Northeast Turkey and Georgia
26th November – 15th December
It was not my plan to cycle through snow. I was having a nice time meandering across Turkey surrounded by autumnal leaves. Then all of a sudden it was December and I was cycling on a plateau 1500m-2200m above sea level in snow and negative temperatures.
“It will be -30°c” the locals said.
“Sure” I said politely, immediately forgetting their advice and forging on.
Three weeks of snowy cycle touring is enough to learn some cold hard lessons.
When I first saw this I was really impressed, “snow on the chain! How adventurous!” I needn’t have been so excited by this sprinkling of snow. During the next few weeks of cycling snow lodged and froze into my chain, chainset and cassette. For long durations it was not possible to change gear.
I enjoy travelling with other touring cyclists: you laugh so much together and learn from each other. Another benefit of sharing your trip is that when you are cycling on three-inch deep freshly-fallen snow in -8°c, you can look ahead at the German couple and think “well if I’m a little crazy to be doing this, at least they are too”.
On the odd occasion when the road has been successfully cleared of snow you can lift your eyes away from navigating the snowy trail, come out of your concentrated trance and realise that your surroundings are stunning.
This blizzard hit us cycling up to a 2057m pass. The way down was a hilarious onslaught of snow in the face. Skiing goggles would have been appropriate. Shame my swimming goggles were packed so far down in my panniers, they could have been useful.
Excellent time for a flat tyre and a derailleur failure
I spent a few days in Erzurum with Katharina and Christoph, mostly eating lots of delicious food. This was a particularly good feast in honour of the Germanic tradition of celebrating Saint Nikolaus day, 6th December
After sharing many snowy adventures, a lot of laughter and some very entertaining encounters over two weeks with this lovely couple, it was time to split ways. Alice to Georgia, Katharina and Christoph to Iran.
On my first day off on the bike alone, I regretted taking a glance at the morning temperature. Not quite -30°c, but it was hard to keep my nose warm that morning.
I had slightly deflated tyres whilst cycling on the deep snow in order to increase traction. I had meant to find a garage to get them pumped up to five bars again before cycling this slog of a hill, but somehow no garage appeared. I think I stopped to take this photo just as an excuse to take a break.
Fields of snow
Described in my guidebook as “the coldest town in Turkey” I arrived into the ski resort of Sarikamis. As you can see by the snowy surface, the tyres would have needed to be deflated again anyway!
Cycling along the way to Georgia I was overtaken by numerous trucks carrying these enormous pipes. I also waved at many construction workers lining the roads taking part in the usual construction worker duty of looking busy whilst simultaneously drinking tea. I think it is all part of the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline, bringing gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.
The city of Kars at 1768m of elevation. ‘Kars’ translates to ‘snow’. How appropriate.
A section of road between Kars and Cildir was mimed by some men at a petrol station as being “impossible to pass by bicycle”. I am so regularly told that it is “impossible” or “too dangerous” to cycle in a location that turns out to be complete safe and lovely cycling that it becomes difficult to know when to listen to local advice and when to ignore it. However, these guys were so kind and so concerned about this bit of road that I decided to take the lift along the 10km stretch that they deemed impassable. To be fair, up on the pass the snow was pretty deep and the side winds looked to be around 30km/hr so, although possible, it was nice to observe the weather conditions from the inside of their warm van.
Cildir, my last town in Turkey before heading to Georgia (Gürcistan)
The Turkish-Georgian border. The Cildir-Aktas border crossing only opened last October and when I arrived the staff on both sides of the border seemed delighted at having something to do. The Turkish side invited me for tea and a cheese toasty and the Georgian side asked several times if there was anything they could help with for my journey going forward. How lovely.
Having arrived into Georgia via the more obscure of the three border crossings from Turkey to Georgia, I cycled to Ninotsminda with intention of cycling the final 170km to Tbilisi (the blue line) in time for a flight home for two weeks over Christmas. “The road from Ninotsminda to Tsalka is closed, not even tractors can get through that snow. You’ll have to go back to Akhaltsikhe” mimed the group of merrily drunk Georgian men in my hotel in Ninotsminda. “But that’s a 310km detour and I have a flight home for Christmas in three days!” I mimed back. If the previous three weeks were anything to go by, I could not cycle 100km on snow with only eight hours of winter daylight. For about an hour I gave up on being able to cycle into Tbilisi and grudgingly asked about buses. Then I checked the potential 310km cycle route (red line) and the weather. Then I saw a solution. The next day they were not expecting snow and the first 170km of the route was mostly downhill. If I could do that on the snow-free day, I could split the last 140km over the next two days of the predicted heavy snow and still cycle into Tbilisi in time for my flight.
Day one. 173km. Starting at dawn, finishing at dusk. Eight a quarter hours on the bike almost non-stop.
Not only did I surprise myself by managing 173km in a short winter day, I was rewarded by finding another mad winter cyclist in the hotel in Surami. Australian Ash (right) is cycling from London to Perth and was also aiming for Tbilisi. This host, Lea, had had visitors from all over the world, but not yet Perth so Ash was able to proudly put a pin in the map. Ash and I cycled the next two chilly days together into the capital.
On our way to Tbilisi, Ash and I sheltered in a village school to eat our lunch in the hopes to get feeling back into our hands and feet. We were looked after by the school’s very smiley English teacher.
My home city for the next three or so months until spring arrives
A permanent bedroom for a few months in Georgia’s fine capital. A strange but wonderful feeling! Now I must ready myself for a two week visit back to the UK for Christmas. I wonder if the snow is as deep in London…?