Friends at embassies: Tbilisi to Baku

Monday morning finds us on our bikes  rolling over to the Chinese embassy, in Tbilisi, our third and final visit. This time we are met by a gaggle of friends – fellow bikes tourists we’ve met during week in the city. There’s Vanessa and Max and Thorve, who we met at the embassy the previous week. Gunnar who we found counting change outside a bakery. We’d gone for a beer together a couple of days earlier and exchanged stories and talked bikes and routes.

Soon another familiar face turned up, a Georgian guy who’d also been making an application on the same day as us. I smiled sheepishly, having embarrassed him on the previous occasion by inviting him to join a conversation with – unbeknownst to me – his exgirlfriend. He smiled back and soon he was chatting away to the group too.

Most of us were hoping to pick up our Chinese visas. The Chinese embassies are notorious for asking people to jump through hoops and – one assumes for fun – like to change the requirements from time to time. But we were luckier than some recent tourists who had been obliged to procure Georgian citizenship.

We had, however, been required to create a day by day itinerary for the trip, detailing when and where and what we would be doing during our stay. We’d also created hostel bookings, to be cancelled at a later date. The oddest requirement was some kind of proof of our right to work in the UK. We’d handed all this in on the previous Wednesday and had been told to return on Monday. So here we were.

Eventually we were called in to the embassy,  and came out smiling having got what we requested – in our case a single entry 60 day visa, entry within three months.

Overjoyed we wished our fellow travellers farewell and rode off in to the furnace of the midday sun, heading out of Tbilisi towards the fiery horizons of Azerbaijan.

Suffice to say the ride out of town was grim. In the week we’d been in Tbilisi the temperatures had risen to 40°C every day. This day was no different, but we were keen to be on our way.

We managed a few hours riding before an inviting pool of shade under a tree beckoned. We spread out the blanket, just for a quick lie down.

I awoke to a shout, sat up disoriented, and recognised Max, then Vanessa waving. They joined us under the tree for a while, and once recovered we set off on the road together.

“Let’s see if our speeds are compatible” Max suggests.

They were compatible, and we continue riding together for the next three days.

That first evening together we prepare a strategy for dealing with the heat. Vanessa proposes we get up at dawn (negotiated to 5.15) and ride in the cooler hours of the day. Jamie and I have been promising each other that we’ll give this a go, but never found the motivation to do so, so we are happy* to agree.

*happy is an overstatement, but the thought of crawling up a hill in +40° gives me plenty of motivation to get up in the morning.

The next days follow a similar pattern. Up at 5.30, pack up. Quicker than us at packing, V&M set off first and we follow a little while later, catching them up in the next hour or so. We ride till 12, taking breaks to regroup, to cool off, to snack as needed. We find some shade to siesta for a few hours, then trundle on again to find somewhere to camp.

The first morning we find that we are groggy from waking so early but it’s worth it, the first 20km are uphill and we’re sweating buckets even at that time. The light is wonderful though, casting long shadows and luminous flowers in the verge. The mountains in the distamce are just the faintest suggestion in the haze, like the first wash from a watercolourist’s brush.

The haze soon burns off, temperatures soar to +40°c through the day. One afternoon finds us filling our waterbottles and pouring them over our heads in a shadeless pulloff on the road. On returning to the bike my thermometer – in the full sun so not completely accurate – reads 50. I wonder – not for the first time – what kind of madness we have chosen.

We cross the border into Azerbaijan on Wednesday, with little fanfare. The border guards confuse me by talking about Columbia – no, I’ve never been to Columbia… I eventually discover they are congratulating me on England’s win against Columbia. Ah. Well done me.

With four to please, the stakes get higher in the search for the perfect campspot. Max and Jamie would dive off up and down tracks searching for the spot, while Vanessa and I would sigh and wait for the verdict. Not flat enough. Not big enough. No water. Maybe just up this sheep track. If we carried our bikes way up there, I bet there would be an amazing view…

Thursday bought Thorve back in to the fold. He’d been held up in Tbilisi for another day and had been catching us up since. He appeared over the brow of a hill where we’d stopped to regroup after a gruelling hill. Leaving our Ortlieb laden bikes to rest under the shade of an oak, we cool off in the river, and catch up on news.

Five again, we make the descent and go in search of a quiet lunchspot. After a nap or two, a snack or three and a game of cards we resolve to get back on our bikes.

But then disaster strikes.

