Hitchhike to India leg 40: Gori to Tbilisi. Visas, red tape and bullshit

Sunday 26 July

In all the excitement I forgot to update you on my last hitch.  It went something like this: hold out thumb, get a lift, reach destination.  Alas it is the last time I will have a companion, for Olivia must leave for pastures new.  In a few short days of sightseeing in and around Tbilisi, I am alone once more.  Alone, apart from a hostel full of crazies.  She will be sorely missed.

I suppose it had to happen.  I’m beginning to stray off the beaten path heading East.  Gone are the summer backpack revelers of party Europe, beach types, would-be shark assailants and fish botherers.  “Normal people” I suppose.  In their stead, a strange mix of the clinically insane, narcissistic, and delusional.  And me.  That all applies to me.  Homoerotic exercise buffs, MMA “fighters”, loud US patriots with schizophrenia.  Not to mention hostel owners who appear to be arseholed on vodka most of the time.  While trying to sleep at around 1 am this morning, one of the staff thunderously attempted to engage me in conversation about how my day was while the dorm snored.  I’m convinced this hostel influenced The Return to Oz.

In the meantime dear readers, I’ve not been too well.  This hasn’t done me any favours as I’m discovering just how difficult the next chapter is going to be.  I’ve begun to apply for visas.  Applying for visas in 35 degree heat while feeling like a freshly shat shit isn’t recommended.  Added to this, and I’ve picked one hell of a time to quit drinking and smoking.  Yes, yes you’ve heard it all before.  But such is the nature of my alcohol problem, if this doesn’t work, I’m not going to be making any new country ever again, except the undiscovered one.

But I’m doing well.  I’m five days in, and usually it’s by this point I want to get on a bender.  However I currently feel no desire whatsoever to partake of the sauce; let alone smoking.  I’ve been coughing up my lungs anyway with something I’m sure is leaking through the walls here, but regardless, hand on heart, at least for the foreseeable future, I’m done with two of my three biggest vices.  Now I need something to replace them with.

And this; is hunting visas.  I don’t know if you’ve ever done much visa hunting, but it’s equally the most stressful and most exhilarating thing you could put yourself through in such a short space of time.  They should make it an Olympic event.  There would be doping allegations for travelers who manage to bag two or three in a day, powering across town from embassy to bank to embassy and back again.  This is the nature of the beast.  Allow me to explain.

So I have a British passport.  Usually, this is pretty damn good.  It’s the best in fact.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the case when it comes to Iran.  You see, Iran and the UK/US aren’t the best of mates.  Something, something, something Argo/embassy siege…etc…etc.  Recently however, with this nuclear deal that has been brokered, it looks like we could all be bezza mates again.  Sanctions are set to be lifted, the UK embassy in Tehran to re-open, tourism to sky-rocket.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t help me right now.

Important stuff.  Passport currently AWOL

Important stuff. Passport currently AWOL

I arrive at the Iran embassy with a stack of hideous passport photographs, flossed teeth, and the shirt that smelled the least bad.  A gaggle of excited nationalities sit before me as the delegate appears and reels off names.  One by one, a German, a Spaniard, a Pole, a Belgian and a Frenchman stand to a handshake and a warm “welcome to Iran” from the beaming adviser.  Now they’ve all applied a week previous, and I’m lucky enough to share in their joy as they’re granted access to what I’ve heard is a most beautiful country.  They file out with reams of laughter.  The delegate turns to me.  I’m sitting bolt upright, grinning from ear to British ear, hoping my aftershave and clean shorts can swing me entry.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from the UK.”

His aspect becomes a picture of dejection.  I’ve clearly ruined his day.  In a moment, his entire face is etched with the complete works of Charles Dickens.  He launches into what appears to be a scripted speech, from which I glean very little useful information.  I find myself shaking his hand while exiting the building rather speedier than I’d anticipated.  Thus dashing my hopes of charming my way in.

