October 7-10, 2013
As I mentioned in this previous post, it wasn’t easy to hit the road again after such a nice experience in Georgia. Here’s how overcoming that static friction manifested itself to get from Georgia to Iraq – and a glimpse into the nitty gritty details of traveling I usually gloss over for brevity.
Tbilisi To Batumi (Georgia)
I went to the Tbilisi train station around 10pm with my friend. I had a 10:35pm train bound for Batumi on the west coast of Georgia. It was an overnight train with a scheduled arrival time of 6:40am. The train was already there so I got on. After some initial confusion about where my bunk was, I entered a cabin containing three middle-aged guys. Two were Georgian, one was ethnically Armenian but grew up in Georgia, and then there was me.
The first thing I saw was the bottle of alcohol. I don’t know what it was, some kind of local brew or something. I immediately remembered reading a friend’s account of rude Georgians staying up all night drinking on the train inhibiting his ability to sleep. I knew I would be in for the same, but oh well.
I sat down and the guys were nice. We had only a few words in common among us, but we made the best of it. The guy who was drinking was the loudest and most talkative. I called him the tamada because he was acting like one, making toasts, and he was the only one drinking.
When we got the sheets for the bunks, I set mine up on an upper bunk around 11pm and tried to get some sleep. But they kept talking, making noise, laughing. I’m not a good sleeper and between their noise and the bumpiness of the train, I could enter a relaxed state but couldn’t get to the next level – sleep.
All the bumping around in the train amplified what little liquid was in my bladder. I think I went pee 3 times from 11pm to 1:30am. Each time I got down the tamada would put his hands on his heart and say “I am sorry.” I couldn’t help but smile even though I was definitely annoyed. I don’t know if I’ve ever received such a heartfelt sorry before in my life. And the fact that he said it repeatedly didn’t diminish its value.
I never really did get much sleep, and definitely not deep sleep. There was too much waking up going on.
I arrived in Batumi right on time. The train ticket cost 23 Lari/$14.
Batumi To The Turkish Border
I got off the train and a guy was yelling “Sarpi, Sarpi, Sarpi” and Sapri is where I needed to go. There was a marshrutka (15-passenger van that serves as public transportation in many ex-Soviet nations). For 3 Lari ($2) I took this marshrutka directly to the Georgian immigration checkpoint, passing through Batumi on the way and seeing the Black Sea the entire way.
Crossing The Border
The Georgian side had a lot of pushing and shoving going on. I had read this would happen on the Turkish side, but no, it seemed to be mostly Georgians who thought they’d get to Turkey faster if they pushed a bit, that their pushing would make the immigration officer hurry up somehow.
I got my exit stamp from Georgia and walked to the Turkish side, setting foot on Turkish soil for the first time in eight years.
There were two lines and I stood in one. Everyone was going through quite quickly. My processing time was significantly longer as I required a visa. I got it online for $20 in advance thanks to this convenient option for travelers. I gave the immigration officer my passport, visa, and after about two minutes I had my entrance stamp and was admitted.
As I walked onward, I saw two Georgian women being searched. Both had a ridiculous amount of cigarettes in their possession, surely more than is allowed to bring in. I didn’t understand the angle as I think cigarettes in Georgia are more expensive than cigarettes in Turkey, but maybe they were filled with marijuana instead of tobacco? I don’t know. But the immigration police were on the case and the ladies were crying.
I never pass up the chance to pee while on the move and peed at the restaurant just after immigration. The Turkish side was like a maze but you could only walk straight. It was covered, but it wasn’t raining or sunny. Just cold and cloudy.
I had to enter two more buildings along this path, but the first had no purpose and the second was a double check to make sure you got an entrance stamp.
I read that you should exchange any remaining Georgian Laris on the Georgian side. I didn’t see any money changers on the Georgian side. Maybe it was just too early in the morning, but I ended up leaving with around 50 Lari/$30. Maybe I can exchange them in the Ankara airport.
I knew that Turkey was an hour behind and thought about adjusting my watch during this maze walk, but decided to do it later.
Just before leaving I had to put my backpack and suitcase through an x-ray machine for customs and then I was all the way through and in Turkey.
