Cycling East Part 15 – Tbilisi to Azerbaijan

After leaving Marion to fly home from Georgia the cycle touring trip changed a lot for me.

Leaving the centre of Tbilisi alone while waving goodbye was sad and surreal. I dodged busy traffic towards the main exit road of the capital city, it was not really clear why I wasn’t just flying home too.
The emphasis changed for me from riding to every great place I possibly could, to riding a set route towards Kathmandu and getting there as soon after Marion arrived as was feasible.

I originally wanted to catch a train out of Tbilisi given our experience with the traffic coming into the city, but it seemed there were very few trains and all were very slow so I concluded I might as ride it. After about 15km of hot frantic traffic riding, I found a petrol station to buy water and some cola, but ended up sat inside the air conditioned shop watching the red bull extreme sports channel on TV for ages until I was finally motivated to reenter the 35 degree cauldron outside.

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Out of Tbilisi I passed through a drier more arid landscape, lined with autumnal colours and dying trees, this summer had seen a local drought which was aconcern for many farmers in the area it seemed. Fruit stands with melons still continued to be doing OK constantly appearing on the outskirts of the city and on past the Tibilis airport where I thought again of Marion safely flying home the next day. Then the huge bustling and crowded Lilo trading centre engulfed me and the main road. This was not selling lilos but everything else imaginable under a sprawling tarp covered market. It was just too chaotic to stop and explore but it was just so hot to ride, mainly as I had left so late in the day. There was also lots of bad driving, making me feel much more scared and cautious, especially now I was on my own. Altogether I felt pretty uncomfortable and a long long way from home.

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The road out north towards the mountains was a bit more hilly than expected and I struggled to find any rhythm. I caught up with an older guy on a MTB, I overtook and pulled alongside, but after some smiling it appeared he spoke no English so I pushed on. Then while I was day dreaming up the next hill the same guy had caught up and he now spoke decent English. His name was Ali, an Iranian born Georgian who lived in Sagarjevo, the next town, he kindly invited me to stay, it would mean only a short 40km day but I was feeling rough and it kind of felt it was a sign that I should stop here and recover. So after graciously accepting his offer we rode together around his town. He showed me the old walled monastery in town, it was 1500 years old he said as we approached. At the gate he carried on inside the walled compound but in my cycling Lycra I felt uncomfortable. He assured me it was fine so I explored and took lots of photos of the fascinating old place. Then from a outbuilding an old and rather angry nun dashed towards us. It was clear my cycling attire was not going down well, Ali still insisted it was fine but I left promptly. We next passed through the centre stopping to sit on a bench and chat with all his old buddies who smiled but were clearly suspicious of this foreigner in their random small town. We then went to Ali’s place of work, a new art school where he taught, just to drop off keys ready for next weeks start of term.

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We visited a traditional Georgian bakery and I had a tour inside to see the traditional round clay oven, heated by a wood fire inside and we bought some bread for dinner. I next saw all the meat hanging in the butchers, unrefrigerated chunks out in this heat, it looked a bit rancid!

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We rode to Ali’s house through a more ‘interesting’ part of town, it was only now that I started questioning my judgement about staying with him a bit.
After the last rough apartment blocks we passed by his mums house, she was a very old lady dressed in an Orthodox black shawl and again looked suspiciously at me. His house was then through a small rusty gate to what appeared to be an abandoned house. It wasn’t quite derelict but had a certain artist chic to it lets say.
Grapes were hanging everywhere, which I happily helped myself too there was one particularly tasty Iranian variety which was my favourite. He also had more pomegranates hanging than I had ever seen in my life, as well as 38 bee hives and a 1.5 hectare vineyard out the back, which all kept him busy. We ate various grapes fresh from the plant, both wine and eating varieties, he says each year about 5000 KGS is produced!

