In the blink of an eye through Kazakhstan

(English below)

Photo gallery

Wir können kaum behaupten, überhaupt in Kazakhstan gewesen zu sein, da wir nur drei Tage in diesem Riesenland verbracht haben: Zwei davon in einer klimatisierten Wohnung und einen weiteren in einem überfüllten Zugabteil.

Die Überfahrt von Baku (Azerbaijan) nach Aktau (Kazakhstan) dauert normalerweise zwischen 24 Stunden und drei Tagen, je nachdem, ob es am Hafen Platz zum Anlegen gibt. Da unser Frachtschiff engst eingepferchte, (mehr oder weniger) lebendige Pferde aus Georgien transportierte, die tagelang kein Fressen erhalten hatten, von den vielen Schlägen bluteten und wohl nicht mehr all zu lange durchgehalten hätten, dockten wir bereits nach 23 Stunden in Aktau an. Paul und mich hatte in Baku ein übler Käfer erschwischt, der uns an Bett und Toilette gebunden und uns von der Schifffahrt kaum was mitbekommen lassen hatte. Geschwächt liessen wir die drei Stunden Passkontrolle – d.h. warten, warten, warten – zuammen mit den andern fünf Tourenfahrenden über uns ergehen und radelten gegen Abend in die Stadt Aktau, die aus einer losen Ansammlung hässlicher, sowjetischer Gebäudeblöcke besteht, hinein.

Land ahoy - Kazakhstan on the horizon

Land ahoy – Kazakhstan on the horizon

Aktau harbour - luckily we'd reserved a parking spot

Aktau harbour – luckily we’d reserved a parking spot

Playing the waiting game - again!!

Playing the waiting game – again!!

Thank you, I hope so too.

Thank you, I hope so too.

Wir verabschiedeten uns von unseren Reisegspändli und radelten zu unserem amerikanischen Gastgeber (couchsurfing) Mark, der uns in seiner luxuriösen Wohnung mit einem grossen Nachtessen empfing. Beide hatten wir seit fast zwei Tagen nichts mehr gegessen und waren nicht sicher, ob das Rumoren in unsern Bäuchen nun vom Käfer oder vom Hunger kam. Das Nachtessen war jedenfalls herrlich und die darauf folgenden Krämpfe nicht mehr all zu heftig.

Den nächsten Tag (23. Juli) verbrachten wir in Marks klimatisierter Wohnung und spürten, wie wir allmählich wieder etwa zu Kräften kamen. Nach wie vor fühlten wir uns aber zu schwach, die Strecke zwischen Aktau und Usbekistan, die ausschliesslich aus Wüste, zu grossen Teilen sogar aus einer ungeteerten Sandstrasse besteht, bei dieser Hitze (40°) per Fahrrad in Angriff zu nehmen. Gleichzeitig hatte aber unser Usbekistanvisum bereits am 21. Juli zu laufen begonnen und unsere 30 Tage Usbekistan-Aufenthalt sickerten langsam dahin. Es war klar, dass wir es nicht schaffen würden, ganz Usbekistan von West bis Ost in der gegebenen Zeit per Fahrrad zu durchqueren und so kauften wir uns für die Strecke von Aktau nach Nukus (Usbekistan) zwei Zugbillette.

Nach einem letzten Abend mit Mark, unserem grosszügigen und interessanten Gastgeber, radelten wir am 24. Juli zum Bahnhof, der sich in Mangishlak (auch Mangistau), ca. 20 Kilometer östlich von Aktau, befindet.  Sobald wir auf den Fahrrädern sassen, war klar, dass wir die richtige Entscheidung getroffen hatten: Unsere Beine waren noch immer schwach, die Bäuche noch nicht genügend erholt und der heisse, staubige Gegenwind raubte uns die neu gewonnene Energie. Erschöpft erreichten wir Mangishlak und warteten gespannt auf den Zug: Aus Erfahrung wussten wir, dass Zugfahren mit Fahrrädern samt Gepäck eine mühselige Angelegenheit sein kann.

Der Zug fuhr ein, die Leute um uns drängten sich hinein und uns wurde erst mal klargemacht, dass es für die Fahrräder keinen Platz gebe. Genau dies hatten wir jedoch tags zuvor abgeklärt und wurden nun so wütend, dass der Schaffner erschreckt nachgab und zuschaute, wie wir die Fahrräder in den Zug hievten, durch den halben Wagen schoben und mit Hilfe anderer Passagiere auf der Gepäckablage oberhalb unserer Köpfe verstauten. Der Schweiss rinnte uns die Stirn hinunter, als wir uns zum Schluss ein Sitzplätzchen erkämpften, das wir die nächsten neun Stunden für nichts und niemanden aufgeben würden. Unsern Bäuchen trauten wir noch immer nicht ganz, so dass wir aufs Essen verzichteten, dafür den Ipod laufen und die Landschaft an uns vorbei ziehen liessen. Der Zug fuhr durch wüstenähnliche und menschenleere Landschaften. Wir stellten uns vor, uns auf den Fahrrädern, bepackt mit 20 zusätzlichen Liter Wasser, durch diese Einöde zu kämpfen und waren dankbar, für ein Mal Zugreisende zu sein.

The perfect host - thanks Mark

The perfect host – thanks Mark

Soviet style buildings with a splash of colour

Soviet style buildings with a splash of colour

Sunset over the Caspian Sea

Sunset over the Caspian Sea

Nach neun Stunden erreichten wir gegen Mitternacht die Stadt Beyneu, hievten und schleppten Fahrräder sowie Gepäck schwitzend und fluchend gegen die drängelnde Menschenmasse wieder aus dem Zug hinaus und warteten auf den Anschlusszug nach Nukus in Usbekistan. Nachdem wir eine Stunde auf den Gleisen gewartet hatten, realisierten wir erst, dass der von Dutzenden von Militäroffizieren bewachte, auf den Gleisen ruhende Zug der unsere war. Gespannt zeigten wir einem Offizier unsere Tickets und waren erleichtert, als dieser freundlich mit uns zu schwatzen anfing, uns sogar half, Fahrräder und Taschen im Wagon zu verstauen und uns zwei Liegen in einer Viererkabine zuwies. Wir legten uns hin und schliefen, noch bevor der Zug abgefahren war, ein.

