Stark contrast

His surname means ‘man of steel’…

He had a cracking moustache...

He ordered the creation of a half man, half ape soldier...

Can you guess what it is yet?

Not Rolf Harris…

But Joseph Stalin.

Stalin played a key role in the Russian Revolution and then became leader of the Communist Party in the late 1920s. As dictator, he rapidly industrialised the Soviet Union, defeated Hitler in WW2, and then became one of the main protagonists in the Cold War.

A brief summary of his life can be found here.

Estimates as to how many people died under his leadership vary wildly, but some historians think as many as 60 million.

Although the leader of the Soviet Union (now Russia), Stalin was actually born in Georgia.

We visited his birthplace last week in a small town called Gori, in the Georgian mountains.

Given what Stalin did, we expected his birthplace to be a Mordor esque scene, with fires and boiling mud at every turn.

Gori is actually an idyllic mountain village with kids playing in wide streets and flowers and vines growing around the houses.

In the town centre is Stalin Park where there is a commemorative statue of the man himself.

The house where he was born which has been converted to a monument in the centre of Stalin Park, there is the Stalin Museum and next door is Stalin's train carriage.

The Stalin supermarket is situated nearby on Stalin Avenue.

Wandering through the peaceful park, looking at the statue and the Stalin related shops and paintings, it's easy to forget that this was a man who routinely pops up shortly behind Hitler, as one of the most evil men of the 20th century.

If you didn't know what he did you'd be forgiven for thinking he was a Nobel peace prize winner or something.

Georgia's relationship with Stalin is complicated. Our host Avto in Tblisi explained as follows:

"Stalin is by far and away the most famous person to ever come from Georgia."

"People don't necessarily agree with his communist ideas or methods, but they like the fact that someone who had such a big bearing on world events in the 20th century came from our small country"

This interesting article describes the conflicting attitudes towards Stalin in Georgia.

In the article a Gori resident states:

"In Georgia, most of the old generation like Stalin. They think he was a great statesman, with his small mistakes. Young people don't like Stalin, of course. Our young people are not interested in history and they don't like Stalin."

It's an interesting Georgian manifestation of how (generally speaking), younger and older peoples' attitudes around the world differ on political issues: Trump, Brexit, the recent UK election being recent other examples...

Wandering around Stalin's old house it's funny to think how a man that went on to change the world, and be responsible for the deaths of (up to) 60 million people came from such a humble and beautiful place.

I wonder if anyone had any inkling what he would go on to do when he was a kid running around the hills and the flower beds of sunny Georgia.

On a slightly brighter note, Gori is also home to (unofficially) the best bread in the world.

We'd shortly left town and were about to stop for our mid morning food stop.

Avto had informed us of the legendary Georgian bread, cooked in the traditional way in a circular, dome shaped clay oven.

The baker kneads the dough into a canoe shape, then leans over the clay oven and slaps the bread onto the walls where it sticks.

The bread is stuck to the wall, and when fully baked, the baker leans into the oven with a rod and scoops it out.

We stumbled into a bakery on the outskirts of town where two lads were cooking this bread.

There was a batch that was fresh out the oven so we bought one. We had a chat via charades, at the end of which they refused payment, and insisted we also take a second.

We ate two loaves sat on the pavement outside. It was absolutely delicious, the best in the world so far. We tried to tell the lads this but I don't think they understood.

As we were about to leave, they were about to put another batch on. They beckoned us back into the bakery and motioned that we should have a go at the slapping the bread on the wall technique.

We both tried it.

It was tough...

The oven was so hot it was painful to lean over.

Our breads were the first ones to go in, so we had the luxury of putting them right near the top - the easiest bit to reach. Soon the guys would have to lean right in and put theirs all the way to the bottom which must have been unbearable.

It was great fun, and the guys seemed to be impressed enough with our technique. That said, we think we'll leave it to the experts and stick to the cycling!

There was a three day cycle between capital city Tblisi and coastal town Batumi, through the hilly central region of Georgia.

It felt great to climb again after the flats of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

The road wound through villages, past gurgling rivers and up the mountains to castles. It was stunning riding in ideal conditions - perfect sunshine and gentle tailwind.

About half way up a sizeable climb we noticed a large coach pulled into a roadside stall.

Ewan clocked it from a while away:

"That's strange, I swear that bus says Scotland on the side of it?"

Sure enough as we pulled closer, the bus had Scotland plastered all over the side. Intrigued, we pulled up. Seemed strange to have a tourist bus that had driven all the way to Georgia from Scotland, thousands of miles away.

We dismounted in front of the bus to find about 30 enormous men hanging around eating and chatting. It turned out they were the Scotland under 20 rugby team, and were in Georgia competing in the Under 20 World Cup that was currently taking place.

