Current location; Tirana, Albania
So, accompanied with my latest cycling recruit, Lizzie Liver, together we pedalled out of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and onwards towards the Black Sea
Similarly to Azerbaijan, Georgia is yet another refreshingly green part of the world, filled with glorious rolling countryside (scenes straight out of Postman Pat) and plenty of smiling farm folk. I could tell almost immediately that Lizzie really wanted to make the most of her time cycling across the country, clearly wanting to get a real ‘feel’ for the place- so much so, that she could often be found lying on the roadside cheek to tarmac. It later became apparent that this actually had nothing to do with building any emotional bond with the place, but actually just a complete lack of competency when it comes to using cleats (Clip in pedals). The phrase ‘All the gear, but no idea’ springs to mind……
The best of Georgia can probably be found in the beautiful sun drenched vineyards which deck the steep hillsides in the south western parts of the country. And how better to soak up their beauty more than to ride that bitumen roller coaster through them….I thought. One wall of tarmac after the next, we pedalled our way across this undulating (to put it mildly) region. Im not sure if it was up the 23rd or 24th ‘serious’ incline that I began to readdress whether this was actually such a smart move- to drag a first timer across such brutally punishing terrain. I say this because it rapidly became clear that the pleasure of being in my company had hit somewhat of a plateaux round about then.
But clearly not phased by the challenging early days, in no time at all, Lizzie and I had breezed our way towards the lapping waters of the Black Seas shores- shores lined with holiday resorts and Speedo sporting sun bathers. I must admit, this shocking sight of near nudity had me very almost fall off my bicycle; Having spent so long in the likes of conservative, muslim countries, amidst a culture where half naked sun worshipping would seem unimaginable- much like a middle aged mother I found myself thinking “Jeez, put some clothes on?!”
So, having enjoyed a brief stint of pedalling with my sister, we parted ways and I began my ride into Turkey. Turkey is a sizeable nation, bordered by the Black Sea to the north, Asia to the east, Europe to the west and the middle east below- it was the country which really bridged the gap between Asia and Europe, becoming that final rectangular puzzle piece on my ride towards my home continent.
I began my ride into Turkey along the well established coastal Highway which hugs the Black Sea along this northern stretch of the country. Without doubt, this made for some pleasurable cycling. It offered so much that one might seek in an enjoyable bike ride; The road was in pristine, immaculate, silky smooth condition, it was relatively easy going, I had stunning blue waters to my right and tall green rugged mountains to my left. It was pleasant. It was comfortable. It was, well…’nice’. But I think we can all agree, ‘nice’ is probably the greatest slap-in-the-face compliment of them all. No-one wants ‘nice’ in their life- Especially when you know theres a world of excitement and adventure several thousands metres skyward to my left. In short, I was currently indulging on Aldi’s value pack Turkey; albeit tasty, I knew Tesco’s finest existed and I just wasn't willing to settle for second best. So, having cast a casual eye over the map which marked out these wafer thin zig zagging roads leading high up into the mountains, I eventually decided to ditch this increasingly bland highway and head for the hills. #TheHillsAreAlive #YesTheyAreJulie. I was on a mission to find the tastiest chunk of Turkey this place could offer and I began by ascending these scrumptious looking mountains. And It only took a few hundred metres down the road to know I had made the right decision. Immediately, the fun factor had increased tenfold. Though I had 60 odd miles of steep up hill before I was likely to meet the gaze of that 2200m summit sign, the adventure was back on- that unknowing element of whats around the next corner- something that a highway can never offer; because, much like that sinking feeling one gets when they find out the teacher has decided to accompany your group on the school trip, thats what pedalling along main roads is like- any opportunity for interesting escapades is fairly limited…
The following weeks across Turkeys interior were some of my best riding to date; pedalling over the extensive mountain ranges in the east, through its characterful hillside villages, across its high rolling central plateaux, passing by its ancient towns steeped in storied histories has been a truly fascinating experience. And of course not forgetting the people- Much like central Asia, a day barely passed by where I wasn’t shown a gesture of kindness, whether it be a meal, a bed, a sack of vegetables….. Yes, most recently, I was kindly given a sack of onions, 27 to be precise. 27 large, hefty onions. The sight of them almost brought me to tears- not the pungent smell of them as such, nor the profound kindness of this act, no, more the fact that this undermined my no.1 rule when it comes to touring #KeepItLightweight #KeepItEasy. I pedalled into town feeling like an athlete, I left town feeling like a farmer heading to market…
On another occasion I found myself enjoying the company of a staff room full of school teachers- often its the case that I pop into a shop and before I know it I’m being toured around the town, fed lunch or in this case, thrust into the local school for a round of ‘Question time with Katherine’. As I sat amongst the teachers, naturally they enquired as to why I was pedalling home from Australia? Perhaps wondering if there was a charitable cause fuelling this activity or more simply, because I carried such little confidence in international public transport system? For some reason, the idea that one might be pedalling for pleasure just doesn’t seem enough, people find that almost impossible to comprehend. To be honest, sometimes I too find this too be a little far fetched. After all, Its relentless cycling day after day, miles and miles, building your home, packing up your home, eating, sleeping, planning, pedalling…….and the roads I'm riding on were built to accommodate the engineering advances that brought about the car, the engine, and yet I'm riding a push bike? So I settled for a tongue in cheek answer; “Im afraid of flying”- now, imagine a balloon heavily laden with lead plummeting at rocket speed down to earth- thats about how well this joke went down. I was faced by an audience of slightly concerned looking teachers clearly thinking “bloody ell, she’s going to some lengths to avoid her fears..?!"