As a UK passport holder, it appears I’m only allowed in to the country as part of pre-paid tour, or with a licensed, professional guide.  No exceptions.  He advised me to speak to a friend in Iran (of which I obviously have millions).  They could take a copy of my passport to the Ministry of Foreign affairs.  The MFA would send an “authorisation number” to an embassy of my choice.  I would attend this embassy, and apply for my visa.  I’ve been bombarding people I’ve never met (couchsurfers in Tehran) with requests to help, and so far received a great response.  However I’m still not sure it would work RE: tour guide.  Downhearted, I’ve been tearing my hair out for a solution, but one is currently failing to present itself.  So much for helping all those Iranian nationals as a homeless support worker in Glasgow.

Meanwhile, I’ve been to the Azerbaijan embassy about a dozen times.  Considering these two countries share a border, their embassies in Tbilisi couldn’t be further apart.  C’mon guys!  Sort this basic shit out eh?!  While still having to jump through hoops, AZ is proving much easier.  This time all I need is a letter of invitation (LOI), and this is obtained by mailing a hotel or hostel in Baku and booking a room.  They will then send you a confirmation email, which you print off and take to the embassy, along with passport copies, two photographs, an application form, and a receipt for the 118 US dollars you’ve just paid into an Azerbaijan bank.  Of course this bank is half way across town too, so you’ve got to jump between photo-booths, internet cafes, embassies and banks, before the door nearly closes in your face, so you thrust all your documents at the teller, and told to come back in five days.  Sweating buckets and shattered beyond human endurance, nonetheless by this time next week, I should be allowed into Azerbaijan.  The ball is rolling.

This has also coincided with my decision to ditch my kilt.  In my last post you may remember I asked for help in deciding its fate.  Well I opted to send it forward.  It is now winging its way to Cambodia, where hopefully one day we will be reunited again.  On the way to the post office (of which there are five) I decided to pick up some last-minute souvenirs to send home with my hair straighteners and some other stuff from Turkey.  I picked up a silver, Georgian wine horn and thought little of it.

105_0095

The offending horn!

NOT SO!  Said the post office clerk.  Apparently I need to get permission to send this item out, because it’s silver.  It’s not silver.  It’s about as silver as David Cameron isn’t a wanker.  Nonetheless I had to cross town (again) to find the Ministry of Culture.  I was sent to the wrong building.  I crossed town (again) to find the right one, and after they took my details, snapped several photographs of the item, and kept me there for half an hour, I was told the report would be ready tomorrow.

Well.  After the days I’ve had of red tape and bureaucratic bullshit, you can imagine I was none too pleased.  I might have gone a little overboard with my choice of language.  The air may have turned blue.  Security hovered by the door.  Eventually, sensing an impasse, I marched out and across town (again) back to the post office to pick up the parcels I’d left there thinking they would be sent today.  I then carried them all around town while I was sent to the wrong healthcare specialist twice, paid for both appointments, and collapsed dejectedly in a heap back at the hostel, only to be accosted by a 30-year-old who believes himself to be Jackie Chan.  Is it any wonder I’m ill?

OK dear readers yes, first world problems they may be.  But you know how it is.  When you’re wandering around alone and fighting odds stacked against you, it can be an uphill struggle.  It’s all relative. Especially when it seems that not even the simplest application is going your way.  Everything is an effort.  And I have been feeling very lonely.  I’ve been questioning my commitment to finishing this.  I’ve been wracked with guilt about how much money I’ve squandered on getting pissed up in bars for months on end, when I could have traveled indefinitely.  People I want to talk to are silent and distant, and instead I’m surrounded by buffoons.  Stress levels compound my health issues, and it doesn’t take a heavy straw to break the camels back.

No booze, no smokes, no clue

No booze, no smokes, no clue

And it all seems so trivial.  Is it all really necessary?  Do you need to know I’m sending a cheap, fake silver wine horn to my sister in the UK?  Do I really need to pay 200 US dollars a day for a guide just to see your country?  Does this dude really need to keep taking his shirt off when a girl walks in?   And why is it so hot I have to talcum  powder my balls?

When sorrows come they come not as spies but in battalions.  But a corner is being turned.  I am going to beat this.  I’m going to finish it, or I’m going to die trying.  Either that or wind up in an Iranian jail because I couldn’t bribe someone with my kilt.