Jamie and I are way out ahead. I hear a whistle, and we turn around to see Thorve pulling over a little way back. We peddle back – it’s ok he is just admiring the view and no he didn’t whistle.  Having stopped anyway we wait for V&M , and soon they come walking their bikes over the hill… uh oh.

Max’s derailuer had got bent, and looks likely to snap. Jamie, in his element of course – analyses the patient. We’ll have to remove it, and try and get Max mobile again, but he’ll have to go single speed.
It works but it is clear that Max isn’t going to be able to ride far on one, pretty low, gear. They decide to head to the next town and get a bus to Baku, and hope to find the right part there.

But for now we have to find somewhere to sleep, it is getting late. So we set off – Max spinning his single gear like a champion – finally setting up camp in an unattractive triangle of land just off the highway.

The following morning we bid farewell again, and the three of us make our three day dash towards Baku.

With Max and Vanessa we’d been fairly relaxed about how far we were going to ride each day,  but Thorve was keen to Baku by Sunday, so he could make it to the Uzbek embassy on Monday. We have no reason to dawdle so agree to tackle the remaining 320km in 3 days.

We do just that.

The three of us settled in to a new rhythm. With a new riding companion there is a little bit of careful, tactful negotiation as you work out how compatible you are. Working out what their natural pace is, and how it matches ours. Whether they like to ride in formation, or come along at their own pace. Thorve was a great companion, easy going, understanding and good company. He was also pretty well matched for speed.

We took a minute to have a look round Şeki soon after we set off, but with many miles to go we didn’t linger long.

Day two, Saturday, is painful, and a day of bad decisions. We’d stayed in a hotel overnight and were tempted into sleeping late by the promise of breakfast. We’d hoped to get more distance in but are thwarted by a steep hill after lunch which has me stopping repeatedly and crawling up snail-paced. The guys are utterly supportive but I feel pretty bad about it – the heat just drains me – physically and emotionally.

We decide to get dinner at a restaurant to save time but that is a disaster too. The food is disappointing but worse, on settling the bill they overcharge us and on questioning they say the menu we saw was from 2015. We’ve already negotiated camping in the restaurant garden, it is now dark so we don’t have many alternatives. We are cross. Oddly though, they invite us for tea and bring out preserved fruits to try, and are generally amiable – which feels at odds with their previous behaviour.

In retrospect perhaps this is a sign of Azerbaijan’s relatively recent prosperity and a  young population trying to keep up. In some places the country seems awash with cash and one suspects that it’s not all come by honestly, and I suspect there’s a proportion of the country “on the make”. At the same time you see the deeper traditions of hospitality and genuine interest in strangers.

The last day, with 120km left to ride we get going as early as we can. On our bikes at 6.15 we ride together as the sun lights up the golden landscape. This last stretch is stunning, but incredibly barren. With little shade we have very little inclination to stop for long.
Mountainous desert on either side, occasional farm houses dotted through the landscape – what do they farm?
We pass a ferris wheel out in the middle of nowhere. Err.
We have two stiff hills to climb early on, but we’re returning to the sea so are mostly heading downhill. Even so, we make good progress, riding 95km by midday.
We decide not to stop and tackle the entry in to Baku. Entering major cities is rarely fun, and this met expectations. A 12 lane highway. We hold our nerve and manage to negotiate our way in to the city centre and to our hostel by early afternoon.

So another Monday morning rolls around, and we find ourselves at another embassy* in another capital city. The five of us, joined by another three, loiter this time outside the Uzbek embassy in Baku. The newcomers are Rene, a French cyclist we’d met briefly on the road, and Sue and Julia – Germans heading to SE Asia.

*I highly recommend hanging around embassies by the way. They are great places to meet cyclists – without exception gorgeous human beings. Bring food and you’ll make instant friends.

On our journey so far we’ve met, in person,19 other cycle tourists doing long distance journeys like ours, plus another half dozen or so doing shorter trips. If I’m completely honest there’s a small part of my ego that winces as I realise that our extraordinary adventure is pretty ordinary really.  My ego will survive the disappointment I suspect.  There is a spark of genuine kinship as we recognise eachother which is really gratifying, and we feel like maybe we’re not so crazy for doing this after all.

We’ve heard of more cyclists out there too –  news and stories are passed along the routes, people ahead, people behind.

Have you met the Scottish couple, they came through yesterday?
Did you hear about so-and-so? He got into trouble on the border, watch out.
Ah, you’re the bike mechanic, I was hoping we might bump in to you…

Communications passed along like on the caravans of old, that traversed these same routes.

