Three things happened as we crossed the border from Turkey into Georgia: first, the minarets disappeared and were replaced by crosses; second, the road became an obstacle course of potholes, pre-pubescent drivers in squeaky Ladas and meandering cows; and third, all the men had hitched up their shirts, proudly revealing their enormous bellies and walked around like this talking to each other in earnest. These things happened so quickly it was like a slap in the face. How could a simple line drawn in the ground guarded by a few police and immigration officials keep two totally different cultures separated so effectively?
Despite the effect of stepping into another world at this magical line, there was a lot of border traffic. Turks keen to lay their hands on cheap booze, cigarettes and petrol were lining up in their hundreds and Georgians in need of bargain clothing and home wears were shuffling through in the opposite direction.
We wanted to reach Batumi (just 15 kilometres from the border) by lunch time so we could visit the Azerbaijan Consulate. It was a Thursday, so it was unlikely the consul would be able to issue our visa before the weekend, but we had to try. We wobbled around the city at snail’s pace. Wherever the roads weren’t completely falling apart, some genius had decided to slap in some cobble stones.
A banner had been erected on the esplanade which touted a recommendation (in English) by hotel mogul Donald Trump. “In five years time, Batumi will be the best city in the world,” it said. That’s a fairly big call Mr Trump! By the time we’d circled around past the main beach to the centre square, I realised my mouth was hanging open. Handsome sandstone buildings lined every street, the intricacies of their design making a simple restaurant look like a museum, innumerable statues and fountains were surrounded by lush, spotless gardens and the pebble beach was dotted with colourful umbrellas and catalogue models lounging on sun chairs. There were signs for alcohol and wifi everywhere. It felt like we were back in Western Europe!
A bit peckish, we pulled over where we saw a market and went inside to buy some lunch. The shop contained only cold drinks, ice creams, some salted nuts and a large variety of sweet biscuits in plastic containers. We selected our purchases and handed them to an old dear behind the counter who then proceeded to tally up our due amount on an abacus. Yes that’s right… an ABACUS! Maybe we were too quick to think we had re-entered the west after all.
The following paragraph is specifically for touring cyclists planning to apply for the Azerbaijan visa in Batumi. If that’s not you, this will probably find the following boring as bat shit, so please scroll down.
The Azerbaijan General Consulate is right in the town’s main square. I would give you directions like “near the fountain and the statue of a lady with a golden sheath in her hand” but… there are fountains and statues everywhere so this isn’t exactly helpful. Batumi isn’t big. Just wonder around the city centre and keep an eye out for the Azeri flag. To apply you will need two copies of your passport, two copies of any visas to prove forward travel (Kazak, Uzbek, Kygryz or whatever although I don’t think these are necessary) and two passport photos. The consul will give you some forms to fill out. He is very friendly, if not a bit inefficient at his job, so feel free to ask him questions about the forms. He will tell you to come back at 11am in three working days’ time with 100 Lari per person. When you do arrive promptly at the consul at 11am in three working days’ time, don’t expect him to be in the office yet. He will slap a blank visa sticker in your passport and then proceed to fill it out by hand in front of you, asking again when you plan to enter and exit the country, completely ignoring the dates you provided on the application form three days ago.
Once we’d filled out the application forms and handed over the appropriate documents, the consul informed us that, because it was a Thursday, our visas would not be ready until Monday. We had four and a half days to mooch around Batumi, so we set about finding the cheapest accommodation available.
In a city where there is not much else to do but get sunburnt and pissed, Ashley and I resorted to very different ways of passing the time. Ashley did a lot of sleeping, generally from about 11 pm until 10 am and sometimes with a mid afternoon kip in between. When he wasn’t sleeping he was eating ice cream which he claimed was medicinal in the scorching temperatures.
I, on the other hand, became a computer junkie, taking the opportunity of electricity and internet to do constructive things like update the blog and back up all of our photos and videos… and some less constructive things like flip through endless facebook photos and talk to my family on skype. It suddenly struck me that the world was not standing still while I was cycling! I suddenly felt very homesick. The more I looked at peoples’ photos the worse it got. Click, click, click…birthdays, engagements, new jobs, new houses, babies, dinners in fancy restaurants, concerts, pretty dresses… I knew that if I talked to anyone at home they would scoff and tell me that I was the lucky one, after all, wasn’t I on an around the world holiday? But I still felt miserable.
I cheered up the instant we were back on the road again and I didn’t have the lure of the computer hanging over my every waking minute. The land became agricultural soon after leaving the city and the population of cows, pigs and chickens on the road and roadside soared. Cold water ran down in pipes to every village from the Caucuses and there was no shortage of empty green fields to camp in, each with their own selection of wild berries, plums, apricots and apples ripe for picking. Though there were plenty of houses around, shops were scarce and we wondered where all the local people bought their food from.
