A HGV tour from west to east

From Istanbul to Tbilisi

Just outside Kemalpaşa on European route E97, there is a man sitting on a fold-down chair, watching his cow graze. We are 1,380 kilometres from Istanbul, 400 kilometres from Tbilisi, and 80 metres from the Black Sea. Next to me, Hans Schlaffer, a trucker for the past 27 years, sits in the driver’s seat of the 2003 model, 31-tonne, 610 hp HGV with a tank capacity of 1,150 litres. We are taking the old beast eastwards from Istanbul to Tbilisi – from predominantly Muslim Turkey to mainly Christian Georgia, from a NATO partner country to a former Soviet republic.

Of mounds and mountains
Three days before the protests kick off in Istanbul, we set off in the very early morning – HGVs are prohibited in Istanbul between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. At 5 a.m., we’re already crossing the Bosporus, bathed in the milky morning light. We leave Europe and drive, kilometre after kilometre, through the Asian part of Istanbul that stretches endlessly past austere satellite towns and industrial zones populated by names familiar even in Germany – Bauknecht, Media Markt, Ikea.

Eventually, yet somehow suddenly, there are horses grazing next to the motorway, now snaking its way through a lush green valley – we’ve reached the edge of Istanbul and the countryside begins. Creeping zinnia, poppies, delphiniums and lupins grow next to the road that takes us towards Ankara. Plus, an added bonus is sitting 1.8 metres above the road which gives you a great perspective on things. We look down into the gorges of the densely forested Köroğlu Mountains, which reach heights of up to 2,400 metres and are named after the Turkish Robin Hood, who lived in the 16th century. A wide blue sky stretches out above us, reminding us of holidays past. We head uphill and downhill again, with the motorway stretching like a silvery grey ribbon through breathtaking landscapes. Schlaffer is concentrating – with inclines of 15%, it is imperative that the 31-tonne truck is kept under control.

From afar, the roofs of mosques sparkle, with their minarets pointing up like fingertips towards Allah’s omnipotence. Many of them were only built in recent years. In the past ten years of his tenure, Prime Minister Erdoğan revitalised the Turkish economy but the provinces show another side to his policies – the nationalist re-Islamisation of Turkey. Each settlement presents its own mosque, each testament to the ‘new’ Turkey: all made from pre-fabricated concrete blocks, they are all identical in construction – some larger, some smaller – with almost no trace whatsoever of traditional craftsmanship.

We trundle along the road with our goods in the back and to our left and right, farmers till the earth, shepherds watch their flocks and women lead goats on tethers. In the villages, cattle are free to graze on football pitches, and satellite dishes and solar panels glint in the rising heat.

Chatting away, we leave the motorway and trundle onto highway 100 towards Merzifon and the landscape becomes much rockier. Only the occasional tree or shrub dots the ochre-coloured soil like a pompom, the villages become hamlets, leaning towards the street. Sadly, there’s no time for a detour to Safranbolu and its beautiful 18th- and 19th-century half-timbered buildings to the north: the Schlaffer rally is always a race against time.

Behind Ilgaz, we see paddy fields with old people working bent-backed, where storks and herons stand proudly and frogs and toads croak loudly in the midday heat. Every time we reach the crest of a hill, we are presented with another vista of this wide landscape with its enchanting emptiness. Sparsely populated, shaped by mounds coloured like tiramisu, with surfaces ridged like the bark of ancient olive trees. Even here, wherever we slow down enough to see it, there is the ever-present Turkish crescent moon – on gigantic flags on towering masts that look extreme to European eyes.

Across the countryside – with the mosques sparkling in the distance.
A wide sky is reflected in a rice paddy

After enjoying a delicious lamb köfte somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we finally reach Samsun, which, with 570,000 inhabitants, is the largest city on the Turkish Black Sea coast. As it is, Samsun is hardly a place of beauty, but now a new four- to six-lane eyesore is being built between the sea and the city that will simply see the sea breeze carrying the noise of the traffic right inland … After 30 minutes creeping along in heavy traffic, we leave the noise behind us and drive towards Trabzon on highway 010.

On the left, we have the Black Sea – with its white gulls and bright water, pine trees and fields, and on the right we have the north Anatolian Pontic Mountains, towering to heights of up to 4,000 metres, which will accompany us on our journey all the way to Georgia. Apart from a few kilometres, the road follows the coast, through Ünye and its little port, along the boulevard in Fatsa, lined by palm trees and oleander flowers, through Gülyali and Piraziz.

The magic is broken by the views of the towns and the buildings on their outskirts – thin concrete skeletons filled in with brick and painted, already doomed to decay even while they are being built, and often never completed: the top floor has no roof; concrete pillars extend, broken, into the blue. Some of the storeys might be inhabited while others remain unoccupied, where the facade is left open to the elements.

Akçakale is enchanting, like the Riviera of the Black Sea, with oleander, palm trees, pines, flowers with the scent of chocolate trailing from balconies – and a pigeon crashes into the windscreen. When a second follows 45 minutes later, Schlaffer comments: ‘Ah, come on.’ It all seems routine to him.

