Tiki Tour

Hola Amigos! It’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but things have been pretty busy with your pal Sol.

I expanded my free time about a month ago by working part-time – so only Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for me. After putzing around in my new found time trail running, freediving, and online courses for about a month, my travel plans hatched. First on the docket is a tiki-tour of the South Island. I got a hookup with the director of the observatory at Lake Tekapo (run by the University of Canterburry) to do an oversight observation session with resident astronomers on the MOA telescope. Possibly the coolest science instrument in New Zealand, I planned my 3.5 day trip around it. The telescope stares at the milky way and detects differences in brightness over the course of hours to days caused by gravitational microlensing (read up on wikipedia if you’re curious). TL;DR: fog was so thick I could barely find my way to the telescope building, much less see anything. You don’t win them all.

On the otherwise non-eventful plane ride from Auckland to Christchurch, I decide to get my hair cut. It’s been growing for the better part of 16 months and was getting pretty ratty, so time for a change. Out of the plane, into the rental car, out to a cafe for brunch. By pure coincidence, I discovered a barber shop across the street while munching on my bagel sandwich. Snip, snip, and I’m headed out West via Arthur’s Pass.

Driving on the straight and flat Canterbury roads up to the mountains allows the mind to run wild. I quickly accrete stereotypes: The South Island is white, rural, and cold. In fact, I think I only saw a single Maori in my whole trip. I make a few stops and end up at Arthur’s Pass around 4pm. I stood reading a note on the only hostel in town (note: the hotel closed and the other hostel burned down) when I turned around and saw a bike tourer approaching. We hit it off, he’s Canadian and traveling for a few weeks inbetween jobs at a ski resort. I go off for a short hike in the wet thick bush and when I return, three young women are now in the dorm. One is an American from Montana on her first overseas trip and two Germans. They are all live-in-nannying for rich parents in Christchurch for gap year. I think this is a bit odd for reasons I can’t reproduce now, but I suppose it’s a win-win. The hostel (YHA) is by far the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Nice beds, clean bathrooms and an immaculate kitchen.

Immaculate Hostel. SEA take note

Immaculate Hostel (YHA, Arthur’s Pass). SEA take note

Summer homes (“batches” in Kiwi) in Arthur’s Pass have a distinctive pastel-metal-cladding style. They seem to be kept in good condition and despite being utilitarian, look better than many Auckland homes (there’s no accounting for bad taste).

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I wake up fairly early, microwave a meat pie I saved from the other night for breakfast, and started the drive to Mt. Cook, having to backtrack slightly. The weather starts to clear and the sun pokes out around Lake Tekapo. The raw beauty of the South Island is unmatched so far. The water even looks turquoise through my color slanted vision.

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But no time to waste! I still have some hiking at Mt. Cook planned for this day. Managing to avoid swerving into the opposing lane of mostly campervan while admiring the scenery, I roll into Mt. Cook Village. This is definitely a tourist area – two very nice restaurants (but that’s it!), a nice resort, a hostel, many motels, and open campground. Accommodation for all! This peak peaked my interest and due to it’s prominence I initially thought it was Mt. Cook (false! but I haven’t found the proper name yet). It looks computer generated.

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The trail to Mt. Cook was fun, with three bouncy suspension bridges.

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At the hostel, I meet a Portuguese IT professional who worked in Wellington but recently quit to travel in the South Island. He was very interested in Space, and a few hours after sunset I wrangled in a polish woman and french man to go out and shoot the milky way. The South Island is the land of the DSLR’s, but it’s surprising how little some people know about taking a photo with one. Maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised. Unfortunately, the shots didn’t turn out well because of the lights from the resort (lame!) and a dust that kicked up shortly after we set up our shot. The next morning, the Portuguese IT guy, a German woman, and myself did a quick trip out to Blue Lake and the Tasman Glacier. The glacial lake is beautiful and deep turquoise. The glacier is receding at over 0.5 km per year (!), though it’s not clear to me if this is natural in the lifecycle of a glacier.

