Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Rules of the road

December 12th, 2010

Scant regard the norm. Few having any demonstrative grasp of good roadcraft. Even less exhibiting consideration for other road users. Traffic Police a frequent sight. Evidence of enforcement far less so. Except in Nanchang. In the centre, marshals at every junction to ensure cyclists adhere to the tracks running parallel to the main routes.

Laudable enough? If you’re an ambling Chinese rider, without a care in the world. And not a smidgen of spatial awareness. Or a home to go to. Yes. But when you’ve distance to cover. And you ride at a pace that easily keeps up with the traffic. Cars an impediment to your progress. Then no. Definitely not. It’s the old rules, fools and the wise thing.

Being a foreigner – an alien – means I probably get away with more than others. The language barrier not always a bad thing. Then there’s my urban riding style. Bold. Swift. Confident. Road presence. Allowed to ride amongst the electric bikes because they assume my substantial rear wheel hub is a motor. How else could I sustain the pace? After all, no dérailleur gears.

It’s not that I set out to deliberately flout whatever passes for the highway code here. More a case of adhering to local customs. Still stop at traffic lights. Much to the amusement of others. An old London commuting habit I can’t seem to shake off. Or really want to. Never quite understood why people seem genuinely surprised that if you jump lights or undertake lorries or buses, there’s a good chance you’ll get flattened.

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Georgia on my mind

May 4th, 2010

“Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you
Oh Georgia”

Ray Charles

Georgia is a unique, complex country. And a rapidly developing one. Not so many years ago you needed an escort to drive from the Turkish border along the Black Sea coast. Today there’s just potholes and cattle to contend with. In Batumi I’d seen international hotels opening up, entire new water infrastructure being installed. But it’s still a relatively poor nation, a typical monthly salary perhaps just a few hundred pounds. There’s quite a bit of unemployment, and begging does occur, although its not as commonplace as in some countries I’ve passed through.

People seem pleased that state institutions like the Police, those can have real impact on daily life, are now regarded as free of corruption. Municipal elections take place shortly, with international observers present. I’ll await their verdict with interest. After all, its not just about being able to put a cross on a ballot paper, you have to believe you can place it wherever you want.

I’d noticed parallels with the Balkans. Shifting borders, difficult, sometimes antagonistic, relationships with neighbouring countries. A varied ethnic mix. Almost unfathomable to an outsider. But if the politics seems difficult to grasp, there’s Georgian economics to contend with. Incomes for most are low, almost paltry, yet expensive cars are relatively commonplace. True, in the transition from Communism, the State has given people the houses, the apartments, they occupied. For free. In Tbilisi property values have typically risen by a thousand percent in just a few years. But, for the most part, these are paper increases, unrealisable for most.

A badly distorted free market economy, or just a gigantic property bubble? Whatever the answer, the practical, if slightly bizarre, implication is that houses in some of the Capital’s most expensive districts – quite unaffordable to most Westerners – are in need of much repair or renovation, but the owners simply lack the funds.

Europe or Asia? A question that has often evoked very passionate responses, compelling arguments on both sides. The most persuasive answer reflects the uniqueness of Georgia, a nation separated from undisputed Europe to the north and the certainty of Asia to the south, by, respectively, the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Ranges. Neither quite Europe or quite Asia, perhaps best described as simply Georgian. And of the different ethnicities, broadly split between European and Asian in appearance? Being one of the most invaded nations in history probably accounts for that.

Whatever the politics, the economics of Georgia, the people are immensely warm and hospitable, their generosity humbling. And justifiably proud of their nation. I’d met someone who’d been educated in western Europe, intelligent, very articulate, and had asked if she’d like to return there? No, she said, life here could be tough, but this was her home, where she belonged. I admired her for that.

Georgia is also a very beautiful country, the truly impressive Greater and Lesser Caucasus Ranges bordering the country to the north and south, steep wooded mountainsides contrasting with wide open plains sandwiched between them. Vast tracts of unspoiled countryside.

A unique, complex country. And one I plan to return to once my venture is complete, to explore more, intrigued to see how much it has changed politically and economically. But, much as I’ve hugely enjoyed my time in Georgia, there’s no getting away from the fact that the driving here is the most appalling I’ve ever seen. Breathtakingly terrible.

[The author would like to thank the countless individuals who have made his time in the Republic of Georgia such an enjoyable, interesting and rewarding experience. Thank you]

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Motoring to Tbilisi

April 27th, 2010

Motoring to Tbilisi from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes cycling along the M27 motorway which, ironically, is probably the safest bit of road in Georgia!
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Travel advice

April 23rd, 2010

I’d planned to push on through the mountains that separate east and west Georgia, heading for the town of Khashuri. But not today. Torrential rain. You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds a bit weak and, ordinarily, I’d agree. The traffic is bad enough in the dry, but in these conditions, visibility reduced significantly by the spray alone, it’d be positively dangerous. I’ve quite a few years cycle commuting into central London, have ridden into Istanbul, so reckon I know genuine risk when I see it.

Add in unlit mountain tunnels, poor road surfaces and quite a few vehicles with bald – and I do mean absolutely no tread – tyres, and perhaps you can see why I’ve decided to wait for conditions to improve. Which should be tomorrow, fingers crossed. Forecast I use has been very reliable so far.

Besides, wouldn’t want to miss the run down from the mountains to Tbilisi. Foreign Office travel advice has quite a bit on this stretch. Kidnapping, local volunteer militia, unspecified criminal activity. Only bit they seemed to have omitted are the refugee camps from the recent conflict with Russia. Fortunately, much of the route is now a motorway so it should be fairly quick. And, yes, you can cycle on the hard shoulder. Or at least, it’s not against the law.

In the meantime, there’s always things to be done, clothes to wash, inner tubes to repair, interspersed with mugs of tea and coffee thrust my way by the friendly Russian housekeeper. Encouraging me to speak Russian as well. If only the phrase book included the expression for ’I really couldn’t manage a fourth fifth doughnut. No, really’. Definitely need to hit the road tomorrow, calories to burn.

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“Be strong”

April 22nd, 2010

The short ride north of the border crossing, towards the Black Sea resort of Batumi, provided a sharp introduction to cycling in Georgia – a few Turkish lorries to contend with still, but the real challenge lay in avoiding the cattle that wandered, quite oblivious to traffic, across the road. That and the double overtaking, which left you wondering which side of the road vehicles were meant to drive on. And if you needed another reason not to ride in the dark, that’d be the craters – potholes big enough to wreak havoc to cars.

Catching up with hosts Merab and Kurt on the outskirts of the city, the plan was then to follow their 4×4 to a small hotel they’d generously arranged for me. There were a few roundabouts to contend with, and many of the roads had been dug up whilst an entirely new mains water system was installed. I’d no real idea about the Georgian highway code, but, it seemed, neither did anyone else. I just stuck as close to Merab and Kurt’s vehicle as I could. Explaining my bemusement to Kurt, a German spending a couple of years in Batumi working with local organisations to help develop tourism, he offered some simple advice for cycling in the country. “Be strong“. And he meant it.

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