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.

Donji Milanovac – Vidin

From here the Danube is forced to turn north due to some hills. It continues to form the Iron Gate Gorges. I turned south instead to cut off that bend. First the road followed a number of small streams to a high plateau, then descended to Negotin, the last city in Serbia before the Bulgarian border.

In the center of Negotin I met 5 other cyclists traveling on Eurovelo 6. Frank & Franka (going to Indonesia), Sabine & Vincent (going to the Black Sea), and Piet (going to Iran). Joined them for lunch and for the rest of the ride to Vidin in Bulgaria. They’re a fun bunch to cycle with.

Piet went across the border first because he didn’t have a Serbian entry stamp in his passport. The grim-looking and unfriendly lady who checked our passports noticed this fact immediately but let him through eventually. On the Bulgarian side the officers where much friendlier and they even stamped our passports just for the fun of it (Bulgaria is a EU member).

Bregovo, on the Bulgarian side of the border crossing, is a pretty run-down village. We missed the turn-off to the Eurovelo6 along the Danube and cycled straight on to Vidin.

Shopped for food in Vidin and then started looking for a suitable camp site at the Danube. Got stopped by the police and our passports checked. They probably tried to tell us that camping wasn’t possible/allowed here but we continued anyway and found a place after nightfall. Cooked some fine dinner, had a quick swim in the Danube and went to bed after midnight.

Fun Fact about Bulgaria: The meaning of nodding and shaking one’s head is reversed, that is, Bulgarians shake their head in agreement and nod in disagreement.

Top speed: 63kph
Cycled: 115km

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Vidin – Oryachovo

Got up at 7.30am or so because it was too hot in the tent already. The site we’d picked was indeed great. Secluded, private beach, nice view at the bridge that is being built across the Danube.

We all had breakfast and a quick swim in the Danube and left at 11am. I took the ferry across the river to Calafat, Romania, while the Funny Five continued their ride on the Bulgarian side. I’d have liked to cycle with them, but reaching the next ferry in Varna has highest priority for now. The Romanian road cuts off a bend of the Danube and my hope is to save some time here.

Border formalities were hassle-free.

For some reason the phone/GPS died shortly after the crossing and I wasn’t able to revive it for the time being, so I was unable to (re-)visit degree confluence 44°N, 23°E near Calafat.

So I rode directly to Bechet, from where another ferry brought me back to Bulgaria. Staying near the town of Oryachovo, which is located on a hill-side facing the Danube.

The Romanians are very friendly. Kids high-fived me, elders sitting in the shade in front of their houses greeted, and girls waved when I rode past.

Cycled: 109km

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Oryachovo – Pleven

Something’s wrong with my cycling motivation. Left too late and called it a day too early, despite the tailwind. In Pleven, just 84km from Oryachovo.

The Romanian countryside on the left bank of the Danube is pretty flat. On the right bank a hill rises like a dyke (though quite a bit higher) and behind that it’s slow-rolling hills.

Two days and 330km left to Varna. :(

Cycled: 84km

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Pleven - Popovo

Left early-ish. Roads were mostly very good and the countryside wasn’t too hilly. Had a bit of a tail wind and did more than 30kph easily at times. Using the road I was riding on from Pleven wasn’t permitted for either cyclists nor horse-drawn carriages. But not even the police seemed to care when I rode past. Traffic was OK. Temperatures peaked at over 40°C (in the sun) again.

At Byala I retreated to smaller roads with less traffic (and lower quality at times). There’s a ‘lateroman’ fortress called ‘Kovachevsko Kale’ near the road, of which only (restored) foundations are visible.

I’m now in Popovo, about 160km from Varna, a sleepy town of about 15000 inhabitants.

Music in Bulgaria (the contemporary pop I’ve heard so far) has a Turkish/Near East-ish touch to it.

I’ve been asked why I do this trip.
Why do I do trips like this one in general? Because I’m interested in other cultures, other countries, other people. Because I want to see how people live in non-western societies. Because I’m curious. Because I can. ;)
Why do I do this trip? Because I want to see the Georgian and Armenian medieval towers and churches.

