Travel

Across the Caspian Sea

Firstly – apologies for the “radio silence”, in case anybody got worried not hearing a peep for several days. There has been zero internet access over the last couple of days… and while I knew it was coming, I had assumed I’d have an evening to write an update warning of it in Baku, before I went “incommunicado” for an unknown time.
Also worth noting – likely to happen in the future also, for several days at a time.

Anyway – I’m now in Ashgabet, Turkmenistan – where internet access is very unreliable, so I’ll just post the bones of this ASAP, and flesh out as I can. Photos… unlikely.

12-15 May – Azerbaijan – Caspian Sea – Turkmenistan, 521 miles riding + 13-hour ferry

So – the longest border crossing thus far… 31.5 hours, albeit 13 of those hours sailing across the Caspian Sea.
The original plan – Sheki->Baku – then stay the night in Baku, while we figure out when a ship is sailing to Turkmenbashi (the ferries have no published schedule or regular departure times). Then – as we got to Baku, we are told there is one leaving that very afternoon – and if we can all get to the Port by 16:00 – we’re good to “steal a march”. So… we do…
16:00 – get to the new Baku International Sea Port
… waiting around, change out of bike clothes, go through Azerbaijan Customs/Passport-Control/etc
19:30 – get on Ferry/boat
Midnight – Ferry/boat leaves port
… very calm/peaceful trip across the Caspian Sea… clocks go forward
14:00 – Ferry/boat docks in Turkmenbashi
16:00 – Allowed off ferry/boat, to start Customs/Passport-Control
00:30 – Released from Customs/Passport-Control

The Turkmen border process reminded me of a Scooby-Doo cartoon… one long hallway, with a group of people going in and out of different doors all down the corridor, chasing each other, sometimes doubling back, sometimes just sitting in a queue. Looking back, I can count 7, maybe 8, offices I had to visit.

Anyway – we finally got out of the compound, and arrived at our hotel in Turkmenbashi around 1am. Woke up to discover the hotel is a very long walk from town… so wash the bikes (apparently the President frowns upon dirty vehicles… so getting into the capital could be troublesome with a dirty bike), and then I walk into town. To discover… nothing. A deserted children’s amusement park, and zero shops. No internet cafe (I asked – I just got the shaken head “no” in response… zero internet in the entire town, apparently). Walked back to hotel in stinking hot sun, rather sun-burnt for no result.

Next day (today) – to be the first day riding through the desert. Our first desert-ride turned into our first full-day-wet-weather-ride… nearly 6 hours of heavy rain. On desert roads… obviously not designed for rain… there were floods, patches of wet sand, and long sections which when wet – looked like glass. And… reacted like wet glass also, when introduced to motorcycle tires. I had about 2 seconds of the tires not behaving as I wished them too, and slowed the hell down for quite some time, until I could actually see real texture on the road again.
Anyway – got here safe, to the rather spectacular city of Ashgabat, where we have a day “off” tomorrow. I’m not sure how to describe what I’ve seen of the city so far… the residential areas are hundreds upon hundreds of identical “detached” houses, standing in rows, grids rather… with scores more being built. And then into the city centre – with monolithic buildings everywhere. Marble – everywhere. So – heaps of traditional monolithic marble structures, and then “futuristic”/avant-garde structures around the place also.
For just one example of each – look up the Ashgabat Airport, and the Turkmenistan Presidential Palace (which we’re staying across the road from… and as such, photos are “strictly forbidden” within several blocks of the hotel. I believe there are no hotel rooms with windows overlooking the palace.

Into Azerbaijan

11 May – Georgia – Azerbaijan, 186 miles

Leaving Georgia was easier than getting in… Georgia border-control – only about an hour, Azerbaijan – about 2 hours.
Group photo on the Georgian side of the border, where some wit ordered a large road sign erected, proclaiming “Azerbaijan Border. Good luck.”
And then into Azerbaijan – where my “Giant Flag count” rose to two within the first two towns (said it before, I’ll say it again – I love giant flags… they’re just so ridiculous); the initial impression was that the roads were much better quality, and then after about 10 miles – realised that no… roads were even worse… constant pot-hole dodging (in addition to the cow-dodging, and dog-dodging, etc).
And, when we got to our hotel in Sheki… I find my room is literally double the size of my apartment in London.

