Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Day 237 – Good luck. (Border crossing Georgia to Turkey)

After Karabakh we stayed two nights in Yerevan with our previous Couch Surfing host and Karabakh travel mate, Stanislav, before heading back to Georgia and our last destination before Turkey. Considering how good all the other roads in Georgia were we were surprised to find that our route running along the Turkish border from the North West of Armenia to the South West of Georgia was an exceptionally muddy track, winding through the mountains and barely wide enough for one car.

As a popular tourist destination for Georgians as well as foreigners we expected somewhat of an array of accommodation options, but with only one hostel style place it felt like we were back in Central Asia. The up-side of this issue though is that everyone’s staying at the same place, which in high season could be a problem, but in low season (as it is now) it’s actually quite nice.

LPG is available in Georgia (with the same connection as Turkey), but not everywhere. We looked up SoCar which is the company that sells it and found the locations of the stations with LPG. There were lots near the Armenian border directly South of Tblisi, many of them not listed on the website. Fortunately we found one a few kilometres from Batumi, and only 16km or so from the Turkish border, so before embarking on the border crossing we filled up with as much LPG and petrol as possible. We know that there is LPG in Turkey, but there’s always the concern – especially given our track record up until now – that we won’t have the correct adaptor. Also, petrol and LPG and diesel and any other fuel is horrendously expensive in Turkey.

The building on the Georgian side of the Sarpi border between Georgia and Turkey is quite famous for its architecture. Above the usual car lanes and customs offices, there are several magnificent stories of abstractly shaped white terraces, towering over the Black Sea coast. The sign 200m before the border that read “Good luck” in Georgian and English seemed like a bad omen, but we didn’t really except this to be a tricky crossing.

As expected the Georgian side was entirely organised and efficient. A woman checked our passports and Carnet and politely bade us farewell. As we crossed the 100m or so of no man’s land and reached Turkey,  we realised we were back to Middle Eastern/Asian mayhem with groups of men standing around of which we were unable to decipher who worked where or if at all. No signs directed us into queues; we were just left to ram ourselves into a gap somewhere and hope it was the right one. The first queue we tried definitely wasn’t for us – the windows to talk through from our window were higher than our roof – so we backtracked and found one that would serve us. We were instructed to park our car and proceed to the visa office.

Now, we are all Australians travelling with Australian passports for the majority of this trip, however I am actually Scottish (born and raised) and Denner’s father is English and as such we both have British passports. We haven’t pulled these out up until now (in fact we were careful to hide them especially for Iran) but Turkey recently increased the price of visas for Australians to US$60 instead of the US$20 that they charge the rest of the world. (Canadians also pay $60.) Admittedly Australia just put up their already extortionate visa prices so I don’t actually disagree with it in principal, but it meant it was time to play the British card.

You’re not really supposed to switch passports between borders, and the country you’re entering will always check that you left the previous country properly, so we decided not to leave the switch until the Turkish border but pre-empt it when we were re-entering Georgia from Armenia. They wanted to see the passport that we had exited Armenia with and then asked why we would like our British passport to be stamped. I think if we had explained that we wanted to save money on Turkish visas they would have been quite understanding, but just because it was easier we said it was because our Australian passports are getting very full – which they are. This reason was accepted on face value and our British passports were stamped.

Back to the border crossing... so we took our passports and found the “visa office” which was signed as “cashier” and paid our $20 and $60 respectively. The amusing part of this is that they haven’t printed new stickers for the $60 visa, so in Ben and Tom’s passports the cashier just stuck three $20 stickers. They peel out really easily so we moved them around in our passports to the locations we desired before returning to the stamping window where the man told us that only Canadians are expensive and Ben and Tom should go back and pay only $20 each. They went back and were tossed around a few officials before returning back to us and the stamping man with someone to verify that it was actually $60. A little bit of our time was wasted but everyone was surprisingly helpful and we actually appreciated the fact that no one wanted to over charge us which is why they were all checking with each other.

We were now in the country, we just had to get our car in. We followed a lane that ended at a crowded window. There we parked and Ben got out to figure out what to do. He took our Carnet and insurance documents and told me to park. There really were just cars and trucks and buses going everywhere in all directions so parking wasn’t so straight forward, but I stopped in a gap, until someone needed to drive in that gap at which point I moved to a new gap, until someone ahead of me moved and I could get into a better gap, and so on.

While I was negotiating the traffic Ben was watching as groups of men stood around and stared at our Carnet and insurance documents, wondering and discussing amongst themselves what to do with them. (It’s possible/probable that they weren’t discussing this at all but were just having a chat about meeting up for tea later on.) Eventually they decided on the “let’s just stamp it” course of action and we were out of there.

We checked the time on the way out of the border area and sure enough we had just gained two hours, meaning that although the sun was already half-way down the sky, it really was only 1.30pm.

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