Hans Schlaffer, Lord of the streets

Onwards, onwards, past Trabzon, it’s not far now to the border. The border, which used to be part of the Iron Curtain, the delineation between the NATO partner country of Turkey and the USSR and its Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. On the Turkish side, the border officials simply take their time – time that truckers don’t have. We are motioned to pull out of the line so the truck can be X-rayed. As an Austrian, Schlaffer feels like he is being picked on and only relaxes when two Turkish trucks and one from Azerbaijan also turn into the X-ray lane behind us. Time marches on. While the smaller vehicles flow past in the 28-degree heat, the lorries have to wait. Hans Schlaffer broods at his steering wheel like a bad-tempered eagle in his eyrie, grimacing at his natural enemies – customs and border officials and the police.

After almost five hours, we’re back on the road again, entering Georgia at walking pace.

The language of the roads
Georgia is wedged in between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains in the south and north, the Black Sea in the west and Azerbaijan in the east. It has a population of around 4.7 million and is trying to find its way in this limbo between West and East. It’s a poor country, yet also rich at the same time.

In all the hoo-ha at the border, Schlaffer has met Hussein, an Azerbaijani who has seen even more of life than Schlaffer himself. The language of the roads is ‘trucker Esperanto’, a kind of gobbledegook made up of lots of different languages and dialects, peppered with attentiveness, eye contact, miming and gestures, and the two men are able to understand one other. Hussein says he knows the best route to Tbilisi and agrees to lead us there. This is how convoys come to be, and fleeting friendships are formed. Just after the border, Hussein takes the lead for the 380 kilometres we have left.

Idyllic setting by the Black Sea.

Beyond Batumi, the road continues to hug the coastline, lined by pine trees glistening dark green in the sun. Hussein manoeuvres his truck into a dead-end street, turns and parks. Is it possible this place might have somewhere to take a break? Where? But behind the trees and shrubs, there is a makeshift food stall whose facade is covered with laminate. ‘I know it here, good place to have a coffee’, states our Azerbaijani guide as he sits down on the roughly hewn wooden bench outside the stall.

Two women appear, asking what the guests would like, serving coffee and tea, ‘chaka’ strained yogurt and ‘werry gutt chicken’ while five other women – ranging from slim to full-figured, with heavy make-up and dressed somewhere between tasteful and its exact opposite – present themselves one after the other at the table with ‘Hello, I’m …’. Slowly, it becomes clear that this restaurant also has something else on offer. The women are not intrusive: the potential client has to decide for himself whether he wants to take her up on her offer. Hussein is disappointed, too, when we decide not to go along with it – it means less money for him in the commission that the establishment’s madam slips him.

We follow European route 97 a little further, past dachas and ‘Uncle Vanja’ houses that look out to sea and have clearly witnessed the ravages of time. Passing Kobuleti, with the sea at our backs, we head into the country’s interior and the street becomes little more than a thin layer of tarmac poured over the hardcore that is now pushing through its thin covering. We pass people tending sheep, goats and small brown cattle, through villages that have never known pavements or streetlights, where young people sit on walls and wait for the future to come. Periodically, we pass enormous crucifixes by the side of the road. 85% of Georgians are Christians and belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church. One such crucifix can be seen in Nigotti: at least three metres high and decorated with a chain of LED fairy lights, it lights up the approaching dusk in brilliant blue.

The community centre in Tbilisi.

120 kilometres away from Tbilisi, Hussein wants to take a break, so we drive to the ‘Özobul Euro Park’ car park. We are led through a kitchen where an old man is chopping vegetables and into the ‘parlour’: with red artificial leather on the benches and Turkish disco hits on the ghetto blaster, Madonna announces herself as our waitress. Speaking broken English ranging from ‘welcome’ to ‘whatyuwant’, she serves tea. She’s 30 and missing some teeth, and has a very small, rosebud mouth that is painted very red. She tells us she has a 12-year-old daughter. How else could she earn money in this region, where there is nothing else available? I can only imagine the extent of the twilight economy here in impoverished Georgia.

The commission is once again small when we set off again an hour later. The motorway stretches like a chain of fairy lights over the last few hundred kilometres to the capital. Once we’ve arrived in Tbilisi, we have to say goodbye again – Hans Schlaffer, trucker par excellence, has to unload, reload and drive back to Istanbul, racking up a new score on top of the 4.5 million kilometres he has already driven as part of his job. I remain in the city.

Guests, friendship and life
The Mtkvari River flows through the city and divides it in two. The banks are lined with plane trees, the river lined with a road on either side with no speed limit. From 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., there is so much traffic that it seems half of the population must be in their cars, driving constantly from left to right and back again. Confident use of the car horn is essential in this high-speed race forwards to wherever that may take you.

Rachel Gratzfeld fights for Georgia in her own way: although she lives in Zürich and works for the Klett publishing house, she is also an agent for Georgian literature, looking to bring together authors with foreign publishers, organising translations and multinational congresses – anything that could raise the profile of Georgian literature. Although generally rather reserved, Rachel lights up when she speaks about Georgia and its language: ‘People here love listening to and reading stories. Georgia has a fantastic oral tradition as a result of oriental influences.’ Georgia is currently working towards becoming one of the countries featured annually at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The country is rightly proud of its culture, theatre and music, as well as its handicrafts.

