Published: September 20th 2009September 17th 2009
Full Cycle to date
London to Azerbaijan
I have often pondered, but never resolved, what criteria grants a country the privilege of being referred to in the definite article? The Ukraine gets added to my list of The Gambia, The Sudan and The Lebanon. Anyone?
(by the way, I don't count The USA or The Czech Republic, as they are simply adverbed)
Before I was able to put the UK in the Ukraine, I had just the 5 border checkpoints to negotiate. 3 out, 2 in. I find something quite appealing and evocative about crossing the lesser-trodden frontiers. This one I shared with a tractor, horse and cart, and a lorry loaded with vodka. The lorry won the race to Sumy, some 50 km from the border, but I could not have been too far behind the tractor, and left the horse eating my hay. That, or they were just trotting to the farm near the border.
Two more days of gently rolling landscape led me to Kiev. The thing about rolling hills is that you never get the satisfaction of conquering the heights of a great peak, but yet still spend half the time ascending. All the work and none of the glory. The Owen
Hargreaves of cycling (although this peak-pining would come to bite me sooner than I thought).
En route, I skirted just south of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. This contaminated area, 100 km north of Kiev, covers 2,000 square kilometres around the Ukrainian/Belarussian border. 72 towns and villages were evacuated after the fire in the nuclear reactor in 1986. Taking extreme tourism to the subatomic max it is possible to visit the zone and the rusting ghost towns, as the fallout of radioactive isotopes such as caesium, iodine and strontium has now disintegrated to less lethal levels. But the potentially potent plutonium isotopes will remain for another 20,000 odd years, so I decided against a day-out in the fallout, thank you. Instead, I stuck to the Chernobyl museum - as interesting as any History museum and as moving as any Transport museum. For example, Russia did not even acknowledge the incident for several days. Only when Sweden started registering high levels of contamination and pressed Gorbechev for an explanation, did they come clean. Or dirty.
It was all going on (and going off) in Kiev when I arrived. Though exactly what “it” was, it took me a while to figure
out. Lots of military parades, free open-air concerts, mass celebrations. Only later did I discover it was Ukraine's independence day. Independence from the USSR was gained in 1991, and it took Ukraine quite a while to find its own feet. Not until the infamous election of 2004 did the country really take leap forwards - If you remember, this was where the people's favourite, Viktor Yushenko, was poisoned during the elections and his face shrivelled into a blotched mess. Mass peaceful protests followed the dubious result, and eventually Yushenko took power in a convincing run off. Power to the people!
It was quickly obvious that the Ukrainians are a good-natured, partying bunch, and not only on national holidays. It was not unusual to see them heading off to work in the morning with briefcase in one hand and beer in the other (or liquid bread as it was affectionately referred to here).
As far as the sights of Kiev go, if gold-domed cathedrals are your cup of tea, then this would be your PG heaven. I lost count of the numerous chrome capped churches. Whilst taking a sneaky short cut down a side street, I even found a
whole batch of spare gold domes to glam up any religious building not adequately adorned.
I took advantage of some downtime in Kiev to organise a couple of administrative necessities for the forthcoming weeks - namely transport from Ukraine to Georgia (not THAT Georgia), and an Azerbaijani visa. I had the phone number of a guy who arranged cargo freight across the Black Sea, and the weekly passage to Georgia was set to leave next Tuesday (7 days time). There is space for a few passengers on board, so I registered my name early. Arranging a travel visa for Azerbaijan was not so straight-forward. Not only was it a logistical nightmare, running around Kiev from tourist office to embassy to bank to photobooth to abandoned hut and back to the embassy, but I also had to squeeze in a shave. I had allowed my facial growth to develop from unkempt stubble to full-on travel beard. We're not talking Bin Ladenesque or even Ming the Mercilessness, but still, not the best look for a visa photo to an Islamic state. So a wet(tish) shave with a cheap disposable razor and a token lather of shower gel later, and I was
ready for a rash-faced photoshoot. It took 24 hours and $131 to process the visa, but would save me double the trouble later on.
