Tbilisi,Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan. May 9th – June 1st 2018
Pete and I left Tbilisi feeling full of vim and vigour and the proud owners of two visas, one for China and one for Azerbaijan. We had 6 more days before we could enter Azerbaijan so decided to head for Kekheti the main wine growing region of Georgia which would take us towards the Azerbaijan border. We had heard that it was a beautiful and interesting route with lots of wine to sample along the way, which was, of course an added attraction.
Once again we had to tackle the truly awful traffic as we left Tbilisi and just hoped that it might improve as we climbed into the hills. It didn’t. It was on this stage of the journey that I began to worry that I was losing confidence on the road. Usually on setting out in the morning I feel excited and enjoy the anticipation of the day ahead but I was now finding that I felt nervous and full of dread that this might be the day that something awful might happen. I also felt quite paranoid that drivers really were out to get us. I’m sure this isn’t true but I think it is true that they have little regard for other road users and no empathy as to how it feels to see a huge hunk of metal bearing down on you at speed. We have heard so much in Georgia about how a guest is to be treated like a gift from God and I found myself feeling rather cynical about this as they seemed to want to send us back to our maker sooner than we would have liked.
We did however make it up to the lovely hill town of Telavi after 40 kms of uphill struggle. Our 10 days in Tbilisi had left us feeling rather soft around the edges and it was hard work. The view from the top of the pass however was stunning and we had our first view of the Caucasus mountains which were snow covered, huge and majestic.
We enjoyed our overnight stop in Telavi and stayed at a guesthouse that we named Buckingham Palace as it was so grand with a sweeping staircase, grand piano and chandeliers. It was all quite faded grandeur with damp patches and peeling wallpaper but I did enjoy playing Vivian Leigh to Pete’s Clark Gable and sweeping up and down the stairs a few times. Leila our landlady was lovely and breakfast was a feast of soup and bread with cheese and home made buns. Just what a hungry cyclist needs.
After Telavi we set off down the road that was to take us all the way to the Caspian Sea. It headed east with the Caucasus mountain range on our left with its densely wooded foothills giving us shade and some of the best campsites we have had so far on the journey.
We stopped to explore the monastery at Gremi and in the cafe there ate far too much Katchapuri. We had quite naturally ordered 2 thinking that 1 would be enough for 1 person but was in fact enough for 2 meaning that we had enough for 4. Not being the type of people who ever leaves anything on the plate we munched our way through it all and staggered onwards to our wine tasting. This was rather nice and we had our very own guide who told us all about the rare grapes of Georgia that go into making this very special wine. Also the process which involves squashing the grapes ( this used to be done by foot but thankfully is now mechanised). The results of that are then put into a clay pot, called a qvevri that is buried in the ground and then sealed.
The fermentation process takes place at a constant 14-15 c and 6 months later the contents are removed with a ladle and placed into barrels and then bottles. We joined the hoardes of Russian tourists in the shop afterwards who were buying crates of wine and feeling rather embarrassed when we bought 2 tiny bottles of white wine which we drank by our camp fire that night.
Just before leaving Georgia for good we stayed at a lovely guesthouse in the border town of Lagodekhi. Here we met Anna and Frederick from Berlin who were there to do some hiking. I had a lovely days walk with them in the reserve there while Pete spent the day route planning, bike maintaining and making friends with the guesthouse’s wolf sized dog. We walked through dense forest up to a small waterfall and on the way met some Dutch biologists who were on a reptile spotting day and had just found a “Smooth Snake ”
They told us that snakes were common in the reserve, some up to 2 metres long but they reassured us that vipers, the only poisonous snakes, lived at a higher altitude than we were going. That was reassuring.
We also learnt that the reserve was inhabited by bears, lynx,wild boar, roe and red deer, chamois and the Caucasian black grouse which made me nostalgic for our very own black grouse at the Geltsdale Reserve that look exactly the same.
