Monday, June 20, 2011

Cracking Up in Sochi

Sochi, June 20th

I have been pretty lax about updating my blog since the beginning of the trip, but now that I have a few days off the bike, here in the Russian Riviera, it's a good chance for me to bring myself up to date.

I last wrote from Gori. After my day off there with Stalin (and the disturbing mementos: Stalin beer glasses? Busts? Wine? We've got them!) and the medieval cave city of Uplistsikhe, I rode for nine consecutive days, heading west, then looping north through the wonderful tower-studded valleys of Svaneti, before returning to the lowlands to head across the breakaway republic of Abkhazia and into Russia.

The two days I spent riding to Kutaisi, along the main east-west Georgian highway, were fairly dreadful in terms of cycling. The traffic was intense, full of aggressive lunatics in Ladas, the scenery was indifferent, and it spent much of both days raining. On the first night, I found myself staying in a room in a holiday dacha in an old Soviet spa town called Sorami, surrounded by quite lovely pine forests. I was glad to be indoors, as most of the afternoon and night saw an enormous downpour hammering down. The second night, in Kutaisi, I stayed with a cheerful Georgian family in their homestay near the cathedral of Kutaisi, which looked lovely from a distance but proved to be a ruin under scaffolding when I got closer.

From this point onwards, cycling got a lot harder. Two years ago, when I was last in Georgia, I rode up the three main roads leading into the Caucasus in eastern Georgia, but didn't have time to explore the most famous area in the Georgian mountains, the remote region of Svaneti. This year's swing through Georgia was largely planned in order to remedy this omission. I set off from Kutaisi on a four-day blitzkrieg mission to get to Svaneti and back. I chose to take a back road, up through the town of Lentekhi and Lower Svaneti, then up over the 2620-metre-high Zagar Pass and into Upper Svaneti. Most tourists skip this route, as few jeeps take this remote and poorly-maintained track, and I thought it would be good to take advantage of having my own wheels to explore it.

The ride to Lentekhi was remarkably easy, with pavement most of the way, despite reports to the contrary. I started out passing through the grand old sanatorium town of Tskaltubo, where the local police kindly escorted me through the unsigned maze of roads that made up the town. The road did not climb as much as I would have hoped in elevation, despite lots of annoying ups and downs over foothills to get into the right valley (the delightfully unpronounceable Tskhenistkali). There were beautiful sections of deep gorge, with walls of rock and forests of oak and hornbeam soaring overhead. Eventually the valley relented and a broad basin of agricultural villages flanked the road, with prosperous-looking orchards not yet bearing fruit. I got more attention from the police in Tsageri, and then, as the day ended and I found a secluded riverside campsite, another group of police showed up to make sure I was OK. I appreciated the concern, but not the fact that they returned at midnight and 5 am to wake me up and make sure I was OK. It was not a restful night!

The next day was brutally hard, as the road deteriorated into little more than a mudslide and I fought my way uphill past the zone of permanent settlement. I passed a deserted village (nobody had moved uphill for the summer grazing season yet) and camped at the head of a magnificent valley, with a huge peak soaring into the (rain)clouds and an immense glacier providing the start of a rushing mountain river. Unfortunately, this idyllic spot's charms were dampened by the unrelenting rain that had dogged me all afternoon, the horrific state of the jeep track (a pass by a bulldozer had only made it worse; I pushed the bike for a couple of hours, unable to ride) and the view just downstream. There, in the midst of this majestic scenery, the Soviets had put some sort of industrial operation, perhaps related to road construction, perhaps related to the military. It lay in ruins, surrounded by thousands of rusting metal barrels which coloured the soil and water. I have no idea what was in them, but it didn't look at all healthy. I stayed well uphill of this zone of poison and slept well on a bed of grass and spectacular wildflowers.

The next morning I awoke to yet more rain, and spent the morning pushing my bike up over the last few hundred vertical metres of the Zagar Pass, a wonderful area of pristine meadows, birds, frogs and wildflowers. There was still a lot of snow around, but luckily the bulldozer had cleared a path through the patches that had covered the road until a few days previously. When I finally reached the top, the descent proved to be almost as hard as the ascent, trying to keep my bike under control on the rockfall that was the road surface. The track would disappear periodically into bomb-crater-sized mud puddles that were remarkably hard to ride. Eventually, brakes locked, I slithered into Ushguli, the highest village in Svaneti, bristling with the medieval-looking defensive towers that make Svaneti legendary. The towers were there, but it was raining so hard it was hard to take out my camera and try to capture them. Eventually I gave up the struggle and headed down a narrow, gloomy gorge where the Ingur river starts its long march to the Black Sea. I bottomed out at another pretty, rainy village, then climbed up over a small pass to a tributary valley where it stopped raining for the first time in over 24 hours. The view down into this valley was enchanting, a series of villages, each boasting a half-dozen or more Svan towers, under the green slopes of the valley's forests and meadows, adorned with yellow rhododendron blooms. I took my share of photos, then bumped down to find a place to stay in Mestia, the region's capital.

