Long Road To Tbilisi

08 Aug 2010, by Brian in Uncategorized

When the border guard asked me today what I knew about Georgia, I had to stifle myself from blurting out “Joseph Stalin was born here”. My answer was still honest, “Nothing, but I’d like to learn more”. He smiled and asked me how big Seattle was before waiving me through. This only after walking up to several different booths to have our car and passport paperwork processed, which was preceded by as many booths exiting the Turkish border (and as many as we had when entering Turkey). The border process really isn’t one, it’s a chaotic lack of design as people crowd booths and buses pass around parked cars waiting for their owners. We only expect it to get worse.

I’m not sure exactly when I’ll post this yet, not because we can’t find internet, but because we never stop long enough to use it. The relentless pace has kept us driving to exhaustion and sleeping just long enough to press on again. When you see this it will be back dated to August 8th, when it was written.

Tom, Jean and I left Amy and Kim with tearful goodbyes after the hard decision to split the team up in Istanbul. We considered so many alternatives, but this seemed to be the only way to be able to finish as a team. Our concerns about sending the team on without me proved well deserved today at the Turkish border. Since Jean and I had our passports stamped with the vehicle info on the way into Turkey, we had to exit with them, and they didn’t really care who else was in the car. As we drove away from Istanbul I was filled with regret & sadness to leave my wife behind, and that we failed to find some way to continue on as a team but today’s border crossing re-confirmed that this was the only way to get both cars and the team all to Mongolia at the end. We are texting each other throughout the day, and hopefully Kim and Amy can post about their experience in Turkey until they’re both able to re-join us as we soldier on.

Crossing the bridge from the European to the Asian side of Istanbul really was like crossing into a different world. The landscape changed, the buildings slowly changed, it got immediately hotter and the air dirtier (hard to believe as Istanbul was pretty polluted)… squat toilets are now the norm, and English is becoming more rare. We drove on until darkness fell and started looking for accommodations. The first hotel we stopped at was a “Thermal Spa”, an outrageous 60TL per person ($42). We drove a few hundred meters to a Turkish pansyion that was filled with locals gawking at our cars. At first we were a little worried the cars were drawing too much attention to be safe over night, but the 10TL/person was hard to pass up. The room was a spartan concrete slab with cots, squat toilets down the hall, and a meat locker filled with lamb and yogurt. When the inn keeper wanted to hold my passport for the night we almost had a deal breaker and bailed for the spa, but he relented and let me keep it. The roads through the middle of Turkey were under heavy construction and got pretty rough at times, so we were exhausted from the drive and fell right asleep.

We woke up early yesterday morning, the cars completely safe and unmolested, and drove all day to catch up with fellow Seattle team Just A Steppe Away and the Vancouver girls (and now 1 British guy) from 3 Blonds and A Beater at a camp ground just outside Trabzon, Turkey. We stopped only to dip our feet (and all of Jean) in the Black Sea near Terme, and chatted up some locals who Tom talked basketball with (they were big LA Lakers fans). Everybody was extremely hospitable, with the manager of the beach resort-y type place we stopped at handing me his phone to talk to the owner who spoke English and offered to help me with “anything you want to learn about Turkey”. We pressed on though to make the camp ground by dinner time. Romanda and Amanda from 3BAB had picked up a guy whose car had been totaled by a local just at the launch in Goodwood… while it as parked! His car was not going to Mongolia, but he persevered and joined some other teams, hooking up with them at least through Iran, which they left for this morning.

The three of us are in a caravan with Kaine, Justin and Christine from Just A Steppe Away, which was nice because they helped rotate with us so we didn’t have to have a single driver today. We drove hard all day again, following the Black Sea coast into Georgia at our crazy several hour border crossing in 43C heat. Georgia’s geography demolished any expectations I had. It was tropical, almost Caribbean with palm trees and beaches, yet mountainous like Nepal… only everybody looks European. The language is not like Russian, although the numbers sound similar, and while I’ve heard they don’t like Russian spoken here, it has been our only way to communicate a few times, without any negative consequences. The script doesn’t look Cyrillic OR Western… it looks like Ethiopian to me actually. The drivers in Georgia are the worst/craziest I’ve ever seen, passing 2 cars deep by me on a two lane road, and we were really not relishing driving at night. Making it to Tbilisi by sundown was impossible though, and when we found ourselves stranded between Georgia’s 2nd largest city, Kut Aisi, and it’s first, Tbilisi, we decided our only hope for lodging was to press on. We were also hard pressed to find a place that would exchange our Turkish Lira, but nobody would take credit cards either… so we were stuck actually spending USD, which we’ve been trying to preserve for further on when ATM’s are not available… well I guess that point has hit sooner than we thought. At least gas is “cheap” here. At only $4.50 per gallon we feel like we’re being blessed compared to the $9.84 per gallon gouging we took in Turkey. Our fears of driving at night turned out to be pretty unfounded, as the roads in Georgia are mostly well paved (well we hit a funny spot just outside Batumi, but I think we accidentally got on a trucker road), and after dark there was much less traffic and the temperatures were more bearable. Another rally team in an ambulance, appropriately named Ambulanz, caught up with us at a gas station outside Tbilisi. The woman at the gas station spoke Russian and was interested in taking Tom’s 5 euro note for a good value in Georgian Lira goods, so we stocked up on water and soda. She spoke Russian, and I was actually able to understand about 85% of what she said (given it was all shopping & numbers based stuff)… we had a pretty good little conversational exchange before we caravanned on, now with an ambulance in tow. We were making awesome time right until we got into Tbilisi proper, and Tom drove right through a crater and punctured a tire. To be fair, I followed him through the massive hole in the concrete, but my 6 ply van tires weathered it well enough. With cops looking on (and *eventually* helping), we made quick work of swapping out the tire and moving on to find a hotel. Again with the broken Russian, I helped negotiate two rooms for the 10 of us in this pretty nice hotel for only about $10 per person. Finally, a chance to copy all my photos & video to the external hard drive (64GB! when am I going to get a chance to edit this stuff and get it online?!?! we have to stop driving for a day!), and a shower that is several days in the making. I also washed out some pretty ripe clothing, just enough to dry overnight. Now, a few hours sleep on the floor before we push on for Baku tomorrow morning. We’re looking at another long day, another horrendous border crossing, and who knows what kind of shake down is headed our way at the Baku ferry. The stories are legendary. We are hoping that picking up our Turkmenistan Letter of Invitation at the consulate in Baku will help us avoid some big bribes (that is the word anyway). Next post will probably be when we stop moving on the other side of the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan!

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