Flights to Turkey from the UK are ridiculously cheap at the moment, in part because tourists have been frightened off by its proximity to Syria (the same tourists flock to London, the world’s premier terrorist target) but also because several airlines compete ruthlessly for passengers on that route.
According to the departures board, my flight to Istanbul departed from gate 12, to which I made my way, just as boarding was commencing. When I’d shuffled to the front of the queue, the polite lady checking boarding passes told me that I was at the gate for Pegasus, not Turkish Airlines, its arch rival. Swearing softly, then loudly, I walked a quarter of a mile back down a featureless corridor, to the nearest information screen, which informed me that my flight was now closing…at gate 11.
By the time I arrived back at gate 11, sweat was pouring down my forehead and neck and my demeanour was far from seasoned-frequent-flier. As I shuffled wearily into the gate, a burly man, wearing a dark suit stepped into my path.
‘Good morning, sir,’ he said, ‘I’m with the British police. I need to ask you a few questions. May I see your passport?’
I have the born criminal’s fear and loathing of authority, so my sweat glands immediately went into overdrive though, on this occasion, I was innocent.
‘Is Istanbul your final destination?’
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m connecting there with a flight to Tbilisi.’
‘Ah, Tbilisi. Are you with a group?’
‘No, I’m travelling alone?’
‘Oh? Perhaps you are meeting a group out there?’
‘No, I’m going independently.’
‘I see. May I ask what takes you to Tbilisi, sir?’
‘Snowdrops. I’m going to see snowdrops. You know? The little white plants.’
‘Really, sir? I don’t get that very often. Do you travel a lot, sir, to see, um, snowdrops?’
‘Oh yes!’ I gushed, ‘I travel all the time. I’m really keen on snowdrops, you see.’
The man examined me through narrowed eyes and flicked through my passport.
‘But sir, this passport is virtually unused. If you travelled all the time, one might expect to see more stamps.’
By God, these counter-terrorism lads are sharp.
‘I have two British passports,’ I replied truthfully. ‘You should see the other one!’
I tried a chuckle. It came out as a strangled yelp, pregnant with guilt.
‘And where is your other passport, sir?’
By now I was practically blinded by sweat; my heart was pounding and I was starting to wonder whether ‘travelling with intent to study the genus Galanthus’ is an offence under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
‘Um, it’s at the Iranian Embassy in Frankfurt, waiting for a visa.’
‘The Iranian Embassy. Aha. And I assume you’ll be going to Iran…’
‘…to see snowdrops? Yes.’
The policeman smiled and looked at me as though now he really had heard it all.
‘Have a nice trip sir,’ he said, handing back my passport, turning back towards the trickle of potential jihadists and the war on terror.
Compared with leaving the UK, entering Georgia some 12 hours later was a breeze. The lady at passport control stamped my passport (no visa is required) and then handed me a bottle of red wine. ‘Welcome to Georgia!’ she said.
This was going to be my kind of country.
Sulkhan was waiting for me at arrivals, with keys for the 4WD I’d hired for the following week. He drove me to my hotel, just a few miles from the airport and bade me good night and ‘good luck’, which struck me as odd.
The following morning, flakes of snow were drifting from a gunmetal sky, as I drove west out of Tbilisi, heading for Batumi, on the Black Sea coast. ‘It’ll clear up, when I get closer to sea level,’ I told myself. I stopped for a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts on Stalin Street, Georgia’s only motorway. Having driven on the way out of town along George W. Bush Street, complete with massive poster of a grinning Dubya, I was beginning to detect a theme in Georgia’s choice of heroes.
About 30 kilometres from the coast, the snow started to fall in earnest. The roads became ice rinks and I discovered, not for the first time, that 4WD is not a replacement for driving skills. Sulkhan’s parting words echoed in my brain.
When I finally slithered into a parking space near my hotel, in a converted clock tower in Batumi’s old town, I was pretty shattered. There was a restaurant next door, advertising Georgian cuisine. Taking a seat, once again the only customer, I studied the menu, which was extensive. My experience of long menus out of season is that it is pointless fantasising about what one might eat because everything except burger and chips will be unavailable. Just for a laugh, I ordered boiled tongue, followed by an entire roast rabbit. With pickles.
‘Sure!’ said the waitress, and disappeared, before I could tell her I’d been joking.
I spent the next few days sulking, in my hotel room, watching icicles alternately thaw and freeze. My car lay unused under a snowdrift.