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I had a wash from a bucket under front deck, filled by a decaying hosepipe in the garden which was the only water source. There’s no bathroom or shower out here!
He had containers that were marked as corrosive on the side yet filled with drinking water. I was a bit sceptical but it seemed they were old Pepsi syrup tanks! Despite filtering the water it still tasted like Pepsi! Ali also used these containers for wine so no wonder it was all tasting odd! The toilet was an ancient wooden shack in the garden which had a hole in the disconcertingly rotten wooden floor, I quickly braved them and survived.
Ali kindly gave me an old mattress in the lounge to sleep on, it was a basic run down room but with sketched faces painted on the wall, it was pretty freaky when it got dark later on. With no electricity lots of shadows form from the piles of old junk in this random house in a random part of Georgia, I was seriously creeped out!

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I slept during the afternoon to try and recover my energy a bit, while Ali fed the bees some sugar water to build strength for the coming winter, I then sat and carefully watched lots of the bees building honeycomb for a new hive it was surprisingly engaging and calmed my fears of being locked up or worse.

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Sadly there was no honey to eat as many of the hives were too new and it is also the wrong time of year for flowers. I guess not having rain for 3 months means lots of dry dead flowers as well.

For dinner we ate eggs and the fresh crescent shaped Georgian bread, we drank homemade wine and talked about all sorts of bikes, I think him learning about bikes was the hidden agenda for the invite! He had bought his bike during a recent trip to Iran where he also climbed some huge snowy mountains, the names of which weren’t clear, but snow in Iran = pretty high altitude!

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Later a huge storm broke making me even more glad I had accepted Ali’s offer and I wasn’t in my tent for this first night away from Marion. Instead we sat drinking wine and watched the fork lightning strike from his front deck.

During the night I went out to brave the loo and freaked Ali out when coming back inside and he got a bit aggressive, he thought I was burglar, which maybe says something about the area and that Ali was on edge about something. Ali touched upon having a history in the military and his skin was severely discolored, whether this was related I don’t know. It was a subject he wasn’t keen to discuss so I could only speculate what had happened. He had also parted from his wife which was another subject that was never expanded on but he still saw his kids. These insights into other peoples lives, however small are what make travelling like this through random places such a fascinating and unique experience.

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I got up early in nice cool and fresh temperatures that only huge storms can bring about, I thanked Ali for the offer of another night but I left promptly for the local shop. He sensed I was a bit shaken from our night time meeting I think. I ate sweet bread rolls with grapes for breakfast and drank 1.5 litres of water straight – the after effects of home made wine! (In total I am drinking about 6-8 litres of water a day which is pretty crazy!)

I followed the road East, unsurprisingly, but it was flatter than yesterday so I made better progress, the relaxing rest also meant I was feeling stronger as well. As I rode the landscape was a wonderful autumnal colour from the drought despite it being August, a drought that last nights storm had maybe ended.
I rode past a imposing castle recently renovated, but bizarrely it was just left open and abandoned. The towers felt like dungeons with huge open steel doors into cavernous rooms It would be a great spot to camp at the top of one of the towers!

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I then rode up a rather large hill to the touristy town of Sighnaghi, about 2 miles before the town I passed a great looking quirky hostel which would probably have made a good stop, then there was a campsite by a monastery so lots of non hotel sleeping options if anyone comes this way.

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Sighnaghi is perched on a hill top with stunning views over the plains towards the high Caucasus mountains. The hillsides were full of great colours offsetting some more beautiful monasteries. I walked the city wall and climbed up in a tower, after that some tourist touts harassed me for tours and guest houses even a motor trike rider stopped to offer a tour while I was cycling. This all put me off any idea I had of staying, so I rode past the walls, through an archway over the road, then out and down the epic descent to Tsnori far below.

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There was also this sign which amused me, the department that goes out of its way!

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Tsnori was a bit of a dive, it was busy and very much a service centre, so I rode straight out after a water stop. I headed straight towards the border with Azerbaijan over by Godekhi, just before the border I rode up to the national park. It was on google maps and marked up the first road where there was a sign for a waterfall posted. I carried on past a nearly finished new monastery before I stopped at 3.30 to cook eggs and eat bread for lunch. I bought some dinner from the last shop where the owner was a bit odd and quite rude for some reason, he then poured me a vodka before I left as a kind gesture, I assume. I think he wanted to sell me more stuff but I refused his shot of alcohol which didn’t help his irrational chatter luckily his wife stepped in and I made my exit. I rode off quickly, sober but confused towards a long white cloud lurking over the colossal peaks of the High Caucuses.

