Joe Turns 23 at the Turkish Border

A couple days before I was to leave Georgia, I decided to scrap my original plans to take a ship across the Black Sea from Batumi to Odessa, Ukraine. Thirty hours on the last ship did me in. Actually, I had no real plans. Way back before I even left Nepal, I was planning on flying back to the US with my brother from Georgia. But he joked during a phone call that I’d be stopping short of actual Europe. And whether or not you think that Georgia should be considered Europe, the fact that it’s not indisputably Europe was enough to make me feel like I wouldn’t be completing the voyage if I didn’t keep going.

So, with two days left in Georgia, I booked a bus from Tbilisi to Trabzon, Turkey. The time of departure was to be 20:00, the night before my birthday. Due to my American way of doing things, I looked at the 20:00 departure time and thought to myself, 10:00 PM — great!


The First Bus: Tbilisi to Trabzon

I was standing in line at a grocery store in Tbilisi near my hostel at 7:40 PM with an armful of food. I needed to unload the last of my Georgian Lari, and needed something to eat on this overnight bus through Batumi to Trabzon. I had checked and double-checked my ticket like four times, and always came away thinking it was a 10:00 PM departure.

Then I had a moment of clarity — 20:00 is 8:00 PM!

Thus began my mad dash of unpreparedness through Turkey. I threw all my stuff back on a shelf and went running back to the hostel, checking the bus station on my phone while huffing my way one last time up the extraordinarily steep streets of the Old City. Thankfully I had checked out earlier, and only had to grab my backpack from behind the desk. I thanked the receptionist and ran out, heading for the taxis that congregate at the foot of the mountain by the river. They saw me hurrying up with a backpack and, like vultures, knew they had easy pickings.

“My friend, taxi?”

“Yeah, otogar! Bus station!”

“OK, OK, 30 lari — good price!”

“Yeah, whatever. I have no time.”

The time was 7:49 PM when I got in the taxi. I managed to explain that my bus departure was imminent, and he took off in typical Georgian fashion, weaving and honking through traffic to the thankfully close otogar. I gave him my money as we pulled up and went running into the station, which was deserted. I passed a ticket window and showed my ticket.

“Trabzon?”

She pointed to the stairs and I ran again, coming to the street below the station that was lined with buses. The train and ship leg of my journey was over; now was the time to figure out Georgian and Turkish buses.

Several buses were waiting to depart, so each got my frantic ticket waving and Trabzon?-ing until one guy nodded and pointed to a bus. I showed the driver my ticket, and he agreed that I had the right one. My backpack was thrown in the cargo area underneath, and I went up and sat down. No sooner did I sit down that the driver shut the doors and pulled out — at 8:00 PM exactly!

I had miraculously made my bus, but now had no food and no idea what my plan was. All I knew was that I had three days to get from Tbilisi to Istanbul to meet one of my brother’s longtime friends who lives there before she left for the US. The quickest path was across Turkey’s Black Sea coast, so that was the path I was to take.

Outside the bus, Tbilisi quickly faded away and we were on wooded country roads, winding our way through rolling foothills towards Batumi, Georgia’s port city on the Black Sea. The sun was setting quickly. I was seated next to an Azerbaijani guy who got a kick out of the fact that I had been in Baku prior to this. He was on his way to visit family in Turkey.

An hour into the ride, the bus stopped for twenty minutes at a gas station, and I finally got a chance to stock up on a bit of food. After that, I went to sleep, exhausted from my mad dash across Tbilisi. I woke a couple more times in Georgia, once at a roadside bathroom in the middle of the forest with hanging light bulbs that flickered ominously above dirty pit toilets. Most of the passengers went for a smoke, but there was also a small stand selling bread, which of course I bought. I got back on the bus and went back to sleep. My next awakening was at the otogar, or bus station, in Batumi. The air was cool when I stepped out. I didn’t check the time, but it must have been after midnight. Once our driver was ready, we got back on and I went to sleep again.


Turkish Customs

I awoke once again when the bus ground to a halt at a brightly-lit, multiple-story building. Turkish and Georgian flags fluttered side-by-side. The Turkish border. Just like all the other borders I had crossed up to this point, we all had to disembark with our stuff and walk across the border and meet the bus at the other side. I took a few photos during my zombie walk through customs, but they’re pretty blurry. I took them quick on my phone as taking photos in border crossings is generally frowned upon.

It was three in the morning. I staggered through the bright, white-walled building and worked with a Finnish couple to decipher the immigration forms. The officer stamped my passport and I continued on, through the no-man’s land into the Turkish side of customs. Again, I presented my passport to an officer in a big white booth behind glass, then went to put my backpack through security. On the other side, it was a long walk down a hallway until I exited into a big parking lot on the Turkish side. It was here that I got my first look at the Black Sea, and could hear the waves hitting the rocks nearby. The Georgia-Turkey border crossing at Sarpi is literally right on the coast.

But the thing that I thought was most interesting about this particular border is how defined the cultural boundary is. Georgia, as I said earlier, is a bit of a Christian enclave in the region (along with Armenia). I had only seen a single mosque during my two weeks in Georgia. But the moment you cross out of Georgia, there’s a massive mosque sitting right there. But what’s more interesting is that, on a mountaintop in Georgia overlooking the border, is a big, brightly-lit cross. The mosque on the Turkish side is also brightly-lit, illuminating the whole parking area. The photos are grainy as can be, but look anyway.

