Day 8 (For Dave): Batumi – Tbilisi, Georgia

I woke up feeling pretty good, Alan on the other hand, not so much, he had a pretty bad headache and was sick numerous times before we were able to leave the hotel this morning. Today was a sad day, I would be leaving the guys in Tbilisi as they continued on to Baku in Azerbaijan. The visa issue had not been resolved and so it was impossible for me to enter the country without waiting for my Azeri visa. I am gutted, this was not how the rally was supposed to be, I was looking forward to getting to Baku as for me, that is where the rally really begins, that’s where we were all supposed to meet Gilbey and thats where we were all supposed to get the ferry to Turkmenistan to see the Gates of Hell etc. This was now not going to happen and unfortunately, though I have been dreaming of visiting the Gates of Hell for quite a few years now, it would seem that this is not going to happen, not for now anyway.

I offered up my services as lead driver for the day knowing the Al and Don were planning on doing an overnighter so that they could be in Baku with time to meet Gilbey before going to the Turkmenistan embassy first thing tomorrow morning. It was a long, hot and very sweaty drive up and over the mountains avoiding crazy Georgian drivers and trying not to A) over heat the engine and B) not set the brakes on fire like we almost did in Germany! I soon adapted my style of driving to fit with the locals when I over took two trucks whilst driving around a blind bend based solely on the fact that I hadn’t seen anything coming in the distance when I did have a view, Don turned to me and said “Well Dave, you’re a Georgian driver now man!” yes, yes I am!

Arriving in Tbilisi some 8hrs later the guys dropped me off on Rustaveli, the main street in Tbilisi before I signed the roof rack wishing them luck and we had a little goodbye for now moment. I turned my back on them and walked off up the street, I didn’t look back, I couldn’t, I was gutted to be leaving them. I managed to find myself a room at Boombully hostel just up the road from where the guys left me, dropped my bags, and went straight out for a beer! Found a bar that sold beers for 65p and so had a few of those before returning to the hostel to scrub myself up a bit and go out for the night. I figured I’d make the most of my time here if I was going to be stranded here for a few days!

Day 7: Trabzon, Turkey – Batumi, Georgia

After a pretty crap night in Trabzon we were all a little slow at getting ready and leaving this morning, you could tell that the bad news and lack of beers had knocked some of the enthusiasm out of us all and so eventually we all got our shit together loaded the car up and got the hell out of Trabzon, todays plan was to enter Georgia and drive to Tbilisi.

It was a relatively short drive to the Georgian border and as we came out of the tunnel we could see Georgian immigration right in front of us, great! The police quickly pissed all over our parade as they used their PA system to shout at us in Turkish to join the back of the queue. We turned the corner and saw that the queue doubled back and went on for miles, we knew then we were in for a long one! Things could have been worse though, we were parked right next to the Black Sea, the sun was shining and there was the prospect of beers on the other side of the border!! Slowly but steadily we moved up the queue with the Turks shouting “Yanesh, Yanesh” which we understood to mean “Closer, Closer” – we got pretty close to the car in front but the friendly Turk in the car behind wasn’t happy until his car was physically touching ours, only then was he happy he was close enough, he didn’t damage either car though and we just kept laughing at him and he seemed to think it was pretty funny too. Whilst in the queue, Don befriended a local Turk who for $100 said he could get us straight to the front of the queue as his uncle was in charge of the border, we politely declined the offer and chose to wait it out like the rest of the people. We also met Jalal, a nice guy from Baku in Azerbaijan who was on his way back there to meet his family, he spoke really good english so we asked him about Baku and asked if he knew anything about getting visas at the border to which he said, sadly not. Bugger, thats Plan B out the window! I got bored of the queuing and went for a swim, Al got bored of the driving and so we left Rob in charge of the car and just took the handbrake off and pushed it every time we heard the shout of “Yanesh, Yanesh”.

Eventually we made it to the front of the queue and were told that only one person could take the car over the border, the other two would have to cross on foot. Never happy to leave one man alone in a situation that could involve extortion, rape and the potential refusal of entry Don and I made the decision to leave Alan to it and got out, he was the sacrificial lamb in this instance. Luckily there were no issues and Alan, Don and I all entered Georgia without anyone entering us!