Madonna, lady of the night.
View from the Peace Bridge over the Mtkvari towards the presidential palace with its glass dome, with the cinema in the amusement park in the foreground

You see girls here both with and without headscarves, burkas, orthodox Christians, priests, redheads, people with dark skin and the Asian features of their predecessors, the very occasional kaftan, Russians from all regions, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Arameans – Tbilisi has always been a cultural melting pot. There might be 1.3 million people living in the city limits – maybe more, maybe not: no one really knows for sure. The majority of them have nothing, a handful of them own everything, and the ones in between have to scrape a living to get by. The UN estimates that around 70% of Georgians do not have a regular income in the Western sense. Basic benefits such as unemployment benefits and health insurance are non-existent, and the family unit is responsible for its own survival. But if you stand still in the same place long enough, the people here will approach you willingly, talk to you and help you find your way back to your hotel – even if you haven’t asked them to: Georgians treat their guests with great respect, which is why there is also no aggressive begging here. For many western Europeans, this hospitality is as unusual as the very real importance of traditional values, family and religion. But even Georgia is losing touch with these values, without any new ones around to take their place. When the old order started to break down, religion became like a life raft for many – so it is little wonder that the influence of the Orthodox church is once again on the rise.

Living in the present is not easy
I meet Alexander Kharlamov in ‘people’s’, one of these new trendy lounge restaurants of the kind you’d come across in Hamburg or Vienna. Kharlamov is one of many here with German predecessors: both of his great-grandmothers were Germans, his mother Russian and his father Georgian. He’s the managing director of Gebrüder Weiss, which is set to open a logistics terminal on the edge of the city soon. 240 employees from Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey will work seven days a week in two shifts a day for just six months to construct this 10,000 m2 high-tech facility, ‘a congregation of markets’. Kharlamov is a modern patriot, proud of what has been achieved here. In the past few years, corruption has been all but eliminated, the State simply functions better, the police are respected and there is more work, he says. According to the IMF, per capita income has risen to around USD 3,500 – around 7% of what the average Austrian earns in a year. This means that Georgia occupies rank 114 of all the countries in the survey, followed by Swaziland. Exports of wine, fruit, mineral water and other products are on the rise, however, and tourism from the west is also growing. Yet finding a path into the country’s future is also difficult, says Kharlamov, who worries that the country is becoming too similar to Putin’s Russia.

View over the rooftops towards the ‘Mother of Georgia’, a 20-metre-high aluminium statue created in 1958 by Elguja Amashukeli, holding a sword to protect the nation against enemies in her right hand, and a bowl of wine for guests in her left.
Between the past and the present – street scene in the east of Tbilisi.

Tbilisi is a clean slate, one that has had its history rewritten many times by various conquerors: Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, and in 1924 by the Red Army. It is a city that has been repeatedly knocked down and always managed to rebuild itself. Today, there are hardly any houses here more than 150 years old. When it rains, you can smell the mould on the wet wood of the decaying balconies, doors, window frames and facades in the narrow alleys where nothing much has happened since the time of the tsars. But from the ruins, we hear voices, music and arguments – people live here. This is not the place for glorifying the melancholy of decay. What has been built or rebuilt since Georgia’s independence in April 1991 stands out against the old buildings with post-Stalinist style, or in its imitation of Western glass/steel architecture, or by being completely featureless. The presidential palace is many times larger than Bellevue Palace, the parliament is a gigantic columned edifice, the home of an oligarch an imposing combination of laboratory, car showroom and rocket launch site.

Family possessions, medals and devotional objects from former times, Georgian wood crafts and icons, used mobile phones and lots of books – welcome to the flea market by the Mtkvari River. The people are very friendly and curious about people from other countries: they ask lots of questions about where you are from and where you are headed.

The city of Tbilisi seems like the street dog that winds its way around the tables in a cafe: full of parasites and dirty, yet its soulful eyes make you melt with evidence of the animal’s playful but cautious side, a charming thing with pale white skin underneath its grubby coat. This city is beautiful and yet for many, it is hell. Tbilisi’s very own slogan is: ‘The city that loves you’ – it’s adventurous, enchanting, deeply sad, run-down yet modern, independent, poor, impoverished, rich and super-rich.

Here, our journey comes to an end. On the one side, we have a country with a skyrocketing economy that wants to join the EU and yet cannot as a result of its despotic government, and on the other, a country whose economy completely disintegrated following the dissolution of the USSR and is slowly clawing its way back up. West, East – and yet so similar in their increasingly obvious political and cultural contrasts: the Orthodox religion, once ever-present here, clashes with economic growth that knows no bounds, caring little for morality or social responsibility. The new generation of city dwellers who want to lead their own lives in a society of freedom, tolerance and openness is pitted against a culture of farming that has been passed down for centuries. The people are united, however, by their incredible hospitality and the countries by the beauty of their landscapes and the sea, whose coastline they share.


Rainer Groothuis, born in 1959 in Emden/East Friesland, is Managing Partner at the communications agency Groothuis.

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