TandemWoW // Thessaloniki to Tbilisi // Blog 4
If you missed TandemWoW’s previous blog post (Blog 3) click here.
We are now in Tbilisi having cycled nearly 3,900 miles and climbed almost 309,000 feet and travelled through 12 different countries across Europe and part of Asia and completed the first stage of our journey. We are taking a few days to plan, recover and relax before our flight to India.
In Thessaloniki, we enjoyed a full day off. We wandered around the city which is lovely and feels very traditionally Greek. Alice was serviced and we felt revived. Heading off early morning to escape some of the heat of the city, we left the coast behind us and headed inland towards the mountains and the Turkish border. The countryside was nice – lakes and meadows, storks and pelicans. We eventually dropped down to the Aegon Sea marvelling at the different colour of the water and how underdeveloped and quite this stretch of coast was compared to France and Italy. We passed numerous historical artefacts and buildings – many of which were Byzantine. We also saw many shrines to dead friends and relatives – some are enormous, almost the size of a house, whereas others are small with an opening to leave small gifts.
We stopped at “Paradise camping” near Kavala – which really wasn’t. Prison block showers, music into the night and snoring (from a man in a hammock). People apparently, live onsite for 6 months of the year erecting enormous harem style tents. Just outside Komotini we escaped a storm of biblical proportions with thunder and lightening- the whole works, just getting shelter in time.
We travelled on through the rolling hills towards the Turkish border. Ending up on the motorway on the approach to the border, we cycled passed the massive queues of traffic towards Turkey. Noticing the soldiers patrolling the border, we waved. They waved back, and we soon learned that the Turkish people, on the whole, are friendly and welcoming.
In Turkey, we joined the D-100 a massive road stretching across Turkey from the Bulgarian border – which became our life for the next few days. Mostly it has a hard shoulder and we could ride away from the traffic. However, parts were treacherous – where the road narrows so we have to ride in the traffic or navigate through stretches of gravel or around massive potholes. The first few days in Turkey were a series of hills into a massive headwind. It was really draining. There are numerous restaurants and service stations lining the route and we stopped frequently- drinking Cay (Turkish tea) and eating rice pudding.
It was getting late a few hours into Turkey and we were searching for somewhere to stay when we noticed we had a puncture. We pulled into the nearest service station and fixed it. It was dark and we were directed to a campsite up the road. The showers consisted of a heavy black plastic covering with a hose pipe. The loos where graded 2-3, (we grade loos from 1-10 based on smell, cleanliness, swat, paper availability (there has been a sever shortage since Croatia), hand washing facilities). We also needed to charge our bike computers and phones. A man took my phone – he lived on-site and indicated he would charge it for me. At 3 am he knocked on the tent door shouting “madam telephone”. Disoriented, I opened the tent and put my hand out to get the phone. He shook it! This was quite disconcerting. I got up but there was no sign of him! In the morning we finally tracked down my phone. The man then kissed us both on each cheek (not a pleasant experience- bad breath, sweat and tobacco) and we headed off feeling sleep deprived.
Fortunately that evening we were staying with a friend of a colleague outside Istanbul. Gulbeyaz and her mother had cooked us a meal and we were excited to use the washing machine. The family had come over to Turkey from Bulgaria in the 1990s and Gulbeyaz’s mother was keen to feed us. In spite of feeling exhausted after the exploits at the campsite, we went out for Turkish coffee at a local restaurant with views over Istanbul. After a hearty breakfast which included chips prepared by Gulbeyaz’s Mum, we set off into Istanbul. We were only riding 35 miles into the centre where we had arranged a bike service and to meet the ALS organisation in Turkey, the equivalent of the Motor Neurone Disease Association in England. The ride into Istanbul was insane. Incredibly busy with traffic coming from every angle and it was hilly. There are 7 hills in Istanbul it felt like we went up them all. We arrived late and sweaty – left the bike for a service and jumped in a taxi which took us out of Istanbul and back the way we had just cycled (not good planning)! We met two journalists who published a story about our journey, members of the ALS charity and ALS patients. If we wanted a reminder about why we are riding – this was it.
We travelled back into Istanbul taking the Metro bus. We met the lovely and amazing Zeliha who is a nurse working with ALS patients in Istanbul, who has been so helpful and supportive. We had dinner with Zeliha’s friends and colleagues looking over the Bosporus. We had arranged for a number of parcels to be sent to Istanbul. None of them had arrived please note this will become a theme). Everything was stuck in customs. We left poor Zeliha with a Lidel bag containing a broken tent and bits of camping equipment including a bottle half full of petrol and instructions about where to send stuff around the world – she looked very bemused.
