Trip Archives: To the Caucasus and Back

Four months and 5000km of cycling around southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East in the summer of 2011.

Bremen – Budapest

For more than a year I have been dreaming of doing a cycling trip around the Black Sea. Unfortunately, the political situation in the North Caucasus has been unstable for a long time and is still far from being calm and safe for independent travel. Nowadays the border between Georgia and Russia appears to be open again, but the Russian Autonomous Republics of North Ossetia (where the border crossing is located on the Russian side) and Ingushetia nearby are said to be not safe. Chechnya is just around the corner, too. So, at least currently, it seems not wise to entirely circle the Black Sea.

After changing plans a couple of times, I’m now attempting a trip that takes in the countries south of the Greater Caucasus, namely Georgia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran, and involves a lot of cycling but also some trekking.
A visa for Iran has been arranged and I will pick it up here in Budapest in the next days. I was unable to contact the Azerbaijani embassy in Berlin so I will have to try and apply for a visa for Azerbaijan either in Kars, Turkey or Tbilisi, Georgia.

The first leg of the tour is done by train. I arrived in Budapest tonight where I am staying with my brother and his family. From here it’s a 1200+ km bike ride to Varna at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast from where I’ll catch a ferry to Georgia on May 31st – if I manage to secure the Iranian visa within 2 days.

From Poti, Georgia, where the boat will drop me off, I have a rough idea of where to go and what to do and see, but it will all depend on mood, stars, visa, weather, wind, people, countryside, and last but not least the political situation in those countries.
I had pretty much exactly 3 and a half months of time for this trip. However, a couple of things have changed and it is now more or less open-ended. It’s unlikely to last much more than 4 months, though.

Well, first I have to get there…

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Budapest

The past two days in Budapest were great. My brother took the days off and we spent quite some time together both at home and cycling around the city, organizing and buying stuff for my trip. I managed to get the visa for Iran within one hour including getting cash from a nearby bank.

Not everything went smoothly, though. Right before leaving home I lost a credit card and a contact lense. The latter is now on its way to Budapest. However, getting a new credit card appears to be more difficult. I was unable to reach my bank’s agent (Deutsche Bank) by phone and she never called me back. Very poor service. One more reason to finally get rid of my account there.

Anyway, I’ll have to stay here for a few more days. Unfortunately, it appears to be impossible to take the bike on a train or bus to Varna. So right now I’m unsure how and when I’ll get to the Black Sea.

It looks like I’ll do a little subtour to Slovakia over the next days while waiting for contact lense and credit card.

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Budapest - Bükk National Park

Last night I came up with the idea of going to Slovakia for two days or so while waiting for my parcels to arrive in Budapest. At the same time András offered to take me to Eger where he would go for work reasons. I decided to combine the two things and go from Eger to Budapest via Slovakia. András suggested a visit to Bükk National Park and we decided to camp there for one night.

So we took the car and drove over to Eger this morning at quarter to 7am. I started cycling to Szilvásvárad at 10 while András went to work. The sky was clear with about 30-35°C in the sun and the road was a bit hilly. Szilvásvárad is about 30km north of Eger and I arrived there at noon. Our meeting place, Bankut, is about 20km inside the national park on the Bükk high plateau at about 850m altitude. It took me 2.5 hours to get there. The ride was lovely, on deteriorating roads with almost no traffic, even though at times I wasn’t sure I was still going in the right direction.

Shortly after András arrived it started to rain and hail quite heavily and we fled into the car and stayed there for almost 1.5 hours. Then we did a 500m hike up Bálvány peak (956m) and enjoyed the amazing vista from its lookout tower. Eventually I cooked some pasta for dinner and we decided to pitch our tents right on the platform.

Cycled: 53km

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Bükk National Park - Vel'ká nad Ipl'om

Got up at 5am to watch the sun rise from the top of the lookout tower.

From Bankut down to Mályinka was a pleasent 10km downhill ride. Then the terrain was rolling hill-ish, but the road mostly followed the valleys. Cycled towards Ozd on roads that weren’t in OpenStreetMap yet.

Turned south-west in Ozd, to follow the Hungarian-Slovakian border. Crossing it was my primary goal, but there were no paths or roads going to Slovakia for quite some kilometers there. It wasn’t even noon yet but temperatures had already peaked at over 37°C.

