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.

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