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The death of the kilt

Tuesday 21 July

For some time now I’ve been agonising over how to streamline myself for the more challenging journey ahead.  Try as I might, I could only whittle my stuff down to a certain point before there was nothing else to throw out or send to my sisters’ already crowded apartment.  I couldn’t possibly part with any of what remained.  Then, over the course of the last few days, finally the inevitable happened.  It had to come.  I think it has been on the cards for a while.  No not my collection of volcanic rocks.  Nor the stash of porn cards from every European country.  No.  It is finally time for the kilt to go.

On his last legs

On his last legs

The day has therefore arrived when I have to make a very difficult decision:

A)  Send my kilt home and reminisce with it another day.

B)  Send it forward to somewhere in S.E Asia to dance again there.

C)  BURN IT ritualistically as a sign of maturity.

And so, in echoing my earlier Facebook post and for those dear readers I don’t know yet; I put it to the interwebs out of curiosity and a for little bit of fun.  Comments or messages to suggest its fate are greatly appreciated.  However, this is not a whimsical, social media popularity attempt.  It’s a serious business.  So then to some words regarding reasons.

Stuff like this happens more often

Stuff like this happens more often

I always wanted to travel with a kilt, although my body was born in England; my heart was born in Scotland.  My family heritage is Scottish for the most part, and very proud of that I am too.  In a charity shop in Oban, close to where mum and dad lived their last days, I found this little beauty.  It fit me perfectly (back then) and cost me all of fifteen quid (20 Euro or something).  Best money I ever spent.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to wear this national dress in every single country I’ve visited, and there sure are some stories to tell.  But it’s not always turned out the way I intended.

Nose busted thanks to kilt wearing delusions of grandeur

Nose busted thanks to kilt wearing delusions of grandeur

Although it predominately gets me what I want (think on that what you will), it also gets me into lot of trouble with as much unwanted attention as wanted.  You can’t just fade into the background.  If something goes down, you’re not going to be able to disappear easily.  You’re always going to be able to spot the guy legging it from a crime scene wearing what appears to be a skirt.

I assure you officer, it was someone else matching this exact description in Serbia

I assure you officer, it was someone else matching this exact description in Serbia

It’s got me into fights, it’s nearly got me into fights, and when I wear it I seem to consume more than my weight in booze than usual for a night out.  It’s like putting on Jim Carrey’s “mask”.  A Jekyll and Hyde reaction.  “SSSSSSOMEBODY STOP MEEEEE!”  No seriously.  Somebody stop me.  Getting my face punched on the floor of a Czech bar while using both hands to try and prevent my kilt exposing my flaccid penis should have told me something.  I didn’t learn then.  It’s time I did now.

It's down there.  I don't remember that night, but I know it's down there

It’s down there. I don’t remember that night, but I know it’s down there

For the most part there’s never an issue with heritage either.  Most non-native English speakers don’t bat an eyelid when I say Scotland is home.  But woe betide me if I’m wearing the tartan and I meet someone with an accent, or fluent in English.  Recently a loud-mouthed, know-all American girl kicked up some amount of stink because I didn’t have a thick Scottish brogue.  Apparently blood mattered not.  Or wherever you happen to personally call home. I guess I’m getting tired of that.  Tired of explanations.

One of the good times

One of the good times

And this is not to mention the amount of cash I’ve drunkenly thrown out of that sporran.  Imagine just tickling open your purse or wallet with the lightest of touches; and money, cards, keys, make-up and tamp-doms come flying out at all and sundry.  I’m surprised that hooker in Krakow didn’t make off with my life savings when she thrust her hand into my man bag.

(Disclaimer: I wasn’t with her.  She was trying to rob me blind as I staggered back to a hostel).

Sporrans.  Zero security, but fur and tassels

Sporrans. Zero security, but with fur and tassels made from deadly animals like rabbits

Anyway last Friday was something of a watershed.  I’d been the bell of the ball in an Irish bar here, until it all turned sour and a number of aggressive types began to accuse me of trying to pick up their women, just because I was having a good time.  I was told they were going to “fuck (my) mother; you mother fucker”; “slit (my) mothers throat”; “fuck me up”; “murder (my) family”; et cetera, et cetera.  You get the idea.  This could have gone very South had I not been in an extraordinarily good mood.  I managed to talk my way of it and calm people down.  Had I been all but hidden with the anonymity of a pair of jeans – their jealousy not withstanding – none of that would have happened.  And it’s not the first time, so it got me thinking.

