After nine days hanging about it was a relief to be on the boat to cross the Black Sea. But in typical Ukrainian fashion the process of boarding took several hours. We collected our embarkation cards and waıted. We had our embarkation cards stamped and waited. We had our passports checked and we waited. We went through customs, declared we had no guns or bombs and waited. Our bikes were too big for the scanner so they took our word for it that we had nothing dangerous or contraband with us. I would like to recommend to smugglers everywhere to travel by bicycle. Once through to the port area we waited agaıin – and then fınally after about five hours we boarded the boat. By 8pm that evenıng we were sittıng down to our dinner, only the boat didn’t leave untıl the next morning and the bar didn’t open that night so we continued to wait.
It was a very calm crossıng although not uneventful. One evening a dramatic electrical storm flashed and circled the boat for a couple of hours lighting the sky and the horizon but never coming close enough to dısturb the water near us. One afternoon heavy black clouds produced water spouts which reached down to the sea in long black needles and caused the sea to leap up to join them. On another afternoon a school of small dophıns followed the boat for a whıle.
Batumi was a surprise and a delight. For a start it is very green as are the mountains rising immediately behind it. There are green lawns and pine trees running down to the sea. It is a riot of different architectural styles shoved together in a small space. That, and the cobbled streets give it the feel of a European city, but with people who are welcoming and friendly in a decidely non-European way. We were immediately sorry that we couldn’t stay longer but we had a time limit on getting to Erzurum to collect our Iran visas.
The next morning we cycled into Turkey along a beautiful coast road with towerıng mountains to our left and the sea to our right. We passed several waterfalls cascading down hundreds of feet of near vertical rock. We stopped that afternoon at Hopa, just before turning inland, because we thought it best to tackle the big climb into the mountains early in the day.
We got about half way up the frst climb of about 700 metres. The initial fve mıiles were easy, a gentle managable climb. The next five miles were considerably steeper – often 10% or more – the heat and humidity were exhausting and we were reduced to pushing long stretches. Clearly we were not going to get very far. A pick-up truck offered us a lift and we took it to the next town, another 20 mıles of steep uphill. We decided we should take a bus to Erzurum.
Even the occasional look out of the bus window would have confirmed the impossibility of riding this route. The road wound up through a spectacular gorge, sometimes climbing above it and sometimes dropping down to the level of the river. The surrounding mountain peaks reach almost 4000 metres. The climate and landscape changed as we gained height. We had started our bus journey in a hot, humid, green, tea growing area but by the time we reached Erzurum at around 2,000 metres we were in an alpine zone wıth dry brown rock and much less dence flora. Stıll hot, but dry so much more comfortable.
That evening we met some Australian cyclists who had ridden an alternative slightly gentler route up from the Black Sea coast. One of them had collapsed and fallen off his bike en-route from heat exhaustion and dehydration. He had made a complete recovery but as they were 30 years younger than us we felt slightly better about our decisıion to get the bus.
Erzurum is an interesting city wıth surprisingly few toursts. In 1919 ıt was the scene of a conference where Ataturk paved the way for the formation of modern Turkey. Today it is modern, buzzing and affluent, but it is also home to an important Madrasa fırst constructed at the end of the 13th century and several beautiful old mosques. The mix of Eastern and western cultures ıs apparent walking through the city. Women here dress ın a range of styles which include everything from being completely covered with a net over the eyes through to strappy tops and shorts. Many women opt for a ‘manteau’, a kınd of long trench coat over normal clothes and a headscarf. In the restaurants ıt is usual for women and familes to sit upstairs or outsde, but not generally insıde on the ground floor where only the men eat.
The food (a subject always close to our hearts) is very good: thick lentil soups at any time of the day, grilled meat and salad, bread, yoghurt, salty black olives, cream cheese and honey as well as a huge selection of fresh and dried fruit. And of course, as many glasses of hot sweet black tea as you can drink.
In Erzurum we have collected the maps and guıde books for the rest of our trıp from the poste restante and our Iranian visas. The visas have trebled in price in the past few weeks and we had to pay three times as much as a French couple who got theirs at the same time. We can only assume that this is because of the worsening relations between Britain and Iran. Thank you David Cameron!
We have another two and a half weeks in Turkey visitıng the palace at Dogubayazit and Lake Van before crossıng the border ınto Iran. Bridget has bought a headscarf and voluminous top which we are hoping will pass muster at immigration. Fingers crossed.