I pack up, say goodbye, and start the drive back to Tekapo to the observatory. This section is very uninteresting and I only got one photo of the whole thing:

MOA Telescope

MOA Telescope

Highlands

Today’s ride was tough. I now know why Balinese call bicycles “push bikes” trudging up ridiculous grades to a mountain pass. Luckily I have time and my backpack isn’t very heavy. Add rain, a sore throat, and a feeling of low energy and this day was pretty short!

The first order of business today was to watch the launch of SES8 on the Falcon 9. I woke up around t-minus 30 minutes. Amazingly, I watched a live broadcast of a rocket going to space from a handheld device on an island across the world. The future is now! I got on my bike to visit the Uluandu Balinese temple perched on the coast of a mountain lake. I have to say it was fairly unremarkable, but I’ve certainly been desensitized after seeing so many beautiful temples all around the island. I slowly see the demographic change to more Muslim as I head into the north.

I ascended to about 1300 meters, only slightly below a thick cloud layer. I suspect this cloud layer is permanent in this rainy reason. Although it shielded me from the sun a bit, it made views less spectacular. On the descent, I passed many shops selling civet coffee, I’ll let you google that. I ended up rolling into an all-in-one homestay restaurant tour agency and tattoo parlor (why not?….) around 5:30. The price was better than I expected, about $11, and has a really nice view of the mountains and western accommodation (hot shower, electricity, towels, toilet paper)

The prices of massages here are awesome, so I’m going to get a Balinese massage in an hour. If only I had this luxury in Europe! Touring in Bali is pretty different than Europe in many ways: first, the roads are steep and unsigned. I use an awesome application, pocket earth, which caches offline map data from OSM and OCM so I can see where I’m going without asking people at every intersection.

Second, there’s not really any stealth camping spots. Roads are pretty busy everywhere, and I think I’d have a tough time camping most nights. Accommodation is everywhere, though, and because a tour of Bali is so short the accommodation doesn’t add up to be super expensive.

Third, it would be silly to carry any cooking gear. Food is everywhere, delicious, and very inexpensive, $1-$3 for a good meal at a warung.

The locals drivers accommodate bicycles much better than any European county I biked through!

This guy is cooking my sate with a fan.

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Cool temple

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Rice, Rice, Baby! The flags are attached together with string, so when the guy pulls on the string, all the flags move and birds are scared off!

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After riding my way up a ridiculously steep hill, I passed a bunch of men and (gorgeous!) women. Turns out I was at the end of a big ceremony!

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Ubud and the Road Ahead

Wow, a lot has happened since my last post. I decided to stay on Gili T after Edwin left and get my Rescue Diver certification. People say that it’s the only worthwhile PADI certification out there, and I tend to agree with them (after a very bad AOW instructor).

Although the diving in Gili T isn’t really that great (certainly not worth the hype, especially compared to Tulamben), there is a glut of five star PADI and SSI schools on the island. This makes for an instructor war which increases the quality of the instruction. I had an excellent instructor, Daris from Blue Marlin dive, along with two dive masters in training for my three day rescue class. I learned quite a bit through contrived but necessary examples. The first exercise was to gather my gear, from the bottom of the pool, across the pool, in one breath! Never knew I could hold my breath for so long.

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The party atmosphere combined with $200 being stolen out of my hotel room made me leave the island once my class was done. I set my sights in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. Imagine a city comprised of thirty something new-agers riding around on motorbikes and you have a pretty good feel of the city. Yoga and meditation classes and retreats are offered for a spectacularly high price that must make the locals’ eyes roll all the way to the back of your head. Coincidently, also a yoga technique that’s taught in the workshops.

