Home is Where the Yurt is

It’s been over seven months since we returned from our jaunt around the world by tandem which is the longest amount of time we’ve spent in any one country in the last three years. Time is a funny old thing though and can be stretched or compressed depending on what you’re up to.  A day full of constant changes and new encounters seems to last a lot longer than a day with a routine in a familiar place. So if you want a week to feel like a month then go cycle touring. If you want a month to feel like a day then stay at home.

Since the bike got parked up life has taken enough twists and turns to keep us entertained. The sore knee that Kirsty was nursing for the last few weeks of the trip decided it hated stopping cycling even more than it hated cycling, swelling up and making for a painful Christmas on crutches. After some head scratching the doctors decided she’d contracted septic arthritis and rushed her into Redditch hospital for an intensive course of IV antibiotics. From a daily routine of pedalling miles and miles to three weeks in a bed on the wards couldn’t be more of a contrast. Eventually she was allowed to escape but it was clear that her knee would take a lot longer to return to its normal state as a pedalling powerhouse.

Kirsty with her drugs

The poorly tandem has also had some surgery to get the back wheel working properly again. On receipt of our damaged hub the folks at Phil Wood replied with an email that started with ‘Just wow’. The only piece that could be salvaged from the old hub was a single nut but that didn’t stop them honouring their warranty and sending back a shiny replacement all the way from California. The trusty machine has spent most of the year resting with just the occasional short outing but we feel that this is very well earned after lugging us around the world for so long.

The tandem gets to meet Chris Boardman’s Olympic track bike

Other than this, the main challenge has been adjusting back to life in civilised society where sleeping in parks and washing in rivers is generally frowned upon.  We opened up the container where all our possessions are being stored and after a quick glance shut the door again. Why do we own all that stuff? Besides, making decisions like which t-shirt to wear have become almost impossibly daunting. Getting used to driving a car again has also been difficult and to begin with I had to open the sunroof and windows so I knew I was actually moving.  Getting around by bike is still the preferred method of transport where practical. We’re slowly expanding our diet beyond the limitations of two pans and a petrol stove and don’t need to try and get the maximum number of calories to the dollar when shopping.

Stuff that has been in storage (and still is)

We’ve given a few talks about our travels since we got back

Soon we had to face the reality of being back in the UK though and the enormous and omnipresent ‘What Next’ question kept tapping us on the shoulder and asking, well, what happens next? The stock answer for a while was to grin and boldly reply “A second lap”. The world is a huge place and there’s a whole new hemisphere that we didn’t even touch but that’s an adventure for another day. So the alternative, in the meantime is to do what everyone else seems to do and that’s to try and earn some money so we can afford to stay in this expensive country.

The short list of options  looked something like this:

Deliveroo cycle courier
Pro: Get paid to cycle!
Con: Don’t get paid enough to cover cost of maintaining bike let alone buying food as well

Uber driver
Pro: Get paid to drive!
Con: Driving is rubbish

Lidl checkout assistant
Pro: Get paid to go to Lidl every day!
Con: Have to spend all day in Lidl

International bike courier for high price, low environment impact and non-time dependable consignments.
Pro: Get to cycle to other countries to deliver parcels!
Con: Market research suggests that we would have exactly zero customers

Back to what we did before.
Pro: Good salary, job security, benefits package
Con: 9-5 in an office in front of a computer for 5 days a week

For a few dreadful moments both of us had our fingers hovering over the ‘apply now’ button on listings on some faceless recruitment website but there had to be another way.

Kirsty learning how to be a shepherdess

Marcus learning how to be a gardener

Nearly two and a half years of cycling should have given us plenty of time to come up with a few ideas to make use of our skills in an enterprising way but to be honest we were so caught up with the whole process of actually cycling that a Grand Plan never really took shape. But in the cold light of a UK winter we began to piece together some of the things that we’d learnt throughout our journey and to mould them into some sort of business proposition.

A winter morning in Worcestershire

The overwhelming feeling that we’ve taken from our journey is one of gratitude.  The number of people who helped us get from place to place, day after day runs into the hundreds. Using the theory of Karma we’re seriously in ‘good deeds’ debt. So lots more volunteering and charity work required for starters and perhaps some way to make other people happy.

Marcus and Barrington on a ride with the charity Lifecycle

People would sometimes ask if we ever got bored on our journey but the excitement of new experiences discovering different places never wears off. If we can offer something new and different to people then perhaps they too will experience that surge of excitement?

Being outdoors  and getting to enjoy nature in all its beauty at close quarters is something that enriches the soul and shouldn’t be underestimated. Not enough people take the time to do it and some people think they can’t when really they should and they can.

There’s a risk that smart phones and social media will soon replace conversations and physical communities. Ok, that’s a sweeping statement but almost every city in every country (except Pyongyang) we visited was inhabited by screen watchers who didn’t say a word to each other. It would be nice if there was some way to switch off and look up more often.

Adventure takes many forms and means different things to different people but one thing that I think is clear is that life is pretty dull without it. I’ve mentioned Al Humphries and his concept of Microadventures before and it’s still a fantastic idea. If we can help people squeeze a little bit of adventure  into their daily routine then  they’ll feel better for it.

A micro adventure sleeping on Bredon Hill

Lastly we’ve seen a small sliver of how incredible our planet is but sadly we’ve also seen how easily it can be ruined. Minimising our impact on the environment is more important to us now than ever.

So how to wrap all this up into something that actually earns us enough to get by? After a couple of months living on my parents’ farm in the Vale of Evesham an idea took hold. It’s a beautiful part of the world made all the more special having been deprived of it for so long, and more people should be encouraged to visit. So we thought ‘let’s get people to sleep in our orchard!’ The idea needed some work but eventually The Orchard Getaway was born.

Borrowing from what we’d seen on our travels through Central Asia and after some fortunate browsing of eBay we became the proud owners of a yurt (actually a Mongolian Ger).  We added some bell tents and dusted off some dormant carpentry skills to set about providing facilities for people to be able to enjoy a stay in the country in comfort. It doesn’t sound much like the camping we were used to, but the point was that we wanted this to be accessible to anyone, particularly the ‘I don’t do camping’ set. How can anyone go through life without at least one night under canvas?? We hope our site gives them a glimpse of what sleeping outside has to offer: The sound of the birds, the fresh air, breakfast with the sun streaming though the trees, all with a hot shower and proper mattresses nearby.

What this orchard needs is a yurt

Ready to assemble.

You can buy anything on eBay

All the fun of camping with a few home comforts included

So here we are today, running an off grid glamping site providing little camping adventures in Worcestershire.  We had no idea what would happen when we got back from our travels but this seems like a good place to have ended up. Our summer is set to be a busy one as bookings are filling the calendar fast but so far the whole experience has been thoroughly enjoyable. New skills learnt, a few challenges overcome and we’ve met some lovely people along the way. Not actually that far from a day on the bike really.  Feel free to drop by if you’re in the area and if you arrive on a fully laden touring bike then you can stay for free.

Is it enough to satisfy our own hunger for adventure though? They say that when the travel bug bites it bites down hard so we still catch ourselves scanning the roadside for nice places to pitch a tent whenever we’re out and about and browsing other cyclists’ travel blogs for inspiration. It’s also a contagious little critter so as we try to settle down several friends are setting off on their own amazing journeys (including these two). But the great thing about our new business is that it’s largely seasonal leaving at least a month or two over the winter available for going places. And a month on a bicycle is a huge amount of time.

A sunny evening in the Vale of Evesham




The home stretch – Plymouth to Bristol

How many times have you heard that well used cliche “Live for the moment”? Well we’ve lived through  some very unexpected moments during this trip. For instance the moment the front tyre went pop at a very bad moment in Turkey. The moment when Kirsty woke up to find an Uzbek taxi driver was massaging her feet. The moment I popped my head in the tent and told Kirsty the bike was gone. But for all the unexpected moments there was always going to be one that was guaranteed, the moment when the journey would come to an end. 

11th December to 13th December 2016

After a night being rocked to sleep at the back of the onboard cinema we step off the ferry in Plymouth surrounded by thick fog and a colourless, grey scene that could only be British. Things soon brighten up when we spot some Marmite sandwich vendors excitedly trying to get our attention. Is this how things work in this country now? Returning citizens are immediately welcomed home with cheers, hugs, Marmite and a fry up? Actually this is a special treat laid on by our good friends the Biscos but I think it’s something that the government should consider. Another special moment. 

Back in Blighty

Stop me and buy one!

After mopping up the remains of what can only be described as the best full English breakfast we’ve had for over two years we’re ready to get going again. More familiar faces arrive in the car park in the form of the Whitley family then we swerve from the right to the left side of the road before heading out into the town.

The culinary feast that is a full English Breakfast

The Whitley family welcoming party

British roads are terrifying. There are queues of cars everywhere and the ones that aren’t queuing are driving at 100 miles an hour down roads that are barely wide enough to fit a mini. Ok it’s Christmas time and we’ve just come from Brittany where traffic only builds up when a farmer leaves a gate open and a few cows get out, but I don’t remember it being quite as bad as this before we left. A fellow cyclist comes alongside us and asks “Going far?”,  Kirsty replies: “Bristol” , “Really! Thats a long way!”, “We’ve been further….”.

We survive Plymouth and emerge onto a lane that begins to skirt round the edge of Dartmoor following the Dartmoor Way, part of the National Cycle Network. Our tyres crunch over wet, gritty tarmac, gaps in the high hedges on either side of us offer a glimpse to church steeples in the valley below, sheep munch away in the steep, rolling green fields. A scene and a road that could only be found in Devon and its simple beauty brings a smile to my face. Perhaps riding on this island isn’t so bad after all.

You don’t see these kind of lanes anywhere else

Looking over Dartmoor (spot the photographer)

Devonshire village church

We pass through the villages of Didworthy and Badworthy then past Buckfast abbey whose Bendictine monks have been blamed for many a Scottish brawl fuelled by their fortified tonic wine. We refrain from stopping for a sample, partly to avoid the risk of any violent tendencies but also because we have any another roadside rendezvous to get to in Ashburton. It’s a sign of how long we’ve been away that we left Kat with an imminent baby under her maternity dress and now she’s in a similar state with her second one. We haven’t even met the first! She and Stu have had an exciting couple of years that have probably been as exhausting as ours. As we’re chatting away and munching on mince pie Danishes someone calls out my name from a car in the street. James and Jess have driven out to meet us too and join in the reunion. James advises that the last obstacle on the road ahead to Exeter is Halden Hill which he warns “…is a bit cheeky in places”.

Stopping for Marmite sandwiches

With Kat, Stu and The Bump

With Jess, James and Jacob

Only in Britain can you see village names like Bovey Tracey and pedal up through a town called Chudleigh Knighton. Unfortunately we won’t be passing through my personal favourite, Nempnett Thrubwell.  But the smiles soon turn to grimaces as we hit Halden hill. We realise that “a bit cheeky” needs to be interpreted as “near vertical” as the chain dances over the chainrings into the lowest possible gear and we get to work winching up through the forest. The malfunctioning rear hub isn’t enjoying the strain and neither are we but somehow we get to the top in time to see the sun disappearing into the horizon.

Trago Mills, a genuine English castle

Riding into the sunset before Exeter

I went to university in Exeter so there’s a strange feeling of familiarity as we dash down into the suburbs and circle around the city. We pass the university rowing club, scene of many a cold morning outing on the canal, and then continue on down now pitch black cycle paths to the home of Digz and Lisa. Our first night back in England couldn’t be better, staying with good friends, reminiscing, telling stories and enjoying a home cooked curry, our national dish.

Draw bridge over the canal at Exeter

Britain really does have world class weather. There’s nowhere else that can match it for drizzle, mist and what weathermen refer to as ‘overcast’. This soggy atmosphere accompanies us the next morning as we approach the Blackdown Hills.  Since we left in 2014 we’ve crossed the Carpathians, the Lesser Caucasus, the Pamirs, the Himalayas, the Japanese Alps, the Cascades, the Rockies and the Appalachians and this is the final major geographical obstacle that we have to negotiate before home. The lane narrows, the leg cadence drops and we slowly begin ascending. The bike isn’t happy, Kirsty’s knee isn’t happy but eventually we summit at Dunkerswell, some 256m above sea level and survey the views all around us. At least we would have if it wasn’t for the freezing fog that covers the whole village. As we park the bike outside the local shop someone asks “Going far?”, I reply “Bristol”, “Really!…”

An ‘organic’ cottage

Climbing through the mist to Dunkerswell

As well as the weather, Britain is also a world leader in savoury snacks. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed sausage rolls, pork pies, pasties and scotch eggs until I saw the greasy display in the heated cabinet in the Dunkerswell Co-op. There’s nothing better than a steak slice to keep a cold hungry cyclist fuelled up.

If you’ve never had black pudding before, don’t look at the ingredients…

It’s going to take more than some overcooked pies to get us home though. As we push down on the pedals they begin slipping forward without moving the bike. Every other pedal stroke it works then it begins slipping again. The Blackdown Hills seem to be the final straw for the hub. With only 100km left of the trip it looks like this could be as far as the bike can go and in frustration I’m ready to chuck it into the nearest ditch. But no, we can’t be beaten by a mere technicality like this. There was that moment when the front fork cracked in Tajikistan but we managed to get it welded (it still holds to this day). The moment when the old rear hub fell apart in Laos and we managed to find another wheel to get us up to Hanoi. There has to be a solution. Digging into the rear pannier I pull out the finest invention known to man: a bundle of zip ties.

For a long time I’ve been an advocate of the theory that there’s nothing that zip ties, gaffer tape and pipe clips can’t fix and once again this proves true. After some fiddling around and with the sprockets firmly secured to the spokes we manage to get the bike moving again. It’s not strong enough to cope with any hard pressure but with care on the flatter sections we can pedal along quite happily. Unfortunately we’re still in Devon so there’s no avoiding some lengthy pushes over the last of the hills. We make for a sorry sight as I struggle with the bike while Kirsty limps behind, her knee getting more and more inflamed with every step.

Bodger at work

The old ‘zip tie the cassette to the spokes’ trick

Looking back down to Hemyock after a nice stroll up the hill

Finally the hills give way to the flatlands of the Somerset levels and we manage to get into Taunton, the next large town, only having to replace the zip ties once. Although the bike shop here would love to help, our requirements are just too specific to be able to fix it for us. Our ‘bombproof’ rear hub follows the rule that “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” (from The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy). Just up the road is St. John Street Cycles which just happens to be home of Thorn Bikes and is the birthplace of our own not-so-trusty steed, surely if anyone can help it’s them.