We explained Ewan was from Edinburgh, and Katie from Southampton and what we were doing.

The lads crowded round and it turned into an impromptu team talk about the countries we'd been through, how many miles a day we did etc. The lads were suitably impressed - particularly by Ewan's tan lines: "Those tan lines are brutal!"

and by how many miles a day we were doing, particularly Katie:

"You're so sweaty - you must be a machine!"

Nice compliments to hear from a young bunch of elite athletes. The coach Andy explained they were having a great trip having already beaten Ireland and Italy, whilst losing - but still putting three tries past - New Zealand.

Their next match was coming up against Wales and having just checked the website, we're pleased to report that we successfully inspired the lads (maybe) to a 29 - 25 victory.

As left to go our separate ways, one of the guys wished us luck and we shook hands.

Then another guy shook hands

Within a minute as if autopilot had clicked in, they had lined up in an end-of-match-hand-shaking-line, and we went through the line shaking all 30 odd hands of everyone in the squad.

A lovely chance coincidence, and a great bunch of lads doing their country proud.

We had another chance coincidence with a Swedish couple of bike tourers on the descent down the other side of the mountain.

It was strange - like meeting the Swedish version of Ewan and Katie.

They were taking a year out of their jobs to cycle from Stockholm to Singapore. Kim, the lad had the exact same tattoo as Ewan, Karin the girl loved Katie's bike, and Katie loved Karin's cycle kit.

We all chatted and swapped details so we could compare notes on the journey's ahead. It's great to meet like minded tourers on the road.

We're still in touch with some people we've met on the roadside going in the other direction, and made friends with after only a 30 minute conversation.

As the day of bread, Scotland team and bike tourers was coming to an end, we had a minor blow. The road we were planning on following was closed forcing us on an additional 20km detour.

Frustrating, but nothing to be done, so we pressed on.

The detour turned out to be a stroke of luck.

As the sun was setting we passed a stream running near the road. A load of Georgian's were bathing and enjoying the last of the sunshine.

We'd had a big day of over 160km and hadn't showered in two days... it was too good an opportunity to miss... so we slung the bikes in a field, stripped to the minimum and plunged in.

Thirty minutes later we were back on the road clean and refreshed - the end to a brilliant day.

Shortly after the swim, the sun went down and the weather started to cloud over.

We threw our tent up in an empty field out of view from the road.

At three am we were awoken by a monstrous thunder storm. Thunder cracking like gun shots outside and lightning flashing like a strobe.

By morning the skies had cleared, but still looked foreboding, so we hurried the tent away at 5am and pressed on.

We hurried on to Batumi, a coastal Georgian town on the Black Sea. It's a pretty place and a popular holiday resort for Georgians and Russians looking for some sun.

As we pulled into town, the heavens opened, and we just made it to our hostel before we got the full brunt of it.

The key priority that night for both of us... (okay mainly Ewan), was finding somewhere to watch the Scotland vs England football match.

This event had been in the excel planning spreadsheet for about eight months...

We located a quiet restaurant in the old town which appeared to be one of the only places showing the game. It wasn't a "football pub", in fact we (Ewan) was pretty much they only person watching the game.

Other families were having a relaxing dinner, or a quiet drink with friends.

We set up on a small table in the corner at the back of the pub, Ewan nervously nursing a pint.

England went 1-0 up, then Scotland equalised with a free kick in the closing minutes.

Hope!

Scotland needed to win to realistically stay in with a chance of qualifying for the world cup. We had three minutes left on the clock.

Emotion was running high... with two minutes to go, Scotland get another free kick from the exact same spot to win it.

"Katie, I'm sorry but if this goes in I think I'm going to go absolutely mental"

"Please try and keep your voice down, people are having dinner"

"Okay"

The second time in two minutes, Scotland plant another free kick into the top corner.

Ewan totally lost the plot.

Jumping out his chair, throwing his hat - and hair band - onto the floor in celebration and pumping fists.

"COME ONNNNN!!!! GET IN!"

Every head turned in alarm.

The waitress rushed round to see the source of the commotion - Ewan duly hugged her, then hugged Katie, then sheepishly sat down as everyone was looking - shaking with excitement.

The nerves were too much so Ewan stood up to watch the last two minutes.

After the outburst, the rest of the room had turned to watch the final stages of the game as well, and were treated to a display of public humiliation and devastation and England predictably equalised with the last kick, and Ewan, broken, slumped back into his chair - head bowed.

As people filed out, a men patted Ewan on the back in commiseration.

Don't worry mate - he's used to Scotland snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in increasingly painful ways.

Upon leaving Batumi it was a 529km straight road to the end of the leg at Samsun in Turkey.

The border was no problem to cross, and we entered our 22nd country - Turkey late in the morning.

