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Big Adventure - Week 5 Report

Istanbul - Ankara - Kars -

Sarp - Batumi - Tblisi - 1354 miles

I forgot to mention in last week's report that Jefris had narrowly escaped getting pickpocketed on the Marmary (Istanbul metro) train the day before. As we boarded the crowded train with our new Indonesian friends, a well dressed young man had blocked his way as he came to join us. Luckily he quickly moved aside and came around to stand with us. Amandha then pointed out that his shoulder money bag was partially unzipped - he usually keeps it under another layer of clothing and has been very vigilant about doing so since - luckily nothing was missing. Straight afterwards we all saw that the guy who had blocked his way was with a couple of similarly smart and stylishly dressed companions, and all three exited at the next stop - obviously a professional gang who had tried a classic block and distract move.

Back to Monday of week 5 - the gluten free baklava lived up to my hopes, and, still on a high with our reservations for onward trains safely in the bag, we enjoyed our sticky treat on the banks of the Bosphorus, late elevenses. Not too long afterwards we headed back to the Indonesian restaurant for a cheap and tasty lunch, and then caught a tram back towards the Blue Mosque. At one of the stops along the way, who should board through the doors we were standing beside but Lewis, our sleeping compartment mate. I had rather hoped we might bump into each other again so it was lovely to hang out for a while and discuss metaphysics in the awesome surroundings of the Blue Mosque, and enjoy a cuppa afterwards. Good luck with your onward adventures Lewis, and I look forward to reading some of your travel stories.

Home for an early night, and a very efficient preparation for the next morning's departure - we are getting better at this stuff- and off to Ankara on the 9.39 am train. In the departure area of the station we met a very friendly Belgian Turkish gentleman who asked us if we liked to drink coke. Jefris said yes and Arif duly poured a small measure from his large bottle into a paper cup, and then asked if Jefris liked JD too. By the time we went through the security baggage check, Arif, by now clearly several sheets to the wind, failed to zip his bag up properly and his bottle of Jack Daniels rolled out onto the floor and was duly confiscated. He wasn't too bothered, and as we said goodbye - our reservations were in different carriages - cheerfully told us he was ready to sleep all the way to Ankara.

Another city, and another new public transport system to negotiate - or not, as it turned out. As far as we were able to determine, we couldn't board the metro or the buses without a city travel card, which we could only purchase from another part of town - so taxi it was. Our airbnb host was a lovely chap named Yuksel, a university librarian by day, a bartender by night, and saving for an early retirement by renting out four rooms in his apartment. It was a pleasant little room, and our first priorities were to get a load of washing done and shop for supplies for the next leg of our journey.

Our stash of food in the fridge and our washing hung out to dry, we headed off to Yuksel's favourite restaurant, a brisk 25 minute mostly uphill walk. We were rather surprised - given that we were clearly obviously budget travellers - that he had directed us to somewhere so swanky looking: plush surroundings, waiters in black and white and menu prices a bit beyond our usual target range. The portions looked big though, so we decided to share what looked like a very generous mixed platter. Our waiter raised an eyebrow, 'this is just for one person' - 'it's ok we'll share.' And a good job too, as minutes later he and a colleague returned laden with an array of complementary starters: delicious salads, dips, garnishes and flatbreads. Of course Jefris had to eat most of it as the dips were creamy, most of the salads were tomatoey and oniony, and the bread was bready! But I polished off the whole of a gorgeously dressed green salad and a lovely herby, spicy paste that I later realised was supposed to be a garnish for our meat - luckily the waiter spotted it was gone before our mains arrived and brought us more. Even without the starters, our mixed grill platter would have been plenty for the two of us. Rather like Jack Spratt and his wife we have complementary preferences, so I scoffed most of the chicken and koftas, Jefris devoured the lamb, and everything on the bone, we shared the veg, and so, between the two of us, we licked the platter clean.

With just one day to explore Ankara, on Wednesday we headed off with a handy itinerary from Yuksel. First to the Old Town, where we wandered the hickledy pickledy streets, and stopped for hot drinks - Turkish coffee for Jefris and a glass of 'cay' - weak black tea with sugar for me. I would never drink such a thing at home but enjoyed it inTurkey. The old town is next to a university so lots of the cafes had younger people sitting outside but we chose a place where a few old men were congregated. To our surprise, one of them immediately started chatting to us with very good English. He turned out to be a retired undercover policeman who had spent his working life tracking big criminals across the globe for Interpol. By the time we left we knew all about five generations of his family, having seen photos of his grandfather, a police chief in Istanbul, and his granddaughters, both studying at good universities.

