March 24

Had a nice night’s camping on a little patch of ground between the road and sea.  It’s always nice to wake up to the sound of the sea, and it’s even nicer to ride alongside it.  On our way to Georgia we had sheer mountains to our right and the Black Sea to our left and we just ate up the distance so quickly.  We stopped for lunch in Arhavi, near the border, at about 11am having done most of the route to Georgia.  The waiter was convinced that I was a millionaire, and asked if I had 10,000 Euros on my card for some reason.  My doubling over laughing at him seemed to convince him that I was probably not as rich as he suspected. 

We arrived at the border around 2pm and were able to blast through real quickly.  One more stamp in the passport and we were through!  There were four Georgian girls, working for the tourist agency, who were interested in what I was doing, and after explaining it to them I was able to learn my first words of Georgian, Hello (Gamarjoba) and Thankyou (Madloba).  As soon as we were over the border, the change was immediate.  People were paler, there were orthodox churches again and there was the beautiful Georgian script everywhere. 

Once we started cycling through the country, it became evident that the roads were super different in Georgia.  The road condition deteriorated pretty immediately once we were over the border, with cows wandering everywhere, insane drivers and plenty of potholes.  On the other hand, it was incredibly lush and green and a real pleasure to cycle through – the roads were pretty bad, but the drivers were surprisingly respectful to us as we rode along.  We arrived in Batumi at 430pm and stopped for a beer near the main square to find that Georgia was two hours ahead of Turkey, and it was actually almost 7pm!  After having a couple of beers, we decided it was a bit late to be cycling out of town, so stopped in a nice hostel and crashed.  Ryan and I went out for dinner and the only place we could find was a super fancy place.  It was surprisingly cheap, so we sat down for a three course meal which cost about 7 pounds then crashed out in our empty hostel. 

March 23

Hitch-hikers and tunnels today, and lots of them. 

The girls planned to leave at 830 in the morning, but flights were delayed, so they didn’t leave until 11am.  This meant that we, as the gentlemen that we are were honour bound to snooze the morning away, eating pisi and chilling out.  Finally, Isil’s taxi came and took her to the airport, after some pretty big goodbyes, and we hit the road.  It took us a while to get out of Trabzon, but once we were on the road we ate up the miles pretty quickly.  The road, which is pretty busy, runs alongside the sea and through a number of little towns on the seaside.  There are so many towns that it makes camping a bit of a problem. 

So far, this patch of road has been the only place I’ve seen lots of hitch-hikers in Turkey, and I mean lots.  Anywhere where one person was trying to hitch a lift, there was always at least another ten guys with him (and it was all guys) trying to get picked up as well.  I think they were students, trying to get home for cheap, but it was odd to see just so many after never having seen hitch-hiking before in Turkey.

We also had quite a few tunnels today.  I’m still not sure if I love or hate tunnels.  They’re always such an extreme experience, with the noise of the cars amplified by a hundred times, and you’re in darkness so you can barely see where you’re going. My only defence against being knocked down is the reflective patches on my panniers and a tiny blinking red light on the back of my bike.  So far it hasn’t failed, thankfully, but almost very time I’m heading through a tunnel I get so aware of everything thats going on and then boom, sunlight is back overhead and you can stop stressing. 

We managed to hit out 100k today, which is good considering we started at 11am.  We should be very near the border with Georgia by end of the day tomorrow, all things going well, then we can get into our fifth country bright and early on Wednesday morning.

March 22

Had a very lazy day yesterday, didn’t get moving until noon, then finally got our butts in gear and went to collect our passports from Trabzon centre – it took us ages to get there but finally we arrived, picked up our passports and inside were our brand new Chinese visas.  Such a relief.  Came home after walking around Trabzon for a while, and we partied again, this time I crashed sometime after midnight. 

