The next few days cycling blur into a single transit of the dual carriageway coastal road: a dazzling Black Sea to our left, the sun scorching our backs in cloudless sky, and the hourly terror of passing through tunnels cut into the cliffside. As a cyclist, the sound of these tunnels is for me the closest approximation to what the 7th circle of hell must sound like. The continuous screech and roar of lorries nicely replicate thousands of pained souls and volcanic eruptions. However by the end of coast road, we had gone from shivering wrecks on entering these hell-holes to making bets on the length of the tunnels. Shows how repetitive trauma can numb you.
We received yet more wonderful hosting both from Asli’s distant Giresun family branch and a true Warmshowers classic at Mustafa’s in Turkey’s tea-growing capital of Rize. Mustafa is the proud proprietor of Rize’s finest chai house - read turkish pub landlord, and winner of multiple regional cycling championships - we slept alongside his top-spec, featherweight carbon racing bike on the tea shop’s top floor.
The tea shop in evening action counted as a true highlight of the whole trip so far. Beforehand there was a moment of calm comedy, we were waiting to break the Ramadan fast with Mustafa and his Iftar. We were waiting for 7:30, but when the clock on the ever-present TV sports news struck the appointed hour, the imam stayed silent. Mustafa and friend then grumbled at the tardy punctuality of the City’s announcer
Here are some scrabbled notes taken in the midst:
A Turkish Tea Den and a top drawer pub in another culture.
A temple of mental masculinity, the usual passions and aggressions refined by cards and tiles alike,
The inevitable characters of the joker and wind-up merchant, the fall guy, the king of drama, and the mafia boss that never was.
Lightning bridge strikes, where speed of play trumps outcome.
Cards are struck down with outrageous Bravuro, others are sniped spinning from far away to deftly close a loss.
Smiles support certain moustaches, whilst other lips purse and break beneath the hairy bridge.
Yesterday’s wrongs are righted, and today’s wrongs are created for tomorrow.
Tobacco, menthol and chai, all copiously consumed,
All fuel the trinity of Bridge, Okey and Backgammon.
Over the hours players perhaps grow weary, but the lack of alcohol means the original cordial atmosphere of focus never wavers, nor does the noise rise to drunken crescendos or animal howls as in the centres of our high civilisation.
There is some gentle gloating and light wind-up for those prone to it, each player has their idiosyncracies and twitches of impatience as others take their turn. Respect and ego are preserved in doses of caffeine, the flatscreen football remains no more than a dynamic wall painting. All are engrossed in private arenas, the hours of play prove to be a stringent mental work-out to sharpen the mind after the day’s mundanity.
The ‘session’ lasted until the early morning, with the hardiest regulars shuffling out at 2am. For me it was a fascinating alternative to a standard pub night, the same conversations and laughs were undoubtedly had, the same figures were absent from their homes for the same duration but there were no fights, hangovers or pay-checks lost down a beer glass - a cup of tea was priced at a single lira or 15p.
The Arabic and Caucasian islamic mode of elderly male life seems to revolves intensely around board or parlour games. Every settlement has at least one of these male prefectures, in Azerbaijan they spring up in sunlit tea gardens flanking the roads often incorporating barbers for a one-stop-man-shop, whilst in Turkey they are predominantly housed indoors and can spill out into streets or public corridors.
These places almost always seem full to the brim, with the number of seats or stalls exactly reflecting the number of regulars. The age of patrons ranges from late 40s through to death, and although cay is indeed drunk in copious qualities, visiting the establishment is much less likely to push you quite so fast to ruin and final rest then equivalent time spent in the pub.
The primary and focused activities of cay houses are Backgammon, Bridge, OK, and even Dominoes. Clearly to varying degrees, all these games help mantain the edge of an ageing mind, that alongside the vibrant and characterful human interplay that accompanies each game. I believe that some doused in the apparent productive drive of anglo-germanic societies would see this as deep and ceaseless frittering away of time playing repetitive and meaningless games. But is this any less true of the carousel of news that we are fed and digest on different levels, or of the TV that isolates so many people, and keeps our minds like battery hens with little running ground, fed a cornmeal mental diet to provoke the most productive yet docile behaviours.
The darling Asli arrived whilst we were in Rize also, and we took a second rest day at Camelhansin at a paradise of eco-tourism called Ekodanitap - where a revelatory day spent in abounding nature was had by all. The owners felt incredibly kindred spirits having moved there 20 odd years ago and having set up the wondrous guest house a decade later. He had done travel writing for The Blue Planet, they now farmed the vast majority of what they ate, and tasteful design coupled with decades of love to form an idyll above the tea-fields.
But a loving fiancee to pick up, a broken phone and a broken car respectively meant I drove up and down the coastal road between Rize and Trabzon a grand total of 7 times by one mode of transport or another. As such the night ride to Batumi was a welcome exodus from the North Turkish coast.