By midday we reached the top of Ankara Castle with almost 360 degree views of the city skyline, just in time to hear the beautiful call to prayer echoing from the hills all around us. On our way down the hill we found a lovely park bench for our picnic stop, and then headed to Museum of Anatolian Civilisation. I loved looking at the goddess figurines, many of them familiar to me from photographs I've seen over the years, and it really was mind blowing to see beautiful artefacts made thousands of years ago; elegant pottery, gold jewellery and most striking of all an incredibly intricate decorative table: created over a two and a half thousand years ago, a stunning piece of creativity and craft by the standards of any age. Jefris had opted to wait outside whilst I was in the museum, and when I came out he had made a new friend, Aibar from Almaty in Kazahkstan. We were glad to hear from him that it should be possible to cross in to China by land, and he encouraged us to get in touch when we get to his home city, about a month from now,

At 6pm the same day we boarded our last Interrail train, the Dogu Express. With no Wifi at the station or on board, we were unable to access our interrail passes, and were saved by a lovely young woman who immediately offered to open a hotspot for us, Anastasia, a French Georgian had just been travelling in Europe and home to visit family in France and was on her way back to Tbllisi. We swapped numbers and she promised to send us some tips for exploring the city that she has made her home. We didn't meet her again on the train, but later that evening we met two more fellow travellers. We spotted two young women using their phones in the restaurant car, and I asked them if they could tell us what time sunrise would be so that we could set our alarms. Lily from Kent was on her way to India, and Hagar from Miami to Australia probably via South East Asia. They met in Istanbul and are travelling together to Tblisi and possibly beyond. When I asked them if they'd tried the food in the restaurant car they said that they were regretting not having come better supplied for the journey, so - being very plentifully stocked ourselves - the next morning we invited them to join us for lunch in our compartment: a feast of supermarket dolmades, hummus and olives; carrots, cucumbers and radishes from an Ankara market; puffed buckwheat cakes and our ubiquitous boiled eggs; with figs and halva for afters. The whole journey that day was a feast for the eyes too - mountains and hills in shades of yellows, reds, browns and greens, rocky valleys, rivers and lakes.

The journey stretched out to 29 hours, we arrived in Kars and after airing our room which had a very bad drain smell, and booking our bus tickets for the next day we crashed out for the night. Having found our way to the bus station in good time, it seemed I had time to make it to the post office and back. It turned out to be a little further than I thought, and when I got there it seemed that no-one had ever been asked for a stamp for a postcard to the UK before - so felt a little mild peril as I found my way back to bus station with minutes to spare - but of course the bus didn't leave on time. Lily, Hagar and Anastasia were all on the same bus and we all shared a table at the lunchtime rest stop. Once again it was a spectacular journey: several hours travelling beside the Coruh river, which flows along steep sided rocky gorges following a major geological fault line: now a series of vast lakes created by immense hydroelectric dams. In some places we could see where former villages has been flooded out, and the road wound in and out of of a seemingly endless series of tunnels. Still so very beautiful, but to see such a magnificent landscape transformed by a gargantuan engineering project was disturbingly mind blowing.

I dozed off on the last part of the journey, and before I knew it we had arrived at Sarpi. For some reason the bus driver seemed to have taken a dislike to us travellers, and although he must have known full well we where heading for the border he didn't let us know that we should have got out at the penultimate stop to catch a dolmus (minibus) to the border.... a bit of a bit of umming and ahhing then about walking the half mile or so back to the dolmuses , combined with a bit of taxi haggling and Jefris managed to get a price we were all happy with for the five of us to ride straight to the border... a bit of squeeze for the four in the back and relative luxury for me in the front.

Anastasia had warned us that things might be a bit chaotic at the border, and, as Lily said, it was very much one of those situations where you miss the polite English queuing behaviour. It was pretty much a scrum to get anywhere near the two channels towards passport control, and soon became apparent that there would be no chance of getting there by hanging back. Unlike those behind us, we weren't trying to push forwards, simply to avoid being overtaken...a stout Georgian lady behind me was literally reaching around me to wedge her couple of bin bags full of luggage in front of my legs, and then her two companions made sure to get their bags on top of hers, all three gripping on to their luggage to manouevre themselves ahead of me in the throng. After 20 minutes or so of this Hagar, impressively, was well ahead of us , nearing the counter, I had just made it into the channel following Anastasia, and Lily was not far behind us. Jefris was still near the back, clearly being too much of gent to assert himself amongst the mass of predominantly very assertive women. Anastasia told me, 'if he doesn't push he'll never get through', so I shouted the warning back to him in Indonessian 'kalau ngaak dorong, ngaak masuk!'

For the four of us women passport control was pretty straightforward, but for Jefris it was an all too familiar hold up. We had checked, double, checked and triple checked, and were thus certain that, as a permanent resident of GB and a current Schengen visa holder, he did not need a visa to enter Georgia. It seemed that the staff then needed to go through the multiple checking process, so Jefris was held back for about half an hour until eventually someone returned with his passport, asked him his religion, and when he replied, 'I was baptised Christian' he was duly processed for entry. It was very sweet of our three companions too wait for us whilst all this was going on, and once again, with help this time from Anastasia with her fluent Georgian, a price was negotiated for a taxi - this time a luxuriously roomy minibus - to drop us off at our various locations in Batumi.

