Cycling the Silk Road

Batumi, a City of Missing Manhole Covers
Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 12 2007 3:10 PM

Cycling the Silk Road

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We crossed the border from Turkey to Georgia in the same state as the bleary-eyed majority of Georgians—drunk. It's the best way to cross any border and earns the respect of the local folk. Georgians are renowned for their hospitality and drunkenness. It's debatable whether the latter is a legacy of decades of Soviet influence, the abominably high unemployment rate, or a 7,000-year-old obsession with wine production. The border guards were so pleased with our drunkenness and so confused by our touring bicycles that we passed through smoothly.

A couple of miles into Georgia, a drunken fisherman flagged us down. He pointed at himself, dragged his thumbnail from one side of his neck to the other, then pointed at us. Cam, Mikey, and I looked at each other, silently questioning the decision to ride our bikes from Turkey, through Central Asia, into China. Sensing our hesitation, the fisherman cleared things up by pouring us shots of chacha—a vile, homegrown liquor fermented with anything from grass clippings to turnips. Chacha bears a close resemblance to household cleaning fluid, but we were so relieved by the cessation of death threats that we slugged it down. It turns out that we had misunderstood his hand signal. The same gesture Georgians use to say "I'm gonna get you drunk," Americans use to say "I'm gonna kill you."

Last spring, I flew from Washington, D.C., along with two college friends, to Istanbul, Turkey. Allah, our bikes, and corrupt ex-Soviet dictators willing, we would bike to China. Our proposed route loosely followed the fabled Silk Road. After Georgia, we'd cycle across Azerbaijan, where a ferry over the Caspian Sea would land us in the most bizarre of the ex-Soviet dictatorships—Turkmenistan—and then onward through the deserts that house the ancient caravan cities of Uzbekistan. Muslim extremists permitting, we would pass safely through the Ferghana Valley and connect with Tajikistan's remote Pamir Highway. Alongside mujahideen, we'd trace the Afghan border on one of the highest and most poorly constructed roads in the world. Kyrgyzstan's glaciated mountains would be our last challenge en route to the deserts of far-western China. Then a flight to Thailand for some R&R.

U.S. interests and a visit by President Bush have created a positive relationship with the Georgians. U.S.-funded groups played a large role in the 2003 Rose Revolution, which toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze. The "interests" I speak of mainly include safeguarding a recently completed pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Georgia ending in Turkey on the Mediterranean.

In Central Asia, the relationship is not so cozy. Rampant poverty, corrupt dictators, and the lack of free press or religious freedom create a perfect breeding ground for Muslim extremists and consequent governmental instability. Mikey, Cam, and I aimed to show these folks that not all Americans are fat, rich, Muslim-hating warmongers. Rather, we're people just like them, with the same needs, questions, and desires. But diplomacy isn't our sole mission: It doesn't hurt that these lands are breathtaking in their beauty and baffling in their culture.

Our initial impression of Batumi, our first stop in Georgia, was less than positive. In growing darkness, we circled the city for three hours searching for the cheapest hotel listed in our outdated guidebook, all the while dodging potholes and bands of drunken, bottle-hurling teens. Occasionally, I'd meet the eyes of Georgian men. If they're not drunk and alone (I've seen men walk into walls and moving cars, and at least 10 men passed out cold on the sidewalk in the middle of the day), they stand in packs, dressed like comic-book Russian mafiosi: black dress shoes, dark pants, and a dark sweater invariably covered by a black leather jacket. In a dark and unfamiliar city, their glare is intimidating. The lack of streetlights, street signs, and manhole covers corresponds neither with the map nor the guidebook's description of "the charming capital of a banana republic."

The explanation for the missing manhole covers helped shed light on the general decrepitude of Batumi. The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent years of vicious civil wars have ruined the economy. Seventy percent of Georgia's exports go to Russia, which periodically cuts off the two biggest: wine and mineral water. Unemployed and broke, but with wine and creativity flowing freely, Georgians steal manhole covers to sell as scrap metal to China. Reluctantly acknowledging that 10-foot-deep holes in traffic lanes were a hazard, the chronically unmotivated police cracked down.

The thieves' solution was genius. Why not cut a big hole out of the floors of their cars? That way, they could drive over a manhole in broad daylight, snatch up the cover, and move on, one manhole cover richer. To complete the stupefying elegance of the scheme, they also sold the floors of their cars. Entering a cab, you have to step very carefully, lest you fall through the floor and, at least conceivably, down a 10-foot hole.

We planned to spend one night in Batumi, but rain coaxed us to stay three. The morning brought broken bits of sunlight, Turkish coffee, baklava, and a new perspective on Batumi. We strolled the town's potholed boulevard, searching for entertainment. Two sketchy characters approached asking, "What do you want?" Initially, we wanted nothing to do with the pair, but we reconsidered once we learned that we were in the presence of greatness. "Chimera" and "Chog-J" turned out to be two of Georgia's self-proclaimed premier rappers. They were into all the new rap—Cypress Hill, Run DMC, and Public Enemy. It'll be a couple years before Vanilla Ice starts blowing up Batumi's pop charts.

Celebrities on their lunch break, they showed us around town and bought us a meal. We were warmly received by all their "fans," but the greatest reception came from George—owner of the local pool hall and the most misplaced hat in Georgia. (It proudly announced "Born American, Ordained Texan by the Lord.")

A day with our new friends transformed our initial reaction to the city. We were introduced to the glaring packs of mobsters, all of whom turned out simply to be curious. Eager to welcome us, one of the crowd bent down to a 2-foot-by-2-foot hole in the wall. Seconds later, an old woman's hand passed up shot after shot. Before long, our perception was aligned closer to our new friends'. This tiny country's problems remain, but they are constantly blurred for many Georgians; they were blurred for us, too, for a time.

Smiling coolly, "Chog-J" pulled up his North Carolina T-shirt to reveal the pinnacle of cultural exchange, a tattoo of the late rapping great "Ol' Dirty Bastard." May he rest in peace.

Greg Grim lives in Washington, D.C., and builds bogs and does carpentry in Annapolis, Md.Mike Church lives and works in Annapolis, Md., where he builds bogs and does carpentry. The third cyclist, Campbell Moore, is serving in the Peace Corps in Gambia.