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Ubud is where all of the stone and wood carvings on the island originate, among silver and gold jewelry. You can buy pretty much anything here, from a custom ordered bison wood carving to a crystal necklace. Luckily for me, there’s also a nice bike shop! GPS coordinates (8.51908S 115.26875E). They mostly sell new polygon bikes which seem pretty solid. A few used (second push bike) bikes are available and I picked one up for $80 in pretty good condition, with a promise from the owner to buy back at 60% of the price! I opted for a helmet ($12, wow!) and a better saddle. They set me up with a nice back rack with jury rigged handlebars attached with spare tube and zip ties so I could haul my backpack. I’m now on the first night on my tour in Batu Riti after a grueling 7371593463 meter climb which took about 5 hours.

Back to Ubud: I met Marco, an Italian traveler with a guitar, on the bus from Padang Bai to Ubud. We decided to cut costs and get a room together and ended up at a homestay close to the center for about $8 each. Even the homestays in Ubud are adjunct temples! Beautiful decoration in the wood and stone work, with a grandmotherly figure to boot. Weena waited up for us until 3am the first night, and cooked a delicious banana pancake and fruit salad in the morning.

Marco and I were up to explore the town after our absurdly inexpensive massages and started walking the streets with a bintang in hand. After live music at a hookah lounge, we end up at the only late night destination in Ubud, CP. We played some pool and met two Indonesian women, Mira and Ari, and in a light stupor agreed to meet up the next day. While enjoying the morning pancakes and waiting out the rain playing guitar, Mira bicycles over. She toured Bali and Lombok on bicycle, so we immediately hit it off. Miraculously, the rain stopped and Marco rented a bike. We were ready to roll!

Mira took us around the Ubud area at a breakneck pace, feather earrings flying as wildly as her limbs as she listens to her headphones while we try to keep up. We saw gorgeous temples, rice terraces, and freaky scarecrows before eating food from the Padang region (West Sumatra, where Mira is from). To reiterate, there’s only awesome and super awesome food on this island, and this was in the latter category.

On the way back, Mira took us to a secret part of the river which carved out huge water channels that you could sit in. Felt better than the massage! We were burning time until we would meet back up with Ari at an “ecstatic dance” at the yoga barn. This turned out to be totally insane, and my first ecstatic dance experience. It is simply a huge dance floor with a DJ playing weird music and everybody dancing like a maniac for two hours. I started laughing at first but got into it!

After the dance, we got food with Ari and Nina joining the group. More Padang food … excellent. We made plans to travel by bicycle to Sanur, then take the ferry to Nusa Panida, a large island in the South East of Bali, and relax on the beach. Fast forward and at 5pm we’re in on an untouristy island riding motorbikes to Crystal Bay. We got a tip from a local that the bay next to Crystal Bay was even better. With essentially no proper planning, the five of us end up on a deserted picture perfect beach with a three person tent, one sleeping bag, ten liters of water and a bag of peanuts. We made the best of it and snorkeled, buried Nina in sand (yes we remembered her before we left!), and jumped through hoops before sleeping on the beach.

We got a good nights sleep and the next afternoon Mira, Marco and I went to a Hindu spiritual purification ceremony, about two hours by bike from Ubud. Mira had been there before and obviously speaks bahasa so we navigated our way to the temple. The process was strange for me (also not certain why I need purification) and started with a ten minute meditation with the healer (maybe oracle would be a better term, apparently she gives advice and can see the future) followed by a cleansing with liters of water poured on your head, always with her chanting in beautiful tones. Marco and I were among the few white people there, with maybe 30 people being purified in about an hour. Many locals (especially the women) let out intense sounds when water was poured in them – from orgasmic to crying to dry heaving. I can’t say that I had a strong experience, but it certainly gives people an outlet for whatever they may need to tell to the world. It’s times like these where I take comfort my belief of the Scientific Method.

We had a going away dinner that night for Nina, who is returning to the US next week. Marco turned to the stove and cooked a delicious pasta dish and I provided the red wine. We said our goodbyes and Marco and I left the next day to Thailand, and I started my bike tour!

