It was one of those mornings that I didn’t want to get up, but the temperature in the car had started to climb. I had no choice but to throw off my sleeping bag and sit up. The sun was blazing through the sunroof which we had left open, and I decided to poke my head out to see what was going on out in the world. The salty air hit my face and I faced the sea. It was lovely outside.
After a quick shower, we laid out the picnic blanket in front of the car for breakfast. A French family had been camping next to us. While we ate our toast, the little boy from the family next door came over and shyly offered us a honey melon. His parents had sent him over to share their food with us. Just like that, a sense of peace washed over me. I mused at the little ways we teach children to be kind. We ate the delicious melon quickly. I didn’t want to move. Just sitting in front of the water in the shade felt like meditation. I could stay for hours. But we had a rally to get on with.
We packed up our stuff and continued driving along the Black Sea coast. For the first time in 6 days, we had plans to sightsee. We wanted to go to the Sumela Monastery, a Greek Orthodox church dating back to 386 AD and located within the Altındere National Park. Though it was a bit of a detour, it reminded me of the Predjama Castle in Slovenia and I was keen to explore it. Besides, I’ve always found structures built into the mountain quite fascinating. The monastery is nestled into a steep cliff at an altitude of 1200 meters.
The 5 hour drive across 296km felt much longer since my tummy ached for food. We drove for nearly half the day before reaching the foot of the national park. Just getting close to the entrance of the national park was impossible. We hadn’t realized that it was a public holiday. Everyone in the vicinity, in an effort to get out of the city and experience some greenery, was headed that way. We climbed the steep track towards the gate of the park. Coming from the flat deltas of Bangladesh, I’m rather inept at driving in steep mountainous roads. The result was that I stalled at one point in all the chaos, and couldn’t get the car to drive up. In fact, the Kangoo started to roll down towards the car behind us. I quickly pulled the hand break, switched over to the passenger’s side and let Moritz take over. I was embarrassed.
Moritz deftly got us running and climbing the mountain again. We reached the park entrance, and when we declared that we had no liras to pay for the entrance fee, the guard promptly told us we could pay 5 USD instead. The exchange rate sounded sketchy, but we had no choice. We paid and continued the climb up.
The drive up the mountain was brutal. Our clutch took quite a beating and emitted a funny smell. The whole thing started to feel like a bad idea. Parking near the monastery was nearly impossible, but we found a tiny space to squeeze into.
I’m afraid what came next is quite anti-climatic. We walked a further 20 mins up to the monastery and realized it was too full to actually go inside. I’m not particularly fond of crowded places. So we decided to walk back down, take a couple of snaps from the viewpoint and be on our way. We didn’t get to see monastery, but the drive up was quite the experience!
By this time, I was starving. We drove for nearly 40 mins, keeping our eyes peeled for roadside restaurants. We found nothing. We stopped a couple of times, but the restaurants were either closed or didn’t have any food. Not even bread. Eventually we found a convenience store and bought some cookies and chocolates. Anything to stave off the hunger! Soon after, we stumbled upon a roadside restaurant making homemade pides. The kind lady running the place was more than happy to have us. She showed me to their private bathroom and let me wash up there. Within 15 mins, we were served the best possible pide in all of Turkey!
Our host was incredibly hospitable. She was very excited to have us in her restaurant. I guess not many foreigners roll in in a strange car in her part of town! She wanted to communicate with us, but we struggled to find a common language. Soon her daughters arrived, and she communicated with us through her eldest daughter, who asked us cheekily, “My mom asks what you thought of her pide?” Our sincerest answer was that it was the best meal we had eaten since we started out trip! She grinned from ear to ear. We finished our meal, thanked her for her hospitality and soon, the whole family was waving us off.
We stopped for gas a couple of hours later. The attendants at the gas station offered us tea, much to our surprise, and told us it was the local tea. Çaykur tea is grown in the eastern edge of the Black Sea and is a local specialty. They were more than happy to offer some to us as we filled up our tank. The day had been full of random acts of kindness.
From the gas station, we drove another 1h and reached the Turkish-Georgian border of Sarpi around sundown. The horizon was stunning, but the queue was daunting. We put on the stopwatch just to see how long it would take us to cross through. It was quicker than we expected, crossing through the Turkish immigration side at just 1hr 40 mins from when we first arrived.
The trouble began when we reached the Georgian side. As usual, Moritz’s (boring) German passport was processed without fanfare. My green Bangladeshi passport, however, required special consideration.
I knew that I did not need a Georgian visa. This would be my second time in Georgia. The last time I flew into Tbilisi Airport, I spent 20 mins debating with the immigration officer whether or not I needed a visa. She eventually decided that I needed one and that I could get one on arrival. This was two years ago. The rules have since changed, and I am now able to enter using my Schengen residence permit. The border official seemed to not know this. We sat in the car next to the counter and waited. After 15 mins, they closed the lane we were in, as no other cars could be processed while we waited.
Another 25 minutes later, the immigration officer asked me if I had a visa for the mighty United States of A. I said I did.
“Has it been used?” she asked.
I pointed to the stamp from IAH airport in Houston where an entry stamp lay from October 2014. She struggled to find the stamp even though it was staring right back at her.
After further deliberation of another 10 mins, she very nicely explained to me that I did not need a visa for Georgia (which I had known all along anyway) because I had an American visa. By then, I was tired of waiting. I didn’t feel the need to point out that regardless of the American visa, my Schengen residency was sufficient. I’ve learnt not to correct immigration officers. We finally entered Georgia, the 8th country on our route.
The resort town of Batumi on the Black Sea coast was a short 25 min drive from the border. But we had booked another beach camp which promised to be just 30 km from Batumi. It even had special deals for Mongol Rally teams! And clean bathrooms! So we inserted the coordinates into our navigation system and started driving towards it.
The location we had directions to turned out to be 60km from the border, and a good 1h 15 mins drive, contrary to what we had been led to believe. We had no address, but just the coordinates. After driving through some very dark roads – it was past 11pm already – we reached what looked like a jungle. There were a few groups scattered around a bonfire, and we were sure it was the campsite (though I noted that there were no toilets in sight). The guys around the fire knew nothing about a campsite. This was clearly not it.
Moritz was ready to camp out there. But I needed a toilet. Badly.
We agreed to look for the fabled campsite and drove up and down the same road 3 or 4 times. We were baffled. This was where we were supposed to be. But where was the camp ground?
We decided that a fenced-off area just next to the jungle had to be it. We gingerly opened the gate, parked our car and got ready to settle in for the night. We didn’t care if it was private property. We just wanted a place to crash.
A Georgian family who spoke Russian came out of their tent, which was just off on one side of the property. They seemed to be the keeper of the ground. We tried to explain that we had a booking but we weren’t sure if this was the place. We don’t know if they understood us but the pair, an older woman and a younger woman in her twenties, showed us the shower and the bathroom (which was indeed reasonably clean) and warned us that the water would be cold.
We took a freezing, cold shower after we managed to get the plastic faucet, moonlighting as a showerhead, to work. We were tired to our bones. We made our bed, which involves arranging a wooden platform inside the Kangoo and laying out a futon and our sleeping bags. This saved us the hassle of trying to find a flat ground on many occasions to pitch a tent.
The sky was clear. You could see every single star in the sky. I could hear the sea. I fell asleep watching the stars, feeling like I was thousands of miles from civilization already.
This post is part of a series covering my trip across Central Asia in four weeks.