Quite a lot to cover in this post as, due to a lack of decent internet, I have not done a blog for the last 375 miles. I’ll gloss over some of the boring parts of this leg and focus on the juicy bits (Sleeping rough, muddy mountain roads and crossing fields and train lines in the dark).
I left Trabzon and had a pretty uneventful day riding towards the Georgian border. I stopped in the town of Pazar, roughly halfway between Trabzon and my next stop of Batumi in Georgia, and found myself a cheap hotel by using my well worn Turkish phrase “Otel Ekonomi?” I stayed in the Hotel Yildiz for 30 lira (£7-8 or so) were the operators where friendly but strangely insisted I sat with them to chat. Once our lack of common language had been established, and we’d communicated all we could with hand gestures, it became quite awkward so I headed out to spend my remaining Turkish currency.
Off the next morning with the border in my sights I got some lovely views off to the right of the high Turkish mountains, see the first picture in this post, the view down the coast, whilst spectacular, had become repetitive. Turkey, being the first largest country I have crossed, has suffered from being fairly homogenous. Towns in the east are pretty similar to ones in the west. Iran, being of similar size, may suffer from this problem as well but I’m confident that the vast expanse of China is home to a few diverse cultures.
I reached the border and was quickly waved out of Turkey but Georgia was not so simple. I spent an hour being questioned about the authenticity of my passport, maybe they don’t see too many British ones at this post. Weirdly they eventually let me through after seeing my UK Drivers License and after I asked whether I needed to call my embassy or not (which seemed to wind the Border Officer up quite a bit).
Clear of the border I set my clock two hours forward for the time differance and road the 14km to Batumi, Georgia’s Beach resort city. I immediately noticed the roads were not as new as Turkeys and they tended to follow contours much more than the brutalist routes taken by Turkish road planners.
I checked into the Hostel Globus in Batumi and immediately spotted another touring bike parked in the garden. I went inside and met an Indonesian cyclist called Nanang and we quickly figured out he’d been roughly a day ahead of me for the whole time through Turkey. He was in Batumi to get a visa for Azerbaijan as the consulate in this city is known to be very relaxed (much like the Iranian consulate in Trabzon).
After chatting for a bit we decided I’d wait here an extra day and we’d ride together until Tbilisi before our routes diverged, me to Armenia and Nanang to Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately Nanang’s visa didn’t happen (we’ve had some interesting chats about differant visa rules for each of our passports, I’m particularly jealous of Nanang’s 90 day Iranian visa on arrival for $20!!!) and he decided that he’d fly out of Tblisi to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, a country famous for beautiful cycling.
We went out for some drinks on the town and ran into an English guy, Joe, who is working in Georgia as an English teacher. We actually met in Batumi’s English pub, called “The Quiet Woman”, and after a few rounds of Cha Cha (the local fire water) he invited us to stay at this place in Kutaisi, two days along our ride to Tbilisi.
Batumi overall is a very nice city, it has a lovely European style old quarter plus some unusual bits of modern architecture as well as a great seafront with a bicycle path stretching along it for several kilometres. The death trap below also caught my eye…
I also tried a local dish called a Khachapuri which is basically a big blob of melted cheese and butter in bread, probably one of the heaviest things I have ever eaten but would surely prove to setup me up for the next days cycling!
The next morning me and Nanang set off after some bicycle maintenance and immediately the roads felt very differant. The combination of roads winding through the hills, humid air and palm trees made it feel more like we were riding through South East Asia.
After 10km or so we pulled off of the costal highway onto a smaller road through the mountains and the town of Ozurgeti. We had a nice experience on our first little break when some kids ran out of the local school to refill our water bottles for us.
We made a mistake committing to a mountain road a bit too late in the day and ended up having to finish it in the dark to be able to find anywhere suitable to stay. Luckily we have plenty of bike lights and the road was practically empty. At the bottom of the mountain we used the old trick of asking a petrol station to camp and were shown to a porch of a closed car parts kiosk. Both too shattered to set up our tents we got ready to sleep with the protection of the thin bit of corrugated steel.
Just to our luck it began to rain in the night but the roof more or less protected us. I wrapped myself up in my tarp as extra protection and realised how pathetic we must look to any passers by!
In the morning we awoke after a poor nights sleep with only 40km to go to reach Joe’s house in Kutaisi. We had to rejoin the main road once again and this was particularly dull after the fun of the winding route through the mountains.
Joe had mentioned he only paid the equivalent of £25 a week in rent so I assumed he was living in a small flat. I was shocked to find him living in a two storey detached house with a decent sized garden and furnished with antique furniture. A good nights rest was had, under a proper roof, after a few beers and several games of chess (I lost all three).
Neither me or Nanang were fans of the big roads and I spotted a smaller back route that would take us off it for 50km and we decided to head for it today. First we had about 50km on the main road which I won’t go into but involved a lot of being beeped at.
We reached the turnoff and were shocked to see just a small dirt track. I got my phone out to check the GPS and this was definitely the right road. Google Maps had barely differentiated between a highway and a dirt road in it’s rendering. With trepidation we headed on, with me very happy that I was now using much larger 38mm tyres.
