Saturday, 28 September 2013

Eastern Turkey Meanderings

ollie_yeoman's Eastern Turkey album on Photobucket

Bullet Points

-We've now spent two weeks in Eastern Turkey and are now in the city of Erzurum.
-Half the time we've been riding and with the rest of our time we've been chilling out in a small town named Yusufeli and wandering in the Kackar Mountains.
-Tomorrow we catch a train west to Kayseri and hope to meet our friends Michal and Lulu to enjoy Cappadocia and celebrate Michal's 32nd birthday!

The last two weeks have been a really interesting time for us. After the high adventure of our Iranian departure I think we were perhaps left a little jaded and in need of refreshment. It took us a few days in Turkey before this realisation set in. In this few days we cycled our way northward around the flanks of the impressive Mt Ararat (made famous by Noah's Ark!) and out to Yusufeli at the foot of the Kackar Mountains. You might chuckle if you were to look at our route on a map as you'd see we've looped right back up to within 100km of Batumi (Georgia) where we were over a month ago! For a journey heading west we are doing pretty well at generally heading either north or south. I giggled to myself as I rode into the glare of the setting sun yesterday and realised very rarely have I encountered this true-west direction!
After rounding the volcanics of Ararat we passed through vast open lands, deep gorges of rock strata all twisted, bent and broken, sub alpine pine forests, precipitous canyon lands, rolling golden hill country and castle after broken castle all sitting precariously on their high perches. It all sounds dramatic, and much of it was, but amongst all this we began to feel a tiredness that we've not felt before. 
Upon reaching Yusufeli it was time for refreshing, for something different, and for some down time from the journey. We savoured some special time wandering high in the mountains, breathing the icy cold air. We took the bikes up on a bus from 600m to 2500m altitude and enjoyed the freedom of whizzing back down through gorges and villages. We spent a few days doing very little other than being in the same place, returning to the same friendly bakery and shop owners, and enjoying the simple things like watching kids wander to and from school and drinking chai alongside retired old men. Eventually we journeyed onward, increasingly aware that what we’re wanting is not just impressive landscapes but connection with people.
Thus far we’re struck by the beautiful way in which the Kurdish and Turkish have offered their kindness. This may be a spot to camp, a meal, chai, a friendly conversation, a small gift, a roof over our heads. In some ways the gift has not mattered greatly, what we’ve been touched by is the way in which it’s given. We’ve encountered a gentleness, an ease, a simplicity which has been quite stunning to be the recipients of. It’s hard to exactly describe in words but we feel so so thankful and quite in awe of the way in which these people give.
Just last night this kindness reached new heights. Arriving in a little village named Guzel Yayla, one which obviously tourists do not frequent, we caused quite a stir looking for a tent sight. Men appeared from all directions, all yelling, waving arms, laughing, disagreeing with each other and scratching their heads. Amongst the chaos emerged two real stars, Dogan and Mehmet, who cut straight through the verbal clutter and dragged us off to their little hut in the fields on the edge of town. Camping was off the agenda, they made that quite clear. Instead we were given the house to sleep in, we shared dinner and breakfast together, we drank chai after chai after chai,  and we worked our way through all kinds of conversation topics with the help of an English-Turkish dictionary and the determination of people committed to connecting with one another.
These times are incredibly rewarding and although we move on with our very different lives we are deeply impacted by such wonderful meetings. We’re left hoping that just a little of the goodness we have received, our hosts might also have received by our passing their way. When we look over our map for the present time we’re now looking for roads with lots of towns rather than wild remoteness. There is a time for both but for now that’s what we’ll enjoy as we journey on!


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Postscript: Iran

Ollie finished our last blog with this: "In the small town of Khondab, we are just left to guess what secrets may be hidden nearby!"

