Monday, 17 February 2014

moonlight and magic

There's something about collecting visas on the road that stresses me out even when I know that a rejection would be problematic but hardly the end of the world.  We discovered this on our last journey in 2008 when China suddenly decided to stop issuing visas to independent travellers just before the Olympics.  As it is, the rather serious consular official at the Iranian Embassy, having kept us waiting for half an hour and then umming and ahhing with our passports in his hand, finally hands them over and with a smile says "Welcome to Iran".  In the sudden and emotional release that this triggers I leap out of my seat and kiss him on both cheeks.

Georgia wishes you Good Luck as you cross to Azerbaijan
With happy hearts we set off to Azerbaijan, having decided to try and get a ride to the border.  At the marshrutka stand there is only one transit van with enough space for the bikes and it is going our way.  Lucky for us.  The driver has a good laugh at us before we tell him we want to go with him.  That wipes the smile off his face for a moment until we start talking money and then his face lights up again.  But they are not sharks here.  The ride out of Tbilisi is bleak and grey but the landscape and weather improves as we climb up along a ridge before descending and crossing a wide open valley to arrive at Lagodekhi.  The sun appears as we sort ourselves out with food before taking the road to the border.  Here there are more smiles.  A Georgian border guard speaks fluent English - he lived in London for a few years.  Formalities are brief and we roll along to the Azeri side.  The guards look a little more stern but wave us past the cars and vans to the front of the queue.  Here we are met by another border guard who speaks English fluently - he also lived in London for a few years.  He's a smiley man who keeps us chatting while someone inside taps our passport details into the computer.  We have our photo taken, as in Georgia, before someone shouts out through the window.  Our guard translates. "Problem with visa.  You will need to wait.  But don't worry.  It may only take a day or two.  You can work here. We will get you uniforms." Ha, ha, ha, ha, we laugh. After 10 minutes we are waved through. We've just realised it's Valentine's Day.  What could be more romantic than Azerbaijan?

It would be unfair to compare cycling in Azerbaijan with Georgia considering how little we've actually done in either country, but the waves and honks as we scoot along the road make us feel very welcome here.  Our road takes us along the bottom edge of the Caucasus mountains, from village to village to town to village, past farmland and across dry rivers with huge alluvial fans that have swept out from the mountain valleys.  Somewhere off to our right the land flattens to a wide plain.  As the sun lowers we are unsure of where to camp - much of the land is fenced off and gates are locked.  Just before a town we go past an army camp and come to a series of hazelnut groves.  Luckily one gate is open so we quickly get off the road and push to the back of the enclosure as far out of sight as possible.  A dog nearby starts barking but doesn't appear.  A full moon rises as we cook dinner. 

The next day we continue in much the same way.  The road climbs to a settlement and then dips down through farmland before climbing to the next one.  The road is often dead straight and the climbs become longer.  Before lunch the quiet road deteriorates to the stony layer beneath the tarmac and we rattle along for quite a way before a final and endless straight climb up to the town of Sheki.  It's about five o'clock when we wheel into town and we're both weary.  Exclamations of surprise and joy are uttered, all begininng with the f word, when we realise the hotel we're heading for is up another hill.  It's worth it: the hotel is an old caravanserai built in a rectangle around a patio garden with two storeys of arched colonnades.  There are huge doors at the entrance, a place to store our pack animals and baggage, and food and water are available for the weary traveller.  It's wonderful.  For just a while we can be time travellers on the Silk Road.

Sheki, described as Azerbaijan's most pleasant town in our guidebook, sprawls down the hillside and along a ridge.  Behind it are tree-covered mountains, and beyond is the snowy ridgeline that forms the border with Russia.  The town feels low-key and old-fashioned, with few big buildings.  The houses are built with gardens and surrounding walls.  Below our hotel is another restored but empty caravanserai and above is the fort with a church, a few outbuildings, and the pasha's palace, built during Persian times.  It's an attractive modest building, decorated inside and out and shaded from the sun by two enormous plane trees.  Down the hill, on the other side of town, we wander the market.  After checking out the turkey and chicken corner a man comes over to check that we are indeed English Tourists.  He looks happy with the answer - must have had a bet on it.  There's plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lamb at the butcher stalls, pickles in big jars, cheap clothing, electrical bits and bobs, bric-a-brac homeware from China, and great trays of the local baklava - chewy and supersweet.

