Turning around in Georgia

Things rarely go as planned.  When we decided to travel, our aim was to reach Mongolia via the silk road and the famous Pamir Highway.  The Pamir Highway climbs to an altitude of 4600 metres, so there is a limited window of opportunity for crossing it, dependent on the season.  Setting off from the UK in September 2018, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to cross the Pamirs before the summer of this year.

After spending the winter in Morocco, it was our intention to start travelling East in early spring.  This would give us plenty of time to reach the Pamirs before the coming winter.  However, we then decided to convert the inside of the Land Rover, taking three months out of our schedule. 

We reached Turkey at the end of June, passing the easternmost point we had hitherto reached.  On a campsite on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, we met some young Turks who approached us to look at the Land Rover, saying how much they liked it and asking questions about how we cooked, slept, washed, etc.  They were visibly impressed with our set up and stayed with us for a pleasant half hour talking about Land Rovers and camping and showing us the best places to visit in Turkey.  Later they brought us baclava; a small gesture of thanks for the time we’d spent with them.

Our original plan had been to hug the north coast of Turkey, following the Black Sea all the way to Georgia.  However, our new Turkish friends suggested we travel south to see ancient Greek and Roman ruins and to visit the rock formations of Cappadocia and then travel eastward, staying inland.  The coast road, they said, was just a busy dual carriageway with the sea on one side and mountains on the other.  We heeded their advice and set off to explore this interesting and beautiful country – first visiting the Phrygian valleys where Midas was once king, then to Hierapolis with its Greek amphitheatre and travertine pools, and on to Cappadocia with spectacular rock formations, cave villages and hot air balloons.

Greek amphitheatre at Heirapolis

We travellers don’t like to think of ourselves as tourists.  This is pure snobbery of course, there being little to distinguish the tourist from the traveller, particularly from the point of view of locals.  We visited the ancient town of Hierapolis with all the other tourists visiting that day and did what all the other tourists did – marvelling at the amphitheatre, paddling in the slippery travertine pools and taking photographs to put on Instagram in search of those approval-bestowing ‘likes’.

In Cappadocia, however, we strongly felt the separation between us as travellers and the tourists that flock to the region.  We found a place to camp using an app – which was described as a great spot to see the hot air balloons at dawn.  We arrived to find a flat parking area surrounded by sandy valleys with deeply fluted stacks of rock in shades of beige and pink.  Looking down into these valleys, we saw animal tracks in the sandy valley floor and Steve spotted a family of jackals living in a rock crevice.  The sun was just starting to set and we were sitting down to eat our dinner when half a dozen vehicles arrived, including two Defenders from which a number of Asian tourists emerged.  They had been brought to this spot on a guided tour to watch the stunning palette of colours the setting brought out in the rock.

On seeing the Land Rover, the Asian visitors took no notice of the beauty around them but proceeded to take photographs of us eating our dinner by the car.  One man gave his camera to his wife and came to stand behind us, asking if he could have a photograph with us.  We sat eating our dinner while this random stranger stood behind us smiling at his wife taking several photographs.  To these people we had become a tourist attraction as interesting as these majestic structures surrounding us!  It amused us to imagine these people returning home and showing their friends and families photographs of a Defender and two English people eating their dinner – smiles fixed like exhibits in a waxwork museum.

Although these vehicles disappeared with the sun, it was not a peaceful camp.  Two cars arrived late at night and noisily set up camp next to us and after a brief respite in the small hours, the activity recommenced before dawn.  This time, however, it was worth being woken as we opened our door to a sky full of newly launched hot air balloons, with many more still on the ground around us.  The balloons glowed like giant lightbulbs in the pre-dawn twilight, as their roaring burners heated the trapped air enough to lift the baskets full of eagerly awaiting tourists into the sky.  We watched as balloon after balloon paraded past, so close they blocked out the sky, rising briefly before dipping down into the valleys in turn and then up high into the sky.  As dawn broke in a clear sky, the sight and sound of over a hundred balloons climbing and descending over the dusky pink landscape around us was truly spectacular.

We find that in our determination not to be tourists, we tend to shun tourist places.  In Turkey we did join the tourist trail, visiting the ruins at Hierapolis and the open-air cave museum at Goreme.  We found these experiences expensive and disappointing and although interesting, our experience was marred by other people.  In Goreme, it was hard to move in and out of the caves due to the number of people blocking staircases and doorways, and groups of friends stopping to take photographs of each other at every opportunity.  In Hierapolis we paid twice the normal price for a simple bottle of water.  In many cases, we refrained from taking a photograph of something beautiful because it was almost impossible to do so without other people in the frame.  In Istanbul we decided against visiting the Aya Sophia and found the Basilica Cistern disappointing and crowded.  We have found that we prefer to find our own places well away from tourists and in this way have stumbled across some achingly beautiful and peaceful places.