Chicks dig kilts

Chicks dig kilts

Now don’t get me wrong dear readers, I’m not saying this garment is responsible for my actions.  But it certainly doesn’t help them.  As I mentioned, I’m wilder with it on than without.  I’m about to travel through countries where keeping a low profile is advised, and I can’t see myself wearing it at all; not least because I’m three days off the booze and I’m really trying to make this attempt at getting clean the most committed to date.

Responsible item of clothing bottom right

A drunk and his togs

I watched 4 hours worth of alcohol abuse documentaries last night instead of being on the sauce.   I totalled up my weekly unit consumption on drinkaware.co.uk.  An “alcoholic” consumes around 30 units a week.  I’m coming in at around 100; sometimes considerably over.  This is not a badge of honour.  This is a problem.  And considering I only wear it when I’m getting utterly lashed, shedding the kilt is a statement of intent.

Don't know any of these people

Don’t know any of these people

Lastly the thing’s falling apart.  There’s holes in the hose (socks), the flashes (little ribbon things that hold the hose up) are in bits.  The sporran has lost its tassels.  I’ve had my Sgian Dubh (black knife) stolen and replaced twice (and it’s not even real so I don’t know why people would take it).  And finally the kilt itself.  Modern Mcgregor isn’t even my tartan; (that’s Gunn, Stewart of Bute or Murray), and it’s slowly but surely ripping to rags.  It doesn’t fit me properly anymore either; the booze has seen to that.

Beer pong and kilt.  Single handily responsible for my stomach

Beer pong and kilt. Single handily responsible for my stomach

So it’s giving up the ghost.  Again thoughts of its destination will be appreciated, and for your viewing pleasure, included in this post is a small selection of previously unreleased pictures of the nights out we’ve had together that I’m usually too ashamed to share.  This isn’t half of the astounding back-catalogue of videos and photos out there of my naked arse gallivanting around some Colombian bar, swishing the pleats about; having a Scottish country dance-off with a Turkish belly dancer; climbing into a street dog pen in Romania trying to make friends, or thinking its power is enough to convince Russian strippers not to take their clothes off.  You become a minor celebrity wearing this thing and I’ve done a lot of fucking stupid things in it.  Not a good idea in Central Asia.

Incidentally I’m also going to be sending home/giving away/burning my set of hair straighteners.  Because a fast approaching 36-year-old man does not need them.

Hair eating.  Another side effect of wearing tartan

Hair eating. Another side effect of wearing tartan

On a personal note; I’d like to take this opportunity to say…and I might get a little emotional…to say I’m gonna miss you old pal.  It’s hard to think that I’ll never force you round my waist for one more night out.  Ohhh we’ve had some times haven’t we?  Remember when I’ve had you fixed by all those bewildered haberdashers?  Oh how we laughed!  And how many times you’ve helped me look harder than I really am?  Which wasn’t that many at all.  Or that time with the penguin?  Which may or may not have even occurred?    See ya on the other side buddy.  Whatever happens mate,  I promise I’ll never shit in you again.

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The Birthplace of Stalin

Saturday 04 July

So we’ve made it to Gori, a small town slap bang in the middle of the country, and Olivia has swung us a home-stay with a wonderful Georgian lady and her husband.  The town itself might be completely overlooked, save for the fact that it is the birthplace of one Joseph Stalin, and the museum here draws in a fair crowd.  That and they also have the 4th century cave city of Uplistsikhe close by.  It’s worth a stop for sure.