Cycled: 148km

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Popovo – Varna

I made it to Varna. In time for the ferry to Georgia.

Left early but the road was hilly and hard work. I’d just had a short break in the shade of a tree and was moving again when a refreshing drizzle started that became a full-blown shower within seconds. No place to hide and too warm for rain gear, and too late anyway as I was soaking wet within the minute. Dirt, sun creme and sweat washed into my eyes, visibility was 3 meters tops. Not really the best conditions for cycling.

Another heavy shower later.

Climbed what should have been the last hill before Varna. Varna in the distance in front of the blue Black Sea. A ray of sunshine poking through the clouds illuminating the white-washed city. Well. Nope. Grey suburbs in the faaar distance. No Black Sea. No romance. More hills. Prostitution on the road side.

Finally arrived in the city and stopped at the curb to look at the map. Was approached by a woman who helped me find a lovely hotel right in the city center.

Had a stroll around the city center. Varna is nice, I really like it. It’s a mix of old and new architecture (I prefer the old, semi-desolate houses), lots of people on the streets, the main pedestrian zone ends directly at the Black Sea.

Cycled: 154km

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Varna

Contacted the ferry operator. It turned out the ship leaves on Friday, June 10th, not tomorrow, and goes to Batumi instead of Poti. While the different port of call is not really a problem, the change of date is unfortunate.

The boat trip takes 2.5 days. The distance is about 1150km, roughly the same as what I’ve cycled from Budapest.

So, I guess I’ll have a lot of time to finish my todo list, and to relax for a few more days.

Had dinner with Ari and Elad, two Israeli guys. One is 70 and has some unfinished business to take care of here, the other is 27 and is going to open a yoghurt bar in the city center.

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Varna – Batumi

My contact at the shipping agency had told me to be at the ferry terminal in Beloslav at 10am on Friday, June 10. Beloslav is about 25km from Varna, at the south-western shore of Lake Varna.

Had a strong head wind but managed to be there on time. Was then sent to passport control, to the ship, to the agent, to customs, and finally back to the ship where I had to wait for another 30 minutes. Paid my fare (but got no receipt or ticket) and got permission to board at noon. Even got some lunch.

Cycled: 27km

With me in the cabin were Zoltán, a Hungarian Romanian, and Alex, a Georgian French. Zoltán speaks English, but Alex doesn’t. Apart from French and Georgian, Alex speaks some Russian. Zoltán understands some French, due to its similarity to Romanian. I do, too, and I speak a tiny bit of Russian. So communication between the three of us was a weird mix of at least two languages.

Everyone else on the ship was either crew or truck driver.

Waiting for departure. Watched trucks and rail cars being loaded ’til we could watch no more. We were not allowed to leave the ship. By 11pm the ferry hadn’t moved so much as a centimeter.

We finally departed on Saturday morning at 8am, after almost 22 hours of waiting.

The journey was uneventful. We anxiously watched our progress on my phone’s GPS, but at 20kph there is not much progress to report within a few hours.

The most exciting sight, besides the three meals we got each day, were the dolphins that accompanied the ship.

Today, on the third day of the journey, about 35km from Batumi we were able to identify the first buildings of the city at the horizon. And the mountains behind it. Holy crap, those are mountains! And that’s only the seaside end of the Lesser Caucasus. How mighty must the Greater Caucasus be?! I started to have some doubts about bringing a bicycle to this country.

We moored in Batumi around 6pm. Immigration and customs, we were told, would take about two to three hours, but in fact it was pretty much hassle-free. My passport was checked and I got a neat stamp that permits me to stay in Georgia for up to 360 days. We left the ‘Geroite na Odessa’ (‘Heroes of Odessa’) after almost 82 hours and touched Georgian soil at approx. 8pm Georgian time. Another passport check, and Zoltán and I walked towards the city center just around the corner.

Sailed: ~1150km

Checked into the Batumi Hostel, identifiable only by a tiny label made of duct tape on a nondescript door.

Batumi is a very nice little city of about 120.000 people. Located very close to the border with Turkey (about 20km), it is the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara within Georgia. Again I’m awestruck by the architecture in the old town (where the hostel is conveniently located).