To shed some light on this question, my brother Andy did some googling and discovered the following on a US website for the ISIS (Institute for Science and International Security):


Arak Heavy Water Production Plant at Khondab

Iran’s heavy water production plant was commissioned in August 2006.  The existence of this facility was first revealed publicly by the Iranian opposition group, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in August 2002.  ISIS then located the site in commercial satellite imagery after a wide-area search.  By United Nations Security Council resolution 1737 (2006), Iran was to suspend all work on heavy water related projects.  However, Iran has not halted this work and maintains that it has no legal obligation to do so under its safeguards agreement. Iranian officials speaking at a March 5-6, 2005 conference in Tehran said that the plant was in its first stage of operation.  As of 2010, imagery of the heavy water production plant analyzed by the IAEA indicates that it is operating.


 This does indeed shed some light, and it does all sound rather important. . It is strange to have been so close, but to have had no idea! Happy enough to be out of such political intrigue for now!

Friday, 20 September 2013

Iran: A (short) Game of Two Halves

Expansive vistas!

Part One:

We’ve just spent ten days cycle touring in Iran. We found expansive, dry landscapes, dotted with the odd village. The roads were reasonable, and the drivers very considerate of cyclists. For accommodation, we discovered that Iranians are camping and picnic lovers, especially at this time of year, and we could join them in camping in children’s playgrounds, central town roundabouts, and city parks. 

Camping with the multitudes in the park, Hamadan.
 In terms of clothing, I had to be fully covered at all times, from ankles to head, and Ollie from ankles to biceps. After some initial frustrations with a hot, neck smothering scarf in windy 40 degree days, I mastered the technique, and was also relieved to find that although Oliver was the first and chief spokesperson, my attempts at conversation were well received. We enjoyed some cities, the desert city of Tabriz, all shades of beige, pink and white skyscrapers set amongst the red hills. Hamadan had a more ancient centre, beautiful mosques and an old covered bazaar, its narrow alleys filled with women in black chadors.

Riding fully covered. In my bright red Tajik kurta I didn't exactly blend in, but seemed the coolest and most practical option!

In Hamadan Bazaar, a striking mix of black chadors and sparkly tinsel.

We had heard of the hospitality of Iranians. Indeed, it has been the major recommendation we have heard from cycle tourists we meet going west to east: “Go to Iran! The people are so wonderfully hospitable!” And they were right. The care, help and generosity we received there exceeded expectation and imagination. A typical example is this: A car passes us as we cycle, and pulls over. A man climbs out, goes to the boot, pulls out something. We roll up. “Salaam!” “Salaam!” He hands us a bag of four peaches. We say, “No, no!” He says, “Yes!” “No, no.” “Yes!” He pushes them on us. “Where are you from?” By the end of the conversation, we have his cellphone number, “Incase you need any help, anywhere to stay, just ring.” We wave goodbye. This happens multiple times a day. Here I will insert our “Iran Gift List”. These gifts were given over our ten day stay.

Breakfast x 6
Tomatoes x 9
Bag of figs
Bag of dried mulberries
Packet of biscuits
Melon x 6
Sanyak bread x 5
Lavash bread x 3
Cup of chai/tea x 6
Cucumbers x 3
Bottle of water/ice water x 4
Bunch of grapes x 8
Sheep cheese
Apples x 2
Night’s stay
Bicycle guiding around city
Ice creams
Kebab lunch x 2
Cup of coke
Egg sandwich
Malt drink (non-alcoholic beer)
Night time car escort along motorway
Car escort for city route finding x 2
Motorbike escort for route finding
Sports bars
Jam pikelet
Diversion of fierce dogs by car pulling over and tooting horn
Peaches x 4
A shower
Bag of almonds

So much kindness and attention was given to us. Our Kiwi/personal desire for free time and personal space were sometimes challenged simply by the sheer amount of friendly approaches, helpers and self-appointed guides.