The movable statue

The movable statue

The Stalin museum is something of a contentious issue.  The statue of the man himself has been moved so many times, as they’re not really sure they should have one at all.  It all depends on how you feel about mass murderers really.  During the Russian-Georgian conflict as recently as 2008, Gori was heavily targeted by Russian air strikes.  Consequently there was a movement to rename the collection to “The Museum of Russian Aggression.”  Thankfully they decided against it, but you only have to read the guest book to get an idea of how people feel about it.  However the museum is an excellent experience, including Stalin’s death mask and personal, 80 ton armoured train car, still with original interior.  A step back in time indeed.

Stalin's carriage

Stalin’s carriage

You’d be forgiven for thinking sections of the town looks like a movie set.  There’s certain back streets that look brand new, and that’s because they pretty much are.  There’s a lot of potential here, but most of the new builds stand empty, when it could have a lovely cafe/wine bar culture.  One can only assume this is a rebuilding process after the shelling, but it really needs a lift up, and it could draw in a decent amount of tourist dollars in its own right.

Gori from the fort

Gori from the fort

Uplistsikhe could have been better named, because it’s a devil to pronounce and spell.  Lying 10 KM outside Gori centre, it’s a 4th century cave settlement, with a 10th century Basilica at the top.  It’s also riddled with lizards, which is pretty cool if you can get one to stand still long enough for a picture.

Closest I could get...

Closest I could get…

But I think the highlight of our stay was the hospitality shown by our host home-stay family.  She was like a mother to us, indeed calling me her son and calling Olivia her daughter, although I’m not really sure why she insisted on calling me George.  An incredible cook, her food was out of this world, including back-yard pond caught trout, and her vastly stocked cellar of home-made wine certainly kept us entertained.

Georgian mamma

Georgian mamma

Of course this was to have an adverse effect when I decided we needed to drink 5 bottles of the stuff, and go party at this strange lagoon bar with a band playing the same songs every night on a boat stage.  I woke up with a seriously painful periosteal bruise on my left shoulder.  Three weeks later and this has still to properly heal.  My flip-flops were found in the garden, and I’ve not one iota of inclination as to how any of this happened.

Welcome to Georgia.

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Hitchhike to India legs 38/39: Trabzon to Batumi to Gori

Friday 03 July

This mission has been getting so ridiculously easy that I’ve been lumping a couple of them together in an attempt to not spam your already overloaded news feeds and other social media with people vying for your attention.  Yes you.  Quality over quantity in’ it?  Anyway the past two hitches have gone with..erm…without a hitch.

Batumi.  Obviously

Batumi. Obviously

We’re leaving Trabzon leisurely in the morning because we’re only going three hours up the road, along a stretch where pretty much everyone is at least heading to the border.  It makes a change from our crack-of-dawn starts.  A rule of (sorry) thumb when it comes to hitching is, if you want to make it before dark; start early.  Recently though that’s gone out the window.  People here are good.

And true enough, we’re on our way complete with some cold cans of juice bought at a gas station by our driver.  We’re left only a few miles from the frontier around an hour or so in.  The usual border town traffic is heavy here, as it appears both Turkish and Georgians are popping to and from each country to take advantage of whatever’s cheaper on the other side of the hill.  It’s going to be no problem at all.

We’re picked up in a creaky old thing by a dark-skinned smokey dude.  You know the kind of car.  Wires hanging out.  Bit of thin plastic where an airbag should be.  Puke coloured fake sheepskin on the back sill.  Some alien make logo stamped on a steering wheel you wouldn’t use on a go-kart.  He speaks fluent Spanish.

Yards from the border crossing, he pulls in, and a couple of guys scurry to the car.  He flicks open the broken glove compartment.  Inside are stacks, and I mean stacks of cigarettes.  He does the deal, then drops us a few hundred yards further down the tarmac.

Olivia and I speculate what else he’s into.  I’m guessing there were other compartments in that motor that you could only imagine.  Animal heart with diamonds hidden in ice.  His fake leg stashes a ton of coke.  Surely he could have taken us closer to the border, but I reckon he’s a wanted man by customs.  He’s beating a hasty retreat as we wait for our third ride.

And after a coffee break, it comes in the form of a top-notch Mercedes-Benz.  From the ridiculous to the sublime.   He takes us to the border, and we fall out to walk through on foot.

GEORGIA!

GEORGIA!

