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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cappadocia to Tbilisi

After a safe night’s sleep at Ali’s, we headed towards Goreme, in the heart of Cappadocia. It happened to be Sebastien’s birthday that day, so we were planning to take it easy and enjoy. After a few hours of driving (5 hours=light driving day), we found ourselves amongst the magical “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia. We hadn’t booked a hotel in advance, so we spent some time running around checking out our options. The prices in Cappadocia are high compared to other parts of Turkey, so we made sure to mention that it was Sebastien’s birthday to get a “birthday discount”. During the course of our search, the birthday discount yielded a few free water bottles, and at the end when we finally found a place (Flintstone’s – highly recommended!), they gave us free lunch! Our room was carved from a cave and complete with our own Turkish bath. The hotel also had a pool. We ventured out to Goreme town for a few birthday drinks and meze, sticking mainly to rooftop patios to enjoy the tremendous view.

The next morning, we woke up at an ungodly hour to go on a balloon ride over Goreme park. Neither of us had been on a hot air balloon ride before, so we were really looking forward to it (despite Sebastien’s birthday hangover). We watched the sun rise over the ancient cave dwellings of Cappadocia, and enjoyed the view and the ride – which was much smoother than we thought it would be! We were in the balloon for about an hour, at varying heights. Our pilot took us up to 1000m and we could feel our ears pop. Hot air balloons are crazy because there isn’t really steering, you can just move up and down with the air currents. Our pilot managed to bring us down in the exact the area he was supposed to, but our basket almost tipped over in the process. Sebastien thought that was the best part. 

We finished the trip with a (Turkish) champagne toast and headed back to our hotel. After a few hours of sleep we were sufficiently recovered from our 4:30am wakeup time to hit the road. Our aim was to get to the Black Sea and take the highway along the coast as we made our way into Georgia. When leaving Cappadocia we saw the first ralliers we had seen since Istanbul! We gave them a friendly honk as we passed them (yes, our Perodua is capable of passing people), and didn’t see them again.

Our drive from Cappadocia to the Black Sea was one of the most diverse days of driving we have had yet. We travelled through rocky, dry landscape, farm towns, crazy mountains with windy roads and ended at the Black Sea just as the sun was setting. Turkish roads are (thankfully) well-paved, but the day’s drive was pretty tiring – long, and literally full of ups and downs and curves. It was also almost 40degrees until we got to the mountains where it cooled down quite a bit.

We drove along the Black Sea for a spell before picking a random small town to grab dinner in and set up for the night. We picked Tirebolu, described in Lonely Planet as a “chirpy port town”.  We drove down the main drag and pulled into what looked like a nice spot on the sea, with pictures of enticing kebab in the window. It is Ramadan right now, and we pulled in exactly when the family who owns the restaurant was breaking their fast for the day. In our minds we thought we would get a delicious fish dinner, but what we got was miles better. They invited us to join their family for iftar, and we had a full meal cooked by the lovely lady of the family. At the table were Sebastien and I, “Turkish” Sebastien, Grandpa, Mom, and a family friend, Turgut. Our meal was out of this world, way better than any food we had eaten in Turkey so far! It started with soup and salad and progressed into a main course with rice, eggplant, beef, potatoes and a tzaziki like thing. Although (once again) it was hard to communicate since our Turkish is so limited, we managed to all understand each other, crack jokes and really enjoy ourselves. They made us feel like we were part of the family!

Grandpa spoke a bit of French and reminded us of Sebastien’s Grandpa. He is super spry and was moving around tables and chairs like nobody’s business. Eventually more and more people joined us and we showed them pictures of Ottawa and our families. We met more family and friends and eventually the “kids” showed up and we played an epic game of beach volleyball. We went for a dip to cool off afterwards. The sea water was perfect – really clean and a great temperature. We stayed up until midnight hanging out, playing volleyball and drinking chai, and camped right near the restaurant, facing the beach.  One of the guys we met was a police officer and he said it was totally fine.

The family was so nice and so welcoming to us. They wouldn’t let us pay for anything (dinner, water, tea) and even gave us their phone numbers in case we needed anything at night (they lived in apartments facing the beach right across from where we were sleeping). We finished the night with hugs, pictures and invitations for them to stay with us if they ever came to Canada.
There aren’t words to describe how generous their hospitality was. Sebastien and I were completely blown away. Even the next morning when we woke up, we had to ask ourselves “did that really happen?”. We really have experienced so much kindness during our time in Turkey that it makes us rethink our notions of hospitality. Sebastien and I think we are pretty decent hosts, but Turkish hospitality takes it to another level. It is so kind-hearted, unassuming and people really expect nothing in return. Sebastien and I agree that our time in Tirebolu was the best experience of the trip so far.