We headed out of Istanbul having had a glimpse of Aye Sofia and the Blue Mosque. We eventually found the right queue for the right ferry to take us over the Bosporus and into Asia. It felt like a milestone to have crossed Europe and to be entering a new continent. The ferry crossing was exhilarating – with views of Istanbul on each side and the prospect of Asia beyond.
We headed off joining the D-100 again. It was busy – the traffic thundered by and we could see the massive sprawl that was Istanbul which continued for around 30 miles before we finally hit what could be termed as the outskirts. It was fascinating to see how Istanbul is developing and the contrast between the old and new Turkey with all of the conflicts and contradictions which arise as a result of such fast growth and it attempting to find its way onto the world stage. These contradictions are creating tensions with concerns about human rights. However, the people we met are so open and welcoming we can only hope that Turkey finds its way.
We were now in the mountains before dropping down to the Black Sea. The riding was hard, hot, hilly and often with a headwind which increased in force during the day and only dropped when it started to get dark. The mountainous backdrop made for spectacular scenery but we had to concentrate on the road as conditions were often challenging.
We were also having problems with the tandem (Alice) as the service we had in Istanbul was not great. The chain was slipping and it broke two days after we left Istanbul. We fixed it but we were still having problems. We arrived in Duzce where the amazing Zeliha had arranged accommodation for us. We had a delayed start as we searched for a bike shop – which still didn’t fix the problem. In the end, we took a link out of the chain and realigned the gears and the problem was solved.
We got into the rhythm of riding in Turkey. All countries seem to have a certain rhythm. Woken by a call to pray at around 4 am. Attempt to go back to sleep – normally in vain. Breakfast – cheese, bread, sometimes peppers, cheese and eggs cooked in a terrine (which is really good). Stop for a mid-morning Cay. Soup (lentil) or chickpea thingy for lunch. Rice pudding whenever we could get it. Service stations for ice tea and water – plus snacks. Generally, we could find a cheap hotel in the small towns we passed through. Several days outside Istanbul we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere and ended up camping at a busy service station in the “picnic area” with the smell of dog poo and unbeknownst to us under the speaker for call to prayer – which resulted in a very loud wake-up call. We found a hotel the next evening in Havza with a Turkish bath and enjoyed having a soak in the hot waters. We also made the most of the all you can eat buffet.
After a few days of hard slog, we finally arrived in Samsun on the coast of the Black Sea. We knew it would be flatter and we were also hoping that the wind would drop. It was nice to follow the coast again. We marvelled at the horse-drawn carriages decked out in pink all blasting out loud music as they went up and down the seafront. We stopped for ice cream and felt momentarily like tourists.
The Black Sea does have some seaside towns, including Samsun, but most of the towns we passed through appeared to be traditional working towns. We also encountered Turkey’s tunnels for the first time. Going through a tunnel is a terrifying experience. The longer it is the worse it is and some are about 3 kilometres long. There is no hard shoulder – or path. The traffic, often without any lights, roar up behind you, often sounding horns which echo and are incredibly loud and disorienting. We literally celebrated still being alive each time we got through one developing a strategy of waving a light around so the drivers could see us. In one tunnel a car had broken down. It had no lights on and the occupants including children had got out of the car and were waving their mobile phones with the lights on to attract attention. We couldn’t get around it and had to stop waiting for a gap in the traffic to pass and hoping that nothing plowed into the back of us.
We stopped in a particularly nasty hotel in Theme in which I dread to think what had happened in one of the beds to make it smell so badly and marvelled at the number of white ford transit vans for sale in one town. If anyone is looking for a ford transit they are all in Theme. We had 3 punctures in one day at Giresun. 2 at the hotel and one on the road. We fixed 2 of the punctures sitting on the steps of the hotel as the traffic navigated it’s way around us on the narrow streets.
We finally found a bike shop where we had Alice’s derailleur fixed and headed onto Trazbon which is a major city. Bikes were banned from the last tunnel of the day which resulted in a big detour and us arriving in the dark. Navigating cities in the dark on a bike is always tricky especially because of the pot holes and the busy traffic and we were pleased to eventually find a hotel.
We met a few fellow bike travellers on route in particular Heidi and Peter from Australia travelling through Greece and Turkey and a young German, Nicholas, on his way to Shanghai.
We had arranged for a GPS to be delivered to Hopa. It couldn’t be picked up until Monday which meant we had 100 miles to cycle in 2 days (easy days). The parcel didn’t contain a GPS but we did get some bike parts from JD tandems which will be great for India.
