Cycling to China: Georgia and Azerbaijan - Ex-Soviet Excitement

Cycle//World

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With Turkey and its numerous kebabs behind them we pick up Max and Emily's adventure as they head through Georgia and Azerbaijan. 

Georgia and Azerbaijan: Ex-Soviet Excitement

“Her Britannic Majesty’s
Secretary of State
requests and requires in the
Name of Her Majesty
all those whom it may concern
to allow the bearer to pass freely
without let or hinderance
and to afford the bearer
such assistance and protection
as may be necessary.”

(Inside cover, United Kingdom Passport)

A few days ago, we rolled into Baku, the elegant oil rich capital of Azerbaijan, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Normally it would be time for sightseeing and air conditioned cake eating, but we had work to do. Armed with passports, maps, photos, application forms, fictitious hotel bookings, and a small fortune in US dollars, it was time to get our ‘Stans’ visas. Despite the polite notice in the front of passports, we were in for some serious ‘let and hinderance’, which ended up with the surprise addition of a whole new country to our itinerary. At one point it looked as if we may not be able to continue overland from Baku at all, but more on that later.

When we left Turkey after the last blog post, the way ahead through Georgia and Azerbaijan – apart from the heat – didn’t look too tough, but we were in for quite a culture shock. Immediately after cycling across the border we saw people relaxing by a river, skimpily dressed. Not an unusual sight in England, but after spending so long in Turkey, it felt unnerving to see such ‘lurid’ behaviour in public. We then hit Vale, a small border town which was even more unnerving. As we slowly rolled down the main street, we felt like wild-west gunslingers arriving by horse in some dusty backwater.

People stared unsmilingly, everything seemed unnaturally still, and the only noise was the soft ticking of our gear hubs. Something didn’t feel right. The road was lined with grand European-looking buildings, with ornate stonework and pretty decorative features. Clearly, Vale had once been a handsome town, and wealthy, but something must have happened because everything was falling into disrepair and many buildings – especially the big municipal ones – stood derelict. The people looked poor, dressed in old t-shirts and tattered shorts or trousers, and somehow out of place amongst the old buildings. It was as if they had recolonized them after some apocalyptic event had wiped out the original inhabitants. Was this all down to the fall of the Soviet Union 22 years ago? It was tempting to think so, but we were too intimidated to ask anyone.

Thankfully we soon arrived in a more normal and friendly town called Akhaltsikhe, with shops, restaurants, and even a few other tourists. With all the pork eating, beer drinking, and church going, it felt like we were back in Western Europe. But we also saw more remnants of Georgia’s communist past: A middle aged man selling old Soviet war medals out of a battered suitcase; and our huge eerily empty 1950s hotel, which looked like the set of an old Russian spy movie with its gloomy wood panelled reception area, illuminated by dim naked lightbulbs.

As we continued onwards, the cycling was easy going, mostly following the course of the Mikvari River, through the foothills of the Caucuses. There was a welcome tailwind for most of the time, and although the landscape wasn’t particularly inspiring, it was nice not to be huffing and puffing up mountains for a change. Like England, Georgia seemed like a small country with a lot in it, so there were plenty of places to stop and guzzle down cheap and delicious kachapuri (bready cheesy pizza like things) or khinkalli (like Chinese dim sum dumplings, but bigger).

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There were also a lot ruined castles perched improbably on outcrops of rock, and medieval churches, still being well used by the devout locals. It was great to be amongst such a rich and proud history, but I was secretly more intrigued by the dying embers of the USSR that still littered the way: Rusting industrial hardware, bulky Russian pick-up trucks left for dead, closed down factories. I wondered whether it would have felt the same to ride through Britain 20 years after the Romans left.

The night before arriving in the capital Tbilisi, we stayed in a town called Gori, unremarkable except for the fact that Joseph Stalin had been born and raised there. He was apparently revered as a local hero and his childhood home – a poor two room hovel – stood alone in a large memorial park, the rest of his neighbourhood having been bulldozed in order to create it!

In Tbilisi, instead of the usual sightseeing, we locked up our bikes in the basement of a family run hostel and took a short ‘half way to China’ break to fly back to England for Emily’s brother’s wedding. It was surreal to suddenly be zapped back to our starting point, but it was a welcome break, and we felt full of renewed enthusiasm when we got back on the bikes.

Entering Azerbaijan, we were pleasantly surprised. Without any guidebook or prior research, all we knew about Azerbaijan was that it had loads and loads of oil, so (rather illogically) we were expecting a dry, dusty sort of a place, with lots of unfriendly oil barons. Fortunately it wasn’t like that at all. The landscape was green with all sorts of edible goodies growing everywhere, and culturally it seemed almost exactly like Turkey. The language was very similar, chain smoking and chain tea drinking had returned, and best of all, everyone seemed to have the same super-friendly disposition that we’d grown to love in Turkey.

Only a couple of kilometres over the border we were accosted by a man with a roadside tea stall. For at least an hour we sat drinking tea and communicating in scraps of Turkish that we’d learned on the road. After a while, his mother joined us for a cuppa, and I was shocked to see that when she smiled, she had a full set of gold teeth! It was strange to see such a sweet little old lady with such gangster-like cosmetic surgery, but we soon realised that it was quite normal in Azerbaijan for men and women to get as many gold teeth as possible, supposedly as a kind of fashion / status symbol.

