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  • Jamie Shannon

Tbilisi to Azerbaijan. The land of the Lada

I received my visa! I crossed the border! I arrived in bloody Baku and the end of my journey across land! As you can imagine – I’m a happy fish. It’s been quite a long journey up until this point and there were times in the past couple of weeks when I never thought I’d make it here under my own two wheels but I did it. I’m extremely happy and I’m writing this with just a slight smile on my face.

It was a wee bit difficult getting here however. It was a real rollercoaster of a journey across Azerbaijan and not the easy ride I expected. I decided to stay in Tbilisi a couple of extra days after having received my visa as there was a Turkish guy staying at my hostel called Furkan whom was waiting for his visa to be processed (yes there are more like me). Anyway, he was heading towards Baku too before cycling into Iran and so I thought it would be rude not to join him. The big upshot of this is, apart from the fact I’d have company for the next seven days, he can communicate with the Azeri people as the Azeri’s speak a dialect of Turkish. Great news.

Back on the road after nearly two weeks off the bike - cycle touring through Georgia

Having said goodbye to a few people at the hostel, we rolled our bikes down the building site that had been my neighbourhood for the past two weeks and were off to see another country I had convinced Furkan that the route we should take to Baku just had to be the northern one as, although it’s a little longer and more indirect than the main highway south, it was certainly the more scenic of the two. Besides, my Uzbek visa wouldn’t start until the 6th September thus I still had plenty of time to play with. We made our way through the city following the river east, battling with the heavy traffic in a fight we were never going to win. In the midst of all of this, I had Furkan behind shouting directions at me as I was now without any more maps until I reach China. As he was not carrying a stove and I no maps, this was to be a healthy partnership.

Can't ride a bicycle due to a motocross accident? Solution: strap a 25 kilo solar panel to a trailer

It was about 160km’s to the border and we made very steady progress as the day wore on. We met a German guy whom was on a round the world trip of his own and it was a strange sight to behold. We were standing by the road after climbing up a huge hill when we saw the familiar shape of another cyclist making very slow progress towards us. As he drew closer, we could see that, although he was carrying like five bags which is pretty normal, he was also pulling behind him a huge trailer with what appeared to be some kind of solar panel. Now I have heard of people carrying solar panels on bikes but this one was absolutely humongous – it was like a metre long and obviously weighed a ton. I remember thinking how much electricity do you really need? Well it all made sense a little later when we stopped for lunch. Turns out he had had six operations on his right knee form motorcross 30 years ago and the only way he could now climb big hills was with the use of a motor on his bike thus the need for a lot of electricity!

After some more seriously steep climbs and a stop off at a small market where we met Georgia’s most grumpy shop owner, the road finally flattened out and we were able to find a brilliant camping spot after 60 km’s. This was probably my shortest day cycling but like I said, we were in no rush. We pitched up by the side of a small lane leading into a village at the foot of the mountains, and although several cars drove passed and waved at us, no one was bothered we were camping there. Such a refreshing change from Europe where you literally have to hide every single night from fear of being moved on.

The next morning we stopped off at a small market in the first village to gather some water and buy something for breakfast. I was carrying about 3 kilo’s of porridge since I didn’t know if it would be available in Azerbaijan but Furkan sure didn’t like the idea of eating this every day.

The funny thing was that after I had got my stove out in front of the shop and having boiled some water for coffee, I looked to my right and noticed there was a coffee machine right there. Think it cost one Lari which is about 30 cent’s. Still, every penny saved and all that. Making our way along the highway was pretty uneventful apart from the lada’s speeding past every few seconds. The driving definitely leaves something to be desired in this part of the country that’s for sure. On the plus side, the scenery on our left was wonderful as we followed the gentle slopes of the mighty Caucasus mountains. A man waved to us from the side of the road at one point wanting us to stop. I really wanted to carry on but Furkan, upon seeing the man holding a melon aloft thought otherwise. It was odd. We stopped, tried to tell him where we were going and where we had come from, ate some melon and then left. This happens quite regularly. As we were making our way north, I got my first puncture in quite a while which was also odd as I had two brand new tyres fitted thus this was the last thing I was expecting. It’s no fun changing an inner tube in this kind of heat too. Having put in a ‘new’ inner tube we began cycling again only to find another leak a little further on. We found some shade where I opted to patch over the hole rather than putting in a brand new tube. I wanted to save these for when I really needed them in the coming months. With the hole fixed, we were again on our way but we were making really slow progress towards the border. I was feeling very lethargic after two weeks off the bike and so I was really glad we were in no hurry like I had been in the previous couple of months. I was now in a position to take it easy, break often and camp when I felt tired or a great spot reared its head. It was a blessing.

Having made our way up onto a kind of ridge in the wine district of the country we could see the huge expanse of a land spreading out to our left before vanishing in the distance at the foot of the mountains. The roads were quite terrible here and my bike was taking a beating. As Furkan wasn’t carrying front bags, all of his stuff rested aboard the back rack which wasn’t the best rack to begin with. At one point, I lost him in my mirror and pulled over to wait for him to reach me. A few minutes later I saw him wobbling around the corner nursing his bike over the road. His back rack had almost given in but with the help of a spare bolt and a few cable ties from myself, we were back on our way in no time. We even got a couple of free egg plants from a lady too. After buying some juice from the last town above the valley, we made our way down the pot hole ridden switchbacks to the valley floor where we cycled another 10km’s before finding, to our surprise, a roaring river. With a shower now secured, we pushed our bikes down to the riverside and settled in for the night. With a river for washing, trees for shade, a mere 30km’s from the border and even a friendly dog to look after, we couldn’t really ask for more.

The road from our campsite to the border was a little piece of heaven. It was eerily quiet considering we were heading to the border and also beautifully shaded by the trees that stood on either side. With the mountains rising up in the distance it was a nice way to end my time in Georgia. I’ll miss it that’s for sure.

We stopped for breakfast just outside a small shop on the roadside. Furkan went in to try and see if he could get some milk but after no such luck I tried my hand at attempting to buy some sugar. I had no idea what the Georgian or Russian word for sugar was so I tried saying it in English, German and French but when I received bemused looks from both the shopkeeper and the customers, I pointed to the coffee and tea whilst rubbing my teeth to indicate that it was something sweet I wanted. Still no luck. The guy just tried to sell me tea. Thinking hard about how to get the message across, I pointed to the salt and then to the coffee but this didn’t help either. I then motioned if it was okay for me to come round the other side and to see for myself if I could find it but it was just not to be seen. Instead, I picked up the box of tea and found a plastic spoon where I preceded to pour the salt over the tea in imaginary spoonful’s. Bingo. They got it! I then saw him pull up a huge bag of sugar from the floor where at which point I almost kissed him. Good work I thought. We all laughed and I got my sugar. Furkan however was not impressed with the oats. He dined on bread and Nutella instead.

We raced through the last town of Lagodehki excited to be getting to another country and found a sign above the road announcing our entrance to the border zone and a message saying “good luck”. I had no idea what to make of this but put it down to the fact that we were now leaving the last Christian nation of Eurasia. What else could I think?

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