After 3km of dirt the road became tarmac and we quickly road the 8km to the town of Kragauli. There would not be a decent sized town for 50km so stopped to get some supplies. Whilst waiting outside the shop the local police pulled up and the English speaking driver began to ask me questions. I said we were looking for somewhere to camp and asked how far down the valley would we need to go before we found somewhere safe (I half expected him to escort us to the local hotel and force us to stay). He responded by saying “10km… 5km… 2km… 1km… would you like to camp at our police station?”. We’d planned to do a few more hours today but this was too good an offer to pass up, we followed their pickup and setup camp on their lawn with a couple of beers, getting quite a few stares from the locals.
When we carried on out of town the next day the road went straight back to dirt and gravel and I assumed it would be like this for the remaining 40km until we rejoined the main road. The cycling was tough but we got some lovely views of the valley and the train cutting along with us.
This dirt road kept climbing and climbing until we reached the Surami pass at 949m. Not the biggest pass by a long shot but doing all that climbing on dirt was a serious challenge, we had a hive five at the top and began our descent into the town of Surami.
All along the roads in this town people were selling this weird red bread loaf. My break cables had stretched on the mountain roads so we decided to stop so I could adjust them and we bought a loaf of bread to try.
I tore off a chunk, took a bite, and was gobsmacked to find it was a giant Hot Cross Bun. I don’t mean similar I mean identical with a mix of currents, sugar and cinnamon. It was perfect fuel to keep us going on what would turn out to be a long ride into Gori.
In our bid to stay off the main highway into Gori we deviated onto smaller roads going through the town of Kareli. Google maps showed that there was a dirt road that would take us right to the city but locals kept flagging us down and telling us to turn back. We ignored them with the hamlet of Skra in our sights when the dirt road eventually faded into a faint path through a field which eventually disappeared altogether.
We walked our bikes across the fields in the rapidly fading light and shadowed the railway line as it was heading into the city. After a few km of this we hit a dead end of a stream of water. On the other side we could see Skra and the resumption of tarmac’d roads just out of our grasp. Our options were to spend hours heading back or find someway across.
We decided the railway bridge was our only hope. We waited for the signals to change to clear and, with a view of several kilometres of empty track, darted the 10 metres across the bridge with our bikes rattling along the sleepers. We rejoined the road with a halo of light surrounding us from copious bike lights and powered through the last few km to Gori, waking every sleeping guard dog along the way.
To our horror there was no one home at the guest-house we had planned to stay in. We checked with a few hotels in town but all were out of our price range (£25+). We found a coffee shop with Wifi, bought a couple of overpriced Americano’s and scoured the internet for somewhere to stay. Armed with the addresses of every guesthouse in town we rode on and were relieved to collapse into the hospitality of Guesthosue Luka.
We both agreed a day off was in order as there was no way either of us were riding 90km to Tbilisi after the previous days challenges. We headed out to see what Gori is famous for, it is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. But Stalin was Russian I might hear you say? Much like Adolf Hitler (who was Austrian and not German) Stalin’s country of origin is not the country he was to become most associated with. If we want to get really specific Stalin was actually Ossetian, but with all the complications that brings up I’ll leave that for you to read about yourself if you desire…
The central park in town is occupied by the Stalin Museum, Stalin’s personal train, the house Stalin was born in, one of the few remaining statues of Stalin with the icing of the cake of being straddled by Stalin avenue. Not many people in the world remember Stalin with fond memories but many of those people live in Gori, and it is considered wise not to disrespect the cities most famous son.
The Stalin museum contains a history of Stalins rise to power (in Georgian and Russian) as well as Stalins death mask which was something I did not expect to see. On top of this we were escorted into a room of Stalins personal effects which notably included an English ashtray.
We were then shown outside to Stalins train carriage. A part from being heavily armoured it was not in fact that ostentatious inside. We jumped in a taxi and headed 10km out of the city to Uplistsikhe a huge cave city complex. I haven’t actually got around to learning about this place yet but it was great fun to climb around looking in all the nooks and crannies, there were many columns carved into the caves which must have been a rather tedious task.
Back in town Nanang said we had to try a local dumpling disk he had heard about called Khinkali. I opted to try some of the local white wine, which is a decision I regretted.
There is a very interesting technique to eating these dumplings. You pick them up by what can best be described as the nipple, hold them upside down and the bite a small whole in the edge of the dumpling. Through this hole you suck all of the juice out of the inside and you can then eat the rest of the dumpling without getting covered in grease. Delicious I have to say. Even better when after 8 dumplings each, a glass of wine and a beer the total bill came to less than £2 each.
We got an early night and then I began to suffer the effects of mild food poisoning, I’m yet to figure out where this came from as mine and Nanang’s diets have been identical. At least this has given my the opportunity to become well practiced in the usage of squat toilets which the quest house was furnished with.
Feeling a bit better in the morning to set straight out into a headwind in the direction of Tbilisi, the nations capital. Again we had found a quiet road to take for most of the day but knew that the final 20km were going to be on a pretty hairy motorway.
I won’t delve into the details of those 80km but it involved lots of swearing into the wind, darting into bushes and fuelling myself with Coca-Cola and Snickers bars to get myself through the day. The final stretch on motorway was indeed pretty bad as there was no hard shoulder on a three lane road. Nonetheless we reached the centre intact and even got to swing pass the Bank of Georgia building which I’ve always liked the architecture of…
I’ve spent most of today in bed resting and begun the bureaucratic process of getting my visa for Uzbekistan, including some Skype phone-calls over a poor internet connection to my bank to have various funds paid to various people to get myself invited to visit Uzbekistan. Onwards into Armenia and Iran, the latter of which I will hopefully reach in time for Nowruz, the Islamic New Year!
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.