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Inspired by gorgeous Georgia


“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.” – Douglas Adams After the French package holiday resorts of Samarkand and Bukhara, Turkmenistan was certainly different. A flat, dull desert smudged with only a handful of flat, dull towns, Turkmenistan has little a traveller would wish to linger over. But as is often the case with countries so painfully mediocre, their officials have a misguided notion that they are running the Garden of Eden and treat would-be visitors with suspicious scorn rather than a more appropriate surprised gratitude that somebody actually wants to enter their country rather than just get out. Which is all a long-winded, Turkish coffee-fuelled way of saying that I was only granted a 7 day transit visa with which to cover 1800km of Turkmenistan: an impossible task. Turkmenistan is hot, even by Central Asian standards (45C), its food is dreary, even by Central Asian standards, and its President is completely bonkers- by anyone’s standards! His smiling, seemingly benevolent portrait is everywhere, and a country with more photos of the president than road signs has surely taken a wrong turn somewhere. President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov’s eccentricities are endless: he has named cities, a month and even a meteorite after himself. He has penned a very odd book of his version of history, religion and the meaning of life which all citizens must study (http://www.turkmenistan.gov.tm/ruhnama/ruhnama-eng.html ). Just last week a copy of this holy book, the Ruhnama, was fired up into space for posterity. Statues of him are everywhere but the pick of them is in the capital city, Ashgabat: a 12 metre gold statue that revolves through the day to follow the sun. He is so absurd that he reminds me of the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Camels, accustomed to cars, would flee in fear from the strange appearance of my bicycle, running away from me down the shimmering desert road like women running in flipflops- ankles kicking out and feet flapping. I was stopped at a ridiculous number of police roadblocks where barely literate young policemen laboriously copied my passport and visa details into dog-eared school exercise books with varying levels of inaccuracy. And so passed the days and kilometres in Turkmenistan. As I tried to leave the country and board the ferry across the Caspian Sea the Customs police busted me for not having registered my presence in the country with the appropriate completely pointless bureaucracy. Whilst they laughably tried to fine me more than their entire annual salary for this crime I tried to explain to them that this rule actually no longer existed. After 9 very boring hours in various police offices they eventually agreed with me. I was released and very happy to leave Turkmenistan, not least of all because, despite the endless posturing and officious police checks not one of them had noticed that I had actually forged my visa dates to give myself nine days in order to be able to ride the whole way across Turkmenistan. The Caucasus was a breath of fresh air. Cool breezes blew, the sun calmed down and there were no more police checkpoints. Leaving the ferry in Baku, Azerbaijan was a big culture shock: I was back amongst shops that sold stuff, banks that had money, the first McDonald’s since Beijing and all the other trappings that accompany oil wealth. It was Friday night and rich, beautiful people were enjoying the warm evening. I was filthy, stinking and sitting on a pavement fixing my gears. A black Mercedes filled with girls and a smug guy stopped beside me. “Welcome to Baku. Can I help you?” he asked kindly. “Well actually, I was just wondering where I could get hold of a fancy car and a few babes to cruise the streets with on a Friday night….” I should have replied but of course didn’t think to do so. How Oscar Wilde, entering the USA in his new blue denims must also have wished he had thought of something wittier to say to the Customs Officer than “I have nothing to declare except my Jeans”. In fact I actually did not need help: I was on my way to stay at the Red Roof Guesthouse (www.redroof.az) and complete my return to hedonism with the wonders of perforated toilet paper, a shower, a bed with a sheet and HP sauce and beans on toast for breakfast. When one door closes you just have to find another one to pass through. If I had been allowed into Iran I would not have visited the Caucasus. I am now very glad that I did. (Although I must note that having now seen what the people there look like it has rather cast doubts on my long-held assumption that I am Caucasian…). Baku had a beautiful old town, a chaos of tangled alleyways, cafes and carpet shops inside stout city walls. But Georgia was the gem. In fact it was one of the gems of my whole ride. That I did not need a visa to enter the country was a very good start. It was a beautiful country with green fields and forests and craggy mountains on which clung churches and monasteries of stunning age and atmosphere. Tblisi was a gorgeous ramshackle city set on a river. Old streets of winding smooth grey cobbles, quiet alleys and charming ancient churches amongst it all. The aptly named town of Gori was rather odd: it was Stalin’s birthplace and he is still their favourite son. A sizeable statue of him enjoys centre stage in the town. It is hard to imagine the Austrians being quite so nostalgic of their own homegrown mass murderer. The Black Sea region felt like the Tropics, with fragrant fruit for sale everywhere and steep hills covered in thick shining vegetation and tea plantations. The resort of Kobuleti was pretty nasty, with crowds of white-bellied Russians strutting their sunburn, shiny shorts, tattoos and gold chains up and down the beach. It did look though like a good place to come if you want to cut out the middle men at russianwives.com. But the greatest delight of Georgia was the food. On taking my first mouthful of Georgian food my eyes literally opened wide with surprise. Numbed by the incredible mediocrity of Central Asian eating I was stunned by food that had taste, texture, spices and, above all, calories! I don’t know what kind of sissy food Lance and his leg-shaving buddies eat but they really should be tucking into the cheese pastries (‘kachapura’) to which I was instantly addicted. And after Georgia came Turkey. I rode through Turkey in 2001 on my way to Africa and now I was back again. Since I had been away they had chopped several zeros from the currency but not much else had changed. Moustaches were still large and plentiful and kebabs even more so. Whereas last time Turkey had been the beginning of chaos and exoticism, now it felt like the start of the amazingly luxurious and easy West. The ride across Turkey was not much fun. The roads are narrow and busy and the populace seem to have mistaken last week’s inaugural Turkish Grand Prix for a demonstration of the Correct and Proper Way to Drive on the Public Roads of Turkey. But the scenery was nice along the Black Sea and the people very friendly (except for the podgy road-rage chap who ran after me in his greasy wife-beater vest brandishing a cyclist-beating rolling pin) and the riding was easy. And so four years to the day since I left home I took the short ferry ride across the Bosphorus from Asia back to Europe. The minarets of the spectacular Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia still speared the sky over Istanbul as they had on the morning I last took this ferry on my way out of Europe, homesick and very afraid of what lay ahead of me on my journey. But this time it was a much happier ferry ride. This time I had made it round the world by bike. Now I’ve just got to get back home. BOOK RECOMMENDATION: The End of Poverty – Jeffrey Sachs A TRAVELLER with a difference: http://OnaMissionFromDog.com If you have enjoyed following my journey perhaps you would like to make a donation to support ‘Hope and Homes for Children’ at www.justgiving.com/roundtheworld. Or find about more about the bikeride at www.roundtheworldbybike.com

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