The weather looked far from promising when I woke next day so I decided against another day trailing around Trabzon or a trip out to the Sumela Monastery. I would have struggled for transport for that one anyway which was a pity, it was one of the major sights in the whole country. I had been in Turkey for exactly a month now, longer than my intention even without the delay and I had been deliberating the last week or so whether I could really afford the time for any further diversions. It proved to be too much of a temptation though and I would regret it if I didnt, so I jumped on a bus to take me East along the coast to the town of Hopa. The mountains came down to the shore all along the way and despite its potential had been made singularly unattractive by sporadic shoddy developments and many works in progress. What beaches I saw were not the kind for lying on and the Black Sea was a distinct unsettled stripe of brown along the shore before indeed turning black further out. The road seemed to be one long worksite and many tunnels had been recently bored through the feet of the mountains but not yet connected to the highway. The road seemed wide enough and I wondered if they shouldnt have been spending their money on better things. The only attempt at beautification came in the town of Rize which is known for its tea production. Tea groves filled every available space and in cases ran right down in terraces from the hilltops to the road. There was even a town named after it or so it seemed, Chayeli, where the thing to do was to drink the local brew. Living in this slapdash town I think I might have needed something a little stronger though. There was the ruin of a small castle just offshore opposite the town of Pazar, after which it wasnt long till we arrived at the end of the line, Hopa. Hopa as in "hope against hope" I wasnt about to get stuffed at the nearby border. Yup, I was about to enter the Sheretvelo Republic, or Gurcistan as the Turks call it. Thats Georgia to you and me.
It was chucking it down when I arrived in Hopa. I sat it out in a kofte shop then jumped on a dolmus for Sarp and the border post. Trucks were queued for miles up the road and I was glad we could easily pass by them, perhaps that belied the impetus for the road improvements. Moving so fast the last week or so I hadnt really taken the time to contemplate what I was about to do but it was something pretty special. It wasnt just Georgia I was crossing into but the former Soviet Union and that meant I should expect a very different world the other side. Georgia had only been independent a little over a decade and it would be interesting to see what progress they had managed to make since. It was only this year that they had foregone the visa requirement for EU citizens, another reason to visit, and it perhaps indicated where their future lay. I had mused with Mevlet on the coach to Trabzon that the EU would eventually let Turkey join the club just in order to bag Georgia too. They hadnt been slow in swallowing up the Baltic States.
It was lashing rain down again as I crossed the border. The Turkish side was very busy but straightforward and large farewell signs overhead made it look just like every border should do. The Georgians hadnt quite cottoned on to the same culture however and trying to get into Georgia was pandemonium. In the absence of any signs telling me where to go I simply had to presume that the ensuing rugby scrum at a small anonymous booth was where you should get your clearance and with elbows out I eventually managed to squeeze my way to the front. Actually on sussing that I was a dumb tourist a couple of boys with a bit of English gave way to me, I might have waited all night otherwise, most unexpected. And it really was like something out of the Soviet era when you stared into the booth to have a bright lamp shone in your face, the official was out of view in the darkness beyond. There was another fracas to negotiate at the customs building where in the absence of any obvious instructions I just sidled by the official as everyone else seemed to be jostling in line, brandishing soggy declaration forms. One more gate to pass and on inspecting my small underwhelming entry stamp the gate rolled open and I was set loose in the good old former USSR.
I dodged the usual "Hello Taxi!" brigade and found myself a Marshrutka, what the Georgians call a service minibus. Dark now and still hammering down rain we eventually set off packed to the gunwhales, loaded down with babushkas carrying all sorts of booty from plastic jars to a duvet and blankets piled high all round. I couldnt see a thing. Being let off in the main square, seaside Batumi proved to be a lot more low key than what I had expected. Although officially Georgia's third city it was alleged to have a vibe about it that ranked it second only to Tbilisi the capital. I found it very quiet and primitive however, with very little obvious nightlife and the street lighting was very poor where it existed at all. I guessed that there was a fuel shortage in this country, it would be expensive certainly. It was immediately apparent that the economy was in very bad shape. What free enterprise that existed was primitive and sporadic. There were 101 tiny hovels selling basic essentials but beyond that the most noticeable activity was the incredible presence of untold numbers of gambling dens with poker machines set out on the pavement in their hundreds all over town. I walked the streets for ages in search of a cafe and whereas in Turkey street food is found everywhere, I seriously thought that I might go to bed hungry that night for the want of it. What cafes there were were difficult to find and were universally uninviting, there was no clue as to what most of them even offered. Many businesses in general had tried to make do with rudimentary buildings in poorly suited locations. Shops and cafes tried to do business out of basement rooms with tiny doors and I even came across a bakery whose only outlet was a tiny knee height window facing onto the pavement. I saw clothes shops which also sold bread buns, another only sold sausage and (remarkably) quality German wheat beer. In the absence of concerted marketing any advertising was a novelty. Gauloisses cigarettes had been quick off the mark and perversely also Pampers, you saw their sign everywhere. I guess disposable nappies had been the best thing since sliced bread for Soviet mothers. The place still seemed thoroughly Soviet and I pondered just how behind the times they were, absolutely everything was dilapidated and falling to bits if it had ever been put together in the first place. A case in point came with the internet. After eventually finding the net whilst searching for dinner I found that true to form the keyboards were broken and the system lost connection without warning. After losing a lot of work I gave up in frustration. The net had done one thing for me though, it had confirmed beyond my expectation that I had actually lost 2 hours when crossing the border and accordingly it was now very late. I surmised that they were normally an hour ahead of Turkey and also didnt employ daylight savings, but actually later discovered that they are always 4 hours ahead of GMT, even ahead of countries much further East, bizarre.