Thursday, 7 May 2009

By George - At Last!

Whilst biking north towards the Black Sea, Turkey could not let me leave without treating me to one last humongous hill - a ten mile slog in thick fog and snow but which delivered on the decent such an unexpected reward for my revolutions. As the sun regained supremacy I was greeted to green fields spotted with blue, yellow and pink houses as the road twisted and turned upon itself in a figure of eight - which would have been a more suitable mode of decent to enable me to grapple with the gradient.

I halted in Hopa, only ten miles from Georgia to marvel at the bonny, bright blue, Black Sea. I rolled my bike along a rickety pier and sat down in the sun, happy again to be able to eat outside without the risk of losing a limb - the ten degrees actually feeling like Tenerife!

As I still had a few lira left I bought one bottled beer before the border to toast my time in Turkey. I crept towards the crossing squeezing my bike between miles of stationary trucks lined up waiting to cross into Georgia - this should have alerted me to the chaos which lay ahead! I doubled back a couple hundred yards to find a quiet spot next to the shore to sit and sip my beer. As usual, I had been alone for only a few moments when four Turkish guys 'rolled up' - literally! They were evidently toasting Turkey too, their celebration being a 'joint' effort with the bazooka blazing away with each puff. Although I was offered to suck a bit of 'blow' I politely refused, happy to stick with my hops.

The experience of trying to obtain my Turkish exit stamp bordered on the ridiculous. Hundreds of people, tons of trucks and a plastic cabin with one window which was more often shut than open. No recognizable queue and no recognizable difference between my waving passport and hoards of similar coloured Georgian ones. As always though, my mouth and mode of transport made all the difference. After over an hour of hapless hovering on the bike, getting squeezed, pushed, poked and glowered at, someone hauled my passport from my hand and disappeared beneath the bodies. Five fretting moments later both my passport and the person resurfaced with the former successfully stamped! By George - another country was beckoning!

Fortunately, the first fifteen miles in Georgia were straight as I spent most of them with my eyes angled at the setting sun, whilst allowing my contented sighs to be saturated with the subtle sea breeze. I felt fabulous and after the trials of Turkey the cycling was effortless as I belted along the flat road to Batumi.

Batumi was like a little Las Vegas with gambling joints mounted at every junction, however, it was bereft of budget beds and with nowhere safe to sleep I had to bargain hard to gain a good discount at a place so posh that it still had the smell of fresh paint. The foyer was teeming with Turks filling their faces with food and their veins with vodka. The bike acts like a beacon and as I hauled it up the steps into the hotel a host of holidaymakers hovered to offer their hospitality. I must have looked malnourished as no one would accept 'no thanks' so I eventually gave up refusing and gorged myself on the freshly baked bread, orange sized olives, salty cheese and a sumptuous salad of tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and coriander (my favourite herb). After a tankful of toasts, which was enough to give you repetitive strain injury, I excused myself and lurched along the lobby to my room. The bike remained in the foyer but I had no fear for it, convinced that bike, bags and the boozers would still be there in the morning - they were!

Not surprisingly, that day I set off towards Lanchkuti at a leisurely pace stopping a couple of times for some caffeine kicks of strong black coffee. By mid day after managing to muster some momentum I was whizzing through a wee village when I spotted a couple of heads and hands waving and shouting from a wee window at the side of the road. Curious as to the commotion I stopped and wheeled the bike across the street and stuck my head into the hatch - my eyes almost exploded! Inside was a huge hall crowded with tables completely covered with food - what a feast! The colours alone would have been enough to collapse the willpower of even the most diligent dieter. Bread and biscuits, gateaux and gammon, filleted fish, cheese and chocolates, cabbage and carrot salads with large lettuce leaves and savoury snacks and sweets all battled for space and supremacy. Yet again, I found myself in a position where food was being foisted upon me. I heard myself give a half hearted refusal but with my hangover halted my eyes and my appetite had already decided for me - it was a banquet fit for a biker! For half an hour hands appeared through the hatch presenting me with parcels of food which was then followed by another flow of homemade fire water! Soon guests started to appear - it was a wedding and the men in the hatch had started eating early as they were responsible for collecting the cash given as gifts to the newly wed couple. The contributors and cash amount was meticulously written down in a wee note book - one way of ensuring people gave more than they could actually afford! After scoffing about three guests worth of grub I was not going to leave without putting forward a few pennies but as always, it was forcefully refused.

