When a Turkish bus company says “Express” bus they really mean “a Georgian bus that warp speeds the whole way like a bat out of hell”. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Up until now, all of my trips on this side of the world have been accompanied by a group or at least one friend. Even with my trips to Turkey, I met great friends at the end of the bus rides. I kind of viewed solo traveling like eating alone in restaurants. I don’t mind, but would prefer not to. Well, there is a first time for everything!
I have been wanting to go to Trabzon for a while now. There is one particular monastery, Sumela Monastery, that is literally on the side of a mountain cliff. I have put the trip off for this reason or that, but this weekend, I chose to go, not matter what. A friend was initially supposed to go with, but pulled out at the last moment. No worries! Ladies and Gents- Introducing ‘My First Solo Trip: Trabzon, Turkey’.
It takes approximately 4 hours to get to Trabzon from Batumi. I made it to the bus station in great time from Oz. I even had time to exchange currency and eat. I am pretty impressed with my ability to order in Georgian now. I can ask what they have and tell them exactly what I want. Early in my experience, I remember vividly going to a restaurant and knowing that the server knew that I didn’t have a clue. They habitually would tell me that they only served katchapuri, the traditional dish. But looking at the other tables of patrons, they obviously had more than just katchapuri. Another thing restaurants commonly “only” had was pizza… with mayonnaise.
But knowing a language is literally a key to a society. If you speak a language, everyone relaxes. If you speak a language everything is easier. I know that sounds overtly obvious, but it’s different from knowing it and experiencing it. An analogy would be seeing a show about swimming with sharks and actually doing it.
So I sat in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the bus station with the regulars and wayward travellers and quietly ate my lunch and sipped my tea. I felt a little like Aragon at the Inn of the Prancing Pony in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings.
I got into the marshrutka at 11:30 for a noon departure. I always like to get on a little early to choose the most convenient seat… and to make sure I even have a seat. But we didn’t end up leaving until 1’oclock, which pissed me off. Even though I should be used to the Georgian way of not doing things normally or according to time, I was still frustrated. Anyway, we left.
As soon as we got a good distance away from the bus station, they driver gives money to who became apparent as the ‘helper’ of the trip. The helper then went straight to a liquor shop. He brings back (from what I can see) a case of liquor, gets more money from driver and gets another case. Once we are driving again, the helper then goes from seat to seat whispering to everyone. At first I thought he was asking for money. Then he whips open a duffle bag and starts separating cigarette cartoons and bottles of liquor into smaller bags and giving them to the bus riders. It dawns on me that he is spreading out his stash to circumvent customs into Turkey. He didn’t ask me… not that I would have done it.
When we get to the border, I know the drill by now. I race to beat the rush to get in line. This time I got an e-Visa. Which for this border cross is the best thing. So much more convenient. Before I would have had to get screened at the second checkpoint then go past the checkpoint to buy the visa then come back to show the guard to get stamped.
Once on the Turkish side, I was accosted by the Turkish Taxi Cartel. I’ve had dealings with these fellas before, they will fleece every last Lari, Lira, or Dollar you have if you aren’t careful. They have a racket on the transportation from the border to the next town in Turkey, Hopa. I will do all I can to avoid those cats in the future.
I was the first person waiting for the bus… or so I thought. I was waiting for it in the wrong place. But fortunately I saw the bus coming through. The border situation is still a hot mess. I was a little nervous too, because I heard from various people that the smaller (non Turkish owned) buses have been know to leave people. But when I got on this guy was sure to do a head count. Which was pointless (to me) because half the people that started on the trip were replaced by new passengers. How in the hell did that happen!?! Off we went.
After careful deduction and context clues, this is what I think was happening. The mini vans/ marshrutkas serve as a trafficking mule for the… traders. I don’t want to call them smugglers, but that’s what they were. They were taking goods into Turkey, pseudo illegally, to sell for a profit. So I guess all other types of goods roll the opposite way into Georgia from Turkey. You see them everywhere in every Bazaar. But it seems the only goods that are going into Turkey en mass were cigarettes and liquor. But again this is simply my observation from a few bus rides. I could be way off.
Back on the bus, as I said, we had a different cast of characters- mostly women. One woman in particular seemed to be ‘in charge’. She spent a good half an hour reshuffling goods around from different bags. She would also hand off bags with alcohol and cigarettes to other the other ladies right before they got off at different stops. These ladies also had big bags with what I can only assume were full of contraband. As we neared Trabzon, the lady in charge of this tribe of smugglers started to organize her own bag for our final stop. She started pulling out cigarette boxes front all kinds of nooks and crannies. What I thought was a camera bag had multiple compartments all filled with cigarettes. They were in jackets, shoes, socks, etc.
At last, I was dropped off in Trabzon.