The Sarp border crossing is one of the most unusual you’ll ever see.  Another Atlas Obscura content, it’s a strange, arty squiggle designed by a German architect.  Certainly not to be forgotten, it was only tarnished by the attentions of a strange man who would not leave Olivia alone.  Right up to passport control, he was edging closer and closer to her, invading her personal space.  Even as she’s getting her new stamp, he’s hanging right off her left shoulder, pressing himself in.  We march over and think nothing more of it, until he’s hurried to catch her up, staring her up and down, creepy, searching eyes.  This is until the point I call him a cunt.

Having shed the weirdo, we’re amazed to discover our Mercedes driver is waiting for us on the other side.  For a foot crossing, it was faster in a car, but we’re eternally grateful as he speeds us to our first destination of Batumi.

Batumi is worth a mention.  It’s a strange town undergoing something of a tourist boom.  It reminded me of Skopje.  The town centre is getting a serious makeover as they prepare for their summer season, which for a town without a sand beach, appears to be extensive.  A bizarre mixture of botanic gardens, brand new promenades, theme park buildings and good weather brings in the Russian holiday makers.  You don’t know why you like it, but you do.

Caption competition

Caption competition

Day two is barely worth mentioning.  Stand on the side of the road, hold out thumb, get a ride all the way to Gori, our next port of call before the capital Tbilisi.  What really baked my noodle was the left hand drive car, which just so happened to be my mum’s old motor, a Honda 4×4.  It certainly felt a little strange to be in that passenger seat again, same upholstery, same dash, same side-door pocket I used to stash empty packets of pork scratchings.  If you believe in such things, in that moment, perhaps she was watching over us.

Didn't even need this one

Didn’t even need this one

Our driver is a jolly sort of fellow.  He’s on his phone more often than not, always heaving great belly laughs.  This is all very well, considering he’s taking mountainous corners at breakneck speed, while attempting to negotiate the vast amount of cow on the roads.  The cows here don’t give a fuck.  They seem to wander aimlessly on the highways and byways, chewing the cud over crash barriers, sticking the hoof up at oncoming traffic.  Of course this doesn’t do my heart any good with memories of my chicane car accident that killed a roadside sheep.  No wonder they have “Bovine Eyes” on the menu.

We’re drinking Georgian wine by sundown.  Two fun and adventurous days toasted at length by our homestay host family in Gori.  It’s safe to say I’m/we are going to like it here.

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Trabzon and The Sumela Monastery

Thursday 02 July

Trabzon is a colourful place.  A(n) (in)famous port on the black sea with an ancient history as part of the silk road, its streets are a thriving hub of markets, street food, knock-off football shirts and hostels that double as brothels (first hand experience).  You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Mos Eisley.    Early in the morning, thankful our organs are where they should be, we change hotels and then set out for a day trip to the only thing really worth seeing.  The Sumela Monestary.

Our hotel room view

Our hotel room view

Sitting at 1,200 metres, it was founded in AD 386 as tribute to the Virgin Mary.  It’s famous not just for its nose bleeding height and climb, but its many murals and paintings in the “Rock Church.”  Regardless if you have a faith or not, it is nonetheless an astounding testament to man’s desire and ability to attempt to climb closer to something that doesn’t exist.

Where eagles dare

Where eagles dare

There’s a ridiculous amount of green-sweatered kids running around taking endless selfies, school teachers vying desperately for control.  But when they depart and the visitors thin to a personally more manageable amount, there’s a unique sort of peace that descends.  The monastery functions mainly as a tourist attraction now, and you can see why, with beautifully dramatic vistas from its crows nest locale.  It was fascinating to explore its nooks and crannies, before the hike down to fledgling tourist trap shops and restaurants, where a bowl of hot cheese is more delicious than it might first sound.  The Turkish government are investing heavily in restoration with the recent resurgence in visitors, and it’s well worth a look if you’re passing through.  One more ticked off the Atlas Obscura website.

With Trabzon not really having any other pull, and the feeling I’ve outstayed my welcome in Turkey, come the dawn we strike for Georgia.  Wine awaits.  Copious amounts of wine.

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