Getting up at 6:30 in the morning is not what I call a relaxed holiday, but we have a long way to go today. After a short
breakfast in the lobby we go to the bus station and get on the bus to Hopa. The bus leaves at half past eight and goes all along the
Black Sea coast. Sometimes I think I can see the giant summits of the Caucasus range appearing on the horizon, but it's only
clouds. Around noon we arrive in Hopa, where we look for a bus to Sarp at the border. All we can find is a minibus, which takes us
first to a petrol station, than back to the bus terminal, again to the bus station and so on and so forth - until the last seat is finally
taken. The coastline with its high mountains touching the Black Sea is getting more and more spectacular. It's only 17 km to
Sarp, the street is modern and as broad as a motorway - without any traffic at all. Around 1 p.m. we pass a long tunnel and
end up at the first checkpoint.
All we can see are several gates and lines of fences and no people. The crossing looks deserted, but someone approaches from behind
and shows us the way. It only takes a few minutes to get out of the country. Next we walk to the Georgian side of the
border. Station No 1: A heavily armed Russian soldier wants to see our passports and asks where we will be going to. In Russian, of course.
Despite his guns and pistols and everything he's quite friendly. Station No 2: The man behind the window speaks excellent English,
checks our passports and asks about our first impression of Georgia. What a stupid question - the border is only 50 m away,
so we haven't seen anything yet. However, what a nice person, I think, but suddenly he says "That's 3 dollars each!"
"What is that for" I ask, and he replies "For new computers!". And prints out a receipt. Must be something like an official bribe.
Later we will find out that every traveller had to pay the same fee. Station No 3: A young, friendly woman at the next window,
stamping our visa. All we can hope is that she stamps the proper visa and not the second one for our return.
Station No 4: Customs. Forms are available in Russian and Georgian only. I fill out the forms and hand it over - the official nods
and doesn't want to see our luggage. Station No 5: An officer sends us to a small building. There we find a fat, hairy woman checking our
passports again. What's her job anyway? We don't have the slightest clue. Then she suddenly says "That's 1 dollar each".
Since we have two visa of which one should better not be seen by the officials, I decide that it's not a good idea to argue.
I give her one dollar for the two of us, which seems to be enough - she sends us away. Other travelers we will meet during our
trip noticed the same woman and, same as we did, wondered about her function. We decided to call the money she asked for
"fat hairy woman toll".
Station No 6: Some soldiers at the last gate. They want 5 dollars before they would open the gate. "Forget it man!" I say in Russian
and smile. The soldier grins at me and opens the door. And that was it - easier than expected.
Picture: Black Sea coast near Hopa
Before we can change some money, someone pushes us to a
Marshrutka - the ex-Soviet Union version of the Turkish Dolmus, the omnipresent shared taxis.
We are not in a hurry, but there's not much at the border and Batumi is too far away to walk. The fare per
person is one dollar - slightly more than usual, but we don't have Georgian money yet and so we agree.
First impression: Georgia is cow's paradise. They are everywhere and they are somewhat stoic.
Countless cows are hanging around in the streets, in the gardens, the road ditches and even on the beach!
No one seems to take care of them, so I wonder how the people can find their cows. Road conditions are really
bad and all the houses look rather Russian. Everything looks a little bit seedy and sometimes even deserted - but
not dreary. A lovely setting, reminding me of the Russian countryside. After quite a while we arrive at a vibrant
square in the city of Batumi. So, this is Georgia. Georgia? Or shall I say the Autonomous republic of Achara,
a country with its own police and paramilitary groups, ruled by an autocrat, who seems to be honoured by his people?
A small stretch of land full of corruption and nepotism. But these are things mostly remaining hidden from passers-by like us.
Unfortunately we have no idea where exactly we actually are. Street signs are rare and, if existent, in Georgian only.
It looks like the central square of a bigger city, but when I have a look at the map in Lonely Planet, the
central square is supposed to look completely different. Someone notices that I look pretty confused.
Two Georgians approach and try to help us. After a few seconds I notice that the two are deaf mute. I show them our
map, but they either cannot read Latin script or they are illiterate. A wild gesticulation match starts. Explaining a Georgian what
I want is one thing, but explaining a Georgian deaf mute what I want is a new challenge. Another Georgian notices the obviously
funny discussion between us. Almost all of the street names in the newest (actually the 1st) edition of the Lonely Planet are
out-of-date, which is why it takes a while until we understand where we are. Let's do it step by step, I think, and simply ask
which direction the harbour can be found. Okay, got that. We are where I thought that we would be, but now we can be sure.