Zwei Stunden später erreichten wir die kazakhisch-usbekische Grenze. Usbekistan ist für seine strengen Zollkontrollen bekannt. Antibiotika etwa gelten in der Regel als Drogen und werden meist konfiziert. Wir rechneten deshalb damit, alle unsere Sachen auspacken und unsere Reiseapotheke erklären zu müssen. Der Zug hielt zwar drei Stunden lang still, es passierte jedoch nichts. Wir mussten einzig ein Deklarationsformular ausfüllen und schon hatten wir einen neuen Stempel im Pass. So einfach geht das manchmal.

Through Kazakhstan in the blink of an eye

In some ways, it doesn’t seem right to say that we’ve really visited Kazakhstan.  Yes, we had Kazakh visas.  Yes, we touched Kazakh soil.  Yes, we sweated under the intense heat of the Kazakh sun.  But ultimately, Kazakhtsan didn’t have time to fully reveal her immense secrets and beauty to us hidden within an even more immense land.

The voyage from Baku, Azerbaijan to Aktau, Kazakhstan can take anything from 24 hours to 5 days.  The main deiciding factor being whether the harbour in Aktau has room for the ship to berth upon arrival.  As luck would have it, we sailed straight in aboard our ship, Barda, docked, had our passports returned to us (the captain minded them for us during the passage) and headed through passport control and customs.  A little waiting (as to be expected) later and we were standing on new territory in Kazakhstan.

Desert here we come

Desert here we come

Ustyurt Plateau

Ustyurt Plateau

Contemplation in the desert

Contemplation in the desert

Playing jenga with our bikes

Playing jenga with our bikes

The morning before the voyage Nina and I simultaneously began showing the effects of some stomach bug we’d picked up, so the majority of our journey across the Caspian Sea revolved around running for our lives the four metres to the bathroom or lying comatose in beds in our stuffy windowless cabin.  The occasional stagger outside onto the deck to feel the cool evening air on our faces helped somewhat, but unfortunately the cool change didn’t make it along the ship’s corridors to our room, where the temperature hovered around 35 degrees.

Along with the five other cyclists onboard the ship, we pedalled the 10km from the harbour into Aktau just as evening approached.  We bid our farewells to the others, and headed to meet Mark, who’d agreed to host us via couchsurfing for a few days.  Once again we had managed to strike gold, and we found ourselves in Mark’s luxurious apartment enjoying a delicious homecooked dinner of chicken parmagiana (haven’t been fortunate enough to taste that for a while!!).  Mark, as an American living and working in Aktau, offered us a different perspective on life in Kazakhstan, and it was fascinating to hear about his work in oil spill management on the Caspian Sea and previously with the US Coast Guard.  Hopefully he makes it to Switzerland some time soon!!

Knowing that the next part of our journey involved riding over 800km through the desert towards Uzbekistan with totally depleted energy stocks (and knowing that time was already ticking on our Uzbek visa), we made the tough decision to take the train from Aktau, Kazakhstan to Nukus, Uzbekistan.  Whilst this certainly turned out to be physically less demanding, it was far from a relaxing train ride.

In true Soviet town planning style, the Aktau train station was located about 20km away in Mangishlak (also known as Mangistau).  We loaded up our bikes and feeling fairly drained, set off eastwards in the scorching sun.  After an hour and a half struggling against a gusty headwind we made it to Mangistau and waited for our train with the hundreds of other people standing around there.  Of course once the train arrived, it was a free for all, and us with our 40kg of luggage and 2 bikes never really stood a chance.

There's room for everybody somewhere

There’s room for everybody somewhere

Ustyurt Plateau

Efficient packing system

The beauty of Beyneu train station at midnight

As we’d expected, the train staff began animating that there was no room for bikes on the train, but before they’d even finished their sentences, Nina (possibly with the use of mind control – I guess I’ll never know) had convinced them otherwise and we simply began loading all of our things into the train.  Realistically we’d assumed that we’d have to bribe someone, but it seemed Nina had struck enough fear into them that they more or left us be the whole trip.  To begin with, the two bikes stood in the alcove next to the door, however it was soon decided that this wasn’t the ideal situation, so I was asked to roll the bikes along the middle of the whole carriage (which didn’t offer much space as one can imagine) and then lift them up onto the bag racks between the seats so that they hung suspended in mid air above our heads – at least we could keep a better eye on them I suppose J

We were fortunate enough to have to swap trains in Beyneu at around midnight, which gave us the opportunity to repeat the whole process, by which we were now well rehearsed – bikes down from the racks, Nina scampering to and fro taking the eight bike bags, two waterproof bags, the tent, two handlebar bags and about four bottles of water out onto the platform.  We stood around the train station in Beyneu for a few hours and then realised that one of the trains that had rolled in a while earlier, which was then being checked by the Kazakh border control, was actually our next train.  Again, all bags and bikes into the train (this time the staff even helped a little), we chatted to one of the young army officers positioned the whole length of the train (at least thirty in total) guarding the carriages, and after the whole train had been checked, we departed.

We were given two beds in a four-berth sleeper carriage and set off towards Uzbekistan.  Another 3 hours stop between 2am and 5am dragged on endlessly as the Uzbek border control boarded the train to check all passengers.  We’d stowed our luggage in all corners and compartments of the cabin, and were dreading having to unpack everything for it to be checked.  In the end the process was much simpler.  A young guard came into our cabin, pointed at the luggage on the floor, we said something about bicycle in Russian, after which he grunted and walked off – customs control complete!  We honestly declared how much foreign currency we were carrying and received our copy of the customs form back without any problems – maybe beauracracy has been exaggerated here (probably not though – sometimes you just get lucky).  Once the Uzbek guards had checked everyone else (and collected enough fines/bribes) the train was off

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Azerbaijan to the banks of the Caspian

(English below)

Ominous - needing luck on entry

Ominous – needing luck on entry

Around Zaqatala, Azerbaijan

Around Zaqatala, Azerbaijan

Moments away from being crushed by a slightly overloaded hay cart

Moments away from being crushed by a slightly overloaded hay cart

Just after dusk on the way to Sheki

Just after dusk on the way to Sheki

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki Caravanseri

Sheki Caravanseri

Sheki at sunset

Sheki at sunset

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Sheki, Azerbaijan

Into the desert in Azerbaijan

Into the desert in Azerbaijan

Thirsty work in the desert heading to Baku

Thirsty work in the desert heading to Baku

Photo gallery

Während ich so vor mich hin und durch üppig bewachsene Wälder radelte, musse ich es immer wieder laut aussprechen, damit ich es auch wirklich glauben konnte: Ich bin in Azerbaijan! Und nicht nur das: Ich reise durch Azerbaijan auf meinem Fahrrad! Erstens wäre es mir wohl niemals in den Sinn gekommen, dieses Land, mit dem ich bis anhin nur Öl und Wüste in Verbindung gebracht hatte, überhaupt jemals zu besuchen. Zweitens kam es mir unwirklich vor, diesen Besuch auf dem eigenen Fahrrad abzustatten, in aller Selbstverständlichkeit über aserische Strassen zu kurven und mich gegen aserische Autofahrer durchzusetzen. Nun, da war ich also und staunte: Statt durch die Wüste radelten wir ab dem 9. Juli erst mal drei Tage lang durch grünste Wälder und fruchtbare Gegenden entlang der Berge nahe der russischen Grenze. Die Menschen kamen wieder neugieriger auf uns zu, luden uns mehrmals täglich auf eine Kanne Çay (hier sogar mit Zitronenschnitz) ein und sehr schnell hatten wir uns wieder an Pide und Ayran gewöhnt. Mit unserem Bisschen Türkisch konnten wir uns problemlos verständigen und sowieso fühlten wir uns kulturell ganz stark an die Türkei erinnert.

