To quote the beginning of my last entry 'I was hoping to be writing this from Iran', but I have tempted fate again, and after two and a half weeks of hanging around eastern Turkey, the final full stop on Iran came, courtesy of another travel agency. Realising that the one I used in Ankara was pretty useless I decided to apply through another one, this one recommended to me and based in Iran. Within a day I received a reply saying in very certain terms that there was absolutely no hope of me obtaining an independent travel visa. My heart sank out of my bum and into the sofa. After being told in plain English by the Iranian embassy in Ankara that this wouldn't be a problem, now I was convinced of the opposite. So Iran another time. Pop up google maps, alternative route. Traveling through Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan is expensive (I heard the ferry across the Caspian sea, for a family of four and a car cost 700 - 800 US Dollars!!) and loaded with Bureaucracy. Sorry if I've already mentioned all this, it's just I spend much of my time thinking about it! One option left - Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan. Looking up visa requirements it should be the cheapest and easiest. British passport holders don't need a visa fro Georgia, Russia looks OK-ish and Kazakhstan shouldn't be a problem. Decision made, I applied for a Russian visa online, said a second farewell to my Azerbaijanian buddies and finally hit the road again. 'Ramble on' by Led Zeppelin was an appropriate choice for my busy road tune. 'The leaves are falling all around, time I was on my way. Thanks to you I'm much obliged, such a pleasant stay. But now it's time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way. And now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and it's heading my way.......'
However, rather then rambling away from the rain and pain I was rambling towards It. Heading north in Autumn is not exactly intuitive, and I looked upon the south bound traffic with a tinge of envy, regardless of their destinations. Thoughts of a cycling through a cold winter with short days have left my feeling hesitant, especially as my route will take me through the immense expanse of Kazakhstan; a huge, sparsely populated country that I know nothing about. But I have no choice. So preparation is the key. So far I've bought some winter clothing. It was cheap, and I've already had to stitch up the crotch of my tracky bottoms - this being particularly important for warmth of course. But I'm sure it'll do the job. Secondly, researching my route. Roads will need to be well travelled in case I need assistance or a ride for whatever reason, with a town every few days or so for food supplies. Availability of clean water shouldn't be a problem as I have a water filter, so any stream or river will do. I could be overreacting. For all I know there could be a Starbucks or a Tescos every 50 miles - these being imperative for the survival of a traveller of course - but since this is the unknown I'll go by the doctrine 'fortune favours the prepared'.
So all considerations in check I trundled my way north towards Georgia, with the planes slowly giving way to more rugged mountains. Fortunately the road tended to wind it's way between them, as opposed to over the top.
As I rolled into the next town I happened to notice a row of tents lining a playing field. This was all the more unusual as the Turkish don't really do outdoors. They drink Chai instead. I acknowledged my kind with a ring of my bell and they waved me over, greeting me with a cup of Chai and offerings of food. I can never decide which I enjoy more - the company or the food. It turns out this gathering was about a 200 hundred strong group of students, heading out from the their university in Ankara to enjoy a few days of activities, and general fun about the campfire. Intending to stay only one night I ended up being there for three! The next day everyone petered off into their respective activity groups, myself choosing to go and catch a glimpse of the Snake Eagle as it migrates over the mountains, traveling from Europe to Africa. We wound our way up a tight gorge on a dusty track, and again, I relished the effortless sensation. When you've cycled for a few months it's hard to take for granted just what a marvel, whether for good or bad, the motorcar is. I sometimes feel like a Victorian who's jumped ahead a 100 years or so. This thing was taking 20 people up about a 1000 meters of steep dirt track, and the only physical exertion required? The pushing down of a few pedals and the rotation of a wheel. Doesn't exactly get the heart rate up. It's no exaggeration to say that that it is absolutely astounding! It's no excuse for wearing lycra though.
