Mountains, Seas, and protesting in Tbilisi

I’d broken up my trip with a visit to see Shauna in Italy. Beautiful cobbled squares, incredible food and easily accessible alcohol. It was a world away from sleeping rough on the floors of Turkish petrol stations. Returning on the plane I felt a pit in my stomach, I really didn’t want to be back here. All enthusiasm for the trip had drained away with that last ice cold Peroni. 

A 7 hour coach journey awaited, taking me from noisy Ankara to conservative Sivas. A fight broke out on the coach and a group of agitated guys were duly thrown off, throwing a few choice gestures as the coach continued onwards without them. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for my internal dialogue: I’d left the trip and those adventurous thoughts had seemingly sailed off leaving me high and dry. I knew the only cure was to get on the bike but I didn’t want to. Immersing myself in the mountainous landscape would surely make me feel at home; a reminder of that childlike joy of riding a bike again. In contrast, all this public transport was allowing me to stew in my own thoughts and haze BO emanating from a bus load of overweight Turkish men. I longed for it to be over. 

I met ‘Soner’ that evening. Without meeting me beforehand, he’d kindly housed my bike and belongings in his room for the last week whilst I was away; for which I was very grateful. The Turkish are genuinely the most hospitable people I have ever met. That evening he still refused to let me buy him dinner, instead bringing me along to meet his friends who ordered us all takeaway. Over dinner I received a number of heartfelt invitations for breakfast the following morning. It is extremely difficult to decline these genuine requests of hospitality but I was eager to shake off this feeling and the bike was the vector for exactly that. I am happiest when in transit, moving towards a destination of my own choice under my own steam. Powering out some morning miles in the hot Turkish sun to the sounds of the Rolling Stones, I immediately felt back at ease.

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The arid flatlands gave way to my first winding climb. In order to reach the Black Sea I would have to pass over 2200 m and this was to be the first indicator of what was to come. At points the gradient forced me up out of the saddle to keep climbing. I was immersed, enjoying the challenge of tough climb after over 10 days away from the bike. Just as I hit the crest of the first long hill, a stern looking policeman beckoned me off the road a few hundred meters ahead. The police In Turkey are still constantly stopping vehicles, looking for those names blacklisted from the failed military coop that shook the country two years ago. But why would they bother stopping me? Last time I checked loading yourself up with 40 kilos of luggage and riding a bike wasn’t the fastest getaway vehicle. I’m yet to see Vin Diesel furiously pedalling away from an explosion on the big screen. Careful not to say anything of the sort, I pulled over to find they were extremely bored and wanted a chat. Eagerly pouring me cups of coke, they wanted to know how many kilometers I’d ridden? Had I seen a wolf? What football team did I support? 

The road continued upwards for the remainder of the afternoon as the sun beat down. I worked up a real sweat whilst listening to a depressing blue planet podcast, the sounds of whales filling my eardrums as I climbed higher up into these arid mountains. I could now make out small snow-capped peaks in the distance. That was where I’d be heading. 

The road soon fell away as I began descending fast around tight-knuckled switchbacks cut into the rock. I was happier than a vegan in a veg patch; grinning from ear to ear and screaming in joy as I overtook overloaded trucks with no hands on the bars. The sun was setting over the mountains and I was caning it down this road with no end in sight. Miles and miles and miles of downhill. I didn’t pedal for over half an hour with 15 miles of road disappearing under my wheels. Looking severely windswept, I pitched up by a river, cooked my rice and fell straight to sleep. It had been a good day.

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I knew the next couple of days would be tough, I was to ride over a 2200m peak that separated me from the Black Sea and I reckoned it would take a day and a half of cycling uphill. Mentally prepared for pain, I began to climb. I wasn’t acclimatised to just how slow you go when climbing for hours on end and I would occasionally flick between the screens on my GPS, disheartened with the measly mileage I was clocking up. After a while I realised I just had to accept I would be going slow and stopped caring about the numbers and started enjoying the view, and what a view it was. I could see the road tailing off around rocky crags behind me, extending into the distance like a black vapour trail. Huge mountains were visible in all directions and I was just a little spec slowly making my way up one of them. This spec’s legs were suffering though. Without doubt it was the toughest riding I’d ever done. Stopping for lunch in a place with an obscenely long name,  I promptly feel asleep on a wooden bench. Sleeping for nearly two hours, waking only to find my body was telling me to stop. I’d ridden 40 miles uphill and that was all I was going to let myself do today. I was almost proud of myself for making an ‘adult’ decision. 