Trotz langer Radeltage verbrachten wir am 10. Juli einen Nachmittag in Şeki, einem der ältestens Städtchen Azerbaijans, genossen eine Kanne Çay innerhalb der kühlenden Mauern der alten Karavanserei, bewunderten den orientalisch anmutenden Palast und liessen uns in einer Privatunterkunft von Ilqar und seiner Familie mit einem aserischem Abendessen (Linsensuppe, grillierte Auberginen, Bohnen, Tomaten und Fladenbrot) verwöhnen.

Nach Şeki folgten drei anstrengende Tage durch immer trockener und gelber werdende Gegenden. Meist war es spätestens ab 14.00 kaum mehr möglich, in der Hitze weiter zu radeln, so dass wir jeweils lange Pausen, irgendwo unter einem Baum, einschalteten, um erst gegen Abend weiter zu reisen. Die letzten 100 Kiometer vor Baku führten uns durch sehr karge, staubige und kaum bewohnte Gegenden und ich konnte zum ersten Mal erahnen, wie es sich in der chinesischen Wüste wohl anfühlen wird. Wir kämpften gegen die Hitze und teils gegen einen starken Wind, fanden nur mit Mühe ein Schattenplätzchen, wurden von Einheimischen vor Schlangen und Skorpionen gewarnt und erklimmten trotz der wüstenarigen Gegend mehr Höhenmeter an einem Tag (1800 m) als jemals zuvor.

Nach 5 langen Velotagen in Staub und Schweiss waren wir erleichtert, als wir – von weiter Ferne noch – die modernen Bauten Bakus am 13. Juli zum ersten Mal aufblitzen sahen. Wir näherten uns dem Stadtzentrum und damit auch dem ganzen Verkehrchaos, wo es die Autofahrer problemlos verstehen, drei- in fünfspurige Strassen zu verwandeln, mitten in der Stadt in Sekundenschnelle auf 100 Stundenkilometer zu beschleunigen oder ohne jegliche Richtungsangabe abrupt abzubiegen. Statt gebremst, wird gehupt. Wer stärker ist, gewinnt. Wer zögert, hat definitiv verloren. Auf unseren Fahrrädern stehen wir in der Strassenhierarchie meist nicht gerade hoch oben. Uns bleibt einzig übrig, zielstrebig vorwärts zu treten, Nerven und einen kühlen Kopf zu bewahren und uns vorzustellen, wir seien genau so stark wie alle andern. Bisher hat das gut geklappt und so haben wir auch das Verkehrschoas Bakus wohlbehalten hinter uns gebracht. Wir feierten unsere Ankunft in einem Gartenrestaurant mit einem türkischen Mittagessen und kühlen Bier. Bald darauf stiessen Peter, der zurzeit in Baku lebt, und Sean, der Peter gerade besuchte, zu uns. Wie schön, bekannte Gesichter aus Bern zu sehen! Peter spielte den perfekten Touristenführer, zeigte uns paar erste Sehenswürdigkeiten und die Altstadt Bakus und führte uns schliesslich in ein aserisches Restaurant, wo uns Essen, Leute, Raki und kitschige Popmusik  wieder so sehr an die Türkei erinnerten. Später gesellten sich paar Freunde Peters hinzu und die Strapazen der vergangenen Tage waren nach paar Gläsern Raki in dieser fröhlichen Runde vergessen. Wir zogen weiter in “the room”, wo Peter sogleich die Tanzfläche in Schwung brachte und Sean, der sich als DJ durchgesetzt hatte, zum Schluss sogar noch Patent Ochsner abspielte. Seit der Schweiz hatten wir keine so fröhliche und lange Nacht mehr gehabt! Was für ein Tag: 5.00 Uhr morgens aufstehen, Zelt zusammenpacken, durch Wüste und Metropole radeln, Freunde wiedersehen, Baku anschauen, aserisch essen, türkisch trinken, bis 5.00 Uhr morgens feiern. Erschöpft, aber glücklich sanken wir früh morgens in unser bequemes Bett.

Wir verbrachten einen weiteren Tag (14. Juli) mit Peter und Sean, fuhren an den Strand, schwammen im kaspischen Meer, das entgegen meiner Vorstellungen weder ölbeschichtet noch (zu) vergiftet ist und schauten uns die alten Ölfelder an. Leider flogen Peter und Sean nächstentags nach Georgien und wir blieben alleine in Baku zurück. Peter war so grosszügig, uns seine Wohnung zu überlassen, so dass wir in aller Ruhe die Visaorganisiererei (siehe Visas) angehen, unseren Blog aktualisieren, E-Mails schreiben und in einer eigenen Küche endlich mal wieder richtig kochen konnten. Das Usbekistanvisum hatten wir erstaunlicherweise bereits innert einer Stunde in unseren Taschen. Das Kazakhstanvisum war jedoch erst am Freitag, 19. Juli, abholbereit. Wir verbrachten unsere Tage mit schlafen, kochen, essen, spazieren sowie Filme schauen und genossen es, in Peters Wohnung ein Zuhause zu haben. Abends trafen wir uns jeweils mit andern Tourenfahrenden, die ebenfalls auf irgendein Visum oder auf ein Schiff nach Aktau warteten.