My final days in Turkey were spent pedalling south of the sea of Marama, across the Bosphorus and eventually into Greece. Now, anyone with a good knowledge of Turkey will know that this route doesn’t pass through Istanbul - and as I say that, I can very almost hear those gasps of disapproval; The thought of even contemplating a visit to Turkey and not a visit to Istanbul?! Blasphemy! But, in truth, I chose a route which would intentionally avoid this iconic city, because I have come to accept that cities on bicycles just aren't all that enjoyable; they’re expensive (camping in the city park is probably a no-go), they’re busy, full of traffic and full of people. Furthermore, the 50 odd miles before and after are so often filled with ugly suburban infrastructure. Thus, on balance, I would favour a few days pedalling through peaceful countryside any day. And for me, I'm not out to tick a check list of ‘must see’ places- providing I can draw some joy out each of my days ride, whether it be from the people I meet or the scenery I pass through, then I reckon I'm onto something good!
Aside from a few nights spent in the comfort of hospitable Turkish locals, camping has remained the main source of accommodation each night- From cherry orchards to olive groves, I’v tasted them all…. No, I mean, I’v slept in them all……and maybe just had a teeny weeny taste of the odd berry or two along the way. Only the ones that had already fallen of course…..after an encouraging tug. Ok, I hold my hands up; I apologise Greece, I realise you’re in a financial deficit and Im ashamed to say, I might have put you into a cherry one too…
Often I have opted to camp at the back of fuel/service stations- the benefits of such come from its abundance of amenities - bathrooms, charging facilities, wifi, water and an endless supply of chat from passing Truck drivers- Though the impenetrable language barrier restricts any real conversation, Im 90% sure each of their sentences starts with phrases like “At the end of the day….” or “I’ll tell you something for nothing…”
Of all the gas stations available, its the BP garage that I have the strongest track record kipping next to. Im not sure why but I appear to have this natural tendency to favour this fuel station, half acting like its this familiar, friendly British outpost ….. because theres nothing quite like that comforting feeling one gets from pitching their tent next to a homegrown multinational oil and gas corporation.
Sometimes the kindness of the fuel station staff has meant I’v been invited stay in the staff sleeping quarters or, once, almost controversially, and most certainly not my idea, the prayer room…..I wasn't entirely convinced Allah would be comfortable with this, but the staff insisted it would be okay..
In light of Greece’s financial troubles, I wasn't all that sure what to expect as I pedalled my way into the country. Part of me wondered whether one might receive a ration book on arrival or ATM’s might display signs reading “Limited cash available, if any”. But as I cycled down its coastline, I encountered very little of the sort. The towns appeared to be functioning as normal, shops open, resorts busy with tourists, usual routine life continuing…
(….and if the Greek ministry of tourism is reading, its Katherine with a K when your making out that cheque)
Interestingly, one thing that I have noticed in this region of the world are Learner plates on cars, driving schools, driving instruction?! I found this observation to be slightly concerning seeing as I have just cycled 14,000 miles across the world alongside streams and streams of vehicles, yet only 9 months in have noticed anyone taking a lesson in how best to safely operate them?! Of course, thats not to say that they don't exist in other parts of the world, because Im sure they do,…..only from what I have encountered, no-one uses them....
Following my week long jaunt across Greece, I enjoyed some light relief from the wallet crippling eurozone as I headed north into the mountains of Macedonia and Albania. I particularly enjoyed cycling through this part of the world; 50 years behind western Europe, donkeys and carts still remain a reliable source of freight and more primitive farming practises clearly still exist here. With eastern europe compacted with so many small nations, I appear to be pedalling my way from one country to the next every 48 hours rattling off Greece, Macedonia and Albania over the past week!
So, having pedalled my way through 18 nations over the past 9 months, I have just a handful remaining as I enter my final month 'on the road'. Almost home! #ShowMeToTheShower