It was a long bumpy day of marshrutka rides from just below the Russian border, across all of Georgia, to the small nation’s southernmost point. From the towering alpine range of the Caucasus I bounced on loose suspensions through fertile valley farm land, expansive dry cattle pasture, and eventually into the rocky, yellow lowlands of the south. I caught sunset over the Kura River and the beauty helped ease my aches and pains from a full day crammed in people movers.
After an obligatory sampling of my guest house host’s homemade wine the evening was beginning to wind down when the other tenants, a French couple I met on the bus into town, barged into my room. They carried what looked like the stem of a plant and tossed it at me.
“Look at this!” They yelped, giddy with excitement.
I picked up the green leafy branch and was taken aback instantly. It didn’t take a botanist to identify this one. The unmistakable leaves each with five to seven dainty, finger like protrusions and the skunk aroma to match; it was weed. I had to go investigate.
Living up to its slang moniker in every way, wild marijuana was growing all over the gardens and river banks behind the guest house. Empty livestock corrals were full of it and the tall lanky plants swayed nonchalantly in the wind. I couldn’t believe my eyes. As it turns out cannabinoids grow wild all throughout Central Asia, and though these plants aren’t the mega fruiting, bread to smoke, types you may find in Portland or Amsterdam, it was certainly not something you see every day. Weed as just that, a weed.
My main reason for visiting this corner of the country was to check out the cave city of Vardzia. The massive cliff side labyrinth of carved rooms, dating back to the early hundreds AD, has played a critical role in the region for centuries. The complex is staggeringly large yet only a fraction of its peak grandeur is visible today. Dark tunnels wind their way into ancient chambers with endless nooks and crannies to explore. Rooms where monks made wine in 800AD still have remnants of ancient booze lingering in the buried clay qvevri. Caverns covered in small, mailbox type cutouts, the pharmacies of antiquity, show an advanced scientific understanding, and as I went deeper creative cistern designs still collected spring water that seeped through the porous rock walls. To round out the day exploring, a riverside restaurant served up a delicious, heart stopping lunch. While devouring one of the best khachapuries I had in this magnificent country, a somber feeling came over me, I knew it would be my last, at least for now.
The next morning I was up early to catch the first marshrutka out of town. At a cross in the road I disembarked and put my thumb up, heading west. Quickly, an old, blue, rusted out sedan scooped me up. Upon reaching the last major town in Georgia my new friend made a few calls and handed me the phone. He had kindly found someone who spoke English and could help overcome the language barrier stopping me from expressing where I wanted to go. He dropped me near a money exchange where I swapped out the rest of my Lari for crisp (maybe real?) USD and from there I hopped in a taxi for the last leg of my journey.
A new clean building stood quiet at the border. I walked in and was greeted by two painfully bored looking customs police. This checkpoint is generally for trucks in transit and receives almost no tourists or other ‘on foot’ travelers; I think my arrival surprised them. Stamped and through I stepped out of the building and was met by a gigantic red flag. A huge building marked the entry port, but before entering the structure my passport was checked and stamped by the police. Inside, the building was empty, practically abandoned. I walked through metal detectors which beeped incessantly but no one was around to inspect further so I kept going. Through long empty hallways I wandered alone until I was back outside, and officially in Turkey. Outside was just as empty as the customs building and I appeared to be stranded at the border. Almost as if on cue a delivery truck pulled up and a young man hopped out. He was delivering cartons of cigarettes to the almost certainly closed duty free shop inside. I suppose they must sell in bulk to the passing long haul drivers, by appointment only perhaps? After his delivery the man looked at Abi and I curiously, I don’t think it was common for two backpackers to be loitering around in rural Eastern Turkey. He waved us over and graciously offered a ride to town, dropping us at the bus we needed to catch, but not before snapping a quick selfie of us all crammed into the cab of the small box truck. An empty coach bus ferried Abi and I, the only passengers, all the way to Kars, the launch point of my Turkish adventure.
As I wandered the streets looking for accommodation a booming voice rang out across the city followed by another and another all battling for limited air space. Huge hidden speakers, all cranked to eleven, blared somber song at the populous. I had no idea what to do: Duck for cover? Take shelter? Hide? No one else seemed to be phased, was I going crazy? One by one the voices fell off and the city returned to relative quite. My first call to prayer experience came and went, but it would certainly not be my last.