Architecture - old and new in Baku

Architecture – old and new in Baku

Baku old town

Baku old town

The Flame Towers, Baku

The Flame Towers, Baku

Peter the famous Baku tour guide

Peter the famous Baku tour guide

Die hübsch herausgeputzte Altstadt Bakus mit ihren Teppichhändlern und altertümlichen Hammams hat den Status eines UNESCO-Welterbes und erinnert an ein orientalisches Märchen. Das historische Zentrum ist jedoch klein und schnell gesehen. Die Ölmetropole glänzt vor allem mit ihren ambitionierten Bauvorhaben, neuen Luxushotels und glitzernden Fassaden. Manches wird gebaut, ohne später genutzt zu werden. So dominieren etwa die für den Eurovision Song Contest 2012 erbauten und nach aussen glänzenden Flame Towers das Stadtbild Bakus, doch stehen diese mangels Ausbaus im Gebäudeinneren noch heute grösstenteils leer. Der Gegensatz zu den ärmlich wirkenden Lehmdörfern in der Wüste vor Baku ist enorm. Korruption gehört zum Alltag und alles Geld Azerbaijans scheint sich in Baku zu sammeln und auf paar wichtige Familien zu verteilen, wozu insbesondere auch die Familie des aktuellen Präsidenen, Ilham Aliyev, gehört. An jeder zweiten Ecke hängen Plakate seines Vaters, Heydar Aliyev, der von 1993 bis 2003 selbst Präsident war, das Land wirtschaftlich forangetrieben hat und – wie es scheint – mittlerweile beinahe göttlichen Status erlangt hat.

Am Freitag, 19. Juli, hatten wir also die für unsere Weiterreise nötigen Stempel im Pass und stellten uns einer neuen Herausforderung: Ein Frachtschiff zu finden, das uns über das kaspische Meer nach Aktau (Kazakhstan) fahren würde. Passagierschiffe gibt es leider nicht, Frachtschiffe fahren jedoch alle 2 bis 7 Tage, wobei meist erst kurz vor der Abfahrt über das Schiff informiert wird. Das Personal spricht in der Regel kein Englisch, was die Kommunikation noch weiter erschwert. Mit gepackten Taschen warteten wir also auf ein Schiff und versuchten in unserem besten Russisch, an irgendwelche Informationen zu gelangen. Die charmante Dame, welche für die Tickets zuständig ist, verzog keine Miene und weigerte sich, uns genauere Abfahrtszeiten zu nennen. Wir wussten nur so viel: In den nächsten paar Stunden würde kein Schiff ablegen. Wir verbrachten einen weiteren Tag in Baku (20. Juli), trafen andere Tourenfahrer, tauschten Neuigkeiten und Gerüchte aus und boten einander während dieser mühseligen Warterei etwas Ablenkung. Am Sonntagmorgen rief uns Raz (Tourenfahrerin aus England) aus ihrem Hostel an. Die Hostelbesitzerin, die glücklicherweise über die nötigen Beziehungen verfügt, hatte herausgefunden, dass ein Frachtschiff in Kürze ablegen würde. Wir stürzten aus Peters Wohnung, stiegen auf unsere Räder und fuhren so schnell wie möglich an den Hafen, doch wie es schien zu spät: Alle andern Tourenfahrenden, deren Unterkunft sich näher am Hafen befand, hatten ihr Ticket bereits gekauft und die charmante Ticket-Dame meinte erst mal, für uns gäbe es nun keinen Platz mehr. Wir fragten höflichst, ob da nichts zu machen sei und übten uns in Geduld. In aller Ruhe trank die Dame eine Tasse Tee, führte ab und zu ein Telefonat, feilte ihre Fingernägel, wischte den Boden und entschloss sich schliesslich doch noch, uns ein Ticket auszuhändigen. Es dauerte dann doch vier Stunden, bis wir das Schiff bestiegen und weitere 3 Stunden, bis es ablegte. Mir war mittlerweile alles egal, da uns ein Kebab tags zuvor mächtig den Magen verdorben hatte. Ich war nur froh, ein Ticket und sogar eine Kabine mit eigener Toilette zu haben und verbrachte die nächsten 24 Stunden fiebrig in Bad und Bett.

(28. Juli, zur Beruhigung aller: Wir haben uns wieder erholt und radeln mittlerweile fröhlich durch Usbekistan!)

Azerbaijan to the banks of the Caspian

Sean and Peter

Sean and Peter

At the beach in Baku

At the beach in Baku

Oilfields around Baku

Oilfields around Baku

"Bobbing ducks" pumping away

“Bobbing ducks” pumping away

A proper brunch

A proper brunch

Too many cyclists waiting for visas and boats

Too many cyclists waiting for visas and boats

Bags ready and waiting at the door

Bags ready and waiting at the door

Passing kilometre after kilometre along roads winding through lush green overgrown sticky forests, I almost had to ask myself, “Am I really in Azerbaijan?”  “Am I really riding my bicycle through Azerbaijan?”  This country, which when mentioned previously, merely brought images of deserts and oil to my head, was never a place found on my “places to visit” wishlist.  In any case, not only was I here, but I was here on my bike, enjoying the intensely green scenery surrounding me everywhere I looked.

After crossing into Azerbaijan from Georgia (July 9th), instead of spending the following three days riding through desert as we’d expected, we were greeted with green forests and fertile fields hugging the base of the mountain range running along the southern border of Dagestan (Russia).  Once again, similarly to in Turkey, the people were filled with curiousity and approached us full of questions, and once again numerous times daily came the offer to drink çay.

Between the long hot days of riding, we managed to find an afternoon to have a look around the mountain village of Şeki (July 10), which is one of the oldest settlements in Azerbaijan.  The town has been substantially renovated (much of which is still in progress) and contains the Palace of Shaki Khan (built in 1762 without a single nail) with its stunningly elaborate stain glass windows.  After a visit to see what all the fuss was about, we contented ourselves with drinking çay (Azerbaijan style with lemon slices and lots of sickly sweets) and relaxing in the cool of the lovely Şeki Caravanserai, before enjoying the hospitality of Ilqar at his homestay.

Upon leaving Şeki the greenness dissipated to be replaced by yellows and browns.  The relative coolness afforded to us by the forests also disappeared and we sweated our way through the next 350km and 3 days to Baku.  The heat on the road became so intense soon after midday that we had to find shade and wait again until early evening for the temperature to drop a little in order to be able to ride a few hours longer.  The main problem being that the prevalence of shade also shriveled up the closer we came to Baku and the Caspian Sea.  As we began looking for a place to pitch our tent the night before reaching Baku, we realised that whatever we did find, such was the nature of the flat, almost treeless expanse encompassing us, wouldn’t be very well hidden from the street.  After finally finding something about as appropriate as we were ever going to find just on dusk, we were of course interrupted about one hour later by a carload of people heading back from their field.  Quite animatedly they warned us about sleeping where we were, and only after a few minutes did we realize they were referring to the presence of snakes and scorpions in the area.  We thanked them for their concern, told them we’d be safe inside our tent, waved them off as they drove away, and then quickly proceeded to carry out a thorough enemy check of our sleeping quarters before triple checking all zippers for cracks and lying down to sleep – I’m pretty sure it took Nina even longer than usual to fall asleep.