Begrudgingly we hop on a train for the 15km journey into Bridgewater and arrive shortly before the shop is due to shut. Our high hopes for a solution are quickly dashed when we’re told that they don’t have any spare wheels available for us to borrow. It seems even the largest tandem specialist in the country can’t help. “We can build a wheel up for you tomorrow if you like?”. Now with 60km left this sounds like a very expensive option so instead we ask for a fresh supply of zip ties and decide to continue tentatively on with the bodged solution.

The tandem returns to it’s home at St John Street Cycles

Our last night on the road is spent in Burnham on Sea. A less than auspicious location nestled on the banks of the Severn Estuary but with some very appropriate hosts. Before we get to them however there’s time for a pint of Somerset’s famous Thatchers Cider with my brother Justin. We last saw him as he jumped into a taxi in Tbilisi after our week together cycling through Georgia and the moment of our reunion is full of emotion and laughs.

Brothers in the Somerset and Dorset Arms

It turns out that Burnham on Sea is home to some original comedians. Not content with the industry standard “She’s not pedalling on the back!” hilarious jape, one observer shouts “Get yer own bike!” when he sees us ride past. This is by far the best tandem heckle we’ve heard to date so we have to congratulate him for making our day. Our final Warmshowers hosts for the night appreciate this joke too as Allan and Maggie have also travelled the world on a tandem. Being able to chat and share similar stories about the moments we’ve all experienced travelling on a bike made for two is just what we need to round off our last night.

Our final Warmshowers hosts of the trip Allan and Maggie

Checklist by Allan and Maggies garage door

I manage to squeeze a few more zip ties onto the wheel before we set off in the morning. This arrangement means we can change gear but we can’t stop pedalling. If we do, then the zip ties will break which we discover 1km after leaving Allan and Maggie’s house.  I attach a fresh set and then we’re off again. It’s the last day of a very long journey and it’s not far to Bristol now so the sights become more and more familiar. Up ahead we can see the top of Cheddar Gorge cutting into the top of the Mendip Hills, a classic road climb that I’ve scaled countless times. Today we’re looking for something a little less taxing for our route home though so make our way up to The Strawberry Line, an old railway line converted into a cycle path. Railway lines have the advantage of being as flat as possible so this serves our purposes perfectly. It also takes us past the home of Thatchers Cider in Sandford where we’re met by two cycling legends: Matt and Drew. Their warm welcome is aided by some complimentary glasses of the fizzy apple stuff fresh from the brewery. Somerset is to cider as Bordeaux is to wine, Porto is to port, Kentucky is to bourbon and Georgia is to chacha.

The Strawberry Line cycle path

A round the world tandemist, a transcontinental racing NLP Wizard and a PBP veteran

Cider and cake

Our small and slightly wobbly peloton then continues on to Yatton, increasing in numbers when we meet two lads from Birmingham who are on a trip from Brum to Burnham and back. Aircraft strength zip ties are issued in Yatton by the Las Vegas Institute of Sport‘s very own Director Sportif Dylan who informs us that they are “Stronger than the ones used by police as handcuffs”.  The riding has been anything but hard so far today but I eat a chicken pie to keep my energy levels up just in case.

Drew with one of the boys from Birmingham and a waving Matt

The roads we’re on now used to form my commute into work. I used to know every twist and turn and pothole but today it feels fresh and exciting and different again. Nick has joined us and we all make slow progress, counting down the kilometres. Even a railway bridge is enough of a hill to force us to get off and push so our lead-out men have to be very patient.

With what must be only 10km left to ride we get a a bit too excited, push a bit too hard and break all the zip ties again. The last batch get fitted and now we have to be extra careful as if these break then that’s it. We could walk in from here but that would be a disappointing way to end the journey. We crawl through Long Ashton then into Bedminster before we get our first view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge one of the most recognisable icons of Bristol. Another moment to capture and remember. A lump forms in my throat as we skirt around the docks, past the City of Bristol Rowing Club where Kirsty and I first met. Past the Cathedral where a car turns in front of us and comes close to knocking us off which could have been an even more disappointing way to end the journey. Unscathed we then roll down into traffic chaos in the centre of the city. It may have taken 54 zip ties and countless boxes of ibuprofen but it looks like the bike and its crew are actually going to make it.

A blurry Clifton Suspension Bridge. Still one of the finest bridges in the world. (a better photo of it can be seen here)

Riding along the Bristol docks past the SS Great Britian

The final few metres of the trip, surrounded by road works and traffic

Matt has not only been my wingman on many an adventure but he has also coached me through various races. I remember one piece of his sage advice quite clearly at this point and that is to remember to savour the finish line moment.  It’s easy to get carried away in those last few pedal strokes or footsteps and to not pay close enough attention to what is actually happening around you but it’s really important that you do. So much effort and time has been invested to get to that moment where you finally achieve your goal and if you blink you’ll miss it.

I reach behind me to find Kirsty’s hand as we gently spin up to the Roll for Soul Cafe, the place where it all began back on 16th August 2014, 851 days ago. This is the finish line, the end of the road, the completion of our journey.  We step off the bike for the last time and wrap our arms round each other. We’ve done it!

The Finish

After this moment it all becomes a bit overwhelming. I’d almost forgotten that it’s my birthday so the celebration of getting round the world is combined with a celebration of another lap around the sun.  Friends arrive to share a few drinks, some have come a long way to join us and it’s amazing to see everyone. There are so many moments in our friends lives that we’ve missed that it’s going to take a long time to catch up properly. Technically we’re still homeless having not had the heart to turf out our tenants just before Christmas. It’s tempting to pitch the tent somewhere in the city but at the same time we’re grateful for the offer of a bed for the night from our friends Lynn and Dave.

Dark and stormies to celebrate – the official cocktail of the Las Vegas Institute of Sport

Waking up in Bristol should seem very strange but at the same time feels surprisingly normal. We’ve become so used to adapting to new situations that it seems we’re able to settle into an old situation just as quick. But I think it’s going to take a long time to gather our thoughts about everything we’ve been through over the last 851 days. Behind us we can trace a tyre wide path that stretches full circle around the world and all along it are memorable moments.  So many places, views and countless amazing people. I’m not sure if linking up these moments into a continuous line makes the world feel smaller or the fact that it took a long time to ride around it makes us realise how big our planet is. One things for sure is that there’s a lot more to explore either side of that line and certainly a lot more moments left to live.

Sunrise over Bristol

I’ll be back with the much requested list of statistics sometime soon along with an extensive list of thanks to everyone who made the journey possible or helped us along the way but for now we’ve got Christmas and New Year to celebrate. I hope everyone has a great festive holiday and wish you all the best for an exciting 2017. Thanks for following our adventure.

….and if anyone can guess the exact number of kilometres that we finished on then they get to choose five items from our bag of international single serving condiments.

Lucky dip




Back in Europe – the beginning of the end

If there are any followers of our blog left then I must apologise for the increasing scarcity of the posts. One of our aims for this trip was to spend less time looking at screens and as the journey has progressed that aim has been easier and easier to achieve, but at the expense of putting fingers to keyboards and keeping up to date with what we’re up to. Hopefully we’ll have more time to complete the story once the bike has been parked up. An event that is now rapidly approaching.

But to briefly bring you up to speed. We left the States at the beginning of November and found ourselves on the Azores for a few days thanks to a well timed and well priced deal on a flight. From there we had the shock of not only returning to mainland Europe but also hearing that Trump had won the US election. You know how people remember where they were when they hear about a groundbreaking news story? For us the day of Trumpageddon took place when we were in Lisbon.

Sunset over Lisbon

As well as tiny coffees and tasty pastries, Europe is of course full of ancient history and for hundreds of years pilgrims have been making the journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain on what is known as the Camino de Santiago or ‘The way of St James’. We decided that these routes would be a nice way to shape our journey north so we attached a scallop shell to the bike and followed the Portuguese Way up to Porto then into Spain to collect our certificate in Santiago itself. Then going against the flow of pilgrims we picked up the Camino del Norte to ride up to the north coast of Spain and along the bay of Biscay to Bilbao.

Collecting stamps in our pilgrims’ passports

Santiago de Compostela

There are Camino routes all over Europe and in fact one starts in our home town of Bristol. A trail of yellow arrows can be followed up the atlantic coast of France, using the Velodyssey, Euro velo 1 cycle route and then into England for the final stretch.

Following the Velodyssey through France

So we’re now just north of La Rochelle, half way up France. A country that feels strangely familiar as the closest neighbour to England. Even though my schoolboy French doesn’t extend far beyond the first few chapters of a Tricolour stage one text book it’s still infinitely better then any of the other languages we’ve had to grapple with over the last two and a bit years. We can finally enjoy good cheese and great bread. Pain au chocolate for second breakfast. Vin rouge with dinner.

Tres bien

This last stretch has not been without its challenges though. The old saying of the rain in Spain falling mainly on the plane is a lie for the convenience of a rhyme. In fact the rain in Spain fell mainly on the tandem. The days are getting inconveniently short and the nights long and chilly. This does have the advantage of having more camp fires, though we’ve not learnt the French for marshmallow yet.

Pas de mallow de marsh?

Getting so close to the finish line it seems like everything is hanging together by a thread. Two tyres exploded in one day. A fork was left behind at a hostel. The stove splutters to stay alight and needs an overhaul. The rear hub on the bike has begun doing some serious complaining. The parts would take too long and cost too much to be sent from the manufacturers in California so we’re trying to nurse it through to the end with a can of WD40 and some tlc.

Kirsty has cause for complaint too after a nasty bout of sinusitis was followed up by a persistent sore knee. Rattling along with a box of ibuprofen in her pocket is not ideal but seems to work. My nose has been running like a tap from a cold that has been hard to shift. Tempers are on edge as if we’ve not spent time apart for over two years. But we’re holding it all together, just.

Another frosty morning

The question that is top of everyone’s interrogation is now what will we do when we stop? For ages we’ve managed to put off giving a serious answer to that by saying the end was too far away to worry about it. But it’s not now. The end is a matter of days and not many kilometres away. But our answers are still suitably vague.

Our lives have been incredibly simple since August 2014. Decisions have been not much more complicated than to pick a direction to ride in at the start of the day and to pick a place to pitch the tent at the end of day. In between we keep stocked up with water, basic food and cake and it seems to work out ok. ‘What’s next?’ could be something a whole lot more complicated but hopefully not. Either way we need to give it some time to mull over and see what opportunities take our fancy.

To be honest what I’m looking forward to is adjusting back to a life off the bike one step at a time. Enjoying simple novelties like wearing a pair of jeans, cooking something in an oven, sleeping in the same bed two nights in a row or having a shave (actually that might be taking things too far). More than that though we can’t wait to catch up with friends and above all spend Christmas with our families. Once we’re through all that then we can work out how to answer the ‘what’s next?’ question.

For now we’re enjoying the final few days of our journey. The last few evenings under the stars. The last few cafe stops. The ongoing hospitality of strangers. Beautiful winter scenery. Hopefully the last burst tyre. Soon we’ll have the last ferry journey, then the last road back to where we started. And that will give us plenty more to write about. See you all soon.

Location for Kirsty’s last birthday on the road




Escape from Baku

There was a rumour that the restrictions on visas for UK citizens visiting Iran was only temporary and would be lifted once the much publicised nuclear talks had been completed. Sadly it looks like this isn’t the case, or at least nothing has changed yet so our Plan A route to Central Asia is well and truly closed.wpid-wp-1430153792278.jpg

Plan B was to take a boat from Baku to Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan. Often referred to as the North Korea of Central Asia due to its former dictator’s unusual behaviour (he changed the names of some of the months to include his family’s names, a book of his famous sayings is compulsory reading for all citizens, there is even a gold statue of him in Ashgabat that revolves to always face the sun). But Turkmenistan is the 7th least visited country in the world, not helped by yet more restrictive visa conditions. As with Iran, to obtain a tourist visa we’d need to be on an expensive guided tour. The alternative is a 5 day transit visa but with 900km to cover and a boat crossing that could use up 2-3 of these days it would be hard to cover this distance by bike so we reluctantly rule this route out.

Fruit and Veg market

So our Central Asia plan C is to catch a boat across the World’s biggest lake, the Caspian Sea, up to Kazakhstan (no visa needed for a 2 week stay) then ride down into Uzbekistan through vast amounts of desert.

Baku is a city of fountains

On an extremely windy day, for which Baku is well known, we struggle against 70kph gusts up to the Uzbek embassy and meet  with a very grumpy Consul. He reluctantly takes our completed forms and tells us he’ll be in touch within 8-10 days once the visas are ready. Longer than we expected but we hope he’s exaggerating. The embassy is on an unassuming residential street and on our way out we bump into an exasperated motor cyclist who has spent the last hour trying to find it and point him in the right direction.

Uzbekistan embassy, Baku

The next day we find the Tajikistan embassy as this is our destination after Uzbekistan. Here the reception couldn’t be more different with a very friendly and helpful Consul who tells us we should be able to collect these Visas within 4 days. The price is less than half that of the Uzbek visa at $35 instead of $75 and we can apply for up to 45 days compared to only 30 days for Uzbekistan. As a representative of their country and first point of contact for many foreign travelers it’s the Tajik who leaves the much better impression.

Tajikistan embassy, Baku

So with a few days to spare we have the whole of Baku to explore. It’s a city of 4 million people and has seen rapid growth after oil began being extracted just off the coast, bringing with it lots of foreign investment and plenty of cash for the government.

There aren’t many soviet era buildings left in Baku

This wealth is very evident with huge and elaborate buildings crowding the skyline, impressive museums, a shiny marble promenade along the seaside and some of the cleanest streets we’ve seen for quite some months (although most of Azerbaijan was largely litter free too which makes for a refreshing change).

Heydar Aliyev museum

Heydar Aliyev museum

Carpet museum

Parliament building

The old and the new

The streets are crammed with vast 4x4s, at least 2 stories high and always fresh from the car wash. Barely reaching their bumpers are a few remaining Ladas but everyone is brought together by a shared love of using their horns. Continuously.

