Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

15 Nov 2012

Georgian hospitality and the battle through Eastern Turkey

Posted by Will

Highs and lows aplenty in the past fortnight as I’ve cycled my way out of Georgia into the easternmost parts of Turkey. Unrestrained Georgian feasting, monster mountains, petrol station stews, mosque kipping, driving rain, stone-throwing kiddies and the ever-present cay all feature in my lastest update.

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Getting out of Tbilisi was not easy. Immediately, the road started winding uphill and didn’t stop until me, bicycle and 30kg of luggage had risen a vertical kilometer. That set the profile for the days to come. The next day was full of uphill hairpin bends too. Villages were few and far between so my new resolution to eat well did not get off to a good start. More bread, some very processed sausage, a lot of odd rectangular biscuits inscribed with Russian writing, a few mouldy apples and a dozen sore-throat sweets were the best petrol I could find. I had to camp at elevations 1200m, 1600m and 1800m which gave me my first feel of cold camping since Finland. During those days my big blue coat, warm woolly hat and barely waterproof gloves were permanently attached to my body.

A good thing then that I was about to experience some of the most lavish hospitality surely ever received by a lonely bicycle rider. A university friend, Nick, had sent a message saying he had started teaching English in a small Georgian city and wondered if I might pass through. It happened to sit perfectly on my route and so I found myself arriving at the home of his host family full of gratitude just to have a roof a sleep under and a familiar face to talk to. What I found though was a million times more. Both nights an enormous quantity of delicious food appeared on the table with over a dozen different dishes to choose from. Dolma, fish, ham, potatoes, beetroot, salads, fruits, chocolates and of course delicious home-made Georgian wine were all passed around with enthusiasm. The toast-master would interrupt the eating every 5 minutes-or-so to make sure everyone emptied their glasses and commanded that we drink to some important aspect of human livelihood like ‘parents’, ‘children’, ‘God’ or ‘ancestors’. Nick did remarkably well to keep up with the Georgians on the alcohol front. I went off to quickly at the start and ground to a very uncomfortable halt on about the 8th toast which unbeknownst to me was only about halfway through the evening. A soft bed, good English speakers, cushions, hot showers and space to spread out hadn’t felt so good for months. It reminded me how I have often taken those for granted.

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Another great part about the my two day stay was visiting the Sapara Monastery about 10km away from town. Perched high in the mountains and accessible only by a steep rocky road the monastery retains its isolation even in the 21st century, especially as there were no other tourists around. The only other people were the monks going about their business. Built over seven centuries ago it is astonishing how the materials to build such a magnificent structure were ever brought up to such a precarious location. Giorgi, the 16 year-old elder son of the family, guided Nick and I around the grounds, took us inside to see the 700 year old murals and told us stories about how he and his class-mates come up here to share food and wine. The three of us walked two hours back down the hill with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains all the way.

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I left the family with a heavy heart and equally heavy panniers which were now stocked with a gift of special Georgian honey made from the blend of six different types of bee juice. That day was the hilliest I have ever cycled. Starting from 950m, I soon re-entered Turkey and after several hours reached a peak of 2550m where the wind was blowing a gale, the temperature had plummeted and I even noticed a slight difficulty in breathing due to the quick increase in altitude. The hills didn’t stop there though as the next three days saw me climb as many 2000m+ passes. Camping up there would not have made for a good night’s sleep and as such I started to put my faith more and more in the friendly people who work at petrol stations.

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In the past week I have only camped ‘wild’ once. I camped on petrol station property another night where I was brought tea, given access to the internet and warm office and could make use of the toilet facilities. The other five nights I have slept (in some form or other) inside the petrol station. Twice I have slept on a sofa in the petrol station office which often means the attendant gives up his sleeping place to me. This is always done willingly no matter how much I protest. Once I have slept in a petrol station garage (cold, dirty but undercover), once in a petrol station shed (dusty but with polystyrene board as a matress) and once in a mosque joined to the petrol station (warm, carpetted but with people coming in and out regularly to pray while I rest only a couple of metres away). Everytime I am given unlimited access to the cay machine (probably one of my favourite machines in the world), given breakfast and given a full introduction to pretty much every customer who passes through. Twice the attendants have given me supper which both times have been delicious stews made with chickpeas, tomatoes, potatoes and meat all scraped up out of a communal saucepan with soft naan-like bread. I have a lot to thank Turkish petrol stations for.