Finally after 5 long days in Azerbaijan we rolled over the last of the mountain passes before the coast and sighted Baku.  The last 30km into town in the scorching midday sun (July 13th) surrounded by more cars than we’d seen since Istanbul, brought us both to the boil (our nerves and our sweaty bodies).  Within the city limits, we found ourselves either on 6 lane highways or roads being turned into 6 lane highways (but which were unfortunately still narrow single lanes of dust clogged with cars).  The position of the cyclist within the road user’s hierarchy had been predetermined long before we arrived, and so it was with a steely resolve and a no hold’s barred attitude that we confronted the inner workings of the streets of Baku.  Knowing that we would have the best part of a week in Baku to recover gave us a little extra strength for the last struggle to Peter’s place, a Swiss friend we were visiting and who’s place we could stay at for our first couple of nights in town.

Bikes waiting patiently in a row

Bikes waiting patiently in a row

Cyclists also waiting patiently in a row

Cyclists also waiting patiently in a row

Baku harbour

Baku harbour

Our fever den on the boat

Our fever den on the boat

The first impression one gets when entering Baku is construction – construction, construction everywhere, everywhere you looked, everytime you turned a corner, always something somewhere being built, reconstructed, renovated, but more often than not, just being torn down and built anew.

After reaching our destination we setting about enjoying a beer in a pleasant shaded tea garden.  Soon afterwards Peter (a Swiss friend living and working in Baku) arrived with Sean (another Swiss friend visiting him from Bern), which left Nina with small pangs of homesickness.  It was good to see some familiar faces from home, and we spent the rest of the afternoon (after we’d enjoyed the comfort of a shower that is) getting shown around Baku with Peter playing the perfect tour guide.  Towards evening we found somewhere to eat, the beer and raki starting flowing freely and eventually some time around 5am we crawled exhaustedly into bed – quite a long day in the end after having to get up at 5am and ride 75km.

A long sleep in a comfortable bed at Peter’s gave us the energy for a new day.  After finally rising from our slumbers, the four of us spent the afternoon (July 14th) at the beach on the Caspian Sea north of Baku.  Being a Sunday, the place was packed with people, and after the relative conservativeness of inland Azerbaijan, it was strange to see so many women also swimming at the beach – in normal bathing suits at that.  The water was lovely and warm, and going against all of my preconceptions wasn’t covered in a layer of oil either.  The quality of the water even seemed ok – confirmed somewhat by the fact that at least afterwards no unwanted rashes appeared.  At a café on the clifftop overlooking the beach we enjoyed some çay and nibblies and set about playing a quick game of Jass.  Unfortunately it would seem that card games are frowned upon in public in Azerbaijan, so before we could even play one hand, we’d been asked to stop playing by a member of the café staff.

With cards off the table, and the luxury of Peter’s work car at hand, we instead went to inspect the still working oil fields scattered around the edges of and sometimes right in the middle of the towns ringing Baku.  These archaic oil towers are still slowly pumping away, slurping the last drops of oil from their well many decades after first being drilled.  This bizarre landscape of hundreds if not thousands of “bobbing ducks” with the metropole of Baku in the background really is an intriguing sight.  Next stop was Yanar Dag, a flaming stream of natural gas escaping through a fissure in a rock wall, which was inadvertently set alight by an errant cigarette butt from a shepard 50 years ago.

Although Peter and Sean had originally planned to leave to go hiking in Georgia on Sunday night, difficulties obtaining a ticket for the overnight train meant that they decided to leave the following morning with the plane.  This change in plans meant that we got to enjoy another evening together (although unfortunately time did end up running out before we could get through a game of Jass).

Our cargo ship loaded and raring to go

Our cargo ship loaded and raring to go

Managed to crawl out for the stunning sunset

Managed to crawl out for the stunning sunset

As it turns out Peter was extremely generous and offered us the use of his appartment for the time that he was away, which for us was a huge luxury.  Due to the oil boom Baku is in the middle of, living costs (which translates to hotel prices) are very high and there is a definite void of cheaper hotels and hostels.  The fact that we were afforded a whole apartment for the week really saved our skins.  It would have been nice to have had some more time with Peter and Sean, but holidays are always too short and they were off to Georgia, so Nina and I settled in to the place and started organising our week ahead.

The week was spent finding the Uzbekistan and Kazkhstan embassies, followed by locating the International Bank of Azerbaijan to make payment for our visas, and then heading back to the aforementioned embassies at some other prearranged time later in the week to collect our visas.  Since we had arranged a Letter of Invitation (LOI) for our Uzbekistan visas, the visas had already been approved and as such we could pick them up the same day as we applied for them (best 40USD ever spent – thanks Stantours).  The consul at the Uzbek embassy was a bit of a character, had a bit of a Yoda air to him, and we’d have had the visas stuck into our passports within 5 minutes, if he hadn’t been telling jokes the whole time – in the end it took about 30.  We were told that the Kazakhstan visa could be picked up in 4 days time (applied Tues 10am, picked it up Friday 4pm), no discussions to be had there I’m afraid.

Knowing that we had until Friday before our last visas would be ready, we concentrated all positive energy into making sure that a boat would leave on Saturday for Kazakhstan.  In the mean time, we spent our spare time during the week relaxing, reading, washing, planning, skyping, cooking (for me probably the biggest highlight was having a proper kitchen again) and catching up with other people we’d met on our journey or some even who we’d just met who were also waiting for visas or boats or something.

The UNESCO World Heritage Listed Inner City (old town) of Baku has been renovated and scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and with its array of rambling streets and alleyways winding up and down stairways, hidden mosques, imposing palace and towers, the place really is quite charming.  Strolling around the centre of Baku, one could assume to be in almost any large European city, wide pedestrian-only walkways, neo-classical architecture, large open spaces, fountains, cafes and restaurants everywhere, and western European prices to boot.

Move away from the centre and it soon becomes apparent that it is also a city of the haves and havenots, and depending who you’re friends with, determines you’re position on the have scale.  Wide scale corruption seeps into every crack of society leaving Azerbaijan ranked 135th on the world ranking for transparency of it’s public sector, human rights abuse is rampant, and freedom of the press is something that an editor can only dreama about.  Democracy here is a bit of a pipedream, since almost everything is owned or controlled by descendents and friends of the former president, Heydar Aliyev, who himself has became somewhat of a god in the country, his face plastered across the whole country on billboards, schools and public buildings.  Since his death, his son is the current president, and his wife might even become the next one.