Big wheels in Baku

Behind the glitz and glamour there are still a few slum areas but their days are clearly numbered. This summer Baku will host the first ever European Games and the government is keen to present a prosperous image of Azerbaijan. Bulldozers are parked ready to level some of the inner city areas. All routes from the airport and to the venues have been smartened up with new facades on the buildings and walls around the parts they don’t want visitors to see. An entirely new fleet of buses is primed and ready (brand new London Taxis were bought when Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest). There are also rumours of street dogs being ‘disposed of’.

A less scenic view of Baku

The overall impression is of a strange and false city that bears very little resemblance to the rest of the country that we have seen. It’s also no surprise that Baku aspires to be referred to in the same breath as the mother of all mega-wealthy oil cities: Dubai.

The flame towers by night

Justin and Jess are great hosts and keep us busy when not visiting embassies by inviting us to their local Hash House Harriers event. The Harriers are a global organisation and refer to themselves as a drinking club with a running problem. There are factions all over the world catering for many ex-pats as well as a few locals who enjoy a bit of running and a lot of drinking. For our first outing we opt for a walk rather than a run followed up by much raucous singing, fun and frivolities that are the trademark of the club. Later in the week I get to pull on a pair of running shoes for the first time in 9 months and discover that absence makes the heart grow fonder by thoroughly enjoying stretching my legs with a couple of the ‘Hashers. Then more liquid refreshments and next day discovering that absence also makes the legs grow stiffer after such a long break from running.

Hash House Harriers

We’ll certainly look up more HHH clubs in some of the cities further along our route as it’s a great way to meet some new people as well as guaranteeing a great night out. I may even get to go for another run.

The Hash has provided Justin and Jess with plenty of friends including some high volume and great value Americans, Steve and Kathleen who invite us all round for dinner and some Southern style catering (hot, brown and plenty of it). They also introduce us to Gafar, a native Azeri who proves to be a very useful contact.

Just too early for the tour d’Azerbaijan

Gafar is also a keen cyclist and suggests that, as we have a spare day, we go for a ride up one of his favourite climbs. He provides a bike and brings his chauffeur driven support van to get us to and from the climb that passes through the Candy Cane Mountains north of Baku.

Support crew bus

Having the driver, Emin unload the bike, inflate the tyres and check everything is ready is quite a novel experience. Everything feels twitchy, light and unstable compared to the mighty tandem and it takes a while to stop wobbling all over the road. But I’ve been goaded by Justin to give this climb some welly as there is a record to try and break so I give it my best shot.

Candy cane mountains

We fire up the 1000m hill that is consistently steep and weave up hairpins through acres of trees. The last 12000km of ‘training’ seem to have paid off and it feels good to be riding without the panniers. The record falls by just 1 second but it’s enough to take the King of the Mountains title. I can only imagine how much faster I would have been with Kirsty providing her power on the back too. We celebrate with a fine meal in Gafar’s penthouse suite cooked by his maid. Gafar is a very useful person to know.

Marcus and Gaffar at the base of the climb

Up we go

On the 8th day after applying, a call to the Uzbek Embassy results in the reply we are waiting for, our visas are ready. We had already collected our Tajik Visas 3 days before and paid in cash there and then. Nice and simple. The procedure for the Uzbek Visa requires a visit to a bank in the centre of town to pay directly into their account, then taking the receipt to the embassy before they then relinquish the much coveted visa.

On the metro they have a different jingle to announce each station

Now we are ready to set sail across the Caspian. This is not a passenger ferry route but there are cargo ships that have a limited number of bunks that tend to be used by Mongol Rally drivers, intrepid backpackers and of course the occasional cycle tourist. The boats do not follow any kind of timetable as their departures are dictated by the volume of cargo that needs to be moved, the weather and the whim of the port authorities. So to find out if and when the boat might leave you need to call, or better still visit, the port ticket office and ask if there is a boat leaving that day and if so if there is room on it for two people and one bike.

As part of a $70 million development this was the world’s largest flagpole. It held the record for just 5 months then someone in Saudi Arabia built a bigger one.

Justin sets one of his logistics experts on the task of arranging this for us as it requires an Azeri speaker but his first candidate tells him that we should go via Tbilisi as this is the best route. That person has since been sacked. The second logistics expert has more luck and after speaking to the ticket office learns that there is no boat today.

On the second day of asking there is also no boat but there may be one the next day.

On the third day Kirsty and I ride down to the ticket office ourselves. It’s not easy to find being 8km East of the city, down an unlikely rough track and behind an unmarked grey door near the main security gates for the port. We sit and wait for it to open at 10am, which comes and goes. At 11am a head appears at the window and tells us to wait for an hour. At 12pm the door opens and they tell us the boat will sail today at 6pm, not from Baku but from Alat which is 70km south of the city. We hurriedly handover the $110 ticket price, grab the tickets and pedal back to Justin and Jess’ flat to collect our bags.

To find the ticket office, ride 8km east from Baku centre and look for this sign on the right hand side

The ticket office is behind this grey door at the end of the track. They may or may not let you in.

Details of the ticket prices. Cabin and food included for $110.

We had anticipated that it might be a bit of a rush so have Gafar’s driver and van on standby to drive us down to Alat. Gafar is a very useful person to know.

Jess and Maya

Maya

Baku has become a meeting point for cycle tourists travelling across the world and forms a watershed for those heading into Iran (just about everyone) and those heading across to Kazakhstan (Brits, Candadians and Americans). It was no surprise then that we had met two other cyclists at the Tajik Embassy in the form of Rob (allthewayfromstockholm.com) and Josh (joshcunninghamcycling.co.uk) from London. As they were on a similar schedule to us we had agreed to keep in touch with regards the boat. They had also managed to buy their tickets so we all piled into Gafar’s van and headed down to Alat to board the boat.

Alat will one day be Baku’s main port but for now it is a huge building site with a single jetty and a border control office and nothing much else around it for several km. The border guard doesn’t pay us much interest and it’s clear that not much is going to happen for a while so we set ourselves up on the tarmac and wait. With the time I manage to get a swim in the Caspian sea as it looks much cleaner here than back in Baku.

Obligatory Caspian sea swim

After waiting 2 hours, at 6pm we’re let through onto the boat and I’m the only one to be asked about the registration with immigration control. This is supposed to be mandatory and requires all visitors to the country to register within 10 days of arriving via their chosen accommodation. It clearly serves no purpose other than to allow border guards to hand out a hefty 300 menat (about $300) fine to those who fail to do it. Luckily Gafar had sorted Kirsty and my registrations out for us via one of his hotels. Gafar is an extremely useful person to know.

Boarding the Shadag

Our ticket price includes a cabin that we all share and then we have free run of the boat so can explore just about everywhere including the bridge, engine room and climbing the radio tower.

When I grow up I want to be a ship driver

Supper is served at 7:30, again meals are included, then at 9:30 they begin loading the cargo. A lengthy train is slowly wheeled onto the boat which takes about an hour of to-ing and fro-ing before all the carriages are fully on board. Meanwhile we find the volley ball court, midships complete with a ball on a wire to prevent it from going over board. Josh wins 5-0.

Apparently we eventually slipped away from Azerbaijan at 2am but I was fast asleep by then.

Loading the trains onto the boat

In the morning when I woke up I thought we were still still in port because it was so incredibly smooth. Looking out the window the water is like a mirror, broken only by the ripples from our bow wave.

Just before sunrise on the Caspian sea

We all scramble out of our bunks before sunrise for what is promised to be something very special. The best vantage point is found to be the top of the radio mast which we take turns to shin up and snap dozens of photos of the glorious blaze of colour as the sun rises out of the sea. The spectacle in the sky being mirrored perfectly in the still calm sea. We’ve seen plenty of sunrises and sunsets on the trip but this is one that will be hard to beat.

In the crows nest

View from the mast

A sunrise to remember

The cook is surprised to see us so early and breaks with decorum by allowing us to have breakfast before the captain.

A city of oil platforms in the middle of the Caspian Sea

I’d set aside various tasks to keep me occupied during the 30hr crossing the first of which is to service the rear hub on the bike. That’s the only thing that gets done in the end though.

After reassembling the bike again I go and inspect the train and wonder what the cargo is. It turns out to be two Georgian men who are escorting several wagons of frozen chicken, and when that spot me looking up at their carriage they invite me in. It’s about 10:30 so they’re tucking into a late breakfast which, being Georgian, includes bread, cheese and 80% proof Chacha. Also being Georgian means that they insist that I join them and offer a toast to my good health.

A few toasts later and I’m sent to round up the others to join in the fun. I’m a little unstable but manage to climb back up to the main deck where I find Kirsty and Josh and tell them to follow me to the train. They look bemused by my big grin.

The chacha gets poured again, more heartfelt toasts are raised, some home made wine is produced. Rob is finally found and is made to catch up and before long there’s a good old fashioned singsong of Beetles hits.

Enjoying a Georgian breakfast

We’re all back in bed by about 6pm and next thing we know it’s 7am and Kazakhstan is fast approaching in front of us. Despite the crossing being so smooth I’m looking a tad green so I can only imagine the vibrations from the engine and the smell of diesel fuel have caused me to feel unwell.

Cabin fever

Arriving in Aktau

We dock in Aktau at 9am but have to wait for the border guards to come on board before we can leave. I’m just happy to stay horizontal on my bunk for as long as possible. At 10am we’re told to clear off after an armed guard has had a cursory look in the top of our bags and decided he doesn’t want to rifle through cycling kit so gives us the all clear. We’re officially in Kazakhstan at long last!

And so begin our travels in central Asia with a few days in the 300,000 square km of Kyzyl Kum desert to kick things off. The map of the region looks like it’s had tipex spilt on it, there are few roads and most of them end abruptly at a huge white void. We’ve loaded up with plenty of food, have our 10 litre water bag sloshing around on the back of the bike and some new hats to keep the sun off.

Things are about to get hot and sandy.

The motley crew of the Shadag land in Kazakhstan




Tbilisi to Baku

‘For some reason a friend from University had a fascination with Azerbaijan. There were a few occasions while we enjoyed a pint or two of Snakey B  in The Lemon Grove that he suggested opening a themed nightclub called “Azerbaijani’s” but at the time I knew nothing about the country so had no idea what that theme would look like. That friend now runs a hotel in Port Isaac and as far as I know has not ventured into the club business but perhaps he’s just waiting for the right moment to open Cornwall’s next big party venue with a Caucasian twist.

There’s no better way to learn about somewhere than by visiting it so after packing Justin off in a taxi in Tbilisi our route was to take us east again and improve our knowledge of Azerbaijan. First we had to collect our visas from the Azerbaijani embassy which had thankfully been approved and we’d been given the full 30 days allowance. We’d also remembered to cancel the hotel booking that was required to gain the visa.

Azerbaijan Fact #1: Azerbaijan is one of only two countries that start with, but doesn’t finish with the letter A.

Leaving Tbilisi

We hopped back on the George W Bush Highway to get  out of Tbilisi, past a flock of sheep huddling under the slip road in what must be the most inappropriate grazing of the trip so far. Unlike our ride along the same route the week before, we’ve got a cool, dry day so the potholes are no longer hidden in amongst puddles of an unknown depth and as such are much easier to avoid.

This time we turn off the main road before Satichala and ride north towards Sasadilo, crossing our old friend the Iori river on the way. The valley we ride up is densely forested but without my brother we’re stuck trying to identify what the trees are. It feels a lot like a valley in mid Wales with added drizzle for effect. Then the road starts to nudge up a few percent and ahead is a ridge that is a six hundred metres higher than Mount Snowdon, just to remind us we’re actually a long way from Gwynedd. We decide to break the climb up and camp before reaching the top leaving the last stretch for the morning. To help extend the life of the drive train I’ve been swapping between two chains every 1500km and this service interval is long overdue so I decide to change the chain before setting off. It’s a foolish mistake as we have all sorts of trouble getting the gears to engage properly with the new chain on the old cassette (it’s usually fine after a day or two once the chain has ‘broken in’) which means a lot of walking up the hill and a fair bit of unhelpful shouting at the bike. Near the top it starts snowing but we also find a gear that works so can ride to keep warm. Then on the way down the snow turns to sleet then to rain as we lose altitude and get cold again.

Drizzle turns to snow as we climb

Telavi is a town with no cafes, at least none that were open on an Easter Sunday so we grab a Katchapuri from a streetside serving hatch and continue on. It’s our second Easter as the Orthodox calendar is different from the Anglican one and this year they are celebrating a week after the UK. We’ve seen lots of eggs died red for sale but not a single one made out of chocolate.

Georgian Easter cake

After a flat and fast afternoon, for our last night in Georgia we settle down on the edge of a field overlooked by the foothills of the Upper Caucasus. Justin is again missed as he was very useful for wood collection and fire starting duties. He would also have been needed for fire fighting duties when a rogue ember lands on my waterproof jacket melting two neat holes in the back. As one of the more essential pieces of kit, particularly with heavy rain forecast for tomorrow, it’s a cause for more angry and unhelpful shouting, this time aimed at the fire.

Fire vs jacket

Unfortunately the forecast is correct and in the morning we hear the pitter patter of rain on the roof of the tent, always sounding several times worse inside than it actually is outside. Once we’ve extracted ourselves from the dry and warm shelter and get everything packed, we quickly pedal off towards our next border. One of our last Georgian towns is Ganjala which also seems to be home to several building supply shops. I pull up outside one hoping to be able to find some gaffa tape to patch up my jacket. It seems to be a flooring shop and we’re welcomed in to scour the shelves for what we need. Unfortunately the best they have is a type of selotape which doesn’t look up to the job but Kirsty is barged out the way so that two of the small crowd that has now gathered can begin covering my back anyway. Meanwhile we’re asked if we want a drink and a tray arrives with çay, water and a bottle of vodka. As we’ve seen all over Georgia, there seem to be jobs for everyone and although this is a small, specialist shop there are at least three sales assistants, a manager and two tea ladies. Also typical of elsewhere in the country, the ladies have a magnificent set of gold teeth that shine brightly when they smile but are always swiftly covered up by tightly closed lips as soon as the camera comes out.

The flooring shop crew

After a cup of cay, a glass of water, two shots of vodka and only just managing to convince them not to try and make us drink any more (my mime of a drunken cyclist swerving down the road then falling off always seems to work) we get back on the road again. My back is semi mummified in selotape which stays in place for at least 500m.

