Week 2: Istanbul to Tbilisi

"The End of The Solo Section"

Week 2 featured us driving the length of Turkey and into Georgia. Immediately we noticed the change from Europe to Asia. The changing food, culture, and religion. Most of the week was spent travelling solo, meeting up briefly with a couple of teams on the Black Sea. It also signalled the first time we truly realised how far from home we were, and how much further we had to go.

Day 8-9: Istanbul to Goreme

We set aside the Saturday as an exploration day, no driving, just seeing the sites of Istanbul. We had done many of the big tourist sites the year previously, so we decided to focus on things we hadn't seen. One of those things was the Basilica Cistern, a one mile walk from our hotel. Our journey on foot took us past Sulemaniye Mosque and along through the Grand Bazaar.

Inside the Grand Bazaar.

I could happily spend lots of time in the Grand Bazaar. The sights, sounds, and smells making it a fascinating environment to wander around and observe. I'm not normally one for 'shopping' or browsing, but the Grand Bazaar has this lure, possibly due to the different culture.

Spices and tea.

Leaving the Bazaar, we walked towards the main square, taking a brief walk round. We then queued up for the Basilica Cistern. This is an underground water storage facility from the 6th century which is now a major tourist attraction.

Underground in Bascilica Cistern.

Grudgingly we got our things organised and re-packed the boot of the car. We really didn't want to leave Istanbul, I can't emphasise how much I enjoy the city. However, we had a schedule to keep to, needing to be at the Iranian border by the 4th of August. Heading out onto the roads of Istanbul, we drove towards the Bhosphorus Bridge. This large suspension bridge connects the two continents of Europe and Asia.

"...alarms blaring and bright red lights flashing..."

A general feature of Turkish motorways is that they are toll roads. However, unlike a lot of toll roads, these have automated tolls boths that require you to have a transmitter chip inside the car. Getting the transmitter chip isn't necessarily straight forward, so instead we didn't bother. The outcome of this was that every toll barrier we went through would result in alarms blaring and bright red lights flashing at us.

Lake Tuz.

Initially we had a plan to drive towards Ankara, camping on the outskirts somewhere. Instead our plan changed, having made good progress on the half decent Turkish motorways. We pushed on towards Lake Tuz. This is the second largest lake in Turkey, and one of the largest hypersaline lakes in the world. People from all over Turkey visit this salt lake, believing the water and salt have medicinal properties. A brief but heavy rainstorm had drifted in, so we sat in the car for it clear, quickly heading to the lake to take photos when the rain had cleared.

Outside the entrance to the campsite.

We were now not too far from one of our must-see destinations on the trip, Cappadocia. We carried on driving, and having covered 470 miles since the morning, arrived in the small town of Goreme. Cappadocia is the name given to region that features unusual rock formations, with Goreme being a major town in the region. Over the course of years locals have carved their homes into the rock, using existing caves as a basis. We stopped at Goreme Panorama Camping, having read about it previously. The owner, Ahmet, greated us warmly and showed us to the camping spot. Just near to this there is an upper deck area that overlooks the town.

Overlooking Goreme.

The view was absolutely stunning, with fantastic cityscape. We pitched our tent and quickly, as the light was fading, cooked some tinned macaroni cheese and bacon (one of our 'luxury' cans of food we had brought from the UK). We went to bed early, setting our alarm for a very early time the next morning, there being a very important reason for this.

Day 10-11: Goreme to Uzungol

At 5 am our alarms went off. We dagged ourselves out of our sleeping bags, getting changed quickly. Wandering up to the viewpoint we settled down to watch something truly incredible.

Hot air balloons over Goreme.

Goreme is famous for two things: rock formations and hot air balloons. Every day, early in the morning, close to 100 hot air balloons head out over the town. We used our view point to watch this impressive sight unfold as the sun rose.

Hot air balloons over Goreme.

After having our fix of hot air balloons we went for a swim in the campsite swimming pool. The temperature was starting to rise and we knew that we didn't fancy a long drive that day. This was especially true as we had had a very early start to the day. We did a quick search on the internet and found a small town fours drive along our route, called Zara, and quickly booked a very cheap hotel there.