The first huslter I saw was advertising for Hopa, the first Turkish town from the border and where I’d catch a bus heading south. But it was a shared taxi. I thought there were Turksih marshrutkas (shared vans but called dolmuş in Turkish) going to Hopa, but quickly discovered there weren’t any. So I had to walk back to the guy I kind of blew off and get my ride.
There were already two guys in the taxi and they needed two more. I read online the shared taxi costs 5-10 Turkish Lira ($2.50-$5). He said 10 and we’d leave immediately, so I was basically paying double. But I felt that time was of the essence. I read an account of someone doing a similar journey and when he got to Hopa after taking the overnight Tbilisi-Batumi train, the bus was leaving just as he got there. I didn’t want that to happen so I was rushing all morning.
As the taxi got to the bus station, on my right was some kind of animal market full of animals I think were being readied for slaughter. The Islamic holiday of Eid Al Adha was happening in a few days and it’s customary to sacrifice an animal the way Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son (but the Islamic story goes that at the last second his son was replace by a goat or sheep). So I guess the market was set up for that. Just beyond the market was the Black Sea.
I got to Hopa with the goal of buying a ticket to Erzurum. A guy met me just after getting out of the taxi and said “Erzurum?” I followed him into his office and he started writing the ticket. He spoke some English so I just wanted to confirm with him that I could get to Diyarbakir, the city I hoped to reach in the evening from which I could catch a bus the following day to Iraq.
He looked up and said “Diyarbakir?” He then returned to the paper he was writing things down on to ensure maximum understanding between our two different linguistic worlds. He crossed out Erzurum and wrote Diyarbakir and increased the price to 70 Lira/$35. He said it was an express bus and I could take the same bus all the way there.
It was 8:20am when we finished and he said the bus would leave at 8:30am. I had a feeling he told me this to get my business. I knew it would leave within an hour as anything more would be too underhanded. So as 8:30am came and went, I patiently waited and didn’t care much. The bus came around 9:10am and they put my bag under the bus and everything was fine.
When I took my seat I looked up and saw the clock. It said 8:20am. Yep. I never got around to moving my watch back an hour and the bus was perfectly on time. No big deal, but in my tired state I made this mistake. But in my calm traveling state, I didn’t care either 🙂 So, it all worked out!
Hopa To Diyarbakir
There was no bathroom on the bus. I think there could have been, but that area is used as a galley. Turkish buses have exceptional service. While buses in Latin America often had a helper on board, he was there to collect payment from the passengers picked up along the way. In Turkey he/she is there for the comfort of the passengers. He will fetch you a small cup of water if you want, serves snacks and tea/coffee/juice periodically, etc.
In all honesty, I’d rather pay a cheaper fare and not have this convenience, but it’s ok. Every seat had a TV screen as well, connected to several Turkish channels. With headphones you could watch movies, cartoons, the news, or listen to music videos. Unlike buses in most places, where movies or music videos are blasted (even at 4:30am), here the bus is quiet and you can choose to listen in. Nice!
The guy sitting next to me was an older Turkish guy heading to the port city of Mersin. He quickly realized I don’t speak any Turkish and so there was no ability to converse. Still, he took me under his wing, using hand signals to let me know when the driver’s announcements meant it was time to eat (an extended break), time for a short pee break (he’d put up 10 fingers for 10 minutes), etc. I really appreciated it, of course. It’s a small insight into the sense of responsibility people here feel for being good hosts to guests in their country.
We stopped a few times, I ate lunch, I peed every chance I got due to my bladder being half the size of a 7-year-old girl’s bladder, and we kept heading south.
Erzurum is the highest city in Turkey from what I understand. It was cold and we drove past snow. It’s the first time I’ve seen snow up close like that in a long time. The scenery was incredible, which deserves its own attention below.
After Erzurum we stopped in a town called Bingol. I was told I had to make a transfer here. This meant that the guy in Hopa lied, there was a transfer. But it was literally nothing. This new bus wasn’t as comfortable, but the journey from Bingol to Diyarbakir was only 3 hours. No big deal. I showed the ticket I purchased in Hopa and they gave me a new ticket for the final segment with a seat assignment.
