Her familiar, tearful, smiling face was framed by the tinted window, then a silhouette, receding; finally she joined the flecked shapes swaying within the departing bus as it began its 24-hour journey to Tehran. I put my hands in my pockets and trudged towards the subway. For the next few days I would put loneliness aside through the process of packing, tying up loose ends on website projects, and readying the flat for several months’ vacancy.
For what seemed like an eternity, Tenny and I had been looking forward to the day when we could turn the key one last time and pedal off together towards new lands. Circumstances had not been kind, and Tenny had gone to Iran to seek out a sports injury specialist to diagnose her knee pain, which had been persisting since the New Year. Free of work and alone for several weeks, I’d decided to use this window of opportunity to do something I’d been dreaming of doing for years — exploring Mongolia on my bike.
May arrived and with it the Russian business visa I’d been fretting over for several weeks. I dragged my luggage down to the railway station — one bike box, a 60-litre drybag, two panniers, three bike wheels and a handlebar-bag — and booked a seat on the overnight train to Tbilisi. The shabby old wagons creaked out of Yerevan’s grandoise, deserted station, named after the Armenian hero David of Sassoun. Our stewardess looked as much in need of renovation as the carriage, collecting tickets and sprinkling cigarette ash down the aisle as she casually whinged at the occupants about nothing in particular. The dim, orange bulbs flickered above. An ancient old woman muttered in my direction as the last lights of Yerevan slid into the distance. I rolled out my lumpy mattress to get some sleep before the rigmarole of the border crossing.
In Tbilisi I met up with Erik, a Swede who had cycled to Georgia and decided to take up residence there, and his flatmate Marija. She also had a history of long distance cycling, riding from her home country of Slovenia to China and back. (You can hear an interview with Marija on TravellingTwo.com.) Unable to carry my gear more than a few hundred metres at a time, I left it all at the left luggage office of Tbilisi station for the day, and went to drink tea with friends until the night train to Batumi.
A long time ago I decided to quit flying. This was for purely ideological reasons, and I was aware of the high probability that it would have no effect on society’s addiction to air travel whatsoever. But I couldn’t really bring myself to replicate the hypocrisy of those who jet about the world, expounding green-ness and sustainability between one airport and the next. So the prospect of cycling across Mongolia involved much more than actually cycling across Mongolia. I would also have to somehow get myself and all of my kit there by crawling across the surface of the world. I wedged my various bags and boxes into all available crevices of the Batumi night-train cabin. It would be the second of four train journeys totalling almost 8,000km in distance.
In motion, with the weight of imminent departure behind me, I started to find my feet again. It always took a few days to make the transition back to the traveller’s state of mind, one which accepts the fluidity and unpredictability of things, and refuses to let unforeseen setbacks cloud progress. I found myself sharing a cabin with three Georgians. The train pulled silently away and, after a perfectly timed comic pause, the middle-aged man opposite glanced at me and the two young women, reached under his seat and, with a wry grin, produced a five-litre bottle of home-made red wine. The rest of the journey passed rather quickly.
I stayed a night in Batumi. It was Sunday and the port was closed. “Come back tomorrow”, I was told on enquiring about the ferry to Sochi, Russia’s premier Black Sea resort and the future host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The following morning it was raining. Batumi seemed to be perpetually under renovation. Puddles and flooded pot-holes made entire streets impassable without a small canoe or a pair of waders. I felt as if in Venice.
At the port I blocked the ticket office window to avoid being shoved to the back of a growing crowd of Georgians. At 11am on the dot I handed my passport through the window to buy a ticket for the next sailing. The manager smiled broadly. “England passport!!!” I returned his smile. “England! Very good! I am very sorry!” Still smiling. “England passport Georgian soldier no problem. England passport Russian soldier” — dramatic pause — “BIG problem. Very bad. I am very sorry.”
I said I had a Russian visa and that it had cost me a total of $504 US dollars to procure and that I really really needed to get to Russia on a boat. “I am very sorry. Only Georgia Armenia Russia Azerbaijan passport. Soviet passport you know? England Germany France Italy Albania passport — no.” A small amount of blood drained from my face. He looked sorrowful. “Trabzon OK. 150 kilometre. Car autobus no problem. I am very sorry.”
So I marched arbitrarily though Batumi in the pouring rain until I found a travel agent selling bus tickets to Trabzon, then went to my musty little back-alley hotel, attached all of my bags to myself and spent half an hour in intense pain shuffling the 500 metres or so to the bus stop, thanks to my stubborn refusal to pay for a taxi. 3 hours later, in Turkey, the moody mini-bus driver failed to keep up his moody act as he dropped me off outside the port of Trabzon and I hobbled off with a smile and thank-you-very-much in Turkish, Georgian, Russian and English. I crossed the road to the little row of turizm offices and bought a ticket on the next ferry to Sochi, which was boarding at 5pm. I looked at my phone. It was 4:55pm.