The rain continues all the way to the border where we meet some friendly guards with wide rimmed hats. Seeing us shivering while we wait to have our passports checked they come out with some çay and two Snickers bars. It creates a good first impression that most border guards could learn from.

Azerbaijan fact #2: Out of the 11 different types of climatic zones, 9  are present in Azerbaijan.

It’s no drier on the other side of the border but it is very lush and green as a result of all the rain. After 12km we reach the town of Balakan and head for the first of two hotels that are listed on the Garmin. Since Turkey we’ve been using Open Street Maps on our GPS which are free to download and so far have given a surprising level of detail including shops, ATMs, petrol stations and accomododation.

Balakan taxi rank

I’m shown two rooms that at first glance have a similar level of degradation with peeling wall paper, cracked bathroom tiles and the type of bed that allows you to feel every single spring in the mattress when you lie on it. But for some reason one is offered at $20 and the other $10 so of course I opt for the $10 room. We soon learn that the extra $10 would have paid for a heater and hot water.

Heydar Aliyev, the former president, kept an eye on us from billboards all the time while we were in Azerbaijan

We head out to find some food after a tasty kebab and çay we stumble upon a sewing shop. I present my waterproof jacket and peer through the holes in the back and the tailors soon get the idea. A roll of faux leather in almost exactly the right shade of blue is brought out and I give them the thumbs up. Their resulting handiwork is better than I could have imagined and I have to admit that the smart new blue diamond deftly attached over the holes is actually an improvement on the original design. It also makes for great advertising space so if anyone wants to add their company logo then let me know and we can negotiate a donation to charity.

Azeri tailors at work

 

The new improved jacket

Back at the hotel we find that there is a new person holding the fort and he tells us to pack our bags as soon as we walk into the reception. Not because he wants us out though, he’s actually moving us to the penthouse suite. Apart from being larger (we now have 4 single beds) its in a similar state to our previous room compete with another threadbare carpet. However it does have the important addition of hot water and a heater. All our kit quickly gets unpacked and hung from every available hook, door and lampshade to dry overnight.

A full blown kit explosion

Azerbaijan fact #3: Azerbaijan is one of the six Turkic countries and shares a lot of the same language as Turkey.

The view from the window is of the local mosque with an impressive brick built minaret that looks a lot like a Victorian, industrial chimney stack. This means we get woken early by the call to prayer then make our way down to breakfast. The friendlier of the two hoteliers asks if we’d like to climb the minaret which sounds like a great idea. I begin warming up the vocal chords in case they need a new imam to sing the ezan.

The view from the top back into our hotel room is fantastic, and the mountains beyond aren’t bad either.

This one goes out to the faithful massive

Back on the road we enjoy some fine sunshine having left the rain back in Georgia but it’s a shame I can’t try out my new improved jacket. For a couple of days our road follows the foothills of the upper Caucasus on our left with a series of horrendous invisible climbs. It’s the kind of road that looks flat and everything around it looks flat but for some reason we’re forced down through the gears and the trip computer shows that we keep gaining altitude. This continues through Katex (hello Katex) and Zagatala before we get to enjoy the opposite effect. The road looks flat but we pick up speed and effortlessly cruise along at 30 kph.

We’re now passing green meadows, fields of oil seed rape, fruit orchards and nut groves. In amongst the trees nestles a small cafe, not much more than a plywood roof with a stove at the back but two of its patrons wave and call us over with the promise of fresh çay. We’ve barely taken a few sips when they decide we need something stronger and the tea is replaced by two large glasses of beer. Our protests that we have more riding to do go unheard so we bravely finish them up. I even struggle through a second one but when the third one is suggested we have to say our thanks and get going otherwise we’d be there all night (not a bad prospect in hindsight).

Çay and beer in the orchard

 Staying close to the mountains, we winch up another long drag into Sheki, famous for its ancient Caravansary, a place to stay for the silk route traders and travelers, and also for its super sticky and sickly sweet baklava that we’re obliged to buy and try. While tucking into lunch we get invited to record a sound bite for a national TV show. We’re not sure what Ziq Zaq is about but apparently we love them.

Sheki Caravansary. Requires a climb up a steep cobbled hill but worth a look.

Ceiling in Sheki Caravansary

Our first view of a camel train, Sheki

Filming a message for Ziq Zaq TV show

Azerbaijan Fact #4. They are very superstitious and believe things like:
“Don’t drink cold drinks in winter as you’ll get ill”.
“Do not lend money or bread at night.”
“Do not give sprouts as a present, the plant the sprouts are taken from can die.”
“Leaving scissors with opened blades brings misfortune and even death.”
“If you meet a person with empty buckets, you are bound for misfortune”

There are huge dry river beds at frequent intervals, ready to take the winter deluge and spring melt water from the mountains. In fact spring has well and truly sprung, bringing with it all kinds of flying, slithering, croaking and biting things out of hibernation. The insect repellant gets dusted off for the first time in many months.

We crossed lots of these enormous dry river beds

Outside Sheki we camp behind an old shack but not out of sight enough to escape the attention of a pair of policemen. They imply we should move on but eventually give up and say we can stay. Later that evening a different pair of law enforcers spot the smoke from our camp fire and also try and move us on with a similar level of success. In the end they even chuck some extra wood on the fire for us and bid us a good night.

Illegal camping near Sheki

We ride across to Oghuz and onto a very tandem friendly road that descends at a 1% gradient. Unlike Turkey where the çay is served by the glass, here the cafés give us a whole pot that seems to be bottomless. Kirsty also notices that all of them have a picture of a strawberry on the side. Except in one case where it’s a flower instead and she nearly sends it back in disgust.

Roadside bread oven

While passing fields of grazing cattle we spot the unmistakable silhouette and laboured pedal strokes of another touring cyclist coming towards us. Jimbo is from Japan though we suspect this isn’t his real name. His itinerary so far makes us very jealous having taken in the Karakorum highway from Pakistan to China and also 3 months in Iran. Our perfect route would be very similar but we’ve got to take diversions at both these areas due to visa restrictions. However his tales of a winter on the Pamir highway enjoying -25 degC sound less inviting. He tells us the road up ahead is very good after Ismaili and with that we go our separate ways. It would be interesting to know how many cyclists crawl out of their tents on any given morning, ready to take on another day in the saddle riding slowly towards a faraway destination.

Jimbo from Japan – www.kotambola.blog.fc2.com

After Gabala we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by trees in a beautiful forest. Thinking back, we haven’t seen this kind of view since Estonia but sadly these woods don’t have the well equipped camping facilities that were provided in the Baltics. What they do have are cafes and lots of them. As it’s still early in the year plenty of them are closed but even at peak season it’s seems surprising that there would be enough trade to sustain them all. One such closed cafe provides an ideal camping spot but without the fire place and stack of wood that we would have enjoyed in Estonia.

Traditional Azeri head gear

Chocolate pud a l’orange

The forest continues for much of the next morning until we emerge into low rolling hills that then brings us to the foot of a long steady climb back up to 950m. The variety of landscape is astonishing as is the rate that it can change from one km to the next. After the sumit we ride a ridge that gives us views to the left to some very stark mountains with little vegetation and another broad but dry river bed snaking between them. On our right are more of the round topped, green pastured hills. Blowing across the ridge is a harsh cross wind that then makes the descent a little too exciting in places and all the way down we can see that our exit from the valley bottom looks to be quite testing.

Hauling ourselves up the other side again at a granny ring spinning, knee creaking 15-20% we arrive puffing and panting at a layby with great views and a cluster of boys trying to sell us flowers. One look at Kirsty tells me this is not the time for romantic gestures so I decide not to buy any and after a breather we continue on.

Hill top flower seller
Azerbaijan Fact #5: It is referred to as the land of fire and claims to have the first fire place dating back 700,000 years.

It’s much better to cash in hard earned potential energy over a long distance at a shallow gradient than splurge it on a short steep drop. The road down into Shamakhi is lovely and seems to go on for ages with barely a pedal stroke. On the way we pass restaurants with cows heads sat on chairs outside, which seems an unusual advertising idea. Later we see butchers with live sheep and cows penned in outside their shops, waiting for customers to pick which one they want for dinner.

Come and get your fresh cows head

Animals awaiting their fate

Shamakhi is a lively little town and the former capital of Azerbaijan before Baku took over the title. Kirsty pops into a supermarket while a crowd gathers around me and the bike. One curious taxi driver asks for a ride so I oblige by taking him for a quick spin up the street that brings a lot of amusement to the other onlookers.

Giving the taxi driver a ride. “You’ll never guess who I had on the back of the tandem the other day….”

On the outskirts we pass smart walls that seem to be in place to conceal more run down areas of town which is a common technique that we’ve seen all over the country. It’s a bit like trying to sweep the dirt under the carpet. Its still there but now out sight and out of mind.

Before the end of the day we start to get hints of what’s to come as the vegetation starts to disapear and in its place the landscape becomes orange and red rock and sand. There’s one last long, steady climb to get up before we can pitch the tent and get the stove on for a well deserved cup of tea.

 Crawling from the tent and blinking in the morning sun the view could well be of an alpine meadow. Lush, green grass with wild flowers sit in the foreground while the horizon is a jagged range of huge, snowy mountain tops.

The quilt airing ghost

This all changes as the day progresses as the greens and browns become reds and oranges and finally the drab beige of the desert. The desert towns are bleached by the sun with dusty tracks between the buildings while a simple tin roofed mosque is one of the few religious buildings that we’ve seen. Islam is certainly nothing like as visible as in Turkey and very few women wear head scarves.

Desert mosque

We spend the afternoon charging across the desert with the wind in our faces like s hair dryer, until it begins to give way to more and more civilisation as we approach Baku. The cars get smarter, the drivers more aggressive and the road gets wider and wider until we’re on a six lane highway that probably isn’t really designed for bicycle traffic.

Azerbaijan Fact #6: When a courting grooms parents meet his potential wife’s parents they will drink tea. If the tea is served with sugar then the engagement is accepted, without it’s rejected.

But we make it safely into the centre of this very modern looking city and meet up with our host Jess. She and her husband Justin are friends who we used to share a swimming lane with in Bristol. They moved here 18 months ago after Justin landed a job with a dairy product company while Jess has some very useful and very portable English language teaching skills so works at a nearby school.

While in Baku we have a few tasks to complete before we can continue on so we need to be here for a few days. There are visas for Uzbeksitan and Tajikistan to apply for and also a few running repairs and maintenance needed on the bike and kit. Once that’s all been done we then have to work out how to get onboard the legendary and notorious Caspian Sea crossing but all of that is a story for another post.

Flame towers, Baku




Guest Blog: A week in Georgia

As planned, we met up with Marcus’s brother Justin on a rainy Saturday morning in Tbilisi airport. Here’s his account of our week together:

I’m sure I can’t be the first person to have made a drunken promise in The Woods whisky bar at 2 o’clock in the morning… Eight months later, that promise became a reality as my plane came in for a very bumpy landing at Tbilisi International. You always know when you’ve had a rough flight when everybody (including the air stewardesses) on the plane breaks into spontaneous applause on landing!! Having landed at the unsociable hour of 4.20am M and K had tipped me off about a fantastic website called sleepinginairports.net. so the first night’s, (or what was left of it) accommodation was sorted in the form of a strip of Astroturf, complete with fake plastic trees under the large escalator

Airport camping

As day broke Kirsty found me busily trying to get my bike back into one piece -it won’t surprise you that she and Marcus had already clocked up 25 km cycling down a road affectionately known as the George W. Bush highway from the city centre.  (there is a perfectly good train service for those who don’t fancy taking on Georgian drivers coming towards you three abreast).

Another police escort
Another police escort

After a quick logistics meeting over an omelette we made the decision to head south-east to a monastery recommended by a mate from Brigstock who had driven there in his Land Rover 10 years previously. Once there we would see where the roads took us. Georgians are meant to be most friendly and hospitable people in the world, (as already experienced by M and K) and no sooner had we left the airport heading down what would be the equivalent of the M4 motorway that I experienced this first hand, every driver was honking their horn, in some cases, slowing to my pace, winding down their window and waving frantically at me. I duly waved back and smiled….  It wasn’t until I glanced over my shoulder and realised that they were trying to tell me that I had dropped one of my panniers which was blocking the slow lane ½ mile back that I realised what the fuss was about. It’s a great road (even in the rain),  we could have bought anything from a 30lb catfish out the back of a Lada to a box tree almost large enough for topiary should we so wished.

Forester at work

Mobile fish stall

Beyond the road we were flanked by vineyards and had been told on numerous occasions that there has been wine in Georgia almost as long as there has been Georgians, archaeological records dating back to the third millennium BC. It was apt that our first stop should be at a wine tasting shop. Having been presented with three different wines we were all very impressed, particularly with the white, which resembled a personal favourite of mine, Blue Nun.

The home of wine making.

Once off the main road, we were able to ride side-by-side and engage in conversation. I soon learned that there were three key priorities to each day on the road: food, cycling, food and sleep. After hard haggling with local market traders in a small town and full panniers we headed on past yet more vineyards and now redundant large-scale collective farms.  It became clear that the rain wasn’t going to let up and we were never going to make our chosen destination, so we took Kirsty’s “campsite of the day” recommendation of a flat piece of ground next to the River Iori, which by now was beginning to swell into an angry muddy torrent.  It was at this point that I didn’t feel quite so proud about my second-hand purchases from eBay. Dickie Fincher, I will be subscribing to the Outdoor Adventure Guide as soon as I get back.

Chocolate river Iori – Don’t go too close Augustus!

We were all woken up early the next morning by a strange noise that sounded like an annoying ring tone on someone’s phone.  Sticking my head out of the tent I realised we’d been joined by a bubbly flock of Hoopoes, which we would be seeing throughout our trip. These fascinating birds are the size of a mistle thrush and have a pinkish-brown body, striking black and white wings, a long black downcurved bill, and a long pinkish-brown crest which it raises when excited.  Despite many attempts, none of us were able to get a good photograph of these birds which appeared to be very camera shy.

We eventually rocked up to our destination of the Davit Gareja monastery complex by mid-morning the following day having passed along an incredible ridge (with a strong wind behind us) where we had the high Caucasus out in the distance on our left, and the low Caucasus on our right. With large flocks of migrating Eurasian Cranes heading north overhead.