Anyway, after tea, our host took us on a little tour of his vegetable garden and we left laden with armfuls of freshly picked hazelnuts, pears, apples, and cranberries. Of course he wouldn’t accept any money for the fruit or tea, so we gave his mum a snickers instead, which was well received. I strapped the cranberry branches onto the back of my bike and passers by helped themselves as we rode past.

We only had 400km to ride through Azerbaijan, but it was surprisingly hilly and hot. On top of this we were beset by laziness and dodgy stomachs (possibly due to bad tap water, although a minced beef wrap was also implicated), so it took us longer than expected. We rode eastward, with hazy flat plains to the south, and the forested foothills of the Caucuses, towering to the north. The upper reaches of the mountains were often hidden by cloud, and somewhere up there was the border with Russia.

Unfortunately, the road itself was busy and not very pleasant, and the Azeri driving was absolutely atrocious. Although well meaning and respectful of our bicycles, people drove way too fast and recklessly for the narrow roads. Almost every day we saw cars (mostly old Ladas) losing control and skidding around the road. Even so, we were really enjoying Azerbaijan simply because the people were so full of fun and good humour. We’d never been anywhere where so many adults want to play with our bells whenever we park the bikes.

Halfway through the 400km ride to Baku, outside the town of Gabala, we pulled up at a water fountain next to a hazelnut plantation / packing factory to fill up our bottles before finding somewhere to camp. As luck would have it, Tofiq, the 60 year old owner of the plantation saw us and insisted that we camp there as his guests, in the grass amongst the hazelnut bushes. After setting up camp, he sat us down at his table in the busy outdoor staff canteen and started ordering large amounts of food.

Having both been up the night before with the runs, we were keen to get to bed as soon as possible but Tofiq was a great host and when he suggested a little glass of vodka to toast our journey, we could hardly refuse. So, out came a small bottle of vodka and three glasses. One thing led to another and the toasts kept on coming: Azerbaijan, England, the hazelnut business, mine and Emily’s future children…I lost track.

Emily was getting off quite lightly with very small portions (although still getting quite drunk). But I was having to match Tofiq glass for glass, and fared considerably worse. Two bottles later, I got up to pee and realised I could hardly walk. It was time for bed, but the damage had been done. On my hands and knees, I unceremoniously vomited into a hazelnut bush, before crawling into the tent and passing out. The next morning Emily was in ok shape but I was not. Still, we had to keep going due to visa deadlines in Baku, so after a plate of fried eggs, Tofiq (also worse for wear) sent us wobbling on our way with wishes of luck, and a kilo of hazelnuts. What an awesome guy! I felt like shit but it had been worth it.

As we neared the Caspian Sea and Baku, the scenery became browner and more desert-like. Finding a well hidden camp spot became difficult. On the night before we reached Baku, surrounded by desert, and with no villages nearby and no cover to hide ourselves, we had to settle for a campsite that was more exposed than we would have liked. We ate dinner and went to sleep hoping not to attract attention, but we’d been spotted by some road workers.

Later that night, we awoke to the sound of voices and the harsh glow of torchlight around the tent. ‘Shit!‘ I looked at the watch, it was midnight. ‘What did they want?‘ Maybe they had reported us and we were going to be moved on. Or maybe they had come to make trouble. One of voices was shouting “Yemek”, “Yemek” (‘food’ in Azeri). ‘Did these people really want food?’, I thought. It sounded like bad news… I opened the zip, blinking into the torchlight, heart pounding, expecting some kind of confrontation. From behind the torch, somebody thrust a loaf of bread and two polystyrene containers toward me.  

They had chicken and rice in them… It was the road workers! They’d had gone back to base and got us a load of food. I breathed a massive sigh of relief, and thanked them extremely gratefully. I popped the food in our porch for breakfast, and collapsed back onto my bed. This little episode topped off a week of gobsmackingly kind treatment from the Azeri people since arriving in their country. It had totally made up for the unpleasant and dangerous cycling, and we arrived in Baku the following day in high spirits, even though we had no visa for onward travel in any direction.

So where to next? Well, the original plan was to go to Iran but this hadn’t worked out. Plan B was to cross the Caspian by boat to Turkmenistan, but this too was thwarted because their dictatorship – sorry, I mean government – make it extremely hard to obtain a visa. Their first line of defence in Baku is to hide their embassy deep in a residential area with no signage. Next they demand a letter of invitation which takes up to 14 days to process, and conveniently isn’t mentioned anywhere online. This ended any chance of us going to Turkmenistan, leaving Plan C, the only remaining option that didn’t involve flying. It was to take a boat across the Caspian to the remote Kazakhstan port of Aktau. From here there would be a daunting 1000km desert crossing to the Silk Road oasis cities of Uzbekistan.

There isn’t much information to be found about this forgotten corner of Kazakhstan, but it seems to be inadvisable to cycle through it, especially during summertime. At the same time, the peace and quite and vastness of the desert is exciting. I guess it’s easy to say this in the air conditioned lobby of the Baku Hilton (where we’re sneakily spending the afternoon for the free wifi), but we can’t wait to get there. Hopefully, with enough water and peanut M&Ms anything is possible.

Total Stats

Days on the road: 127 (88 cycling, 39 rest days – this doesn’t include our 10 day time out in UK!)
Kilometers: 7487
Average Distance per [cycling] day: 85km
Average Distance per day over total days: 59km
% of total distance done: 42%
Foraged goods: hazelnuts, walnuts (not ripe), plums, apricots, cranberries, blackberries, mulberries, apples, pears, cherries, funny sour plummy things

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