Tent perched on a grassy outcrop, I awoke to see the mountains staring back at me. Feeling surprisingly fresh, I trundled on up the road in the morning sun. It wasn’t long before I rounded a corner and saw the unmistakeable sight of another loaded bike with a small orange flag attached. A young couple waved as I slowly cycled up the road to meet them. Shouting ‘hello’! In what sounded like a southern english accent I was excited to meet people from so close to home. Molly and Haydn are around the same age as me and set off on their journey to New Zealand over a year ago. They had worked for save refugees in Calais and Athens, using their bike trip as a sponsorship tool to raise both money and awareness of the charities good work. Immediately we hit it off, we liked the same music, had the same views on touring and humour. Chatting the whole time, the rest of the climb up to 2200m seemed to fly by. We stopped only to take photos and to try bodge fix Haydn’s worrying loose stem.  

The view from the mountain was immense. Combined with the euphoria of making it to the top of my first big climb of the trip I was as ‘happy as Larry’. We freewheeled in convoy basking in the afternoon sun and watched the landscape change from arid land to luscious green forest. Steep banks were covered in greenery, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Akin to the very best of Switzerland or the Alps, yet there is no tourism or tourists. Just hard working famers living in tiny villages, who farm ridiculously steep land by hand. The place felt unspoilt and undiscovered. It was our gem to uncover.

Compared to the incredible mountains and valleys, we camped in a rather benign spot just off the road. Every inch of flat ground was either a road or a house, therefore that ‘perfect’ camp spot we’d all been hoping for just proved elusive. Pitching up for the night, I noticed just how much food Molly and Haydn have. The two of them eat like royalty; it really put my measly rice and tomatoes to shame. Jealous of their great food, I vowed to put this right.

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That night I was thinking how funny it is, that out on this remote road, climbing high into the Turkish mountains you end up meeting interesting people who live only an hour from you. We would have probably never met otherwise. Every time I set off cycling on my own It seems I bump into people, all of us part of this strange community of bike tourers. Each person very different but all excited to see one another and to share stories from the road. There are facebook groups with thousands and WhatsApp chats with hundreds of people, all currently cycling around the world, helping each other out of with gems of knowledge acquired from their ride. There’s a mutual respect between tourers, be them on bicycles or motorbikes, all harbouring an understanding that we are all travellers taking the long way round. All from different places and backgrounds, there is a common craziness within each person that has made them think it would be a good idea to ride a bike around the world. It’s nice to know that for this year at least, I’m part of this funny group of people dedicating some time to pursue that craziness. 

The following day we were still going downhill; in more ways than one. Haydn had come down with a sickness in the night and wasn’t feeling great. The only consolation was that he didn’t need to pedal anymore. Smooth switchbacks rolled beneath our wheels as hours went by. In total it was 50 miles of downhill out of the mountains. 50 miles of pure bliss until a blue hue appeared. The Black Sea. This called for a celebration, we treated ourselves to a cheap dinner at a seafood restaurant – we’d ridden from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea on opposite sides of Turkey. Happy days.

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Whilst visiting the pharmacy to pick up some meds for Haydn, we’d managed to befriend the people working there, and they’d agreed that we could sleep in their lorry depot. Hardly scenic but it was a solid entry for the weird camp spot list. 

The road along the Black Sea is as flat as a Dutchman’s garden. To one side there are steep green mountains, peaks covered by a low cloud akin to that of a South American rainforest, and on the the other is an incredibly blue sea. If you had showed me a photo of this before, I’d have never guessed it would be Turkey. It was beautiful. That afternoon we got flagged down by a guy riding a touring motorbike. His name way Kaya and he told us to meet him at the next cay shop; he’d buy us lunch. Perfect. The man was truly a unique human being. A spitting image of the actor Charlie Boorman, he walked with serious purpose and was as excitable as a puppy. “We are all travellers” he exclaimed. ‘We don’t need to explain ourselves, we are the same”. That was one solid opening line. He apparently works on boats for 3 months of the year and spend the other 9 riding his bike around the world. Apparently his wife ‘doesn’t mind’. 