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I rode for miles up this one way road into the national park and the mountains, I was often smiling back at the unnervingly starey villagers, I was feeling more than a bit intimidated inside. At the end of the road and in the middle of nowhere three black Mercedes pulled past me into a walled and gated ‘compound’ with a huge fancy looking, creeper covered house. The well suited godfather or security guard was closing the gates and happily waved me over, feeling totally sketched out I casually ignored and instead asked where the waterfall was (with great hand gestures and water noise). He pointed further up along a stony track, where I could see the National Park info boards so carried on riding into a forest. In the end there was a camp site here and a few buildings and it felt a rather pleasant place to stay!

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The Georgian park ranger seemed very flustered when I asked to camp. To my rescue a random guy wandered over and in a London accent says “alwight bruv?” I was pretty taken aback, he had spent just 3 years in London and this guy sounded like a native cockney. Basically he said I need to register in Lagodakhi then pay 5l. I agreed to sort it out the next day, he wasn’t even sure foreigners paid, that was how infrequently foreigners visited. I set up camp, but was soon invited over for the big locals birthday meal that the ‘Londoner’ was attending, it was a fantastic traditional Georgian affair with about 15 blokes, but there were 4 girls doing the cooking. We had homemade wine by the gallon, BBQ chicken, pork, aubergine salad, bread, some strange but tasty sour sauce and then cake afterwards!

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My awesome cockney translator helped with the cultural differences and explained what all the countless wine based toasts were for. Mothers were toasted on one knee out of respect, the rest just raised glasses and simply downed the contents, much abuse ensued if you didn’t – I can personally vouch for that! These toasts varied from dead or alive relatives to good health, the future etc it went on for literally hours.

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I was also given a Georgian name for the evening – “Shalorwich”, it caused much hilarity and I suspected it was rude but the friendly Cockney sad it was just a typical Georgian name like John Smith.
I learnt a lot about Georgia that evening, take home points included monks are all criminal’s, one spent 20 years in a Siberia prison for murder.
We sang songs while a guy played a keyboard badly, I endured a limbo drinking game, where I failed to get close. It was all great fun and an experience that only a lonely cycle tourer would stumble upon out here in the wilds of Georgia.
The translator worked in the local bank tomorrow so headed home with his friend who gave me his card, he said “if you get any hassle from the police or at the border let me know” his card had just his name then – Department of Justice.
As is my trademark I snuck off to bed via a wash in the river but just before a huge storm struck. My new Terra Nova solar competition tent that was pitched well but I was scared as thunder cracked right over my head and water fell like a river from the sky. The drinking party goers had found shelter and kept going despite this.

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I was fast asleep when a car screeched past the ranger’s hut and right up to my tent, it was so close the canvas and poles are stretched and there’s a real danger of getting flattened, I roll to one side to avoid being hit just as he stops. I’m now fully awake and pretty scared but it was just the guys driving up to carry on drinking with the park ranger. The tent springs back to shape and all is OK, it was a drunken joke.
“Shalorwich” was kindly hollered in my direction trying to get me out the tent and drinking again. I just ignored them, even when they came and played songs on the keyboard and loudly sang next to my tent, I hoped for more rain.  It did all eventually die down in the early hours.

I awoke to find all the Georgians passed out in cars, in the ranger’s office, his porch, the picnic shelter it looked like absolute carnage. As final nights in a country go this was a pretty big send off party! I rode down the hill that took so long to climb yesterday, quickly crossed the town to the Azerbaijan border. I used my last Georgian notes to buy some food and water and headed past a very amusing sign on the Georgian side of the border that Wished me luck….

So country number 10 was done and dusted, Georgia is very much a place we both want to revisit either hiking, biking or for the snow. The mountains here are stunning and I hardly saw any of them. The people were less embracing than the Turkish and maybe more hot headed but certainly friendly when the barriers were broken down. Riding across Azerbaijan will be another change it is also the first dictatorship of the trip and a first step into the more unknown parts of central Asia.

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