Large oil reserves have clearly financed rapid transformations within Azerbaijan, however, after coming from the western part of the country, it would seem that the oil money to a large extent, doesn’t flow too far from Baku.

Friday (July 19th) afternoon came and we grabbed our last visa and now started trying to find out when a ferry to Aktau would leave.  There are no passenger ferries, so tourists are dependent upon gaining passage aboard one of the transport ships sailing across the Caspian Sea.  These boats leave intermittently (a few a month, or a fortnight, or a week, or so the rumours say) as soon as they are full.  The reputation of the woman working in the ticket office (small hidden hut to be precise) preceeds her, and since she only speaks Russian and Azeri, finding out exactly when a ship is leaving can be difficult to say the least.

A few of other cyclists were also waiting for a ship, so at least we could share information a little asit came to hand.  As it turned out, after many phonecalls and internet peeks on the international maritme traffic website, there was to be no ferry on Friday night – “but maybe tomorrow” we were told.  Saturday came and went and the same story again – “maybe tomorrow”.  Sunday morning we got an early call from Raz (an English cycling friend) who informed us to get down to the harbour ASAP since a cargo ship was leaving today.  Our bags had been packed and patiently waiting next to the door of the apartment for well over 36 hours, so all we had to do was carry them downstairs and load them onto the bikes.  We then said goodbye to our luxurious home for the past week and headed to the harbour.

Upon arrival the “ticket lady” muttered something about “no tickets”, “maybe full”, “wait, wait”, so although we were a little concerned that we wouldn’t be on the ferry afterall, we conveyed as best we could an outward aura of pure patience.  She went about her business for another ten minutes, made a few phone calls, had a cuppa, cleaned a table or two, walked a little to and fro, from one room to the next, seemingly without reason, then decided that there were tickets to be had afterall.  180 Azeri Manat later (about 200USD) and we were the proud owners of one-way tickets to Aktau.

Relieved, we then waited about five hours until we could clear passport control and board the boat, then another three before the ship set sail eastwards.  Our sudden start to the day had also brought with it stomach problems (probably as the result of a dodgy kebap for lunch the day before) and so the adventure of the voyage was numbed somewhat by the urge to stay in bed within dash distance of the toilet.  Thankfully aboard the ship (which was actually quite new, nothing like the horror boats we’d read about), we had a clean, but stuffy private twin room with shower and toilet, which we spent giving a good work out between the two of us.  Here we come Kazakhstan!!

Setting a leisurely pace through Georgia

Gemächlich durch Georgien

Photo gallery

(English below)

Welcome to Georgia

Welcome to Georgia

Batumi Botanical Garden

Batumi Botanical Garden

Architecture in Batumi

Architecture in Batumi

Waiting for a visa in Batumi (not so hard after all)

Waiting for a visa in Batumi (not so hard after all)

Jason and his Argonauts supposedly sailed to Batumi to steal the golden fleece

Jason and his Argonauts supposedly sailed to Batumi to steal the golden fleece

Smoked fish from the market - delicious and cheap

Smoked fish from the market – delicious and cheap

Pork was back on the menu in Batumi

Pork was back on the menu in Batumi

...to exactly??

…to exactly??

Tough to wake up to this view in the morning

Tough to wake up to this view in the morning

Adjara Province in Georgia

Adjara Province in Georgia

Having a dip in the afternoon

Having a dip in the afternoon

To think that most of the drivers are probably drunk too!!

To think that most of the drivers are probably drunk too!!

Eine einzige schmale Linie am Boden und augenblicklich wurden Minarette durch Kreuze, verschleierte Frauen durch sich bräunende Strandschönheiten, Teetässchen durch Bierhumpen, freundlich zulächelnde Gesichter durch ernsthaftes Starren und breite Pannenstreifen durch schmale Holperstrassen abgelöst. Der Kulturschock hätte grösser nicht sein können, als wir am 23. Juni die türkisch-georgische Grenze überquerten und dem Schwarzen Meer entlang nach Batumi radelten. So spannend es auch gewesen wäre, nach der Türkei den Iran zu bereisen, so sehr spürten wir auch ein leises Gefühl von Erleichterung, uns wieder in einer kulturell etwas vertrauteren Gesellschaft zu bewegen. Ungefähr 20 Kilometer nach der Grenze erreichten wir die Hafenstadt Batumi, wurden in einem kleinen Hostel (Divine Hostel) freundlichst von Nino, Daniel und Brett empfangen, gönnten uns erst mal ein kühles Bier und freuten uns auf eine viertägige Velopause. Die Stadt Batumi mit ihren modernen Bauten und der palmenbesäumten Strandpromenade glänzt vor allem an der Oberfläche. Ein zweiter Blick verrät jedoch, dass Schein und Glanz oft grössere Bedeutung beigemessen wird als Nutzen und Stabilität: Auch die neusten Gebäude bröckeln bereits vor sich hin oder stehen trotz aufwändiger Erbauung leer. Die Stadt wächst und wächst, lässt jedoch einen gewissen Charme vermissen. Nichtsdestotrotz genossen wir unsere vier Tage in Batumi, die wir hauptsächlich im gemütlichen Garten unseres Hostels, in kleinen Cafés, am Strand oder mit dem Genuss georgischer Spezialitäten (z. B. geräucherter Fisch und Käse und hausgemachter Schnaps namens Chacha) verbrachten, in vollen Zügen und spürten, wie die Anspannung der vergangenen Wochen in den türkischen Bergen langsam von uns abliess. Unser Einreisevisum für Azerbaijan erhielten wir problemlos und unerwarteterweise innert dreier Stunden statt dreier Tagen, so dass unser Aufenthalt in Batumi in jeder Hinsicht sehr erholsam war.