We were the first to be dropped off, around 9.30 in evening, by our airbnb on the edge of the Old Town. A bit of confusion about which gate we should enter, help form a lovely young woman running the little coffee shop next door to us, and we were met by our host who showed us up two flights of external stairs to a humble but homely little room by itself on the top floor, almost surrounded by a little balcony, with great views of brightly lit nearby local landmarks: the Armenian church, the Piazza Tower, the Alphabet Tower. We had only booked for one night, but pretty much immediately decided to stay for two. I popped down to ask our host about this and to request, if possible, a kettle. She gave us a single gas burner and returned shortly afterwards with pots, cups, glasses, cutlery, bowls and a couple of sachets of coffee. We barely shared a word of each other's language but felt very warmly welcomed.

With Georgia having reached the knockout stages of the rugby world cup, we rather hoped we might find somewhere to watch the quarter finals and headed out to explore the neighbourhood... a couple of places showing football, but rugby nowhere to be seen, so we ended up back at our local, just across the street, showing, bizarrely women's American football... how on earth has it come to pass that this sport is played in bikinis? Appallingly ridiculous! On the plus side, it seemed a lively and friendly little place, with a great array of craft beers and ciders - most welcome after Turkey where beer is more expensive than in the UK and cider (for me, please!) non existent. We asked if there was any chance they could show rugby instead, but alas, they were showing YouTube videos. We soon got chatting to our slightly shy but friendly and interesting companion at the bar - a stylish young Russian guy - working in design, and quickly discovered that everyone there, including the bartenders, were Russian too, as is around 10% of the current population of Batumi. It's one thing to hear about war and conscription on the news, and another to meet people who have had to flee their country, often leaving family and friends behind, to escape being forced into the army and sent off to fight in a war they believe is unjust. Our new friend Sacha could barely suppress his emotions as he talked to us about the total lack of free speech in Russia. Another young gay guy we spoke to told us how he was planning to seek asylum in Germany. We were invited to join him and his friend the following evening at the bar where he worked: the boss and her partner would be celebrating their wedding - they had just been to Copenhagen to get married as it's not possible in Georgia.

We found out on the Friday night that we had arrived just in time for the first Batumi Boulevard festival the next day, so we headed there in the morning. There wasn't much going on, just some children's activities and a few stalls mostly selling local wine and honey, Jefris takes his football everywhere, but this was the first time he was immediately surrounded by a bunch of kids. After a bit of a kickabout with them we headed to beach for a swim in the Black Sea. The water was lovely and warm by English standards, but full of big jelly fish - both got spooked by slimy contact, but luckily not stung. In the evening we met up with Lily and Hagar for the live music part of the festival - amazingly one of the two bands playing was the only Georgian band Lily had heard of.

After a decent dinner we headed to the Russian ex-pat queer bar to catch the tail end of the wedding celebrations. Sadly the dancing was over but we chatted with some more friendly Russians - one of them estimated about 850 000 Russians have left the country since the start of the war - many of them in digital nomad professions, apparently there is now a shortage of tech specialists in Russia. One of the guys told us, 'they mostly deny it's happening, but every now and then they ask us ' please come home'. No one we spoke to had any intention of returning any time soon.

We decided to stay in Batumi for a third night - it was so nice to be somewhere small and easily navigable again, and such a luxury to sleep in the same bed for three nights in a row for the first time since Claire and Lee's! On Sunday we met up with Lily and Hagar again for a trip to the botanical gardens, not quite what any of us were expecting. It was slightly perplexing, having gone there to be amongst the trees, to find very loud pop music being blasted up the valley. We climbed up, eventually escaping the soundtrack, to see some beautiful sea views, many lovely trees, scrumped some yummy fruits from the citrus section and eventually found our way to a rather disappointing rubbish strewn beach near the edge of the park, where the boss dog joined us for our picnic. We saw so many street dogs across Turkey and Georgia, all of them pretty healthy looking and docile, often snoozing together in little gangs. In most places it seems people leave food out for them, and many are tagged to show that they have been jabbed and / or sterilised.

On the way back into town we stopped off to see the moving statues, Ali and Nino. A Georgian Romeo and Juliet, the doomed lovers are forever moving longingly towards each other, merging for a brief moment only to separate and yearn for one another once more. Jefris and I were both mesmerised in completely different ways: I found the sculpture surprisingly emotive and he was wowed by its technical execution. Another meal with our new friends before we all said our goodbyes, and then home to prepare for the next day's onward travels and get an earlyish night.

At the bus station we met another travelling couple, with the same wheelie backpacks as us - Al and Ardele from Osoyoos Canada (not far from our fam there) both 70! As week 6 began we were on our way with them on the bus to Tblisi...

A couple more travel stats for you, as of week 5: total boiled eggs eaten (between two of us) - 48; total beds slept in - 23.

Lots of love to all our friends and family, we miss you! xxx

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