Road from Sagarejo with Upper Caucaus on the horizon

Approaching Udabno

Near Udabno

Justin’s first puncture of the trip. Could have been prevented if he’d fitted rim tape before leaving.

Near Udabno

Over the course of the morning the landscape had changed dramatically and now resembled virtually open desert in which were perched over 15 monasteries, many of which were no more than caves, founded in the mid-sixth century by St David. The place is fascinating, although apparently a mere shadow of its former self as the Soviet army used the area as an artillery range, on account that the landscape resembled Afghanistan! And often aiming directly at the monasteries

Road to Davit Gareji

Davit Gareji Monastery

Davit Gareji Monastery

Davit Gareji Monastery

Davit Gareji Monastery

Border with Azerbaijan

Sitting on the border with Azerbaijan

Georgia and Azerbaijan border

Davit Gareji Monastery

Davit Gareji Monastery

Davit Gareji Monastery

The lifestyle of an Orthodox monk hasn’t changed since the 6th century. Only they can now check in on Facebook.

The idea was that we were going to spend Easter Sunday bunking up with a monk. However, the monks had other ideas and we were forced to pedal back down the valley to look for alternative accommodation. It didn’t take long, within 1 km we found a lovely open spot perched on top of some old ruins with the Azerbaijani border a few metres to the south and open plains grazed by large flocks of sheep and goats carefully tended by shepherds to the north. It was only later that evening when I was perusing through the guidebook that we learnt of the massacre of 6000 monks by Shah Abbas during the Easter night procession in the early 17th century on the very spot we pitched our tent! Was it a ghost I saw that night or just Marcus taking a pee? I will never know.

Valley before Davit Gareji

Grazing flocks, before Davit Gareji

Camping near Davit Gareji

Moonrise

Surfaced roads are rare in this part of Georgia. Most of next morning was spent pedalling along a dirt track through open plains, with only the occasional shepherd or isolated AK47 wielding border guard for company. Food and water was running low, so we had no choice but to head to the nearest town of Rustavi. Rustavi was one of Georgia’s leading industrial centres during the Soviet era, and included a vast metallurgical plant now mostly redundant following the fall of communism creating an almost ghost town feel.  It was hard to imagine what the place would have been like when it was in full production, smoke noise and lights. Apparently conditions in the factory were us so bad that workers were forced to retire as young as 45 due to ill-health.

Leaving Davit Gareji

Little Donkey

 

Statue near Rustavi

Rustavi

Rustavi

The shortest route isn’t often the quickest as we found out later on that day having headed down an unsurfaced track that had more potholes filled with cow and sheep piss than the average Cumbrian dairy farm.

Georgian roads can go from bad to worse

Kirsty has a knack for choosing good campsites and tonight was no exception, next to an old fort just outside the town of Bolnisi.  It was in pristine condition and home to a convent of Georgian Orthodox nuns. Just as the pasta came to the boil, a white transit van crammed with a group of Azerbaijani workers pulled up to see what we were up to. After offering us beer and some basic sign language, it became clear they wanted us to go with them as opposed to spending the night under canvas. Not wanting to say no, we began to pack things up as darkness descended. Throughout this time, I must admit I felt uneasy as the group got more excited and more interested in our belongings as opposed to us. Our understanding was that they lived 2km away so I was bundled into the back of the transit with all of our bags while Kirsty and Marcus rode behind on the tandem. The final straw came when I was thrown against the side of the van as it did a handbrake turn at a T-junction before coming to a halt in order to recruit more of their mates at the side of the road. This definitely was not right.

Mosque in Marneuli

Fortress at Parizi

Our new Azeri 'freinds'
Our new Azeri ‘friends’

We hastily unpacked, made our excuses and headed in the opposite direction as quickly as we could.  The first available point of refuge happened to be a small cafe serving cold beer and excellent sausages which we devoured whilst nervously looking out of the window for transit vans. The thought of having to the pitch the tent again and set up camp was all too much, so after yet more sign language the owners of the cafe very kindly let us sleep on the floor of an adjoining backgammon den.  At worst we missed a good night out with the locals, at best we got away with all of our belongings still intact.

A well used backgammon set

Our café hosts in Nakhiduri

Cosy café accommodation, Nakhiduri

Over every hill, the landscape changed yet again, by day 4 we found ourselves cycling along cherry and walnut avenued roads with the local farming community planting their potato crop on an old-fashioned strip system beyond.

Gorge near Didi Dmanisi

Climb up to Didi Dmanisi

Near Didi Dmanisi

Entering Dmanisi

Cow crossing, Dmanisi

Bovine chicane, Dmanisi

The mountains were always on the horizon and before long we were back, climbing hard along roads you used to see on Top Gear, but instead of an Aston Martin taking the racing line it would be an old Lada Cossack or smokey Russian dumper truck pootling along.

‘Top Gear’ road, Zemo Karabukaghi

By about 4 o’clock on the fourth day of cycling we had climbed to 1600m with large patches of snow still evident on north facing slopes. As we climbed over a saddleback we were presented with a spectacular view of snowcapped domed mountains rising up in front of us and  it was hard not believe we were in Scotland, looking out over the Cairngorm National Park.  Having rejected Kirsty’s first choice for “campsite of the day” , located on a small plateau some 200m above the road we quickly took up on her second offering which was somewhere that offered equally spectacular views, but slightly more accessible. Although there was no wood to make a campfire we didn’t mind as we watched the sunset on the expansive landscape (accompanied by an eclectic mix of tunes laid down by MC MM).

Zemo Karabukaghi

Zemo Karabukaghi

Sunset at Zemo Karabukaghi

Zemo Karabukaghi

Villages and villagers became more remote and more desolate as we progressed towards the Armenian border  but the scenery continued to become more dramatic. At one point the road dropped down over 600m into a beautiful oak, hornbeam and hazel coppice clad gorge before winding its way back out at the other end over along a steep, gruelling unsurfaced series of hairpins. Clarkson should be put on a bike to fully appreciate hunger and tiredness after a day on the road.

Sunrise

Justin on a bridge

 

Gomareti

Home Sweet Home for someone

Can’t fit it in the car? Then drag it with a Lada.

 wpid-fullsizerender-1.jpg

Tough climb out from Hydro Electric plant

Four or five times a day, we could expect the quiet enjoyment of cycling to be interrupted by a dog chase.  This involved a rabid canine of either the mangy mongrel variety, or when out in the hills the bear-like Caucasian Mountain dog. Nine times out of 10 their bark was worse than their bite, and after baring their teeth they backed off. Occasionally Kirsty had to give them a squirt in the face from a water bottle, but this was rare.

Caucasian mountain dogs

Friendly Georgians

Another one horse town

Tsalka

Wing mirror envy

We did almost get caught towards the end of the ride, by a particularly aggressive beast which would have definitely got us if we hadn’t been able to gather speed going downhill and if it hadn’t fallen into the ditch. Note to one’s self, get the rabies jab next time, just in case.

Akhalsopeli

Akhalsopeli

Climbing out of Gholovani

Abandoned terraces

Back up into the snow line

Time definitely goes slower when you’re on the bike and it felt like I’d been away for ages when we started our descent back into Tbilisi. I’d learnt a lot about the art of cycle touring from Marcus and Kirsty who are consummate professionals at this unique mode of transport.

Lunch time picnic spot

Dropping back into Tbilisi

The whole week had been building up to a big night out with our warm shower hosts in Tbilisi, culminating in a Kinkali (dumpling) eating competition . But before we could enter back into civilisation we cleaned ourselves up in one of the numerous sulphur baths nestled within the old part of the town, it was a bit like the old Malvern lido , but stank of rotten eggs (just what you need to mask the smell of one weeks BO). Kinkkali are an interesting dish, it resembles a pale, shaven scrotum which Georgian etiquette dictates  must be eaten in a particular way. This involves balancing the sack on a knife with a fork, biting through the pastry, sucking out the juice before eating the remainder in one. I still claim to this day that I made double figures, and demand a stewards enquiry.

Sulphur bath time in Tbilisi

Tbilisi old town

Kinkali (dumpling) eating contest. 10 to Marcus vs 8 to Justin.

Kinkali (dumpling) eating contest

Every now and then discussions came round to what Marcus and Kirsty plan to do once they arrived in New Zealand, the current line of thinking involves setting up a Artesian bakery based on the many different types of breads and pastries they have sampled on the trip so far. I think that they should get into management consultancy as the way that they conduct their business couldn’t be more efficient. They have set a clear vision which everybody knows and understands, they have assigned responsibilities to the most appropriate person with Marcus taking the role of pilot (often barking orders at Kirsty to apply the drag brake) as well as mechanic, sous chef and wordsmith. Kirsty takes on the role of chief navigator, financial director and quartermaster. They have invested wisely in capital which gives an excellent return (the tent has paid for itself. ten times over) and they’re able to motivate their staff (mugs like me) to keep up. It was a real joy to be part of the team even it was only for a few days. Thank you so much.

In reality we all know what will happen when they get to New Zealand. It’ll be time to come back… Via Santiago de Chile and Anchorage…

No Justin, a stun gun from a street stall isn’t a suitable gift for your 6 year old son

Civil service offices

The art gallery that was started by the previous government but never finished as the current government didn’t like it

Tucking into Adjaran Katchapuri

Tbilisi river front

Georgian sweets, nuts covered in fruit gum.

Tbilisi

Tbilisi river front by night

‘Extreme’ Walking tour

 

Justin’s tent nearly lasted the whole week

 

Anti Putin graffiti

This looks familiar in some way

Still watching…

Cycle touring is too much for some




Trabzon to Tbilisi

Leaving Trabzon behind us we head out east again. To our right the feet of the mountains keep threatening to kick us into the Black Sea and barely leave enough room for the main road and a few coastal towns. From time to time though the hills make it right to the water so we have to brave the infamous Back Sea tunnels that give this stretch of road a bit of a reputation amongst touring cyclists. They range from 200m to nearly 2km and are not for the faint hearted. As we ride through them the noise of the traffic approaching from behind us builds to a deafening roar and we brace ourselves for what sounds like a juggernaut on a collision course, only to then get passed by a small minibus. In fact all the traffic gives us plenty of room as the tunnels have two lanes and our retina-searingly-bright flashing rear light gives them due warning that we’re there.

Tunnel. Light at end not shown.

Once back in the daylight we begin passing small tea plantations with terraces cut into the steep hillside. There are pulley systems and zip lines for getting the crop down from the top and then off to the many processing plants that we also begin seeing.

Views from the Black Sea coast road

Apart from tea and tunnels the most remarkable feature of this part of the journey is the number of green gyms. Here on the Black Sea coast the combined good intentions of the local authority and what must have been a very slick selling pitch from the green gym equipment manufacturer have resulted in dozens of gyms all along the road. We didn’t count them all but there must be one every 2 miles or so. And just like all the others we’ve seen, nobody seems to use them.

Pristine, unused green gym

The tunnels help iron out the road so we get the easy return to riding that we’d hoped for to test our injured bodies. A few niggles aside we both seem to be coping OK and 110 sunny km pass by quickly.

Just after the appropriately named Çayeli we make a u-turn onto a side road that takes us through a narrow tunnel to a small pebbled beach and a very closed cafe. Once the local goat herder has finished staring at us and ushered his flock away we set ourselves up for the night on the cafe floor. It’s a beach hut with plastic sheeting for walls that should offer enough protection.

Black Sea Shepherd

Just as we climb under the quilt a van drives right onto the beach and parks within 2m of where we are lying. There’s just the plastic sheeting between us and the vehicle. We both hold our breath expecting to be discovered at any second but the driver and his female companion have other things on their minds. The radio gets turned up and if I could see the bumper I’m sure it would have a sticker that said “If the vans rockin’ don’t come knockin'”.

Beach side accommodation, near Cayeli

Two nervous hours pass with the Turkish equivalent of Barry White blaring out of their car stereo and then thankfully they drive away and we’re left alone. Well, nearly alone. It turns out the cafe does already have a resident in the form of a large rat. Kirsty comes nose to whisker with it when it scuttles over to have a look at its new guests and she stifles a scream. I quickly pack away all our food and the rat seems to lose interest. The only thing left out is a large apple that we’d been given in Çayeli and which Kirsty had left in her helmet, suspended from the bars of the bike.

In a Mission Impossible manoeuvre the hungry rat manages to shin up the bike frame, climb into the helmet and nudge the apple out onto the floor where it takes a few bites then leaves it in search of something more tasty. Luckily it’s not able to undo the buckles on our rack bag.

The next day we pedal the last few km of Turkey, enjoying a final complimentary cup of çay on the way, and arrive at our 24th border. We’ve had some of the best of times and the worst of times in Turkey so it’s a country that will leave us with plenty of memories and a few scars but now it’s time to cross into Georgia.

Georgian border

There’s a 1km long queue of trucks waiting to get across but we get waved past them all and have to wheel the bike through what looks like an airport terminal. Apart from an impatient Georgian woman trying to push us out the way to get her passport checked before ours, unsuccessfully, we get through quickly and easily. We also lose 2 hours in the process as Georgia is in a new time zone.

On the other side a friendly tourist information lady issues us with maps and some information about Adjari, the region of Georgia we’re now entering. There are 12 regions in Georgia and each one has its own unique cultural traditions and local delicacies. Some of them have such a strong identity that they function as autonomous states and Adjari is one of those. More controversial are South Ossetia and Abkhaza who are fighting to be entirely independent and as such visiting tourists are strongly dissuaded from going there.

Out on our first Georgian road the change compared to Turkey is immediate. We’re no longer on a smooth dual carriageway and instead have pot holes, Ladas and herds of cattle to negotiate.

Georgian welcoming commitee

Georgian welcome commitee

Entering the Caucasus

Approaching Batumi we get some fantastic views of the lesser Caucasus mountains but the sights in Batumi are even more extraordinary. We pedal along the sea front boulevard where there seems to be a competition to see who can build the most ridiculous looking hotel. The one that looks like half of the Colosseum wins in my mind but it’s a close run thing. Further up the boulevard there’s a tall skyscraper with an enormous TV screen wrapped around it and a small Ferris wheel hanging off the side. Then at the far end we see the Alphabet Tower, an enormous ball perched on top of a twisted structure that shows the unique Georgian alphabet running around it in a spiral.