Later that evening whilst sitting outside a wee shop and picking on some provisions, the usual assortment of adults, animals and kids had crowded around. Roman, the shop owner came out to restore some order and ushered the kids and their questions away. He spoke no English and my Georgian was not great but we still chatted away for an hour. It was now late and dark and the road was busy with battered old BMW's and Turkish trucks heading to Tbilisi, so when Roman suggested that I sleep in his home it wasn't a difficult decision to make. Roman's wife, Lee Lee laid on a wonderful spread and although my earlier snack had ambushed my appetite, I still managed to do it justice. Besides, I already sensed that my stomach would require a lining for the light refreshments that lay ahead. Roman's reserves of homemade vodka would have shamed Smirnoff and the speed that he wanted to drink it suggested that some of it must have been close to its sell by date. Hardly surprising, the next day I slept through my alarm and woke to find Lee Lee waiting patiently for me to pedal off. Roman had already opened the shop but looked as rough as sandpaper. I do not think many customers would have received a cordial greeting that morning - perhaps that is what he should have stuck to the previous night!

The following two days were windier than the film 'Blazing Saddles' and although the road was flat I had to pump my pedals as if I was back trailing myself up the Turkish hills - if I stopped pedalling I was simply blown backwards! Often I was down to three miles per hour! The force of the wind was even preventing the breath from leaving my lungs! I stopped at a petrol station that was in the process of being stripped by the storm, with its roof relocating. I was allowed to pitch my tent in a semi-sheltered corner with four of the staff helping to hold it down. During the course of the night the wind slowly decimated the diesel pumps, ripped off half the roof and smashed numerous lamps. At two am staff came to tell me to come into the petrol station for shelter but the debris was not falling in my direction and I didn't fancy another night with not much sleep, so I simply pulled my bag over my head and dozed off again.

The next day the weather was still kicking up a storm so on reaching Kutasi I had only covered seventeen miles -it was hopeless trying to pedal against the power of the wind. I was very surprised to spot an Internet cafe but delighted that I now had an excuse to stop. I could not believe it - another party! It was the opening celebration of the business and although the storm had cut the electrical supply it had not dampened their spirits - everyone was busy getting boozy! So more food and firewater ensued. I had been warned by other travellers about the Great Georgian Greeting but if this continued my liver was going to be trashed before Tbilisi! The power eventually returned so I managed to check the football scores and some mail before heading off at midnight. Within fifteen minutes I had found a petrol station and bedded down in the wash bay, falling asleep whilst listening to a boozy brawl being broken up by the local bobbies - the usual Saturday night alcohol fuelled nonsense. I was awoken the next morning at seven as the workmen had arrived to start washing the cars. I resisted the urge to take out my bar of soap.

The next couple of days things returned to normal as I rode over one hundred miles to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. Anytime I stopped to buy bread or fruit at the side of the street I was offered vodka. The men all scratched the side of their faces with a finger - I had not shaved for a while and thought they were drawing attention to this, not at all, this is the sign used to ask if you want a drink.

On reaching Gori it was now dark and I asked someone in the street if there was Internet. I had stopped twenty yards from one of only two places that had it. I always seem to have luck in these situations. I would not have found the cafe as it was not visible. A family had converted a room in their house and put in a few old computers for the kids to play games on - the noise was deafening! As I waited for my turn, Giga , the son of the owners came and spoke with me. He was eighteen and still at school. His English was excellent, much better than mine! I was introduced to his fourteen year old sister, Mariyan and eventually to their parents, Gia and Marana. With Giga and Mariyan acting as translators we spent a lovely evening eating, drinking and discussing the history of Georgia, especially how its landmass has been gobbled up by other countries through out the years. The food was washed down with smooth, sweet homemade white wine. I would have been more than happy to collapse on my thermarest next to the computers but although I protested, Mariyan was booted out of her bedroom so that I could enjoy the delights of a double duvet with a heated sleeping blanket.