It was time to head to the border and say goodbye to Georgia. This was with mixed feelings. Most of our impressions were of a very beautiful country with so much of interest. The people are very friendly and welcoming but I would still say that they didn’t beat the Turkish people in that regard.
On our last 50 or so miles out of the country we had been repeatedly harassed by hordes of dogs which made up for this not happening so much in Turkey. These dogs were generally guarding sheep so it is understandable that we were seen as a threat but I just wish they would treat cars in the same way and instil a bit of fear into those horrible drivers.
We were happy to be moving on and laughed when we saw this sign thinking why do we need luck, nothing can possibly go wrong?
All was well as we left the Georgian side and met 2 very young looking Azerbaijani soldiers who took a great interest in our bikes and enjoyed playing with the bells. We laughed with them and learnt some useful Azerbaijani words and then moved on to passport control. We left our passports and visas with the nice officers there and moved on to have our bags checked. We were even able to choose the bags that we would like to have checked which seemed very kind. Suddenly a voice started calling Mr Peter, Mr Peter there is a problem with your visa. Oh no. Our rather smug hearts sank and we slunk nervously back to passport control . It seemed that both of us had not put our middle names on the visa and hence the visa did not exactly match the information on our passports. They couldn’t let us in and were very nice about it saying that we would have to change the information on the visa before they could let us into the country. We had to return to Georgia. So that was probably one of the briefest visits to Azerbaijan on record and the Georgian guards looked rather surprised to see us returning.
There followed a rather stressful and harrassing sort of day but the upshot was that it took exactly 7 hours and 55 dollars and a lot of waiting around, admittedly sitting under a tree in the sunshine reading our books so thank goodness that this sort of thing can be done online and didn’t involve a sweaty 5 day ride back to Tbilisi.
All because Pete is so embaressed by his middle name that he didn’t want to put it on the visa application. Only joking, but I’m still not allowed to tell you what it is.
We felt too tired and fed up to go back to the border that night so pulled into a field by the road and camped early. It was a lovely spot with clear and dramatic views of the mountains and seemed a fitting place to spend what we hoped this time would be our last night in Georgia. Pete was asleep as soon as his head hit, well a sort of pillow, it’s actually all his spare clothes lumped together and wrapped in a t shirt. He was gently snoring while I lay and listened to the night and enjoyed watching the silent lightening as it repeatedly lit up the tent . It was a bit like when you have a faulty light bulb and it flickers annoyingly and it went on for quite a while before I heard distant thunder. Then the howling started. This was howling like I have never heard before. It wasn’t a dog and it wasn’t a wolf. It was very high pitched and sounded like a cross between caterwauling and someone screeching in pain. We had been told that there were golden jackals in the area and I assumed that is what it must be. The howling would go on for about a minute and then stop but start again coming from a different direction. Had the jackals moved or were there just lots of them communicating with one another? I didn’t know but I lay there wondering whether the next burst of noise would be outside our tent and how hungry the jackals would be.I woke Pete up to share in the terror and if there had been some creepy music in the background I reckon this would have made a very good scene for a horror movie except that probably something horrible would have needed to happen to us which it didn’t. The storm never did develop much and the jackals gave up and went to sleep as did we and all was well. We did however hear the same noise every night for the next 4 nights and one morning saw a creature walking through the woods about 100 metres away.It wasn’t a dog or a fox and was a golden brown colour so we think that we were lucky enough to have actually seen a jackal.
The next day we headed back to the border, this time passing the good luck sign with slightly more respect. We were treated like old friends when we got there and the guards seemed genuinely pleased that we were all sorted and all was fine for us to visit their country.
We were in Azerbaijan.
Immediately things changed. I know we say that every time we go into another country but it is strange but true. Here the road became wider, smoother, quieter. When we went through towns they felt more prosperous. Wide tree lined streets, large well kept parks, a great variety of shops that looked well stocked and busy. We called in for tea at a cafe and were surprised when it came in tulip shaped glasses as it always had in Turkey. We were back in the land of tea, this time served with a bowl of jam or a small glass of rose water . Never ever with milk of course and always meant to be taken sweet.