cabbage car

Our thoughts turn to Baku.  Here we have an invitation to stay with Pamela and Joe to see out the winter.  We  met this lovely American couple on our last journey, through Turkey, and we stayed with them in Istanbul each time we returned.  They had written to us back in the autumn and offered to host us so this was a big reason for us to cross Turkey and the Caucasus in January rather than wait out the winter in Greece.  It means that we will be able to include Iran in our onward route before heading to Tajikistan.  Being sloths, and not hardcore cyclists, we opt to take the bus from Sheki to Baku (Gayle's new catchphrase is "Enjoyment not Endurance") and, hey presto, here we are in the Big City.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

thawing out

Pedalling along the busy roads in Tbilisi is a bit tricky.  So many marshrutka cutting in to collect or drop off passengers.  Potholes, sunken drain covers, puddles and ice. Car doors swinging open.  Cars pulling out without looking.  It's all good training for Iran, I'm sure.  Is there an XBox game where you can cycle into the various capitals of the world? Or does that sound a bit quaint? 

After shuttling back and forth along the narrow roads of the old town to check out guesthouses we settle on one run by a friendly young woman called Nataly.  Except she's full tonight.  So we stay at her neighbour's in the same courtyard.  One of Gayle's favourite films was shot here in Tbilisi (Since Otar Left) and it feels we've just entered the set.  Along the streets are crumbling old houses, brick built with mortared facades giving them the impression of being built from stone.  The pavements and roads are in various states of disrepair too.  Walk through a gateway or archway and you enter a courtyard full of laundry and parked cars, and surrounded by timbered glassed-in verandahs and balconies.  There's rarely much paint left on the woodwork.  Lots of tin sidings, roofing and gutters.  Many roofs still have snow and the gutters are now ejecting huge blocks of ice onto the pavements, or drip-drip-dripping meltwater that refreezes immediately and sends most pedestrians onto the road for the sake of staying upright.

The sun is out when we head off on our first day to the Iranian embassy.  We get there just after 10, when it opens, Monday to Friday, except for Thursdays.  What day is it today? Thursday. We return the next morning only to have our passports examined in front of us by a bored-looking consular official.  He gives us forms to complete, tells us to pay our visa fees in to a particular bank then comeback on Monday. To collect the visa? No.  Only to leave our passports.  We can collect on Wednesday. So we have a week in Tbilisi whilst we wait.  
main street mid-morning

I want a house
Thankfully the sun is out each day, and very slowly the days get warmer too. We walk around and walk and walk. And we eat pies. Georgia is the Wigan of the Caucasus.  Pie shops abound.  The favourite filling is cheese, but there are endless varities.  Cheese, bacon, mushed beans, potato, mince, mushroom, egg.  Some are made with bread, some with filo pastry. They're cheap and ubiquitous. Mmmm.....pies....
I want this!
We have plenty of time to explore the old city - up to the fort, down the backstreets, the only surviving mosque, where both Sunni and Shia muslims come to pray.  And then there are all the churches - a brand new and enormous cathedral, the more traditional smaller Georgian Orthodox ones.  The museum has a fine collection of gold and silver finds, some 4,000 years old, mainly from the west, from the Colchis kingdom.  Intricate jewellery from tombs.  The people collected gold dust by laying sheep fleeces in the rivers - thought to have inspired the legend of the Golden Fleece.  In the exhibition on the 'Soviet occupation' Uncle Joe is notable by his absence.  Tbilisi was razed to the ground by the Persians at the end of the 18th century but was quickly rebuilt by the Russians in the 19th.  Evidently it was a wealthy city at one time - perhaps it can be again, and there are a few flamboyant new buildings, but it has the bittersweet air of a city on the decline like the big cities of Rajasthan.

lining up the ducks

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

chilling out

Sometimes you just can't plan everything.  After waiting another day for the rain to pass we wake early to head off only for Gayle to discover that her right eye has closed up because of an infection.  When I ask Teona, our hostess, about pharmacies she immediately suggests we go to see a doctor and offers to go with us.  What a star.  An hour later we're in a fairly modern hospital while she tries to buttonhole a doctor in A&E.  Soon Gayle's eye is looked at and the infection that has caused the swelling is poked and prodded.  We get a prescription for antibiotics and, oh what fun, six syringes and needles.  The antibiotics are to be injected into muscle.  Gayle's poor backside.  She can be admitted to the hospital or we can do it ourselves at the guesthouse.  Teona once again steps up with more of the famed Georgian Hospitality - she has done this before so she will show me how to do it.  Little does she know I go queasy at the sight of hypodermics and blood...... In the evening, as I'm mixing drug and solution and checking the syringe for air bubbles, Gayle remarks that I look like someone out of M*A*S*H. Who? Radar??
on the waterfront - with Jasek and Rebecca

