Friday, 24 January 2014

coasting in to Georgia

Trabzon's charms are well hidden.  Too well hidden for us.  There's bustle on the streets around the shopping zone and there's a buzz around the seedy-seeming streets winding down to the port.  Winter time.  Bright sunny days alternate with cold grey skies.  At dusk and dawn the air is pungent with coal smoke.  The jolly man with an out-of-place American accent in the tourist office circles the points of interest on the map.  The big draw is the Sumela Monastery wedged on a cliffside up in the mountains behind the city.  We know these mountains - trekking in the Kaçkar in 2007 was a highlight of our last time in Turkey. But neither of us is tempted by a visit.  Gayle has a lousy cold made worse by the city pollution.  I recce the city sites without much enthusiasm - I really only enjoy sight-seeing if I'm sharing the experience.  The following day I retrace my steps with Gayle, and see much more than I did on my own. The city is built on steep ridges falling down to the coast and the streets rise and fall like unsprung roller-coaster tracks.  Up behind the modern city centre are stacked ugly concrete appartment blocks on quiet streets.  After walking around to find one of the oldest churches in the city (converted into a mosque by the first Ottoman invaders) we end up back down exactly where we started as if we'd just wandered through a gritty Max Escher drawing. 

Riding eastwards we have calculated a three-day journey to Batumi, but are unsure of the profile of the route.  In theory it should be flat but our route profiling website tells us we have 450 metres of ascent.  It is plainly wrong.  We knock off over 100km on the easy-going seaside highway - it's only our third time breaking this distance in one day and for the same reason as before - looking for a good spot to camp.  There isn't one.  Not only do the towns and villages stretch along the road, but the lay of the land means there is hardly any flat space.  There is farming of a sort: steep terraces of deep green tea bushes everywhere. If there's a spare bit of land it's rippled with tea bushes.  After a long day, as the light fades, we race through yet another tunnel cutting through the ridges that dip into the sea.  Suddenly there are no buildings, just a stretch of skinny leafless trees overshadowed, quite literally, by enormous black cliffs.  We quickly unload our bikes, hop over the crash barrier and pitch the tent in between the trees.  Neither of us mentions the large amounts of moss-covered rock fall stacked up at the foot of the cliffs.  Yet again I nod off after dinner listening to "A History of The World in 100 Objects"......

The road is so flat that we clock up another good day in the saddle, flying through more tea country.  Every village is built around a river flowing out of the mountains and each bridge crossing affords us a glimpse of snow-capped peaks on the southern horizon.   We spend our last Turkish lira in the shops stocking up on chocolate and biscuits and, um, some proper food too.  As we get nearer the border we pass several lorry parks for the truck drivers, but once again there's nothing showing for the occasional cycle tourist wanting to camp. We pass a coal yard, round a bend, and see the lights of the last Turkish town up ahead.  Miraculously there's an old road cutting back up the hillside on our right, past a house.  Pushing the bikes up we come to a small field full of horse manure and roof tiles.  Just enough space between the two to pitch the tent.  Never happier than when we have found a good spot against the odds, we settle in for our last night in Turkey and are regaled by the muezzin from an ear-splitting tannoy attached to a nearby telegraph pole.

Sunday morning finds us wheeling through the border crossing without incident - Georgia is an 'easy' country for EU passport holders.  This is in contrast with Azerbaijan, which now requires a visa.  To get that visa you must have a 'letter of invitation' approved by the Foreign Ministry.  We're talking moulah here.  The greater the bureacracy the greater the cost.  But there's one place in the world where getting an Azeri visa is simple: hello Batumi.  So eager to arrive are we that we singularly fail to be impressed by the castle beside the road at Gonio.  Only later do we read that this is the most easterly Roman fort still standing.  And it is thought to be the burial place of Saint Matthias.  (Saint Matthias is the patron saint of substitutes, having come on to replace Judas Iscariot after he was yellow-carded for a late tackle from behind.)

Batumi. Broken roads.  Belching exhausts.  Glorious old buildings with broken windows and flaking paintwork.  Ugly new buildings towering into the skyline.
Cobbles, oh my backside, cobbles.  Fancy appartment blocks hiding decrepit courtyard shacks.  Casinos and money changers.  The signs in Georgian script remind us of Thai.  Sculptures, busts and statues dot the public spaces in the city centre.  The seaside promenade is green and clean and there's a bike path.  Anglers cast off into the murky waters outside the port.  The christmas decorations are being removed and packed away for another year.  This place must be busy in high summer but it has an easy, quiet air about it now.  We can't find the hostel we're looking for in the city centre, despite a young man who speaks English offering his assistance, so we ride out of the centre to a place recommended by Tim and Laura (other cyclists whom we've not actually met but connected via Pascal & Pascale. Thank you both!).  It's cheap and cheerful, on a hill looking over the bay back to Batumi.  Three rooms are taken by Poles - all on short holidays taking advantage of a cheap flight.  