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Batumi

Georgia, land of massive mountains, wonderful wines, horrible wars. Kindergarten of Christianity (Georgia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as state religion, in 337 AD, second only to Armenia). Country of birth of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, commonly known as Joseph Stalin.

Georgia, one of the main destinations of this trip. As mentioned yesterday, seeing the mountains in Batumi’s backyard made me nervous about my mode of transport. Then again, of course, the passes and valleys that roads and tracks go along are not as high as the peaks. I have only a faint idea of the quality of road surfaces here. I’ve been lured into trusting maps before; that’s not going to happen again. I’ll expect the worst and I’ll be full of joy if conditions turn out to be better. I’m looking forward to traveling here.

Georgia, land of unrivaled hospitality. Zoltán and I were sitting in the hostel chatting with Lasha and Nino, working here, and Bori, another Hungarian guest. I don’t know how it happened but all of a sudden there were salad and cheese on the table, and Lasha went to get vodka and beer. Not long thereafter we were having a supra, a traditional Georgian festive drinking ceremony. At one point two friends of Nino’s and Lasha’s joined us, Anna and Kati, who, eventually, turned out to be complete strangers who’d just walked past our open door and were invited like friends. They even sang and danced for us.

Georgia, land of chaotic traffic and hot-blooded men (and women). A guy just crashed his car into a brimmed marshrutka (mini-bus) right outside our window. People almost started a fight over this in the street, but helped the guy leave before the police arrived.

Georgia!

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Machakhela Valley & Batumi

After saying Good Bye to Zoltán and later Bori, I jumped on the bike for a little ride to the countryside. Left Batumi to the south but soon turned east and rode up in a valley parallel to the Turkish border. Came to a sign showing a rough map of the next valley and a few sights: some historical arch bridges, two fortresses, and an ethnographical museum.

Steep, forrested slopes left and right, but for most of the time the track didn’t climb much, only the last few kilometers were somewhat steep at times. Cows roaming around freely. Saw some of the bridges, but couldn’t find the fortresses.

In what seemed to be the village before the last one, Kokoleti, I stopped and was approached by an older guy. We quickly found the lowest common denominator for communication: Russian. He was curious about my destination. I learned that the place Kokoleti was named after the family living there and I had to admit that I didn’t know them and had no intention of visiting them. I also learned that Kokoleti was just 2 kilometers away, but further up in the mountains, and the track leading there looked like hard work. Furthermore he told me that the ethnographical museum was visible from where we were. Unfortunately, it was on the opposite side of the river, and a bit higher up than we already were.

So I turned around to go back to Batumi. Not much later another guy stopped me. We didn’t find a common language but I understood that he wanted to try my bike! He was too short and neither managed to reach the pedals from the seat nor to ignore the seat and cycle in a standing position. I’m not sure he has ever used a bicycle before.

Returned to Batumi and after a quick shower went to the ‘Espresso Bar Sinatra’ just around the corner from the hostel. Met Natia there, the owner, who’d returned from her studies in Tübingen a month ago and speaks German fluently. She was happy to be able to practice her German and invited me to a glass of wine, which soon turned into a bottle. The best wine I’ve ever tasted, as far as I can remember. From the Alazani Valley, whereever that is. Delicious.
Edit: The Alazani Valley is ‘the center of the Georgian wine industry’, according to Wikipedia, and it’s located in the east of the country. The Alazani river forms part of the Border to Azerbaijan.

Today is one of two total lunar eclipses in 2011, and Georgia is in the part of the world from where it is completely visible. There’s no clouds in the sky and visibility is indeed perfect.

Cycled: 78km

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Batumi

Lazy day.

Sent a parcel home with some souvenirs. Set me back 80 lari (a bit more than 30 Euros). Went to Natia’s café for a capuccino and got a bottle of Alazani Valley wine as present!

Later Roland and Thomas from Germany and Ulrich from Switzerland checked into the hostel. Went out for dinner and beer. They’re all extremely well-traveled and we swapped travel stories and experiences all night.