After having lunch, we heard some music coming from behind the cay shop and went to investigate.  It turns out there is a tea factory behind the shop and the workers were putting on a little dance during their lunch break. Soon me and Molly were dragged into the middle of the circle where we did our best interpretations of the Turkish dance they all seemed to be doing. It was a proper laugh, but I’m glad there were no cameras to capture it.

Kaya then invited us to stay the night with him in his village 20 miles down the road. We went for dinner and then pitched our tents in a field next to his apartment; spending the evening drinking beers under some fairy lights he’d brought out for us. He told some funny old stories did Kaya, and the thing was, judging by what we’d seen today, they were probably all true. One of the memorable ones involved him shooting down a speaker from the mosque minaret, after the council hadn’t responded to his request to move it further from his apartment window. We were all in fits of laughter; it was another great night. 

The next few days involved us just plodding along this seaside road. We stopped in Trabzon and Ride for one day a piece but before we knew it, the Georgian border was nearly in sight. Struggling to find a spot to camp on our last night in Turkey, we were forced to cycle up one of the steep hills and push our bikes through tea fields to find anywhere suitable. With a killer view, it was definitely worth the hassle. I cracked upon a Scotch miniature I’d been carrying since I left and we shared the sweet nectar as a toast to Turkey. A truly incredible country, far more interesting than I’d ever envisaged, I’d be sad to see the back of it but it was time for a new country. Georgia. 

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Immediately crossing the border it became apparent that Georgias roads were terrible, and their driving matched their roads. Cows wandered freely among fast moving traffic and there was no sign of a hard shoulder. Cautiously we rode into the seaside town of Batumi. We’d been told it was a Casino and prostitute haven but the place actually seemed to be quite nice, with a real European feel to it. We rolled up to our hostel and enjoyed some Georgian cuisine. Dumplings.

After a day of rest in Batumi and fixing my first puncture; we were ready to head off back to the mountains. This time we would be riding from sea level up to 2000m and we’d been warned the road at the top was awful. We slowly made our way along a river that ran down the green valley. It was apparent that Georgia was at least equally beautiful as Turkey; we could barely keep our eyes on the road for gawping at mountains and ornate monasteries perched high on hilltops. Back down in the valley however, Molly had come down with a bug so we decided to pitch camp early by the river. Me and Haydn worked on the bikes before we all bundled into their tent to watch some Netflix – the joys of modern day camping eh!

Rain was the theme to the following day. Combined with Molly still not feeling great, we slowly cycled onwards and up the first climbs of the mountain. Whilst having lunch, I spotted another tourer powering up the hills towards us in the rain. His name was Pol. A Spanish physicist working in Germany, he’d cycled from Dresden to here and fancied joining us for a couple of days. Sweet! Riding now as a group of four, the road turned to dirt and things started to get difficult. This was just insult to injury for poor Molly, who bravely soldiered on up the dirt hills. We camped that night in a nice farmers field, hoping for better weather and roads. We could always dream.

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I checked the Garmin in the morning and it turned out we were only 15 miles from the top. The only problem: we were less than halfway up. Shit. 1200m left to climb on atrocious roads over such a short distance; it was going to be a seriously tough day. After an hour or so of scrambling our bikes up loose surface roads, we decided it would be sensible to find Molly a ride to the top. Within minutes her bike was stored in the back of a van, and she was whisked off up the mountain where we’d planned to meet her at the top. From here the riding really got tough, the road became narrow and consistently steep. Forcing us down into our lowest gears it was a real struggle to keep your weight over the back wheel to stop it spinning going up the hills. Just one little spin and you’d had it. Brakes fully on, quickly unclip and get pushing up that hill! We quickly learned the way of the road, managing to negotiate most of it from saddle. 