We say thanks to the three Georgians - what a hospitality! - and walk to a nearby exchange booth. A strikingly beautiful blonde
(you're a model, aren't ye!) asks with a smile, whether we are okay or if she can help. Thanks, we are jolly well,
except for the fact that we don't know where we are, I answer in Russian. She is grinning and says "Well, in Batumi, Georgia!" Say what.
She seems to know more about the city she is living in, and explains where we can find the beach, the restaurants, the
train station and so on. Another man joins us after a minute. The pot-bellied man is rather small and has an arch smile.
Soon we end up talking about Germany, and after a while I ask him if he's the owner of the exchange booth. He is. And of course we
can change money. The man is really extremely friendly - as all the others (except for the fat hairy woman) we've met so far.
As soon as we step out of his booth, a begging child appears. And another. And one more. They're orbiting us like satellites,
touch our clothes and tug at our luggage. Since India, I don't give money to begging children. "Go away" I say in Russian, but it
takes a couple of minutes until they leave.
We have plenty of time until our night train to Tbilisi leaves, and so we walk to the beach. Many beautiful houses line along the
street, and I start to love this place for it's atmosphere. After a while we discover the nice theatre of Batumi.
Time to take a picture. As soon as I take out the camera, some men wearing black uniforms and guns run to us,
explaining us that it's forbidden to take any pictures around here. This is not the last time that we would see these
grim looking policemen.
Picture: Lofty interior of a shop in Batumi
Halfway we notice a marvellous shop with a splendid interior (see picture above). The shop is called "Oriental store" and
sells profane produce. Not far from the beach we finally find a restaurant. There's nothing like a menu, so I simply order
Pelmeni, the typical Russian meat dumplings. Pelmeni for two, some coffee and cola cost around 13 Lari - must be one of the
better places to eat out. The promenade near the beach with its wide park is just beautiful. We take a long walk along the beach and
the entire city centre before we head to the train station to get our tickets. The train station is called
Makhinjauri, which means "ugly". It's more than 5 kilometers north of Batumi, but many buses and marshrutkas go there.
Train station!? Indeed, there's a train! And a couple of kiosks. And a tiny building with a timetable. How can you call a train station
"ugly" when it's not even a train station? Let's buy a ticket, I think, but suddenly there's a guard standing next to me telling,
that we needn't buy tickets. He leads us to a blue and white, typical Russian carriage and shows us a
compartment with two berths. The fare is 20 Lari per person. Later on we will notice that this was his guard's van,
so he would have to sleep elsewhere on the train. That's extra money for him and no loss for us - his compartment is
as big (well. narrow) as the others. This is how Georgia works.
There is still enough time to spare. The guard tells us, that we would just have to cross the garden behind the
train in order to get to the beach. We leave our luggage in the compartment and open the door to the garden.
A woman comes out of a cabin in the garden and starts to curse us. Oops, that's her garden. I tell her that the guard has
told us that we can cross the garden and that I feel sorry for that. She's still cursing and swearing in a thick Russian accent,
but soon she's smiling at us and allows us to go to the beach.
Picture: Market in Batumi...Welcome to the kingdom of Achara!
I didn't mention the cows for a while in this chapter on Batumi. Which has nothing to say - of course there were cows at the
train station and on the road to the train station as well. We still have plenty of time, and so we go back to the centre of
Batumi to see the churches, the vibrant but pathetic market place and so on. Before sunset, I go swimming behind the train.
The sun slowly disappears behind the Black Sea and offers a great view. But wait a moment - it's August, and it's half past
seven. That's pretty early. Maybe too early? And so I get the idea to check, whether there is a time difference between Turkey and
Georgia. There is a time difference! And it's not just one hour but two hours! Which means that it's almost 10. The train is leaving
in a few minutes and we don't even have something for dinner. Within a few minutes, we grab some bread, something to drink and
two chicken halves. Five minutes later the train leaves - a couple of minutes too early! But the train is everything but speeding -
it's slowly wheeling. Maximum speed is around 30 km per hour. The train is rumbling and wobbling and it stops at every tree.
At one tree, or is it a train station!?, hundreds of people rush the train and it's getting extremely loud. And so we lock the tiny
compartment and somewhen start to sleep.