I should have gotten out much closer to the city center in Diyarbakir. The guy next to me on the bus told me where to get out. It would have made the taxi ride far cheaper. But I wanted to go to the bus station and buy my ticket for the following day’s journey to Iraq. With Eid coming up I feared bus tickets would be in short supply. I’d learn later that the exact opposite was true, but I spoke with some nice guys at a bus company’s ticket desk and reserved a seat on a bus the following day departing at 5:30pm. It was 9:30pm and I could have taken a bus to Iraq that night at 9pm. I considered it, but I was really, really tired after 24 straight hours of traveling. A break was needed and I wanted to see a bit of Diyarbakir.
I caught a taxi for 20 Lira/$10 to the city center to a hotel I read online was cheap and decent. It cost 35 Lira/$17.50. It was the first time I spent money on accommodation in over 7 months. It pushed me over the $800 mark in accommodation costs on the Happy Nomad Tour so far, but getting 7 solid hours of sleep that night was well worth it. I ended up going to bed at midnight and waking up at 7am. I had my alarm set for 10am. I slept well, though some more sleep would have been nice.
I sent some emails, took a shower, ate breakfast, and explored Diyarbakir a bit. There is a nice old market, the biggest Armenian church in this part of the world, an old mosque, old city walls, etc. The Tigris river passes next to the city and it’s a city full of history. Though I’d leave that night, I went and got a Turkish sim card to have for the day and for when I got back to Turkey. It is, by far, without question, the most expensive sim card purchase I’ve made so far. I don’t know why it’s so expensive there, but ya, it was painful.
After exploring the city, my tiredness slapped me across the face big time. I found a fancy hotel, had a coffee, and got online to do some planning for Iraq and my return to Turkey. I had just gotten used to the cold in Georgia and Diyarbakir is much warmer. Maybe the heat and my lack of sleep combined to leave me feeling very tired. I also had a bit of a diarrhea explosion while at the hotel. Par for the course on this trip, but not ideal given that an overnight bus journey was coming and Turkish buses don’t have bathrooms. Still, I didn’t feel worried about it. I somehow knew it was a one-off situation.
On the way back to the hotel the fresh air and evacuated bowels awakened my sense of hunger. I did what any self-respecting man would do in my situation – entered a restaurant and ordered Iskander Kebap. It’s my favorite Turkish dish and I couldn’t resist. As someone who is lactose intolerant and manages this with lactase supplements before ingesting any lactose, I always avoid dairy on days I’ll travel just to minimize the chance of, well, what happened earlier – a one-off diarrhea explosion. Iskander Kebap has yogurt, but I let my hunger and taste buds overrule good judgement. And yes, it was incredible.
Then I went back to the hotel I stayed in, grabbed my bag that I put in their storage room, and headed back to the bus station by taxi for 25 Lira/$12.50. With the extra time I had I asked around to see when some bus companies go to Adana as that’ll be my next stop when I get back to Turkey. I asked the company I was taking to Iraq and I ended up meeting the driver of my bus. Though our interaction was brief due to not having a common language, he acted like we were best friends in front of the Iraqi police and immigration people later that night. It was nice.
Off To Iraq
Though I was a bit nervous about the thought of going to Iraq while in Georgia, I was calm and fine as the bus left Diyarbakir.
The bus was basically empty and remained so during the journey. The bus made a few stops along the way before getting to the border. My favorite stop was in Batman, Turkey. Yes, for real. At times I could see Syria as we passed right next to the border. I would love to visit Syria, but now is not a good time, obviously.
At the Turkish border everything was very easy. We all got our simple stamps and moved onward. It was around midnight when we got there. The bus was met by an immigration policeman who looked at all our passports and he was accompanied by a soldier holding a huge gun. This is where the bus driver acted like we were best friends, repeatedly saying “Welcome to Kurdistan, my friend!”
The immigration policeman seemed surprised I’d be visiting as a tourist. Though there isn’t much tourism here, there is some. Every day there must be backpackers like me going to Iraq. Still, I said I was visiting friends for a week in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah and the mini-interrogation was over.