As we were approaching what we thought was the top, some locals told us we still had 5 miles to go and that the weather was coming in. Backing ourselves to make it, we soon found ourselves caught in no man’s land. Above the last village, yet still a good way from the top the clouds started to bear down and the sky turned dark. A shepherd pointed to the sky as he took shelter; then we knew we were done for. Bang! Bolts of lightening started to strike the ground about 50 meters from the road, bringing with it deafening cracks of thunder. Rain started to pound the ground, turning the crap road into a river of silt that began pushing small stones along with it. The rain soon turned to hail, small stones stinging our hands and numbing our legs. It looked like the water on the road was boiling with the intensity of the stones being thrown down into the puddles. It felt like mother nature was angry, the storm was seriously powerful and those last 5 miles started to seem very long indeed. 

At points we had to resort to pushing our bikes up the 10% mud river we found ourselves in. Big soviet trucks were struggling up the loose surface with drivers stopping for a double take when they saw us coming up the road. One of those trucks had Molly in. She appeared out of nowhere, asking if we’d like a lift. I was already soaked through, I couldn’t get any wetter and decided that after all this I wanted to make the top – now so close – under my own steam. Haydn joined Molly in the van, leaving me and Paul to tackle the remainder of the road. Ever so slowly we made our way along the track which was now cruelly covered in a slushy layer of snow. After half an hour of toil we could make out the figure of Haydn at the top, we were so close! With some sketchy riding over the soft snow, we reached the top. Too cold to stop for summit photos, we made a beeline for a cafe that was open as part of the ski resort here. After a warm cuppa, some smiles returned to our faces, that had been an afternoon to remember.

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The thought of not camping suddenly became very appealing when the offer of a cheap hotel, which was part of the cafe building, was proposed to the table. A glance outside at the lashing rain, combined with the mornings crazy riding was more than enough persuasion to wait this one out. A warm meal and a couple of beers sealed the deal, we’d made the right decision. 

It was now sadly time to split off from Molly and Haydn. We’d ridden together for two hilarious weeks that I will never forget. When you click with people like that you know you will be friends for life. I will see them again I’m sure, hopefully in India or Nepal where we can laugh about that distant memory of cycling up a Georgian mountain in the storm over a cold beer or two. For now at least, we said goodbye. Paul and I mounted our steeds and quickly pedalled off, trying to make the most of this small break in the clouds. This was some serious riding now. Steep dirt track downhill sections led into loose gravel switchbacks complete with some scarily large loose rocks scattered about the path. Thankfully everything was visible from this beautiful pocket of sunshine we found ourselves riding in. We could have been riding down sections of the Swiss alps or Canadian Rockies, it was stunning scenery and even better riding. Although we weren’t riding for long… A river running down an adjacent bank had flooded the path, turning it into a river itself. Shoes off, it was time to push our way through the icily cold mountain water. The panniers now really earning their waterproof stripes as the bottom sections became submerged in the deeper sections. I was glad for company as what would’ve been a very uncomfortable experience alone, became funny as a pair. 

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The path continued down into the valley floor where it thankfully became tarmac again. With a wind on our backs, we lapped up gorgeous miles of Georgian countryside. Genuinely, there appears to be no ugly part of the country, sure the buildings are a bit dilapidated but even the blockiest of soviet builds are somewhat softened by a backdrop of green mountains. The following days proved a few things: the Georgian weather changes every few minutes, I need to learn Russian and sleeping without a tent will lead to terrifying experiences with large wild dogs in the dead of the night. Lesson learnt, we made fast progress through the cities of Borjomi, Gori and into Tbilisi in two days. Excited for what would probably the last chance to dance the night away to some quality techno, we couldn’t believe to learn that the previous night, the authorities had stormed the liberal clubs with machine guns and then shut down the cities nightclubs for good! A huge protest was building outside the cities parliament. Young people showing up in huge numbers, Dj’s blasting techno out over huge sound systems and the crowd dancing along. You can bet we joined them.

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This is more than just the shutting down of clubs. This is a suppression of a creative culture. We saw the same thing happen in London with the council shutting down Fabric nightclub (which thankfully reopened after a huge campaign), although judging by the brutality of the way in which the police stormed the club on Friday night, their fight may be even more difficult. I went along to the protest the following night, getting kettled by police before we managed to break through to the main group, causing huge cheers to break out among the protesters as we joined them. This protest felt like a moment of real significance for these people. The ripples even making the news worldwide. I believe strongly in the creative freedoms these people have been unreasonably denied overnight and I was really glad to be part of it. Tbilisi 11-13th May 2018. I was there. 

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