Rice fields near Ubud

Rice fields near Ubud

How I did my bike tour

Don’t let the title fool you – this is not a ‘how-to’ guide on touring.  This immediately leads to my first and most important point:

Nobody tours the same way

I was lucky to meet so many tourers along my journey, almost exclusively in the Northern hemisphere touring ‘season’ of June-August.  The styles of sleeping, eating, bikes, gear was more diverse than I could have possibly imagined before my trip.

Some would only sleep in hotels or BnB’s, some would camp exclusively – including in major metropolitan cities!  I settled into a popular and moderate routine – I would camp everywhere with the exception of large cities where I had business to attend to.  In the large cities, I would find a hostel, which are always very accommodating to bikes and bicyclists.  Sleeping was the largest and most inconsistent cost incurred during my tour.  I gradually learned that the services offered by hostels which I initially thought were required (laundry, internet) are easily done elsewhere in the case of laundry, and mostly unnecessary in the case of the internet.  In future tours, I will keep this strategy as it’s well fitted to my personality and level of planning.

More about the camping, as this strums up a peculiar level of anxiety in a new tourer.  Let me just say that it was never a problem for me in Europe.  I was in three self-marked zones of camping: Sweden, which allows camping anywhere in the land legally, Northern Europe which forbids wild-camping legally, and Eastern Europe where nobody cares about legalities.  I took more caution in Northern Europe with camp site selection (probably unnecessary) and picked places more out of the way.  This did result in my camping on private property, though I never crossed a fence or a warning sign to do so.  My philosophy is if I leave no trace and I’m out by morning, this is ‘fair use’ of the land and anyone who contests can come up to my tent and argue with me (never happened!).  Not sure I would try this method in the USA.  In countries that had a good primitive camping infrastructure, I would support it as much as I could.  I set up my tent ~100 times in Europe and only twice I had people come up to the tent.  In both cases, they were curious and tried to get me to stay in their house instead of in the tent.  It rarely took more than 45 minutes from the time I decide to camp to the selection of a good campsite.  Camp site selection is fun and (somewhat counter-intuitively) reduces logistical anxiety by eliminating waypoints in your route.  I must say camping in Eastern Europe was the best.  There are no laws against wild-camping (or if there are, don’t worry about them) and since all of the land was owned by the government during the Soviet era, not all the land has been ‘returned’ to private hands, so much of of the land is simply woods, free for you to play in.

Eating is pretty simple, and expect how you eat to change during the tour.  I started cooking soups with local veggies and meats but gradually moved toward eating bread and cheese plus a small meal from a restaurant each day.  Many couples bring big gas stoves and a huge rack of spices; I find this too much for my use.  I prefer to eat simple (no cooking, few ingredients) and cheaply for most of the day and get a good local taste at a restaurant.  This was a good mix of cost and easy logistics.

Bike and gear styles are all over the map.  I met an Austrian duo that packed serious mountain climbing gear, along with typical heavy-touring gear.  All their panniers were bulging and must have weighed over 40kg for gear alone.  I also met an American couple who toured with a small backpack strapped on the backs of their mountain bikes.  There’s not much advice to give here, except plan a little outside your current comfort level and pick your general route to match your gear.  If you’re traveling in Europe, you probably don’t need so much bike repair gear or food and water, but if you’re in remote areas of Central Asia you will need lots of space and gear.

Shorter, targeted trips are best

I think my 4.5 month trip was about 1.5 months longer than the ‘sweet spot’ of touring.  Three months allows great distance to be covered and complete detachment from worldly problems, but not too long to drag out.  Many tourers I met were borderline tired or burned out after traveling for such long trips.  This burned out feeling is exacerbated by logistical battles of very long distance touring – clothing/gear utility, visas and culture change.

Traveling alone is good, but touring is a couples sport

I met only a few people touring alone, almost everyone else was a young (25-30) couple.

