Back in the USSR!

in which I leave a snowy fatherland for a much warmer Black Sea coast, cross into my eighth former Soviet Republic, receive my first marriage proposal, and arrive in Tbilisi in the middle of the night with zero accommodations, zero plans, and below zero weather. Really, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy.

How I ended up in Georgia for the first half of my winter break is a bit of a story. It goes something like this. Originally, I had planned to spend my winter break with my friend Roy, who was going to visit from the States. The plan was to go to Vienna and Prague and see where things took us between. But Roy ended up being too busy with his job and told me about three weeks before break began that he would not be able to make it. Not a big deal, but at that point, I decided that I had a simple rule for my week off: either I would be somewhere warm, or I would be with friends. So, considering my options, I set my designs upon Turkey and sent an email to a college friend of mine, Gill (pronounced Jill), who lives in Istanbul, to test the waters for dropping in on her. She responded quickly: yes I could come, but she would not be there till the 16th. A couple hours later and I received a second email from her:

It occurred to me – if you’re free that weekend – I’m going to meet some friends in Georgia for a little ski trip then. Because they have money and I don’t, they’re all flying in from Kiev and staying at a nice hotel in this ski resort by the Russian border. I am taking a discount flight to the northeastern corner of Turkey and then, hopefully, via a bunch of minibuses, getting to the same place as them, and going skiing, which is absurdly cheap – around 15 euro a day.

It was an offer too good to be true: everything could go disastrously wrong, nothing would be pre-arranged, and it would take me into Georgia, putting me over 50% for former Soviet Republics. Needless to say, I could not say no. My initial research, however, got me nowhere, except that I could not really afford it. Until I finally found a flight to Trabzon in the remotely affordable range and suddenly I was in. Misadventure was going to be mine for the taking. We now pick up from an email I wrote as misadventure was unfurling. Most was written on February 12, on the way to Tbilisi from the Georgian Black Sea Coast.

Leaving a very snowy Nuremberg. Just before landing at sunset in Istanbul.

I left school a bit early yesterday and caught the bus to a bus to the airport and with minor delays arrived in Istanbul uneventfully. I got my visa and continued on to the domestic terminal where I settled to enjoy my now 5 hour layover. A bit later my phone rings and it’s Gill. Apparently she had made a mistake and had not booked a ticket after all, she was heading to me, and could I buy her a ticket for my flight. So I did and soon enough, there she was. After catching up over her quick dinner in Atatürk airport, we flew to Trabzon, took an excessively overpriced cab to a hotel, where after a bit of bargaining, we got a room for ~$35. fine, a necessary measure–we had arrived at 1:30 am…

Our receptionist buddy was sweet enough, brought us terrible coffee (at 2 am) and promised to be of assistance should we need him for anything. He did remember our names this morning. Evidently we made a good impression, perhaps a theme for the trip. I stopped in a convenience store for some water, and the man just let me have the bottle. Do the Turks think thus is the way to my heart? Very possible. Also not effective.

But anyway, enough on Turkey! So from Trabzon, we grabbed a small mini bus to the bus station and bartered our way onto a bus for Batumi, on the Georgian Black Sea Coast, for 22.50 YTL each (will look up exchange rates later, but around $15). Getting to the border was an uneventful 3 hour drive.

Gill in Rize, where our bus stopped en route to Batumi. This is on the Turkish Black Sea coast.

Then Turkish exit customs, and we found ourselves at the entrance to Georgia.

“Welcome to Georgia!”

And all pandemonium broke loose. Suddenly able to communicate, men kept offering to move bags for us for a fee, a joke considering how little we had. As we waited in “line” (a generous concept–it was seriously like being in Russia again) the woman “behind” us kept trying to get us to squeeze into smaller space to inch herself to the border control. I was highly amused, and a little confused by her lack of logic–the bus would have to wait till we were all free anyway. But whatever. I laughed it all off. Then we were instructed to “spend luggage through the metal detector,” but getting there involved yet another “line.” but evidently my Russian charmed the border guard, who pulled Gill and I out of the crowd and sent us through with a heavily accented “Welcome to Georgia!” And we continued on to the inspection, where the woman took a quick look at my passport and with a smile and “America, go!” she sent us on through. And thus we were in Georgia.

Soviet Republic Number 8! In Sarpi, Georgia, with Turkey behind me.