At 12:30pm and after exactly 80 kilometers of cycling I finally ended up in the neighbouring country. The border is easy to miss, though. Both countries have implemented the Schengen agreement and there is no visible border anymore (safe for a ‘Welcome to Slovakia’-sign).

Slovakian backroads seem at least as quiet as the hungarian ones, a bit more deteriorating, maybe.
Had a late lunch right outside Fil’akovo. 10 Euros for 3 starters, 1 main dish and drinks – not too bad. Had no Euros and paid in Hungarian Forint – and was ripped off.

Turned south and looked for a lake to have a swim. The first one shown on the map didn’t exist in reality. The second one did, near the village of Vel’ká nad Ipl’om. There’s lots of angling folks here but I managed to find a lovely secluded spot right at the shore. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fishing rod. Anyway, pasta with pesto is yummy, too!

Distance: 130km

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Vel'ká nad Ipl'om - Leányfalu

Happy Birthday, little sister!

All night there were people out and about all around my little lake. My neighbours, who’d pitched tents as well, were already gone at half past 5 when I got up. Had a quick swim and breakfast, and left at half past 6.

The quiet roads followed the river Ipoly that also marks the border with Hungary. When I came to the place where I wanted to cross I saw that the bridge was destroyed. It has probably been that way for quite a number of years, that is, since the Cold War or longer. However, on my map there was a track that would somehow connect the two road ends. On the other side stood a man who looked almost as puzzeled as me. My guess is that locals had built a temporary bridge that was washed away by some recent flood. Got to update OpenStreeMap. I thought about wading through but the waters were too deep so regretably I didn’t even try.

Crossed the river (and border) near Balassagyarmat instead. This time it looked more like a proper border, even though the border station was of course abandoned. Decided to trade traffic-free backroads for a shorter distance and continued on M22 towards Vác where I wanted to cross the Danube river by ferry.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, M22 turned into M2, and cycling is not allowed on single-digit designated roads. So once more I retreated to the quiet Hungarian back roads that are so great for cycling. M2 goes more or less straight to Vác with long slow climbs and heavy traffic; my little road, on the other hand, was flat and saw very few cars. I ended up in some small village at the Danube. From here it was a pleasant ride along the river to Vác. After crossing the main stream by ferry and a smaller branch by bridge I soon arrived at my brother’s weekend retreat.

Temperatures had peaked at 37°C again (in the sun).

Distance: 111km

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Leányfalu – Budapest

Had a lovely relaxing day in the beautifully wildish place (the house was built in the 1940s and the land surrounding it almost looks like it hasn’t been touched since then – that’s only a slight exaggeration :)). Went back to Budapest for the night by car.

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Budapest, Part II

Didn’t do much today except for shopping for some groceries – the contact lense arrived and I’ll be heading south first thing tomorrow morning.

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Budapest - Kecskemét

What a bad start, what a hard day, and what a nice end.

Well, first things first.

András had offered a ride to Kecskemét which is about half way to Serbia, since he was going there for work reasons. So we got up at 4:30am (ouch). Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to pack all my stuff before he had to leave. So I stayed back – and fell asleep again. :( Eventually left his place at half past 11 (second ouch) and left Budapest’s outermost suburb after 15km of riding.

The direct route to the Black Sea openrouteservice.org had prepared for me goes straight to the south-east. To save some time it doesn’t go via Csongrád (where I had already arranged for and subsequently canceled a CS couch) and western Romania.

So not far from Budapest the road turned into a dirt track. At the beginning of that track I crossed paths with a number of cars with half-naked men and women, and some were parking next to the track getting it on…

A bit later the track became quite muddy and on average every ten meters or so a puddle barred my way. I had to push the bike through some of them and each time I wasn’t sure if I’d just get wet feet or loose the whole bike in the mud. Then the surface became fine lose sand and the wheels slided left and ride at their will. After more than 40km of hard work I emerged on paved road and in civilization. I wonder where in Germany would it be possible to go on dirt tracks for 40+ kilometers without meeting a single human soul?

It was late afternoon already and I was in serious need of a shower before I could get anywhere near my sleeping bag. So I deviated from my route and headed towards Kecskemét looking for an official camp site.