The next morning after a breakfast of homemade bread, jam and honey, Giga was my guide and translator as we walked around Stalin's Museum. We were the only visitors and each room had to be opened up especially for us. It was absolutely freezing and as Giga was busy translating the Russian and Georgian texts, my concentration continually crept back to the heated sleeping blanket. Leaving the museum numb due to the cold and the content we then walked around the outside of Stalin's childhood home and also the carriage of a train that he used to live in. By now it was mid day and I was ready to make tracks myself, however, I was not allowed to leave until I was packed full with a delicious potato dish which had small pieces of pork through it - after their hospitality, I had not the heart to tell them I was vegetarian. As I was saying goodbye, Manana dashed inside and came out with a litre bottle full of freshly made strawberry juice. As I freewheeled away to start the forty five miles to Tbilisi, I was full of warmth as waving hands and smiles saw me off - even Piki, the poodle, despite his diminutive size managed a few boisterous big dog barks.

Souped up on strawberry juice I flew along the road to Tbilisi, the slight tail wind and gradient helping me to average around fifteen miles per hour - it felt great! Again, with nowhere to sleep I needed the net to find a basic bed. Pushing my bike up a steep dark lane I figured I was lost so I asked Karina and her daughter Nata for directions. They took me to the cafe but also said that their house at number twenty two had a spare floor which I could lie on for a night. If I had no luck at the net then they would be back in their house in an hour. I attended to some mail and googled some beds but no joy. Inga, a beautiful blond woman sitting next to me was keen that I should share her space. As she leant across to hand me two telephone numbers, she whispered that she would be more than willing to 'accommodate' me for the evening. I could go with her now in her small car but the bike would maybe be a problem. I figured the bike would have been the least of my problems - number twenty two seemed like much less trouble! I huffed and puffed my way back up the hill and tapped on the door. Within five minutes I felt completely at home and part of the family as we chatted into the wee small hours.

I had to stay in Tbilisi until I acquired my Azerbaijan visa, perhaps two or three days,but you never really know. I was absolutely gobsmacked when I got it the next day in ten minutes. As I was on the bike they even allowed me to pay there and then, saving me a trek across town to deposit the fee in a bank.

I ended up staying in Tbilisi for four fabulous days. Karina, Nata and her brother Vladimir were great company. The space on the floor turned out to be their newly converted loft which they were about to lease out. However, I spent all of my time with them, chatting, laughing, sightseeing and giving massages and healings - they were special days! They were originally from Armenia but the last two generations had settled in Georgia - they were equally passionate about both countries! They invited friends around and we all spoke to my folks on the web cam and earphones via messenger. Vladimir, an unemployed economist - not much economic activity in Georgia at the moment, had a wonderful dry sense of humour. Whilst out sightseeing he had a cutting comment for each sight. Freedom Square but no freedom. Progress Bank but little progress. Heaps of tourist hotels but few tourists. Although I was in Tbilisi in the winter time it is a beautiful city full of green parks and great architecture but Georgia is a very poor country and many people are truly struggling to make ends meet. However, what they lack in lucre they make up with in love. The generosity of 'spirit', smiles and sheer grit and determination made a big impact on me. I have every intention of returning to Georgia and Tbilisi - number twenty two of course!


parents said...

Thats quite a few milestones you have achieved over the last few weeks,reaching the half-way point in your trip, and raising more than £7.700 for the M.E. charity.Great achievements reached in spite of some horrendous conditions and bad luck with illness and injury. Very well done indeed, we are very proud of you.
Mum and Dad

Mike Holliday said...

It's good to see you're moving again. I was wondering what route you were going to take out of the India.

I look forward to following the rest of your trip.

Mike Holliday
(Canadian from Varanasi)

Anonymous said...

Eric, I am so impressed by your trip on behalf of those of us who can barely walk past the letter box (they are out on the street in Australi). As well, your blog is so interesting as I know I'll never get to the countries you are going thru or meet the wonderful individuals who are so generous to you.
Hope to meet you when you arrive in Adelaide next year.
Keep on cycling

Mike Holliday said...

Haven't heard anything from you for a couple of months. How's things?

indra_viim said...

member me eric,i'm indra from pangkalan city!long time no see!
sorry no more undestand to use blogger,i just try!!!he..he..

indra_viim said...

eric can u sent a message to my
or found my face book:indra nesta
my picture on the fb sitting in the way...

indra_viim said...

add my FB please,eric? indra nesta..see u next time...!