Tag Archives: Sarpi Border Crossing

A Five Star Hotel

Thinking about it now, R1600 (approx. 114 USD) for a room in a five star hotel is pretty cheap, but when you are an overland traveler counting every penny that you spend, bargaining (and in some cases begging) becomes a habit.

Our drive to the border began late morning, after we bade farewell to Ali  Cemal (pronounced Jemal) – the owner of the little restaurant and campsite, that we had made our home base in Trabzon, Turkey. The Georgian border was just over 200 kms away so we thought a leisurely drive along the Black Sea would get us there in time.

Little did we know that while these thoughts ran through our heads and we settled into the drive, a very excited farmer, driving a red lorry with his wife and the load bay full of cows was eyeing our truck. What happened next was the subject of a Facebook post on our page:

“We are always a few hours late, but sometimes it has a hilarious and heart warming story behind it. We were making our way out of Trabzon to Georgia when a red lorry carrying about 5 cows kept driving up to the side of us. The cutest old couple would excitedly wave at us. The eccentric driver of said lorry followed us from a small town Macka into the city centre, pulled us off the road and literally whisked us to his younger brothers cafe – Cafe Aloha – for a tea and a chat. Davut Celeb owner of cafe pictured at the bottom”

Davuts brother had asked us to wait for him at the cafe while he quickly delivered his cows. We waited a while but then asked Davut’s leave as border crossings are always a stressful event. As we got close to the Sarp border crossing, we passed through the border town of Kemalpasha and experienced a feeling that was familiar to us from most border towns we had passed.

There is this sense of dodginess and desperation. You see people who are in a state of some stress, be it the urgent need to get across the border or the stress of not having the right papers or the worry of being caught out by Customs for the goods they want to take across and sell. Then you see the dodgy characters lurking around figuring out ways to take advantage of these desperate people. Don’t get me wrong, it is very seldom that an entire town gives off this eerie vibe but more the main road that leads to the border and most often than not, that is the only part of the border town passersby experience.

Sunset at the borderWhen we arrived at the border we saw a long queue of cars and I got confused about the process. Since it was time for the Maghrib prayer, we said our prayers and made our way to the border office on foot to try and figure out the process. Before we knew it our passports were being stamped and only then did we realize that the ‘foot queue’ was only for those who were crossing the border on foot and for passengers of the cars!

Masjid at the Sarp Border Crossing
Masjid at the Sarp Border Crossing

Panicked, we tried to explain to the Turkish officials that we want to cross in our car and in true Turkish fashion, without any stress (even with hundreds of people in the queue), they stamped us back into Turkey, told to us get in the vehicle queue and drive to the crossing. I remember thinking to myself, I should just listen to K!

We eventually got across the border – me in the car and K on foot – and met on the Georgian side. The process here was quick and efficient and we were in a country we had never in our wildest dreams thought of visiting (Read about that here).

By the time we had exchanged our money and started driving away from the border it was 8pm. At this point we had no idea where we would be spending the night. We thought we could find a hotel in the popular tourist town of Batumi. We had read that Batumi, the second largest city in Georgia, was a resort town, but didn’t realise that gambling is one of it’s main attractions.

We decided against sleeping here and found a campsite on our GPS about 60 kms out. As we neared the campsite the GPS told us to get off the main road onto a dirt road. We followed the directions along extremely dark roads, which did have houses but these were very dark too. We figured that this might be a holiday destination and the houses were most likely holiday homes that were not occupied.

When we got to the location, we saw nothing but an empty patch of land, adjacent to a double story house where the lights were switched on. We tried to get somebody’s attention to see if we could get some information on the campsite but were unlucky. We drove up and down the road, trying to find the right place and then decided to give up.

The GPS also indicated a B&B nearby and we thought this will have to be our accommodation for the night. Through  the more dark streets we arrived in front of a house that had one light switched on outside and the flashing of a TV screen on the inside. We rang the bell, knocked and hooted until a silhouette of a person looked through an upstairs window at us. He motioned to us that B&B was closed. We were perplexed.

Out of options we decided to try Kobuleti, a town we had bypassed on our way to the campsite. The GPS indicated many hotels here and so we felt hope. It was already close to 10 pm and in our exhaustion were desperate enough to settle for the first hotel room we found.

The streets of Kobuleti were wide, there were street lights but roads were deserted. We came to the first hotel which was very quiet, almost shut down. After knocking on the door a while someone eventually emerged, smiled and invited us in. The reception was modern and well kept. This looked like a good hotel. He told us that the hotel was closed and tried to get hold of the manager to see if he could give us a room.  No luck – he allowed us to use the bathroom and we continued on our quest. The second and third hotels were exactly the same, we rang bells at receptions, knocked on doors and hooted but there was no response. We realised that this may have been the off-peak season and hence there were no visitors in town.

