georgia

Back Out of the (Former) USSR

The Black Sea isn’t black.

This was not exactly a massive shock.  What was quite surprising was that a day’s bike ride in Georgia can take you from snow-capped mountains to palm-lined seaside resorts so easily.  Though it might, I suppose, be trickier in the other direction.

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I made the most of what the weather forecast said was going to be the last day of tailwinds (on Sunday), and decided to get as close to Batumi as I could.  Before the wind decided to punish me again.  I ended up only around 30 miles short, and was rewarded by my first view of the non-black Black Sea (above).

Looks nice, doesn’t it?  Those snow-capped mountains in the background, dropping into the sea in the spring sunshine.

The short ride into Batumi on Monday was beautiful, marred only by the knowledge that it would be my last night in the country.  The last chance to stuff my face with delicious, cheap Georgian food.  And the last night for a while that I’d have a language in common with the locals.  I’m going to miss Georgia, I think.

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Batumi is one of Georgia’s major ports, and also a tourist resort, as well as being the last major town before the Turkish border.  The locals also seem to have developed a taste for architecture, with an impressive array of oddly-shaped towers springing up on the skyline as I approached.

The one aspect of Georgia which I won’t miss is the driving.  A bit like Thailand, they have good roads, but drivers whose skills have not caught up yet.  The massive amount of traffic cops on the roads (mostly in equally massive American police cars, for some reason) is hopefully an indicator that they’re working on it.  I had a sudden thought that I hadn’t seen a bicycle lane for thousands of miles.

A few kilometres north of the centre of Batumi, a cycle track magically appeared.  It took me all the way into town.  And then it multiplied.  The whole city is covered in bike lanes.  It was almost shocking.

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I had a wander around town in the afternoon, and marvelled at bike lanes zigzagging between cafes and their outside seating areas, between supermarkets and their fruit displays, and dead-ending at busy junctions.  The one above is one of the more sensible ones.  Which just stops at every road it crosses.

There doesn’t seem to be any great planning involved.  And the locals appear genuinely astonished when a bike actually uses a bike lane (which is usually for drinking coffee, walking the dog, or shopping).  But the effort is commendable.  And the major bike lanes along the seafront and the main roads are light years ahead of anything I’ve seen for months.  So, hats off to cycling city Batumi!

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Still, after my stroll, some seaside ice-cream, and a proper feed, it was time for bed.  And a few hours later, to cover the last ten miles of the Former Soviet section of the trip.  It’s been a great few weeks, all the way from Tashkent.  From the desert to the mountains to the seaside.  More people should come here.

The road to the border (and after the border, for that matter) hugs the shoreline, with the impressive cliffs, and more impressive snowy mountains, dropping straight to the water.  The picture below is from the last headland in Georgia (the border is in the next bay).  So the land ahead is Turkey.  It seems a little strange that the landscape it reminds me most of is New Zealand, which is a long, long way from here.

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Another five minute border crossing, and I was in country number 23, heading south-west along the Black Sea coast.  A coast which takes you straight to Europe.

It’s starting to feel perilously close to the end of the trip now.  Turkey’s quite familiar to many Europeans as a package holiday destination, and the local time has ticked back to within just two hours of the UK.  It begins to feel like home is just around the corner.  Despite the beautiful scenery, the sunshine, and the wide, smooth road, I was feeling a little melancholy as I trundled along.

Then I heard a muezzin calling from a minaret, and I remembered that there’s still actually a long way to go.  Turkey’s going to take a few weeks, as it’s another big country, and then there’s the huge variety of relatively tiny European countries to look forward to before home finally beckons.  No need to worry about the end just yet.

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I haven’t formed much of an impression of Turkey so far.  Yesterday was just the pleasant ride from the border, and I’ve cunningly spent today having a rest while the rain hammers down outside (above).  My weather anticipation is definitely getting better.

But the people have been friendly so far, even though I’m back to having significant language barriers.  Things are more expensive than anywhere I’ve been since Vietnam.  And it’s still cold when it rains, so it’s definitely not summer here yet.

I’ll find out more over the next little while.  I’m heading straight along the coast to start with, but I’m still not sure of my exact route after the first week or so.  There are three options, all of which are more-or-less the same length (though with massively different levels of climbing).

I’ll make up my mind on the way.  The Black Sea might not be black, but it is quite big.

So there’s plenty of time to work things out as I go…

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The Unbearable, The Unspeakable, The Unforgettable and the (Nearly) Undrinkable

Central Georgia.

Not top of many people’s lists of places to spend a few days on holiday.  But I think it probably should be.

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Since leaving Tbilisi (above) on Thursday morning, I’ve only covered a couple of hundred kilometres.  Pretty slack by my standards.  I even had an impromptu extra rest day yesterday.  But the last 72 hours have still felt quite intense.

Headwinds, tailwinds, sunshine, snow, climbing, descending, motorways, tunnels, falling off the bike, home-made wine and Joe Stalin’s bathtub.  Actually, perhaps it really has been quite intense…  Where do I start?