As we headed over the border into Georgia things felt different. We were struck by the number of casinos and the fact that alcohol was on sale in all the cafes. We passed through Batumi which seemed poorer than the bigger Turkish cities we had seen. The countryside was lovely and we climbed through a national park which was green and forested. There were many reminders of the communist past with crumbling concrete tower blocks and monuments to a challenging past.
We headed past fields watching the swallows swoop and the cows which wander everywhere including onto the motorway. The first evening we were looking for a hotel on google. It seemed to be the only one for miles and there were no campsites. We followed the directions riding out of a small town and over a railway line. We were pulled over by the police. There are a lot of police in Georgia. There were 6 police in the truck and they asked where we were going. We showed them the hotel on Google. They confirmed it didn’t exist and escorted us back to the main road. They were friendly when they realised we were really trying to find a hotel. They directed us 5 miles back the way we had come to a hotel. In hindsight we do wish we had wild camped. We finally arrived at the hotel in the dark and it was grim. A women was wandering around with a taser to scare off wild dogs – many of which had puppies and just needed food (I ended up feeding them). Music was blasting out to the point it was difficult to hear what anyone said. The food was grim but it was a bed and we needed the sleep. I had just got into bed and a man came to the door insisting that he come into the room to switch on an air conditioner- we said no thanks. The noise went on until the early hours with people talking outside the door. The power and water went off in the middle of the night too. We left as soon as we could feeling sleep deprived.
We headed along what was being developed as a new motorway in spite of cows wandering around on it, and then into a valley with a steep climb which stretched on for miles following a river up into the mountains. The road was busy with no hard shoulder and there was lots of traffic. We finally decided to stop and wild camp off the road and near the river. We certainly got a better night’s sleep!
We continued up the hill the next day where we were stopped by a man waving a flag at the entrance of a large tunnel – almost 3 Kms long. We looked into the tunnel and saw that the road narrowed which would stop any lorries from passing us. It looked dangerous. We considered options – maybe we could cycle round the tunnel? The man gestured for us to come over. He had arranged for us to be escorted through the tunnel. He and his fellow workers were excited about it (we were too) – photos were taken and we set off reaching safety at the other side.
After a bit of downhill, we found ourselves on a motorway type road cycling into a massive headwind. It was hot – over 35 degrees, hilly and exhausting. Progress was slow. There was one service station in around 50 miles – we stopped and were dismayed that the coffee machine was broken! We finally arrived in the outskirts of Tbilisi early evening. The sun was starting to set but the wind had finally dropped. We rode into Tbilisi in the dark staring at the neon signs mainly advertising casinos and avoiding the potholes.
We had a few days off in Tbilisi as we waited for our flight. We were also expecting some new clothing and equipment to be delivered. We needed to service the bike and pack her up for the flight and we also needed a bit of a rest to allow the saddle sores to heal before India.
On the first day in Tbilisi we got our bearings and headed to the Bike Shed (a bike shop) to have Alice serviced. We met the lovely and amazing Simon and Adrian two Canadians spending 2 years cycling around the world. We also met Christian for Austria who seemed to have been on the road for years with his paper map and no phone. We hope to meet up with Simon and Adrian in India for drinks!
We also tried to track down our parcels. There then followed an epic and bureaucratic nightmare with DHL and to an extent UPS. DHL would not deliver the parcel until we had paid tax on it. We ascertained this after about 6 phone calls. Ok, we said – how much? We were then told we couldn’t pay anything until I had registered as a taxpayer in Georgia. Eventually, we found the revenue having been given the wrong address and I registered. We then waited for the email from DHL confirming the amount of tax. It didn’t arrive. We called again. We went to the bank, (with a mad taxi driver determined to teach us Georgian- we learned to say thank you which phonetically sounds like “madloba” which we thought was very appropriate), and paid the tax. We confirmed all this to DHL which confirmed the parcel would be delivered the next day. It didn’t arrive. Nor did the one from UPS as we didn’t have a Georgian mobile number. The moral of the story is don’t post parcels to Georgia (if you want to receive them).
We also got the washing done, had a hair cut, wrote this blog and saw something of the city which is amazing and beautiful and certainly worth visiting. The old City is a collection of crumbling buildings but extremely ornate. Iron balconies and painted brickwork all built-in another age. There is a cable car into the hills surrounding the city which is watched over by a statue of the Mother of the Georgians. There is also a fort and some old churches. The City is being regenerated after the regime which came to an end in 2012. The bridge of peace spans the river and there is a flea market selling everything from Russian memorabilia to candelabras. That said we were keen to get back on the bike and start the next part of our journey in India. We set off early to the airport on 26 August with two large box’s containing Alice excited to be flying to Mumbai to start our circumnavigation around India. Fingers crossed she arrives when we do!
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