We avoided The Georgia Palace Hotel on the GPS list because  it sounded too expensive. At this point, our choices were rather slim. It was either, find a room or spend the night in the streets of a city and country we didn’t know much about.

The gates to The Georgia Palace hotel opened as the gates of any palace would. We drove down a long  drive way and got to the 5 star reception. With knots in our stomach we went in and found someone there. They were open! We were tired, but gathered up the strength to haggle and bring the price down a bit before we accepted and paid.

We ordered a veg pizza, ate and enjoyed a good nights sleep. In the morning before continuing on our journey, we took a walk along the beach and wondered what this place would be like in the busy season.
Beach at the Georgia Palace Hotel     

Ummm… We’re in Georgia?!?!

Three Customs officials, came to our car, started asking us where we were from and if we were here on business. We explained that we were on a safari all the way from South Africa. One officer explained South Africa to the others as “Waka Waka”. There was a quick search of our car, a dog sniff and with smiles we were welcomed to Georgia. We are still asking ourselves how did we end up in this small country in the Caucasus when we had never even thought about going this far north.

Our plan to enter Iran was completely different to the way it is turning out. While looking at the map and deciding on countries, we spoke much about going to Turkey but agreed that it was too far out of our planned route. But as our good friend Moulana Junaid Kajee always reminds us: “Things may not be going well in your plan but in Allah’s plan everything is going swimmingly well!”

And things were not going according to plan when we couldn’t drive our car in Saudi Arabia and then had to leave Jordan immediately after receiving it there. In Palestine, after mulling over our route for the next leg of our journey we realised that to go back to Jordan would be a dead end. So we looked at options and the only other country that was not at war and through which we could to get to Iran was Turkey.

We received our car in Jordan after it was trucked from Saudi Arabia. We waited 10 days in Aqaba.
We received our car in Jordan after it was trucked from Saudi Arabia.

A few emails and phone calls later, we had a shipping company that could ship our car, a customs agent to put it on the ship and a 30 day e-visa for Turkey that took all of 5 minutes to get and was free!

On 15 August 2015 we were in Istanbul, eagerly awaiting the arrival of our car to Istanbul.

Earl II waiting for us at AutoPort
Earl II waiting for us at AutoPort

Arrive it did, but 10 days late. This gave us an opportunity to spend some time exploring Istanbul and applying for our Iran visa. On the 3rd of September with the car in our possession and Iran visas in hand we started a slow drive east-ward along the southern coast line of Turkey towards Iran.

We still had 2 problems.
1. The delay in Istanbul meant that we would run out of our visa before exiting Turkey.
2. The Auto-mobile Association of South Africa (AASA) does not validate the Carnet de Passage for Iran.

After much research and visiting the Police Station and Department of Foreign Affairs we learnt that Turkey does not do visa extensions. We had to apply for a Short-term Residence Permit – called Ikamet. We completed forms and booked the interview in the city of Izmir.

In Izmir we were told that we cannot be given a 15 day residence permit, we should rather overstay our visa and pay the penalty at the border when exiting – problem number 1 resolved!

On the Carnet issue, research showed that it was both possible and impossible to get into Iran without a Carnet. We had no other option but to try entering Iran without a Carnet, hoping that we would be given an alternative option at the border.

Due to the political issues in Turkey only one border crossing out of three with Iran remained open. We were warned by many locals along our route that given the tense political climate, this border crossing was best avoided.

Across that gate is Iran!
Across that gate is Iran!

Other overland travellers we spoke to, were adamant that the crossing was far too difficult to get through and suggested we reroute via Georgia. Given that we were in violation of our visa period, as well as the impending end to our driving permit, we proceeded with uncertainty towards the much dreaded Dogubayazit border crossing.

On the 26th of September the alternative option provided by the Iranian customs officials and fixers or “companies” as they are called, was way too expensive for us and they expected us to drive across Iran to Pakistan in 10 days max. This after we had negotiated them up from their initial offer of just 3 days. After much discussion with Iranian customs, we decided to go back to Turkey.

We had previously read about a guy in Iran (www.overlandtoiran.com) used by most overlanders for Carnet services who could provide a Carnet for the period of the visa but only with entry from Armenia. We contacted him and he confirmed this option. Since Turkey and Armenia did not have an open border crossing, we would have to go through Georgia and being South Africans, we did not need visas for Georgia – Bonus!

We reapplied for Iranian visas, flew to Ankara for Pakistani visas, returned to Trabzon and started our journey to Georgia.

On 17 October we exited Turkey for the second time to enter the border control offices of Georgia. The border post looked like an airport terminal for passengers on foot and a high-tech toll plaza styled building for vehicles. The processes were quick and efficient and we were welcomed with smiles by Customs Officials and Police. One official even showed us the score of the latest rugby match between South Africa and Wales, which South Africa had won. More smiles and stamps and we’re in Georgia!