Trabzon and Artvin, 7-11th October 2012
Çağatay is the best host you could wish for in Trabzon. His cheeky grin and twinkling eyes could make anyone smile. What’s more, he drives a VW campervan, and he knows everything there is to know about getting an Iranian visa in this city. “I have picture of me with Ambassador!” he tells us, grinning.
Trabzon is infamous among backpackers travelling in the Middle-East. Here, it is said, is an Iranian Embassy not listed on the government websites, which will issue a visa in one day for a cheaper price and without any of the usual formalities.
I know from last year when Lisa and Sara travelled this way, that it’s not possible for a British citizen to get a visa, even from Trabzon, without a code from an agency. Last year this code cost me another €50 on top of the €100 I paid for my visa in Istanbul. But this year I have an Irish passport and I decide to try my luck at the Mystical Magical Trabzon Embassy.
Çağatay whisks us down to the embassy in his Mystery Machine. I am abundantly aware of how ridiculous I look. After all the kerfuffle in the morning – taking photos swathed in headscarves we don’t quite know how to wear, wishing my face would wake up properly, rushing around town trying to get them printed – I had somehow forgotten to bring a headscarf. The Iran Embassy is Iranian soil and Islamic law applies. Perhaps it’s not 100% necessary, but I want to make a good impression on the Ambassador. Emée lends me her shirt and I wrap it around my head, trying to poke the buttons under so know one will know.
The man in the small office takes each of our passports and peers at them. He puts mine to one side and hands the others forms to fill in. Emée has a French passport, Alfie an Italian one. He takes mine to a small office and I watch him show it to another man behind a glass panel. “Need code”, he tells me on his return. It’s what I was expecting, but I decide to play dumb. “What code?”
“Ahh.. Code. Website. You know?”
“No. Which website?”
He takes a piece of paper, puts it back. He picks up a pile of papers, shuffles through them slowly, puts them down. “Website. Yes. Code.”
“Ok”, I tell him. He nods, smiling.
Outside I wait for the others. We drink tea in a cafe with Çağatay and his friends and I check the internet for information. It’s going to take 5-10 working days to process my authorisation code. Staying in Trabzon for this long would be a waste of time, despite our fabulous host. What to do, what to do?
The others return to the embassy in the afternoon and come out half an hour later brandishing passports with shiny new Iran visas stuck inside. They paid €75 each total. I am grumpy. I’m already wishing I hadn’t ordered my authorisation code to be sent to Trabzon, but to Tbilisi or even Yerevan, further down the road. I decide to change it and after several emails to the tour company, manage to bargain the price back down to what it was originally – €50. I will collect my visa in Yerevan.
We leave Trabzon together with Brett, another traveller who’s also been surfing with Çağatay. Brett isn’t going to Iran, but he is heading to Georgia and it’s in the same direction as us, on our way to Kars. We split into pairs and stand in the shade on the highway. This is the Black Sea region, a favourite of Turkish people and unknown to many tourists. Turkish friends have told me they like the rain and the lush green – much of it the tea plantations that feed most of Anatolia’s caffeine addiction.
Alfie and I arrive in Hopa before the others. It’s where our paths divide. We wait dozily in a kebab salon garden adjacent the sea and the road to the Georgian border, sipping çay.
The others arrive with their lift, two very friendly guys from Artvin. They are offering to take Brett all the way to the Georgian border, then come back for us and drive us to Artvin, perhaps via a very beautiful lake they want us to see. How could we refuse?
Hakan and his friend return. They mention the lake again and Emée is excited to see it. What Hakan didn’t mention is that the 50km to the lake is largely up a steep dirt track and it takes a few hours to grumble up it in his car. The lake is a black pool in a twilight sky by the time we arrive. We go inside a small building where tea is permanently on the boil and a television shows war-struck images on Al Jazeera. I haven’t seen the news for a long time. These men are Georgian immigrants. We ply them for language lessons as we drink tea after tea after tea.
Volkan accepts an emergency couch request for all three of us, sent hurriedly from a restaurant on the way. We arrive in Artvin late and he meets us outside the university where he teaches. His parents are also visiting, apparently it was his mother who told him to host us. She seems delighted to have some more people to fuss over and in the morning we’re presented with an amazing spread. “Georgia, no breakfast!” she tells us – “Now eat!” We eat, as instructed.
His father drives us to the highway. He is worried about us. Emée left them a thank you postcard calling them her new Turkish parents and now he feels a duty of protectiveness. He hovers in his car near where we’re standing, fobs off a truck when it wants to stop. “Kamiyon, no!”
“It’s ok!” I tell him.
“She is my daughter!” he tells me in Turkish. I groan.
Our asphalt ribbon winds it’s way over, under and up to the city of Ardahan, high on a plateau. The sign tells us we’re now at 1,800m. Our driver Veysel has a lazy way of driving, his hand flopping nonchalantly onto the wheel, rounding the corners. “W.O.W!” says Alfie, if only to say something other than our repetitive chorus of “güzeeeeeel!” – the Turkish word for beautiful is the one we use the most.
We wait in a layby, fob off two young boys with bicycles – “But what are you doing here, Abla?” they ask me, using the Turkish word for ‘big sister’. We climb into the black car that stopped for us. Our ride out of town is from Van. He plays Kurdish music for the short ride to the crossroads, looks delighted when I show him my red, green and yellow bracelet – the Kurdish colours, from Diyrbakır where he studied. We get out and take a photo all together. “He just pinched my ass!” Emée tells us as he drives away and I wonder if it took him the whole 12km ride to come up with that ploy.
One more lift and we’re in Kars. This city has been calling me.