As well as these short encounters of generosity, we were blessed by the friendship of some special people during our time. We first met Faeze, a twenty six year old economics student at Tabriz University, as she called a long “Welcooome!!” out of her family’s car. They stopped in a town down the road, and again talked to us there, inviting us to stay with them when we got to Tabriz the next day. 

Me, Faeze, Faeghe (sister) and Mohammed (father) having breakfast in their house, Tabriz.

So we spent the next night at their family home, enjoying a shower, lovely fruit, a special local meal involving stuffed fig leaves, and a trip to their beautiful city park and pool, El Goli. The following day Faeze took us to the Old Bazaar to help us find some things we needed, and we met another amazing person, her friend Bahador. He was unstoppable, treating us to special ice creams and an amazing kebab lunch, and working to get us all the discounts on our other purchases that he could wangle! We all met again for breakfast the next morning, in a lovely outdoor eatery, again no chance of paying the bill ourselves. Bahador’s sister Shiva met us there too, and Faeze’s sister Faegheh. We enjoyed wonderful conversation, loving their enthusiasm, motivation and sense of humour.

Anna, Shiva, Bahador and Oliver having breakfast (flat breads, omelette, honey, butter cream and chai)

Back on the bikes again, we encountered what felt like a more old fashioned type of hospitality, as we were literally dragged off from our kerbside bread munching to the house of Hanum, a woman whose home was obviously a bit of a local hub. She gave us chai and grapes, and then offered me a shower, an offer I couldn’t refuse, although it was an unconventional hour. She wouldn’t hear of us leaving without lunch, so we stayed for omelette, bread and salad.

Hanum, Shotkar and Akbas

Amazing experiences, plenty to challenge, inspire and interest us. We realized our time in Iran wouldn’t be altogether simple and easy, but we were keen to get more to grips with this very different culture, when...

Part Two:
“Money! Money! Dollars? Have you dollar?” I’m beginning to feel increasingly intimidated, as through the broken English it’s fast becoming obvious that the dozen or so Police we’re surrounded with are wielding a fair bit of power over us. How justly they will choose to use this power remains to be seen. For the second time in 24 hours we’ve found ourselves in an Iranian Police Station. Last night in Ghahavand they took us in and gave us a place to camp, they were jovial and caring, offering us chai and lavash (bread). Tonight there’s no such fun to be found. How did we get here?

Thursday 12th September, we were enjoying a peaceful scene, riding along a pleasant rural road enroute to the small Iranian town of Khondab. The sun was slowly sinking and local life quietening in the late afternoon. We thought it was not a big deal when we were pulled up by three officers in a marked Police car. Just another standard passport check surely. The fact the car was marked and the officers were in uniform gave us an assurance. The scene appeared much more legitimate than the two random guys in a beat up old car last week that asked to see our passports. On that occasion we rode away quickly, playing dumb. This time however there were phone calls back and forth, serious faces, some limited attempts at English translations through broken cell phone coverage, and an ever-increasing sense for us that things we becoming abnormal. Sure enough the vibe we felt was soon confirmed. The officers held our passports and we were handed over to a second pair of officers in another car who proceeded to escort us to the Khondab station 15km down the road. Along the way I couldn’t believe we were a Police priority when all around us other motorists drove in a manner which in NZ would have resulted in a good size fine and a nice collection of demerit points!

Upon arrival a couple of stern looking plain clothes Police ushered us into a small office and proceeded to sit us down for questioning. Questioning though is not really an accurate term to choose to describe this peculiar situation. We and they blundered our way through a foggy haze of misunderstandings. Frustratingly they wouldn’t let us get our phrasebook from our bags, and as they talked at us louder and louder their opinion of us appeared to grow increasingly negative. We were in the dark. What the heck was this all about?! And why now was this policeman, obviously a senior, demanding to look through all our photos?! We’d done nothing wrong though so surely eventually we’d get through this rigmarole and move on without problem.