Mit wieder erlangter Motivation, ausgeruhten Beinen und drei neuen Reisegspändli (Claire, Mark und Raz aus England) verliessen wir Batumi am 27. Juli und radelten gemächlich durch die Adjara Provinz Richtung georgische Berge. Die idyllische Umgebung mit ihren dichten Wäldern, hohen Bergen, kaum befahrenen Strassen sowie kristallklaren Flüssen liessen uns jeweils kurz nach Mittag unsere drei Zelte aufstellen und den Nachmittag mit Essen und Baden verbringen. Anstrengend wurde es erst wieder, als wir am 29. Juli den Goderdzipass auf 2000 m.ü.M. überquerten und gleichzeitig mit Holperstrassen zu kämpfen hatten. Dafür gönnten wir uns am 1. Juli eine Velopause, drängten uns zu fünft in ein Taxi, das uns zur Burg Khertvisi und zur Höhlenstadt Wardzia, in welcher noch heute einige Mönche leben, chauffierte. Nach einem weiteren gemütlichen Abend bei Bier und Khinkali (typische georgische Fleischtaschen) verabschiedeten wir uns von Claire, Mark und Raz im Wissen, dass sich unsere Wege spätstens nach paar Tagen in Tbilisi (Tiflis) wieder kreuzen würden.

Die nächsten Tage (2. bis 4. Juli) führten uns über weite Hochebenenen mit tiefblauen Bergseen, bunten Blumenwiesen und Blick auf die teils immer noch schneebedeckten Berggipfel. Oft begegneten wir stundenlang keiner Menschenseele und einmal mehr erfasste mich das seit Beginn unserer Reise immer wiederkehrende Glücks- und Freiheitsgefühl, mich mitten in dieser wunderbaren Natur zu befinden. Hie und da radelten wir durch kleine Bergdörfchen, wo uns Kinder mit einem freudigem “hello hello” begrüssten, uns nachrannten oder einen Handschlag zu geben versuchten.

Wir erreichten Tbilisi am 4. Juli und trafen uns am Abend ein letztes Mal mit Pauline und Jo aus Lausanne, die sich entschieden hatten, ihr Fahrrad in Batumi einzustellen, d.h.vorerst als Backpacker weiter zu reisen, und damit viel früher als wir in Usbekistan anzukommen. Da wir grosse Strecken in der Türkei gemeinsam zurück gelegt haben, verbinden uns unzählige Erinnnerungen an verschiedenste Begegnungen, anstrengende Passstrassen, Jassabende, Glücksmomente und paar Durchhänger. Wir feierten den Abschied mit einem herrlichen Nachtessen (noch mehr Khinkali) sowie gutem Wein und freuen jetzt schon uns auf einen Jass in Lausanne oder Bern.

Im Gegensatz zu Batumi wirkt Tbilisi äusserst lebendig.  Wir genossen es, von charmanten Cafés aus dem bunten Treiben zuzuschauen, durch die Strassen zu schlendern und am 6. Juli unsere englischen Freunde (Claire, Mark und Raz) wieder zu sehen und – wie so oft – georgische Khinkali zu essen.

Paul und ich verliessen Tbilisi am 7. Juli, nur um tags darauf in Sighnaghi, einem hübschen kleinen Städtchen nahe der Grenze zu Azerbaijan, erneut eine Velopause einzulegen und uns in der Pension von Nato und Lado mit georgischer Musik, hausgemachtem Wein und Chacha (georgischer Schnaps) sowie herrlichem Essen verwöhnen zu lassen.

Wir verliessen Georgien am 9. Juli nach 16 sehr entspannten Tagen. Es gäbe noch viele Burgen und Klöster zu sehen sowie schönste Natur zu erleben. Irgendwann kommen wir wieder!

Setting a leisurely pace through Georgia

The crossing of a single political line on the ground, meant that within the blink of an eye, minarets replaced crosses, women covered from head to toe gave way to bikinis and short skirts revealing far too much skin, shady tea gardens made room for beer mugs and raki shot glasses, friendly smiling faces metamorphosed into serious solemn stares and pleasantly wide emergency lanes receeded into narrow bumpy pot-holed streets.  In many ways, the culture shock for us upon crossing the border from Turkey into Georgia along the Black Sea on the 23rd June could hardly have been more pronounced.

He could definitely get a job designing Ikea furniture

He could definitely get a job designing Ikea furniture

Time for a rest at the top of the Goderdzi Pass

Time for a rest at the top of the Goderdzi Pass

Happily at the top of the Goderdzi Pass (2025m)

Happily at the top of the Goderdzi Pass (2025m)

View from the Goderdzi Pass

View from the Goderdzi Pass

Flower power cow

Flower power cow

Wild camping with a view

Wild camping with a view

A look of joy at seeing the start of the bitumen again

A look of joy at seeing the start of the bitumen again

Not an uncommon site - another vehicle with the hood up

Not an uncommon site – another vehicle with the hood up

Khertvisi Castle

Khertvisi Castle

Vardzia

Vardzia

Vardzia

Vardzia

Mobile honey processing plant

Mobile honey processing plant

Lake Paravani, Georgia

Lake Paravani, Georgia

Wildflowers beside the road

Wildflowers beside the road

Hiding in the forest

Hiding in the forest

The wonky Tbilisi clock tower

The wonky Tbilisi clock tower

The Swiss Connection plus Frank

The Swiss Connection plus Frank

Rainbows of colour on the streets of Tbilisi

Rainbows of colour on the streets of Tbilisi

Eating what else but kinkhali

Eating what else but kinkhali

Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi

Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi

Streetscapes of Tbilisi

Streetscapes of Tbilisi

Sighnaghi

Sighnaghi

Sunflowers on the way to the border

Sunflowers on the way to the border

As exciting and interesting as it would have been to have made it into Iran from Turkey, there was no disguising the fact, that to some degree there was an added element of relaxedness to be back in a culture that outwardly seemed a little more familiar.

20km past the border crossing we reached the seaside town of Batumi and set about enjoying a few days of rest (from the 23rd until 27th June).  We checked into a small pop-up hostel (D’vine Hostel) close to the centre of town and a 500m walk to the beach and were made to feel at home thanks to our wonderful hosts there, Nino, Dan and Brett.  Of highest priority during our time in Batumi was the procurement of an Azerbaijan visa for one lucky empty page of our passports.  Arriving early Sunday meant that we had the rest of the day to relax, wash away the sweat and enjoy a cold beer in the shade of the peaceful garden of the hostel before the Embassy opened the following morning.

Vast building works and investment have occurred in Batumi especially within the last 10 years, and the city markets itself quite heavily as a seaside tourism center for Turkish and Russian tourists.  Whilst not all that sparkles is gold, it is clear that there have been huge efforts made in renovating and developing the thin strip of real estate running parallel to the sea.  These renovations seem not to have quite reached further back from the waterside into the town, and there can one witness a more representative view of the current fortunes of the general population of Georgia.  An array of sparkling, modern, highrise buildings stand sentinel along the waterfront, and an immense collection of sculptures and artworks dot the promenade making for a pleasant spot to wander.