Today, woke up at 6am again.  It’s starting to get old.  It’s fine when we’re on the road, but when I don’t need to wake up until 10 or 11am, it is a trifle annoying.  I dozed and watched TV until everyone was up, then we trooped off to Trabzon to get our bus heading up to Sumela Monastery.  We arrived there, through the driving snow, at 11am and jumped off the bus.  There was a long climb to the top, along snow covered tracks, which took us about an hour to conquer.  It was slippy as hell which made for some amusing viewing watching people slide all over the place.  Once we were up at the top, we were given a hard hat (still not really sure why) and were able to enter.  It was beautiful, but half of it was closed for restoration, and probably not really worth the 15TL we paid to get in.   We spent a half hour taking some goofy photos then headed to catch the bus back down – of course no one else wanted to walk down so the bus was super crowded.

We finally got down to the bottom, and then back to Trabzon, and embarked on a kunefe hunt.  Kunefe is a cheese based dessert, crispy and hot and melty all at the same time, and it’s delicious.    It took us a long time wandering the streets to track some down, but finally we did and it was so worth it.  After our dessert hunt, we headed back to our flat and cracked open a few beers.  The girls leave tomorrow at 830, and we’re going to be riding along the Black Sea towards Georgia. 

March 20

Well, the enormous climb that I was expecting turned out to be bugger all really.  Not that it wasn’t a few hours of climbing, but was expecting so much that it turned out to be quite an anticlimax. 

We were up early, at 6am, and got the tents packed, bikes ready, and started to climb.  It took us a while, but the roads were deserted, with only one van and one car passing us.  There were plenty of nice hairpins to navigate, and deserted little villages to cycle through, and as we steadily rose through the valley we entered the low-lying cloud.  After a half hour of cycling through the cloud, the sun started to appear, and I was able to rise above the clouds.  It’s always a nice feeling looking down on clouds, especially when the sun is shining, and today was no different. 

The sun may have been shining, but it was still cold as hell.  There was snow piled up on either side of the road, and enormous icicles hanging off the cliffs to my side.  Winds would rip up the valley, cooling me as much as pushing me further up the mountainside.  When I finally got to a pass in the mountain I stopped only to ask if I was going the right direction to Trabzon before starting to descend.  The software I use to help me know what kind of roads we’re going to be riding on, cycleroute.com, told me that we would have to climb higher, so I was waiting for more of the same.  When I hit a small restaurant and the main road again, the man there told me that it was all downhill to Trabzon, so our time in mountains was over, for Turkey at least!

However, the DESCENT TO TRABZON was going to be one of the most stressful experiences of the entire trip.  Firstly, the incline was very steep, so we were going at least 40 or 50km/h the entire way. The road was also very busy, with lots of trucks going past, and all going quite quickly.  As well as this, there was a lot of construction going on on the road, with new tunnels being built and diversions on the road.  Finally, just as we set off a snowstorm hit.  Heading down the hill, with visibility of twenty metres, having to blink five times a second to clear the snow from my eyes, fingers on the brakes and a strong, cold wind freezing my entire front I honestly started to feel a little nervous.  Thankfully, we managed to get through the snowstorm well enough, but all the other problems didn’t disappear, so it was a very stressful hour or two of riding.  As I didn’t have to pedal and my body was basically stuck in one position, my leg started to cramp just as I needed to start pushing.  This made an uncomfortable situation a little more than dangerous, as my whole body was starting to get too cold to really work properly.  Thankfully, ten minutes later, the incline lessened off, and I was able to start pedalling properly and warm myself up. 

As we started to enter Trabzon, the quality of driving slipped off a cliff, and it was just like being back in Istanbul.  It didn’t take us too long to find a place to warm up, get some wifi and have a burger and an hour later we had found our accommodation for the weekend.  Our friend Isil, from Istanbul, was coming out to meet us in Trabzon with a friend, and and booked a cheap apartment on the west side of the city for us all.  After a week of hard riding in mountains, it was nice to get showered and cleaned, especially before our friends arrived!

Isil and her friend, Betul, rocked up, and over the course of the night, we had to sort out her luggage that someone had taken by accident, then got some beers and raki and were able to just chill out with our friends, and by that I mean we partied until the sun came up.  Just what we needed.

