the current president, and apparent dictator, is making adjustments.
I did visit the sights that Ordu offered: the walking streets with all the tea houses and ice cream parlours and young people playing music occasionally, the market, the museum and the magnificent seaside coast.
I have not been to Turkey in over five-years and much has changed, as it has shifted from a kind-of-democracy to an authoritarian-state.
My introduction to contemporary Turkey began in Ordu, while the transition from Georgia to Turkey made me wonder. Strikingly different cultures in such close proximity. Seems hopeful.