Pedaling through Georgia

Water fountain in town square of Batumi

Water fountain in town square of Batumi

While crossing the Turkish/Georgian I looked to the locals and tried to get an idea as to what to expect of the new country I would soon by cycling. The local Georgians pushed and rushed to cut in the immigration line, but in Georgia, regardless of nationality all citizens wait in the same line. With a stamp on my passport good for a full year of visa free travel I pedaled on excited to see what the next few weeks of traveling would be like. Georgia marks the first country traveled to that I have zero background knowledge. I have never known a Georgian, heard their language and other than the fact that an US state shares the same name, I really had no idea what to expect. The border patrol guards smiled as I pushed Gaby through the crowds waiting to get their passport stamped and the first thing that caught my attention, after crossing the border was a huge Orthodox Church. Islam is now a minority religion so the days of dealing with grumpy, fasting Muslims are over. I pedaled along a rainy coast. What a different feeling the coast in Georgia has compared to Turkey. Beach shacks, huts and even small guest houses tastefully built out of bamboo and other native products. Georgians seem to adapt better to their coastal environment rather than the classic huge concrete monstrosities so often found in Turkey.

Greek columns decorate the town promenade

Greek columns decorate the town promenade

I spent two days drying clothes and bonding with locals in the coastal city of Batumi. English once again is rarely found, and with little secondary options I conversed in Turkish. I found the city quite odd, large miss shaped buildings from the days of the Soviet Union and an endless boardwalk of 18 km. The city is split into two districts, urban and industrial, with churches marking the barrier between the two. A few facts learned from several of the overly zealous locals; Georgia is the homeland of the legendary “Golden Fleece” sought after by many as Georgia was one of the earliest countries to possess the secrets of gold production. Georgia is also one of the oldest Christian countries, adopted in the first century AD, and home to Joseph Stalin.
At first my sights were set on learning the Georgian language, but quickly I found that most if not all Georgians, (as in all ex-USSR countries). Meaning that with a little practice I should be able to get around in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, etc. To my surprise, after learning a few of the basics, Russian is very similar to Serbo-Croatian. Back in my days at Santa Monica I remember listening to friends converse in Russian and being completely lost the language, but now with some background in other Slavic languages the learning process is much easier.

Some friendly Georgians showing off a freshly made acharuli

Some friendly Georgians showing off a freshly made acharuli

My Azerbaijan visa application finally went through two weeks later than expected, leaving me with three weeks of down time before I can legitimately enter the country. My plan is to explore the depths of Georgia and if there is still time cycle into Armenia.

close-up

close-up salty cheese, a fried egg, butter all tucked into a homemade loaf of bread. The Georgian equivalent to the Hawaiian loco moko.

Handmade Pilmeni (these are a Russian dish though)

Handmade Pilmeni (these are a Russian dish though)

While in Batumi stopped at the local bike shop and met a Georgian tour guide, (he  was trying to patch a flat tire). He spoke English well and we talked about cycle touring. He had never traveled by bicycle before but knew many of the beautiful routes in the country. After twenty minutes I had a map outlined with 4 different remote routes throughout the country. (I told him I preferred desolate dirt roads in the wilderness and he seemed to know many).

Getting the scoop from the locals!! Juseph hooks up and hand drawn map at one of the largest bicycle shops in Georgia

Getting the scoop from the locals!! Juseph hooks up and hand drawn map at one of the largest bicycle shops in Georgia

Local Georgian bicycle shop

Local Georgian bicycle shop

With dry clothes and a rather large Russian vocabulary I set off for the northern Georgian Alps, where the pavement official ends near the Russian border. I heard that even in the summer months one can still find glaciers and snow-capped mountains. These are the perfect ingredients for a great cycle tour! Pedaling through the remote suburb villages I got a great taste of local Georgian culture. During the hot afternoon hours men relax in the shade and drink vodka and beer. (Local beers have a minimum a minimum alc of 12% and the vodka is usually close to 120 proof). Bakeries exist everywhere and Georgians even have a pastry similar to Burek, called Haja Puri. Prices are close half of those in Turkey, with a liter of beer costing about a $1 and fruit/vegetables so cheap that they are almost free. Also being so close to Russia frozen dumplings can be found in every supermarket!! Yum!!

Cheery locals sipping strong drinks in the shade of the afternoon sun

Cheery locals sipping strong drinks in the shade of the afternoon sun

The countryside is so green, and shoulders sometimes are covered by the overflowing  jungles. Cows, pigs and goats wander the busy roads, eating tall grass from the cracks in the pavement and sleeping the shade. Pigs can often be found bathing in muddy puddles and it is not uncommon to see cows wandering around in any city or town in Georgia! Seriously I was in front of city hall in Batumi and was a cow cross the street on to the sidewalk, none of the locals seemed to notice!

