Khashuri (GE) – Lankaran (AZ) / 5874 km / 2.87 Million Turns
As we enter the courtyard of the restaurant, we notice a big group of people who have clearly had some (some too much?) alcohol and enjoying their meal. Half of the people are standing and a few look as if they are trying to give a speech but have a hard time to stay standing while slurring some words. After almost a month of travelling in Turkey during Ramadan, we are a bit astounded by the contrast. We noticed this already after we crossed the border from Turkey into Georgia: in the first tiny village we passed all the shops displayed big bottles of alcohol. Georgia is clearly a whole other world than Turkey. Women are walking in shorts again (a little cheer for Sabine as she could cycle in shorts comfortably again as well), the traffic is wild and the alphabet is curly and impossible to decipher.
Through sign language and with the help of our Warmshowers hosts who have written down a few vegetarian dishes we manage to order some food. What we also manage is to order Georgian wine. In doing so, we get a little enthusiastic, ordering a 1 litre bottle straight away (it was cheaper than coca cola, a bargain we couldn’t dismiss). We hadn’t realised this before, but Georgia is quite famous for their wine making. According to Georgians themselves, they actually ‘invented’ the art of wine making some 8000 years ago! Although it’s quite a different kind of wine from the one we know, the taste is good. Most of the Georgians actually make wine in their homes, based on very old family recipes. They often just put it in plastic Fanta bottles. From the leftovers they make ChaCha (aka Grappa), in which the alcohol percentage can go up to 80%! After a month of almost no alcohol, the alcohol gets to us pretty quick and we stumble home at 8pm.
On our trip, Georgia was to be the ‘holiday’ country within the bigger trip. Our bicycles would get a little rest and we planned to do some hiking. Our Warmshowers hosts rent out their two backpacks and we take a train and bus to Mestia to hike in the Svaneti region, home of the Svan people. The ride is breathtaking, not only because of the scenery, but also because the drivers seem to have a deathwish here, driving with rocket speed over narrow roads high into the mountains, avoiding both many potholes and cows on the road. We are still quite surprised that we got to Mestia in one piece. The town is dotted with typical Svan defence towers, situated in a big valley surrounded by high mountains and a few snow-capped peaks. Over the course of history, many armies have tried to conquer this part of Georgia but failed. Mongols, Persians and Arabs armies alike could not conquer this remote and inhospitable mountain region. Although we are impressed by the history and the natural beauty, it is also clear that the impact of tourism weighs heavy on local culture here. Tourism is growing fast and the balance between preservation and tourism seems difficult. Every other house has turned into a guesthouse.
In a couple of days we hike from Mestia to Ushguli. Although it is June by now, there is still plenty of snow and some of the passes are still closed. High ridges, small paths and 360 degrees of snowy mountains appear around us. One night we camp on top of a ridge, seeing a big storm in one of the valleys ahead. Big thunderclouds roll around us, but our camp spot stays pretty much dry. We mention to each other how lucky we are, not having been in a big storm so far on our trip. Ironically, the next night we are in this valley ahead and we do get an all-night-long thunder storm, including hail balls and stroboscope-like flashes of thunder. The sound of these hail balls falling on our tent almost made us think that in a minute they will shoot right through our tent, but a Hilleberg wouldn’t be a Hilleberg if it didn’t stay completely dry. Hiking here is something else: a lot wilder, steeper and more adventurous. We have to cross a glacier river up to our thighs barefoot (cold!!), cross many snow patches (slippery!!), and cope with a lot of heavy rain showers. Especially the third day was spectacular with great views of one the largest glaciers in the Caucasus. After four days we arrive in Ushguli and head back to Khashuri. We thought about doing another hike in the Tusheti region, but the pass to get there is still closed due to snow!