With almost a week to reach the ferry port of Odessa, I took one last short detour, to Kamyanets Podilsky. This quaint little town has been built high on a cliff-faced island carved out by the Dneipr river. Crossing an old bridge, the castle dominates the island, and ancient buildings dot the surrounding landscape in a fairytale-like image. Two hours prancing around the idyllic cobbled streets and fairytale castle setting, I was keen to leave before my bike turned into a pumpkin.
One last glance at a map, and I could see the direct route to Odessa went straight through Moldova and out the other side.
Moldova must be the least known-about country in Europe - in most circumstances exactly what would make me want to visit. A little understood ex-Soviet state between Romania and Ukraine, full of complicated internal land and political wranglings. There is even a breakaway republic, Transdniestr, that occupies the eastern border, has its own currency, and proclaims to be the last remaining Communist stronghold in the world. All
I was at the border, having already gone through the first checkpoint on the Ukrainian side, and was about to get my exit stamp, when I had a “Sliding Doors” moment (very similar to when I was in the queue to board a plane to Beirut last year). I just didn't fancy it. It is widely accepted that you need to bribe your way through Moldova. Even more so Transdniestr, which was smack in the middle of my route to Odessa. Moldova does not recognise Transdniestr so will not give you an exit stamp on crossing into the eastern territory, but Transdneistr border officials will then fine you for not having the correct entry stamps. That sort of thing goes on all over the place. It was not the financial element itself that deterred me, just the need to be on a constant state of alertness for 3 days. To be unerringly on my guard. And I didn't have the time or patience to be faffing with autonomous micronations, as I had a boat to catch.
If quirky, self-governing breakaway republics are really what you're after, may I instead suggest visiting Uzupis in the middle of Vilnius, Lithuania,
or Whangamomona in New Zealand. Or Scotland.
Enough about what I didn't do, and back to the story. I shrugged my shoulders apologetically at the Ukrainian officials, turned my bike around, and followed the more relaxed road down to Odessa from the Ukrainian side.
Odessa itself is a modern, swanky city, full of Russian holiday goers, chic cafes, and designer shops. Far more interesting than that, it has a 1,000 km network of man-made underground catacombs mazing its way beneath the city. It was down here that partisans put up a gallant stance during WWII against the occupying Nazis. Popping up every now and again to derail the odd train or shoot an occasional soldier, before disappearing underground again like moles at a funfair before a fascist hammer smacked their heroic heads off.
Having gotten through Russia without a corrupt cop in sight and side-tracked the notoriously underhand Moldovan authorities, Ukraine somewhat spoiled its image that last night in Odessa. I had met another cyclist, Damien, who left London about the same time as me. He had routed via southern Europe, so between us we had pretty much circled the continent. Our tales of endeavour and general
back-patting lasted well into the night, where we carried on to some bars in the beach resort of Arkadia. With bottles of Stella Artois in hand (they have a brewery in the Ukraine), and a jolly jollified demeanour, some local predatory police spotted their prey. They approached us and asked to see our passports. For perhaps the first time the entire trip I was not carrying my passport or any other ID with me.
Let me set the scene: There were 3 cops; 1 elder, and 2 junior. It was the 2 junior policemen who ran the show, whilst the wise-looking senior guy, leant on a nearby wall watching the performance unfold.
“Ah, you do not have your passport. Now we must take you to the station. But that is so much time and paperwork. Maybe there is another solution that helps us all?”
“Er, like what?”
“I do not like paperwork. You do not like paperwork. Maybe you have some other “paper” that makes it better for all of us?”
Busted, I thought. And to these numbskulls too, made it worse.
Then it occurred to me that I was carrying the number of a diplomat in Russia. It was
2am, so I was not actually going to call him, not to mention he was in an entirely different country and jurisdiction. But I asked Damien to borrow his phone nonetheless. With the most unconvincing number-pressing and needless dallying, I tried to fake a call.
“What are you doing?”, cop number 2 asked.
“Just ringing my friend who is a lawyer here. I will ask him to speak to you then explain to us what we have done wrong. What is your name, please?”
I had no back-up plan for when they saw through my charade, but their whole demeanour changed instantly. They nervously fiddled with their collars and told me to hang up.
“It is not necessary. We are reasonable and do not want to wake him at this time. Remember to carry your passport in the future”
Yes sir. Certainly sir.
I can imagine the scene that followed. The elder taking his 2 inexperienced apprentices to one side and debriefing them on their virgin bribe attempt.