We grabbed our bags and went to a room with an x-ray scanner. We put our bags through there and then waited a minute for the bus to pull up. We put our bags back in the bus’s storage and then met the bus’s coffee guy who had already given our passports to the immigration police inside the immigration building. I immediately asked where the bathroom was and emptied my tiny bladder.
When I got back a guy who was a passenger but who I hadn’t spoken with (I hadn’t spoken with anyone) asked me in perfect British English some questions. He was translating between me and the immigration policeman. I suspect that the immigration policeman spoke English, but this was easier for him I’m sure.
He asked simple questions like what I would do (visit two friends – people I’ll couchsurf with who I don’t actually know yet but I’m sure will become friends, but I just say friends to keep things simple and to ensure they don’t think I’m crazy). They asked the address where I’ll be staying. I wrote down the guy’s address in Erbil and gave it to them. They asked for his name. I forgot his first name but knew it started with an M. The last name I did remember since my mom’s cousin married a guy with the same last name. Without hesitating I said Michael as the first name (it was really Michal, but I was close enough) and they were satisfied. They asked where he was from and I said Czech Republic. I know the British-Iraqi guy knew where it was, but the immigration policeman seemed puzzled by this place called Czech Republic. But I said my friend is an engineer and given the elevated status of engineers in this part of the world, they were more than satisfied. I got the stamp and the customary 15-day visa.
After we all got our stamps we got back on the bus. We were held another 30 minutes or so. I finally asked what was going on and I guess they did some paperwork because the bus had a cracked windshield and they recorded it to show the bus company was warned. It would need to be fixed if it wants to enter Iraqi Kurdistan again. Fair enough.
I didn’t take many pictures at the border. First, it was nighttime so they wouldn’t come out good. Second, these are secure areas and although I saw no “no photography” sign, I’m 100% sure they don’t want people taking pictures there.
As the bus entered Iraq I still felt calm. The roads were wide and this triggered my memories of living in the Gulf nations of Qatar and the UAE. Such memories would keep coming back over the coming days.
I tried to sleep the rest of the journey. It was interrupted by two police checkpoints where I had to show my passport to the guy holding the massive gun. It wasn’t the first time I was woken up by a guy holding an enormous gun.
Iraqi cities don’t have bus stations. Buses just go to their office in the city, or drop people off when they should they’d like to get off. I’ve seen this in many parts of the world, as well as traditional bus stations (Turkey being the best I’ve seen so far). I arrived in Erbil at 5am, 55 hours after starting the journey. It was too early to call the guy I was couchsurfing with. The attendant walked me to the company office and somehow knew I just wanted to rest until morning. So the guy who stays there opened the door, let me in, pointed to the couch, and I tried to sleep for the next few hours.
I didn’t sleep well, but it was a better and more comfortable situation than I was expecting. I was grateful for having a place to rest before the city woke up. At 8am some passengers arrived. I woke up and the guy lifted his hand up at me, indicating it was time to get up. I sent the guy I’m couchsurfing with a text message, but apparently my Singaporean sim card wasn’t working. He never received it. I asked if I could drop my bag off at his place, but instead I left it at the bus company’s office all day as I explored the city. The guy I stayed with works during the day so I couldn’t go there until 7pm.
Though this post was long, perhaps the longest I’ve written, I hope it shows what budget traveling looks like (it’s not so bad, is it?). For many who read this blog, the thought of such an overland trip and the time and discomfort involved may be off-putting. It’s the environment I thrive in though. I genuinely enjoy it and all I discover the way I travel. Plus I’m on a budget and this is how I can pursue my dreams cheaply.
If you were keeping track, this is how much it cost for the journey.
Train Tbilisi – Batumi 23 Lari ($14)
Batumi – Turkish Border 3 Lari ($2)
Turkish Border – Hopa 10 Lira ($5)
Hopa to Diyarbakir 70 Lira ($35)
Diyarbakir to Erbil 75 Lira ($37.50)
Total: $93.50 not including a couple taxi rides, 1 Lira fees to use bathrooms in Turkey, food, etc. This is quite expensive for me, but short of hitchhiking it was the cheapest and most adventurous way to accomplish my goal of visiting Iraq. More to come…