Being back on the bike after my second delay was pure ecstasy. It had been such a long time since I had driven. Even a full 500 kilometer day of driving, on a cool fall day, from one major city to another didn’t dampen my spirits. A common perception for the ideal time to travel is summer time, in order to take full advantage of longer days and warm weather. But the fall is a special time of year. The crowds in big cities die down, the leaves change color and the overall feel of a city changes, as it gears up for winter. While I was in Tbilisi, I couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was cool, but the skies were clear.
The city is famous for its wine, bath houses, old and new churches, its Old Town, and friendly people. The very first person I met in Tiblisi was a prime example of this kind of person. I parked my bike near the hostel I was staying at, and a couple of men walked up to me. One of them told me that he lived in America for six years, and loved the people and his time there. After, he gave me his business card, he said if I ever needed anything that I could call him. Before we parted ways, he told me, “I hope you can meet a beautiful Georgian woman, and stay here.”
Top to bottom: sitting on the roof of an ancient bath house, Old Town in the middle and Narikala Fortress and church in the background. Street fair in a park with a DJ, where wine and food were sold. Walking next to the Mtkvari river. The iconic Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. View from Narikala Church.
Before this journey began, I had a chat with a friend who drove with a group of people by car from Ireland to Mongolia. He told me that Georgia, of all the countries he visited, was a place he wished he had spent more time. With that in mind, I cherished every minute I was there but made the difficult decision that I couldn’t stay that long, due to the setbacks I had experienced. At the time, my goal was still so far ahead of me and I had to think about where I would be - not just tomorrow, but a month beyond that. Georgia was the fifth and final former Soviet Union country that I visited. However, unlike the previous countries I had visited, Georgia is a predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian nation. This was evident to me, in the many churches I saw all over the country.
Tbilisi was an amazing city to visit. It was exceptionally beautiful. The food and wine were particularly delicious. After sitting around for so long in Baku, waiting for the spare parts to arrive and to give a twisted ankle some rest, it was really nice to feel well enough to walk around so much in Tbilisi. I might have walked more in two days than the entire time I was in Baku. The most interesting part of the city was Old Town. All of the buildings are tightly packed on a hill side, and at the top is Narikala Fortress. Scattered inside were attractive looking guesthouses, cafes, and shops. A short walk across the Mtkvari River is the city’s iconic Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi.
One part of the city pleasantly caught me off guard. It was at a park, when I stumbled upon a market that reminded me of a street fair that I have been to in my hometown of Seattle. Lots of local wine, art, and food was sold. Even a DJ was playing music. It was a great atmosphere to walk around and sample local life.
Top to bottom: resting at a nice cafe near my hostel. Churchkhela is a kind of Georgian snack or dessert. Concentrated grape juice is poured over strands of walnuts in order to make them. Bottom three: went for a nice walk around town before leaving the amazing city of Tbilisi.
Last year, while I was planning for this trip, one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting was Gergeti Trinity Church. This church is located high in the mountains near the town of Stepantsminda and the Russian border. When I left Tiblisi, I was a little bit worried about the weather I would encounter because, this time of year, anything can happen. It would have been devastating to have come so far to only see clouds instead of mountains.
Top to bottom: Saying good-bye to Tbilisi. Randomly drove by one of the most unique buildings I’ve ever seen. Taking a quick break near a reservoir. One last rest before pushing to my final destination.
In order to get there, I had to drive over a mountain pass that serves as Georgia’s primary skiing outlet. It was impressive to see all the homes, restaurants and new hotels scattered on the mountainside. I arrived in Stepantsminda later than expected, but as soon as I found a guesthouse, I unpacked my stuff and zipped up the steep mountain as soon I could. I was determined to get a glimpse of the church and surrounding mountains before dark. What I saw, didn’t disapoint.
Top to bottom: the light wasn’t good enough for the perfect shot but in person, seeing Gergeti Trinity Church was an unforgettable sight. As were the views of the village and surrounding mountains. Bottom: sunrise as I left town.