“Now, please tell me how you failed to make any money from those two pissed-up, hapless tourists?”
Sorry, Sir Alan.
My last day in Odessa was also the last day of
August. During the calendar month, I had only travelled a net distance of 5 degrees east, starting in Helsinki and finishing in Odessa. Given there are 360 degrees in a full circle, it would take me 6 years to get back to London if I continued circumnavigating at this pace. September needed to be a month to motor through the meridians. To leapfrog longitudes. Unfortunately neither motors nor frogs were available, so pedal power it was. With some sea-faring assistance to get me kick-started. A net movement of 5 degrees does not tell the full story and was not quite as unproductive as it first sounds. Although I had zigged backwards almost as much as I had zagged forwards, I had travelled a long way south. So I was well-positioned for a big month of easterly gains.
Odessa is the chief port of the Black Sea, a rather isolated body of water that feeds into the Mediterranean. It name is thought to derive from the high levels of oxides someway beneath the surface. There are some ferry links on the western rim to Constanta (Romania), Varna (Bulgaria) and Istanbul. Thereafter, not a whole many ships ply the waters, especially
the eastern stretch. What with the frosty relationship between Russia and Georgia, even less so at the moment.
The vessel that would be my home and my carriage for the next few days was the WS Greifswald. Registered in Hamburg, the Greifswald is a cargo ferry that mainly transports freight - trains, lorries and containers - and any remaining space is sold off for passengers. The manifest for my crossing comprised Captain Olygev, about 10 shiphands, 40 tubby truckers and the same number of passengers again.
The Greifswald was sat alone in the port when I arrived Tuesday morning. It would take several hours to pass the customs procedures for loading, and 12 more hours more waiting aboard the ship before we actually left Odessa. We passengers had access to 3 of the decks - the sleeping quarters, the eating quarters, and an outside upper deck. It took approximately 2 minutes 47 seconds to walk the lot. If it was raining the upper deck was out of bounds so you could shave a further 54 seconds off that. So between eating and sleeping, entertainment was limited, and mostly self-designed. Cards, grainy Russian-dubbed films, cards, sunbathing, cards and drinking games.
Oh, and did I mention cards? The drinking games usually ended up in me having to down a 50 cl shot of vodka. By extraordinary coincidence, that was also the only time the boat noticeably swayed all trip.
Meals were a solid but simple fare. Basic, yet sufficient. Meal times lasted exactly 30 minutes before the plates disappeared in an efficient display of crockery clearing competency. But as the days wore on the portions became gradually smaller and the accompanying bread progressively staler.
To my eternal gratitude, there was one other non-Ukrainian/Georgian on board. Another Brit as it happened. Emily was backpacking wherever the wind and whim took her. It was a bit of a blessing, as there were very few English speakers amongst the rest of the crowd - although they were all amazingly friendly and wanted to “talk” with us - having a genuine English babbling outlet prevented certain cabin fever.
At a very gentle pace and in fairly gentle waters, we reached Poti on Friday morning, 60 hours after setting sail. Poti is Georgia's principle port. In fact it is their only real gateway to the outside world, as most of the land borders remain
closed. As such, docking space is at a premium. Even more so, due to the presence of the US Warships at Poti - Obama has strategically placed a few of their vessels here to keep the Russkis in check. And in the meantime it allows them to do some Poti training, I guess. So, with all the docking spaces engaged, we just sat anchored, stranded about a mile from dry land for a further 2 days. The port authorities generously offered us the option of a priority docking bay for $600. We declined. Instead we waited. And we waited. All in all the scheduled 48 hour crossing resulted in us being on board for 5 days. Cooped up like chickens in floating prison - like jailbirds, perhaps.
I met many interesting characters on board. The truckers tended to keep themselves to themselves and congregated in smoke-filled cabins. As a kid I had wanted to be a lorry driver. Other kids wanted to be policemen, firemen, doctors, pilots, astronauts,.... or IT consultants!?. Not me. I like to think it was the draw of the open road, as opposed to the life of steakhouses, Yorkie bars and Readers Wives. Who knows,
Outside the Sulphur Baths
No photos from inside, I'm afraid
but everyone has to have a dream.