We had spent so much time at the border queuing that by now it had gotten pretty late so we took the decision to get a room in Batumi, so that we could have these beers we missed out on the previous day and boy did we have some beers!! Beers, beers, Don’s donkey rides, more beers, even more beers, befriending a Greek ambassador and his Serbian girlfriend, vodkas, further beers, dancing in fountains and then finally a bit of vomit from Alan before we all hit the hay having well and truly made up for the lack of beer the day before. We loved Batumi!

Day 6: Cappadocia – Trabzon, Turkey

I’m not a fan of getting up at 4am usually unless I’m going on holiday, but today we made an exception and were up early from our cave beds excited about the prospect of a sunrise balloon flight over Cappadocia. We were taken for a rather early breakfast at the balloon place before being driven out into the middle of nowhere where our balloon was waiting. The excitement was building with every blast of the gas and as the sun was slowly crept over the horizon we were told to load up.

Without further-ado there were one or two more blasts of the gas burner and we were off the ground, I don’t really know what I expected but it was all so smooth and peaceful, we gained altitude and floated with the thermals over the different valleys and other balloons as our pilot expertly guided us around Cappadocia. There were times when we thought he’d screwed up as we came really low over things and dropped into valleys as though we were going to collide with the rock face. There was nothing to worry about though, the pilot was a pro and he would fly us really low over things so that he could point out an eagles nest or a bird of some kind – “not bad for my first time” he kept saying, he was quite the joker!

After around an hour of floating around we began our descent back down to the ground, a smooth landing was followed by the pilot expertly landing the basket straight onto the back of the trailer before we all jumped out and trampled on the balloon to help deflate it. Whilst we had been busy doing all this the guys from the balloon company had arrived and had set up a table with champagne for us all and a birthday cake. It transpired that today was the companies 1st anniversary so we were all treated to a piece of cake and a glass of bubbly before being given a free ticket each for another balloon ride there to be used within the next 12 months, it was a nice touch and a great ending to a perfect morning.

We were driven back to “Paradise” where we were treated to yet more food from the hotel owner as we sat enjoying the morning sun from his rooftop garden. We were also shown a shorter, more direct route to Trabzon (todays destination) which would take us up and over a beautiful mountain road which was once part of the famous Silk Road. Saying our goodbyes we packed the car up and headed out of Paradise the easy way, not the way Alan had chosen to fly up the day before when we arrived. Don did his token 10 minutes of driving before I took over and drove for a few hours whilst he slept in the back of the car, turns out the old boy isn’t too good with early mornings!

The mood then took a slight turn for the worse as today was the last day for my Azeri visa to come through – the others already had theirs and although I had applied for mine at the same time, mine had still not returned from the depths of the Azeri Ministry. Atop of a mountain somewhere in north eastern Turkey I called the Visa Machine, the company we had all used to get our visas through, I was offered nothing more than a “All you can do is wait”, I explained that we needed the visa for sunday as on sunday we were planning on driving to Baku in Azerbaijan however was given the reply of “Sorry, we have done all we can do, we can’t chase them up” – so that was it, I wasn’t going to be getting my visa in time and therefore was going to have to leave the guys and let them continue without me – not something you want to do when you have spent thousands of pounds organising this trip! I handed the keys over as I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to drive and sat in the back of the car for the next few hours mulling over all the possible plans I could think of to avoid me having to fly home. There were numerous but they all were littered with various problems, its not looking good. Apparently the road was pretty epic, although sadly I wasn’t paying any attention to it.

Arriving in Trabzon, thoroughly pissed off and in need of a beer we quickly realised that we had arrived in a highly religious part of town in the middle of Ramadan with no beer for sale and no food other than biscuits available to buy for food. We returned to the hotel, dug out my emergency hip flask and some MOD ration packs we had in the car – we hadn’t planned on needing these so soon! A wonderful morning had been completely ruined by the bad news and the lack of beer availability – we went to bed as grumpy bears and I spent most of the night awake trying to work out what the hell I was going to do!