18.12.2018 - 19.12.2018
This was the one segment that I could not get all the details sorted for before I left: information I had found was very vague. I am including precise details at the end for anyone wanting to make this journey who stumbles across this post.
In Kars, I walk a bit out of town to buy my bus ticket to Hopa, just south of the Georgian border on the Black Sea. I change hotels to be closer to where I buy the ticket, as that's where they tell me to be. When I get there, I am picked up in a minivan and taken to the main Kars bus station, which is just down the street from my original hotel. I have been given seat #3 and I see on the driver's list there is no-one in #4 - so I have the front two seats to myself - the side windows of the bus are grimy but the windscreen at least is pretty good. Leaving town, we pass some sort of agricultural market - lots of little trucks overwhelmed by huge stacks of hay or sacks of whatever they grow around here, plus cattle. This fellow has either made a successful purchase or is a disappointed seller.
The journey has three quite distinct phases. The first is the steady ascent out of Kars, so that the landscape is made entirely white with snow. There are a few villages strung along the road but no real sign of any ski activity - the slopes might not be sufficiently slopey for that sort of thing. There are times when the road itself is barely discernable, but the driver, a calm-looking man probably about my age, keeps up a steady pace of between 80 and 100 km/hr - even when the speed limit is clearly 50 - and every so often lights up a smoke.
As in most parts of the world, when we get to a village or town, there is a sign to say so. It is a novelty for me to see that as we leave, they use the same sign, but with a read line through it, as if that place has been cancelled.
The second phase starts when we hit the crest - maybe 50 km out of Kars and up about 2,500 metres: suddenly the snow is gone, and we follow a steep-sided gorge - the river here is dammed three times, so gets to be quite significant, but I have not been able to find out its name.
We stop for a lunch break - there is nothing except a service station and two ramshackle cafes - one evidently run by the bus company. I have no idea what they sell or how long we'll stop for, so just have some tea - the couple in the seats beside me have been kind enough to give me some simit - bread which comes in a 6 inch hoop, maybe half an inch diameter, and is often called Turkish pretzel. But then the food arrives for the people who did know what to do, and it looks and smells delicious - chunks of lamb cooked on an open fire in something like a pizza oven, a simple salad and flat bread. Hmm - missed a trick there. I go study the river.
The third stage is where the contour of the land is simply too aggressive to allow the road to progress: there has been a massive investment in bridges and tunnels - I lost count of the tunnels at about 30, with the longest being 2 km. I do not see much point in photos of tunnels, so have little to show for this part of the trip - here's a bridge!
It is 260 km, but we take around 6 hours, getting in to Hopa a bit after 4:00. THere is not much to be said about Hopa - it has the normal assortment of shops, although, curiously, the road provides a significant barrier between them and the Black Sea. I spend quite a long time going up the street and then back down past my hotel to the bus station. The internet had said the minivans don't go from the bus station, but from a hard to spot bus stop at an unspecified location - I think I'll ask at the station where that might be, but cannot make myself understood. It is dinner time, so I go for a pizza - it has to be the worst one ever, nothing about it is right. The staff are very nice, however, and I am dining in, so I can't really abandon it and gamely eat the whole thing. It really needs beer, but this is a Muslim establishment.
I get back to the hotel and notice a minivan parked at the door, with the words "Hopa" and "Sarp" on the windscreen, then a little stall basically making it clear that this is where the minivan to the border goes from. A fellow accosts me to find out what I am up to - despite everything I see, he says I must go to the bus station, and he comes into the hotel with me to talk to the fellow behind the desk: it is a con. I see him at the border the next day with his taxi. As with every place I have stayed, the hotel gives me breakfast but, unlike any other, this one gives me a sixth floor view of the Black Sea as I eat it.
I then stroll out the front door, jump in the waiting minivan and it leaves immediately. Other people have said that at Sarp, there are many people taking a leisurely tea on the beach before leaving Turkey - but they must be people who get stuck in a queue somewhere. We enter a tunnel and then, bang, the border is right there - no beach-side tea shops to be seen. I do find a wee cafe by going the other way, and think I interrupt the staff's own meal by asking for tea, but I've decided I am not leaving Turkey without one last dose, because who knows what is on the other side!
The fellow signing me out is very jovial - has a go at pronouncing my name and chats a bit before stamping me through. There is a makeshift corrugated steel passage way and another bang! and Georgia is in front of you.
This officer is much more wary, questions me about my plans, insists I'll be staying for two weeks even though I show I don't leave for nearly a month, brings in a superior to have a confab - a bit nerve-wracking, but the superior doesn't see the problem and I'm in. There's even an ATM in the immigration hall. I catch another minivan and within about 40 minutes, I'm in my hotel swigging on Georgian beer.
Details for travel Kars to Batumi
First step: Kars to Hopa. There is one bus a day, run by Yeşil Artvin, leaving at 10:30, cost is 80 lira. It leaves from Kars Köy Otobüsleri Terminalı (Yusufpaşa Mahallesi, Küçük Kazım Bey Cd. No:2), where the bus company has an office - the fare can be paid here by credit card. Dogu Kars is a local bus company which sells tickets (cash only) and will take you from their office to the bus station.
Second step: Hopa to Sarp (border town on Turkish side) - minivans leave from outside the Cihan Hotel, Sahil Cad. No:74 Hopa. There is no schedule, just as they fill, but they run into the night so there is no need to stay in Hopa. I did spot a ramshackle bus in Hope bus station with Sarp as its destination.
I have no idea how long it might take to get through: I had no waiting at all, but this was mid-December.
Sarpi to Batumi - there is a bunch of taxis, a minivan service and an actual city bus service into Batumi - but this seemed to require a card, and I did not see anywhere to get one, just a top up machine at the bus stop.