We topped out on a huge saddle, and the vista of the mountains was immense. Thunderstorms where firing away in the distance and a strong cold wind was a reminder of how high we were. The last part was a small hike to the very top. Camera's and binoculars where primed and ready. At first there was nothing, but after about half an hour a faint column of birds could be seen circling in the distance. Confirmed by our guide to be the Snake Eagle, we watched them as they rose effortlessly in the thermals, banking steeply and rising surprisingly fast. Once they'd reached a suitable height they'd break off one by one, gliding towards us and clearing the pass by a few hundred feet or so. Amazing. More impressive than a minibus even. We must have seen a dozen or so flocks pass over, each one using the same techniques in almost the same location. It was fantastic to see, and I felt a tinge of inspiration for my journey, though again, they were going in the right way.
Back at base the evening rolled in with more Chai, basketball and food. The PA system was hooked up to a laptop, and inevitably with this combination it wasn't long before the Karaoke was a-rollin. Of course I couldn't resist, and as I was token European guest I was obliged to fulfil expectations. They weren't very high it would seem. With the choice of Rock DJ, Robbie Williams, I sung my way to glory, the crowds roaring whenever I went off key. My effort was immortalized in the Iphones of many, though no ladies underwear was thrown at me sadly.
Time to push on and hit the road. After more Facebook requests then I should think the average person experiences in their life, I said farewell after a few group photo's had been taken. It was nice to spend a good amount of time with a some people my age, and I shall never forget their friendliness and generosity.
Now my mind was focused on Georgia. I had the final episode of Turkish mountains between me and it's capital, Tbilisi. The road descended down a spectacular gorge, the bare rock surfaces rising a couple 100 meters either side of me. Following a river, flowing with crystal clear water, I freewheeled passed landslides and crevasses, with a few small villages nestled between the walls. I stopped to take a picture. It's always a little disappointing when you press the play button, and the photo you just took looks nothing like the subject. But there you go. The rain started to fall, and the feeling of riding alone, below a leadened sky, amongst these giants was pretty cool.
A few days later I was finally near the border of Turkey. I was now about 2000 meters high, and this morning I woke to my first frost. I wasn't expecting it as my tent was as warm as always, so it was quite a surprise when I zipped back the 'door' to a dense fog and a field carpeted in frost.
The last descent of Turkey, and it was a good one. The road snaked away below with 6 or 7 hairpin bends, and the road was butter smooth. As I made my way down I could feel the satisfaction of having cycled across a very big country build inside, and the excitement and anticipation of entering a new one. The last few hundred meters I was grinning, and the last 20 or so practically laughing, a little insanely perhaps. I rolled to a stop at the gate, caught my breath and exhaled with satisfaction - like Neo when he's just exploded Agent Smith. There was a fair crowd staring at me and my crocs, sniggering at themselves. 'Please come over here' said a man, so I did. 'This border post is closed'.................. Incapable of reacting from sheer disbelief I looked around. It was a massive, new, airport like complex, devoid of any officials or staff. A few of the builders laughed quietly to each other. Enraged, I told them sternly it wasn't funny - though I guess it was. 'Why don't you put up signs along the road' I said sharply. He just stared at me. I asked him where the next open border crossing was, placing particular emphasis on the word 'open'. '100 kilometers away'. I was so pissed off! Visions of cooking a nice tasty victory meal in Georgia where dashed. I absolutely refused to cycle another mile, though I wanted to make the border by the very latest tomorrow evening, so I hitchhiked. This isn't easy with a bicycle, but to my surprise about half the vehicles stopped, most having to refuse me a lift because of the bike. I met a guy from Taiwan who was spending a year hitchhiking around Turkey. He was couchsurfing and offered me a place to stay. Thanking him I declined, preferring to make my way to the border. My last ride was in a huge articulated lorry, taking a digger into Georgia. 'Cool. I've never been in one of these before', I thought to myself as I climbed into the cab. The bike was rather precariously stashed under the digger. We Hissed and Wheezed our way up and down and up and down through the night, eventually pulling into a petrol station for some sleep. Despite an offer to sleep in the cab I chose to keep my bike company and sleep out on the trailer deck.