One morning two young men drove past us and tooted their horn. We’re really quite used to this by now and I delivered my best “ga-mah-jo-bahn” (hello) while waving like the queen. I was amused to see they were wearing shirts that said “I love bikes”. Well well, so do we! And following their lead we pulled over to the side of the road for a chat. They were two best friends from Kutaisi and one of them owned a bicycle shop. He wrote down the address of his shop on a scrap of paper and said we should visit him when we passed through later that day. True enough, we were going through Kutaisi but the problem was the address! The characters looked like templates for Mr Squiggle! We had absolutely no chance of trying to search for it in the GPS so we resorted to the oldest possible form of navigation: point and shoot. It goes like this: we show the address to a friendly looking person on the street (preferably someone young as it’s possible they’ll understand some English, or alternatively, a taxi driver) and follow their hand signals as best we can. We repeat this every 100 metres or so as we inch closer and closer to the target.
It was worth the effort. The two bike lovers, although only 21 years old, were helpful and hospitable. They gave us two new tubes and a bicycle light (free of charge!) before treating us to some traditional Georgian Hodgepori (cheesy bread) and Khinkali (dumplings filled with garlic and minced meat). They then shut up shop and cycled 20 kilometres out of the city with us before turning back home.
The next day we woke up early, ready climb over some of the lower Caucuses to Gori, where we wanted to visit the Stalin Museum. Gori, Georgia was where Stalin was born and the house in which he grew up forms part of the museum. Ashley and I aren’t normally museum people. Because of our total ignorance of most of history, we often find ourselves walking away with more questions than answers… plus, anywhere that charges for entry but doesn’t include a mattress, food or wifi is usually unappealing. But this museum was different. After all, wasn’t it like having a museum devoted to the life of Hitler in Germany?
We bought our tickets and waited for our English speaking guide. In the foyer of the building was a banner that read:
“According to different estimates, during the course of its existence, the Soviet Empire claimed the lives of 15 to 40 million people. This museum was launched at the peak of Stalin’s purges in 1937 by one of Stalin’s henchmen, Lavrenti Beria, to immortalize Josef Stalin himself. In that very year according to soviet statistics, which were significantly deflated, 353 074 people were executed throughout the Soviet Union, amounting to 1,000 executions a day.
This museum is a typical example of soviet propaganda and falsification of history. Throughout various stages of soviet history, the expositions were modified or refocused, but the objective of this museum stayed unchanged, to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.”
And then underneath there was a another paragraph assuring that, with the help of the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection, the descendants of Stalin’s victims and a number of researches, the museum would be transformed into the “Museum of Stalinism” which would give a more rounded and impartial portrayal of the era. I felt quite pleased to have seen this version of the museum, before it became politically correct.
We had a smashing head wind and growling stomachs for the 90 kilometres from Gori to Tbilisi, the country’s capital. We were carrying very little food in our panniers because the heat tends to spoil everything but biscuits, pasta and tinned food very quickly. It also doesn’t help that our panniers are black. In Turkey this had not been a problem, with petrol stations stacked with snacks every few kilometres. But the Georgians hadn’t been lured by the petrol station “experience” yet and stuck with offering (wait for it…) petrol. Between the two cities, we found one small roadside stall where we bought two bottles of coke, some unsalted peanuts and a packet of chocolate biscuits.
Therefore upon arriving at the Hostel Romantik in Tbilisi, we were delighted to find out that as part of the 10 Lari per person per night (around AUS $5), dinner was included! They also offered unlimited red wine which was served in terracotta kerafs, but we were too knackered and dehydrated to even dream of consuming alcohol.
We spent the next day meandering the streets on foot, admiring the ornate but dilapidating architecture of the old city and the shiny glass-windowed casinos, designer shops, cafes and cable car buggies that the neveau riche zipped to and from using their Mercedes and BMWs. Noisy restoration work was underway to bring the older buildings “up to scratch” but I decided I liked them the way they were. It was the sort of tragic, aging beauty that one sees in Italy.
We arrived back to the hostel in the early evening, to find the Olympic opening ceremony was just hours away. Despite planning an early get away the following day, we decided to stay up to watch the Australian team parade into the arena. All the other backpackers at the hostel had the same idea and we all sat there, crowded around the television, watching compatriots from our respective corners of the world (Japan, Poland, America, France, Georgia and Germany) hold their flags high in the air. We are lucky Australia starts with “A” and were able to slip into bed by 2am. Only a few hours later we were packing up our bags ready make the 60 kilometres to the Azerbaijan border.
On the 26th of January, people in Australia were lighting their barbeques and filing up their Eskies with XXXX. On the other side of the world at precisely the same time, we were facing a frosty London morning’s traffic on a tandem bicycle. We’d eaten our way around the city for about two weeks and decided it was time to get off our friends’ sofas and start a small tour of England. Our aim for that night was Glynde, around 80 kilometres away near England’s south coast. Maybe we were being a bit ambitious for our first day on the road, after all, we’d never done a full day’s riding with the panniers fully loaded and trailer attached carrying two paragliders.
