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Georgia Border Crossing, 8/17/09

Our last day in Turkey started in an place which will soon be wiped off the map to be replaced by a swath of blue, submerged by the lake waters of large dam system in the valley of the Kashgar mountains – Yusufeli. The construction work was underway to replace the valley highway we were on with a larger highway snaking along the surrounding mountain tops. Huge tractors were carving up the mountain face dumping large boulders onto our path. There were signs warning us of falling rocks along our way, and soon there actually were falling rocks — intermittent avalanches — denting the already pot-hole rich surface upon impact and occasionally making it completely impassible. When this happened, the road was blocked to make way for tractors to push the mountain debris into the river itself, and we would stop and make conversation with others in the same situation.

One of the people turned out to be an geological engineer from Ankara coming to make inspections of an already existing damn upstream and he told us about the geological formations of the region and the progress of construction.

A truck driver with a load of cantelopes picked some choice specimens, sought out a bit of shade, started carving them up, and offering slices to other wayfarers. Tristan enjoyed the cantalopes and decided to buy a couple. The land is fertile in that valley, and there were trees bearing large figs, which I plucked following the example of the locals and ate too many.

Rope and wood suspension bridges connected the river banks and now that we had the time we decided to cross one. When we came near and saw how precarious it was, we decided against it.

Eventually the tractors cleared enough debris to pass, and we climbed the mountain pass through the town of Artvin, picking up our last Turkish hitchhiker, and eventually made our way the other side, seeing the Black Sea for the first time…

The terrain changed substantually became lush, subtropical, with terraced gardens, large fields of berries, and even the turkish people in that region were different, light skinned, blue eyed. Across the jagged valleys stretched steel cables which bore buckets used to transport tools to the fields and the harvest back home.

From there it was just a short 30 minute ride up the coast to town of Sarpie and the border crossing into Georgia. About a mile of cargo trucks was waiting at the border, which as a passenger car we passed and so began our most complex border crossing so far.

It had the most intermediate steps, each mildly confusing in its purpose, like a microbureaucracy. One of the immediate peculiarities of this border was the number of plain clothes “helpers” on both the Turkish and Georgian sides, eager to get their hands on your passport and offering to navigate the process with you. A couple times we seemed to progress to the next step only to be turned back, to “check out customs” or some station with a similar moniker. When we were already on the Georgian side, the uniforned official looked us over and told us to go back to a Turkish station and imdicated to one of these helpers to accompany us. Three of them came, quietly arguing among themselves who it was that was sent and all three took turns reaching out for our passports. “I’ll hold on to them, thanks.” Who were these people? I decided to withhold revealing my knowlege of Russian, even when asked, and it took some concentration not to respond one way or the other when they asked me in Russian if I spoke it. Better play the dumb American, amd have the wild card in my back pocket.

When the Turks, who were watching YouTube in their booth (Youtube is, for the moment, banned in Turkey), stamped our passport yet another time and told us, “You are now free.” The helpers got uncomfortably close. When we got into the car, they basically reached in through the window, asking quite explicitly for us to give them some money so there would not be any problems. I said, “no problems” locked the doors, rolled up the windows, while their hands were still inside the car in a fleeting hungry form of protest. We drove on, clearned the first Georgian station and got in line for the next. It felt important not to stall, yet none of the officials urged us along to the next way point. It was a guessing game. We zig-zagged into what seemed to be the next bottle neck, and as we were about to pull in, an armed man with an M16 and his comrade came to the window and told us we needed Georgian Insurance. “We have international insurance, see.” I pointed at our car’s Green Card (a document indicating such).

“No, you need Georgian Insurance.”

“Yes, we have international insurance, and Georgia is a nation.”

“No” said the armed man.

“Yes”

“No”

“Yes”

We had made it a practice to video tape our progress through borders (a border reel is under compilation) and at some point the unarmed comrade spotted our camera and started making a fuss of it.

“No”

“Yes”

He indicated something to the armed man and that guy suddenly walked away.

“No”

“Yes”

This time he gave up and walked away himself leaving us a clear path to the next station. We immediately pulled in.

Inside the station, the environment was a bit calmer, the female border officials seemed to be ignoring both the plain clothes and the armed accessories and dealt with us professionally. They entered data into their computers and asked pertinent questions, where, how long, etc.

Hari and I were forced to exit the car and proceed at the pedestrian border crossing, and Tristan was left with the car, to navigate the remaining redundencies. All of us were first photographed. Hari and I came out the other end and witness the unpleasantries that the now red-shirted official looking border guards were inflicting on the drivers in the next hurdle, searching the cars, guiding people into a parking lot from which there was no obvious eflux. I wanted to make sure Tristan didn’t fall into what seemed like their trap and ignored them and drove onward. Surprisingly, we were spared this step — could have been due to the brand of our passports? Most of the detainies were Russian, Turkish, Armenian, or Georgian. We drove on to yet another check point, which was a final review of all the papers.

Clear. Whew. We paid nothing. We got a 5 day transit visa. We didn’t have to get any extraneous insurance and we didn’t pay any bribes, but our nerves were on steely alert. We learned the lesson that you don’t have to obey just because someone with an M16 tells you it is so, and our edgy practice of video taping our official interactions was strangely vindicated. We shall see how this practice applies to the 8 border crossings to come.

One of the first signs we saw past the border said in bold letters. “Georgia is a Zero-Corruption country. Offering money to the police is a punishible offence.”

–Peretz

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