March 19

Last day before Trabzon, and our last day in serious mountains for a long time, probably until the Pamirs.  Woke up at 630 to a cloudless sky, and so we spent some time drying our tents and sleeping bags, heading off down the valley at 830.  Almost as soon as I set off, I was called over by a group of men outside a building.  They were, as normal, intrigued as to what I was doing, so I drank a few glasses of cey with them and tried my best to explain myself.  The funniest part was when the Syrian man asked me if I intended to visit his homeland.  Before I could say, not right now, he mimicked a gun and told me it was a bad idea. I agreed with him, much to everyone’s satisfaction.  Leaving the guys, it was all downhill to Kelkit, on good roads, so we were there in no time at all, and riding through I spotted a nice bakery so jumped in – the guy gave me an enormous loaf of fresh bread and a small loaf of sweetbread for free, so happy.

Coming out of Kelkit, I was climbing for about two hours before I saw two old men by the side of the road.  One was chopping branches, and the other sipping cey, of course.  They motioned me over, and plied me with cey, and I gave them the usual half-english/half-sign language spiel about what I was doing, who the other guy cycling up is, am I a photographer, am I writing a book, do I have a wife etc.  They seemed satisfied with the answers, so after I was done with my cey, I jumped back on the bike, and had one of the most enjoyable downhill rides of the entire trip. 

The first part, with 10% declines, was pretty hairy, and I spent most of the time on the brakes, but once it flattened out a bitI was in heaven.  The sun was shining, there was no wind, and the roads were good.  The landscape opened up as we sped through – tiny little valleys with plot after plot running alongside streams and people waving to us as we went past.

We were in Gumushane very quickly, so we stopped to get some lunch and top up on our internet fix.  I had two chicken durum, a cey and an ayran, all for the princely sum of 5tl – almost £1.20.  This was cause enough for celebration, but just as we were leaving, someone asked to take a selfie with us (I think in case it later transpired we were famous) and soon everyone and their friend wanted to jump in for this uber-selfie.

The road to Torul was again all downhill, with lots of new construction, especially roads and tunnels.  The roads were in great condition, but some of the tunnels were less than finished.  It’s a pretty nerve-wracking experience hurtling down a mountain at 40km/h to be plunged into a tunnel in complete darkness and have to rely on the headlights of passing cars to make sure you know where to turn.  I was able to regain control of my nervous system on the other side and quickly put my front light on and got through the rest without a taste of my own mortality. 

Once we finally arrived at the bottom, we quickly took a side road to get us off the main motorway.  As the night got colder, I thought it was the perfect place for our first campfire, and showed Ryan the rudiments of how to light a fire in the wild.  It was nice, sitting under the stars by an open fire, just gently enjoying our existence. 

Our road will take us to Zigana, a little village in the mountains with a famous monastery and should allow us to have a more relaxed ride over the mountains,  Tomorrow will be a hell of a climb, probably the worst we’ve had so far, but we’ve got all day so there’s no rush.  Plan is to meet our friend Isil in Trabzon tomorrow at 6pm, and we should be there by 2 or 3.  It’s going to be nice to be down at sea level again after so long spent 1000m high, and I hope it’ll be warm down there.  It’s sad that our Turkish adventure is coming to an end, but next we’ve got the Caucasus!

March 18

Physically challenging day today, but thankfully not nearly as crazy as yesterday.  Started off early, at 6am, after a relatively warm night’s sleep.  My trick is lay my towel on my mattress where my head will lay, then fold my sleeping bag under my head so that there is only one tiny area where air can come in – this is where my mouth is.  Maximum warmth and minimum drafts. 

Well, it worked well enough, and after a pretty brisk start to the day – read, it was freezing – we got on the bikes.  Almost as soon as I kicked off, the sun came out and warmed me up properly.  A few kilometres down the road, Ryan pulled into a service station where we bought some fruit and a bit of chocolate.  Just as we were about to leave, I checked to see if there was any wifi, and considering there was we had a couple of ceys as we got our internet fix. 

Soon enough we were back on the road, and within minutes of cycling, we saw a man stopped in front of us in a pure power stance.  As we cycled up, he pulled out a massive smile and gave us each and apple and some chewing gum to share.  He then grabbed a police cap out of his car (it transpired he was a cop) and handed it to me!  We thanked him profusely, but within 20seconds of us cycling on, he stopped us again to hand Ryan some prayer beads.  What a total dude.