The light wasn’t perfect because the church was a little dark. But as the sun went down, it gave the mountains in the background an especially beautiful color to behold. Despite the lack of light and cool air, Trinity Church was everything I hoped it would be. It was such an amazing sight and display of hard work. That night, even in a remote town, I found a very international restaurant and had a fantastic dinner. In Central Asia, it was common for me to come across places - mostly hostels or motorbike shops - that collected travelers stickers. This restaurant was the last place I had seen that collected them.
Top to bottom: I was pleasantly surprised to find this randomly international restaurant on the main road. Had some delicious chicken and potatoes for dinner, which was especially nice after a long day of driving and exploring in the bitter mountain weather.
The next morning, I woke up extra early and battled the even colder temperatures to make the long drive across the country to the coastal city of Batumi. In the summer months, Batumi is the party capitol of the country. Just a few months ago, the beaches, bars and restaurants would have been full of people. But this time of year, it was mostly locals strolling the beach and boardwalk. As I walked around, I imagined the area as it would have been just a few months earlier. Joining hundreds of people soaking up the summer rays and enjoying Georgian wine at one of the many, now empty, restaurants along the seaside.
Top to bottom: Even with gloves on, my fingers were still numb while driving over the mountain pass. But I had nothing to complain about as I knew the day would only get warmer the lower I drove and closer I got to the Black Sea.
The next afternoon, I was ready to make the short drive to Turkey. Out of all of the countries I planned on visiting before I left China, Turkey stood out because it was a country where my father lived for four years. As I was growing up, he would often speak about his experience living in Istanbul. It was my hope that we could travel the country together when I arrived, but due to unforeseen circumstances back in August, he was not able to make it. I was very eager to cross the border, but for the first time, since trying to leave China, I was denied entrance to Turkey by customs officials. Their explanation was that as a foreigner driving a vehicle, it needed to be registered in the same country as my passport. My motorbike was bought and registered in China, and since I don’t have a Chinese passport, I was denied entrance.
Top to bottom: seeing the Black Sea for the first time was an incredible feeling, all I wanted to do at that moment was go swim. One of Georgia’s most famous dishes, Khachapuri Adjaruli, which is normally not eaten with meat. Only the bread, egg and cheese. Bottom three: I went for a walk on the boulevard next to the sea, which is normally filled with thousands of people. But that time of year, restaurants and beaches were largely empty.
That afternoon, I went back to Georgia - devastated, but determined to find a solution. There is no chance I could have made it that far, with never having faced a similar obstacle. That night, I called on my support system to get advice. I spoke with my parents, one of my father’s friends in Turkey, a couple of friends I met on the road who had traveled through this area before me, and with Julia, the director of a motorbike travel company. The best advice I got was to simply try again the next day. Sure enough, there were different officials at the border, and this time they didn’t mention anything about my registration. They only asked me to buy Turkish motorcycle insurance before I entered the country, and then I was good to go. I did come across a website the night before explaining the law about foreign vehicle registration, but after my experience the next morning, it seemed it was a law that could be overlooked.
My route through Turkey had to be altered a little bit. With my more than five week delay back in China and recently a three week delay to get my engine rebuilt, I felt a little anxious to get to Istanbul and continue my journey. Rather than drive to central Turkey and visit cities along the Mediterranean, instead I drove almost entirely along the Black Sea, which was still a great experience.
Especially after the previous day’s scare, it was a great feeling entering a new country. Due to the fact that I was two months behind schedule, the weather was clearly, getting colder and days getting shorter. My intended route through Turkey was to drive to Cappadocia and the southern city of Antalya, before making my way back north to Istanbul. But because of the weather, I decided to drive along the coast of the Black Sea up until Bartin, where I drove south to Safranboulu, then due west to Istanbul. The first city I stayed in was Trabzon, which is one of the biggest cities in Turkey along the Black Sea. But the main reason why I stopped there was because it was a good base for the short drive to Sumela Monastery. Unfortunately, I was told by people at my hotel that the monastery had been under heavy restoration for the last two years but was still accessible for taking pictures. After coming all this way, I decided to still go and have a look.