One man came back, waving photocopies of our passport. “Five!” he announced. Finally we had some vague understanding of a problem. The officer proudly held up a handful of fingers and waved our passports around. Our understanding was that we still had 14 days left on our visa; they continued to insist that we only had five. Odd, but that’s no big problem, so we thought, we could roll with these punches and get a bus south to Isfahan and apply for a visa extension there.

“No problem. Welcome to Iran!” our young police friend finally announced proudly, and ushered us out. For us however there was still a problem. Night was setting in, we’d already ridden 95km for the day, yet the Police were now refusing to let us stay in their town.

“Hotel, No. Chaador(tent), No. Arak. Hotel. Go!” We were now expected to ride another 85km through the night. With maps on hand, using the minimal Persian language we knew and no doubt some genuinely desperate looks on our faces, we persuaded Police that this was completely and utterly ridiculous. Their solution however was not to let us stay but to provide us with an escort. For some reason we were seriously not wanted in this town.

So the bikes, bags, and us were squeezed into an unmarked Police truck, we were handed over to another two junior officers who’d just arrived on the scene and off into the night we roared, swerving unlit motorbikes and struggling to see the road, dimly illuminated with our single headlight. After only 15km we swung off the main, two large gates were opened by armed guards and we pulled into the courtyard of another Police station where out of the darkness around a dozen young men in the camouflage arrived to greet us, not with smiles and handshakes but with talk of “Money” and “Dollar” and much laughter as we grew rapidly more uncomfortable with our plight. The three men in full combat kit and weaponry who looked down on us from the roof didn’t help the vibe. To their credit they did sit us down and we were presented with a plate of melon and grapes as we waited, although by 9pm after a big day riding, we found it a poor substitute for dinner! We waited some more. An hour ticked by and departure looked likely as the radiator was refilled with cold water and the cab was loaded with rifle and baton. “My goodness,” I mused, “what tricks do they think we’re going to try and pull here?!” But after those preparations our bags and bikes were then surprisingly unloaded again, and that truck disappeared into the night. Thankfully before long a new vehicle rolled in through the large steel gates, our kit was reloaded, and we were handed over to yet another driver, this time a local taxi man. We set off once again, hoping that this time we might be taken to Arak and then left to our own devices.

To begin with it was a relief to be away from the Police and their intimidating presence. After not long though it became apparent that this driver was a complete loose unit, as he sang, mimicked us and made loud animal noises though the night. It also quickly became apparent that he must have been briefed to keep us under tight rein. We were effectively in custody! And each time we’d been handed over to a new escort who understood less of our original situation things felt like they were spiraling further out of perspective.

On arrival in Arak we drove around in circles as he attempted to book us in to five star hotels while we insisted on cheap, as this and our forced “taxi” were at our own cost. Eventually with our sanity at serious risk we came to a compromise. Just when it seemed the saga might have come to an end our bags were locked inside the truck and our driver insisted that he must check us in before we had access to any of our things! From the hotel he had to obtain written proof of our check-in to take back to the Khondab police force to show he’d done his job and cleared us out of their precious little rural small town.

At 1am, after over seven hours of increasingly stressful confusion, rattled and in disbelief, we crashed into bed!

Waking the next morning our solution seemed simple, we’d head for Isfahan on a bus and get our visa extension. This would solve the date confusion on the existing visa. We were rattled, but we didn’t want to bail on this country yet. Down stairs in the lobby we got chatting to a group of young soldiers staying in the hotel, in mufti on their day off. They were fascinated by us and in typical Iranian fashion keen to chat. What they told us left us stunned. What they had been told was that we had been “captured” and were “suspected spies”! The complexity of our new found situation was fast unveiling itself. Suspected spies are highly unlikely to be granted visa extensions! In fact back in early July in the Tajikistan Pamirs we’d had a conversation with a German traveller who’d faced similar accusations from the Iranian authorities and was subsequently denied visa extension.

