Crossing Borders 4: Driving Back in the USSR

Fourth in a continuing series of border crossing adventures

“And Moscow girls make me sing and shout, That Georgia’s always on my my my my my my my my my mind.” – The Beatles, Back in the USSR

Growing up during the Cold War era, I can recall hiding under desk drills, Wednesday noon air-raid sirens and genuine fear of the Soviet Union. If you had told me back then I would one day live in a Stalin-era Gulag camp, speak Russian to my children and struggle against 40-below-zero temperatures (the same in both Centigrade AND Fahrenheit!), I would have thought either we lost the war or you were completely crazy. Not only did those things come to pass, though, but I also chose to do them.

I’ve written before about border-crossing adventures by train from Russia to Kazakhstan, but recently I took a very different kind of trip, driving my personal car across the border from Turkey into the Republic of Georgia.

IMG_2919
Mençura Waterfall near Hopa, Turkey and the Georgian border

Plotting the Route

From our current home in Trabzon, the nearest land border with Georgia is only 200 kilometers away at Sarp, not quite a three-hour drive. For seven decades this Black Sea crossing was the southwest frontier of the USSR, and certainly not open to westerners driving their own car. It’s now open 24 hours with a 360-day visa-free regime!

However, scanning a road map of eastern Turkey, I noticed a couple remote roads snaking through the steppe highlands to the towns of Posof and Çıldır and wondered if these were actual active crossings, too. Checking my Lonely Planet (yes, I still prefer printed maps and guidebooks) and the helpful Silk Road travel guide, I found reports that they were in fact open to road travelers, though logistical details were sketchy. Hmm.

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Şavşat Castle in the late afternoon sun

On the Road Again

My wife and I set out in our trusty Toyota from Trabzon, bound for a first night stopover at Laşet Bungalows outside Şavşat, a peaceful place on the lush side of the coastal mountains. The next morning, we set out after breakfast to climb the Çam Pass, where the scenery dramatically changes from the rainy green forests to the drier steppe.

Bypassing Ardahan on a new road, we headed north toward Posof and the border post at Türkgözü. A beautiful drive was somewhat spoiled by an oversized lorry carrying construction girders. The extra-long truck was being escorted by a smaller guide vehicle, who must have thought it fun to play a type of cat-and-mouse game around the numerous hairpin turns.

Now that I’m almost 55, I’ve learned to be more patient when driving. The phrase “I’m not in a hurry” is helpful. At one point, the lorry seemed to be inviting me to pass, pulling over and actually stopping in the left lane prior to a sharp right turn. I closed in when the escort vehicle honked loudly and suddenly cut me off. Another opportunity to practice patience.

Pulling into Posof, I decided to top up the tank with petrol, not sure of the cost or availability of fuel in Georgia. I also hoped the big truck would get out of the way. The old Soviet border now loomed less than 15 kilometers away. Unfortunately, so did the truck.

We quickly caught up with the lorry climbing another hill, but realized passing was futile and just let the escort vehicle take us along for the rest of the ride. Soon we were approaching a large overhead gate and noticed several parked cars along the roadside. The truck driver waved goodbye to his escort, who quickly whipped a U-turn and sped away, leaving us wondering what was next.CB 1

On the Border

We parked our car and stood in line without about ten others waiting for passport control. After stamping us out, my wife stepped through a turnstile, but I, as the “chauffeur,” was asked to return to my vehicle and drive it through into the border station zone alone.

Being between borders is always a surreal experience to me, having officially exited one country but not yet entered another. Airport travelers simply do not experience this, as they usually touch down square in the midst of a new country (except perhaps Tom Hanks’ character in The Terminal).

Not knowing the proper procedure, I tried to drive around the long lorry and enter Georgia, but customs guards directed me toward a side building to have my vehicle papers checked.

In for Inspection

Once inside, a team of three officers did their best to help me. In a mix of Turkish and English, I explained where I was coming from and handed them my car registration, insurance papers and driver’s license. They also asked for my passport and visa information, which I happily handed over. At this point a puzzled look came across one of their faces.

“You are an American, traveling with a USA passport, but your vehicle has Turkish license plates,” said the officer.

After many years of putting my foot in my mouth, I have almost learned in situations like this that it’s best to say little or nothing. I therefore thankfully only thought to myself, “It would be kind of difficult to drive a car across the ocean from the USA.” Instead, I just smiled.

They then looked at my birthplace, which is listed as my home state of Georgia in my passport. Traveling into the Republic of Georgia (known as Gurcistan in Turkish and Gruzia in Russian), I assured them I was not in fact returning home! More smiles all around.

They gave me a verbal okay to continue, and the customs agents lifted the crossing gate for me to drive through. I pulled up to the Georgian border drive-thru window and again handed over our documents. This border was once tightly controlled and patrolled, but it’s now as easy as ordering take-out food from a Burger King.

It began to rain. We pulled over from the passport window to have our car checked for entry, and after a couple of simple questions about our travel plans soon found ourselves humming “Back in the USSR.”

Across the border.

To be continued …

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A glimpse of what lies across the border

 

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