So, I have made it back to the UK for my interim break – for a couple of friend’s weddings and to get my China visa sorted. I will be flying out to Atyrau in Kazakhstan on the 14th August to continue the journey.
From Trabzon, a short day’s ride east, with beach-side relaxation and a poorly stomach, was followed by easy cycling, through a series of long tunnels, to the Georgian border crossing. From there, following a last swim and fine dining of a biscuit and crisp luncheon, I rolled towards Batumi, dirty busy roads, cow-dotted and eucalyptus-lined, and then east up into the mountains, headed for Akhaltsikhe.
The mountain riding was steady work, slowly climbing above 2000 metres. At around 600 metres above sea level tarmac said goodbye, and at 800 metres Georgian hospitality said hello – presenting itself as a father and son duo inviting me along to their home for a beer, coffee, water melon and treats. There I met the extended family, and a number of passing friends, myself sitting in bemused contentment as people nattered, joked, and argued around me in incomprehensible Georgian. Later in the afternoon I pushed my bike back out, onto the rutted begravelled road, climbing through green-swathes of winter ski resorts, through a series of zigzagging switchbacks, and up to the Goderdzi Pass. I collected a pot of honey from a vendor at one of the many beehives dotted along the roadside, and later some fresh mountain cheese and a sort of fruit jerky (like a quince paste rolled out; tasty and chewy) from some kids manning a stand before the Pass. I camped that night on the east side of the pass, with views across pine-clad hillsides out towards the east.
Masses of cows being herded to pasture woke me in the morning, bells jangling and herdsman calling, and I continued on, eventually being reunited with paved roads (oh glory!), and reaching the city of Akhaltsike. There I visited the heavily restored, yet well presented and wholly interesting, Rabati Fortress, then rode on, following the murky banks of the river Mtkvari, its hips swaying doelfully through rocky lengths of gorge and arid hillside. On my way southeast towards the historic cave settlement of Vardzia a pair of canines accosted me, leading to their owner inviting me to join him, and his friends, for a veritable bucket of wine, and assorted fish, meat, bread, and kachapuri (the ubiquitous Georgian cheese-riddled pastry). No doubt beyond the limit for safe cycling conduct I swerved onwards towards Vardzia, camping with gorgeous gorge and valley views, a few miles before the caves.
Vardzia is an intricate series of cave dwellings, defences, services, mess halls, church complexes, and some twenty-five wine cellars, all centred upon the Church of the Assumption, bored like a giant hive into the west side of the valley above the river. The site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, though the principal development of the city began in the 12th Century – firstly with simple dwellings being carved out of the soft rock, later with the Church of the Assumption being formed, followed by further housing, defences, and an intricate series of rock channels for water supply and irrigation. Vardzia was occupied until the 16th Century when, during Ottoman rule, it was eventually abandoned. By that time it had been heavily damaged by earthquakes and invasions. In 1985 the site was designated as a museum reserve, and recently monks have returned to occupy the intact Church of the Assumption at the heart of the complex. Unfortunately my camera had card reading problems again, so I have few photos of Vadzia (it continued having problems, on and off, for the rest of the trip).
A steady climb up a dirt road opposite the complex took me from the valley to a rolling plateau of grasslands and wildflowers, intersected by strips of pine plantation, and dotted with small hamlets. From there I turned east, then northeast, headed for Tbilisi. That evening I encountered a Slovenian cyclist named Benjamin, whom I joined for the evening, camping amongst rolling hills and endless meadow. Benjamin, in his 50’s and with years of touring experience, works with (and helped found) the Slovenian ‘.si’ internet domain. He also has an interest in wild flowers, casually reeling off names of the bounty of flowers surrounding us, from the occasional lonely gladiolus, scarlet and ornate, to wild thyme, petite with small shy purple flowers.
Having camped a little to the north of Gamdzani, we woke early and continued on, with heavy low-lying cloud shrouding and stifling the surrounding mountains and hill-land, passing along the eat side of Paravani Lake, before a long elegant downhill, herdsmen on horse back chaperoning cows to and from fresh pastures, to the town of Tsalka and its reservoir. At Tsalka we hunted down a traditional bakery to pick up kachapuri, before parting ways; Benjamin headed southeast, encountering some apparently terrible roads and a fair amount of hill climbing, while I pushed on for Tbilisi. I reached the city by late afternoon.