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However, I don’t have a lot to thank the children in this part of Turkey for. It is bizarre because the adults are all as kind and generous as everywhere else. Yet between ages 8-15 the kids laugh at me, stand in a line across the road to block the way, shout after me, try to snatch things off the back of my bike and demand money. In one case some kids threw stones at me although that may have been partially my fault. See what you think. Here’s the story:

Kids had regularly tried to grab things off the bungee cords on the back of my bike like my map, bottle of water and big blue coat. Once they succeeded and I had to chase down a ten-year old to retrieve my map. As these incidents wore on I became more and more impatient with the kids to the point where I resolved to give the next mischief-maker a real fright. I didn’t have to wait long. As I passed out of the city of Igdir a group of about five 13 year old kids shouted at me as I approached, tried to block the way, and as I swerved one of them tried to grab my stuff. I jammed on my brakes, jumped off my bike, rested it on the road, marched up to the perpetrator and blasted him at close range with a string of loud, abusive English. This did have the desired effect: the whole group backed-off. However, as I cycled away they shouted after me again and I saw and felt small pebbles fly from behind me, past my ears and bounce off onto the road. I have been thinking about that ever since. Should I have resorted to shouting at a child?

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The scenery has continued to provide a stunning backdrop for my cycling. A few days ago I cycled right past Mt. Ararat (5100m) which is the highest mountain I have ever seen. There were clouds covering the top but its size was crystal clear. Mt. Suphan (4100m) next to the beautiful ‘Van Golu’ (Van Lake) was also quite a sight. A day of torrential rain ruined the view and dampened my spirits as the wet eventually got through my coat and panniers. In hindsight, I was extraordinarily lucky with the people I met in the hours after the storm. One man made copious amounts of tea to get me warm again, some boys in a garage gave me a kebab and Coke and then, of course, a petrol station came to my rescue so I didn’t have to put up the soggy tent.

This post is now unforgivingly long but there is one more aspect of the past week that I want to explain. I have now passed into the Kurdish part of the Turkey. Kurdish people make up an estimated quarter of the Turkish population and most live in the south-eastern part of the country. They have their own language, own customs and even look slightly different. A small group of them (PKK – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) have been fighting, often violently, to seperate themselves from the Turkish state and are widely recognized as a terrorist organization. Over 40,000 people have died in the conflict and the battle still wears on. Aside from having to plan my route carefully to avoid dangerous hotspots (I recently cycled through a part of Siirt province which has often made news in the UK and has a huge military presence with tanks, machine gun nests and checkpoints), I have also had to start learning important words in the Kurdish language. It’s a tricky one though. Saying ‘hello’ in Kurdish is a ticket to hospitality if you’re talking to a Kurdish person but if you’re talking to a Turkish person it can be rude. Asking whether someone is a Turk or a Kurd can also be rude because that assumes a difference between the two which some do not accept. So I have become rather muted in my greetings as I try to work out what kind of person I’m talking to. Suffice to say though, the Kurdish people are extremely friendly and I’m confident that if I did meet a militant they would be much more likely to offer a cup of tea than a bullet.

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Asking information in this part of the world has also become a futile task. “Market, kach kilometre” (how many kilometers to a market?) was my question to three seperate individuals. The first said 15km, the second said 110km, the third said 60km. In fact, the market was 30km away. On another occasion I asked a group of men whether the road to the next city was flat or hilly. I was assured by all with hand gestures and nods that the road was perfectly flat. So, off I pedalled, only to find that round the corner was a solid 500m steep climb. I wanted to cycle right back down the hill and make each one of those men feel the pain of cycling such a ‘flat’ road.

I will soon leave Turkey which will be a sad day indeed. Where I’m going though, there are plenty more adventures in store. I will try as much as possible to keep myself within the bound of internet access so that I can keep you all updated.

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7 Comments already on “Georgian hospitality and the battle through Eastern Turkey”
  1. 9:38 ampermalink
    15 Nov 2012

    Mumsy

    Brilliant update once again. Your post can never be too long! Keep warm & fed. xxx

  2. 9:51 ampermalink
    15 Nov 2012

    Will

    I was looking through the pics and had to double take when I saw a picture of Nick! Mt. Arrat must have been insane. I am a particular fan of the mosque annexing the petrol station!

    You must be getting pretty good at this cycling lark by now.

    Will x

  3. 10:19 ampermalink
    15 Nov 2012

    Nick

    Glad you made it to Turkey okay. You will be pleased to know Grandpa Giorgi has been frequently asking about how you’re getting on, so now I can show him this which should make him very happy! have fun in Iran!

  4. 5:16 pmpermalink
    15 Nov 2012

    Lolly

    Amazing Myono – loving the image of you on top of holy Mt Ararat, bellowing at an infant. Keep rocking

  5. 10:11 ampermalink
    17 Nov 2012

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Loved reading all the latest news. Hope you are fully recovered now and that your “big blue coat” keeps you cosy. Great photos too! XXXX

  6. 8:40 ampermalink
    19 Nov 2012

    Molly

    Fascinating tales Will! Really looking forward to hearing about Iran. xx

  7. 10:45 pmpermalink
    09 Dec 2012

    Pete Wilkes

    Another wonderful post, Will. You really have a great way with words which paints a colourful and inspirational picture of your travels. So glad you have enjoyed your last couple of weeks, as everyone (I’m sure) was worried for you after your last experiences in Turkey! All the very best…Pete