There were indeed signs pointing towards a camp site in Kecskemét, but I lost track of it at a big intersection in town. I asked two random people sitting at an appartment block’s entrance for directions. They didn’t know from top of their head where a camp site might be located but started phoning around to help me. Eventually they recommended some bed & breakfast. However, instead of giving directions they invited me to stay at the guy’s place, who lived in the building we were sitting in front of. So I met Erika and János.

After a shower they took me to a restaurant and showed me around the city. Lovely people!

Cycled: 97km

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Kecskemét - Szeged

Erika picked us up at János’s place at 7:30am and we walked over to her work place, a coffee and sweets shop were I had breakfast.

Left half past 9 – and wasted more than an hour finding a way out of the city. All the roads heading in a southish direction would not permit cyclists! So I was forced to take road No. 44 to the east!

Attempted a shortcut via a dirt track again but gave up after a couple hundred meters.

Anyway, to make a long story (read: ride) short: I zigzagged my way around road No. 5 and cycled almost 140km to Szeged instead of the 80 it would have been had cycling been allowed on that road.

Decided to stay in Szeged for the night and cross into Serbia tomorrow. The border is about 15km from here. The campsites I found were either in the wrong direction (back to were I came from, or closed. I’m now lodging in Hotel Izabella, a simple place on the 2nd floor of a run-down … hm, dunno what it used to be. Looks a bit creepy from the outside.

Sitting in the city centre. It’s still warmish and there are quite some people out. One stall-like pub has live music, everthing from Cranberries to Lynard Skynard. People dance, erm, in formation, for lack of a better expression. That is, there are about 30 random people on the dancefloor all doing the same moves.

I’ve heard that girls in Tbilisi, Georgia, are dressed for party 24/7. Szeged girls definitely try that, too. :)

Cycled: 137km

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Szeged - Zrenjanin

About 1000km to go to the Black Sea. And I’d hoped to cut off almost a quarter of that today.

A friend’s cousin had offered a ride from Pančevo to Belgrade tomorrow. Since Belgrade isn’t on my route that was a welcome break from the tour. Unfortunately, Pančevo is about 230km from Szeged. Only once have I cycled 230 kilometers in one day before and that was without luggage.

Lost some time finding a way across the border to Serbia. The old road No. 5’s border crossing is long closed and there’s only the new motorway crossing. Ended up using the motorway for a few kilometers, which is not officially allowed but tolerated by the police of both countries. Border formalities were hassle-free. A quick passport check on both sides and a quick question: “Where are you going?” – “Bulgaria”.

The countryside has been flat since Budapest. No mountains, no hills, no nothing, just flat. Especially here on the Serbian side there is a serious lack of trees, too. It’s been a challenge at times to find a shady spot for a break.

Met an Australian cycling couple coming from Jordan, and a few road bike riders.

I didn’t make it to Pančevo. I’m in Zrenjanin, approx. 75km from Pančevo and apparently very close to the village of Lazarevo where Yugoslavian ex-general and war criminal Ratko Mladic was caught this morning.

Cycled: 173km (which includes about 20km riding inside Zrenjanin evaluating other options of getting to Pančevo (bus, train) and eventually looking for a place to stay!)

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Zrenjanin - Pančevo

Had breakfast next to elder folks who were switching back and forth between German and Hungarian with every other sentence they spoke. Interesting.

Read on the Internet that there have been violent clashes between anti-government demonstrators and the police in Georgia. Hrmpf. It’s less than two weeks before I’ll arrive in Poti, Georgia.

Had a stroll around Zrenjanin’s center and left the town at noon. Had lunch in Ečka. Have been asked for directions again today, the third time since Budapest.

The headwind today was strong and horrible. Horrible! Met a Dutch couple cycling from Novi Sad to Bulgaria.

When I finally arrived in Pančevo I was welcomed by my friend Mia’s aunt and her family. Later Mia’s cousin and her friends took me to Belgrade and showed me around.

Belgrade is a fascinating and beautiful city. Its looks remind me of East Berlin back in the 1980’s. Of course, it also has all the western modern stuff, cars, shops, clothing etc. and is extremely lively and vibrant. I love it.

Kača’s friends invited me to watch the Champion’s League finals tomorrow, so I’ll probably stay another day.

Cycled: 76km

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Pančevo

Lazy day. Heat. Heavy rain.

Watching the Champion’s League finals. Maybe going to Belgrade later tonight.