And so, we head on to Tbilisi for a few days of exploring and a new attempt for a Chinese visa, after trying in Holland unsuccessfully. This second attempt unfortunately fails too; after waking up at 6 AM and waiting for three hours we are rejected straight away because we don’t have a residence permit (which you don’t even need to live in Georgia anyhow). Bureaucracy at its best… (live update: we have fortunately received our Chinese visa in Teheran)
In Georgia we also decide to send our drone ahead towards Tajikistan. Internet is full of horror stories of travellers with drones in the countries we will pass in between. Especially Uzbekistan is infamous, where, when discovered, the drone is not only confiscated but you yourself get the honour to smack your little flying machine to pieces with a rock, until the battery catches fire. Iran is also not so fond of drones, as you may have seen in the news. Border trouble was the last thing we wanted so sending ahead is the only option. The postal services in Central Asia are also not very well known for reliability, so we said goodbye to our drone in Georgia, expecting we’d not see it again. If it actually arrives, it would be a very nice surprise.
After a few days of relaxing, exploring, sorting things out for the bikes, shopping etc it is time to move on. We decide against going through Armenia as we want to get to Tehran a bit more quickly to arrange our visas for China and Turkmenistan. Armenia is beautiful, but also extremely hilly. Therefore, another country comes into sight as alternative: Azerbaijan. It is pretty flat and less of a detour to Tehran, and we decide to make a few longer days on the bike. As it was not part of our initial itinerary, we did not have many expectations or knowledge before entering this country. After only three days of cycling through Georgia, we enter Azerbaijan. Straightaway, we are surprised by the extreme kindness of the people. Tom forgets his phone at the border control, as we already enter the country and almost started cycling again the man came running at us to hand it back, luckily! The following days people would not allow us to pay if we buy fruits or vegetables, treat us on many ice creams, hand us over energy drinks whilst driving, or invite us to their homes. We are incredibly warmed by this kindness!
Entering a city in Azerbaijan is quite a sight: suddenly the road changes into 6 lanes, with fake stone castles appearing together with armoured medieval knights, everything looking a little bit too neat. Flagpoles and statues are everywhere, and the national pride is high, all focussed around the country’s first president Aliyev. We joke about what Holland would look like if we had Mark Rutte’s big smile on a 10×10 m billboard in every city. You wonder whether all the money earned with the country’s vast oil & gas reserves couldn’t have been spent a little wiser…
Temperatures in Azerbaijan are soaring. From snow in Georgia, to 37 degrees in the afternoons on the Azerbaijani plains. It forces us into a different rhythm: waking up at 5 AM, start cycling at 6 until the heat would become too much at around 11. We would then take a long siesta in a park of a teahouse before doing another 30-40 km in the late afternoon. On the bicycle it is doable due to the fresh breeze, but as soon as we step off we are covered in sweat. Many times, when we enter a shop, people would quickly turn on the fan or AC, pull chairs and order us to sit in front of it to cool down. So here we sat, awkwardly, red-faced and sweating, with a juice in our hand. It must have been a funny sight.
As we want to make our kilometres on this part, we had to say no to a few lunch/tea invitations because it would get too hot to start riding again after. One day however, a man comes up to us as we are standing in front of a supermarket and invites us to his house for tea and some food. We decide to accept it and come with the man to his house. He and his wife prepare us some lovely food and as he sees us peeking through to the shower, we also get offered to wash ourselves. Within five minutes after entering this stranger’s house, we are taking a shower! Very grateful and with our belly’s full, and with a freshly prepared lunch we move on, by now in the blistering heat, to find out that the road is under construction for the next 30 km, leaving us fluttering through potholes and dust. The kind man warned us already (“Next: Sahara, Sahara, nothing!”). The effect of the shower wore off quickly…
By the time of our last day in Azerbaijan, we still have half of our money left. We decide to take a hotel for the last night in this country. Although the pool is closed unfortunately, we still manage to spend almost all of our money for Azerbaijan on two nice victory meals: the next day, after 8 days, and over 800 km further on we would reach another highly interesting country: Iran!
More about that in our next blog post! Talk to you soon!
Tom & Sabine