The days of rest were spent swimming in the Black Sea, eating inummerable ice creams, sipping European coffee for the first time in over a month, sampling the typical delicacies of the local markets (think local smoked fish, homemade salami and a diverse range of biscuits, alongside deliciously tasty fruits and vegetables, as well as the odd chicken in a cage, or a butchered pig hanging by a hook from it’s snout), and getting to know the local rocket fuel, chacha.

The visa situation more or less sorted itself out.  Within 3 hours, rather than the 3 days we’d been expecting, we had a freshly printed 1-month private visa for Azerbaijan stuck into our passports, courtesy of the friendly consul there and our journey was cleared for continuation eastwards.  Not being quite ready mentally or physically to ride on however, meant that we enjoyed a few more days lazing about in Batmui, enjoying the sun and getting the bikes back into A1 condition.

Full of motivation and in the company of three new English cycling companions (Claire, Mark and Raz) we met at the hostel, we said our goodbyes to the Black Sea and set off due east (27th June) through the mountains of the Adjara Province upon the advice of Dan from D’vine Hostel (who’d spent a year there teaching English).  His recommendation turned out to be a real winner.  We’d heard horror stories about cycling the main road between Batumi and the capital Tbilisi, so as soon as we discovered the beauty which the valleys of Adjara afforded us, we where in heaven.  Dense forests beginning almost at the coast continued alongside winding roads towards bald mountain peaks of just over 3000m further inland.  Steep valley walls meant some precariously placed bends in the road hugging for dear life onto cliff walls, but traffic was surprisingly light, and we were greeted with awe-inspiring views along the river at every corner.

Knowing that we had quite a bit of time up our sleeves before being able to enter Azerbaijan, we set about enjoying the riding through Georgia without any stress about having to make too much progress everyday.  Three 50km days of riding winding up the valley towards the Goderdzi Pass (2025m) left us plenty of time in the afternoon to paddle in the crystal clear waters of the river on the valley floor.  The 20km either side of the Goderdzi Pass still failed to posses the bitumen promised to be finished in 2012, and so the going over the final 800m ascent and subsequent descent turned into a bumpy struggle which burned the legs a little more than usual and filled all orifices with dust.

Upon arrival in Akhaltsikhe (30th June) it was decided that a rest day for the following day was in order so that we could explore the surrounding area.  The next morning (1st July) the five of us crammed into a small taxi and headed up another windy road into a side valley for a little sightseeing.  First stop was the Khertvisi Castle sitting atop a clifftop at the junction of two valleys.  After scrambling up the path it appeared that we weren’t the only tourists there – about 15 cows had already beaten us inside the grounds and seemed to be enjoying the views offered through the gaps in the castle walls.

The main destination for the day though, was the cave monastery site of Vardzia on the left bank of the Mtkvari River about 60km from Akhaltsikhe.  The rows upon rows of cave monasteries built into the cliffface date from the end of the 12th century and extend some 500 meters in length over different 19 tiers.  A major earthquake in 1283 damaged a large part of the site, facilitating the need for substantial repairs.  Subsequent conquests by the Persians and Ottomans in the 16th century forced the monks living there to eventually leave and the site was abandoned.  The site contains the impressive Church of the Domition as well as numerous other naves and chapels all containing important wall paintings.  The highlight of a visit to the site is the fact that you’re able to walk through the whole site, up and down the cliffs via stepped terraces and tunnels.  Some respite from the scorching heat of the midday sun could also be found in the shade of the caves.  A dinner of kinkhali (traditional Georgian style dumplings) washed down with beer rounded out the day.

We said “see you soon” to our British companions the next morning (2nd July) and set off towards the Georgian capital Tbilisi, waiting patiently 260km further east, knowing that we’d probably be catching up again there.  These three days (2nd – 4th July) led us along high plateaus with shimmering blue lakes and past colourful fields of wildflowers framed by mountains still covered with the last patches of winter’s snow.  We often rode for long patches without seeing a soul, and the feeling of freedom and peace in such beautiful nature seeped slowly into our bones.  When we did come across a village, it always seemed very sleepy and devoid of activity.  Our presence caused the occasional “hello hello” to escape from a doorway somewhere, and there seemed to be more animals wandering the streets than there were people.

A long descent led us in to Tbilisi (4th July) where we’d booked a small apartment (via airbnb.com) for a few days.  Once again we met up with our Turkish travelling partners, Jo and Pauline from Lausanne, and said our final goodbyes for this trip.  They had a shorter timeframe than us from the start, and had decided to leave their bikes in Georgia for a month and head on to Central Asia by plane with backpacks, before then heading back over the Black Sea towards the Ukraine with the ferry and riding back to Switzerland – great to meet you guys, thanks for the memories in Turkey and all the best – see you back home for a Jass evening!!

Our two days in Tbilisi were spent exploring the old town, half falling down, half renovated, but totally charming, enjoying the plethora of cafés, climbing the cobblestone streets and winding alleys and looking for decent spare bike tubes.  The view from the castle offers a spectacular view over the town, and the cablecar to the top must come in handy for the winter ski season?!?  More kinkhali and beer (almost our daily staple in Georgia – kinkhali that is) was consumed with Mark, Claire and Raz when we met up for the evening in a traditional Georgian basement restaurant.

To again avoid the heat we left Tbilisi (7th July) just on sunrise and covered the 110km to Sighnaghi, a cute hillside village near the Georgian wine region, just in time for a late lunch.  A real treat awaited us there, where we were made to feel like part of the family after checking into a small guesthouse run by Nato and her father Lado.  Fresh watermelon and homemade wine arrived promptly for afternoon tea, Nado’s young daughters sang and performed an array of traditional Georgian music in the evening following a delicious homecooked meal prepared by Nato’s mother, after which we were then filled to pussy’s bow with more wine and chacha – all courtesy of Nato.  Although we’d only planned to spend one night in Sighnaghi, the incredibly hospitality of Nato quickly convinced us that another night was definitely in order, and it gave us a bit more time to wander around the charming old town, along the city walls, and up the defense towers.

In the knowledge that our Azerbaijan visa began on the 9th July, we left Sighnaghi early and headed the 50km towards the border to pass into Azerbaijan.  The 16 days we’d spent in Georgia really helped recharge our batteries and we found that we were both excited about the journey ahead and riding again.  Knowing how many stunning castles and beautiful monasteries we didn’t have time to see in Georgia, as well as the kilomtere upon kilometer of hiking trails through the breathtaking mountain ranges in the north of Georgia means that we’ll deifinitely be back – we’ll just have to find enough holidays 🙂