Batumi Boulevard

Alphabet tower, Batumi

The Shard vs the London Eye

The architect should have put his pencil down much sooner.

It reminds us of Las Vegas and like its Nevada big brother, Batumi has lots of casinos to draw in visitors from Turkey, where gambling is illegal, and wealthy Russians. But underneath the glitzy façade the skyscraper is completely empty and the restaurant planned for the top of the Alphabet Tower was never finished. It seems there is still some work to do to bring in the crowds to support the prosperous image that the town is trying to portray.

Alphabet tower by night

Love sculpture

After a bite to eat we head off to find somewhere to camp and find ourselves alongside a big lake where a huge dancing fountain display is taking place, in time to various classic rock ballads. Another hint at Vegas and it’s almost like standing in front of the Bellagio.

Batumi fountain display

At the end of the lake is a derelict Chinese restaurant on its own island so we set ourselves up amongst the pagodas and watch the end of the fountain display from the tent.

If we’d read the booklet we’d picked up from the tourist information we’d have found out that one of the fountains on the boulevard spouts the local tipple ChaCha at 7 every evening.

After a morning looking round the town we set off up the coast, past bamboo plantations and stalls selling bamboo ladders. It’s hillier than we expected and as we grind up a particularly steep gradient the cars and trucks come a bit too close for comfort. Drivers in Georgia are appalling and every other car has a bumper missing or a cracked windscreen. There’s a Lada with a wheel off or a bonnet open on most street corners and always with a crowd of men in leather jackets gathered round trying to assess the problem.

Lada graveyard

I’m keen to take my last chance for a dip in the Black Sea so we camp behind some hotels overlooking a long beach in Kobuleti. In the summer the water temperature averages 25 degC but in late March it’s a bit cooler so its a case of splash and dash. Despite being over 30km away across the bay, we can still see the bright lights of the TV screen attached to the skyscraper in Batumi.

A swim in the shiny Black Sea

Our road turns away from the sea the next day and we ride a roller coaster of small hills through quiet villages, slaloming around various animals in the road. By lunchtime we arrive in Ozurgeti. There are rows of tiny shops most of whom are selling bales of hay and cattle food but in amongst them are a few small windows behind which are bakers and grocers so we stock up for lunch and find a park to have a picnic.

Up into the hills towards Ozurgeti

Ozurgeti

Just as we get everything unpacked a man wanders over and invites us into his café so we chuck our provisions back in the bag and follow him. We thought the offer was just for a coffee but he brings out a number of plates and bowls loaded with bread, cheese, spring onions and a traditional bean hot pot. Our picnic will have to wait until dinner time! We try to pay but he refuses to accept our cash making a gesture to indicate it was his pleasure. This is our first example of the famous and generous Georgian hospitality. Here they have a saying that a guest is a gift from God.

Generous and delicious Georgian hospitality

Ozurgeti moped

As we ride out of town a police car drives up behind us and sounds its siren. Unless the speed limit is less than 15kph I’m not sure what we’ve done wrong but I pull over anyway. The policeman then tries to tell us we should be riding on the pavement on the other side of the road. Given half the paving slabs are missing and the kerbs are 30cm high at each junction we don’t really think this is such a good idea. I tell the policeman as such so he then suggests we just ride on the other side of the road, against the traffic. Also not good so I smile and try to tell him we’ll just ride carefully on this side thanks and begin to ride off. He then follows us very slowly for at least 3km until we’re beyond the town limits and presumably out of his jurisdiction.

Traditional Georgian bread oven

The police presence in Georgia is very visible with American style police cars everywhere and always with their blue lights flashing. There are also very smart looking police stations in even the smallest villages. Kirsty found a statistic that said that 98% of Georgians think their country is 100% safe and given how heavily it’s policed we can see why they might think that. Later that day we see a car pulled over and a handful of cash being offered through the window to the policeman so this security comes at a price.

Every pond we passed was full of noisy frogs

After a lengthy climb at a comfortable gradient we drop into a steep sided, wooded valley and the village of Chakhatauri. Kirsty spots a picnic table next to a small river which looks like a good camping spot so we roll down to investigate. Before we have time to unload we’re joined by an old man who seems very excited to meet us. After a short conversation where we point and mime to explain what we’re doing he invites us back to his house.

Georgian road hazard

We stroll up a rough track past free roaming pigs and a half dozen geese to his home where he sits us down at a table outside and disappears inside. There are chickens everywhere and they follow the man up the wooden ramp that leads to his front door and some make it into the house. Shortly after the man emerges, shooing chickens out the door again as he brings us bread and a huge round of home made cheese. While we all tuck in, the occasional chicken hops on to the table to try and steal some bread, sometimes successfully.

Keeping an eye out for chickens

Bread thief

Our host for the night ( the man not the chicken)

After a while it’s time to head back and pitch the tent but the man insists we stay with him. He’s very persistent so we thank him and fetch the bike.

Inside the house is very sparse with only two rooms being occupied and the kitchen just having a dirt floor. He lives there alone but he has told us about his daughter and twin grand daughters who now live in Tbilisi but we don’t find out where his wife is. We’re sat down in front of a TV and spend the rest of the evening being made made to watch Georgian game shows, which are probably no less bizarre even if we could understand what they were saying.

There are two single beds pushed together in the room and we realise that is where all three of us will be sleeping. It’s not a comfortable night with Kirsty and me squeezed into one and the man snoring away right next to us but we have to be grateful for his generosity and the wind and rain that lash at the windows overnight mean we probably wouldn’t have got much sleep in the tent either.

Three to a bed

When your house is surrounded by chickens there’s no need for an alarm clock so after the first cockerel has crowed we’re all up and get ready to go. There’s no running water in the house so we wash from a kettle filled from an outside tap. After several handshakes we say our goodbyes and roll on down the track. A wonderful display of Georgian hospitality again and given how our host is grinning from ear to eat he’s obviously enjoyed looking after us.

We quickly drop out of the hills and onto a wide plain that sits with the huge Upper Caucasus mountains to the north and Lesser Caucasus to the south. The two mountain ranges create a natural funnel for a strong wind that blows across the plain, which builds throughout the day and of course blows right into our faces.

Race the train into Kutaisi

By late afternoon we’re through Kutaisi, the 2nd biggest city in Georgia and also through with battling the wind so find a sheltered clearing in a wood and hope it’s calmed down by morning.

Confusing Georgian alphabet. Confusing Georgian village name

It hasn’t. In fact it’s so strong the next day that holding the handlebars is like wrestling a particularly disgruntled goat. After being blown off the road two or three times the decision is made that it’s too dangerous to ride so we begin walking. After 13km, where we occasionally have to stop as the wind is even too strong to be able to stand up, we find shelter in a well stocked cafe. A staple Georgian speciality is Katchapuri. This is a baked cheesy bread with plenty of butter that is perfect fuel for hungry cyclists (and walkers). Each region has it’s own version and all of them are deliciously filling.

Too windy to ride

By the time we’ve washed the Katchapuri down with a coffee the wind has dropped enough for us to actually ride. On the other side of Zestafoni we meet German (prn. Herman) who has ridden from Barcelona and following a similar route to us so we agree to camp together. He’s had a rough time in Georgia having had his pans stolen in Batumi by a policeman who he’d asked to look after his kit (a higher bribe may have been required), and then having knee trouble meaning he’s been forced to rest in an abandoned house for the last two days. He’s glad of some company but needs more rest so the next day we leave him to his morning siesta and hope to see him again later in the trip (www.monkeyonthebike.com).

Leaping dog
Leaping dog

Big tent, little tent with German the Spaniard

German strikes a pose

We have drizzle and a lengthy climb during the morning that culminates in a long tunnel that takes us through the top of the hill then we drop down into Khashuri. On the way we pick up some sweet bread from one of the many road side bakers and it tastes so good we stop to buy another a couple of hundred metres further on.

Official guard dog of Zestafoni

A big scary tunnel before Khashuri

Sweet, sweet bread

The banks of a small river on the other side of Khashuri provides the perfect setting for the evening but just as we begin preparing dinner a man arrives and he doesn’t look happy. He motions for us to pack up and follow him. We’re reluctant having just got everything ready but he won’t back down. The fact that he has a shotgun on his shoulder and a large knife in his belt make him very persuasive so we eventually concede and dismantle the tent.

He had a gun, I didn’t. He won the argument.

Our armed escort takes to the rear of the bike as we push it up the road into the nearby village, not really knowing what will happen next. But this is Georgian hospitality by force and after parking the bike in his his garage Jimali and his wife Nora treat us to an evening of food, home made wine and much miming and gesticulating in place of conversation before providing a bed for the night.

Armed escort

Jimali was very proud of his portrait of Stalin

Breakfast consists largely of cognac and homemade cha cha with ever more animated toasts with each of his neighbours who come round to have a look at us. We then pay a visit to the local church and meet an English teacher who  is able to explain to us that no self respecting Georgian would allow a visitor to their country to sleep in a tent if they had a bed available. If we’d managed to decline the offer then Jimali would have been very offended. Using a gun to round up guests still seems a bit strong though.

Gamarjus!

Jimali and Nora

We’re sent on our way with a huge bottle of Jimali’s wine strapped to the panniers and some high strength cha cha and don’t have the heart to tell him they’ll be more of a hindrance than a help.

Jimali and Kirsty with the village priest

Next stop is Gori that holds the dubious claim to fame of being the birthplace of  one Joseph Stalin. The museum dedicated to one of history’s most ruthless leaders seems to treat him as something of a local hero. Although there is very little in English there seems to be some major omissions concerning some of his most brutal acts, with more emphasis on his role in creating the mighty Soviet Union and defending it from the Nazis. History can be interpreted in many different ways.

JS in casual pose

Stalin’s birth place, Gori, now housed in its own temple.

Stalin’s personal train carriage

He was actually a nice guy, really he was.

The next day we arrive in Tbilisi under the cover of a large rain cloud and make our way to our host, Zak’s flat to make apologies for dragging soggy kit through his living room. Zak is from Dubai and his flatmate Danidu from Sri Lanka, both are studying medicine as the university in Tbilisi offers a very good course for a fraction of the cost of studying in other countries.

Leaving Gori

Taking a tree for a walk

Our main task in Tbilisi is to apply for our Azerbaijani visas. Once we find the embassy we hand over our passports, completed application and a confirmation of a hotel booking for our first night’s stay. Despite what we read online, this isn’t good enough and the official tells us we need a hotel confirmation for every night of our stay which is difficult when we plan to stay in our tent. To remedy this I walk up the road and use a travel agents computer to change our hotel booking to 28 nights, print 2 copies of the confirmation and head back to the embassy. This time the official smiles and says that will be perfect, but we now need to pay the fee of $118 each (nearly three times as much as other EU citizens). To do this we must catch a taxi to the Azerbaijani national bank 10 minutes up the road, handover the fee in Georgian Lari and then take the receipt back to the embassy. We arrive back 10 minutes after they are supposed to have closed but thankfully we’re allowed back in and hand everything over. Within three working days our visas should be ready for collection so we have time to kill.

View of Tbilisi from the fortress

Peace bridge, Tbilisi

Frescoed Orthodox Church

Many buildings in Tbilisi look like they could fall down at any second

Very deep metro station

Luckily this coincides with a special guest who we will be meeting at the airport the next day to join us for a week of riding in the Georgian countryside so we don’t mind waiting. My brother, Justin is joining us for his first ever cycle tour and he’s been invited over on the pretext that we want to see him but in reality he’s being used as a useful kit mule for various bits and pieces that we need from the UK. Hopefully he and his bike will make it into the country safely given he only has a 25 minute transfer in Riga on the way over.

Tbilisi estate agency




Avanos to Trabzon

I have to admit I don’t make a very good patient; Or more accurately a very patient patient. Injuries are just so inconvenient when there are so many things to do. Last year I broke my wrist and instead of being sensible and taking some time to recover I went out running in the woods in the dark and inevitably fell over. Add another 2 weeks to the recovery time and ramp up the frustration. On the plus side I got a fresh cast put on which pleased Kirsty as the old one was getting quite pungent..

So spending 1-2 weeks on a sofa in Avanos was not an appealing prospect but without being able to bend my left knee there wasn’t much else that could be done. Kirsty was also shaken up from the slam down so wasn’t keen to go far for a while either.

Some post crash analysis revealed that the cause of the burst tyre was from one of the brake blocks rubbing ever so slightly on one side. At high speed the friction was enough to melt a small groove in the side of the tyre, leaving a tell tale black residue on the brake block. After 1 too many 70kph descent the small groove became a small hole right through to the tube and that’s when things went wrong. We think the brakes must have got knocked when we were clearing the clay off the bike after our visit to the quarry. Although avoidable with a bit more of a careful check of the bike each day we’re very glad to know that it wasn’t just a random puncture or unexplainable inner tube failure. A lesson learned for sure though.

Rim damage

Bent Bars

In our feeble states the occasional hobble to the shop for fresh supplies or to the clinic for a fresh dressing was about as much as could be done during that first week and even that was probably over doing it. The weekend after the crash we were glad of a visit from Charlie and Ryan who brought with them a pack of Haribo, well know for its healing properties. We had met Charlie in Istanbul and he and Ryan are following the Silk Route to Beijing. We’d left Istanbul a few days before them and were hoping to stay ahead for a bit longer but now we’ll be following their tyre tracks once we get back on the bike.

Charlie and Ryan

By the following Monday, 9 days after the crash I paid another visit to Nevşehir hospital as it was time for the staples to be removed. The procedure was quick, relatively painless and could have been done by Kirsty with the Leatherman pliers without the 84 TL bill.

Although Arif’s flat had everything we needed (a kitchen, a sofa and the internet) we were now desperate for a change of scenery. We still had some money left on the Hotel Voucher that was so generously given to us by friends and family before we left so using this we booked a room in one of the famous cave hotels in Göreme.

Our Cave Hotel

Göreme is like no other town we’d ever seen. It’s often likened to the set of Star Wars or the Flintstones with its a rock houses and surreal landscape but even George Lucas would have struggled to dream up such a unique place.

Goreme

Our hotel room has been carved into a mound of rock high above the town and from the breakfast terrace we get some great views looking across the valley punctuated with dozens of rock towers, each one with windows and doorways revealing the fact they are not just geological features but are also luxury accommodation.

