After Tbilisi, Jacek and I meet up again and travel North to Mt. Kazbek. The city of Kazbegi sits at the base, though this is the old Soviet name for the city and is officially called Stefanstminda. It’s a beast of a ride and takes us two days, uphill, but the good roads make it pretty manageable.
This is one of the best Georgia home-wine we bought. Just take an empty liter bottle, shake it and say “gvino” and usually you can get a fill-up for about $1.50. Quality varies….this stuff was delicious and the semi-sweet wine makes a good road-drink when diluted 5:1 or more with water.
We stop about 70km in for a campsite near the side of the road. Jacek expertly cuts open a melon. I find some wild mushrooms and ask him if they are edible. Immediately, Jacek says they are “traveler” mushrooms and very good to eat. I say great – and start picking them to make a little dinner of buckwheat, onion and mushroom. Jacek then suddenly becomes less certain of the safety of the mushrooms, even after a small taste and confirmation by a local woman that they were OK to eat. Not thinking very forwardly after a liter each of home-wine, we cook them up and eat a delicious meal.
And we survive the next morning with no intestinal or mental damage….
I wake up early in the morning and decide to forgo the woods and go to what I thought was an outhouse I saw across the street the other day. I see a large family along the way, the same ones I saw eating at a HUGE table (15 meters long at least!) on the way in. They see me and a half-dozen of them call me over by holding their arm horizontally above their head and moving their wrist up and down. To me, this looks like I’m getting shooed away….but this is how Georgians call you over. Hesitantly, I make my way over and call out if anyone knows English. I hear a “yes, yes” so I decide to head over. I meet two women about my age (Nini and the other I can’t remember!) who live in New Jersey but were visiting family in Georgia. I get stuffed with freshly killed lamb, fried mushrooms (not the same kind as last night!), chicken and of course khatchapuri. Then the toasting starts….with home wine. At 8 in the morning. The leader of the group, the Uncle of the girls if I remember right, starts the long toasts. Unable to say no (the “just-say-no” policy doesn’t really work in any culture) I get a few glasses of wine down before Jacek and I were feeling over the curve for bicycling that day. The wine was delicious and the hospitality is – amazing. It’s just not something I’m used to coming from a US culture, but it really is terrific and genuine. I say many thanks and Nini packs up a bag of chicken, khatchapuri and cake for the road to Kazbegi. That cake was wonderful, eating a tasty dessert looking through the clouds at the mountains….
We make it to Kazbegi that evening. Owing to the alcohol the night before and the many glasses in the morning, my muscles and mind were not too happy. We camped immediately once we got a little North of the village of Kazbegi. Unbeknownst to me, this was the start of about a week of rainy weather. It was so cloudy, we couldn’t really see the peaks of the mountains; I’m not even sure we saw Mt. Kazbeg as it is situated North-West of the village and it was all cloud. Oh well, you can’t see everything.
The horses took over this old gas station. In my mind, they were plotting to destroy it to remake their monopoly of mountain transport. My mind is strange. The next day, a local cow heard was plotting at this location as well.
In the cloudy morning, we ride down the beautiful valley about 20km to the Russian border. We didn’t see much because of the clouds, so we waited at a church for a few hours for the clouds to clear. We make strong tea with much sugar and drink with a monk-in-training.
We then ride South of Kazbegi to the mountain pass. It is under construction and pretty nasty to bike on since it rained so Jacek refused to ride back up the pass. So we wait and try to hitch a ride up the hill. Our hitching spot was pretty nasy…pig shit everywhere. Also, pigs. This one was smart enough to get into Jacek’s pannier and steal his bread which made some comedy in a bleak situation. He’s eyeing that pig like a hawk now! We meet an ultralight touring young American couple and travel with them for a day before they headed off to Armenia.
We eventually get a hitch…after three hours. The ride was more akin to a wooden rollercoaster ride at 6 flags than a car ride. The drivers in Georgia and Azerbaijan are crazy. Not crazy in an endearing way, crazy in an unsafe and irresponsible way. Anyway, we get over the hill and signal to get out once we hit asphalt again.
The ride down from Kazbegi to the Azerbaijan border was fairly uneventful. It’s supposed to be good wine country but hard to tell except for a few nice signs for wine cellars. The scenery is nothing compared to the mountains!
All along the road to Azerbaijan there are melons….so many melons….the sellers have makeshift huts to sell them (I think) but they’re super trashed out. The whole road smells like rotting fruit.
Slowly, we cross to Azerbaijan! Good luck!
We enjoy the border crossing with a delicious liver gulash with salad, bread.and of course, a huge pot of tea. Tea will become a common theme.
Tea culture is very stong here. Instead of advertizements for beer, half of the billboards you see are of a woman drinking tea with her family in the background. Seems much more … wholesome. The other half of billboards are poorly photoshopped images of the President looking courageous or strong with some silly background.
We ride to Sheki, supposedly the most beautiful Azeri city. It’s not really that beautiful with the exception of the Xan Palace, a 500 year old building for some guy probably named Xan. It has beautifully ornate custom cut glass and wood, along with a great mural on the interior. Here’s a picture of Jacek drinking from the fountain water hose right outside.
After Sheki, Jacek’s bottom bracket was finally on it’s last few kilometers and he gets off his bike and wants to hitchhike to Baku. I want to ride there (though I eventually hitch as well!) so we decide to take separate paths and meet up in Baku or Armenia at a later date with a fully functioning bike. We say our goodbye and I continue down the road.
The next afternoon, I get hungry for some tea and maybe a kebab. I stop at a cafe in the woods, though it is little more than a couple’s summer home. I get some tea and a bit of stew they had earlier in the afternoon. I still want something to eat, so the guy takes me in his car to the supermarket and we get some hot dogs, bread and brandy. We some back and the woman kebabs up the dogs and we all sit around toasting the brandy and eating hot dogs and bread. After three hours, I need to get on the road again. We’re all friends and they wouldn’t accept payment of any kind. In fact, the man said he would shoot me if I offered anything. The woman is an artist and the man is a veteran army officer.
I ride far that afternoon and camp before an impending rain storm. I got desperate and picked a campsite that I’m sure Jacek would laugh at me for choosing. The morning was very muddy.
After sporadic downpours the entire morning and afternoon, I decide to hitch the final 60km to Baku. I’m siting in the back of a minivan with the trunk open, holding on to my bike and the car to make sure we both don’t go flying out. It seemed dangerous at the time, but looking at the shoulder and the crazy (see above) drivers, it was probably a wash with the danger of riding into Baku on bicycle.