Azerbaijan is an Islamic country but much more low key than Turkey. We have seen very few mosques and heard the call to prayer only once. It has been Ramadan while we have been here where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. We wondered how this would affect our travels. Would cafes be shut and if not would it be insensitive for us to go in and ask for food. Whenever we have gone in to a cafe, other people have been eating so we have taken our cue from them and always felt it was OK.
Azerbaijan is a major exporter of oil which has been scooped from surface digging around Baku since the 10th century. Marco Polo himself commented that
“Near the Georgian border there is a spring from which gushes a stream of oil in such abundance that a 100 ships may load there at once. This oil is not good to eat but it is good for burning and a salve for men and camels affected with itch or scab”.
It’s uses have certainly changed since then and brought great wealth to Azerbaijan. The wealth is obvious in certain areas such as Baku’s tree lined avenues, Lamborghini show rooms and dream like architecture but not quite so obvious in the suburbs and some of the villages we passed through on our crossing.
It took us 6 days to get to Baku from the Georgian border and for all this time we were on the one road, an old silk road route that followed the base of Azerbaijan’s stunning high Caucasus foothills. For most of the first half of this journey the road was lined with ancient beech and oak trees with enormous girths making them hundreds of years old and it would be good to hear them talk of what they had seen over that time. For us the trees provided much needed shade as now temperatures were starting to climb and most days we were cycling in about 30c. At about 1pm we would stop at one of the many cafes along the road that were always in deep shade with small shelters where we could relax and while away 2 hours to cool down and then set off again to cycle till bedtime.
Naively we thought this might be an easy route, after all we were heading down to the sea. It was not as we thought and the road undulated the whole way with some very long, sweaty ascents. I came to the conclusion that I would far rather cycle in cold weather. At least when it’s cold you can add layers of clothing and cycle a bit faster but in the heat there is a limit to how much clothing you can remove without being arrested or becoming severely sunburnt. I think we are going to have to get used to it.
Once more we encountered extreme friendliness. Many hoots and waves, strange requests to have “selfies” taken with us, people coming up to us saying “welcome to Azerbaijan”. I don’t think it is a big tourist destination so we are a bit unusual and being on bicycles even more so.
The road was lined most of the way with food stalls that sold everything from bread, cheese and bottled preserves. Some of the stalls we nicknamed the traffic lights as they sold large circles of fruit leather which look like something we might use to mend a puncture but are on fact nicely chewy and sweet.
We stopped at one traffic light stall and decided to have our breakfast there. It was part of a smallholding and we had home made bread, butter and cheese with mountain tea which is tea made with an assortment of dried herbs. At home the watchword now is organic and local and this place fitted the bill without any pretensions at all. It was just the way they lived and survived and as we sat in the dappled shade of a tree in their garden it all seemed rather perfect. The father kindly gave me some elderberry flowers to add to my flower collection and we cycled away happily after a lovely encounter.
As we got nearer to Baku the terrain began to change quite dramatically and the road widened to become a dual carriageway which was great as we had more space. It was also fairly quiet so we had a couple of days of relaxed cycling. The scenery however was rather desolate the main colour being a sort of washed out beige. Rolling, dramatic hills , big skies and distant horizons filled our vision as well as the sweat running off our foreheads.
It was as well to be on our gaurd though and not be too relaxed as the unexpected can and does happen. As I said we were on a dual carriageway happily travelling the same way as the traffic on our side of the road. On the other side the traffic had 2 lanes on which to travel the other way. This is stating the obvious and is completely normal probably all over the world where dual carriageways exist. So why did a man driving a very large lorry decide that he wanted to travel on our side of the road going in the wrong direction and towards us on our side of the road which by this time I was feeling quite possesive about? This was my road, I was happy and relaxed and this was not a scenario I was prepared for. I was so shocked that I stopped, looked him in the eye, shrugged my shoulders in a “what the heck are you doing” sort of way to which his response was a cheery wave, a broad smile and to carry on regardless in the wrong direction looking for all the world as if that is what you do. I suppose if I was at home I would have called the police and said there is a mad man on the loose but I just thought oh well maybe that’s just the way things happen around here. I watched him disappear into the distance wondering if all that sweat in my eyes was distorting reality.