Top to bottom: I was so focused on arriving to Sumela Monastery before dark that i sadly didn’t take many pictures of Trabzon, but the city had some amazing food. Sumela Monastery was also one of the places I was eager to visit while planning for my trip. Similar to Trinity Church in Georgia, this holy place was also built in a geographically unique area.
After Trabzon, I made the drive to the fishing city of Sinop. The weather and scenery continued to be great all the way there. Very lucky for this time of year. The drive there was scenic, but exploring the city and sampling the local food was even better.
Top to bottom: Sinop was a great place to have a day off and explore. Historically, it used to be a major fishing town. Although the industry has died down, there are still many locals who battle the cold and go out on the docks.
The next day, I made a quick detour on my way to Istanbul and stopped for lunch in the stunning village of Safranboulu. The drive there was very long. Many ups and downs through villages. Although the buildings were very colorful and the design unlike anything else I had seen in Turkey, even out of peak tourist season, there were still many other tourists there. And the city heavily catered to them. It reminded me of a place in China I had been to near my last home of Guilin called the Longji Rice Terraces. The villages nestled in the terraces there were also quite stunning, but there were signs in English everywhere, which took away from its atmosphere. But Safranbolu, just like Longji, was a pleasure to visit.
Top to bottom: winter weather finally caught up to me on my drive to Safranbolu. Although I was able to mostly avoid heavy rain. It was a slow drive going up and down so many hills, but at the end of each one was a quiet village waiting for me. Bottom two: although the locally famous city has become overrun with tourists in recent years, it was still a nice place to walk around and explore. Crowds are a little quieter in the winter.
Next up was the famous city of Istanbul. Istanbul is the only city in the world which straddles two continents. The Bosphorus Sea separates the European side and the Asian side. Istanbul has a long and fascinating history. In a single day, you can visit Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques in the morning, and in the afternoon, shop in the world’s largest indoor market, the historic Grand Bazaar.
Top to bottom: It was a great feeling to make it to Istanbul. After all the trouble I went through in Azerbaijan, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that I had at least made it this far. How are Turkish people not as fat as Americans? There were so many sweet, delectable options for a snack. Bottom two: inside the Grand Bazaar.
Reaching Istanbul was a major milestone, not only because of the distance driven to get there but also because Istanbul is where two of my father’s closest friends from his years living there still live. It meant more to me, to meet Haluk and Mustafa, than seeing any of the famous sights in the city. Both of them were a pleasure to talk with and they treated me as if I were one of their sons.
Up until arriving in Istanbul, the skies were clear, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. But finally, the winter weather caught up to me and I didn’t see a speck of blue sky while I was there. That said, I was still able to see some of the most impressive structures in the world.
Top to bottom: It was an honor to meet two of my father’s old friends from his time living in Turkey. Growing up, I often heard stories of his time here.
One of the places I was anxious to see was Aya Sophia. It is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. It was originally built as a church in 537 AD by Emperor Justinian. The building stayed that way for over 900 years before the city was conquered by the Ottomans and was later turned into a mosque in 1453 AD. Although parts of the inside were being restored, it was still one of the most spectacular structures I have ever seen. After being blown away by the size of Aya Sophia, I was then left speechless by the design and artistry of the Blue Mosque. Its unofficial name comes from the blue tiles in the interior of the building. The cascade of domes and deep blue color made it a pleasure to behold.
Top to bottom: view of Aya Sophia from the roof of the building where my father used to work. Inside the iconic building. A candid shot outside the Blue Mosque.
Although I was happy that my trip was able to continue after the debacle in Azerbaijan, the weather continued to get colder, and the days kept getting shorter. So I was even more determined and pressured to finish my journey sooner rather than later. That didn’t mean I would be driving like a mad man every day, but it did mean that I’d be taking more direct routes and seeing less of the sights than I had hoped to see. I planned a month’s worth of time to explore Europe, but at that point, it was looking more like two weeks. Even on top of that, I had planned for a three to four month long journey and by the time I left Istanbul, I had been on the road for just over six months. I had seen and experienced a lot, but by now, I was starting to get mentally fatigued and longed for stability. I love seeing and experiencing new things, but I’ve been starting to long for home. Nonetheless, I was excited for the next leg of the trip: Europe.