Mountain tracks in the Great Caucasus

Having been surrounded by people in Cappadocia, we craved solitude for our next camp and in search of that we drove up into the mountains to a place we found on our app next to a volcanic crater lake.  The long, but easy off-road track took us up to 2300 metres, where it was blissfully cool and quiet.  Despite numerous gambolling marmots, the lake itself didn’t appeal to us as a camp place, so we decided to continue along the track, which became much rougher as we climbed higher.  We finally reached a place where we could pull off the track and make the car reasonably level.  It was perfectly quiet with no-one in sight and a view over the distant plains to one side, and the peak of the volcano, still capped with snow, to the other. 

We have learned that wherever we go we are never alone.  Nowhere on this planet seems to be truly remote.  Whether in Saharan sand dunes, arctic mountains or the Swedish wilderness, people are never far away.  The silence of even this remote place was soon disturbed by the sound of sheep bleating and goat bells and within minutes we were surrounded by a huge flock, accompanied by a donkey, several Anatolian shepherd dogs and a solitary herder.  He took no notice of us, however, and the flock inexorably moved away with only the dogs peacefully lingering to ensure we were no threat.

As the sun set and we prepared for bed, we noticed a fire on the side of one of the surrounding hills.  At first we assumed this was the herder’s camp fire, but on looking through our binoculars, we saw that the fire was far too large to be a camp fire, and that there was no person in its vicinity.  As we watched the fire burn and start to die, another fire sprang up some feet away from it, quickly followed by two more.  The fires didn’t burn for long, each one flaring brightly for ten or fifteen minutes before beginning to die as another was born.  Eventually there were ten fires in various stages of life, clearly visible in the darkening sky.

By morning the fires were all out and we could see the scorched grass showing where they had been.  Another fire sprang up further away on another hill, but it quickly died and seemed to be isolated.  We were puzzled about the cause of these fires and have, as yet, found no explanation for them.  Google gave us nothing and the fires didn’t seem to fit the description of the ‘eternal’ fires sometimes associated with erupting volcanic gases.  These were certainly not eternal.

The rest of our journey through Turkey took us across vast arid plains and up into the mountains of the north, where we were able to escape from the heat, if only briefly, before descending to join the coast road that would take us into Georgia.

Batumi at sunset

Our first stop was Batumi, Georgia’s answer to Dubai.  The city was a mix of old colonial style buildings and ultra-modern skyscrapers, with a beach front on the Black Sea and surrounded by cloud topped mountains.  Our only task in the city was to buy a local SIM card, which we did quickly before heading for the mountains to escape the heat, something of a theme with us since arriving in the Balkans in early June.

Georgia quickly became one of our favourite countries and rivalled Norway for its spectacular beauty.  We spent a few days in Tbilisi, which, although the capital, was compact enough to get around on foot and occasional taxis, which were cheap enough to be a good option.  The crumbling old town of Tbilisi contrasted starkly with the modern shopping mall on Rustavelli Avenue, where we treated ourselves to a visit to the cinema.  Accommodation was plentiful and inexpensive – and Georgian food was delicious.

After resting in Tbilisi we explored the Caucasus mountains in the north, driving along bumpy dirt tracks to over 2800 metres looking for places to camp, and finding them in stunning high valleys alongside clear mountain streams.

Laundry day in Sno Valley, Georgia

It had been our intention, while in Tbilisi, to apply to the Russian embassy for the visas we would need to continue our journey east through Russia to Kazakhstan.  The alternative to travel through Russia was to cross the Caspian Sea from Baku in Azerbaijan to Aktau in Kazakhstan.  We had read that the ferry from Baku was notoriously unreliable, with no timetable and the possibility of a quayside wait of as much as two weeks.  The ferry was also expensive and uncomfortable offering meals of which the only meat-free option was the soup with the pieces of meat picked out and left on the side of the plate.

For entry to Mongolia, there was no other option for us than Russia.  The only other border with Mongolia is Chinese and overlanding in China had never been an option, as the requirement to travel with a guide is prohibitively expensive.

We discovered that there is no Russian Embassy in Georgia, but they do have an office within the Swiss Embassy where visa applications are processed.  There is also a recently opened Russian Visa Centre, and this is where we headed to apply for our visas.  On arriving at the Visa Centre and explaining that we wanted to apply for tourist visas, we received a positive response.  But when we explained that we were driving and would be taking a vehicle into Russia, we received an emphatic ‘no’.  It was not possible to obtain a visa.  No explanation was offered but the interview was clearly over.  We think that the only way to obtain the necessary visas to drive in Russia are through the embassy in the UK, but even contacting them didn’t help us.  The simply said that each country had its own rules regarding issuing visas and that we needed to contact the embassy in Georgia.

So we had to make a decision: continue across the Caspian Sea and along the silk road as far as Bishkek in Kirghizstan, then turn around without reaching Mongolia, or turn around now and return to the UK to prepare for another trip in the spring.

We decided on the latter.

Our vie on road, therefore, will shortly end when we spend the winter in the UK arranging the next part of our travels.  Whether we will apply for Russian visas in London and try for Mongolia again, or head west, shipping the car to Canada to explore the Americas – we don’t yet know.

Things rarely go according to plan but we always knew that our life on the road was about just that – the journey – and not the destination.  So while we are sad that we are already facing west again, we are excited about time at home with friends and family and looking forward to the next part of our adventure.

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