Refreshed by some wonderful cooking at Nino's homestay, I set off early the next morning for what I hoped would be an epic day. The road down to Zugdidi had been described to me by locals as "normalno", but it was an endless morass of mud and construction for the first 90 km. The first few dozen kilometres gave me great views, as the sun had come out to reveal the high peaks of the Caucasus. I was particularly taken by the view of Ushba, the emblematic Svan summmit. After this, the road dropped into the deep gorge of the Ingur that swallowed up all expansive vistas. I kept soldiering on grimly, and eventually, halfway around a huge hydroelectric reservoir, I saw the first real pavement I'd seen in three days. Heartened by this, as well as by a couple of cups of wine and some food that were forced on me by a merry birthday party beside the road, I dug deep and rode hard until 9 pm, through the richest, lushest part of Georgia, getting to Zugdidi at dusk. I ate an enormous meal and slept like the dead after ten and a half hours and 140 km over terrible roads.

I awoke feeling surprisingly fresh and rode off to the Abkhaz border the next morning. I had waited months to get my permission to enter this self-declared independent state (it broke away from Georgia during a bloody 1992-93 war that saw 70% of the population flee to Georgia), and I was slightly nervous about the various visa and border-crossing problems that could arise. I needn't have worried. After a rather gruff interrogation from the Georgians, I made my way across my companion for the past two days, the Ingur River, and entered Abkhazia, unsure what to expect.

Southern Abkhazia, or at least what I could see of it through the steady rain, was a largely depopulated wasteland, with nature reclaiming hundreds of abandoned houses and overgrown orchards. I rode along, hoping to get to Sukhumi before 6 pm in order to get my visa at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. I showed up at 5, but was told that the bank at which I had to pay my fee was closed, and could I come back on Monday? I gritted my teeth, found an overpriced hotel, and settled in for the best sleep I'd had since the beginning of the trip.

I decided to try my luck at the northern border without a visa, and so set off to Gagra the next morning, after finding the only money-changer open on a Saturday. Abkhazia is off the world banking grid, so no ATMs and credit cards work there, and there are no private moneychangers. It added up to a late departure, but the ride to Gagra was short and easy, even with a stop to see the impressive Russian Orthodox monastery in Novy Afon (New Athos, as in Mt. Athos in Greece). Gagra was throbbing with Russian tourists, and I found a little homestay, went for a slightly disappointing swim, a satisfying supper and a beer at a nightclub that was full of Russian families dancing away with their children until the power went out all over town and we all went home to sleep at 10:30.

Yesterday I set off from Gagra for the border somewhat apprehensive. Would I be sent back to Sukhumi to collect my visa? Would I be told that I couldn't cross the border at all? (When I applied for my visa, I was told that it was forbidden to use Abkhazia to cross between Georgia and Russia.) As it turned out, after a pleasant seaside ride, with lovely vistas of forested mountains dropping into the Black Sea, the Abkhaz never even looked at me as I followed a line of Russian cars leading to the Russian passport post. A quick stamp, and I was into Russia.

Sochi is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the road leading from the border to Sochi is an endless construction zone that made riding very unpleasant. I was pleased to make it into town unscathed. Terri is joining me tomorrow for the next leg of this ride, so I will have a couple of days off the bike, good for letting tired muscles rebuild. Sochi so far seems like an overpriced, underwhelming beach resort full of the Russian nouveaux-riches. I am told that the coastline improves as you head northwest along the coast, so I'm hoping for better things soon.

More worryingly, I found a series of cracks in my rear wheel rim yesterday. This means that the wheel will have to be rebuilt with a new rim. I have to find the local bike mechanic this afternoon and make sure that he can do the job. This is the second rim that I have trashed on this bike; the first one was probably a freak flaw in the rim, but this wheel was never as robust as it should have been, and I'm a bit unhappy at the Swiss mechanics who looked it over and declared it fine a few weeks ago.

So from here, the plan is to ride through the Russian Riviera to the Crimea, crossing into the Ukraine, and then taking a ferry from Yalta to Odessa before riding into Trans-Dniestria, Moldova and Romania. I'm reading ahead in my Lonely Planet, getting excited about upcoming destinations. I can't wait!

Peace and Tailwinds


Friday, June 10, 2011

The Gori Details

June 10, Gori

I have never started a bike trip so slothfully. After two days of indolence in Tbilisi, I rode all of 85 km yesterday, getting here to Gori, Stalin's birthplace, and promptly took a day off. In my defence, I had planned to get here early enough in the day to go to the infamous Stalin Museum before it closed, but heat, hills, my own slowness and a flat tire right on the outskirts of town put paid to that plan, and once I had to stay here half the day, I decided to make a day of it and see the fortress of Uplistsikhe too.

To recap from the beginning, I got to Tbilisi late on Monday afternoon, after bad weather made me miss a connection in Munich. After too few hours sleeping in the luxurious Movenpick Hotel bed that Lufthansa gave me, I flew through Istanbul to Tbilisi and went to bed exhausted.