Getting down to the task at hand we dig out some ropey passport photos and get to the Azerbaijan consulate promptly for 10am.  The security guard is pleasant.  "No consul.  Come back two." Ho hum. We wander around the city and come back at two.  There's a young French couple also waiting.  We chat.  They are travelling from Finland to Mongolia, connecting nations with an Altaic language and have been hitch-hiking a lot.  But they seem a little weary - not interested in seeing sights - moving on every day. Travelling too fast??  When the consul official arrives he looks like a taxi driver on an off-day.  But there's no messing - he tells us the cost, gives us the forms to fill in and tells us we have to wait three days.  We knew this and we're quite happy to wait.  Unlike the French couple we are masters at killing time.  So after doing our laundry and bike-cleaning chores we catch up with blogs of other cyclists and other numerous tasks on the computer.  We play tag - one hour turns.   One evening we sit down with the Polish guests to play Jungle.  They're a friendly bunch so it makes the hostel feel very sociable.  Back at the Azeri embassy the consul has not arrived.  Still taxiing probably.  We wander around and return two hours later to collect our visas. It's a giddy feeling.  In theory tourist visas should be a formality but the reality is things might go wrong at any stage, so it's good to get one under the belt.  We also receive an e-mail saying the Iranian Foreign Ministry has accepted our visa application which we can collect in Tbilisi.  Things are looking good for the way ahead.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

back to school

From Samsun to Trabzon the main road sticks to the coast, except for one nobbly bit where a big tunnel cuts through the hills.  We take the old road around the nobbly bit.  A few short sharp climbs and we are passing through tiny forgotten fishing villages.  These are the lucky ones that have escaped Progress.  For Progress has meant a two or three-lane highway now cuts every coastal settlement off from the sea.  Some towns have coped with this better than others.  Ordu has turned the sea wall into a nice palm-lined walkway with benches.  Just don't look at the motorway behind you.  For us Progress means a hard-shoulder wide enough for a tractor.  This is great for cycling along - plenty of room away from the trucks and buses whizzing past us - until we meet the tractor coming in the opposite direction......

nutty campsite
The foothills of the Anatolian Plateau descend down to the sea.  The main cultivated crop seems to be hazelnuts.  We're not sure at first - the trees are grown in clumps, spaced apart like olive trees, but at this time of year they are bare of leaves or nuts.  They make good cover for camping if there's enough of them.  Sunset is around 4.30pm so we're eating early and getting a long night's sleep.  During the day we have discovered the joys of Turkish petrol stations.  These come up every 10km or so and are usually overstaffed by bored attendants who generally are very welcoming to us and offer us tea from the samovar put out on a table for customers.  The big business apart from petrol seems to be the car wash.  Every garage has one and there are always punters.

it looks like a bakery, it smells like a bakery, it is a bakery

it looks like chicken soup.............
We are lucky with the weather - it is dry and mild, even at night.  Until the day we arrive in Beşikdüzü. By lunctime what looks like a shower has become fully-fledged rain.  We seek shelter at a petrol station restaurant and order a steaming chicken soup. When the bowls are brought to our table I catch a whiff of farmyard.  This is not chicken soup.  I look at Gayle's face and search to see any recognition of what she has ordered for lunch.  Finally, with a touch of 'oh well, never mind' bravura, she says to me "this is tripe."  After hanging around in the restaurant for another couple of hours waiting for the rain to ease off, we set off to meet Ayşe in Beşikdüzü.  Although we have contacted her through Warm Showers, she cannot actually host us.  But she can find us somewhere to camp in her town and we have arranged to meet at the Otogar (bus station).  In some Turkish towns these are big, bright, modern buildings.  In Beşikdüzü it's a car-park with a few bus offices and a tiny tea shop.  We are soaked through when we crash the tea shop, and after wringing out gloves and jackets outside we are quickly invited to sit down around the wood-stove in the centre of the room.  Glasses of hot sweet çay bring us around and we start chatting in signs and words from our phrasebook to the guys hanging out here.  We are almost dry when Ayşe bursts in.  She is quickly admonishing the men for some of their questions. "Are you married? Do you have children?  What is your age?" "Typical questions from a Turkish man!" she exclaims.  
"you will go on a long journey and meet some lovely people.."
Ayşe is an english teacher at one of the local schools.  Her friend arrives ("What's your name?" "A teacher" "And what's your job?" "A teacher" - it turns out her name is Hatiçe - bit of a 'false friend' if you aren't familiar with Turkish names) and we head off to the park where Ayşe has arranged for us to sleep in one of the tea garden huts used to play 'okey' and drink tea.  It's perfect for us.  Leaving the bikes there, we are taken to eat at a restaurant (good lentil soup and cheese pie and dolmaş) which Ayşe generously pays for, before returning to the otogar to sit in Hakan's bus office.  He is a funny chap - reminds me of someone I've met before - and offers us a Turkish coffee and then to read our coffee grounds.  Once again we find ourselves in good company and having a lovely time. Finally we retire to our tea house.