By this time we were down to four days remaining on the visa (apparently, we’re still confused by the wording on the visa!) and if we were denied an extension in Isfahan we would be a long way from the safe haven of the Turkish border, with little time and in some serious bother. Question: What’s worse than being a suspected spy in Iran? Answer: Being an overstaying suspected spy. So literally within the space of 30 seconds our path became obvious. Departure to Turkey was the only low risk option. Sometimes risks are worth taking, after all fortune favours the brave doesn’t it?! I’m just not so sure that fortune favours the brave when you’re dealing with Iranian authorities!

So now a week on we are happy to be several days into the Turkish leg of our journey. We could have taken the risk but it didn’t seem worth it and we are absolutely pleased with the decision we made. A weight lifted off our shoulders as we were stamped out of Iran and into Turkey. There certainly is some sadness in leaving Iran and it’s wonderful people after such a short time. They themselves are obviously saddened by our situation and the issues their country has. Even the young soldiers in the hotel lobby showed their frustration and sadness at our misfortune.

As to the cause of this whole debacle, one young Policeman who spoke a little English said to me (perhaps naively), “No tourists can stay here, this town is too important to Iran.” Most locals obviously have no idea of the issues, as they had recommended the route we took. Another of our helpers in the lobby mumbled under his breath to me, “This is a nuclear area,” he whispered. As I suspected, being handed from one escort to another, and onto the hotel, our story had evolved. I showed this kind man on the map where we’d originally been pulled over and it was around 200km from where he’d been lead to believe, 200km from the nuclear area of which he spoke.

In the small town of Khondab, we are just left to guess what secrets may be hidden nearby!

Part One: Anna
Part Two: Oliver

Some of our helpers in Arak

An interesting section of hill riding near Kharvana

Melon seller on the higway to Tabriz

Tabriz is famous for spectacular carpets, handmade art works to be hung on the wall.

Tabriz friends, Bahador in the back, then Anna, Faeze, Faeghe and Oliver

Mosque in Hamadan

Old village near Ghahavand

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Wonderful Caucasus!

 Bullet points:
 - We continued in Georgia for another week, enjoying riding the diverse landscapes of the south.
 - We crossed into Armenia, and rode for 9 days there, covering the whole length of this small country.
- We are crossing into Iran now.

 The Longer Version - definitely go and make a cup of tea before settling into this!

Our winding route from east to west has brought us now to an ancient crossroads of East and West, the Caucasus. These three small countries, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, sit sandwiched in between great and greatly contrasting empires: Russia, Europe, Persia, Arabia, Asia, Turkey. And they have felt it. Their history is a story of weathering invasion from one direction then the next, and their identity is in holding their distinctiveness through their storms, and each blossoming into a brief golden age in a rare time of peace.

Towards the Armenian border

We have been cycling in the Caucasus for the last three weeks, through Georgia and Armenia. We will not go to Azerbaijan, in fact we now could not, as with tensions between the countries being so high our Armenian passport stamp means entry to Azerbaijan is a no.

As we have found and written of numerous times before in our travels, whatever the reputation of a country and a people, kindness and generosity seem to abound, and be by far the dominant flavor. But it does come in different forms. As we rode on a grey overcast day into the forest clad Caucasus mountains of Svaneti, the muddy road through the villages bordered by dark wooden houses and the odd snuffling pig, we were missing the bright friendliness of the ‘Stans. Ten minutes later we were receiving armloads of apples from a group of men, and only narrowly avoiding accepting the whole 10kg being added to our panniers! Apparently the Svan people do have a reputation for quiet reserve, as many hardy mountain folk may do, but they still cared for us travellers! The Svans are one of many ethnic groups in the Caucasus area that have their own identity and varyingly strong desires for independence.

