I spent Easter break in Trabzon, Turkey, a coastal town less than 100 miles away from the Georgia/Turkey border. Despite only being there for a few days, there were many enjoyable aspects of the trip. Here are some of the things Turkey 2011 will be remembered for!
Overnight train from Tbilisi to Batumi
This was the first part of the journey for me. Interestingly, the decision to join my friend, Travis, in travelling to Turkey was only made around four hours before the train left at 11pm on the Thursday evening. As a consequence, I had very little time to prepare for heading away. With the help of my host family, I was able to get to the train station with enough time to buy a ticket and board the train. Travis had bought his ticket earlier in the day and so it was very unlikely I would have been next to him on the train. This proved to be the case. My ticket was for third class (the classes range from first to fourth) and it only cost me 15 Lari – which is about £5 or so. In the third class carriages there are a number of bunk beds, the bottom of which double up as seats for the first part of the journey, and it is an open-planned carriage without any doors separating each set of bunks. I really liked the layout as it was a much more open atmosphere, with many people speaking to each other from their bunks. I met two American TLG teachers in my part of the carriage, Sarah and Meg, so we were drinking buddies for the night. Beside my bunk there was a local Georgian family, and so I used my (somewhat basic) understanding of the Georgian language to ask them questions and tell them a bit about myself. The train journey lasted around eight hours, and we arrived at around seven in the morning. I had managed to sleep in the latter part of the journey, but was still rather groggy in the morning. Overall the train journey was a lot of fun and I’d happily take the journey again to visit friends in Western Georgia.
Batumi is a lovely coastal city beside the Black Sea. It’s the second biggest city in Georgia behind the capital Tbilisi. Batumi is very much a seaside resort with plenty of attractions for tourists. They have a fantastic port there which reminds me of Aberdeen back in Scotland. I can imagine Batumi being an awesome place to visit in the summer. As it happens, the weather we got when we arrived in Batumi was largely disappointing being dull and overcast. On returning from Trabzon on the Sunday evening however, myself and Travis got to sample the tranquil atmosphere at the port of Batumi. We met up with our friend, Julia, who lives in Batumi, and together we took a small picnic – champagne included - to the beach near the port where we watched the sun set on the horizon. The weather was perfect for the evening, quite mild with no wind, and it a lovely way to see out the weekend.
I don’t want to detract from what I’ve said about Batumi, but if there are any problems with the city it is the roads. About 80% of the roads have major problems with potholes the size of craters. It’s a big let down to an otherwise beautiful city. From what we could make out there was being work done to some of the roads, but this will be a costly and timely project for the government and it could be many years before the majority roads are up to scratch. You can’t help but feel this will hamper the tourism here, but if they can tackle the main roads, in and around the main part of the city, particularly near the port, then this will protect the industry for years to come.
Crossing the Georgia/Turkey border
From Batumi we took a marshutka (minibus) to Trabzon. The Georgia/Turkey crossing is only around forty minutes from Batumi, and we had to buy our visas before entering Turkey. This cost $20 and the visas are valid for around three months. This process took some time as it wasn’t particularly clear where we had to purchase. We were concerned our marshutka would leave without us – you can never rule these things out in Georgia – but thankfully it was still going through the vehicle checks when we were through the passport checks. It was much easier coming back to Georgia from Turkey as we only had to show our passports at the control point. Some of the security officers started speaking to me because they saw on my passport that I was from Scotland, and they told me how they loved whiskey and that our cultures are very similar. Being from Scotland in a foreign country tends to be quite useful and I’ve found the local people are much more willing to help me after I tell them I am from Scotland and not in fact America as they originally assume.
We visited the Sumela Monastery not too far from Trabzon, which lies about 1200 metres above sea level. It’s a Greek Orthodox monastery which sits at the bottom of a steep cliff facing the Altindere valley. It’s said to be around 1600 years old. The monastery itself is built on rocks which can be reached by a path through the forest, and this is the route we took to get there. Inside the monastery are frescoes that date back to the 18th century and feature many biblical scenes including Christ and the Virgin Mary. After doing some research on the internet I read that only last August the Turkish government gave permission to hold an Orthodox Mass there for the first time since 1923.
When we arrived around midday there were heaps of tourists. It’s obviously a very popular tourist destination. To begin with, we all got soaked because of the heavy rain, but this later stopped and didn’t end up causing many problems aside from being just a little wet. I think this damp weather actually enhanced the atmosphere.
The scenery around the monastery is breathtaking. Because of the high altitude at times the clouds make it difficult for you to see anything on the horizon. When the clouds briefly pass, it presents you with an awesome view of the mountains and forest down below. At the bottom of the mountain there is a gift shop and this is the area where your transport picks you up. It’s a long descent down the mountain but very enjoyable also too. Much easier going down than up! Without the right footwear it makes things very difficult, I saw a number of men in suits and smart black shoes, so either their trip to the monastery was very spontaneous or they lacked the forethought to wear something a little more suitable. I’d have to say I’m glad we visited the monastery and some of the views were a joy to behold.