Much ahead of our bus, but with our luggage. We hung out at the border town for a bit as we waited for the rest of our bus. After a while, though, it occurred to us that we were only 17 km from Batumi. And we blew 1 lar ($1=1.7 Georgian lari (GEL)) each, we caught a minibus (hereafter marshrutka, the Russian word) there, saving us a nice chunk of time. We were let off at the “center,” and we wandered a bit, stepping into an unusual church, and retiring to a restaurant, where I hit my first “Back in the USSR” moment. Namely, half the things we tried to order were not available. Though there was English on the menu, so we did not complain. Set us back all of 13 lari, including beer.

Best reason to go to Georgia? Hands down, the food. Khachapuri, a fried cheesy bread dish. Delicious.

And the beer? Decidedly drinkable, though nothing special.

At the end, I asked our waitress for some directions, and suddenly I had 5 people giving me advice simultaneously. Hard on my Russian. But we then navigated ourselves to the Black Sea, and the whole land/cityscape changed. Seriously, Batumi looks like what I would imagine Nice would like had it fallen to the Soviets for 50 years. That old style of fin-de-siècle architecture popular in the haunts of the British elite in the late 19th century. Bizarre.

Getting near the coast. A Soviet take on Nice? Perhaps…

Of course, I took my boots off and waded in the freezing water, long enough to get the requisite picture for my mother (I still don’t even know if she is aware I do that for her, as I don’t actually show her the pictures, but I guess she’ll read that here).

Any time the mountains and sea come together is generally beautiful. Also, the water was (predictably) really cold.

A Sheraton and an old Ferris Wheel.

Anyway, we then figured our time was drawing to a close. So we climbed aboard a marshrutka after mentioning we wanted to get to the bus station. Cost .30 lari each–like a quarter. Awesome. And there we scoped our bus out, 20 lari each, to Tbilisi, meaning we got from Trabzon for less than $30, not bad… But a bit of a fail on our part: the man claimed to be leaving “immediately, at 7.” I looked at my watch: 4:30. Different ideas of immediately. So we wandered a bit, until the man came back and said that was in half an hour. And it hit me. Why had I not considered a time change? Still perplexed that it is 2 hours–it is an hour later than Moscow here, yet I’ve been further east and still on Moscow time. Oh well. I stopped in a shop to try to buy a pen, and walked out with another free gift. And we set off on our marshrutka to Tbilisi, some 6-7 hours away.

Last views of Batumi before setting off for Tbilisi.

The absurdity factor rose from there. Some 45 minutes later, we realized we were on some rural road, and suddenly half the people in the marshrutka got out and were loading things. And then they returned to the bus, cigarettes still lit, and continued on via a much bigger road. I just laughed. Absurd. Still no idea what was going on then.

It grew steadily colder as we continued inland into the mountains. Whereas I had worn just long sleeves in Batumi, suddenly there was a lot of snow on the ground. Around 22:30 or 23:00 we had a rest stop an a roadside restaurant, where the driver invited Gillian and me to sit down and eat with him. At first i was alone, and we chatted in Russian. He asked where we were from, where I had learned Russian, whether it was my first time in Georgia, etc. Gillian joined us, and we continued to chat, with me as translator. Eventually he asked how old we were and whether we were married. Upon receiving a negative answer, he promised he was a real bachelor and proposed one of us marry him. He focused on me first, then it became more fun with Gill, since then it involved both of us (talking to me, me translating). But we were offered a nice house, with cows and a big family! Not bad for a first marriage proposal, I feel. He did say he wouldn’t learn English, though. I think I had to turn him down for my parents’ sake. A real shame… I could have had 50 cows! On the bright side, he paid for our food.

So, next morning now. More misadventure behind us. We arrived in Tbilisi at 2am, not exactly convenient. After looking up some cheap places to stay, we had no luck finding anything, forcing us to admit defeat and find a nice hotel for $60 for the two of us. C’est la vie, hopefully we will do better tonight. Nice place, though. Free breakfast, free wifi–living the luxury in Tbilisi! Still, all things considered, not a bad beginning to our adventures.

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4 thoughts on “Back in the USSR!

  1. nice to know I’m thought of whenever there is a wadeable body of water–last week I put my feet–better yet I swam–in the Pacific and the Halawa waterfall on Molokai–awesome! Glad you saw fit to turn down the marriage proposal (not sure what you’d do with 50 cows) and that your Russian has come in so handy!

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