Avoiding as many main roads as possible, our GPS selected our route and we were on our way through the hilly English countryside. We were about 50 kilometres into our journey when we experienced our first puncture on the kerbside wheel of our trailer.
Being the first, we were almost excited by the challenge. So maybe it was a bit annoying to be stuck on the side of a road with no verge in freezing temperatures…but so what? We were out in the world living the dream! By the time that wheel had gone for a second time and the back wheel of the bike was busted up too, we weren’t so stupidly optimistic. Night time was closing in and we were in Buxted, still at least 20 km from Glynde. It was time for emergency camping. We pitched our tent up in a back field of a rather ritzy looking hotel and kept our fingers crossed no one would bother us.
I woke in the morning and poked my head outside the tent looking for a secluded spot to relieve myself. Some sheep in a paddock some five metres away bleated at me, curious about the presence of our tent. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an old man, with his head cocked, also looking at me bewildered. His name was Mick, he was 70 years old, working as an interior designer at the hotel and he loved a joint. He invited me into his house for a cup of tea and to watch Murry and Djockovich battle it out in Melbourne on the tele. The smell of marijuana hit me as soon as I crossed the threshold. From the corner of the room a black and white dog looked up at me with bloodshot eyes for a moment before deciding I wasn’t interesting at all and rolling his head back to the floor. I did think briefly about doubling back just in case this old man and his stoned dog were as crazy as they looked, but a hot cup of tea was at stake and it was pretty chilly outside.
We did arrive in Glynde that day and we set up our tent in a boggy paddock near Airworks, a paragliding shop run by local teacher Steve Purdie. On our arrival we heard the wind was coming from the south-west and we set off on foot immediately up Mount Caburn. Ash got in a 40 minute fly before sunset, the first time he’d felt the smooth, cold, northern hemisphere air in his wing. We weren’t so lucky the next day when we hitched a ride to Ditchling, or the day after that when we took a chance at Bo-Peep. One day it was too strong and the next not strong enough. About 30 pilots from the greater Sussex area sat for around five hours on a hill that day, just looking up at the heavens waiting for god to fart. But all we got was a quick sled ride down to the bottom.
Normally, I consider paragliding to be a very individual sport and I’ve found on most counts, pilots tend to be socially awkward people. However parawaiting (as described above) forces them into idle chit chat about the weather, what model wing they’d like to buy if they had the money and how they’d like a career change to free up more time for flying. This is how we met 22 year old Alex. He was originally a pig farmer from out Devon way who was working at a milkshake bar and living on a boat with his girlfriend Heather at the Brighton Marina. He was new to paragliding but was determined to make it his passion in life. He invited us back for dinner on his floating home and basically had to turf us out at midnight after a few wines, some mead and a couple of drops of a very fine whiskey. We wobbled out of the marina on Willie, waved goodbye to Brighton and started pedalling to Winchester.
Winchester is a fairly unremarkable city except for its whopping great cathedral and the fact that it is home to Tim (the toolman) Taylor. Tim is I suppose somewhat our mentor. He visited us in Australia two years ago travelling around the world on his bike and it seems he breathed a little crazy into us.
Our stay with him was our first night’s sleep indoors in a week since we’d left London. I was in heaven. Don’t get me wrong… I love camping! But camping in negative ten degrees when your water bottles freeze up and there’s so much condensation it snows INSIDE your tent (!!!!!)? Not my cup of tea really. Ashley, on the other hand, just loves being cold. He’ll happily put up the tent every night wearing nothing but long johns and a headlight while I chase sheep around a paddock swathed in three jackets, two pairs of gloves and a balaclava just to try and warm up just enough to jump in my sleeping bag.
It seemed that I wasn’t the only one who thought pitching up a tent in the middle of January was mental. Most campsites we came across were closed for the winter months so we resorted to camping in empty fields separated from the road by tall thistle hedges. This was risky business when we didn’t know who owned the land and what it was being used for. One night we heard the rattle of a car engine followed by a loud BANG. Ashley and I both shot straight up in our sleeping bags. “I think it was just a car backfiring,” I said to Ashley. He nodded but he looked unsure. BANG BANG! The noise happened several more times. By now we were both certain they were gunshots… but where they were coming from we had no clue. We concluded it was probably a hare hunt and had nothing to do with the fact there were two human intruders on their property. But that didn’t change the fact that we could be caught in the crossfire. In hindsight, here’s what we should have done: got out of the tent, shone our lights, waved our hands in the air and declared amnesty. Here’s what we did: stayed in the tent, turned off our lights, made as little noise as possible and prayed to all the gods of every religion. The gunshots carried further and further away and we fell into deep sleep.
What I am trying to say is I was incredibly grateful to spend a night at Tim’s in a warm bed away from gun happy hicks and snow. After a poke around the city of Winchester the next morning we got back in the saddle a little cleaner and better rested and headed north-west. Over the next three days we cycled 217 kilometres through Salisbury, Bath and Gloucester until we arrived slipping and sliding on the frozen Risbury Court in Herefordshire.