It is just 12 kms from Batumi to the border town of Sarpi, but even within this short distance, the minibus that was taking us across the border made a couple of stops. The driver and his assistant loaded cartons of cigarettes and other items which are no doubt more expensive in Turkey but are restricted goods. Larger cartons were unpacked into smaller packets and hidden in the glove compartment, dropped into map pockets and sides of the door and some newspaper and plastic bags were carelessly thrown over them as camouflage. We were riding a vehicle across the border with some petty contraband!
The first thing you notice as you approach the border is the striking amoeba shaped Georgian immigration building. It is unclear what the architect had in mind, but clearly he or she wanted it to be unique. An observation tower sits over a series of folds and you walk underneath it to pass through customs and get stamped out of the country.
A short walk beyond that takes you to the Turkish immigration area where the building looked perfectly normal but the procedures were a little strange. Since we were required to purchase our visas on arrival, we were directed to a building well past the immigration and security check (without our bags going through the machines). After walking past several buildings with no signs, we entered one that was merely signposted Bank. It turned out that a small counter in that building was where you paid your $20 and got a stamp affixed to your passport. We now had to make our way back to the very first building to get to get properly stamped in. What if we just walked out? It is a mystery why they should place the two services far apart from each other and in the reverse order.
Once all the occupants of the minibus had completed all the formalities, the minibus itself had to be emptied for the customs authorities to check the vehicle. A customs official entered the minibus and took a cursory look behind the seats. We could clearly see that the driver and the assistant were nervous and were sweating it. But they got away it. All the baggage was reloaded and we were on our way. For some unknown reason, the duo were on edge for the remainder of the journey.
The Kackar mountain range runs alongside the Black Sea coast and the road hugs the scenic coastline all the way to Trabzon, over 170 kms away from the border. We had heard that roads in Turkey are excellent but weren't quite expecting them to be this good in these remote northeastern parts. This bodes well for all the forthcoming road journeys that we will be undertaking in this country.
Though we had traversed such a short distance, we had gained two hours by the clock and it was still early afternoon when we arrived in Trabzon, the largest port along the eastern Black Sea coast and a huge population center.
Meydani Parki (Square park?) is the heart of the city and at the center was the first of many Ataturk statues we expect to see in Turkey, a fact that we duly recorded by taking some photographs. Ataturk Alani runs all around the square and pedestrianized streets tightly packed with retail stores, cafes and restaurants run west from it. The lively bazaar was teeming with people and we enjoyed our return to a large urban setting after a period of time.
On our second day in Trabzon we decided to visit one of the star attractions in the northeastern part of the country. Sumela is a dramatic Byzantine monastery carved out of a sheer rock cliff. Tours from Trabzon transport you there and back, making it a convenient day trip. The monastery is constructed on rocks reached by a wooded path from the base of the mountain. A road has been built through dense evergreen forest to allow vehicles to get closer to the monastery and our vehicle made a couple of stops on the way allowing us to take in wonderful views of the monastery clinging to a sheer rock wall high above. At some point the vehicles can go no higher and there is a final half kilometer section involving several series of stairs that needs to be covered on foot. A final steep flight of stairs leads up the rock face to the monastery complex that is sheltered underneath a huge outcrop.
Within the monastery complex, the main chapel that is cut into the rock is the the primary highlight. It is covered both inside and outside with colorful frescoes, the earliest of which are from the 9th century but most from the 19th century. The hollow rock protects the paintings from rain and snow, but it could not protect them from vandalism. Many of the frescoes at or below human reach have been defaced deliberately or covered with graffiti. But there still are some excellent examples higher up on the walls and on the ceiling.
Surrounding the main chapel are smaller chapels and and other buildings including living quarters for monks, kitchens, guard rooms and so on. The site was abandoned in 1923 and became a museum and a popular tourist attraction because of its breath-taking location, structure and scenery. On 15 August 2010, with the permission of Turkish Government, an Orthodox Mass was held for the first time at Sumela monastery since 1923. During our visit, several parts of the monastery complex were closed for restoration which has been ongoing for several years.
While we got dropped off at the closest parking lot on our way up, we had to descend on foot all the way down to the base of the mountain to meet with the vehicle. The stone paved path was uneven, but it is gently graded for the entire distance and we were surrounded by trees sporting their autumn best. We also had the company of a middle-aged Turkish gentleman from Adana who was in Trabzon on a business trip and took the opportunity to visit Sumela. He said he had seen Sumela on TV hundreds of times but seeing it in person it was more beautiful than he had imagined. He was clearly moved by both the mountain setting of the monastery and beautiful wooded path through which we were hiking down. He went so far as to say that this was the most beautiful setting that he had ever been in! While that may be arguable, our visit to Sumela is something we are not likely to ever forget.
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Its a world apart indeed - and a very interesting part of the world. Look forward to reading of your travels in this ancient land. From, on Nov 12, 2012 at 04:47AM