Sunday, April 05, 2009

postcard from turkey and georgia

When confronted by a journey of a thousand miles, it's of comfort when you have a stroke of luck in the very fırst step.

I take my seat on the 2120 traın from Nottingham to London St. Pancras. Half an hour later a guy, early twenties, gets on at Leicester and sits across from me. He then gets a guidebook to Turkey out and begins reading.

It transpires that his name is Vishnu and that yes, he is on his way to Gatwick to catch the same 8am plane to Istanbul as me. He's a medicine student, and full of advice on travel health matters. He would end up joining us for the first 24 hours of the trip.

Six sleepless hours in Gatwick airport later, Simon - my companion for the next 80 days - joins us, and we're off to Turkey.

Our first taste of Istanbul is a boat ride across the Sea of Marmara (about twice the size of Sydney Harbour) that also means we are crossing the continental border from Asia into Europe. After settling at a hostel we go off in search of a traditional Turkish bath house experience. Any such place in easy walking distance is likely to be a dumbed down, overpriced experience for the tourist market, so we instead head out after dark through the back alley labyrinth of the Bazaar district in search of an authentic one, on guidebook recommendation. 40 minutes intense map work later we find it, and it's mysteriously closed down.

We then bid farewell to Vishnu as he catches his coach to Turkey's west coast.

One typical sightseeing morning later, we head off to the Grand Bazaar, expecting just another large marketplace to wander through. Instead we are greeted by a sprawling uber-market (the world's largest, or something) full of a complex mesh of pathways to get completely lost in, and (mostly) charming stall owners eagerly touting for business. At first it's an overwhelming headache of an experience, but shortly after it becomes a place to fall in love with, especially after a lifetime being conditioned by the monotone rhino that is Asda West Bridgford.

A 10pm train out of Istanbul (we've decided to travel at night whenever we can, to save on accommodation costs) brings us to Turkey's charmless grey brute of a capital, Ankara. Luckily we only have to whip between transport hubs before getting a coach out of there.

It's on the ensuing 24 hour (!) coach journey through Turkey's arid, featureless northern countryside that the complexities of their language really become apparent. After 60 hours in the country I still had not managed to pronounce 'thank you' properly, and every time I tried would either be greeted with a part confused, part vacant look, or simply ignored altogether. Now, in my life to this stage I had drunk a total of one solitary cup of tea. Sorry England, I just never saw the point of it. But with the translation for 'thank you' being an unpronounceable jıgsaw of syllables, and the word for tea being kind enough to rhyme with tea ('che' or something), by the end of the journey I had drunk sıx cups of the stupid overrated stuff.

Late at night the coach reaches border control between Turkey and Georgia. Based on this experience, I reckon I can claim with fair confidence that I am the first Irishman to ever visit the country. The Georgian border guard spends a full five minutes reading every-single-page of my passport at least once whilst everybody else is waved through after a cursory 30 seconds. Everybody else working the border seems genuinely fascinated by it too, and I hop back on the bus with an odd feeling of mild celebrity about the whole thing.

Georgia's countryside seems more interesting. One particular mountain village we pass through bears a striking resemblance to the the one depicted in Resident Evil 4.

Arriving in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on the morning of what just so happens so be my birthday, we cross the city center on foot, passing two United Nations cars (always a sign you've made idiosyncratic holiday plans) to our bed for the night at Irena's Homestay.

Tourism is such a rarity in Georgia that hostels don't exist, and the only budget options are Homestays where locals pile beds into any unused floors of their buildings, whilst the proper hotels cater almost exclusively to business customers.

Later we head out to sample Tbilisi's nightlife. As westerners, we are exiled from the main form of entertainment - late night restaurants - on the advice that attending without native companions can turn unsavory once things get going. Instead we sample three of the city's bars. The first serves beer at just 85p a pint, the second feels instantly like the ones I have drunk and worked in back in Nottingham, and the third turned out to be one where you are offered a drink, then a table, then a choice of ladies to entertain you for the remainder of the night. We drank up and bolted out the door pretty quickly from that one.

The whole of the next day is spent exploring Tbilisi, seeing beautiful churches, ramshackle neighbourhoods, and climbing a big hill, aided by the city's underground Metro system that costs 18p to travel on.

The reactions of Georgian people to us has been fascinating. Walking down the highstreet half the people would be staring (literally) at us. On three separate occasions Simon had a tiny pebble, then a light punch from a girl, then a piece of rubbish, thrown at his back. (his back isn't particularly incendiary or anything, it just seems like a desire for an anonymous, very mild form of hostility) But beyond that often lay an excited welcome. As no other country speaks their language, a joyful, surprised smile often crosses their faces when you make even the most basic attempt at speaking it. Our local convenience store was seemingly run by a rotating army of 12 women in their early twenties who would flutter with excitement every time we entered. This is certainly not a reaction I'm used to garnering in Nottingham. A tourism student called Mia, a devoted Westlife - and by association Ireland as a whole - fan stepped in to help us navigate Tbilisi's impenetrable underground system, and after I showed her my passport stayed with us for two hours helping us plan our upcoming day trips.

Then there was the minibus ('Marshutka' - the main form of public transport in Georgia) assistant who was so proud to have an Englishman and Irishman in his vehicle that he stopped five minutes into the journey to buy a round of beers for us to enjoy on the journey together. The ensuing conversation was a challenge given that we only knew two words in Georgian (thank you, hello) and he only knew one phrase in English ('okay, let's go', curiously), but through talented miming on both sides we managed to discover that his hobbies include football, women, alcohol and firing guns, and that he once got arrested by the police after taking heroin. We were pretty anxious for the rest of that journey.

Said journey, after also passing through a snow blizzard, took us to Gori, the birthplace of murderous psychopath dictator Stalin. Georgia is oddly proud of him, and we toured the museum, the train he used to travel in (you haven't lived until you've photographed a dictator's toilet, let me tell you) as well as some gorgeous dilapidated old trains in a disused area of the railway station. We also managed to lose each other for two hours, which was a challenge given that neither of us have mobiles on this trip.

By the next day we were getting the hang of Georgian as a language much better than we had Turkish, and had excitedly learned that the word for 'sorry' is 'bodishit' (literally pronounced 'body shit'), which sounds like the kind of filth Boy George, Max Moseley or Jamie Theakston might be into. I used it a lot though, enjoying getting to be polite and have my own little bit of naughty fun at the same time.

A final day trip to the manicured heritage village of Signahi later, and we left Irena's Homestay (her daughter insisted on taking photos of us before we left) and headed to the bus station where we stayed for seven hours to save a whole ₤10 each on accommodation. Come morning our Georgian trip would be spoilt somewhat by the bus companies tactics of clubbing together into an infuriating cartel that means that it's twice as expensive for Westerners to leave Georgia as it is to get there - and even locals pay about 50% more. Simon argues long and aggressively about this, and eventually gets us 30% off the price five minutes before the coach leaves, to take us to Eastern Turkey...

Wish you were here

Photos: (no login required)
Georgia rating: 7.7/10
Friendliest person met: Mia the Westlife devotee
Scariest moment: Heroin minibus guy
Most beautiful sight: christian church in Tbilisi.
The soundtrack: Guns 'N' Roses - Appetite For Destruction
Still to come: Eastern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Glastonbury festival.

1 comment:

Niko kululashvili said...

Yes, Georgia is a beautiful Country and intresting travel destination, with the time it becomes better fast. Most popular travel activities for now are hiking and trekking in Caucasus mountains and I am also reccommend to plan the vacations to Gudauri ski resort