The most noticeable change is the replacement of orthodox Christian churches and crosses everywhere by Islamic mosques, and crescent moons.

This month is Ramadan, which means Muslims are not supposed to eat, drink, smoke or have sex.

The restaurants along the sea front which (presumably) are usually bustling were eerily quiet, devoid of customers.

The seaside towns felt quiet and deserted we pedaled through.

Around 7.30pm we stopped to get some food ourselves in a restaurant. As we ordered, we noticed that the restaurant was filling up, and food being and bottled water being placed on the tables.

This was in itself unremarkable, but we soon noticed that no one was touching it. People were chatting and laughing and the sun sunk into the Black Sea.

It was only when the sun was fully gone, and the clock had ticked past 8.09pm (sunset) that people started tucking in.

It was an amazing display of self control. Given how moody and snappy we get when we're hungry, it's a wonder to us how these people go a full 12 hours + without any food or drink.

When the food was served, they were restrained enough to not touch it when it's in front of them, and when the clock does tick past 8.09pm, instead of picking it up with their hands and shoveling it down their faces with hunger (as I think we'd do), they were sitting and enjoying a sociable meal with family or friends.

It's interesting to think how Western cultures might react had they had to fast in a similar way.

It'd probably do some countries good to limit calorie intake given the rates of obesity and diabetes etc - but it's hard to imagine people in the UK or America calmly going about fasting in the same way these guys do.

The religious and cultural differences of Georgia and Turkey are stark.

In Georgia 82 % of the population practice Orthodox Christianity.

In Turkey around 96% of the population identifies as being Muslim.

One child is born in Turkey, he grows up being a Muslim.

He says prayers in a brick building with a dome roof and a crescent moon on top.

For one month a year he doesn't eat during the day.

He believes Muhammed is the last messenger of God.

Another kid born a kilometre away in Georgia, on the other side of an imaginary line someone has drawn called a border, grows up Christian.

He says prayers in a brick building with a pointy roof and cross on top.

Once a year he celebrates Christmas.

He believes Jesus is the son of God.

Neither have any proof to back up their beliefs - none exists.

But because of their parents, their upbringing, the social norms and cultural pressures around them they lead their lives in significantly different ways.

Neither of us are remotely religious. It'd be interesting how doing this trip as a religious person would affect their faith.

Would being born in a certain country (or place within a country) be enough of a justification on which to base your entire belief system?

Or maybe there's something we're missing.

The cloudy weather from Georgia cleared up and we spent a long sunny day spinning along the beautiful Black Sea coast.

The kilometer markers to Samsun were gradually ticking down and we spent the days cycling and taking breaks to cook lunch in scenic spots along the front.

We spent a memorable night in a beach side shack, owned by a man called Hasan.

"My friend sells honey and tea from this shack, but he is away at the moment - you can sleep here for the night."

We gladly accepted and spent a few hours chatting to Hasan about Turkey whilst he gave us tea and bread.

We talked about the terror attacks which have just happened in London and Manchester.

"Yes, it is a problem. Our President has told everyone we must call them Daesh. I think you still call them ISIS? We do not call them Islamic State as they do not represent our religion - there is nothing in our book that says to do what they do"

"I have travelled all over the world on my motorcycle, and on ships - I am a shipping container captain".

"I have been to many countries... people are brilliant. Pakistan is one of my favourites, I had a police escort right through. You shouldn't believe what you read in the media about these places."

"...that said - don't go to France, I hear it's very dangerous..."

He then went on a fully fledged rant about the EU, and in particular Angela Merkel.

It was quite hard to follow exactly what he was saying as he oscillated between English and Turkish as he got more animated - but basically he's not a fan of either.

At one memorable point, he was demonstrating the EU countries with various items - the tea cup, the sugar bowl, the spoon etc, and moving them around the table

It was like the scene in Bend it like Beckham when the husband is trying to explain the offside rule to the wife using a mustard and teriyaki sauce.

He then rather cryptically wrote his name and number on a sheet of cardboard.

"Okay - if anyone comes in the night, just show them this. It has my name and number. everyone round here knows me so it shouldn't be a problem."

"If they attack, use these".

Pointing to a couple of hammers.

And off he went.

Here they are:

Thankfully no attackers in the night and we left the next day for the final push to Samsun.

We arrived in good time, and checked into a lovely guest house.

We're both pretty exhausted... after losing so much time waiting for the ferry it's meant 10 consecutive days of cycling, covering 1,440km across three countries.

But we're here now!

It's a great feeling and we're excited to see all our friends and family after nine months of being away at the wedding this weekend.

This blog's about travelling and cycling so we won't be "reporting" on the wedding here, but rest assured we'll be back in the saddle in a few short days and cracking on towards Athens via Ankara and Izmir.

So long for now.


© 2017 by Katie Halliday & Euan Paterson. 

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