23-24th January, 2013
After the melting slush of Yerevan, Armenia resembles a soft white cloud, undulating to the border. The marshrutka – a small shared minibus – bobs and dives over hidden potholes, swerving around slippery mountain edges. Most Yerevantsi – people from Yerevan – won’t leave the city at all in the winter, the roads are considered too treacherous.
I abandoned my plan to hitch-hike back to Turkey after two hours standing on the road. Cars were stopping, but I found myself somehow edgy and nervous, waving them away. I arrived at Yerevan bus station just in time for the last marshrutka to Tbilisi, costing 6,500 Dram – just under €12.
We are an interesting crew: myself, two older Armenian chaps, an Indian guy and a young bushy-haired Japanese traveller, who clambers on at the last minute, lugging his backpack in after him.
After the co-humiliation of the border-crossing, in which we are shepherded, scrutinised and eventually stamped into Georgia, I get chatting with the Indian guy. He’s from Delhi, but now lives in Batumi, where he runs a bar. He speaks not only fluent English and Georgian, but also Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Punjabi and Sanskrit. I wait with him for his friend’s car when the marshrutka drops us on the fringes of the city centre. They give me a ride to Rustavelli Avenue, where I meet my friend Petra. We gossip over a delicious soup made by her flatmate and drink a lot of tea.
Tbilisi is blue skies and sunshine when I arrive at Dadoni bus station the following morning and seek out the marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe – closest I can seemingly get to the Turkish border. Crossing almost the whole of Georgia is going to cost 12 Lari – just over €5.50. I approach a small stand where a woman sits shivering, newspaper gripped between fingerless gloves. She peers at me through small rectangular glasses over the rim of her scarf. “Coffee please.” I try not to smile. One should never smile in post-Soviet countries. She places the jazzve on her little gas burner, scooping the foam from the top just as it begins to simmer. I watch how she expertly places the jazzve on and off the hot sand, pouring a little more coffee into the plastic cup each time. “Didi matloba”, I tell her, hoping I’ve remembered it right. The scant Georgian I picked up while hitchhiking with Emée and Alfie three months ago seems to have trickled out of my ear.
A man shoves a bundle of wicker brooms through the door of my marshrutka. He’s the latest in a string of autonomous market vendors to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the waiting passengers. A woman comes by the open window, sells two bananas to one woman and a kilo of tangerines to another. Another boards the bus and regales us with a speech about the small Christian calendar she’s brandishing, for which she asks one Lari.
As soon as we leave Tbilisi, the road disappears into a cloud of drizzle. It’s a three hour ride to Akhaltsikhe.
The internet contains rumours of a bus into Turkey at 2:30pm. I ask around at the bus station and am directed to a woman living in a sketchy-looking hotel above the station building. I speak with her in Turkish and she tells me yes, a bus will come in one hour.
The coach comes. It’s a Turkish coach, completely empty but for the driver and another man, his assistant. They unload a quantity of what I take to be smuggled goods and I ask about the journey to Ardahan. “Yes, yes,” they tell me, “the bus will go there tomorrow.” Tomorrow? But I need to go now! I ask about Posof. Yes, they are going to the border, but they want 40 Lari – around €20. It’s far too much for a 10km journey. I walk away with my head down, not quite knowing what to do.
The coach pulls away. The woman upstairs is shouting down to me – “coach! Coach!” “Ardahan, no!” I shout up. The coach stops at a gas station further down the road. The woman is still shouting, pointing at the bus. I decide to give it one last shot. The men are not particularly friendly. They tell me to wait. They fill the bus with petrol, talk with some Georgian guys nearby and grab coffee and sandwiches, ignoring me the whole time. “OK, let’s go!” one of the guys tells me – I’m getting a free ride into Turkey.
As we drive, the guys warm a little, ask where I’m from and what my name is. They wait for me at the border while my passport is stamped, and we’re on the road to Ardahan.
As soon as I’m in Turkey, my attitude lifts. Hitchhiking, a problem? No way! I see the turning to Kars and ask the coach driver to stop.
A car skids to a halt as soon as I raise my thumb. “Nereye gidiyorsunuz?”I ask, happy to be speaking Turkish again. “Kars!” comes the reply. I grin and get in, text messaging Halil while chatting to the drivers – I’ll be with you in two hours.