When we were about 20 kms from Baku a momentous event occurred. A thin sliver of grey on the horizon turned out to be the Caspian Sea. We both admitted to feeling tears prick our eyes when we realised what we were looking at. At home the Caspian seemed like an impossible dream. We merrily talked about reaching it and getting a boat across it, inwardly laughing as if to say it won’t really happen but we can dream. Now here we were and looking at it and it was real. Wowzer.
Baku beckoned and on we went, traffic increasing and panic levels too. I could swear that Pete quite enjoys the adrenaline rush of heavy traffic and he dismissed my fears as we found ourselves on a 6 lane highway. We managed to stay in the bus lane which felt relatively safe but then needed to cross 3 lanes to get to where we wanted to be. I refused and Pete capitulated and we pulled into a bus station and even considered trying to get our bikes and us on a bus. We were eventually approached by a gaggle of taxi drivers, or is it a consortium, who revealed a safe and easy way to get back onto the road which we did.
I prefer to gloss over the next hour or so that it took us to get to our hotel as I want to forget about it and enter a state of denial. One nice encounter however is worth dwelling on when I momentarily lost Pete on a roundabout and looked with desperation at a line of cars bearing down on me like a flock of hungry vultures. With my eyes and my arms I begged them to let me through and I must have looked quite pathetic because, as one, they stopped and the leader of the pack smiled at me, put his hand on his heart and let me through.
Thank you whoever you were.
We spent over a week in Baku awaiting yet another visa, this time one for Uzbekistan.
Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan and an up and coming, trendy sort of place. It has a fabulous centre and old town, with wide tree lined avenues, beautifully renovated old buildings and some very posh shops. The architecture is dramatic and the skyline is dominated by three “Flame Towers” which are illuminated at night with differing designs and some advertising!
We would walk along the boulevard in the evening where everyone goes to show off. (We didn’t as we felt a bit scruffy in the clothes we have been wearing for the last 7 months). Here you walk by the sea on which there are illuminated water lilies and then pass fountains and immaculate gardens.
In the old town we climbed the Maiden’s Tower with its 5 metre thick walls and amazing views from its 72 metre summit.
We had a tour out of Baku to visit the mud volcanoes, small conical hills with mud bubbling and glooping at the top seemingly alive and almost funny.
The journey out there gave us a different view of Azerbaijan where oil has obviously brought great wealth but at the same time has made this particular area ugly and blighted.
We saw oil lakes, a massive amount of drilling, pipes everywhere, refineries and all the paraphernalia of the oil industry which I suppose could never be pretty.
At the local beach resort you swim with a backdrop of drilling platforms which is a bit off putting so we didnt swim.When we cycled out of Baku we passed the ostentatious mansions of the very wealthy which gave way to the high rise flats and sometimes squalid housing of the less wealthy and probably those who are working daily to keep the industry going.
Baku was big, busy and noisy and as usual with cities we were glad to leave and raring to get on with the next stage of our journey. We are now at Baku Sea Port about 70 kms south of Baku and waiting for a boat to take us to Aktau in Kazakhstan.
I remember after we had crossed the border into Azerbaijan cycling in a virtual avenue of old deciduous trees, cycling over the acorns. It felt so English and yet these trees had provided shade for travellers on the Silk Road for the past 200 or 300 years!
I remember that those trees gave way gradually to grassy hills where we saw shepherds on horseback herding their cattle. Then the grass became more spartan and the soil was arid and sandy. Then as we cycled into Baku we saw water tankers being used to water the grass verges.
