With the long Easter holiday less than a month away, opportunities for both domestic and international travel abound. An easy and popular destination for those in Georgia is Turkey, especially Istanbul. Istanbul can provide great value to the budget conscious traveler. Quality hostels abound, and excellent food and the iconic Turkish tea can be purchased for cheap. (Admission to the major sights such as the Aya Sophia, Topkapi Palace, or Blue Mosque is free or very low cost.)
Moreover, daily flights from Tbilisi and Batumi exist, as well as several bus companies providing transportation, if you are willing to sit for 24 hours from Batumi. Bus travel in Turkey is a far cry from the Greyhound buses of the United States. The Metro line, for example, is fully staffed, complete with an on-board steward bringing tea, water and food, and personal in-bus entertainment is available for every seat. Despite being long, it is a rather comfortable way to travel, and a one-way ticket from Batumi to Istanbul will cost about 65 GEL. Other companies running similar services include Luks Karadeniz and Golden.
However, before arriving in Turkey by bus one must cross the Sarpi land border, and that can be a challenge, especially for solo and independent travelers. Even travelers with the bus lines may find the set-up confusing or illogical at best. Here is a primer for those crossing the border to make it a smooth, and hopefully, confusion free experience.
Before You Go
In Batumi and Sarpi, cash exchange stands abound. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be as plentiful in Turkey. To save yourself the worry, exchange your lari for lira before crossing the border. Also be sure to have US dollars or Euros available to purchase your visa. Lira and laris are not accepted.
Furthermore, if you plan on going all the way to Istanbul via bus, purchase your ticket before you get to the bus station. In Batumi, the travel agency at about 67 Chavchavadze (1 block south of the TBC Bank) deals with the Metro line, and the staff is knowledgable and speaks English. Don’t forget your passport, as it is required for purchase.
Getting to Sarpi
For independent travelers Sarpi and the Georgian-Turkish border is about 20 minutes from Batumi, with both buses and those ever-lovable marshutkas making direct trips from the city center. From Tbilisi Square, one can use the #142 marshutka or the #101 bus to reach the border. Bus tickets are 40 tetri and can be purchased on board, but you must buy two. The marshutka will be about 1.20 GEL. Departures from Tbilisi Square average about every 15 minutes, and the border is literally the last stop. Be prepared to share the bus or marshutka with a lot of produce and bebias heading across the border to buy things to bring back to Batumi to sell at a greatly inflated cost.
Last May the new Sarpi border crossing was completed, and usually 6 border agents are working. If you have a non-Georgian passport, be prepared for them to look at every page. This isn’t out of any sort of concern, more curiosity, as they tend to be a rarity amongst the Turkish and Georgian passports they most commonly deal with.
Keep your passport handy after it is stamped, as it will be briefly checked (and I use the term “checked” loosely) before you enter the parking lot between the two countries. As you walk towards Turkey, watch for traffic as pedestrians and semi-trucks share the same small space.
Getting Your Turkish Visa
Since I started visiting Turkey, the visa office has been in 3 places. Moreover, it is located about 150 meters past passport control. This is an improvement from the prior 300 meters, however, yet still an odd place for it. As you walk towards passport control, tell the guard you need a visa. Often people will try and push their way to the front of the line; consequently, the guards get suspicious. I also tend to keep my passport out to show them that I indeed need one, and they all seem to be especially welcoming to Americans.
Next, walk towards the duty free shop and cafeteria building. Oddly, on the building directory the visa office is not listed, but the mosque is. At the far end of the building there will be a small sign that says vezne, and pointing you to the left. Enter the door and on the left will be an office. Simply slide your passport and cash through the slot, and a visa will be placed in your passport. Prices vary considerably by country of citizenship, so check before you go. Americans pay only US$20, but I’ve had Canadian friends have to pay US$60.
Getting Your Passport Stamp
Once you have your visa, you need to walk back the 150 meters to get the passport stamp. Be prepared for much pushing and shoving in line, as people impatiently wait for their turn to get their entry stamps, somehow thinking that pushing and shoving will in fact speed up the process. It can be very frustrating, and one needs to be aggressive/stand his ground. I’ve learned that from experience. However, sometimes a sympathetic Turkish guard, seeing that you are not from the area, will escort you to the front of the line.
After this you get to walk about 300 meters to finally enter Turkey, and once again, keep your passport handy, as it will be “checked.” Going back to Georgia is easier, but still anticipate a lot of pushing and shoving on the Turkish side, and a rather long walk through buildings on the Georgian side to get your passport stamped. Also, despite your attempted use of the Georgian language, border agents will speak to you in English.
Hoş geldiniz (welcome) to Turkey! Enjoy your time and the tea!