Where to get a bike box in Tbilisi

I’ll make this succinct for those in need.  I found mine at the same spot Paul and Zoe did, Burusport (41.72019 N; 44.72020 E).  There’s a big bazaar of hardware goods (about 41.72288 N, 44.73852 E) between this bike shop and the end of the metro line, plenty of packing material and tape.

A potential second bet would be KudaSport in the same area ( 41.72484 N, 44.74009 E) but the guy at the store didn’t get the concept that a bike goes in a box.

Harmless?

Just as I take a few days off in Yerevan, this post will take a respite from my normal bike posts.  While catching up on my internet reading, I found an interesting Vice interview about Rob, a young engineer attempting to make a nutritionally complete food after seeing an elderly family member struggle with a simple task of cooking.  Aptly named Soylent, the drink is touted as an inexpensive nutritional replacement for food – “What if you never had to worry about food again?” and has raised over $1 million in crowdsourced funding for production and further development.

I’ve held a keen interest in the dietary supplement industry for many years:  from nootropics in 2009 to the days of starting a laughably strange nutritional supplement company in 2010 to my most recent experiments in 2012 with making my own energy gel,  it’s been a nice distraction from physics at work.

The interview with Rob sounded very similar to my energy gel (named SolGoo…yes this name needs some work).  I was attempting to tailor expensive market energy gels to the specific dietary needs of long distance cycling.  Along with the freedom to add borderline legal ingredients and make a lot of the stuff inexpensively, it was loads of fun to make.  I eventually settled on something that was about 25% water, 60% maltodextrin, 10% whey protein and 5% sweetener/flavor/bonus ingredients.  I tried many different flavors and sweeteners to make the goo taste less like wet sawdust.  Interestingly, the best was ….

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The goal of Soylent is different than SolGoo, so naturally the ingredient list should be different.  The preliminary list on the blog indicates it’s maltodextrin, olive oil and rice protein (substituted for whey protein IMO for marketing reasons).  So not that different – in fact, the main difference comes in the presence of a fat source in Soylent and probably a small percentage of mass to provide electrolytes, vitamins and minerals.  Similar, but healthier, than Slimfast and other ‘meal’ drinks.

So can you live on Soylent?  Probably.  Rob lived on it for a month.  He dreamed big – local production of Soylent could drastically reduce food waste (storage and throw-away) and decrease transportation expense.  Inexpensive and nutritious, it could greatly benefit developing nations where adequate nutrition is lacking.  So while the concept isn’t unique … please make this something useful.

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Moving East

Still alive; in Telavi Georgia.  Waiting on Jacek to get back from the bazzar (hopefully) with a new bottom bracket cone.  Weather has been nasty recently, lots of rain which makes the back roads even worse.  If all goes well, we may get to Azerbaijan today.

Georgia Part 1

I have learned and experienced much in the past two weeks.  Many things have been packed in, it feels like it has been months.

Tanker on the Black Sea in Batumi

Tanker on the Black Sea in Batumi

Ewa and I found the beach in the Batumi Botanical Gardens.  Good skipping stones!

Ewa and I found the beach in the Batumi Botanical Gardens. Good skipping stones!

Introducing Jacek, a 68 year old beast of the road.  We have been traveling together since Batumi.  This is typical West Georgian bread - lavash.  Fresh out of the oven, it almost burned our fingers trying to eat it after the picture.

Introducing Jacek, a 68 year old beast of the road. We have been traveling together since Batumi. This is typical West Georgian bread – lavash. Fresh out of the oven, it almost burned our fingers trying to eat it after the picture.

The oven

The oven

The Police in Georgia are ridiculous.  They are everywhere and overly helpful.  In West Georgia, every police truck would stop and ask if we wanted a ride to get out of the heat.  Or escort us to the beach.  Or give directions.  I think they’re obligated to stop for tourists (though none know English, so Jacek had to communicate in Russian).

Pedal mashing in West Georgia

Pedal mashing in West Georgia.

Our first campsite.

Our first campsite.  In the middle of a small city in West Georgia, after a police escort to the park.  The police station (always modern and clean) was across the street.  Camping in the city sucks.