Cows raid my camping spot, nothing like waking up to a cow peeing a few feet from your tent

Cows raid my camping spot, nothing like waking up to a cow peeing a few feet from your tent

Cooking dinner in the early evening

Cooking dinner in the early evening

With all the wilderness I am often accosted by wild animals while camping at night. The screeching of a lynx is nothing new to me and barely makes me stir in my tent, but the foxes here are unruly! One morning I awoke to a fox pawing its way through the zipper of my tent trying get at my bread. Three days after leaving Batumi the climbing began as I slowly made my way north to the village of Mestia bordering Russia. Drinking water became scarce and to avoid gastrointestinal issues I sanitized stream water with Purel hand sanitizer. (The water tasted terrible but I am still going strong).

Glacial lake view after super steep climb, Georgian interior

Glacial lake view after super steep climb, Georgian interior

The only local supermarket, closed for the afternoon festivities

The only local supermarket, closed for the afternoon festivities

The route through the northern Svaneti mountains will lead me to a remote churches in Ushgurli, and has some of the best scenery in Georgia. So far I have cycled passed waterfalls, huge green meadows, snow-capped mountains and endless streams, there are even glaciers high up in the mountains and their turquoise water fills the local streams and lakes. I occasionally check in with other cyclists I have met along the road and several of them pedaled straight through Georgia and are now waiting in a hotel in Tbilisi (the capital) for their Azerbaijan visas. To me this is an absolute waste and makes cycle touring similar to that of urban travel (going from city to city), the a cycling journey is far from being about the destination. Today I met some hikers who asked me if I wanted to crash in their guest house, I told them I would love to use their shower but I would rather sleep in the wild. Check in again soon!

A Czech couple on a Black sea cycle tour! These guys had pedaled over 6,000 km and were in their early 60's! Grand parents, they were slow on the hills though

A Czech couple on a Black sea cycle tour! These guys had pedaled over 6,000 km and were in their early 60’s! Grand parents, they were slow on the hills though

 

A super chill local water fall,  but super treacherous, slick rocks and no guard rails

A super chill local water fall, but super treacherous, slick rocks and no guard rails

 

Women’s suffrage and Turkish cycling

My cycling rights in Turkey are best compared to Women’s voting rights in 19th century America, they don’t exist. Many automobiles and trucks sport the bumper sticker “ALLAH KORUSUN” (God protect) on their bumpers, more appropriate would be to have the sticker on the front windshield as a warning to everything in their path. Regardless of if I am pedaling on the shoulder or even on the sidewalk, automobiles in Turkey will drive on and over anything, to shorten their commute. On several occasions while pedaling on the shoulder of a busy highway, I would encounter a car heading in the opposite direction taking up the shoulder I was pedaling on, the car would honk as if I were attempting to play chicken and forcing me into the busy highway. Passenger buses and city vans will stop anywhere, even in the slow lane of the highway to pick up/drop off passengers. I even remember seeing a man dropping off his 9 month pregnant wife on the side of the highway, as there was a hospital on the other side of the guard rail! The local saying couldn’t describe it better: “Burasa Turkiye” – This is Turkey!

This is Turkey, there are a lot of great wild camping spots on the beach

This is Turkey, there are a lot of great wild camping spots on the beach

Tempers continue to flair, and I have noticed many (older couples) getting into disputes at the market place. Fighting over which fruit or vegetable to buy and even which loin of meat to take home and cook. The ever-present fasting breath, an extreme version of halitosis is also rampant! While conversing with locals I really have to try hard to keep my distance as many Turkish people think that talking inches from your face will help you understand what they are saying, ahhh. All in all I have enjoyed my experiences in Turkey but I would advise future travelers to avoid the holy month of Ramadan, people are too edgy and it is extremely hard to find fresh cooked food during the day.

Turkish tailor double stitches SWRVE knickers while Gabriella waits in the window

Turkish tailor double stitches SWRVE knickers while Gabriella waits in the window

After my last post, I decided to take some side roads through a large green section depicted on the map (the peninsula between Fatsa and Ordu) . Within a few km, the road started to climb though a beautiful jungle. There was a lingering morning haze, and I could see jagged mountains, a waterfall and even the minaret of a mosque tucked away in the foliage. The surroundings were much like Hana, HI and invoked images of classical Chinese paintings. It was hot and humid though, and before long my clothes were soaked with sweat. The sun is so strong out here that I actually got burned through my long sleeve shirt. I used to think that UV protected clothing was a bunch of bull, especially when REI started selling it but when one is exposed to strong UV rays 24/7 normal clothing can’t hold out.

