Back at the border

 

As promised the road turned into cycling utopia after Sinop – well-made road with wide hard shoulder, 2 lanes for the relatively light traffic, a near constant view of the sea on my left and green mountains on my right. I passed by rice fields, then into endless rolling hills of hazelnut trees and then finally into tea country where the short tea bushes made the hills look like they were covered in green cotton wool. Along the way I stopped in the largest city on the Black Sea in Samsun. Everything there is dedicated to Ataturk as this was where he arrived on the good ship Bandırma to fight the war of independence for Turkey. My hosts here treated me to a proper Turkish mangal (BBQ) and plenty of çay. Not far after I thought I would take a little break for a day at a campsite to enjoy the beach and I was treated to a stunning sunset and another dinner time dolphin sighting but the next day it rained for 9 hours of so I spent the day off in the tent.

As the road continued the number of tunnels increased. Tunnels are a fairly daunting experience on a bike. Despite providing some shelter from the rain or heat they are not a great place for cyclists. The wide hard shoulder disappears and the noise when a vehicle enters the tunnel behind you sounds like a plane taking off. I look in the wing mirror to see the headlights bearing don on me as the volume increases until I think it will blow me off my bike and then if I’m really lucky the truck driver will try to actually burst my ear drum with his horn. I reply with a ‘Mamma Mia’ scream and a squeak of my little horn. The longest tunnel I faced was 4km and by the end my heart an lungs were ready to explode from sprinting towards the haloed light at the end of the tunnel.

I had planned to camp on the beach a lot through this section but often there is no beach but just large rock sea defenses. One night I was forced into the town to look for accommodation, hoping to find a teachers hostel (which are a good cheap option). Unfortunately this one was full, but soon enough a group of kind hearted and curious teachers (all male of course) were gathered around trying to sort a solution. One passer-by said I could sleep in an empty shop across the road but he would have to call the police to let them know. So a few minutes later a plain clothes police man who looks like a be-draggled Jeff Bridges is flashing his badge at me and asking for my passport. It’s decided I can not stay in the empty shop but there is a room in the teachers  accommodation in the next town so I am sent there. By this time it is dark, I don’t have great lights on my bike so the police decide to give me an escort which I think will keep me safe on the main road. However, they  just escort me out of town and wave me back onto the dual carriageway. Where I pedal like a madman with no front light to see by, subsequently seeing fireflies and glow worms along the road side which ease my worry a bit.

 

In Trabzon I decide to hitch hike a lift 50km inland and up the mountains to the Sumela monastary as it is meant to be spectacular. I was a little dubious after my previous hitch hiking experiences, but I was able to  leave Carra with my host so I was not reliant on van and truck drivers. Instead ı was given a lift by a lovely family who even insisted on buying me lunch (just 1 hour after a huge lazy breakfast with my host and friends) before paying entry into the national park just to drive me to the car park on the monastery. Unfortunately it was covered in a blanket of low cloud and rainy mist that meant I missed all the views (should have seen this) but it was still pretty cool. And a trio of retired men on a Sunday stroll gave me a lift back, the driver was still young at heart though and rally drove the battered old renault down and round the hairpins before dropping me all the way back to the city in Trabzon. Having been repeatedly told that I must go up to the high plateaus and mountains of the black sea I took the (opposite of) plunge and turned inland at the interestingly named town of Of and head for lake Uzungöl. The first 30km was flat enough but a kindly bus driver gave me a lift the last steep 26km and I arrived in the rain and the dark to put my tent up.

Uzungöl is a strange place – it is a beautiful lakeside village in what could easily be mistaken as the french alps I walked through, save for 2 things. The towering mosque at the head of the lake and the mass of Saudi Arabians around. It is a hot spot for Saudi tourists trying to escape the heat of summer and ‘wow’ at the lush green mountain escapes. Needless to say it rained most of the day and night I was there and when I did venture out I was a tourist attraction of my own as the ‘Bristish girl on the bike.’ Several times I was asked “Are you the british girl?” before having to pose for a photo when I confirmed it. I left early the following day to try and escape the rain and the photos and to get back to the coast road and make a run for the border. It was the first time I was really cold on the bike as I descended for 90minutes through the beautiful canyons and valleys until the humidity and tea farms of the coast returned.

And so my time in Turkey was coming to an end and the Georgian border was nearing. I stopped for one last snack break by the Turkish black sea coast, and as I was getting back to the road with my bike I saw 2 cycle tourists disappearing up the road towards Georgia. I wanted to shout but they were too far ahead and I didn’t have my shoes on. But finally I had seen some people on bikes going the same way as me. Maybe company would be soon! Everything put a spring in my pedals – the sun was out, my first border in 6 months was approaching, it was summer solstice (so I had a personal tradition to uphold of toasting a very great travelling man with a glass of tequila that night), I would soon be re-united with pork, affordable (and un-intimidating) alcohol consumption and I was having fun doing bike karaoke to some of my favourite songs (ear phone only in the non-roadside ear for the safety concerned) whilst weaving the bike round the fairly numerous spent bullet cases on the hard shoulder.

 

After and hour or so of keeping an eye out at petrol stations and cafes for the cyclists who had passed me I spotted them at a petrol station. I pulled over to say hello, bumbling over the curb and bouncing a rear pannier off as the clasp snapped – I felt a bit like calamity Jane as I rocked up. And so it was that ı met Mark and Claire, from Bristol, who are cycling to New Zealand. We were heading the same way, they bought me and icecream and 20 mins later we were back on the road heading to the Georgian border. The already big grin on my face grew a little more at the novelty of seeing cyclists in my wing mirror and being able to communicate so effortlessly. I had that same smug feeling I remembered from walking when I approached the border (which just jumps out at you at the end of another tunnel), we pushed the bikes through the Turkish side with the cars and were then sent through to the Georgian gate with the pedestrians like an airport arrivals building. A Georgian stamp clicked into the passport page and ( after ı nearly took the electric gate off with my bike bag) we strolled into Georgia, had our photos taken by the girls at the tourist information desk and tried to take the photo of the mosque and the church marking the border.

It is not just the religious buildings that change immediately at the border – so do the roads. Gone is the lovely wide shoulder and double lanes, instead there are cars everywhere with half the bumpers missing, ripped up roads and cows wondering about. There is also female flesh (not on the road luckily) but arms and legs and bikinis on the beach. Even the men feel like enjoying not having to cover up by walking along with their t-shirts pulled up so they can show off their mammoth beer bellies! I immediately felt the benefit of cycling with some one else – like knowing that the time zone had changed, there was a cycle path we could follow from the airport into the first city over the border; Batumi and where a hostel was. We eventually found and checked into a hostel and sat down sweaty and smiling on the couch with a cold Georgian beer (for a 1/2 of the price of turkey) and a good old chat. It turned out Claire and Mark were also hoping to get their Azerbaijan visa in Batumi (having found out it was much easier here than Tbilisi from the same blog post we had read). They had stayed in the hotel next to the petrol station play area in the same town as I had the night before. And we both had a weekend to kill before the Azerbaijan consulate opened (we arrived on Friday afternoon). So we headed to a beach side campsite to relax for a day (when we eventually found it) and to settle into life in Georgia. And for me to settle into my new travel mode – not alone, with big fat smiles all round.

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