For example, all of us noticed that Germany and Germans have a very good reputation all over the world. None of us had any bad experiences related to our heritage. It is quite remarkable that, despite WWI and WWII being caused by Germany, relatively few people seem to have hard feelings against Germany. Apparently ‘we’ have worked hard over the last 70 years to gain this status.

As an example: From the moment the ‘Heroes of Odessa’ crew learned that I’m German I had a new nickname: ‘Deutschland’, and got double portions of food.

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Batumi Botanical Garden & Batumi

Woke up too late and was too lazy to leave today.
Instead went to the Batumi Botanical Garden with Thomas. Bordering the Black Sea north of Batumi and stretching across a number of hills and valleys, it is a nice mix of well-kept flower beds and managed wilderness.

Met a Polish couple who’d come here by motorbike. They said that they’d heard from other travelers that the track from Ushguli is not yet passable due to snow. I hope it will be by the time I get there.

Did some planning and read quite a bit in the Georgia/Armenia/Azerbaijan Lonely Planet I’d swapped for my Turkey one with Thomas/Roland. I now have a pretty good idea about where to go and what to do here in Georgia, and I even have a rough idea about the amount of time this is going to require.

Spent a lively evening with almost all the guests from the hostel, which is pretty much booked out for the weekend.

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Gonio Fortress & ... Batumi

Ok, didn’t leave today either.
Instead I went to a Roman fortress in a town nearby called Gonio with Simon and Stella, an English couple staying at the hostel. The fortress is quite well-preserved (well, the outer walls are) and impressive.

Solved a problem I had with my on-bike phone charger. Now I’m really ready to set off tomorrow. Thomas, the guy from Munich who I swapped Lonely Planets with is leaving, too. We agree that almost a week of hostel life is more than enough. And by now I really, really want to go and see all the stuff I’ve been reading about so much.
Thomas is hitch-hiking home along the southern Black Sea coast and got inspired by my ‘Kackar Mountains’ book to do some trekking on the way in Turkey.

Had a hair-cut and a shave for 5 lari (less than 2.50 Euros).

Got invited by Lasha to his parents’ place near Lagodekhi (which is located at the other end of Georgia) when I pass through there (approx. 4 weeks from now).

Had a weird evening with the people at the hostel. A 45-year-old American showed up. He almost drove some people crazy with his attitude (“all Germans hate Turkish people”) and was indeed challenging to have around after the first polite where-from/where-to phase (I went to dinner with him…).

I finally prepared photos to upload to the blog but then the Internet died. Yes, the entire Internet.

Anyway, Batumi is a really nice city and I had a lot of fun here. And I can definitely recommend the ‘Batumi Hostel’. It’s small and simple, and the staff/owner are exceptionally friendly.

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Batumi - Poti

It rained all night and all morning. Thomas left for Turkey and the Polish couple left for the ferry to Ukraine, which curiously is called ‘Greifswald’.

Accidentally met Bori, who’d come to Batumi with her Youth in Action-group.

Finally left for Poti and beyond. The countryside reminds me a bit of Madagascar’s east coast. Though, of course, flora, people and buildings look a bit different. Stopped at another Roman fortress, Petra, which is in less good shape than the one at Gonio, but it’s located on a spectatcular site on a clifftop above the Black Sea. Otherwise the ride was quick and uneventful.

Came to Poti and decided to have a look at the city and find a place to have dinner, then possibly to go on a bit to find a place to camp. Also stopped at an ATM to withdraw copious amounts of cash for the following weeks in the mountains. Who knows for what it’s going to be useful…

Near Poti’s port, Georgia’s most important one, by the way, I cycled past a police station. Interestingly, flag poles at most police stations carry the Georgian as well as the EU’s flag. Was stopped by three civilian-clad (and armed) guys who tried to interrogate me about my travel and sleeping plans. They didn’t speak English so one of them phoned an English-speaking colleague or whatever to do the questioning. I had to explain where I was going (“Mestia”) and where I wanted to spend the night (“Camping” – “What is camping?”). He then told me I’d stay in a hotel and that someone would bring me there – “so you are safe”. I asked why that was necessary and whether Poti was dangerous. He just repeated that it’d be better and I’d be safe there. So I had to follow two police officers (in uniforms this time) who drove their car to a house more or less right around the corner. The guy on the phone had told me that the escort was necessary because it would be too difficult to explain how to get there and I wouldn’t find it.
The police officers made sure that I checked in and even waited outside until my bike was tucked away in the garage.
I have no idea if all that was just friendly service, or paranoia, or good advice and necessary precautions. My guess and hope is it’s a mix of the former two options.