Everywhere else I passed through, cultures kind of slide into one another. There’s a spectrum of severity as one culture slowly loses predominance to the next one. In China, it took several cities and a whole lotta miles to start to feel like I was in Uighur Turkestan and not Han China. Mosques started popping up, and eventually signs had Arabic and Russian on them.

When I passed from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan, it took some time for the green mountains to give way to vast desert to tell me that I was indeed in a new place. There’s an overlap between places. But not here. The Christian and Muslim words butt right up against each other at the Georgian-Turkish border, so much so that they’ve placed the most iconic symbols of those cultures opposite each other in plain, neon view. Georgia has carved out its space among its Muslim neighbors and it’s making sure it’s definitively Georgia, border-to-border.

My train of thought was interrupted when a few of my fellow passengers came to talk to me. I don’t remember one bit of the conversation as I was so tired, but it snapped me back to the moment. I looked at my phone and saw the time — 4:00 AM. It was the next day. I frowned at the date on my phone and sighed.

So there we go. Most of my past several birthdays have been spent in unusual circumstances. I turned 20 in Reykjavik. I turned 21 while guiding a canoe expedition in northern Minnesota. I don’t remember my 22nd, so it must have been a normal one. And now I’m 23, alone at the Turkish border.

The bus rolled up and the Azerbaijani guy tapped my shoulder and beckoned me, breaking up my melancholy for the time being. Once back on the bus, I promptly fell asleep and didn’t wake again until we reached Trabzon.


The Second Bus: Trabzon to Sinop

We rolled into the station in Trabzon early in the morning. The sun was still rising, so it must have been around 6:00 AM. I got my backpack and decided my first order of business was finding Turkish Lira, and then using that to get food. I left the station and found some ATMs, withdrew a few hundred Lire, and went into the first restaurant I found. The owner smiled and showed me to a table, and I pointed to the food the guy next to me had. He nodded and brought me some soup and bread for a few lira. I sat for a few minutes, mulling over my soup and then thanked him and left. I was planning to hitchhike to Istanbul, as Turkey’s Black Sea coast is allegedly quite easy to hitchhike. But alas, it wasn’t as easy as I hoped and I really didn’t have time to spare, so I just took a handful of photos of Trabzon and dejectedly went back to the bus station.

I’d learn later that Trabzon is a pretty popular beach destination for Turkish people, but that was lost on me at the time. Instead, I went back to the station and bought a 70 TL (12.29 USD) ticket for another city, about halfway between Trabzon and Istanbul, called Sinop. The departure wasn’t for another couple of hours, so I claimed a bench in the station and took a nap.

When it came time to get on the bus, I went and bought a bit more food, paid a couple lira to use the bathroom, and then boarded. It was going to be another 10 hours to Sinop, so I’d arrive well past sunset. To be honest, I don’t remember much of this ride, only that it was beautiful. Turkey’s Black Sea coast is full of rolling green mountains, dotted with tall, narrow minarets that look like rocket ships. I spent most of the ride staring out the window and sleeping on and off until the sun went down.


A Dark and Stormy Night

We rolled into the Sinop station around 10:00 PM. Thunder rolled in the distance. The station was mostly empty except for the other passengers who quickly got on a bus into the city, leaving only myself, the older Japanese couple who were having trouble with the language barrier, and a few ticket agents. I went and bought my next ticket, this time for Istanbul, again for 70 TL. It was departing the next evening, so I had some time to kill in Sinop. Initially, I was going to just sleep in the station and figure it out in the morning, but I had had my fill of bus stations, of train stations, of ports.

A janitor gave me a glass of tea, so I sat at a table outside and figured out my plan. Once my tea was finished, I gathered my remaining cash and went to the lone taxi outside the station. I picked out a random hotel on the coast and paid him for the ride leaving me with 15 TL. By the time we got to the hotel, it was raining pretty heavily. I went inside and, to my relief, got a room. I paid with my debit card (and unwittingly spent my last few dollars) and put my backpack in the room, then set off in the rain to find a beer. I still had about 30 minutes left of my birthday, after all.

I found a small fast food stand that was about to close up. The guy thought I wanted food and was annoyed, but gave me a beer for 10 TL. Due to a lapse in my planning, the 5 lira leftover after that beer was going to be all the money I had left until I would arrive in Istanbul. Woops. In the moment though, I had a beer and a beach so I was happy.

I went down to the water and sat in the sand. The rain was still pouring down. Across the water, I could see the lights of Sinop twinkling along the peninsula that it sits on. Once again, I had a big body of water to rest at and contemplate. It was a long, hard road that got me here. A lot of people had come and gone throughout. My brother was back in the US already. I was alone in the rain on my birthday. A lot of emotions were running around my head as I sang Happy Birthday to myself and drank my beer. Sometimes you just need a good wallow. But I was too tired and wet to wallow for long, and went back to my room and went to sleep.

The next morning, I’d be happy I decided to stop where I did.


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