Railroad near the beach, near Poti

Railroad near the beach, near Poti

Bikes on the beach.  Not recommended!

Bikes on the beach. Not recommended!  But our last swim in the Black Sea.

Some old Soviet bridge

Some old Soviet bridge

 

Police escort across the bridge.

Police escort across the bridge.

 

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Small mountains in West Georgia

 

Riding to Mestia

Riding to Mestia

Fuzzy mountain stream

Fuzzy mountain stream

 

Look back at a mountain village

Look back at a mountain village

Mountain meadow

Mountain meadow

 

Riding to Mestia

Riding to Mestia

 

Ride the Snake

Ride the Snake

First campsite

First campsite

Crumbling Soviet mine

Crumbling Soviet mine

 

Roadside blackberries during siesta.  Makes wonderful jam!

Roadside blackberries during siesta. Makes wonderful jam!

 

A few tunnels on the way - it makes the grade more manageable!

A few tunnels on the way – it makes the grade more manageable!

Lots of waterfalls in the mountains.  Good for fresh drinking water and a shower siesta

Lots of waterfalls in the mountains. Good for fresh drinking water and a shower siesta

Typical lunch

High class lunch

Towers were built by rich families for prestige and protection.

Towers were built by rich families for prestige and protection.

 

MOUNTAINS

MOUNTAINS.  Nothing gets you more stoked to cycle

 

Cows are everywhere.  Gotta keep on the lookout around fast corners

Cows are everywhere. Gotta keep on the lookout around fast corners

Beautiful riding

Beautiful riding

Posterity shot

Posterity shot

Georgia is full of backpackers, hitchhikers, bikers and Polish tourists.  It rained in Mestia the day were were there and didn’t want to continue on the muddy road to Ushguli that day.  We asked the police for camping, they pointed at the center garden. Jacek, Andrea, Michael and I set up our tents.  Shortly after, a pair of Polish hitchhiking women show up and set up their tent.  Then a pair of Polish hitchhiking men show up and set up their tent.  We had a full tent town, complete with beer, wine and stray dogs in the middle of Mestia.

Camping site in Mestia

Camping site in Mestia

Caveman Jacek looking for fossils.  After an hour, we found NONE.

Caveman Jacek looking for fossils. After an hour, we found NONE.

Mountain Tower

Mountain tower

Mountain village

Mountain village

I MADE IT.  2600m mountain pass

I MADE IT. 2600m mountain pass

This awesome guy made it too

This awesome guy made it too

I need to make postcards of this stuff.

I need to make postcards of this stuff.

We were so happy to reach Ushguli!

We were so happy to reach Ushguli!

The city

The city.  Throwback to a century ago.

 

More mountain streams.  Haven't gotten sick yet - if it's coming from the mountains and there's no animals in-between I've found it to be safe.

More mountain streams. Haven’t gotten sick yet – if it’s coming from the mountains and there’s no animals in-between I’ve found it to be safe.

 

Camping in Ushguli, an amazingly beautiful area.  Full of pig shit, cow shit, sheep shit, goat shit.

Camping in Ushguli, an amazingly beautiful area. Full of pig shit, cow shit, sheep shit, goat shit and dog shit.

 

The lady across from our campsite killed a pig this morning

The lady across from our campsite killed a pig this morning

Nearby peak - 5200m

Nearby peak – 5200m

Beautiful Caucuses

Beautiful Caucuses

Michael from Austria and Andrea from Germany.  An awesome couple traveling to Central Asia.  I traded my international stove for a propane one with them.

Michael from Austria and Andrea from Germany. An awesome couple traveling to Central Asia. I traded my international stove for a propane one with them.

Mountain goats!

Mountain goats!

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Goat party

 

Pig party

Pig party

 

Another fine bridge.  Didn't cross this one.

Another fine bridge. Didn’t cross this one.

Proof!

Proof!

Starting the descent.  I burned through my front and rear brake pads over two days.