My two full days in Tbilisi were great fun. The last time I was here, 2 years ago, I arrived shattered from a series of big mountain passes on the bicycle, so I really just sat around and ate. This time I found the energy to explore the restored Old Town (quite Persian in its feel, although also a bit too cute for its own good), soak in the famous hot springs that were Tbilisi's original reason for existence (Pushkin's favourite bath of his life happened there) and look at the impressive collection of gold and silver ornaments at the remarkably empty National Museum. I also ate lots of good food (khinkali, khachapuri and shashlik) and had perhaps one or two too many beers the last night while listening to live music at the Irish pub Dublin.

I have been feeling very tired since the end of the school year, perhaps relief from tension, and so this was probably not the best way to start my bike trip: already tired, and with too few hours of quality sleep. Whatever the reason, it was a slow, surprisingly tiring first day from Tbilisi to Gori. I took a back road south of the Mtkvari river, and so at least missed the appalling post-Soviet driving on the main road. A tourist I met called the way Georgians drive "apocalyptic", and he's not far wrong: weaving randomly around, taking corners at speeds incompatible with the miserable brakes and tires that their antiquated cars sport, never signalling, and treating traffic lights as a mild suggestion. I was tired by the time I got within sight of Gori, only to run over a thorn and lose 30 minutes of Stalin-gazing to repairing the flat tire.

The museum today was disturbing. A lot of money and effort was put into the museum in Soviet times, building a big edifice vaguely reminiscent of El Escorial, putting the old shack in which young Iosif Jugashvili spent his first few years under an Egyptian-style temple enclosure, and building up a comprehensive hagiography of Saint Joseph Stalin. There are a few glaring omissions in the story of The Man Who Saved Russia And The World. Look as I might, I could not see a single picture of Trotsky, Stalin's rival whom he had ice-picked to death in his Mexican exile. There was not a single mention of the Ukrainian and Kazakh famines, the Great Terror of the 1930s, the Gulag or any other possible character flaws. Lots of Father of the Nation photos, but no mention that most of the people in pictures with him in the 1920s would be shot in the purges a decade later. Only at the very end, after the room with his death mask in a circular Pantheon-like enclosure, is there a brief display of books about Stalin, not all of which are complimentary. But then outside, at the gift shop, they seem to be doing a brisk trade in 20-dollar busts, 15-dollar beer glasses and commemorative plates. It made me fairly nauseous, especially the faux-religious atmosphere (shared with the Maosoleum in Beijing and the tomb of Ho Chin Minh in Hanoi).

The ruins at Uplistsikhe, on the other hand, were much better than advertised. Like Vardzia and Davit Gereja, these are cave churches hollowed out of the soft sandstone cliffs beside the river outside Gori. The rock is soft enough that most of the ceilings have collapsed, but the walls and floors still stand, showing both early Christian churches (as in Cappadocia, in Turkey) and pre-Christian temples. It was pretty and breezy and there were great views, so it was a lovely spot to wash away the post-Stalin-Museum aftertaste from my mouth.

Tomorrow, it's back to the bike, riding towards Svaneti. I finally have my Abkhazian "visa" so I should be good to ride through that breakaway republic and out the other side to Sochi. If that doesn't work, I'll have to hop a bus to Trabzon in Turkey and catch a ferry from there to Sochi.

Peace and Tailwinds


Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Freedom of the Eastern Roads

Leysin, Switzerland, June 4

The school year has come to an end, and while I need to put up some pictures and stories from the spring term and the great cycling that I've enjoyed, it's time to talk briefly about this summer's upcoming travels.

I'm flying to Tbilisi, Georgia tomorrow evening, with my trusty Rocky Mountain bicycle, ready for two and half months of travelling the eastern fringe of Europe. I love having a long, continuous block of time for travel, and the summer vacations here at Leysin American School are ideal for that. I also love filling in blanks on my personal map of the world, and the east of Europe, particularly the ex-Soviet fringe, is terra incognita for me for the most part. I should, if all goes well, visit eleven new countries (nine real countries, and two pseudostates--Abkhazia and Trans-Dniestria), bringing me over the 100-country mark in terms of my lifetime total. After this summer, the only European countries that I won't have visited at least once will be Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Finland and (randomly) Slovenia.

So the plan is to fly to Tbilisi tomorrow and ride up to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, from where I will return to Leysin on August 18th. The projected itinerary is the following:

Sochi (Russia)
Kerch (Ukraine)
Ferry to Odessa
N. Romania
Lvov (Ukraine)
W. Belarus

It should be about 5500 km or so of cycling, depending on exact routes. I may also, if I have enough time, nip into the funny little Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (the former East Prussian city of Konigsberg) on the way out of Vilnius.

I'm looking forward to the trip a lot. It has been a tiring school year here, and I need to clear out the mental and emotional cobwebs, and I find the road and the simplicity and discipline which it imposes is perfect for just that. I just finished reading a meticulously researched, compelling and somewhat depressing book called Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder. It explores the mass killings perpetrated by Stalin and Hitler in the lands between Russia and Germany from 1932 to 1947. My route this summer basically rolls over and through the Bloodlands, making for a slightly grim theme tying together the various countries along the route.

I hope to keep the blog updated at least weekly, although that may depend a bit on computer access and internet quality. I hope that the pictures, maps, stats and stories keep you entertained as you follow the blog.

Peace and Tailwinds