In the morning we meet Hatiçe as arranged and walk to the school.  On the seafront we pass a closed up hotel (Bestt Hotel).  "It's closed now that the Russians have stopped coming" she informs us.  "Russians used to come here?" We're amazed - Beşikdüzü doesn't look like a tourist town.  "Russian girls" she explains, "Now they go to Batumi".  At school Ayşe and Hatiçe give us a second breakfast to fortify us before we are led to Aygün's English class.  They are all girls - the boys only want to study science subjects.  We stand before them and answer their questions.  The one that I remember best makes Ayşe roll her eyes. Are we married?  Yes, I begin.  No, says Gayle.  This isn't a group of men in a çay shop.  This is a class of smart seventeen year-old Turkish girls who all seem to speak good English.  Gayle wants to tell the truth.  Later in one of Ayşe's classes a boy (this is a science group and their English is rustier but still okay) asks me "Fenerbahçe or Trabzonspor?" In return I ask him "Manchester United or Manchester City?" His answer is correct.  We have photos taken and then depart, after saying farewell to Ayşe and Hatiçe, feeling very happy after a great stopover here.
with three great English teachers, Aygün, Hatiçe and

Friday, 10 January 2014

a great leap eastwards

There's nothing quite like riding into a big city after cycling through open country for a few days, and they don't get much bigger than Istanbul.  So we take a boat.  It carries us across the Marmara Sea and spits us out at the back of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet.  How tidy is that?  Within minutes we are accosted by three young men with one bike.  Ollie and Jodie have cycled here from the UK in 21/2 months (on two bikes).  Now Dan has flown out to swap places with Jodie for the next stage to India.  They are young and probably don't have much money but they have something special.  You can see it in their faces and it's infectious.  Excitement.  We chat for quite a while until we all start to feel cold.  We swap contact details.  Hopefully we will meet Ollie and Dan again along the way.  There's something important about meeting other cyclists on a long journey - maybe just knowing we're not the only ones?  Or something about having a shared experience?  Either way, it seems we are the first cyclists that Ollie has met properly since he began cycling from Cape Town to home and then from home to Istanbul.  

Our ride from Çanakkale was an uneventful three days of fast cycling by our recent standards.  Cold, grey but dry days on a big highway that made it easy for us.  The hills tended to be long but the gradients were good and we often had a long descent as a reward for any climb.  The towns we passed through were also grey and bland, interspersed with ploughed fields and sometimes very nice stretches of woodland, but these eventually gave way to small industrial units and empty buildings.  We camped one night between stacks of logs just off the road and then once more in an olive grove - our last.  We have finally left the Mediterranean. 

Istanbul really does feel like a gateway between Europe and Asia, cliche or not.  We spend a few days here revisiting some of our favourite places and buying a few things.  You only have to walk around a bit to realise that the Turks invented shopping.  There's the huge shopping street that runs from Taksim Square all the way down to Galata Bridge.  There are large malls dotted around the suburbs.  And then there's the Grand Bazaar.  Most visitors might think it a bit touristy but on a cold January morning the place was heaving with Turks.  Not many tourists around.  (The best chat-up line: "How can I sell you something you don't need?")  Stray off the main route and you end up in a small han where you are transported back to the times of the Sultan.   Or even Dickens -  small offices, shops and tradesmen on the upper floor with storerooms below around a courtyard with a single tree.

a screen print from Deniz, Gaya and Kerem's landlord
We are staying in Kadiköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorous with our Warm Showers hosts Kerem and Gaya.  Everyone says this is the quieter side of Istanbul but it's hard to tell when we get off the ferry with the rush-hour commuters.  Kerem meets us at a park and leads us to their appartment but then has to dash back to work- he and Gaya work at a local yoga centre.  They eat and sleep there most of the time but share an appartment where they can shower and escape to.  It feels a bit odd because in the five days we stay here we rarely see anyone.  Gaya has just got a new bike for touring after she, Kerem and his dad had a trial 10-day tour in Turkey in the summer.  It's still a nascent activity here - we go and visit a new shop opened by three cycle-tourers who have a good stock of bikes and bits for touring.  They are very friendly and help us sort out our Istanbul escape route: we plan to take a bus to Samsun. 

