Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Read about a road trip of a lifetime!

Black Sea Circuit. Crimea. Photo by Chris Raven

Black Sea Circuit
By Chris Raven, Simon Raven

In the shadow of rising tension in Ukraine, my brother and I agreed one sunny afternoon to drive full circle around the Black Sea.

For many years we had yearned to travel this region of the world, where Europe meets Asia, and to explore the six fascinating countries that share the Black Sea’s colourful shores. With Russia hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics our eyes were drawn to the Caucasus. Naturally, we were a little dubious at first about venturing deep into what is considered to be southern Russia’s Wild West. This region bordering Chechnya conjured up images of war, violence and kidnapping. The thought of actually driving through the Caucasus made my spine tingle.

Following weeks of research, I joined Si for a barbecue in the spring of 2013 to discuss the risks of embarking on such a challenging journey.

He flipped a burger on the barbecue and told me to relax. ‘Think lush green rolling hills, spa towns and traditional rural folk tending to their crops in vast open fields. There is relative peace in the region now and, besides, the Caucasus is our only way into Georgia.’

Si was right. Receiving conflicting reports from the Georgian and Russian consulates in London, there appeared to be a fifty percent chance that the ‘Verkhny Lars - Darial Gorge’ border crossing between Russia and Georgia was now open to foreigners. Fellow adventurers had written on travel forums stating that this route was now indeed open, while others claimed it was only accessible to citizens of countries in the ex-Soviet grouping called the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). The thought of not knowing if we could make it through sounded fantastically exciting.

Epic overland adventure is nothing new to me and Si. In 2003, the year before Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman set off on their motorcycle road trip across Russia with a film crew, we drove a Ford Sierra from the UK across Siberia to Vladivostok. Deep in the Siberian wilderness, the Zilov Gap section of the Amur highway between Chita and Khabarovsk was still being bulldozed at the time and it wasn’t fully completed until Vladimir Putin officially opened the road in 2010. We wrote a book about the journey ‘Driving the Trans-Siberian’ and Lonely Planet kindly mentioned us in their Russia travel guide. In 2007, we somehow managed to coax a rusty Ford Escort from the UK to Damascus in Syria. The elections were taking place in this turbulent country at the heart of the Middle East, and president Bashar al-Assad was soon re-elected for the second term. I will never forget that eerie moment when the border guard looked at us both just before we crossed into Syria and said, “This is not Iraq”. I often think of the many people we met along the way; the kind people who treated us like friends without asking for anything in return.

With limited means our road trips are not for the faint hearted and to save money we often sleep in the car. For many people the thought of grabbing a few hours shut eye with a steering wheel wedged between your thighs might be considered unacceptable. I struggle to disagree, but it’s the pedals that get caught under the sleeping bag that I find the most annoying.

On that sunny afternoon in the garden, with my head buried deep in a world atlas, I looked down at the Black Sea. My eyes were drawn to the Crimean peninsula that hangs from the neck of the southern Ukraine like a sparkling diamond. Bounded by Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, this journey at the gateway of Eurasia had all the right ingredients for an expedition of a lifetime. Many thousands of years ago tribes of nomadic settlers born out of the Altai Mountains, Mongolia and the Central Asian steppes migrated to the Black Sea and fought great battles. Powerful civilisations have risen along these shores leaving behind ancient kurgan burial mounds brimming with gold and ruins of once great cities, opulent palaces, temples and forts. Thracians, Hittites, Scythians, Sarmatians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Goths, Huns, Khazars, Venetians, Mongols, Genoese, Tatars, Turks and Russians, have all left their mark on the Black Sea. Enduring myths and legends inspire us to this present day, from Jason and the Argonauts to the tribe of fierce female warriors known as the Amazons. Since its transformation from a lake into a sea approximately 7,000 years ago, the Black Sea has witnessed the gravest of human misfortunes, played host to the most terrifying atrocities and suffered multiple apocalypses from the arrival of the Black Death to the near extinction of all life inside its waters.

‘So, what d’you think?’ Si grinned, offering me a cold beer. ‘Fancy another adventure?’

What did we have to lose? Six countries, a sea and a twenty year old Volvo 440 – the plan was set. I jumped out of my foldaway chair and slammed the map shut. Our quest to drive around the Black Sea was about to begin.

by Simon Raven, Chris Raven

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

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