Driving along Turkish roads.

After a comparatively short drive we arrived at Otel Gulistan. We checked in, and very quickly realised that the hotel workers didn't speak a great deal of English. We went out for a wander and saw that this was indeed a very central small Turkish town, the sort of place where you wouldn't really expect people to be fluent in English. We stopped in a small cafe style restaurant and ordered some traditional Turkish fayre, donner kebab and chicken shish. The donner meat was far from the aweful stuff you get in British kebab shops, this being proper chunks of lamb. Our filling meal came to a very reasonable price, this being far from a tourist trap. We walked back to the hotel and used the free wi-fi to form a plan for the next week and a bit.

Parked up outside Hotel Gulistan.

The wi-fi was very weak in our room, so we spent our time sat in the lobby. Kate began trying to ask the man behind the desk questions about what to see and what to do, however the language barier proved to be a problem. Then we came across a genius solution, Google Translate. Using this remarkable tool we were told about an apline lake that was partly on our route towards Georgia. As we sat in the lobby area planning, the hotel workers brought us free freshly cooked corn on cob. We continued with our planning, deciding that we would definitely make our way to this alpine lake the next day.

Parked up on the D915 road.

Our drive to the aforementioned lake took us along the infamous (as we later discovered) D915 motorway. This was a winding gravel road that took us up and over a mountain. The road featured no crash barriers and had sections with steep drops to our side. It was on one of the descents that the car developed an unusual fault. On one of the hairpins the powered steering cut out, making it very difficult to steer around the corner, whilst descending, and avoiding the steep drop. Fortunately this terrifying fault only happened twice.

Driving into Uzungol.

Having descended the mountain pass we arrived in a small village nestled in a valley next to a lake, both of which bear the name of Uzungol. We had found out about a small campsite in the town, and drove towards it, initially missing its location. We parked up and got our pitch for the night.

Our camping spot.

As we sat by our tent admiring the view, we started cooking and thinking about having an early night. We watched local people coming and going, and noticed that we were the only non-Turkish people staying there for the night. The car started to generate a few interested glances, with people starting to look at it in detail. A man and his children were standing nearby so went over and said hello. The man didn't speak much English, but we shared travelling stories by pointing at the map on the bonnet and him showing photos on his phone.

Day 12-14: Uzungol to Tbilisi

We departed Uzungol and aimed north, with the loose plan of finding somewhere to stay on coast. As we passed through the coastal towns in became clear that there weren't many decent places to stay. Instead we made a plan to psuh on into Georgia. Border crossing reports from other teams suggested that this one would take a while, that the guards were unfriendly, and you should definitely not try and take photos or film. Instead we had a resonably short crossing time of an hour, we were processed quickly at passport control, and the border guards showed an interest in the car and asked us questions about our journey. We even managed to get a photo of this, albeit a surreptitious one!

Chatting with the Georgian border police.

The first major Georgian place on the coastal route was Batumi. Driving into the city we noticed that it looked a bit miserable so we pushed on past it. Whilst stopped at a petrol station we managed to gain a bit of free wi-fi and read about a small camp site on the Black Sea. Often it's the case that you read up about somewhere that might be suitable to stay, without really knowing if it'll work out. We took a chance on 'Beach Camping Black Sea' in the small village of Kaprovani. When we arrived we found a small shack and a fenced off area of land run by an American, he explained that he split half his time between here and Los Angeles. The site was ideally located for the beach, being approximately 20 metres form the shore. We went swimming and the water was surprisingly warm. In the evening we walked to a nearby hotel and restaurant, ordering pizza like bread and grilled meat. We had been in touch with team Mischief and Mayhem (Volkswagen Polo) who were part of our Iran convoy. They were aiming for Georgia that day, so we told them where we were set up for the night.

Packing up the cars in the morning.