Goreme

With the staples removed from my knee and Kirsty’s grazing healing up well we decide to finally get out and see what Cappadocia has to offer. There are 17 valleys and each has its own collection of unusual cliffs, hoodoos and cave dwellings in a variety of unusual shapes, sizes and colours. The most famous of which is Love valley whose phallic rock towers are enough to make a nun blush.

Paşabağ Fairy Chimneys

Camel at Zelve

Zelve Fairy Chimney

Zelve Fairy Chimneys

Nice pose

Zelve Open Air Museum

Zelve Open Air Museum

Zelve Open Air Museum

Rock Church, Zelve Open Air Museum

Cave dweller

Rock church, Zelve Open Air Museum

Çavuşin

Pigeon Valley with some campers who we were very jealous of

 

Rock house in Pigeon Valley

Pigeon Valley

Honey Valley

Honey Valley

White Valley

Love Valley

Cappadocia is also famous for hot air ballooning and so most mornings a huge flock of them fly over, teeming with Japanese tourists keen to snap the sun rise. One morning they fly straight over Göreme so we watch them from a cliff above the hotel. On another of our walks they chase us down the valley like a scene from The Prisoner.

 

I am not a number!
I am not a number!

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By the end of the 2nd week we’re back in Avanos and ready to think about pedaling again, but we need a bike to ride. The now very familiar Turkish postal system tracking website is being watched eagerly while our parcel of bike parts gets closer and closer. While we wait we pay a visit to an underground ceramic museum which is not as impressive (or unusual) as the hair museum, housed in a cave. Here, thousands of locks of hair dangle from the ceiling, left by previous visitors and the explanation from the owner is that one girl started it and then lots of people did the same. Of course Kirsty is obliged to add to the collection but I’m not allowed to donate as it’s for girls hair only. Not even beard hair is welcome.

Intricate ceramic plate

Hair museum

Finally the parcel arrives, in a town 10km away due to an address error. But the next day we get to collect it from Avanos post office.

So the bike rebuilding gets underway. I’ve never built a wheel before but it seems like a good enough time to have a go so at least I know how to do it if something happens again. Or know to always get a bike shop to do it for me if it goes wrong. I get a handy tip on how to go about it using a cheats method after some enquiring online. By taping the new rim to the old one each spoke can be moved across one by one. It’s then a case of tightening it all up methodically, making sure the wheel is round and tight and Bob’s your Uncle we should be rolling again (Hi Uncle Bob).

Rebuilding the front wheel

After a few hours of spoke nipple tweaking it certainly looks like a wheel. It goes round and the spokes go ping of if I hit them so the only thing left to do is ride it and see what happens.

Without The Big Crash we would be well on our way North East to Trabzon by now. But our uncertain physical capabilities and the size of the mountains en route that would test even 100% fit riders meant that another plan was needed. We also planned a rendezvous with someone in Tbilisi and with all the delays a speedier method of transport was needed to make sure we got there in time.

A thirteen hour coach journey provided the answer. 700km passed overnight and with it all those chance encounters, epic views, challenging climbs and snowy camp spots that would have made for a great bike ride (you can read about Charlie’s experience of the ride here). Bus travel is certainly an effective way to get across a country quickly but in terms of experiencing the country fully we’d much rather do it by bike.

“You can’t put that on the bus”. ” yes we can “. ” OK yes you can “

Driver cam. A variant is being developed for the tandem so Kirsty can see where we’re going.

In Trabzon our host is Yildirim who runs an English language school. He makes use of our command of English to test some of his students so we get asked how we are by four 8 year olds in turn. I hope we passed the test too.

Our Trabzon hosts

Helping with the English lesson

While in Trabzon we decide to try and play the longest of long shots. So long in fact is this shot that it’s well clear of the 18th hole and somewhere amongst the BMWs in the car park. We stroll into the Iranian embassy and ask if we can apply for a visa knowing full well that the rules for UK citizens changed last year. We’re supposed to now need a code that’s issued by the government once they have verified that we have a registered guide for the entire time we’re in the country and a fully planned itinerary. This is hugely expensive and also makes the kind of spontaneous travel we like almost impossible. If we’d arrived 12 months previously this wouldn’t have been necessary but the rules changed without warning. If we were from any other country other than UK, USA or Canada we wouldn’t need the guide either. But there are rumours that it may change again which is why we thought we’d give it a go without a code to see what happens.

Our time in the embassy lasts less than a minute and the conversation goes something like: “where are you from?”, ” England “, ” do you have a code? “, ” no “, ” go and get one and then come back “, ” bye “.

Perhaps the closest we’ll get to Iran for now

It’s a great shame as Iran was somewhere we were looking forward to a great deal but it will have to wait until another time and another trip. This time a voyage across the Caspian Sea will be our next best option.

While in Trabzon we also take another bus trip to the famous Sümela monastery. As if one bus trip was not enough for one week.. Perched on the side of a cliff high up on a mountain it’s not easy to get to at the best of times but there’s been heavy snow so it’s now even more difficult. Usually I’d prefer to travel across snowy mountains on a pair of skis but here we have to brave a ride in a mini bus with snow chains on for the last stretch of road up to the top. The ride up is quite hairy but coming down is equal to the adrenalin rush from the most treacherous of black runs.

Minibus slalom ride

It’s worth it though to see the incredible buildings built into the rock face. Just as incredible is the amount of damage from graffiti and from shepherds using the priceless frescos for target practice over several decades. It’s all now very well guarded so hopefully it won’t get any worse.

Sümela monastery

Sümela monastery

This wasn’t us, honest guvnor.

Graffiti,Sümela monastery

Sümela monastery

Sümela monastery

Sümela monastery

Our bus takes longer than expected as it includes a lengthy stop for lunch at a restaurant that feeds our driver well for bringing in his bus load of guests. So our plan to leave Trabzon that afternoon needs a rethink. It’s actually a lucky escape as the customary Black Sea rain has been falling all day. Yildirim tells us he wouldn’t have let us leave in that weather anyway so we stay another night.

Our long awaited return to the bike and continuing journey east has to wait until the next day and by now my patience is almost at an end. Hopefully cycling is as good as we remember.

Get your face printed on a doormat. Things you never knew you needed.




Aksaray to Avanos

You may be surprised to hear that I believe in fairies. For a start there’s the P*nct*re Fairy, a spiteful little creature who takes great delight in deflating tyres at the most inconvenient time and is easily summoned just by mentioning the P word a few times. A good friend of hers is the Adventure Fairy who gets her kicks from chucking in a few mishaps and a dash of crisis during a trip just when you least expect it. With the proliferation of Microadventures taking hold all over the UK the Adventure Fairy has had her hands full trying to keep up with the number of bivvy bags that need raining on and stoves that need preventing from lighting. As such we’ve been allowed to get away with having far too good a time for far too long. But sooner or later the evil little flying pests were bound to catch up with us and have a bit of a score to settle.

Once we arrive in Aksaray we stop at a petrol station for fuel for the stove and meet a man who thinks he looks like Tony Blair. It’s uncanny, but only if you shut your eyes very tight. He offers us a Turkish flag for the back of the bike to help us win favour with other drivers on the road. It seems to work as we get plenty of waves and beeps as we ride across the town.

Flying the flag

It’s been a long day so after buying fuel for our stomachs we find a small park near the outskirts which seems quiet and dark enough for us not to be noticed and get the tent up.

Park Life. Aksaray

In the night Kirsty is woken up by a noise that sounds like someone tripping on a guy rope but when she opens her eyes there’s light pouring in through a gaping hole in the side of the tent. Still half asleep it takes a few moments to realise what is going on. but then I jump out of the tent to see that there is no-one there, however several street lights have been switched on, lighting us up like a Christmas tree. Christmas isn’t popular here and someone must have wanted to demonstrate that by delivering a sharp rock straight through the tent. Kirsty had found the offending object lying next to her while I was checking the bike.

Extra ventilation for the tent

We don’t sleep much for the rest of the night, but for the few minutes that I do dose off my dreams are filled with images of all sorts of things breaking.

In the morning we can survey the damage more clearly and it’s going to take some careful stitching and a good roll of gaffa tape to get our home weatherproof again. We can only be grateful that the missile didn’t land on either of us and cause more painful damage. At least we weren’t hurt.

Inspecting the weapon of choice while Kirsty tries to stitch the hole

In  despondant mood we pack up and get going early and cover all of 900m when a car pulls out from a turning on our left, drives the wrong way down the road towards us then turns right across our path. There’s not much time to react to such an unexpected manoeuvre so I swerve as best I can. A front pannier comes into contact with the car’s rear wing and is ripped clean off. We wobble violently but stay upright.

I push the bike to the side of the road and throw the damaged pannier down in frustration while Kirsty has a sit down and takes dome deep breaths. The driver of the car is a nurse and was just turning into the hospital. She comes to see if we’re ok then asks us if we’d like to go and drink tea. This is not the time for tea as all we can think about is how we can continue when the pannier is ruined. At least we weren’t hurt.

Pannier vs car. Car wins

She calls her husband and a few other people gather round while we try to explain our predicament. They agree to drive us back into Aksaray to see what the local bike shops have and also to see if anyone can fix the pannier but our hopes are set very low on finding a possible solution from either option.

It’s not a huge town and the only pannier we find amounts to little more than a school satchel. Our best option seems to be the Vaude dealer that we’d visited back in Ankara so I borrow a phone and give him a ring. He needs to see if he can get the bag we want from the Vaude distributor so I leave him to look into it and also for him to arrange a courier to get it to us.

Meanwhile we are driven back to the scene of the accident to be reunited with our bike. Another nurse who speaks better English is found and the negotiations begin. The driver and her husband think they’ve done enough by trying to help us find a new bag so want to walk away, but of course we’re not happy to leave it at that and tell them about the cost of the new bag. The driver protests saying that the fault lies 50:50 and so they offer to pay half, also pleading that they don’t have much money. Turkish law may be different but in our view, a driver driving the wrong way down a road and turning onto an oncoming bike should take more than half the blame. We tell her this and are given an ultimatum: either take half the cash or call the traffic police. Sitting through a foreign police procedure doesn’t sound like much fun so we pursue the cash option and give our own demands for 200 TL, the approximate cost of the new bag adding that we now have to stay in Aksaray until it arrives, which maybe tomorrow (Saturday) or possibly Monday. At this the husband reluctantly pulls out a huge roll of bank notes and peels off a couple of 100s before climbing back into his new Volvo. The nurse offers a few apologies and then dashes off into the hospital.

The rest of the morning is spent in a cafe organising the delivery of the new pannier and finding somewhere to stay for the night. One of the waiters used to live on the south coast of England so speaks good English and is happy to help wherever he can. He lets us use his phone to speak to the bike shop in Ankara and the good news is that they have the pannier and it can be delivered tomorrow morning, all for 190 TL, which is convenient.

A flurry of emails to couch surfing and warm showers hosts brings back a quick reply from Ahmet who is more than happy to help even though it’s short notice. We then spend the afternoon on a park bench in Aksaray taking stock of an eventful morning and watching the crowds pass by. Every now and then a different small boy would arrive to try and sell us tissues. These are Syrian, Afghan and Somali refugees, a lot of whom will have walked hundreds of km to escape the troubles in their home countries. Our inconveniences seem incredibly petty by comparison.

We meet up with Ahmet in the evening and he and his girlfriend Orkide treat us to a great meal while Ahmet explains that he loves to assist travellers in need. He is a member of a Turkish emergency medical response team that can be deployed anywhere in the world in case of a disaster. Ahmet and Orkide have half a dozen 10 day old Labrador puppies for us to play with so the panniers will have to be checked before we leave in case Kirsty has tried to smuggle one out.

The milk bar

s
There really isn’t any more room in the panniers Kirsty

In the morning we drive to the parcel depot and miraculously the new pannier is there waiting for us, which means we can get back on the road again. Waving goodbye to Ahmet and Orkide, and counting all 5 of the puppies, we set off into the glorious sunshine with Mount Hasan taking centre stage again for our view.

Orkide Ahmet and Dost

The shiny new pannier

The road to Nevşehir has a wide shoulder and being a Saturday there isn’t much traffic. The temperature climbs to the mid 20s so we’re in shorts and t-shirts and pootling along nicely. In many ways we are glad to be clear of Aksaray as it seemed to be a town that held bad luck for us. But at the same time we had made some new friends and hoped that we’d meet them again sometime and somewhere.

Pastures around Mount Hasan

Shepherd near Aksaray
Shepherd near Aksaray

Of course Lady Luck hadn’t quite finished with us as she tends to favour dishing out her misfortune in batches of three.

After spinning up a long drag we crested the hill to see a straight descent followed by another long climb. We needed as much momentum as possible to get up the other side so we tuck down and pick up speed. I remember glancing down and seeing the speedo pass 60 kph then shortly after there’s a sound that every cyclist dreads. A loud hiss from the front wheel is very quickly followed by the sound of tearing rubber, then crunching gravel and the world flips upside down.

0.01 km/h later, all hell broke loose

The bike, bags and its two riders all eventually come to a stop in a heap on the hard shoulder after bouncing and sliding along for an unknown distance. We’ve both picked up a fair bit of road rash and Kirsty has a bleeding lip but on first inspection there are no major injuries so we sit and take deep breaths trying to compose ourselves.

The bike has taken a good whack too with my bars twisted and bent, the front tyre ripped and several chips in the rim. Most annoying of all though is that the only bag to be damaged is of course the brand new pannier. It lasted 35km.

Not sure we can ride away from this one

We flag down a truck from Iran whose driver takes one look at the bike, shakes his head then drives off. Shortly after another truck pulls over and is a bit happier about chucking everything in the back and letting us climb into the cab. We just have to take our shoes off first as it was fully carpeted.

Our friendly truck driver

Our kind driver takes us to Avanos, 50km away and deposits us outside a cafe while wishing us luck (we could do with more of that). We had intended to get to Avanos the following night and had made arrangements to stay with Arif. We fired off a text message from the truck to warn him we were in a bad way and ask if we could arrive a day early.

Into Cappadocia

Into Cappadocia

While waiting for Arif to come and pick us up the waiters from the cafe come out and give us water. One of the staff is a mountain biker and calls her friend who happens to be the bike mechanic for the Turkish cycling team. Then Ahmet arrives as he happened to be passing by and had spotted us. As he is an emergency anaesthetist he has a good supply of first aid paraphernalia in his car so sets to work bandaging us up. Arif arrives shortly after and then the bike mechanic zooms in on a motorbike to give his assessment of the damaged tandem which in summary is ‘no problem, I can fix it’.

