A rather unusual Black Sea moped odyssey
“Is this challenging enough for you?” mocked Marley, his blue eyes clashing with the purple hue of his frozen skin. All around us the Kuban steppe was bent sideways in the tempest, the wind flattening everything in its haste to reach the Sea, whilst above, surging banks of black cloud prepared to unleash yet another biblical torrent upon us. We could have been fanning ourselves under Goan palms, or sipping Mojitos in Mombassa, but instead we were battling our way around the Black Sea on a pair of ageing mopeds, cold, wet and decidedly miserable.
Everything had looked rather different in glorious August sunshine when I’d first encountered the Black Sea four years previously. Beguiled by its complex and fascinating history, its beautiful beaches and its glorious lack of pallid-skinned British tourists, I’d vowed to one day return and travel its 3000-mile circumference. When a happy clash of circumstances made this possible last year Marley, my boyfriend, needed little convincing.
As for a mode of transport, what could be more perfect than a pair of Honda C90s, of which we were already the proud owners? Marley was still a Learner and there was a certain comedy value in the fact that Ken, my bike, sported a zebra paint-job whilst Zulu, Marley’s beast, was latitient in leopard livery. Idiot proof, light and indestructible, our £300 ebay purchases ticked every box in our Ideal Vehicles for Circumnavigating Oceans criteria.
The plan was simple. From Bourgas, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, we would speed southwards to Turkey, troll along the north Turkish coast, get a ferry from Trabzon to Sochi in Russia (thus avoiding the political minefield of Georgia and Abkhazia), tootle around the Crimea and romp through Romania back to the finishing line in Bulgaria.
On a sunny Saturday in September, we wobbled out of Bourgas in the general direction of Turkey. Despite months of procrastinating about the journey, it had never seemed quite real. But now, with the vast expanse of the Sea glittering beside us, the reality of the task ahead hit me like a brick wall. “Oh my god” I thought to myself, “what on earth are we doing? We can’t ride around the Black Sea on these mopeds, this whole thing is absurd. What the hell have we let ourselves in for?” My barrage of nerves wasn’t aided by the fact it was the first time I’d ridden Ken with any extra weight and for the first few miles I lurched all over the place, feeling about as stable as Lindsay Lohan on crack. It wasn’t the triumphant start I had hoped for.
Our nerves were soon eroded, however, by the elation of being on the open road. Our first night was spent camped under a pendulous harvest moon in a wild corner of Bulgaria’s Standja National park, our only companions the bikes and the waves below. And the next day we rode to the Turkish border through enchanted oak forests, the road a tunnel of dappled light, the trees a kaleidoscope of colours. Marley’s bike sliced sliced through the autumn light in front of me, fallen leaves eddying in his wake. This was what it was all about, I thought, riding through a little known corner of Europe on a perfect autumn day, thousands of miles from anyone we knew. Yesterday’s nerves seemed a distant memory.
Things took a temporary turn for the worse when tackling the pan-continental superhighway across Istanbul’s Bosphorus. An altercation between us and the curmudgeon at the toll gate ended with us fleeing into Asia, a cacophony of alarms signalling our arrival on the new continent. As we fled, we were buffeted by cross-winds and cut up by vast lorries and kamikaze taxis. It felt like we were flies stuck in a monstrous web, escape from which was by no means certain. By the time we got to the other side we were wide-eyed and shaking. “Maybe we should get a ferry to Russia now?” I only half-joked to Marley. Our day wasn’t improved by being chased by vicious packs of wild dogs in the woods beyond Istanbul. But the wondrous thing about a trip like this is the constant flux of your emotions, and soon the bounteous beauty of the Turkish coast had thrust us back into the upper echelons of elation. Such is the joy of seeing the world on two wheels.
Getting to Trabzon, in Turkey’s far east, took longer than we had anticipated. Progress was slow and we were only averaging around 17 mp/h. The Black Sea coastal highway, as it’s name suggests, clung to the shores of the Sea, at times wildly beautiful, at other times a crippling morass of construction. From Amasra to Sinop we plunged and weaved along 200 miles of breathtaking coastline, every corner opening up a new vista of capes cascading into the Sea. No traffic, no tourists, just the buzz of our engines. Our days were punctuated by stops at Turkey’s ubiquitous tea shops, where crowds of men interrupted their clattering games of backgammon to ask us where we were going and how many miles a gallon the bikes did (an astonishing 223 we have since worked out). In one of these the owner, Mustafa, an ardent Ataturk devotee, not only refused payment for the buckets of tea we consumed but lovingly cleaned our bikes and grimy visors. Such kindness was typical of people throughout Turkey’s Black Sea coast.
After eight days on the road and 1000 miles covered, we finally made it to Trabzon, where a whopping $370 each bought us our passage to Russia. Our fellow passengers on the 150-mile crossing were a motley assemblage of Turks, Russians, Kazakhs, Georgians and Uzbeks; the latter of whom were returning from the Hajj on a trio of matching purple bicycles. As they prayed to Mecca we drank illicit gin and tonics with four Russian bikers, whose Yamaha FJR1300s made our ageing mopeds look all the more risible.
Hours later, the sensation of the ferry lurching drunkenly on the waves interrupted a fitful slumber. We’d hit one of the Black Sea’s notorious off-coast squalls and the little ship was plunging and listing at the mercy of the tempest. The only human movement was people staggering to the loos to vomit – the stench soon permeated the ferry. Thankfully, by dawn, the squall was behind us and through the mist we could see the Caucasus rising majestically to our right.
After a single, cyclonic day of riding across Russia’s Kuban steppe we crossed the Kerch straits into Ukraine’s Crimea, the former jewel of the Soviet empire. At Feodosiya, the ancient port of Kaffa, we explored the ruins of the old sea gate, the very place the Black Death had crawled into Europe in 1347. It was extraordinary to think this unmarked spot had played such a devastating role in history. Similarly, at Livadia Palace, we looked upon the table Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt had signed the Yalta Treaty at in 1945, thus carving up post-war Europe. There was so much more to see in Crimea, but our mistress time was cajoling us on, and we had to press on.
Our final leg took us through the grandiose city of Odessa and the idyllic Danube Delta; place names such as Tartarbunary (meaning Well of the Tartars) and Babadag (Turkish for ‘Father mountain) reminders of the millennia of settlement and invasions that have befallen these shores. A legacy of this complexity seemed to exist at the tripartite border between Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, where for the first time in my life I spent several hours with no idea which country I was in. It was only when we finally got out of this customs Rubik’s cube and noticed an absence of Ladas that I knew for sure we were in Romania. As we reached Galati that night we’d clocked 209 miles that day, our record of the trip.
We spent our last night on the road at the Romanian resort of Vama Veche. My somewhat out of date 1998 guide book alluringly described it as the idyllic haunt of poets and thinkers. But sadly things had changed in the intervening 12 years and it was now a blitzkrieg of concrete and hotels, which looked even grimmer in the persistent rain. Despite this, it was a milestone on our moped safari and we set off from the rainswept beach on our final morning with wildly mixed emotions. We were tired and had both had some uncomfortably near misses, but the prospect of finishing the adventure and returning to normality sat heavily upon us. Finally, after a what seemed like an eternity of endurance, we drove into Bourgas. 21 days, 2600 miles, 6 countries and two continents later, our circumnavigation was complete. There was only one thing left to do, and that was run victoriously into the freezing waters of the Black Sea.