Azerbaijan…. Good luck.

Tbilisi

No riding – just wandering around Tbilisi. Cool city… a mixture of very old stuff (medieval castle walls, etc), modern “weird-for-weird’s-sake” architecture, old churches, giant statues (the “Mother of Georgia” up on the hill, for example), a river, flea market, good beers, good wines, botanical gardens, a zoo, etc.

So, I wandered around most of that, and took a single photo.. of a middling-to-fair waterfall.
Then drank some beer, drank some wine, started to pack for tomorrow’s border-day.

Across Georgia

09 May – Georgia, 183 miles

A relatively short day, riding across Georgia to reach Tbilisi – where we have a “day off” tomorrow.
There was one little side-trip, to the town of Gori – which has an inordinate amount of pride in being the birthplace of Stalin. A very large “Stalin Museum”, and his childhood house has had what is pretty much a shrine built around it. I didn’t notice, but others commented on there being fresh flowers laid at the feet of one of his statues also… so it’s an ongoing point of pride. Odd.
Also rode through the oldest town in Georgia – Mtskheta – another UNESCO listed site – but I was looking for a single touristy point to stop, which I couldn’t find – and found myself back on the motorway… whereas I know realise the entire existing town is the “attraction”. Oh well – I guess it means I got to the hotel a little earlier, and can go drink some beers in the sun.

Not really any photos taken today, other than a couple of average ones from Stalin Museum. But with the day off tomorrow, I should get a chance to wander around Tbilisi, do some final shopping before entering the “‘Stans”, and probably a facebook post with a selection of full-quality photos from Turkey.

Exit Turkey – Enter Georgia

08 May – Georgia – Turkey, 153 miles

Exiting Turkey – relatively quick, easy.
Entering Georgia – NOT quick, at all, nor particularly easy.
Turkey – stand in a single-file line for the one passport control officer, licence plate numbers checked by somebody else to another office, while locals skip the line… then a quick “customs” check-in of the bike docs.. 30 minutes total, maybe, for the entire goup… then on to the Georgia border.
Georgia – I think we stood around for about an hour – with nobody else in the area at all – before anything even looked like happening. For an hour, there were 6 customs/border-control people milling around at the far-end, doing absolutely nothing. Eventually, things started moving… at an average of 1 bike/rider per 15 minutes for passport control, then the customs guys insisting on looking at every piece of medication/drug you might have. They eventually picked up the pace once they realised how long this was likely to take (after ~15 bikes).. and started rushing things. I helped things along by understating the drugs I had packed away.. only admitting to the ones I had handily available in the backpack.
One chap – not so smart – showed them his painkillers with Codeine in it… he didn’t emerge from the customs shed for several hours. In total – I think the last guy entered Georgia after 5 hours.

Anyway – eventually we all got through, into some lovely roads alongside a river, through a valley, dodging potholes, getting a little airborne when the blind summit turned out to have a considerable drop on the other side, and got to our hotel in the very picturesque setting of Vardzia.

Last view of Turkey, from ~ 2,550 metres
The start of a 5 hour wait

Last Night in Turkey

07 May – Turkey, 190 miles

A rather short day – just getting close to the Turkey-Georgia border, to make tomorrow’s border-crossing day a bit easier.
130 miles to get to Kars, where we’re staying (directly underneath a castle… my room looks directly up at it) – and then a 60-mile round-trip to visit the ruins of Ani.
The riding – nothing spectacular… just the main “highway” to get us here… dodging a few potholes, cows, cars-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road, etc.
Ani – worth a walk around. It’s mostly just some of the city walls still standing, a couple of churches, and the remains of other buildings – surrounded by a LOT of rubble, presumably from the remainder of the old city. Not much evidence to justify the moniker “The City of 1001 Churches”.

Ani city walls
Ani
View from Hotel Room
Kars Castle
A Kars Street Corner