We’re overwhelmed by the crowd of concerned helpers but during all of this my knee has been getting steadily more painful. It had been bleeding badly when we’d got out of the truck and Kirsty suspected it would need stitches, but for now she had bandaged it tightly.

Our luggage goes in the back of Arif’s friend’s car with Arif hanging out of the back towing the back half of our bike. We ride in Ahmet’s car and after dropping everything off at Arif’s house we head to the nearest emergency clinic.

Arif tries an unconventional tandem transportation method

Kirsty’s fears are confirmed when they unwrap the bandage on my knee to reveal a big hole, but the clinic isn’t able to do much for me there and then. Instead they decide I should have a drip and try to put Kirsty on one too but she manages to refuse. We’re then bundled into an ambulance for a ride to the main hospital in Nevşehir.

Ambulance ride

Straight away we’re both inspected, scrubbed, disinfected, bandaged and I get several internal stitches and 6 external staples to hold my knee together again. Kirsty comes away partially mummified to protect the grazing down her sides and with some superglue and steristrips on the cut on her lip. A few x-rays confirm that neither of us have any broken bones and then we’re free to go. But not for free. We’re handed a lengthy bill and have to pay there and then in cash. So Kirsty heads off to the nearest ATM only to find our daily limit won’t allow her to withdraw enough money. When we try and explain this to the hospital they reduce the bill to a sum that we can afford making us wonder if we should have claimed that we had even less? The valuable invoices that we’ll need for our insurance claim are printed off for us and we climb into a taxi to head back to Avanos, via a pharmacy for a few antibiotics. Now we need a cup of tea.

Aren’t they supposed to shut the door before taking an x-ray?

Kirsty and her amazing technicolour leg

Franken-knee
Franken-knee

So here we are again, housebound in Turkey with a waiting game to play. Kirsty has been stiff and sore for the last couple of days and I can’t really walk very far. Hopefully we’ll both loosen up over the course of the next week and I’m due back at the hospital to have the staples out next weekend. How soon after that we can ride is anyone’s guess, but the bike won’t be serviceable for a while anyway. Once again we’re at the mercy of the Turkish postal system as there are various specialist parts being sent over from the UK. As Kirsty keeps telling me, this enforced wait is probably a good thing as it prevents me trying to get pedalling too soon anyway.

Yesterday we had to give a statement to the police to say that we didn’t want to blame anyone.  This seemed like a huge waste of time for all concerned, but they insisted. Apparently if we hadn’t gone they may have started a civil case (against whom was not clear since no-one had made a complaint) and this could have been an issue when we tried to leave the country . Quite the opposite reaction to the UK police who would struggle to give an injured cyclist a second glance even if they did want to blame someone. Arif tells us the Turkish police have been known to charge for damage to the road after a bike accident, so hopefully we didn’t leave any ‘tandem rash’ on the hard shoulder.

It’s at times like this that we realise just how wonderful and valuable the WarmShowers and Couch Surfing community is as Arif and his girlfriend Gülsün have told us we can stay with them as long as we need to. Gülsün was our translator during the police interrogations. Ahmet has also called in to see how we’re doing and asked if he can help in any way. These are people who until a few days ago we’d never met and yet they are opening up their homes to us and doing everything they can to help us out. It’s an amazing thing purely brought about by a shared love of pedal power and travelling, and we are incredibly grateful for what they are doing.

Travelling is all about new experiences and the last few days have given us a fair few that we hope to not have to repeat. We’re both glad that our injuries are only superficial and will take each day as it comes for the next week or two. Convalescing in Cappadocia could be worse. The region is famous for its amazing rock formations, cave towns, underground cities and tall rock hoodoos that they call fairy chimneys. Once we’re mobile again we’ll find the one that the P*nct*re Fairy and Adventure Fairy live under and give them a darn good kicking.

Feet up in Avanos




Istanbul to Aksaray

Leaving Istanbul by ferry is much more civilised than taking our chances on the roads again. Apart from the 7:30am sailing time that is.

Leaving Istanbul

Once across the sea of Marmara we arrive in the small town of Mudanya and our wheels touch down on Asian soil at last. The route up through Bursa isn’t quite the easy escape east that we’d hoped for so again we’re mixing with fast traffic and big trucks for the first 40km.

But once we’re under the motorway and past the airport it all quietens down and we find our own peaceful bit of tarmac leading us out into the hills. The road we’ve chosen isn’t the standard route for cyclists, who tend to take the faster, flatter option through Eskisehir. In fact it barely shows up on Google maps but is much more prominent on our paper map so we think it’s worth a look to get off the main highway. It turns out to be a great, scenic choice.

A hilltop quarry is an inviting campsite but I fail to spot the deep clay on the way in and push the bike right into it. 30 mins later we’ve extracted it again and got most of the mud out from under the mudguards which we now know work as effective mud collectors.

Clay stops bike

It’s good to be back in the tent and now we’re not worried about the plummeting temperatures as we’re properly equipped. Our new quilt acquisition is longer, wider and thicker than the old Thermarest model and is more snug than a bug in a rug. The difficulties with getting it are already a distant memory.

The hills get longer and steeper the next day. There are snowcapped mountains on the horizon on our right and huge cliffs on the horizon on our left so plenty to look at as we spin onwards, upwards, downwards then upwards some more. We stop for çay and pastries in Bilecik, which sits at 500m, then drop down into a valley to 250m knowing that altitude needs to be gained again, this time with interest.

We have only managed 60km by the time we arrive in Sögüt at a height of 600m but the cumulative climbing and severe gradients have left our legs telling us they’ve had enough. A wooded park provides a good spot for the tent and we’re joined by a curious boy who collects some firewood for us. It’s a bit too public for us to get a fire started so we try to explain that we’re very grateful but really just need to cook food and get into our tent, then he runs away.

Thankfully the next day starts easily as what goes up must come down. Almost straight away we drop into a magnificent steep sided canyon right down to the river at the bottom. On the way we zoom past hundreds of tangled poly tunnels. It’s as if a huge storm has ripped them all apart. The farmers don’t seem too worried though and smile and wave before getting back to the task of unraveling it all.

Descent to Çalti from Sögüt

Descent to Çalti

Acres of destroyed poly tunnels near Çaltı

We think we’ve got the road to ourselves until we round a corner and see an unusual rock up ahead. It turns out to be a tortoise taking a breather during its epic hike to the other side of the valley.

Tortoise rescue

Quick as a flash Kirsty is off the back of the bike and carries it to safety before any cars can crush it. Hopefully she put it on the side that it was trying to get to otherwise that will be one angry tortoise.

Tortoise rescuer

While enjoying çay in the village of Inhisar an English speaker is fetched who explains that we are now in an area of heavy agriculture where they grow anything and everything. It’s currently onion season. When the snow fell a couple of weeks ago the village was completely cut off and had no power for 2 to 3 days so it was very lucky we hadn’t arrived sooner. We get given a grapefruit by a passerby, presumably grown locally, before we head off again.

Spring Blossom

Çalti to Inhisar

Road from Inhisar

The valley really starts to impress through Saricakagen with amazing colours on the jagged cliffs. A geologist would describe them better but there are bands of red, green and orange made even more vivid as the sun starts to go down.

Road to Mihilgazi

Approaching Mihilgazi

Mihilgazi

The next day we’re straight into a 15%-20% climb before the porridge has even had a chance to digest (the porridge topping of choice is now a tahini and grape molasses paste). It’s our payment for a day on the valley floor and the only way out. The effort keeps us warm though as it’s a much  colder morning. We’re grateful to find a small cafe with a blazing stove in a tiny village at the top. The owner is deaf so no problem with our lack of Turkish as we all resort to basic sign language. The now very familiar stirring teaspoon action gets a resounding nod.

Mar-Ket in Osmanköy

Osmanköy

There are a few more 20% climbs along a ridge being grazed by various flocks of long horned sheep and then we get to enjoy cashing in our potential energy and hit 70 kph on a long descent into Nallihan.

Road to Aşağıbağdere

Heavy traffic on the way to Saricakaya

Road from Aşağıbağdere

While enjoying complimentary coffee in a mini market the owner suggests we head for a lake called Bird Paradise for the evening. It sounds like a great place to camp so we crank up the gears and get going.

From Nallihan the view changes again. This time we have a wide arid plain and a long straight road right through the middle of it. There are more coloured cliffs in blues and reds. The 1kg of bulgar wheat that we’d bought helps us pick up speed on the gentle downward gradient but needs to be eaten before the next climbing day!

Road from Nallıhan

Road from Nallıhan

Approachıng Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

Bird paradise turns out to be cycle tourist’s paradise too. The artificial lake was formed when a dam was constructed downstream and is now home to tens of thousands of migrating birds. There is a glorious backdrop of mountainous cliffs in multicoloured stripes and the marshland surrounding the lake is teeming with activity.

Approachıng Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

We’re very grateful when the park warden tells us it’s no problem to camp by the side of the lake and we get one of the best views from the tent so far. It’s also the first night for ages we haven’t been woken by the ezan before dawn, just a few howls in the distance that may or may not have been live versions of the stuffed wolf we’d seen in the visitors centre.

Campıng by Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

Davutoğlan Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise)

The next couple of days aren’t quite as picturesque but the climbing is much more gradual. We’re on our way up onto a plateau that a lot of central Turkey sits on at around 900-1000m above sea level.

Road from Beypazarı

Stopping at the off-puttingly named ‘Kiler’ supermarket in Beypazari we’re loading up the rack bag with a few meals worth of food when the manager comes out and offers us çay. We’re then led to the canteen and asked if we’d like to join the rest of the staff for lunch. Now Kirsty and I were loyal customers of our local Aldi back in Bristol but I can’t remember the manager even saying hello so there are clearly customer relation lessons to be learnt from the Turks. I expect the Aldi staff don’t get fed quite as well either.

Lunch in the Kiler supermarket canteen, Beypazarı

Near the end of the day we get a stiff climb from 700m to over 1100m through Ayas that brings us out onto a dual carrirageway with a high barrier preventing us from getting off the road. Just as we think that we’ll be trapped until Ankara, a layby appears with a gap in the barrier and an adjacent wood. We hop off the road, get the tent up, the stove on and a fire lit for our highest camp site yet. Getting close to the fire and sipping ouzo before diving under the quilt helps us shrug off the fact that its -4c. Did I mention how much better life is with our new quilt?

Camp fire and ouzo at 1100m. Near Ayaş

Ankara may be the capital but its only a third of the size of Istanbul. Still big enough for us to be reluctant to take on the roads into the centre so we wheel the bike onto a metro train in Sincan to make the final 20km more pleasurable. 50p well spent.

Frosty mornıng. Near Ayaş

Although we probably didn’t give it much of a chance, few people had much to recommend of their capital so we plan on a brief visit. It seems to be a fairly bland, very busy, business city built in a bowl surrounded by steep hills.

Our task is to visit a good bike shop,Erdoganlar, and pick up a few bits and pieces, stay overnight to celebrate our 200th day on the road then get out the next morning.

I’m sure regular readers are tired of hearing about our wheels so I’ll spare you the details but in short we need yet another new front tyre. The shop also happens to be a Vaude dealer so we pick up some spare buckles to replace the one broken in Istanbul. For some reason Vaude changed the design of the buckle between us buying the rear panniers and getting the front ones and the new design, although looking better, is not nearly as sturdy so it’s handy to have some more in reserve.

We spend the night in a room in a hotel that doubles as a sweat lodge, get woken up by a faulty electronic door latch that refuses to stop beeping and then have to decamp to another room at 2am when it can’t be fixed. Who says sleeping in a tent is less civilised?

With a yawn, and after filling up at the breakfast buffet that includes chips and soup, we climb up to a chilly, windblown summit overlooking the whole of Ankara.

Views over Ankara

The wind blows from the north and places two icy hands on our shoulders to speed us south. Finally that pesky wind is on our side and begins making up for all those days when it was the other way round and it felt like riding through treacle.

Outskirts of Ankara

Picking the truck stop with the largest number of vehicles outside on the basis it must be the best we head inside for a refuel. It’s packed with leather jacketed men, there’s a constant supply of çay moving round the room on trays and hazy smoke drifts out from the open fire, loaded with kebab skewers, in the corner. We meet a couple of drivers who know a thing or two about long distance journeys and they invite us to sit with them. There aren’t many railways in Turkey and it’s a big country so there are thousands of trucks moving container loads of goods on every road. Every few minutes we’ve had a friendly, and often musical, toot as they come thundering past, always giving us plenty of space. We seem to be kindred spirits.

Making friends in a truck stop

One of our lunch mates is heading for Iraq and offers to smuggle us over the border but that’s an adventure for another day so we politely decline.

Ghost town made of mud houses. Almost completely deserted.

Back on the road we sit tall to get maximum purchase from the helpful northerly breeze and arrive at the shores of Tuz Gölü in time to watch the sun go down and with just enough light to find a spot for the tent.

Shadow racing

Sunset by the salt lake.

Tuz Gölü is the second largest salt lake in the world and in the summer dries out to form a vast, blindingly white crust. But at this time of year there is a shallow covering of water, only 2m at its deepest point. With the right conditions it takes on a mirror like appearance with some spectacular photo opportunities.

When we crawl out of the tent in the morning that’s exactly what we see. Despite being barely above freezing I roll up my trousers and wade out while Kirsty snaps away. Losing the odd toe to frostbite seems worth it for the results. A few minutes later the wind picks up again and the mirror effect is gone.

Airing the quilt. Tuz Gölü

Tuz Gölü

Tuz Gölü

There’s nothing like a bit of cycling to warm you up again so that’s exactly what we do. ‘Tost’ and çay for second breakfast then we round a corner to see mount Hasan rising up from horizon to a height of 3268m. And it stays there for the rest of the day, getting bigger and closer until we arrive in Aksaray near its base.

Oh go on then…

Keep on trucking

Roadside nut stall

Roadside nut seller

It’s been a great few days with plenty of pleasant surprises and Turkey has really been showing off its wonderful scenery and huge generosity. The town of Aksaray has a few more surprises in store as our fortunes change significantly but that’s a story for another post.

Approaching Mount Hasan

Into Aksaray in the shadow of Mount Hasan