What a spot for lunch and a swim!! Gorgeous! This ancient bridge-building technique was typical of Adjara

A few days later we were by the Black Sea, and entering another distinctive area of Georgia, this one with its own regional autonomy. It is called Adjara, and was ruled for three centuries by Turkey, until Stalin reclaimed it for Georgia. Here we were greeted with a more open cheeriness, with bright calls from the children, and thunderous toots from passing trucks. Pink featured a lot more in the buildings, definitely a favourite colour for the bus shelters, contrasting beautifully with the rich green forest and clear turquoise river. We had some stunning fresh water swims here!

Rolling through Georgia, after the dry barreness of much of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it definitely struck us as a land of plenty. Grapevines draping huge bunches of purple fruit off many trellises, verandahs and fences, offered for the hungry cycle tourist to feast on! Georgia prides itself on its wine, and our spontaneous guide in southern Georgia, Zaza, told us proudly there were 500 different grape types in the world, with 300 of them developed in Georgia! Maybe! Some do consider it a possible location of the Garden of Eden.

A great thunder storm brewing in this humid land!

Alcohol did feature highly in Georgian life, and with handles of cold beer going for 90c a piece, few people (including us) could resist making a refreshment stop under the trademark yellow Natakhari beer umbrellas in the heat of the afternoon! However, we were relieved to escape Georgia with only one round of “cha-cha” (vodka) shots, as spirits featured at all times of day, and dominated the shelves of the local dairies. A comment from a local surprised me only in its open frankness, not in its content: “It is our Georgian culture to get our guests drunk.” We are learning that hospitality comes in many different forms!

When two people drink cha-cha together, it is the custom to link arms like this.

In terms of more wholesome foods for cycle tourists, we became No. 1 fans of the “hajapuri,” a delicious bread stuffed with strong cheese, always eaten hot off the grill. I think we have already described in on the last blog, so I won’t repeat the mouth-watering details…! Fruit and vegetables also thrived in the mild and relatively humid climate, and we feasted on sweet peaches, nectarines, apples, blackberries, corn, tomatoes, capsicum and aubergines.

Blackberry feasts!

Buying some mega-tomatoes in the Adjara region

Armenia was a little different. As I pedaled along, I puzzled about the hay. In the northern three-quarters of our route through Armenia, we were most commonly riding through expansive landscapes of golden hay fields. In the villages, every house was dwarfed by a towering hay stack beside it. Classic blue (Bedford?) trucks were constantly passing us, piled high with, you guessed it, hay! Going both ways. Who wanted the hay I could never work out, because everyone had hay. Hay coming out their ears! What was all this hay-moving about? Obviously it was important business, and we even watched a bus, past its heyday(!) now also being pulled into this noble service, stuffed in all its length with this golden gold, bursting its prickly stems out the cracks in the windows!

The hay trucks!

Part of “the question of the hay” was answered for us by David, an American Peace Corps volunteer who spontaneously hosted us in the southern Armenian border town of Meghri. For many, hay is their primary heat source in the cold winter months. This is why they need such mountains of the stuff!

Ready for winter

Pushing the limits of safe driving I think!

We did find some people producing something other than hay, high on another golden Armenian pass. As we ducked off the road on sundown, trying to find some hidden camping, we stumbled across some others with maybe a similar aim. An extended family group of women and teenage children were camped in three large ex-Soviet tents, and they welcomed us in for chai. We discovered they are Yezdi people, not Armenian, and that the Yezdi live scattered through Armenia, Georgia and Iraq. We had a lovely evening with them sharing food, laughs and learning a little about their way of life. In summer they tend their herd of 20 cows in the high pastures, which produce 50 litres of milk a day. In the winter months they return to their home town in western Armenia, where their husbands are currently continuing to work.