Qing Screen depicting Chinese countryside

Qing Screen depicting Chinese countryside

Tropical peninsula between Fatsa and Ordu

Tropical peninsula between Fatsa and Ordu

Mosque on the beach

Mosque on the beach

I passed several Turkish villages situated directly on the beach and was shocked by the Islamic Oceanic culture. “Normally”, from what I have experienced in CA, Hawaii, Greece and other locations, in a city, town or village located in a tropical place it is not uncommon to see locals in swimming suits, bikinis, and even a few sun burned tourists here and there. But here were nothing of the sort. Women were fully dressed, head to toe, with a little skin showing between the nose and forehead, men were in slacks, and long sleeve shirts sometimes with jackets wearing the popular devoted Muslim white skull-cap. There were no fisherman or seafood vendors, (most shops were selling lamb and beef), no one was in the water swimming and kids could be found playing in the courtyard around the mosque. This was a beach environment I had never experience. It was almost as if you transported a desert culture to a tropical beach, there was no visible assimilation with the ocean.

Desolate black sand beaches

Desolate black sand beaches

I pedaled on and found a black sand beach, with crystal clear water. After pushing Gabriella through the sand I found to my astonishment I was the only one there. This was the nicest beach I had been too since Croatia or Montenegro, and none of the locals want to go for a swim? Or hanging out on a hot day? (Later I learned that most the locals were either at the tea house or in the Mosque). I swam out and was quickly surrounded by a school of Moon Jellyfish (Jellyfish without tentacles).  They felt like big squishy blobs as I pushed them away while swimming. At first I was a bit scared of being stung but there was nothing there to skin me and their squishy bodies tickled my arms and legs. No long after I heard the afternoon call to prayer and I looked to the huge Mosque built near the rocky cliffs. A tropical paradise in a conservative Islamic country.

More secluded beaches

More secluded beaches

Hours later the small jungle road rejoined the highway and the lush terrain morphed into flat fields and long sandy beaches. Hotels, restaurants and cafes lined the coast and I stopped again to refresh myself in the cool water. “No beach unless you pay 10 TL”, valets collecting money near all the roads leading to the beach, and even on a bike it seemed I couldn’t get by without a duty. “I go to beach and camp”….”OK”? I said. “OK” the valet said and let me through without the 10 TL fee. (Not sure how that worked but I did). The beaches here were populated as the large city of Ordu was not far away. Domestic tourists, mostly sun bathing their large bodies in the intense afternoon sun and children playing backgammon. The sand was too hot for bare feet and the large beach took on a mirage similar to that of a desert.

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A relatively similar environment as before, the only people in the water were children under the age of 15, and many of the sun bathers, other than the Turkish men with big stomachs were fully clothed. I walked several km of the beach in search of the ever-present women swimming in Burqa,(which I had heard about from several sources) but unfortunately I didn’t see any. I watched the sun make tall/long shadows and spent the day swimming in the cool murky waters. I made camp on a random patch of grass a few meters from the sea and cooked pasta in the early evening hours. Somewhere between the hours of 1-3 am a small boat got stuck in the ropes of a swimming lane near the shore, and drifting in and out of sleep I listened to two Turkish men curse at one another while they banged a hammer like tool on the propeller.

A red river meters before meeting the black sea

A red river meters before meeting the black sea

A storm blew in and the next few days were filled with rain and thick fog. The weather caught me off guard and soaked all of my clothes! It was so warm and humid that it wasn’t much of a bother but sleeping in the tent with the fly on was almost unbearable. For two nights I prayed that the rain would stop and the clouds lift just long enough for me to get some sleep without the fly, but both nights a drizzle prevailed. Like in Jordan, I played Adam and Eve in my tent and slept completely naked waiting for the late evening coastal breeze.

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Frescoes inside the early Byzantium Church, now a Mosque Ayasophia Camii Trabzon

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Inside Ayasophia Camii, Trabzon

Inside Ayasophia Camii,
Trabzon

I pedaled past the large cities of Giresun, Trabzon, and Rize, stopping in Trabzon to view the ancient Byzantium church converted to a Mosque and yesterday I crossed the rainy border into Georgia. The customs official gave me a bit of flack because he had to take my passport out of ziplock bag, to check my nationality, but I crossed the border before dark and spent a dry night at a guest house near the border. Since leaving Istanbul I have pedaled over 1,200 km and am ready for a new language and culture. Georgia, like many of the future countries I will be pedaling through was once part of the USSR, making Russian a common second language out here. Tonight I will learn my necessary phrases as I prepare to pedal into the remote Georgian alps.

Looking down at the city of Batumi, Georgia

Looking down at the city of Batumi, Georgia