I had been looking forward to getting a real Turkish shave for some time. In Aberdeen, the city where I am from in Scotland, there is only one place where you can get a Turkish shave. They are somewhat overpriced and obviously not as authentic as the real thing in Turkey. On our last day in Trabzon, myself and Travis got one of these traditional Turkish shaves. The man who did it was a true professional, taking his time and being very precise and delicate with his shaving. With a knife as sharp as he used you’d expect him to be careful, but you could tell he took his job very seriously and enjoyed being a true perfectionist. It is probably the closest shave I’ll ever have. In true Home Alone fashion (we all remember that scene), he splashed aftershave all over my face after he had finished the shave, and I did my best not to have the same reaction as Kevin had in the film. It was a sharp stinging pain which thankfully soon went away. The whole shave only cost me 5 Lira which was significantly cheaper, and as a result much better value, than the shaves you can get back home. If I ever return to Turkey I’ll make sure I head back for another.
I didn’t realise how popular tea is in Turkey. There are numerous small cafes scattered around the city centre of Trabzon. Not only that, but these cafes seem to give a tea delivery service too. There were frequently waiters running around the local shops with trays of tea, delivering to local shop assistants as well as customers. As quickly as you’d see someone with a full tray of tea, you’d see another returning back to the café with a collection of empty cups. It seems they drink tea in a different way compared to the West. In Turkey, people drink tea very quickly. If you ask for tea, you will have tea in your hand within two minutes. I think the local people pride themselves on an express service and it seems to work very well for them. The cups are much smaller than in the West, without handles too, and they almost look like big shot glasses. I don’t drink tea back home, nor in Georgia, but I have to say I liked the tea we had in Turkey. It was nice after a meal to have just a small glass of tea which would complement the meal perfectly.
This probably caused us the most problems in Trabzon. For me personally, as I had only decided a few hours before the train that I’d be coming to Turkey, I had no opportunity to study the fundamentals of the Turkish language in advance. I couldn’t even say ‘hello’, ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. It’s interesting how frustrating this was for me. After having lived in Georgia since January, it’s only when I went to a different country – a country where I don’t speak their language – that I realised just how much Georgian I actually knew. I am able hold a conversation with a stranger in Georgia, both asking questions and answering questions. But in Turkey, this wasn’t the case. To say thank you, I ended up just doing a somewhat over-the-top bow. It sounds stupid, but without knowledge of the word ‘thank you’ in Turkish, I just had to gesture a thank you instead. Upon arriving back in Georgia I breathed a sigh of relief with the knowledge that I’d be able to communicate with the local people once again.
After spending hundreds of pounds on kebabs in Scotland after a drunken night out over the past six or seven years it was nice to finally try the real thing in Turkey. I have to say they didn’t disappoint. The menus had much more choice and offered a wide range of dishes, but for me it was all about having the doner kebab. They are quite notorious in the UK, perhaps because it’s our culture to have them at 3am in the morning when we are far too drunk to fully comprehend what we’re eating. The doner kebabs I had in Turkey were far nicer than any of the ones I have had before back home.
Braveheart (In Turkish)
This will stay in my memory for some time I’m sure. After coming home on the Saturday evening after having a few drinks out, we were searching through the channels to find something to watch before crashing out. After finding nothing interesting to watch we came across Braveheart, dubbed in Turkish, and so what could be a better way of falling asleep than watching that?!
Yes, we unwittingly managed to find ourselves in a brother bar one evening. How we didn’t see the clues beforehand I’ll never know. It was only after taking my second sip of beer did the penny drop; the dim lighting, the big security guys, ladies sitting by themselves at tables with a drink and cigarette in hand. Looking back it was quite comical, and for obvious reasons we didn’t stay for a second pint. Oh, and the place was really overpriced. We were even charged an arm and a leg for the ‘complimentary’ bowl of nuts.
This gets a mention simply because there are absolutely no Burger Kings in Georgia and so it was nice to get a Whopper for the first time in ages. That being said, the burger was horrendously undercooked, as were the chips…
Overall, I had a really good time in Turkey. It was nice to visit the country for the first and I was really impressed by the culture there. If I come back to Turkey in the future I’ll probably head to Istanbul to see some of the famous sites of interest there. I have to say there seems to be a big difference between Georgia and Turkey. Travis told me that Turkey has the 15th largest economy in the world and it is evident from my time in Trabzon that the local people are much wealthier than the people of Georgia. It just felt more Western in Trabzon. I find it difficult to put into words how exactly the two countries are different from one another aside from this wealth comparison. Perhaps the differences are subtle, but enough that I am able to identify the fact that such differences to exist. Incidentally, I actually came back from Turkey with pneumonia, but perhaps that’s a story for my next blog…