Next day we made it to the border. A super easy pass. Georgia has a no visa agreement with the UK, so no lengthy visa procedures or bureaucracy to worry about. Good thing to as I didn't have any money with me. Crossing the border was more like stepping off a plane. It was like I was a thousand miles from Turkey. The air was cool and moist. Forests covered the surrounding hills, and children, men and women busied around in seemingly equal measure. I was back in Christian country, and mosques were replaced by churches and hilltop monasteries. I felt a little sad to be leaving the exoticism of Turkey behind, but was reassured by Georgia's more homely feel.
ATM, then bread. I went into a grocery store, and there was the most impressive array of sweet goods on offer. 'They obviously cater well for their cyclists' I thought. Biscuit's, cakes, sweets, chocolate coated marshmellows....... every possible sweet thing conceivable to man was on display. This took up a good 80% of the shop, and I filled a bag with them, choosing to eat my bread afterwards. Georgian cousin consists of a lot of breaded products, and my favourite so far is a sort of large bread sock filled with kidney bean paste. It's tasty, big and cheap - about 30p.
Next day, In the midst of a downfall I again found myself sitting inside a warm bakery, watching the show. The Dough was mixed in a huge stainless steel bowl, and I was watching the man scoop the dough off the sides and back into the mix, his arm perilously close to being caught up in the mechanics. Then it would be sliced up and weighed into equally quantities. These smaller balls where thrown across the room to an area where another man would work them into the desired shape, rolling and turning them with impressive dexterity. Final they where placed into a giant wood burning oven, the amount of dough being exactly right to fill every space. I was on my way again with a complimentary loaf in hand and mouth.
Next day it was cold, really cold. The combination of the rain and lack of sun had bought the temperature down to about 10 degrees. I was now in Gori. In 2008, bully boy Russia invaded Georgia over this town. Partly due to an inexperienced and demoralised Russian army, it was an invasion which Georgia managed to see off, but the losses were heavy, and as to be expected much disdain for the Russians remains. Pondering the insanity of the world I made my way round the sights, then I came across something odd. A small, very old and crooked house was sitting in the middle of an elaborate square. A huge marbled structure with columns and a glass ceiling had been built around it. So I took a photo. It later turned out that this was the birth place of Joseph Stalin. Evident from the way the house had been preserved, in this sort of ornate sarcophagus, I was amazed that such a monster of a man was conserved with such privileges. Perhaps as a reminder.
Ok this one's going on a bit so I'll wrap it up.
That night I was invited to spend with Ticush and her super friendly family. They were amazed that a tourist had rolled into their neck of the woods! A plethora of all sorts was laid out before us all, and we gobbled our way into the late hours, with many vodka toasts and laughs. Sadly I'd eaten just before I was discovered, but I made a good effort out of it nonetheless.
Finally rolling into Tbilisi the next day I booked myself into a cheap hostel. Russian embassy the next day. Off with my paper work I arrived at the embassy with a sizable crowd of Georgians milling about outside, some patient and some making no reservations. As I was a none Georgian I was prioritised, and I could sense some enviable stares as I made my way through the crowd. Into the consulates office for an inspection. A few questions about my trip and brief glance at the paperwork to see that it matched up. He shook my hand and granted my the visa, saying he was impressed with my trip and that I looked more Russian than English! Better be careful. At last, visa success! I popped out of the building intending to hi 5 the security guard, but he was occupied.
That was a week ago and I'm still here. There is a 10 day wait for the visa, and I may be here longer to get both Kazakhstan and China sorted. Though the winter is closing in. I've been helping Lardo decorate his bike shop in return for free accommodation. Trying to get in with the mechanics posse so I can go MTB riding with them.
So, until another time, it would seem.....
Thanks for reading everyone.
Again sorry for the mistakes. I hope they amuse you as they do me! The 1000ft vertical drop in my last post being a particular favourite