Starting the descent. I burned through my front and rear brake pads over two days.

Taking a break in the middle of the road

Taking a break in the middle of the road

Mountain flowers were in full bloom.  There are many bee keepers in the mountains.

Mountain flowers were in full bloom. There are many bee keepers in the mountains.

 

Michael making magic stew (it's just tea!)

Michael making magic stew (it’s just tea!).  Jacek does not look impressed!

Riding down from the mountains, it gets hot.  We come across a swimming area made from a small dam and a diverted mountain stream.  It was a legitimate race to see who could strip down the fastest and dive in.

Swimming hole

Swimming hole

Cooking tea, Jacek's method.

Cooking tea, Jacek’s method.

Bike bath after muddy mountain riding

Bike bath after muddy mountain riding

Michael waiting on Andrea in the first small village on the descent from the mountains

Michael waiting on Andrea in the first small village on the descent from the mountains

 

I’m still not sold on Georgian cheese.  It’s salty.  VERY salty.  Sometimes the block of cheese even has salt crystals sprinkled on top.  It’s difficult to eat without something to soak up the sodium.  At least it keeps very well because of the salt.

Typical cheese

Typical cheese

After we reach the flatlands, Andrea and Michael decide to spend a night in Kutaisi.  Jacek and I continue cycling.  We meet a pair of English cyclists – speed guys.  They were decked out with proper gear and sponsored.  They were genuinely positive people and talked with amazing speed and stamina.  They slowed down for a day to ride with us; we found a campsite across the river.  The catch is we had to cross this crazy Indiana Jones bridge.  We were rewarded with a good river for swimming.  Locals were there, some fishing.  While the Englishmen were talking a mile a minute, a loud sound from the river made us all look back.  The locals were fishing with grenades!

Bridge...one at a time!

Bridge…one at a time!

Near Gori we met up with an awesome French couple, an Iranian, and by coincidence, back up with Michael and Andrea!

Near Gori we met up with an awesome French couple, an Iranian, and by coincidence, back up with Michael and Andrea!  All cycling, of course.

We set up camp in the sandstone formations.

We set up camp in the sandstone formations.  After I unsuccessfully try to fix Andreas front derailleur, we all eat dinner.  The French couple play their flues and sing in harmony into night, and Moslim plays an Iranian guitar-like instrument that sounds magnificently exotic to my ears.  Bike tourers have excellent community.

Khathapuri, a common Georgian food.  Basically a cheese quesadilla.

Khathapuri, a common Georgian food. Basically a cheese quesadilla.

We find "miracle plums" on the side of the road in Gori.  Snacking ensues.

We find “miracle plums” on the side of the road in Gori. Snacking ensues.

 

Wonderful quiet ride on side roads into Gori

Wonderful quiet ride on side roads into Gori

Old cave town near Gori.  One of the oldest villages - cycling through it was easy to see why this valley was settled.

Old cave town near Gori. One of the oldest villages – cycling through it was easy to see why this valley was settled.

 

Picked up another traveler

Picked up another traveler

 

An afternoon beer makes for difficult afternoon cycling

Afternoon beer makes for difficult afternoon cycling

Andrea and I are doing OK

Andrea and I are doing OK

The flat valley to Tiblisi

The flat valley to Tbilisi

Partner

Phase two really feels different than the first.  I am traveling into the mountains with Jasik (Yatsik), a Polish grandfather who worked as an Electrical Engineer.  He is traveling extremely light and inexpensively – his budget is around 8 Euros per day.  I expect to learn a lot from him as we trek into small Georgian mountain towns.  I doubt I will post here much due to limited internet access.

The Azerbaijan visa was pretty simple in Batumi.  Two passport copies, two photos and $172 gets me a month in the country.  The consulate was pretty relaxed – we arrived at the building on time (10am) but were told to wait 10 minutes by the guard.  We wander down the street a few meters and a man starts talking to us in English – “Do you want coffee?”  We shake our heads and continue on, but he presses: “where are you from?”  – I answer.  He says he’s the consulate.  We get a coffee with him as he smokes a few cigarettes.  Sufficiently buzzed, we all walk into his office and fill out the paperwork.  Two hours, no fuss.