By the time I finally disembarked the ferry, I had more offers for meals, homestays, and transport throughout Georgia than I could shake a breadstick, a broomstick or a gearstick at. I took a few contact numbers a went on my merry way. The first hours was a sporadic stream of toots from passing trucks, all beeping a friendly acknowledgement of recognition (Even if they hadn't spoken a word to me all 5 days, this was their public voice). But the cacophony of toots and waves and shouting did not stop there. Georgia is famed for the hospitality and the generosity of its people, but even knowing this, I was not prepared for just how amazingly warm and welcoming they would be. Cars would slow down as they overtook and the drivers insist I take bags of fruit from them. When stopping for roadside lunches, I would get extra free portions just for being a foreigner in their country. And on more than a couple of occasions I was handed free shots of chacha (local grape vodka - ABV 40-60%) and the staff would all join me for a farewell toast. When
stopping in towns in the evening I could not dismount my bike for people gathering around trying to invite me to their house for food and a bed for the night. There is a saying in Georgia that “a guest is a gift from God”. I have been trying to convince people for 30 years that I am God's gift, but no-one has paid a blind bit of notice. Until now - and I've got a whole nation sold.
This is the Caucasus region. The Caucasus countries being Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, plus a handful of southern Russian states to the north (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia) that surround the Caucasus mountains. Turkey borders to the southwest and Iran to the southeast. Everyone is pretty much at war with everyone, and often at war within themselves too. Georgia and Russia are at war; Russia is at war with Chechyan rebels; Georgia is at ends with separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at each others throats for centuries; and the less said about Armenia's genocidal gripe with Turkey the better.
Marco Polo, Jason and his Argonauts, Strabo, and Silk Road traders had all roamed the Caucasus
region long before I came pedalling by. Now days, there is only one artery road of note across Georgia, the M1, which I clung to most of the way. Smaller capillary roads circulate into the mountains and the semi-desert either side, including the Georgia-Armenia highway, that sounds more like a clothing brand.
This M1 could not be more different from our London to Leeds motorway. Although there were occasions when I would have given the padding from my shorts for a Watford Gap type service station, in general I was just absorbed by the stunning mountain scenery and gushing rivers and flowing natural springs of drinkable water, as I weaved my way through the foothills of the Lower Caucasian range. More by luck than judgement I had avoided any serious mountain ranges on this trip so far; flirting with The Alps, The Urals, The Carpathians, but never making a move on any of them. Let alone a pass!
My first stop in Georgia was the ancient town of Kutaisi. I stopped here not only because it's an ancient city of historical interest, but it is also the base of one of the most extraordinary tourist opportunities I have
ever come across. The Georgian government, in an attempt to boost tourism to the spectacular, yet troubled Caucasus mountains, have just begun to fund weekly FREE flights up there. Using out-of-service Russian propeller jets they will fly you directly into Svaneti, a town high in the mountains. It is then up to you if you take the return flight. The flights leave Tuesday morning on a first come first serve basis, but are also subject to last minute cancellation in case of adverse weather conditions.
That Monday night in Kutaisi, a force 6.2 earthquake struck the town during the night. The epicentre was somewhere deep beneath my bed. Be it from too much chacha or too much exertion, I somehow managed to sleep right through it, but the surrounding towns suffered some substantial damage. Now I don't think I'm doing myself a disservice to say I'm no seismologist, but even I could have told them that if they were going to build structurally unsound buildings on a fault line, then there would likely follow some house-shaking, groundbreaking, earthquaking trouble. There was genuine shock and resentment in the area and in the local newspapers. OK, so a few houses collapsed
leaving scores injured and homeless, but I've seen the movie “Tremors” and I think they should all just be grateful that it wasn't giant, man-eating worms instead. Always look for the positive, I say.
A Richter-busting earthquake probably justifies adverse weather conditions, and so the free flight was cancelled in the morning. Some things sound too good to be true, and so it proved.
Next stop of note was Gori, birthplace of Josef Stalin, where a rather one-eyed museum of his life stands - lots of focus on his role in the Russian revolution and his leadership through WWII, less on the Gulag labour camps, his pact with Hitler, mass famine, assassination of Trotsky, stitching up of post-war Poland, etc. I can only name 2 famous sons of Georgia - Stalin and Georgi Kinkladze. Two prodigious talents, two tainted geniuses, both, in their own way, forever remembered for the way they dominated the left wing.