The place is strange. There are three large rooms with living room furniture and a couple of beds each, with one or two rooms branching off that look a bit more like hotel rooms. The girls working(?) here had no clue about the price and had to phone their boss. I probably got the rate for westerners.

Anyway, they invited me to dinner, which was much appreciated after the ride. There’s Indian music videos on TV here – Shah Ruk Kahn rulez, eh?

Heavy rain and thunderstorm after nightfall. Some of the windows are broken and it’s raining in.
At 10pm electricity died. Yes, in the entire town.

Cycled: 70km

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Poti - Zugdidi

Torrential rain fall continued until noon. Electricity was an on/off thing.

Headed for a restaurant near the police station where I was ‘caught’ yesterday. Had a delicious breakfast/lunch made of salad, eggs, sausages, bread and cheese khinkali (Georgian dumplings).

Left the hotel at 3pm(!) and cycled towards Zugdidi, northeast of Poti. The countryside here is really flat, almost like in northern Serbia. And after yesterday’s rain everything is flooded or at least swampy. A couple of pigs drowned during the night. I’m happy I followed the police’s ‘advice’ and didn’t camp here… Well, it would have been difficult to find a quiet spot anyway. There’s houses, fields or meadows everywhere along the road, and cows, pigs and horses walk about everywhere, including on the road. I don’t think there was much uninhabited/unused land next to the road today. Some of the villages stretched along the road for many a kilometer.

Arrived in Zugdidi at 6pm. The city is very close to the border to Abkhazia (approx. 6km from the city center), one of Georgia’s two Russian-backed break-away regions. The other is South Ossetia further to the east. Police and military presence is considerably higher here in Zugdidi than in e.g. Batumi, but not excessive.

Stopped at the curb of what seems to be the central boulevard to evaluate my options for the night. The weather was ok during the afternoon, but low-hanging dark clouds were always close by. Two youngsters on bicycles started talking to me. They were interested in my bike. Eventually they escorted me to a hotel that was just a tad more expensive than yesterday’s but looked like it might actually be water-proof.

From what I’ve seen on the TV news, the rainfalls have had quite a devastating impact in the mountains, with landslides destroying roads and villages. I have no idea where that was exactly, though, and whether or not it will effect my travels.

Cycled: 60km

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Zugdidi - Lakhani

More heavy showers during the night. My room was not entirely water-proof.

Left Zugdidi around 11am, had breakfast outside the city at a little shop.

The road was still flat until close to Jvari, where it descended into a wide valley which it followed to the northeast. On the other side of the valley the Greater Caucasus rises.

In Jvari it started to rain. I sought refuge under the roof of an abandoned petrol station for a few minutes, then cycled on. The road crossed the valley and then climbed into the mountains. First it followed a gorge, which was so steep and deep that at times I couldn’t see the river at the bottom. Then it crossed a pass and slowly descended towards an artificial reservoir lake, which it followed for the next couple dozen kilometers.

I came through tiny settlements and was a real attraction for everyone. A few days earlier, in Batumi, a Polish guy had told me that he’d met a Swiss guy on a bike who was going to Mestia, too. So I thought that maybe cyclists weren’t such an unusual sight here.

The rain finally stopped in the late afternoon. The countryside is magnificent. A steep forrested mountain side going up on one side of the road, and another one going down to the lake on the other side. The road was mostly good, except where it has been destroyed by fallen rocks or full-blown landslides (which appear to go down quite often, judging from the holes the road had).

Looked for a potential camp site but didn’t find much mostly because there was no room! Eventually I asked some folks (Giorgi and a friend) sitting in front of their house in a tiny village (about two or three inhabited houses) whether I could pitch tent on their lawn. Went to bed early.

Approx. 65km left to Mestia.

Cycled: 81km

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