Our first mountain of the day, between Refahiye and Erzincan was a little over 2000m.  It was quite a nice slow climb, so not too strenuous, but it took a bloody long time – by 1130 I was at the top, and as Ryan pedalled up join me, he was stopped by a man who, it turned out, worked the snowploughs.  He invited us into the team house, and gave us some cey, before inviting us to come and eat with them.  None of us spoke any mutual language, but we were able to make ourselves understood, and my enormous smile when I was handed a bowl of stew was enough to make them end themselves laughing.  Shaking hands and crying thank you, we headed back off down the mountain and by 1230 we were just outside Erzincan.  On our way to our next mountain, a man named Oran stopped his car in front of us, beeping wildly.  He was an Australian guy who owned a language school in Erzincan and was super friendly.  He gave us his card and told us to call him if anything went wrong, but so far so good! 

Our second mountain of the day, between Erzincan and Kelkit proved to be a much more difficult beast.  The gradients were much steeper, and the height we were climbing was a few hundred metres more, so it wasn’t until 430 that we got to the top, screaming blue murder at the sight of the marker.  The views were stunning, as we were high into the snow line, and we could see the entire valley that Erzincan sat in laid out before us.  Soon the winds had us freezing, so we set off down towards Kelkit, and with the mountains behind us, we made quick work of 25k, settling down in a nice little village and camping up for the night.  Tomorrow we’ll easily hit Gumushane, and then we have to figure out how we want to tackle the 2700m mountain that we need to cross to get to Trabzon.

March 17

These days are just getting more and more extreme.  We woke up with snow covering the tents, and finished the night being warned to move on by the local police, as there were bears in the area. 

I was awake by 630 and brushing the snow off the tent by 7.  It was a really cold start to the morning, and by 745 we were cycling, hoping to warm up quickly.  I needed a quick bathroom break, so spying the first service station I hopped over to the other side of the road and waited for Ryan to arrive.  While I waited, a wee puppy came running over to me and obviously, I started to cuddle him.  By the time Ryan pulled up we were best friends.  I jumped into the bathroom, and as soon as I came out started playing with the pup again.  The man in the station called me over (I thought he was going to tell me the dog had fleas or something) and presented me with a new pair of trousers.  My old pair that I picked up in a Decathlon in Italy had acquired a hole from the sharp rocks of Cappadocia, and despite the best efforts of my friend Emma, the hole had got larger to the point where it stretched from my bum to my knee.  They were far from ideal, but people generally got a laugh out of them.  My brand new trousers, on the other hand, had no such hole and were a perfect fit.  I was so happy at being able to throw away my old trousers I gave the two dogs (as another dog had turned up by this point) a piece of sausage each.  This was to prove a bad move.

As we began to cycle away, the puppy realised that our bikes contained food.  Considering he was hungry, his logical move was to follow the bikes until he got the food.  However, this meant we had a small puppy running across a four lane road, trying to catch Ryan’s bike.  As we’d already had a pretty uncomfortable incident involving a dog getting hit by a car earlier in the trip, we did not want a repeat.  I picked up the wee puppy, Dumbass, and took a handful of crisps from Ryan.  Running across the road, I dropped the crisps, then Dumbass, and pointed his nose in them.  As soon as he began to eat, I sprinted back to my bike, jumped on and we were off as fast as we could.  Once he was finished the crisps, I imagine he looked up to see us rapidly departing, a single doggy tear running down his face.  This was not going to be our only strange encounter with dogs today.