Another Georgian of note, who's name is not important, was their proposed Eurovision entry earlier this year. The event was held in Moscow, and with Russian-Georgian relations already strained they put forward their song named “Put In, Shut Up”. A politically ill-advised, imaginatively
inspired, punned protest.
I arrived in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, many days behind schedule. Admittedly, it was a largely self-imposed schedule, although I did have some external constraints in the form of visas for Kazakhstan and other upcoming “Stans”. Tbilisi is famous for, amongst other things, its ancient sulphur baths. Having cycled a fair few kilometres to get here, I thought a dip, a scrub and a massage was well-earned. I plumped for the public baths (men-only), as opposed to the expensive private baths. Once in, I was led to the main steaming sulphur pool by a fat, hairy guy in Y-fronts. He told me (with a wag of the finger) that clothes were not needed here. So I whipped off my kecks and jumped in the warm water - which smells too much like rotting eggs to be fully meditative. Meantime, he was lathering up a marble table for my scrub. Once I'd done with the soaking, I lay face-down on the table, and the guy knelt on my back with soapy sponge gloves on ready to be my scrubber. My embarrassment was nothing to do with the man-on-man rub, but by the sheer amount of dirt and grime he scrubbed from my body. My scrubber then turned masseur for another 10 minutes. For a big lad he sure could work those hairy hands of his. I don't remember the last time I was this clean and refreshed. Yeah, so I smelt of rotten eggs for a day or two. Swings and roundabouts.
From Tbilisi I took a bus trip up to Kazbegi, high in the Caucasian mountains for a little non-biking hiking. Just before reaching the town, the bus driver suddenly screeched his brakes and the bus lurched into a skid (not for the first time it must be said) and then thud. We all jumped out the bus to see a pig hobble to the verge then collapse. Shortly followed by a furious farmer who confronted the driver. Lots of shouting, then a couple of fists flung, but the angry exertion all came to an altitude-calming halt soon after.
Heading for some mountain climbing, I took the advice of so-called experts who insisted I should wear a sturdy pair of shoes - but I packed my flip-flops anyway. Within 2 hours climbing in these so called sensible shoes, I had blisters forming on all extremities of the feet, so changed into a more familiar footwear. Why anyone hikes in anything but flip-flops I'll never understand. Sure, occasionally I'll stub a toe on a stone, slip on the ice or pierce the thin soles on a jagged rock, but ignoring that, I can't fault them. Invest in some better shoes, you say? Want to lug them round the world for me?, I say.
On the way back down next morning, I took a tour of some wineries and one last monastery. During these past few weeks I've seen enough churches and monasteries to last a lifetime. And well into the afterlife if you believe some of the iconoclasts. This monastery at Nekresi has an interesting side-story. Perched high on the mountain side it doubles up a fortress. When the Persians came invading, centuries ago, throwing rocks and arrows at them did little to thwart the impending intruders. So in a desperate last attempt to ham-per their progress they hurled porkchops at them. Being Muslims they took this as a sign from above to retreat. As such the locals will regularly sacrifice a pig in commemoration. And right on cue, there it was. Babe was having his final squeal as I arrived. (I have photos, but you don't want to see them, believe me)
That's horrific, disgusting, was my first thought. I'll take half a kilo of fresh pork please, was my second. We bought a generous helping of kebab meat, and the driver took us to his sister's house for an impromptu BBQ, served with barrel load of homemade wine. Also, he was a little more forward-thinking than me, noting that there were several Israeli's back at the guesthouse, who might not appreciate us bringing home the bacon.
Not a good couple of days for the local swine population, it must be said.
This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home;
This little piggy had his throat slit, this little piggy was hit and run.
And this little piggy would be my last taste of pork for several months, as I'm heading into pig-worshipping nations for a while.
And that just about sums up my lasting memories of Georgia - Their obsession with hospitality, the endless toasts that this entails, churches perched in impossible positions, and a last ham hurrah. All in all some fantastic days with some fantastic people. I only regret that time was not on my side, and I had to keep moving on, Hobo style.