We woke up in the morning to find out that Mischief and Mayhem had arrived, along with The Baked Potatoes. We chatted with both teams, and it quickly became apparant that the white polo of Mischief and Mayhem was already suffering some problems, in particular a very thirsty engine for oil and and potential problem with the fuel pump. Meanwhile The Baked Potatoes were going through a customary team falling out (cf. Czech Out party), something that the team became famous for amongst ralliers. We arranged to catch up with Mischief and Mayhem in the capital, they had a few car related things they needed to do, so we set off for Tbilisi.

The unusual Georgian alphabet.

Georgia featured quite possibly some of the worst driving we had ever come across. The country was full of single carriageway roads, with many drivers pulling off ridiculous and downright dangerous over taking maneuvers. Arriving in the capital, in typical fashion, we got lost. We asked some police officers for help and they pointed us in the direction of our hostel for the night, The Green House Hostel. The owner of the hostel was an incredibly friendly lady who helped explain where various things were for us to see and do. We wandered out in the evening as we were starving and grabbed a quick bite to eat at a local restaurant.

"...there was an issue with the Polo and they might need help..."

The next morning I got a message from Frank (Mischief and Mayhem) seemingly there was an issue with the Polo and they might need help trying to get it sorted. Straight away I jumped in the car, and tried to find them. It turned out that the team had managed to limp the car into Tblisi the night before, this after having to wake some mechanics and parts sellers at a ridiculously late hour of the night to get the car moving. The fuel pump was now broken, and seemingly the best solution was to find a spare parts shop. Whilst we were thinking of a plan, Jokubas (Mischief and Mayhem) removed the broken fuel pump, and somehow crafted it back together by making a hole with a large knife. This allowed the Polo to start, rev loudly (something Jokubas tested a lot), and move. The plan changed, Frank and Jokubas would drive to the spare parts place, and I would follow, being able to offer a tow should things go wrong.

Yep our car really is that small (photo courtesy of Frank).

We set out, searching for the parts place on the outskirts of the city. After making a few wrong turns, including a brief chat to some workers in a coffin making shop, we arrived at the Bosch parts centre. The team didn't have their V5 equivalent (they were driving an Austrian registered car), the only problem with this being that they would miss out on a free one year warranty (probably only an issue if you intended to stay in Georgia for that long...). After getting sorted out, we drove back towards the centre, I split off to go back to the hostel and catch up with Kate, agreeing to meet up with Mischief and Mayhem later on in the evening. Kate and I then went out for a wander, taking in the sights of Tbilisi.

The view from the bridge near our hostel.

Tbilisi is full of quaint little back streets, with many eateries and shops. There was a strong Russian influence in some areas, with other bits having a staunchly Georgian character.

Books for sale.

I really enjoyed the city, and it is definitely on my list of 'places I would go back to'. We decided to grab some late lunch at a Georgian restaurant. Due to the cheap nature of the country we ordered a large grilled meat sharing meal. We were presented with a large platter with lots of very tasty looking meats, along a side salad and bread. That day we ate very well.

A small snapshot of our amazing meal.

We returned back to the hostel and spotted two new rally cars parked up. Inside we met members from team Sir Walter Rally and the Teenage Yurtbags (K11 Nissan Micra), they had convoyed along with Team Tottie (Suzuki Jimny). It was always good to meet up with new teams and find out how their rally was coming along and what their plans were. The lads in the two cars were taking the route across the Caspian Sea, needing to transit Azerbaijan in the process. We wished them good luck, having heard many bad things about the authorities in that particular country.

Parked up outside the hostel, spot the rally cars in the background.

Later on in the evening we caught up with Frank and Jokubas, their third team mate, Reinhold, was being very ill back at their hostel. We grabbed some drinks at a small restaurant on the edge of one of the main squares in the city. For the equivalent of about a euro we managed to buy a large jug of wine, which we enjoyed whilst sat outside in the Georgian evening. We said our goodbyes and aimed to meet back up again at a lake in Armenian, an organised meeting point for lots of teams on our Iranian convoy.

The story continues... week 3: Tbilisi to Tehran