So we sit out the next few days taking prescribed rest (me too - I'm big on empathy) and meeting new guests Jasek and Rebecca, a very friendly young couple who are on a motorbike and prepare a mean lentil soup.  There's also Birgit from Finland, an odd woman whose conversation seems a bit bizarre and always leaves me clueless as to the subject, while she nods her head muttering "Da, da".  None of us are in a hurry to go anywhere, which is a good job, as the weather is still rainy and cold, off and on.  One morning I get up early and head into the city for a look around.  Casinos on every road.  Mmmm.  Funds are getting lower.  How about a punt?  Before I think twice I'm at the ATM and withdrawing our savings.  Shoving the notes into my pockets I duck inside one of the casinos where, at the roulette, I put it all on red.  It comes out black.  Broken, dispirited, I return to the guesthouse where I break the news to Gayle. She gets mad and starts hitting me about the head. "Wake up, wake up will you? And make us a cup of tea?" 

Georgia's most famous son, Putin and Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest
When we finally say farewell to Teona and Jack and his dad at the hostel the sun is promising to break out.  The road is busy with traffic and a little tight in places until we pass through a town and leave it all behind on a brand new tarmacced highway that's not on our map.  It's chilly and there are still clouds in the sky making the light flat and dull.  It does nothing for the scenery.  We stop to eat lunch at a petrol station where we are pointed towards tables outside a cafe.  The woman inside insists we come in to the warmth, and gives us hot tea and plates for our picnic, refusing money.  Late afternoon we stop outside a town that seems strung along the highway, and find a chapel and walled cemetery at the end of a lane.  A woman appears and we mime sleeping next to the chapel.  She is collecting her cow from the cemetery and she seems fine about us camping.  

In the night the wind gets up and it remains strong throughout the day.  The ground is frozen and so are our hands and toes.  To make things worse I put my back out.  Gayle packs everything up.  Fortunately, sitting on the bike is the perfect posture for my back.  Unfortunately the easterly wind is brutal.  It's strong, relentless and makes us colder.  After over an hour of cycling my fingers finally thaw out with a painful burning sensation.  We plod on, frustrated in the knowledge that the ride to Kutaisi would be easy if not for this headwind.  The road turns northwards and we are blown into the road.  At a Turkish truck stop we stop for tea.  A man screws a finger into the side of his head at me.  Yes, he's right, crazy.  Madness.  We make slow-going and after a pie for lunch we think about stopping for the day.  We're on the edge of a town and we wonder about getting a ride or finding a hotel.  A red van pulls up and we hopefully go to speak to the driver. He looks like a good guy - he has stopped to use his phone.  Kutaisi? we ask. Yes. We point at ourselves and bikes. Kutaisi. He gets out and opens up his van. How much? He shakes his head and helps us load everything in. Less than an hour later he drops us in Kutaisi.  A kind man.  

The cold wind continues to blow for a couple of days in Kutaisi.  We stay wrapped up when we venture out to explore the city's old town.  It has a nice air to it.  Plenty of grand old buildings, some renovated, many not, tell of more prosperous times.  Up on a hill overlooking the centre is the rebuilt cathedral, and out of town a beautiful monastery complex which has survived the Persians, the Ottomans and the Communists.  The mountains to the south and north are snow-covered and stunning in the sunshine.   Ahh, if only it wasn't winter.  

We catch up with Rebecca and Jasek who have come by train.  They have found bargain winter coats in the second-hand shops.  I find a proper cycling jacket to replace my Lidl one for a bargain price.  We keep checking the weather for temperature and wind speed and decide to try taking a marshrutka to Tbilisi.  There's a high pass en route and we're keen to catch up on lost time.  Luckily the marshrutka mafia at the bus station seem to be quite easy-going and we find a van with space for the bikes going at midday.  Sure enough it goes at midday.  The journey is fast and furious and looking out on snow covered gorges and muddy flat fields we are happy not to be cycling. Tbilisi and the Iranian embassy beckons.