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Pančevo, day 2

Got myself a little cold on Friday in the bloody wind and subsequently didn’t sleep so well. On top of that, my left shoulder was aching all day.

Tijana, a friend of Kača’s, is friends with Nina, Serbia’s contestant at the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest. Her song, Čardoban (Magical), is the one that came in the orange-yellow(?) retro look.

Kača’s sister was to meet Nina, and I asked if I could join them, too. How cool is it to meet an ESC star?! :)

Nina (her real name is Danica Radojičić) had been singing with her bands for a while when the ESC song’s writer, Kristina Kovač, discovered her on youtube and approached her regarding the ESC.

She was rehearsing with her band Legal Sex Department tonight (in Belgrade) and we could watch/listen for a while, take some pictures, chat a little and got autographs.

Heard that a pro-Mladic demonstration in Belgrade’s down town had gone wrong and folks were demolishing shop windows.

Later we (Kača, Tijana, Miloš and me) went to let the queues dance at some billard place. They also got me a fare-well present (some local specialties that I’ll try to send home)! So sweet! :)

Tomorrow I’ll continue on my quest to eventually reach the Caucasus. I’ll be in a bit of a hurry now to reach the next ferry from Varna, but I had a great time here in Pančevo and the extended stay was worth every minute. I’ll be parting with a sad eye.

Fun fact about Serbia: A new law in effect since about 2 weeks or so forces bars to close at 2am, even on weekends. How retarded is that?

Nina!

Nina!

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Pančevo - Veliko Gradište

This night my right shoulder was aching and I didn’t sleep well. I’m getting old. Fortunately the pain was gone in the morning.

The plan for today was to leave between 8 and 9am and go as far as possible.

Well. I spent the morning with Kača and her brother, sister and grandma, having breakfast and lunch. Then went to town to get some postcards and met Tijana for a few minutes.

I finally left at half past 1pm!

This was day four and the last day of crossing the Pannonian Plain which extends from Budapest to Belgrade. Being entirely flat, it was convenient to cycle at first (with a nice tail wind) but soon got a bit boring due the lack of any interesting visual features.

It is mostly being used for agriculture, I’d guess 98%, and there’s loads of pestizides being sprayed onto the fields everywhere. Both commercial sized and backyard style ones. You also see people with hand-operated pumps spray chemicals against grass and stuff onto pavement and along their houses’ front walls.

The villages and towns on the plain have some very beautiful old houses – which are mostly in various states of decay. On the other hand, there are many newly built houses, huge ones, in a somewhat mediterranean style, with columns and sculptures and stuff. And they are unfinished or uninhabited. It’s a total mystery to me.

Cycled east from Pančevo, then crossed the Danube. Met a guy from Germany, riding his bike from Greece to Würzburg.

The first hills appeared near Smederevo, just south of the Danube. Had some of the sandwiches for lunch which Kača’s mum had prepared for me near that city.

Cycled east towards the Danube. Even though it is now hillier, the countryside is still used heavily for agriculture. Didn’t want to camp and asked for a hotel. The guy took a screwdriver and scratched a map into the rusty surface of the water tank his tractor was pulling (or was it pestizides?). He directed me to Veliko Gradište, which is somewhat off my route but I found a cheap and simple place to sleep here. The hotel is for sale, by the way. Contact me if you’re interested, I’ll give you the details. :)

Cycled: 115km (about 10 of which were ‘wasted’ by backtracking to Veliko Gradište)

A bit less than 700km to Varna.

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Veliko Gradište - Donji Milanovac

Not a successful day.

The ride along the Danube was nice. Traffic was low, almost negligible, the road was often in the shade and in relatively good condition. Did a little detour on an old part of the road through a beautiful valley.

The countryside is now almost mountainous and much more interesting. It is called the ‘Iron Gates’ Gorge and here the Danube marks the border between the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkans. I was riding on the southern bank of the river while Romania begins on the northern one.

Unfortunately, the head wind prevented me from setting new speed and distance records. Most of this road is also identical with the Eurovelo 6, a cycling trail that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Black Sea.

So I ended up in Donji Milanovac, a pretty touristy and comparatively expensive town.

From here the Danube makes a short detour to the north, where the Iron Gates Gorge continues, while I had hoped to continue uphill to Negotin and Bulgaria. But it was too late to attempt the crossing today.

Cycled: 79km

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