Across the Black Sea

The process to board the ferry felt like a quest in Zelda.  The man I was in email communication set up a meeting at the ferry main office in Odessa at 11am the day of boarding.  I walk over from my hostel and was greeted with an overly (for Ukrainian standards) jovial middle aged man.  After payment, I receive a booklet with an inordinate amount of carbon copies of my ticket and an excessive amount of ink stamps.  But this isn’t my actual ticket – I need bike to the Ichillivsk office and meet a woman at 4pm who would give me the actual ticket.  I got detailed directions to the office (including a picture of it) and GPS coordinates.

I walked back to the hostel, packed up my gear, said my goodbyes, and set off on the 10km journey to the ticketing office.  This was the first time back in the saddle for a week and it felt PERFECT.  It was comfortable and familiar.  The ride out from Odessa was OK: excessive traffic moving in and out of the roadway, dogs, narrow roads.  Par for the course.  I get to the ticketing office only an hour later.   Feeling the freedom on my bike, I ride around the peninsulla and stop in a bar for a beer, then in a “produkti” for some snacks on the road, and another bar for some delicious food: three soft meat patties, mashed potatoes and borsh, for about $4.  It’s about 3:30, so I ride back to the office and find Ewa, a nice Polish woman on a long adventure that I met at the hostel, waiting outside the office.  We go to the office and receive more pieces of paper, more stamps, and lose one carbon copy.

It’s then a short ride from the office to the waiting area.  Ewa takes the bus, I ride.  In the small stuffy waiting room filled with a ridiculous amount of baggage, we meet two other cyclists (Canadian and Polish) and two Polish women.  We all make friends and wait.  We look at our tickets to find out our rooms, but the information doesn’t appear to be there.  We joke about a third area and more stamps to get our room.  Advance two hours and we get metered in, two-by-two, to the customs area.  There’s a big X-ray machine and I fear I’ll have to unload my bike and put the bags through the machine.  Nope, it’s just there, nobody puts any bags through. OK.  I get my Ukraine exit stamp and go to another waiting area.  We all end up waiting there for another two hours (total = 4 hours!) before we were allowed on the ship.  It felt like the passengers really get second-class treatment to the trucks and train.  Luckily there was a bar attached to the waiting station, but strangely enough all the doors were locked, ostensibely for some security concern.  No problem, they opened the window and took orders.  I wasn’t particuarly interested in food or beer, though, I just thought it was a good way around the system.

We eventually board the ferry after four hours of waiting.  As I receive my room key, the lady behind the counter notes “all announcements are in Russian, so follow the crowd.”  In fact, signs here are a strange mix of English, Russian and German, with most signs only in one of the three.  No smoking signs are everywhere (except a small smoking room) in a futile attempt to quell the urges of nearly every Eastern European on the boat.

Passengers come from everywhere – many Georgian truck drivers, but Ewa and I find two Polish women backpackers, one retired Canadian bike tourer, a great Slovak couple touring the Caucuses on motorbike, and one old-man-of-the-sea Polish bike tourer who I plan to ride with.  This makes for an excellent crowd; my money spent on overpriced beer, my time spent staring at the sea, learning the Georgian alphabet (second new alphabet on the trip!) and watching movies with Ewa.  I’ll just not talk about the food.

Hugh

Hugh

Ride around Illichvsk

Ride around Illichvsk

Definitely Mafia

Definitely Mafia

Ewa at the window-bar

Ewa at the window-bar

Tourers!

Tourers!  Hugh and Yatsik

My berth - I had it all to myself

My berth – I had it all to myself

DSC03611

Crimea

Crimea

What is this supposed to be?

What is this supposed to be?

Port Batumi

Port Batumi