“What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
I stared out of the dusty back window of the black clunker that had carried me less than a mile from the Turkey-Georgia border to a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The large Turkish man (we’ll call him Berk) who had been at my side for the last two hours was arguing heatedly with the driver of the car, a sly-looking Georgian man with a red mustache. As they battled it out, the older Turkish gentleman (we’ll call him Onur) who completed our traveling trio stood fuming by the trunk of the car, waiting to get his things and take off in anger.
And all I could do was sit frozen in the backseat, my mind racing with possible scenarios as to what might happen next and what I would do to get myself out of this situation and on my way to Tbilisi.
It was just after 11:00 a.m – actually noon now that we crossed the border to Georgia. I had been up since 6:30 a.m. and on the road since 8:00 a.m.
Almost nothing had gone as planned.
I arrived at the bus station in the center of Kars shortly before 8:00 to buy a ticket to Ardahan. There, I was supposed to catch a bus coming from Istanbul and heading across the border to the town of Akhaltsikhe in Georgia at 9:30. This was one of two routes suggested by my guidebooks, the other being a minibus to Posof (a town about 12 kilometers from the border), a taxi from Posof to the border and another taxi from the border to Akhaltsikhe. There, I would find regular minibuses to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.
All indications were that the connection would be tight and to make sure things went smoothly, I had a note in Turkish explaining to the minibus driver to take me all the way to the otogar in Ardahan to catch the bus. As I showed this note to both the guy selling tickets and to my driver, they assured me it would be no problem (to the extent they could assure me when they spoke no English and I spoke no Turkish).
We seemed to fly to Ardahan, rolling into town at exactly 9:00 a.m., seemingly giving me plenty of time to catch the bus to Akhaltsikhe. I made my way into the small ticket office, followed by a bulky Turkish man who appeared to be in his early 40s (Berk) and a mustachioed, gray haired gentleman in a tweed blazer (Onur).
What transpired next went something like this:
Berk asked me if I was going to Tbilisi and indicated he and Onur were going as well. I didn’t think the bus was going as far as Tbilisi, only Akhaltsikhe, so I confirmed with the guy behind the counter. Then a white haired man standing next to the counter took out what looked like a ticket pad, started writing on it, and asked to see my passport. Since I would be crossing a border, I didn’t think anything of that – when going from Yerevan to Tbilisi, the driver actually collected our passports in advance.
But he gave my passport back to me almost immediately and suddenly Berk was trying to convince me to take a taxi to Posof with him and Onur. Mass confusion ensued as I spoke no Turkish and they spoke no English but after a lot of back and forth and pointing at maps, everyone in the ticket office convinced me that for some mysterious reason there was no bus to Georgia after all and my only option would be to wait almost two hours for the next minibus to Posof.
Or I could share a taxi to Posof with Berk and Onur.
I went with the latter. While they initially quoted me 50 Turkish lira ($28!) for my share, I got them down to 30 lira ($17) and just went with it. I was sure I was overpaying but after our harrowing hour-long ride to Posof, I saw both men contribute 30 lira to the driver as well, making me feel just slightly better.
Not really knowing what to do or where to go, I had little choice but to follow Berk and Onur when we arrived in Posof. Berk seemed to know his way around, calling out to a guy named Ismail who happened to be driving a white minibus. After sitting Onur and me down in yet another small ticket office while he went to get lunch, Berk returned with Ismail, who told me it would be $20 to go to Tbilisi. This seemed reasonable and after confirming multiple times that he would indeed take me all the way to Tbilisi, I agreed and handed over the cash.
Within minutes, I was sprawled out in the backseat of Ismail’s minibus, thinking I was set.
Not so much.
I should have known something was up when we had to take all of our belongings out of the minibus at the border – usually you can leave everything. To my relief and annoyance, Berk insisted on carrying my large backpack (relief because I didn’t have to carry it, annoyance because I didn’t fully trust him) as we went through both Turkish and Georgian immigration. And as I was slightly detained entering Georgia by a newbie border guard, Berk was waved on ahead with my pack – I got very nervous as he disappeared out of my sight.
When I finally emerged from the immigration office, I saw Berk and Onur standing next to the black clunker, my backpack in the trunk and the minibus nowhere to be seen.
No, I wasn’t worried at all.
The arguing began as soon as the car doors slammed shut. I could make out “dollar,” “lari” and “kilometer” – all leading me to suspect they were fighting over the fare. Suddenly, we pulled off the road into the gas station and Onur jumped out of the front seat. Berk soon followed and after a heated exchange between the two of them, the driver hopped out as well and joined in the fray. Up until this point, I thought Berk and Onur knew each other and were traveling together. Now, I realized that Onur was just along for the ride as well and was as frustrated as I was – likely more so because he actually understood exactly what was happening!
I don’t know what was said as I sat there staring out of the back window, but eventually Berk convinced Onur to get back in the car and we continued. At that point, my bitchy, not-gonna-take-any-crap side came out and I went on the offensive.
There was no way I was handing over another dime to anyone for this journey.
I started speaking Russian with the driver, which completely took Berk by surprise. I explained the best I could that I had already paid to go all the way to Tbilisi and that I was not paying any more. Knowing what I knew of Georgians, I suspected that if the driver knew my situation, he would likely sympathize with me and at least not demand any more cash from me. I was right. He nodded along and assured me everything was fine, even saying I was like his sister. Then he decided to quiz me about American politics.
Not super enthusiastic about discussing the merits of Mitt Romney with my new Georgian friend, I was relieved that it wasn’t long before we pulled into the bus station in Akhaltsikhe. The driver showed us where the minibus to Tbilisi was and then Berk pointed out to me that there was a currency exchange – I still needed to change my lira for lari.
What he did next convinced me that he was indeed trying to scam me.
As I made my way to the currency exchange window, Berk stuck to me like glue, barely giving me room to breathe. I made an effort to push him away and tried to shield my lira as I handed them over to the guy behind the glass. Sure enough, as the clerk handed lari back to me, Berk hovered right over my shoulder, clearly wanting to see how much money I had on me. I glared at him and stormed off, trying to hide the cash from him as best I could.
I returned to the minibus and learned from the driver that the fare was 20 lari – about $12. Again, I was determined I was not paying this. I waited until Berk returned and then, although I knew he understood very limited Russian, I told him in Russian right in front of the driver that because I already paid him to go to Tbilisi, he needed to pay for my minibus ticket. He glared at me, then looked at the driver who held out his hand, asking for the money. Berk looked back at me, defeated, and motioned to me to get on the bus as he covered the fare. Although we were forced to sit next to each other for the entire ride, he didn’t speak to me again.
Three hours later I finally arrived in Tbilisi.
I still find it very suspicious that the bus suddenly stopped running, especially when my driver in Kars had called the bus company just two days earlier to give them the heads up that I needed to catch the bus in Ardahan. And I strongly suspect that Berk thought he would get this naïve, blond American girl who speaks no Turkish to cover the cost of his trip to Tbilisi. In the end, I think I actually cost him money.
Despite the fact that my journey took a minibus, taxi, minibus, taxi and a third minibus, I actually got to Tbilisi faster than if I had taken the bus to Akhaltsikhe and caught a minibus from there. Considering the bus may or may not have been running, had I tried to make my way by taxi on my own, it likely would have taken even longer and cost me more.
All’s well that ends well, right?