Day 280 – Winter Has Come

Eastern Express to Kars

 

Sleeper seats are sold out weeks in advance. Turkey’s Dogu Ekspresi train, which connects Istanbul and Kars via the interior of Anatolia, is a bucket list item for Turks and foreigners alike. We bought our tickets last minute, and so have to content ourselves with third-class Pullman seats for the 16-hour journey from Kayseri to Kars.

Conflicting reports about bicycles being allowed on the train made us nervous as the locamotive chugged into the station at 2:30am, an hour late. To our great pleasure, there is an entire wagon dedicated to bulky baggage. It is empty. The guardian seems pleased to have something to watch over as we hoist our bikes inside, not bothering to unload the panniers.

Collapsing into our seats, we sleep fitfully until sunrise. With the morning light we can examine our surroundings; inside and outside the train. Somewhere deep in Central Turkey, we are winding through a canyon, a bright blue river to the left, and fat snowflakes falling all around. Inside, the ambiance is friendly and familiar. Families share food between the berths. A woman in her forties seems to have brought an entire samovar to share tea with anyone and everyone in the carriage.

The hours pass, we slowly begin to believe we have always been on this train, always will be. We scrub our faces in the wash closet. We eat snacks from a bottomless bag fruits and nuts we bought in Kayseri. We drink tea. The white hills become invisible in the falling snow.

Well past the scheduled arrival time of 8pm, we pull into Kars. It is not a ski town, but surely a winter town. Snow covers the streets, making us wobble on our bikes. At the Ogretmenevi, or teacher’s house, we are turned away because we can’t produce a marriage certificate. A shadier hotel down the road is less discerning, and for €12 we have a triple room for the night.

Racing to the border

The mercury in the thermometer creeps towards -8°C. It budges no higher. All around town restaurants are closing, the bus stations are quiet. The populace is preparing for a snow storm, a blast of cold temperatures. The radar predicts the front will arrive tomorrow. Our conversation runs circles of whether or not we want to be snowed-in in Kars, or make a break for the border to tuck into a mountain guesthouse in Georgia.

By noon we have our answer; we will go for it. We feel comforted and exhilarated about moving forward. That afternoon we make it as far as Susuz. Our spirits are high. We’ve only ridden 30km from Kars, but the anxiety of awaiting the storm has dissolved.

The next day the wind has calmed and we ride across snowy Anatolian hills as we climb higher and higher, closing in on the Sakaltutan Geçedi pass. It’s at 2200m, the highest mountain pass of our journey so far. Though we pedal forward, time seems to stand still; that night the radar shows that we are still one day ahead of the storm.

Flurries dance in the air in the morning, but we have made it to the last pass, at the border town of Posof. The descent is not immediate, and we ride along a plateau for a dozen kilometers, a strong tailwind pushing us uphill. It seems fate also wants us to indulge in a glass of Georgian wine tonight.

 

First Half of Georgia

The snow arrives and is heavy on this side of the border. In Akhaltsihké we want to visit the Sapara Monastery, but the roads are blocked. A brisk run through the snow gets us up the mountain in under an hour. Our tracks are the only traces on the perfectly fresh snow. A half hour after we arrive, a Lexus 4X4 pulls up. The monks scurry to roll out an actual red carpet, on which the regional Bishop plods into the chapel to perform the liturgy. To our dismay, he doesn’t offer us a ride back to town. The contrast between religion on two sides of a mountain range is great; in Turkey, the minaret calls every few hours. In Georgia, Gregorian monasteries remain intact. How things can be so close, but so different.

In the afternoon, we pack up and begin the 50km ride to Bourjomi. Water from the road splashes on our bikes, and freezes. The cables, the forks, the gears all freeze. Every roadside café becomes a mandatory stop to pour hot water over our bikes. At dusk, we push our bikes up the icy road and collapse into a guest house.

 

Dawn reveals blue skies and a view over Bourjomi. It is a spa town that enjoyed a high degree of luxury during Soviet times, visible everywhere in the impressive and stereotypical Soviet architecture. We nest into a guest house to wait out the most frigid days of the front. Outside the temperature drops to -20°C, but inside we are warm and comfortable, reading, drinking coffee and gazing out the window in our pijamas.

Over the days cycling to Tbilissi, we progressively drop altitude, and the snow turns to dust, turns to frost. Still, each morning we must wait until noon when the roads are sure to be cleared. There are many guest houses and we take advantage of their low rates and copious breakfasts, rather than shiver in the tent. The snowy minor Caucasus mountain range guides us. Ever present on our left, it is our Polaris as we race to the Paris of the Caucasus.