With Cheena and her mother at their camp

We found plenty of passion amongst the people of the Caucasus. In at Armenian bazaar where we ate our lunch, an Armenian apple seller cum composer talked with us for a while, and between complimenting us on our “very romantic culture” in New Zealand, of which he was more convinced than I, his favourite topic was that the Armenians are Europeans. Of this I needed little convincing, but I think that for them, situated on the border between Asia and Europe, and more geographically Asian or Middle Eastern really, they feel the need to reiterate this point. Their language, their culture, their religion, their music is European, we were told numerous times. Again David (Peace Corps) helped to fill in the gaps, telling us that in the recent weeks the Armenian government had applied to join the Eurasian Union with Russia and some of the ‘Stans, and the population were devastated, seeing it as a decided step back from their desire to be fully accepted in Europe and the European Union.

Komitas passionately elaborates on a point, Vanadzor bazaar, Armenia

Along with their positive passions for wine, hay and European-ness, some also had passionate grievances against their neighboring countries. Again, I mulled as I pedaled along, and really realized how fortunate we are to have such little grounds for prejudice and grievances against another people group, how relatively easy it is for us in our peaceful isles to be open minded about such things. Georgia’s major grievance is with Russia, who as late as 2008 was invading their northern border, as they helped and indeed formed the bulk of the military forces trying to establish the independence of two of Georgia’s breakaway regions in the Caucasus Mountains, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the Adjara region of Georgia, there was also some bad feeling towards the Turks, and generally to Islamic nations, from the 300 year occupation of their region, the bloodshed and churches destroyed in efforts to squash their faith.

Khertvisi Castle (11th Century) stands in a prominent position on the southern Georgian trade routes

However Georgia, having three major borders open with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, is on relatively easy neighbourly terms compared to Armenia, and is the linking country for all Caucasus travel. Armenia has strong positive ties with Russia but it’s two longest borders, with Azerbaijan and Turkey, are firmly closed, leaving it a ‘corridor nation’ open only to Georgia in the north and Iran in the south. It has disputes with Azerbaijan over a contested region where about 90% of the population are Armenian, but it is currently Azerbaijan territory. Armenia also has disputes with Turkey over what they claim was a genocide of Armenians early in the 20th century that has gone unacknowledged by the Turks. I realize I have not experienced military invasion of my homeland, destruction of our sacred places or violence against my people group within my or my parents history and I don’t know how differently I would see the world if I had.

Churches and fortresses stand on the hills around the southern Armenian border town of Meghri

Their passion is also for their rich history, of which their Orthodox Christian faith plays a central part. We visited Vardzia, an ancient cave city in Southern Georgia, built first as defence, then later used as a monastery and university. The small rooms cut into the rock, poised high above a bluffy valley, looked perfect for all these purposes and I loved thinking of all those who over the centuries had also watched the golden shafts of afternoon light glow on the pale conglomerate stone of the rounded doorways and windows.

Vardzia cave city, southern Georgia

Tatev monastery was a similarly special place of history and faith for the Armenian people. Approaching it on another golden evening, this time squashed into a cable car with our bikes and ten other passengers, we appreciated it’s location perched on cliff tops above a beautifully forested and craggy valley. We took a day to rest here in the quiet mountain village and monastery, enjoying trying to instate some kind of Sabbath rest into our cycling rhythms! A site sacred for Armenian Christians since the first century, and a working monastery since the ninth century, it was also rich in wonderful vibes of ancient faith tradition, which we soaked up as we sat in it’s huge stone windows dangling our feet over the atmospheric valley below.

Tatev Monastery stands in an atmospheric and well-defended position

A very peaceful vibe inside the high, ancient church at Tatev.

In Tatev

Riding in the Caucasus has been for us a fascinating and rich time, but also with its definitely European vibe, it has been a pretty easy place to be. With logistics here being that much easier, we have been able to get into good riding and camp out routines, clocking up 1600km in our three weeks riding, and rolling over the long awaited 5000km mark! Again, as we have said numerous times before, but is the absolute truth, we feel so privileged to be here. To travel slowly through, seeing, tasting and sharing the specialness of these diverse places and people, is something very rich, and formative for us both individually and together. 

Celebration time!!