There is something different about this bus. The moment I get on it niggles at me. What could it be? Every other passenger seems afflicted by a dreadful cough. Do they look feverish? Or like they have recently been in Beijing? No, no. So not Sars.Perhaps a clue can be found in the haze that has settled on the ceiling. Or the acerbic aroma. Or the harsh grate of the air on the back of my throat.
Ah! This is a smoking bus. Already I can see that things will be a little different this time around.
I should have expected a few differences, I guess. For I am off to Georgia. Tblisi, to be precise.
I can only see out the front window, right in front of the bus. It is dark by the time we get going. I don’t know the route, and the window to my left is opaque (one layer of the two seems to be intransparent perspex, the reason escapes me).
So my view is restricted to road signs. There seem to be an awful lot of them. Perhaps I am only noticing because they are all that I can see. On the other hand maybe not, there were four in a row just right at that corner. An exclamation mark. A speed guideline (40). A left arrow. And then another left arrow. Two metres between each one. Perhaps the roadmarkers are paid by the sign. They are certainly not paid based on the quality of the roads.
There is one other thing I can see. That is people passing us. I would not pass a bus in these conditions. In the dark, on a windy mountain road. But clearly they are in more of a hurry than I am. And there is always room for three on the road, so long as the oncoming traffic moves over a little. A wee bit of horn action and there you go. See? Easy.
This bus is not full enough. Stop. Stop. Put on more passengers. Make sure someone sits beside that foreigner. And make sure all of them are chain smokers. And turn up the blaring music. Quick smart. I can’t tell if it is Turkish or Georgian or Russian. Perhaps Russian. But I can tell that is is loud.
When the haze gets so thick that even the driver needs a break from it we stop at a roadside cafe. It is 2am. The perfect time for supper. Tea for me. Outside the river, the silence, the fresh air and the stars are companion enough. Inside it is a quick meal. And oh, I don’t mind if I do. Another cigarette or three. Perhaps they are all very nervous.
It occurs to me that it is taking a very long time to get to the border (which is supposed to be only 3 hours away). And I thought it was on the Black Sea coast. But here we are in a mountain pass that reminds me vaguely (in the dark) of Arthur’s Pass in New Zealand.
Reading my guidebook suggests we might be headed for Posof, the other border crossing into Georgia. What do I care, since the bus ends in Tblisi all the same?
Oh great joy. We are off again, but I have found a button that will turn off the loudspeaker right above my head at least. It has no effect on those around me, but they seem to be immune to the music in any case. Perhaps tar has dulled their hearing.
Oh still greater joy. My seat neigbour is snuggling up to me in his sleep. And the woman in front of me has just put her seat back unexpectedly, just about removing my knees in the process.
Thankfully sleep overtakes me at last, and I wake to an amazing vista of the mountains of north-east Turkey. At Andahan we see the dawn of a beautiful day over snowy peaks. I have seen a lot of dawns lately, and even the majesty of the mountains, and the desire to be free of my affectionate seat-buddy, are not enough to keep my eyes open more than 2 minutes.
At last we reach the border. A place called Vale, a few kilometres past Posof. The bus stops. I get off, the cold, fresh air and awesome views just the stimulant to blink away sleep and find my passport.
The travellers have thinned during the night to just me and 10 or so Georgian women (bad teeth but friendly all the same).
On the Turkish side we have the usual and some unusual suspects. An immigration stamp. The normal interest in New Zealand. An encouragement to be safe and not go to China (they always spot the Chinese visa). And now a man in a mask approaches to ask me questions about my temperature and cough (both absent, I am pleased to say).
Then to the Georgian side, a short walk. Immigration and customs are run by the army in Georgia. These people seem less inclined to smile than those on the Turkish team just 50 yards away. They do not seem concerned at all about importing Sars. And they speak no English either.
Customs officials, it seems, have no uniform at all in Georgia. They come out, scruffy-looking guys carrying a lot of extra weight and a knife. The former seems like an impediment to their work (but also a badge of office?). The latter is useful for cutting open boxes (over the protestations of my fellow travellers) to peer inside.