I remember stopping at a market. A market in this part of the world is a small shop that sells nearly everything but with a high percentage of sweets and biscuits. Outside there was a sheep’s carcass hanging from a chain by its hind legs over a drain with its head put to one side on the pavement. I watched as it was deftly skinned and gutted. I imagine it was slaughtered in this position to conform to hallal rules a couple of hours earlier. I’m glad that I missed that bit but well aware that the reality of meat eating means animals must be slaughtered.
It wasn’t long after seeing that sheep that we came across several more butchers shops with carcasses hanging ready for sale. Each a few kilometres from the last and each with a small pen outside with 6 or 8 sheep standing squashed together. It seems that the penned sheep were next in line for the butcher’s shop. Perhaps they were slaughtered to order or perhaps they were dispatched as and when there was the demand. There was no refrigeration so I suppose the meat couldn’t be kept for too long .
I mentioned the butchers being clustered together. Other things seemed clustered together as well. We came across a cafe in the woods. In fact it was evening so we rode in and asked If we could camp there. It wasn’t a cafe in the English sense of the word, it was a group ofshelters in a wood with a central building where the food was prepared. In this cafe I am not sure that the old man who was looking after it was serving food at all but he made us tea, let us camp on the grounds and wouldnt accept any payment in the morning. As we cycled on the next day we saw more of these cafes and then they became so numerous, they were virtually contiguous. And they were all empty. No cars were stopping. Once or twice as we passsed someone from the cafe would call out plaintively ” cup of tea?”. They wanted to sell us a cup of tea for a few pence. How were they all surviving? Then the cafes stopped. We saw no more.
Then we noticed roadside stalls. Each with a large, cylinder shaped oven where, when we passed in the early morning they were setting the fire going for baking bread. Which was great if you were driving by and wanted to stop for a loaf but the strange thing is that there were lots of bakers one after the other all selling bread. Could they all be making a living? Then there were the pickle stalls. One after another. All with pickled vegetables. Then, flat jam stalls.We called them traffic lights. They were round, brightly coloured translucent discs pegged to a string line. They tasted vaguely like jam and maybe were made in a similar way to jam except more “set” and more dried, and flatter…
Snakes and Wolves
We met another 2 cyclists- Peter and Pol . They actually overtook us . We were slogging painfully uphill in full midday sun and they pulled alongside . But they had youth . Lots of it . So I refuse to feel disheartened . Peter told us about a wolf prowling around outside his tent one night . And he told us to about a snake that was rearing up and hissing so loudly that he thought it was a puncture! We haven’t seen any snakes (actually Chris did see a little one) – or wolves . I know I wouldn’t want one to actually come sniffing around our tent but it would make a good story…
In the just about every country we have traveled through we’ve been financially treated fairly . In Azerbaijan , a couple of times we’ve been taken for a ride. Once in a taxi – alright i know that a taxi is supposed to take you for a ride but this one took us for quite a long ride . . . The other time was a young lad who wanted to charge us 20 manats for a cup of tea and a piece of cake (400 manats is a cashier’s salary for a month). So that was maybe about 40 or 50 pounds. He reduced it to 10 manats when I objected and looked very cross when I gave him five – even that I think was very generous. On the other hand Chris asked a lady with a sewing machine to shorten some trousers. . They agreed 3 manets for the job. When she collected them Chris wanted to give her a little more but she wouldn’t accept any more than the agreed 3 manats. And in a computer shop we were given loads of help to fill out an online visa form and print it. They refused any payment at all. They said to remember them – and we will!
Chris thinks I’m fanciful but I believe that in some way the taxi driver who overcharged us won’t benefit from his money and in some way the kind people who generously give us whatever they can will be repaid in spades.
And so the journey continues. We both admit to feeling trepidatious about what now lies ahead. It’s getting hotter, the terrain is harsher and the language and culture dramatically different. But we are excited and really pleased that we have managed to get this far and are ready to face new challenges. The elephant is diminishing!!