The morning cycle didn’t prove arduous, but it was quite slow, and by 1230 we hadn’t covered much more than 50k.  We had much bigger hills to climb ahead of us, so I wasn’t sure we would be able to get our 100 today.  As we stopped to think about our options, we spotted a small, deserted canteen on the other side of the road.  That looks cheap, we thought to ourselves, so headed over for some rice and chicken.  15TL later, a total rip-off, we were back on our bikes on the climb to Refahiye.  There were some pretty substantial mountains standing between us and our destination, and it took us a good few hours to climb them.  The gradients weren’t too hard, and there was no real wind to speak of, so it just turned into a few hours of pure slog.  The landscape was beautiful, with sheer cliffs on either side and a small clear stream running alongside the road.  At one point, I heard the barking of dogs in a small village and saw a fairly fierce looking animal run over to me.  I stopped immediately, got off my bike and had a look at it.  Here was the fearsome Anatolian sheepdogs we’d heard so much about!  Standing taller than an Alsatian, with a collar studded with lethally sharp spikes, these dogs were pretty scary looking. Obviously, they turned out to be absolute sweethearts, and I was soon scratching one of their noses while another one danced about just at the tip of my fingers.  A third, I think their mum, looked on disapprovingly from a few metres away, and made no move to get involved.  It’s funny that one of my biggest fears on the trip was the dogs, namely the Greek and Turkish sheepdogs, and since meeting them have realised that they’re all just cuddly big softies.  Once I waved goodbye to the hounds, it was only another 4k of climbing to the top and once I finally managed to reach the summit, I realised that it was almost 2200m above sea level, and we’d climbed a pretty damn big mountain.

The descent was brilliant fun, and we were more than able to make up for our slow climbing.  On the way down I was easily doing 50km/h, and passing lorries every so often – which was a great feeling.  Far too soon, the road flattened out and I began to have to pedal a little to keep rolling.  Almost as soon as I did, I saw another dog rush out from behind a building and make a beeline for me.  I stopped the bike and tried to say hello, but it was far too shy and ran away.  Thinking nothing more of it, I pedalled on and this dog started to follow me.  100m on, I stopped, put my bike against a tree and waited.  It took a couple of minutes, but Galloper – the dog ran like a dumb horse – was soon nuzzled up against me, getting a good scratch, and I spent some time taking some burrs out of his fur.  As I got back on the bike and started pedalling on, it became clear that Gall had decided to come along for the trip, and I cycled for a couple of kilometres with him by my side.  It was one of the weirdest and nicest things that’s ever happened to me.  He was a beautiful golden lab, a little bit bony due to lack of food, but a very sweet hound.  Unfortunately, further down the valley, just after I’d introduced him to Ryan, some of the neighbourhood dogs took a dislike to him and chased him away.  I was already dreaming of how I was going to take him with me to Georgia and onwards before the issue disappeared in a chorus of barks. 

As the sun started to set, I began to search round for a decent looking campsite, and finding one – a nice southernly facing slope – we began to pedal over to it.  Just before we put foot to pedal however, the local Jandirma rolled up, and in broken French, English and Turkish, managed to explain to us that there were reports of bears in the area and we should move to the nearby town of Refahiye.  I wasn’t sure how seriously to take this man, but considering the other Jandirma had a rifle and was scanning the treeline, decided that it was probably prudent advice to take.   

Where was I before I was interrupted by the Turkish military?  Ah yes, bears.

Well, we moved on until we found a petrol station on the other side of some annoyingly big hills and stopped to wolf down as much food as we could get for twenty lira then tried to camp round the back of the station.  The local dogs took offence to this, and barked us out of their turf.  200m down the road we found a nice enough spot in among some trees, set up camp and I started typing this up.  That is when, of course, I saw the flashing of lights on the tent, then just as I called out ‘Ryan…’. I heard the call of ‘Soldier!  Passport!’.  I pulled myself out of my tent, handed over my passport and within a minute or two we were told to move on.  Five kilometres.  Five kilometres.  Domus.  Okay, we say, thankyou. 

So here we are, 830 at night, the snow is falling quite heavily and we’re cycling through the dark trying to find a campsite after five kilometres.  It’s pretty hard to find a good spot when it’s light, but when it’s dark and snowing, even worse.  Add in that it’s all hills, so we’re climbing up and down these hills, in heavy snow in the dark trying to find a place to sleep.  It was not an enjoyable experience.

We get to Refahiye after a number of false starts on the camping, and see the sign for hotel, but on enquiring it’s 150TL a night, so no chance.  We decide to camp up in a snow-covered field and I pray we don’t get moved on again.  It’s now 1045, way past my bedtime and I really would like a sleep.  It’s cold tonight, especially bad as the tent is on fresh snow.  Bundling up nice and warm, and hope it’s not too bad.