Kadikoy film festival

Having done all our chores, including getting the SLR fixed and me finding some shoes for the cold weather ahead, and checking our visa strategy for getting into Iran and on through the "Stans" of Central Asia, we finally depart.  Taking a bus is the easy way out of the capital although the ride to the bus station is rather long and exciting in the traffic. At 8 o'clock in the evening we are loading our bikes onto a Kamil Koç bus (this being the one national bus company that has a free bike carrying policy) and setting off through the extended suburbs of Istanbul to our destination halfway along the Black Sea coast.

Monday, 6 January 2014

a happy new year

We make good progress on our first day cycling in Turkey.  We haven't been on such a big road for ages, but there is little traffic and we have plenty of space on the hard shoulder.  The day is grey and not so warm, but perfect for cycling.  Our road takes us through olive groves and fallow fields, around headlands and into a large bay with our first surprise.  What looks like a village on our map is in fact a very large town - sprawling right acoss to the other side.  Hmm.  We were hoping for a wild camp around here.  After crossing the bay the light is fading so we start looking for somewhere to camp.  Along the inland side of the road is strip development - short roads to houses ending in olive groves.  We check out a couple that have been ploughed and are either too bumpy or too muddy, before finding one that is fine.  If we pitch the tent in the right place we can't be seen from the main road or from the houses overlooking on one side. Phew.

picnic spot
The next day we pass through a few villages built up along the highway, all bland concrete blocks, a bit scruffy, it remind us of China.  Everything looks like it was built in a hurry.  It probably was.  We stop at a roadside tap for water and a man selling oranges insists we take some for free.  And then we begin to climb away from the the coast, slowly contouring up the hillside. The wide new road shrinks to the narrow old one, and sometimes its a problem on the tight bends with trucks heading in both directions.  We climb through pine trees and onto a rolling plateau, finally pulling up at about 4pm by a farm track leading into some fields.  Gayle goes off to explore and finds the perfect spot up above the main road in an unused field.  Most of the fields have been ploughed which makes for lousy camping, so this is a real find.  The field has hedgerows and as the sun sets we muse how we could be in England.  From somewhere far off wafts the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer.

just like home
In Çanakkale we find Özgür's house easily.  It is in the city centre, right by the port, down a little lane in amongst all the shops, cafe's and bars and it is 'compact and bijoux' - completely overshadowed by the surrounding buildings.  Inside it's toasty warm.  Özgür invites us to lock our bikes to his under the window and bring our bags inside.  There are moments like these when I pause a moment and think "Are you sure?" Will they still be there in an hour?? We are introduced to Cengiz, an old friend from home. Soon we are tucking into some of Cengiz's tasty cooking.  Another friend, Selin, calls in and soon we are walking through the town, along the seafront in a brisk wind that finally turns us around and back to one of the more popular cafes where there are gas heaters to keep the punters warm.  Looking around, every table is taken.  There are family groups playing cards, men playing 'okey' (which looks like a cross between dominoes and mah jong), and lots of glasses of tea. Later on we go to a a bar where a friend is singing in a band.  It's a bizarre night out - the rock band start with a strange song about haricot beans but then unravel to heavy metal and old rock 'n' roll covers.

Özgür is a school counsellor at a local high school and we soon learn that he is the most active Couch Surfing host here.  But perhaps not for long.  He'd like to move to Istanbul where there's more happening.  Cengiz is starting to look for a new job, having quit as a mechanical engineer a year ago to travel around Turkey.  The next day he takes us over the water to look at the old war defences guarding the Dardanelle Straits.  He seemed quiet when we first arrived but now he can't stop talking! These two friends taught themselves to play the bağlama - a traditional Turkish stringed instrument with seven strings - and play and sing with Selin for us.  It's a wonderful sound - many of the old songs have quite sad melodies.   
Cengiz, Özgür and Selin make music

We are invited by Özgür to stay another day longer and to share in the new year celebrations with them. We are very happy to spend a little more time with them - to hear them talk about their lives, their hopes for the future.  I guess New Year has this effect.  Another John from England joins us for the night - he also wanted to couch surf with Özgür but we had written sooner.  The town is busy and the all-important beer run is made to the offie before the 10pm sales curfew - a recent new law restricting the sale of alcohol.  But nowhere is rowdy and we only see one fella the worse for drink.  In the open square by the port a band plays on a stage and fireworks are set off.  We are treated once again to Cengiz and Özgür duetting with guitar and bağlama before finally hitting the sack, very very happy.