The next day, Saturday 1st July, I applied for my Azerbaijan E-visa and took a rest day. Unfortunately my plan to head for Azerbaijan on the Sunday was scuppered by my ignorance of the Azerbaijan E-visa process, which I had assumed to be as fast as the Turkish system (near instantaneous); rather I required a minimum of three working days leeway, meaning the earliest I could get the visa was Thursday the 6th! Which left me four days to cross Azerbaijan and catch my flight.
Faced with four extra days to kill in Georgia I opted to cycle up into the mountains following the Georgian Military Road (something I had always hoped to do, but hadn’t expected to have the time). A hundred miles of easy steady riding, split over two half days, took me up into the mountains to the foot of Mount Kazbek near the Russian border. There I foolishly decided to ride up the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church; following a steep dirt road, only frequented by four-by-fours or riders on horseback. Most people walk or take one of the four-by-four taxis. My worn tyres spun and skidded on the dusty track at its steepest, or thumped over large loose rocks used to plug ruts in the road, but I made it. Views eastward see the church framed against a backdrop of sheer rock walls of the mountains across the valley, back westward the snow-capped peak of Mount Kazbek, at 5047 metres above sea level, dominates the skyline. I intended to stay up near the church until evening, to take advantage of better lighting and to simply relax, however I had the fortune to meet an English couple, Alex and Alice, who are driving through from Cornwall to Nepal climbing and exploring as they go. Having just descended from Mount Kazbek, the couple were keen to grab some food and a few beers in the town of Stepantsminda, and I, starved for conversation with fluent English speakers, and game for a drink, opted to join them. We camped within a copse of woods near the town that evening, all crashing out shortly after dark.
My visa had been approved by the next morning. I pushed back to Tbilisi, not a hard endeavour considering the majority of the riding was downhill, though temperatures did soar to 40ºc later in the day. A rest day in Tbilisi followed, which I use to pick up a new bike pump, repair a slow puncture, give the bike a little TLC, and to swap my tyres around, putting the worn rear tyre to the front and vice versa.
Thursday morning dawned overcast with a good tailwind, shunting me easily into Azerbaijan. Due to my shortage of time I opted for the closest border crossing, and most direct route through to Baku – crossing at Sadiqli, a small unremarkable town. The good conditions were soon squandered, as what would become one of many gestures of often overbearing, but incredibly generous, Azerbaijani hospitality, came to greet me. Not 10km into Azerbaijan a man named Iman invited me for tea, a tea which became lunch, a game of dominos (I still don’t understand the scoring), and then vodka, and then tea at his home with his family, before I finally got on my way again around four in the afternoon. By then rain was threatening. As the storm broke I was waved into a window workshop, owned by a man named Samir, sheltering for nearly two hours with a group, drinking tea, eating cake, and chatting. I had intended to cycle at least 100 miles that day, but made only 60 by the end of the day. The following three days saw the wind cruelly switch to a persistent easterly with frequent downpours and drizzle, and a continuation of the incredible welcome that Azerbaijan’s denizens offer – frequent gifts of fresh fruit, tea, biscuits, conversation, and encouragement. It got so that I had to plug my headphones in and avoid eye contact just to make progress! I reached Baku early afternoon on the Sunday – getting my last puncture just as I entered the bay of Baku, with no repair kit of spares left. I hitched a taxi the last 10 minutes to the old town.
Baku proved an interesting city, a mix of medieval city walls and fortifications, elegant oil-funded grandiose 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, and sleek modern high-rises – including some very interesting structures, such as the flowing form of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. I celebrated my arrival with a fest of Azerbaijani food, a beer, and an early night.
Monday morning I sought out a bike box to pack my bike for transit, looked around the old town, then took my taxi (arranged with the driver and his son the day before) to the airport. I checked in, passed through security, and finally noticed I had done a classic Seth and left my phone in the taxi. Fortunately my kindle has a crude web-browser, so I logged in to Facebook hoping to find the taxi driver’s son (Javid), to find that he had already found me and let me know they had my phone! I have arranged to send them money so that they can mail it back.
A relatively painless flight back, via Doha, Qatar, saw me arrive back in the UK on Tuesday, being picked up by Cat from Heathrow.
That’s all for now, I will try to do a couple of posts about gear, distances, and the like, while I’m back.