The next morning with the sun beating down on our tent, we woke up early and hit the highway again, driving towards Georgia. We made pretty good time on the road, but the border took a few hours to get through. At first, we spoke with a border guard and he said he would let us skip the line. Sebastien and I grabbed an ice cream to celebrate, but when we went back to try to get through – he waved us to the back of the line. His friends were around, so I guess he had to look like he wasn’t playing favourites.
There were a few other Rally teams waiting in the queue so I stayed with the car while Sebastien jumped into the sea. Along with a few of the ralliers, he climbed a huge 20ft rock and they dove off of it into the clear, beautiful water below. Sebastien regretted the fact he hadn’t packed his scuba gear.

Eventually (after a few extra minutes of explaining to the border guard at Georgia that Perodua is actually a car brand)  we made it into Georgia and were greeted by what we soon realized is a pervasive scene in this country – cows walking in the middle of the road. Also, the road was immediately much worse that Turkey.
A few kilometres after the border crossing, we hit one of Georgia’s most happening beach towns – Batumi. We enjoyed a delicious seafood meal along with the (rocky) beach and amazing water. We realized that we need to start listening to our “Learn Russian in the Car” audio lessons because people in Georgia do not speak much English and the few words of Turkish we picked up are absolutely useless here.

We relaxed on the beach for a few hours before setting off again. We were planning to take what was supposed to be a slight detour to Akhalsikhe to see the Sapara monastery on our way to Tbilisi. The road wound back through the mountains, setting us on scenery very similar to what we had seen in the mountains of Turkey, but with roads that were not as nice or as wide. After spending a few hours driving and not getting very far before dark, we pulled over to camp for the night.

Today we woke up and had our first real experience with off-roading on the trip. Thank you Georgia. On the map the road we took is indicated as a “divided highway” but in fact, there is a huge chunk of the road that is not even paved. These are winding mountain roads, and we could only drive about 15 km/h. Tweety (our car) took a bit of a beating, but we are happy we have a sump guard on. The car performed marvellously and is still running smoothly although there is now a weird rattling sound. We think it might be a rock between the sump guard and the bottom of the car. We are proceeding as is.

Eventually we arrived in Akhalsikhe, a cute town in the mountains with a fortress overlooking it. We stopped for lunch at a pub and had some kebab and Georgian dumplings. I have no idea what they are actually called, but basically they are like humongous soup dumplings. Everything was delicious. The ladies at the bar were entranced by me. I was telling Sebastien that my Russian roommate from the Czech Republic told me that during communism, they always used to show Bollywood movies because they have a family-friendly storyline, not like the Western smut of those days. My Russian roommate said most people used to watch them, and even when she was young she always wanted to have a sari. Shortly after I told this story, the ladies came over and took pictures with me. They then put a Bollywood movie from the 60’s on the television and were loving it. Before he walked into that bar, Sebastien had no idea he was walking around town with a celebrity, but I tried not to let it all go to my head.

After lunch, we took a walk up to the fortress but it is under renovation, so sadly we couldn’t see the inside. It was still really impressive from the outside. We then tried to find the Sapara monastery, and after asking five people for directions, we finally found the road to the monastery. The monastery was 10km of driving on a completely rocky, pot-hole filled road that would have taken an hour to get there and an hour of driving to get back (minimum, and without counting any potential car problems), so we decided to head towards Tbilisi instead, and stick to highway driving.

On the road to Tbilisi we stopped at a roadside monastery (Green Monastery), which was small but interesting and very serene. We were surprised when we walked into the base of the tower and saw human bones on an altar. We couldn’t read any of the signs, so we weren’t really sure what was going on.

We spent the evening in Tbilisi and will be driving to Baku, Azerbaijan tomorrow to try to take the ferry to Turkmenistan. Tbilisi is an awesome city with great restaurants, vibrant nightlife and beautiful vistas that blend the old with the new.

We bought an awesome CD for 2 lira in Turkey that will be appropriate for that portion of our trip – Chris de Burgh and his song “Don’t pay the Ferryman”  because apparently the ferry guys try to make people pay bribes to have the ferry leave sooner!

We just broke 4,000 miles on the trip and are looking forward to the next 6,000!!

(We planned to post pictures but the internet is deathly slow, so we will post them at the next stop!)

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