When in doubt, I sometimes resort to stats.  Not this time, though (but there will be some at the end).  This time I have photographic proof of how unbearable the weather was on Thursday afternoon:

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You’ll just have to imagine the painful legs and tiredness that had developed during the morning.  I knew there was a lot of rain coming, but reckoned I could beat it to Gori.  The wind (into the face, naturally) began at about 15 mph, and got stronger and stronger.  By the time the picture above was taken, it was gusting over 30 mph (50 kph).  I got slower and slower.  And then the rain came.

It was only a brief (but intense) cloudburst; a prelude to the main storm.  I hid for a while, and then put the hammer down for the last 25 kms to Gori.  When I say ‘put the hammer down’, we’re talking about maximum effort in return for less than 10 miles-an-hour.  Unbearable.

I’m sure there’s a scale for how slippery things are.  I don’t need to look it up, because if there’s one thing that’s more slippery than wet ice, it’s wet cow droppings.

An unfortunately-timed gust of wind drops your front wheel off the road and onto the gravel shoulder.  This is a problem, as it starts sliding.  And it has bags attached.  Time slows down, reactions kick in.  You get the front wheel back on the tarmac (somehow).  Then the back wheel’s on the gravel.  Sliding again.  You get your weight forward to lift the heavy back wheel onto the road, just as the front wheel hits the wet cow droppings.  Bags or not, you’re now doomed.

The only good thing about Thursday is that, having stacked the bike and smashed into the road with my right shoulder (yep, the one the truck broke in Thailand), I can now report that the bike is a tough little thing, and that my shoulder appears to be in decent condition.  Apart from the new abrasions, that is…

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Thursday night.  Looking at the weather forecast.  It says that it’s snowing in Gori.  I stick my head outside.  It is snowing in Gori.  And blowing a gale.  It says that tomorrow will be dry, but that the wind will be up to 40 mph.  Average.  In my face again.  I believe it.  I’m having a day off.

The weather forecast was spot on.  As you can see from the flag ripping itself apart on top of Gori Fortress (picture above), the wind is, indeed, a wee bit brisk.  Thankfully, as well as the castle, and a pharmacy, Gori is the home of the unspeakable Josef Stalin.  So at least there’s a museum (or dictator’s shrine, depending on your point of view) to poke around while I’m there.

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I got to see Stalin’s bathtub, on Stalin’s personal train carriage.  It’s hard to imagine Uncle Joe sitting in there, playing with his rubber ducks and smoking his pipe, while supervising the deaths of tens of millions of people.  Or industrialising the Soviet Union and winning World War 2, depending on your point of view.

The museum is pure Soviet, and could really do with a bit of updating to include some of the less positive aspects of Josef’s career.  But I guess it’s a little tricky for the Georgians.  How do you play it when the only world-famous person from your country is a character like Stalin?

Focus on the scenery and the food (and maybe the wine), I think…

Because, once the wind had not only died, but turned magically through 180 degrees, the ride today was unforgettable.  Sun out, wind at my back, snow-capped mountains everywhere.  The little castle at Surami (below) was an especially nice bit:

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And I met my first fellow tourer since India.  I’ve no idea where they’ve all been.  As usual, I forgot to ask his permission to use his real name, so I’ll call him ‘Mark’.  Another Brit, and another solo inter-continental rider, heading for India via China (which is an especially long way round, in my opinion; but then he’d got to Georgia via Morocco, so what do I know?).  A great chance for the standard bike chat, with projected routes and info shared.

Both of us have been struck by the Georgian hospitality, and especially their penchant for ‘forcing’ home-made wine and vodka, some of which is outstandingly dubious, on unsuspecting guests (in my case, it was the same in Armenia, too).  ‘Mark’ was actually running with a hangover due to last night’s host insisting on ‘four for the road’ this morning.  And I had a 500ml glass of unusually yellow wine waiting for me at my lodgings this evening.

Though to get here, I still had to drop out of the high mountains, towards one of the few flat areas of Georgia, which I’ll cross in the next couple of days, before hitting the Black Sea.

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Lower hills, but the same tailwind and stunning scenery.  By the time I got here, I’d all but forgotten Thursday’s hardships.  A really beautiful run down the valley, twisting and turning in the warm sunshine.  A coffee in the shade halfway down.  Lovely.  That’s bike touring for you…

And, somewhere along the way today, I hit some large-ish numbers.  23,000 km for the round-the-world trip so far.  8000 km (and 5000 miles) since I started Part 2 in Vietnam in December.

So that’s the last three days.  A milestone or two for the trip.  Some unforgettable scenery.  The unspeakable Uncle Joe.  Sometimes unbearable weather.  And the home-made wine.

Which, it turns out, isn’t undrinkable at all…

Capital to Capital: Across Armenia to Tbilisi

This update is a little later than originally intended.  This is not due to any unfortunate mishaps, mechanical disasters, or internet access issues.

It’s simply down to nostalgia and Georgian wine.  Which is entirely unavoidable here in Tbilisi.

