Kar means snow in Turkish, and the north-eastern Turkish city of Kars certainly lives up to its name. The residents here are super-friendly and the kindness of Turkish and Kurdish people can be compared to nowhere else. The Turkey-Georgia border close to Posof is very remote indeed!
I don’t like borders because of political reasons and also because when I travel alone I always have problems. For some reason, a lone female hitchhiker whose passport is almost full with stamps raises suspicion. The Georgian border is no exception, and I am made to wait whilst everyone else is ushered through. The border guard makes a phone call about me before finally letting me into the country.
Being in Kars has restored my faith in men, and I ride from Turkey to Georgia with five men in a white van, with four of us in the back. They are gentlemen to me and I am feeling happy again. But then in Georgia we stop for a cup of tea at a cafe, with a sign aimed at Turkish truck drivers. The ‘cafe’ is actually a house and I naively say, “tea in here? But it’s someone’s home!” We walk in. The light is dim, the walls are pink, the curtains and chairs are a red velvet. A woman in a tiny skirt and lots of makeup on greets us. My Turkish is too terrible to understand the conversation, but the name Marina and mentions of $50 are repeated. My faith plummets again.
I am SO happy that I visited Georgia before, in the summer time. I have memories of a country of amazing beauty, and of deep shades of green absolutely everywhere. Although it is still beautiful in the winter, it is now a dull brown colour. It could almost be a different country. But Tbilisi remains the same vibrant, cool place it was when I last visited, one and a half years ago.
Whilst walking in Avlabari, the best district in Tbilisi, I am asked for money by an old, old woman. I look at her and decide that she must be around eighty years old. I give her 2.50€. She starts to cry and hugs me tightly, kissing me again and again and thanking me. It is at that moment that I realise that I know nothing about Georgia; I don’t understand just how poor many people are and how difficult life must be for them. How vacuous my life drinking chacha (Georgian alcohol) here has been.
For some unjustified reason, I have low expectations of Armenia, and I am only heading there to visit my friend, Jo. But Armenia is stunning! The road between the Georgian border and Yerevan runs through a gorge and is breathtaking. Miraculously, I hitchhike an expensive looking taxi from the Georgian border to Yerevan, a four hour drive. The young driver with Ray Bans and leather jacket has just dropped a woman off and is heading back to the capital. Great news! But it’s not so great when he asks me if he can see me again, buys me a bottle of champagne and drives us to Lake Sevan to drink it. I refuse the alcohol. When we are close to Yerevan, I call Jo to find out where to meet her. The driver wants to speak to her. “What’s your address?” he asks her. I panic, yelling, “no no no, don’t give him the address, Jo!” and I snatch the phone out of his hand. He is upset with me: “you think I would come to your address? I wouldn’t. Don’t you trust me, Lisa?” He is a kind man, but sadly, recent hitchhiking experiences have made me paranoid.
When exploring Yerevan, Jo gives me some important advice: “don’t smile at strangers. In ex-Soviet countries it means that you are laughing at someone if you smile at them”. “Really?!?!” “Yes. Drink Don’t Smile”. This advice helps me to enjoy Yerevan. Everyone stares at me with a cold, straight face. But with Jo’s wise words, I know that it is not because they are miserable! In fact, I really like Yerevan, meet lovely locals, go to some cool bars and take many photos:
This is definitely the wrong time of year to visit Armenia. The heaviest snow I have ever seen means that I can not really explore the many mountains and gorges. As I leave, I am already thinking about a return trip to this beautiful country.
I hitch back through Georgia to Kars, Turkey, and then get a bus from Erzurum to the south coast, and for the third time in two weeks, my bus is stopped by either the military or the police, both heavily armed. Our identities are checked and the buses searched. The buses have gone through the Kurdish region, and this is the only reason that I can think of for the armed-searches. Turkey is not the perfect postcard tourist destination that most might believe. But in my last days here, I try to take everything in: the rocks, the mountains, the smells, the redness of the earth…because I may not come back to this country, which evokes such mixed emotions in me, for a very long time.