No particular interest in my bags. ‘No cigarettes? No guns? No narcotics? Well, what can I confiscate then?’. Laugh. ‘Travel safe’.
Now we sit on the bus. Three hours and counting we have been here. No noticeable action for at least an hour. The bus driver (looking a little the worse for wear after driving all night) and his assistant are talking to the customs guys. No one seems to be in a hurry. What are we waiting for?
Another hour goes by. The Gruzinki (for such is a group of Georgians called in Russian) are becoming restless and talking of taxis. But no taxi is going to get through that gate they keep closed against us. And still there is no information on what is going on.
Ah! Action. Another man, uniformless, gets on the bus to collect passports. This must be the fifth inspection. They do not trust each other, these guards.
Follow your passport. Small room. Two men. Seated at desk. Computer. Dim light from window. Pile of passports.
He picks one up and reads the name. The woman steps forward. He holds out his hand. Five dollars in the desk drawer and the passport is returned.
Another passport. Another name. Another five bucks. And so it goes. Including one woman who is so incensed that she has to pay (having already had to shell out more than expected for the more genuine sort of customs charges) that she refuses. At least for 30 seconds. No alternative really. Just making herself feel better.
He comes to mine. Glances at it. Puts it on the bottom of the pile. Special treatment of a kind. Foreigners are richer than Georgians, after all.
At last my turn comes. His English is worse than my Russian. So we choose the latter. He seems tired. ‘New Zealander. You speak Russian. Excellent’. He turns to his friend and speaks in Georgian. Perhaps he asks what the rate is for New Zealanders. Perhaps this is some new problem for the Posof border post: how much we should extort from those from the Antipodes?
‘Ten dollars’, he says.
My guidebook advises that Georgian customs officials are notoriously rapacious and their demands for cash should just be ignored. If they can not be ignored, then demand to see in writing the justification for the fee and the amount, and ask for a receipt.
I consider my options. Alone in this high mountain eyrie. Two customs officials who have my passport. Behind a big gate. Manned by guys with guns and uniforms. In a country where I don’t speak the language and don’t have enough time on my visa to do anything but race across anyway.
I settle for asking him what the cash is for, while I dig around in my pocket (thank the Lord for giving me the sense to grab a bunch of small US dollar bills).
‘For me’, he says, patting myself on the back. ‘For my friend’, he says, pointing to his friend. ‘For the computer’, touching the computer (which, for the record, is not used at all in this transaction).
I don’t ask why it costs more for me. I give him the cash. He gives me my passport. He wishes me well.
I guess I expected a bribe to be more clandestine, with more obvious violent overtones, and more concerns about being caught. Not this business as usual, slightly tired process of casual robbery. Perhaps that just shows my inexperience at such things. I note later that others simply slip the money inside their passport when they hand it over. A normal cost of border crossing. A posted price.
Back to the bus. It obviously cost $60 to open the gate. We are on our way. Everyone but me lights up a celebratory smoke. The roads are appallingly bad. I make a mental note never to come this way again. We crawl down the mountains to a highway. These roads are also appalling. But at least we no longer have to stop every few metres to crawl over massive craters in the asphalt.
Through a succession of tired-looking towns. Where is the lively, gaily-painted, hospitable, gastronomic paradise that I was told about? Perhaps it is on holiday. Perhaps the customs officials have started my relationship with Georgia badly. Perhaps it is because the sun has gone behind a cloud.
At last, a signpost for Tblisi. And another. And the highway grows bigger. And the buildings grow taller, and the fields give way to apartments, and the hills are festooned with the cardboard block houses the Soviets were so enarmoured of.
Downtown Tblisi. 7pm. Outside the train station. Outside the bus too. For the last time. The driver must be relieved. He looks like he has been run over by the bus, rather than having been the one driving it.
I am not sure that the map in my guidebook points north correctly. Still, how hard can it be. Walk away from the train station. Ask someone. Georgians are friendly, they say.