Tomorrow Thorve will be off on his way to Iran. Jamie and I will catch the next boat to Kazakhstan we can, while Max, Vanessa, Sue and Julia have to wait a few days for their visa and may or may not board with us. If not we may not meet up again till we visit one another at home, but I think we’ll be aware of these friends journeying with us  – some a little in front, some a little behind. Our routes weave around eachother through time and space, looping in and out and back together like the strands of silk that gave this route its name.

On from Kutaisi

Kutaisi is a lovely city. We spend the morning pottering around, thoroughly enjoying the indoor market. The usual mountains of fruit and vegetables. Buckets of dried beans. Flour just piled up on the counter. Chickens being singed of their remaining feathers as we amble by. Row after row of homemade cheese stalls. Honey, spices and weird looking syrup covered walnuts, which look like multicoloured dried sausage.

The sellers are as fascinating as the produce – mostly older women, short and plump who blether to their neighbours and don’t look at all upset that you decide to go to a neighbouring stall instead. A few women nap with their head straight down on the stall in front of them, I wouldn’t dare to wake them. We talk a little to the coffee man as he makes us a Turkish coffee, using heated sand – a method I’ve never seen. The coffee is exceptional. As we wait a greengrocer sings to himself, what could be a Georgian folksong or Russian pop for all I know. A gentleman who got involved in our negotiation of half a pound of cherries beckons us over to his stall, he brandishes a plastic bottle of clear liquid – ” no, no, no, madlopa, madlopa!” I cry, backing away slowly from the chacha. He seems to understand the look in my eye and let’s us get away with a smile.

On our way back from the market we detour to the river and decide to have a go on the cable cars we’d watched the previous evening. The rickety things swing us up to the top of a wooded hill, giving us a great view of the city. We disembark to find a fairground at the top, which feels a bit incongruous. We find a bench with a view and eat some of our goodies, the second and third khachapuri of the day, and make use of the free WiFi to catch up with some friends and news from home.

Finally we catch the cable car back down and tootle back to our guesthouse to pack up the bikes and find some room for the multiple purchases from the market.

We get on the road at 4, far too late really but happy to have had some time to enjoy the city and recuperate a little.

Despite the time it is hot. My brand new bike computer tells me it’s 36°c as we roll out of the city. It’s ok to begin with, and as we cruise through the stunning forest on the edge of the city we’re delighted with everything.

We leave the forest and the hills start coming thick and fast. Someone has been incredibly diligent with the road signs informing us of the upcoming gradient – 10%, 15%, 7%, 14%, 15% uphill, downhill, up again. I don’t know what happened but I start sweating like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It is hot and humid and they just don’t let up.

The scenery is epic though. We’re in the foothills of the lower caucasus now, and although they are indeed smaller than their northern siblings they are really impressive. Nearer to hand we find we’re on the wine route, and sure enough signs pointing to wine cellars, and plenty of vineyards. Not just grapes though, the trees along the roadside are laden with plums of all colours, cherries, pears, figs. The land all around is planted, most houses seem to be a smallholding. Of course there’s still cows and pigs roaming the road, but we also come across sheep for the first time.

We push on through, because there’s no place to camp, it’s steep and almost all cultivated.

We come through a town and think to find something for dinner. We can smell a bakery but out takes a few circuits to find one open, tucked down a side alley. Drawing closer we see it’s a sweet bakery, which are much rarer in Georgia. They have some tasty looking pastries. I ask for two, she says that will be 4 lari. It’s more than I expected but we fish out the change and hand it over. She goes to the back of the shop and comes back with a bag full of fresh ones – I guess we bought 2 kilos of them. Well, that’s fine. Another women comes over and hands us a couple of cream filled biscuits which we devour on the spot. Outside we tuck in to a pastry, also delicious and freshly baked. A third women comes out with a bottle of cold water and pours us glass after glass. We just keep repeating the only word we know “Madloba”, thank you. We’re just about to head away when the fourth and last woman in the shop comes out and hands us four more cookies. We laugh now and thank them again and ride away before we are too heavy to move.

Another 10km, a few more hills and we make it down to the river floor. We take the first available track down to the river and gratefully set up camp, tucked just out of sight from the road. Despite being the longest day we don’t have much light left, we manage to set up camp, both have a much needed wash and eat khachapuri numbers four and five, and a pastry before it’s completely dark and we turn to bed.

As I write a semi-wild or feral dog snores outside our tent, having refused to take Jamie’s shooing seriously. She’s a beauty.