Hold on a minute, though.  I’ve just skipped blithely on to another country.  You thought I was in Armenia.  I’d better rewind a little…

It turns out that Armenia has three features which are hard to miss.  Firstly, it’s small.  I’ve just ridden pretty much right across it in two-and-a-half days.  Second, it’s absolutely beautiful, as you’ll hopefully agree from the pictures.  And third, it’s a little bit hilly.

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As soon as you turn north in Yerevan city centre, you start climbing.  There’s no avoiding it, whichever road you choose.  To get to Georgia, you have to cross the southern Caucasus.  You can get an idea of the climbing involved from the picture above; the TV tower poking over the near horizon is massive, and perched on a hill above the city centre.  So the city is a long way down from where this picture was shot.

You might also have noticed the giant volcano in the background.  That’s Mount Ararat (where Noah allegedly parked his ark).  The Armenians love Mount Ararat, and there are hotels, cognac, and all sorts of products named after it.  The slight downside is that, although the town of Ararat is in Armenia, the mountain is now in Turkey.  This is one of several reasons that the two countries don’t get on too well.

Regional politics were not the biggest issue on my radar on Sunday, though, as I laboured uphill out of town.  Yerevan sits at an altitude of about 1000 metres, so the air’s already a little thinner that one would like.  And the day’s ride would take me up past the huge lake at Sevan, which is another 900 metres higher.  I was gasping a little bit, I must admit.

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Still, the big benefit of climbing hills is that the scenery is generally a little more interesting than on flatter ground.  And Armenia is pretty stunning all the way from Yerevan to the Georgian border.  Wiggling through narrow gorges and straining over passes was a fantastic change after the flat lands of the last few months.

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By Monday lunchtime, I was over my second significant pass (above), and dropping in to the town of Vanadzor.  With the exception of a few minor rises around river bends, it’s about 80 kms of generally downhill road from there, all the way to Georgia.

That’s not quite as easy as it sounds, mind you.  There are a handful of scary tunnels (think pitch black with potholes and trucks), and a few rough-ish patches of road.  And Armenian dogs are the most enthusiastic bike chasers that I’ve yet had the displeasure of running away from.  But to be honest, it was a blast, essentially just dropping down one long, stunning gorge for hours.

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My last night in Armenia was where the blog update procrastination really kicked in.  I stayed at a little B&B in Alaverdi, about 40 kms from the Georgian border.  It was a really nice, family-run place, and they made their own wine.  Of course, not to try would be to offend, wouldn’t it?

A few glasses later, and writing anything was off the agenda.  And my journey to Tbilisi yesterday (Tuesday) also got off to a remarkably sluggish start.  There’s a lesson in there, somewhere…

Still, start I eventually did, and enjoyed a relaxing run down to yet another astonishingly easy-going international border.  The Armenian immigration guy had a quick chat, the Georgian just stamped my passport and waved me through.  Maybe a minute of formalities all told (plus a three or four minute ride between border posts), and I was rolling into country number 22.

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I was looking forward to Georgia, although I’ve never been here before.  Long, long ago, when I was in Russia as a student, I kind of fell in love with Georgian food (and also, their sweet and dangerously alcoholic red wine).  Although I’d seen an increasing amount of Georgian restaurants in Armenia, I was going to hold off until I got to Tbilisi, for the full, authentic nostalgia experience.

It wasn’t a hard run from the border, despite a last-minute headwind whistling down the valley as I entered town, and first impressions of the Georgian capital are really quite good.  Entering from my direction, you run along the river, with cliffs, old churches and fortresses overlooking the road.  Apart from the mildly aggressive traffic, it seemed like my expectations were going to be met in full.

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Having found my accommodation, I ran into an Irishman and an Australian who were about to head out for dinner (if anyone’s got any Englishman, Irishman and Australian jokes, let me know).  This, fairly predictably, meant that I consumed a colossal amount of Georgian food, topped up with the obligatory dose of red.  So a blog update was once again out of the question, and a late night round of talking rubbish was inevitable.  And quite enjoyable.

I had a sore head this morning.  Poor me.

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And so, today (Wednesday) was restricted to a slightly tentative exploration of Tbilisi.  Thankfully, I’m right in the middle of the old town here, so there wasn’t too much walking involved between either sights or strong coffee.

As with so much of the Caucasus region, there’s a lot of history here, from churches to monasteries to castles, to impressive city squares.  There’s also a cable car, which was an especially handy addition, given my fragile condition.  The views of the city from the top are really quite impressive.  Although they do remind you that the hills certainly aren’t over yet.

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My next destination here reminds you of that too.  Assuming the weather stays decent (which it may well not, unfortunately), I’ll be aiming for Gori tomorrow.  And Gori (in Russian) means ‘mountains’.  It’s also home to another side of Georgian history; it’s where a certain, less than cuddly dictator called Josef Stalin grew up.

So Georgia should continue to be interesting, with a bit of luck.  I’ll just have to try to stay off the sauce long enough to update the blog again before Turkey…