Across the Caucuses

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.

Home wine!

Home wine!

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.

Melon Man

Melon Man

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….

Kilometers on kilometers of serpentine

Kilometers on kilometers of serpentine

On the edge...also, my new setup!

On the edge…also, my new setup!  No more blue basket.

Classic Jacek

Classic Jacek

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.

 

Kazbegi

Kazbegi

A good shot of our campsite

A good shot of our campsite

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.

Derelict gas stations are all over the Caucuses

Derelict gas stations are all over the Caucuses

Mountains in the clouds

Mountains in the clouds

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.

Russian border. Georgia and Russia are still at war...kind of. I suppose this border is open because of trade with Turkey or Iran or some other big player.

Russian border. Georgia and Russia are still at war…kind of. I suppose this border is open because of trade with Turkey or Iran or some other big player.

Outhouses by the church.

Outhouses by the church.

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.

Bahahah!

Bahahah!

More relaxed shot.

More relaxed shot.

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.

Back wheel and seatpost!

Back wheel and seatpost!

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!

Georgia hammock

Georgia hammock

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.

Mellon Market

Mellon Market

Slowly, we cross to Azerbaijan!  Good luck!

We make it!

We make it!

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.

First Azeri meal

First Azeri meal

Riding in Azerbaijan

Riding in Azerbaijan

Beautiful sunset in a hazelnut orchard

Beautiful sunset in a hazelnut orchard

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.

Roadside tea

Roadside tea out of this boiler contraption.  It has a special name that I can’t remember, but Jacek assures me it’s a Russian invention.

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.

Xan Palace

Xan Palace

 

Near our campsite on top of Sheki that night. Unfortunate that many areas in the Caucuses are littered....public trash collection is really lacking.

Near our campsite on top of Sheki that night. Unfortunate that many areas in the Caucuses are littered….public trash collection is really lacking everywhere but capitol cities.

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.

DSC04043

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.

My shoes are heavy

My shoes are heavy

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.

Scary hitch

Scary hitch

Moving East

Still alive; in Telavi Georgia.  Waiting on Jacek to get back from the bazzar (hopefully) with a new bottom bracket cone.  Weather has been nasty recently, lots of rain which makes the back roads even worse.  If all goes well, we may get to Azerbaijan today.

Georgia Part 1

I have learned and experienced much in the past two weeks.  Many things have been packed in, it feels like it has been months.

Tanker on the Black Sea in Batumi

Tanker on the Black Sea in Batumi

Ewa and I found the beach in the Batumi Botanical Gardens.  Good skipping stones!

Ewa and I found the beach in the Batumi Botanical Gardens. Good skipping stones!

Introducing Jacek, a 68 year old beast of the road.  We have been traveling together since Batumi.  This is typical West Georgian bread - lavash.  Fresh out of the oven, it almost burned our fingers trying to eat it after the picture.

Introducing Jacek, a 68 year old beast of the road. We have been traveling together since Batumi. This is typical West Georgian bread – lavash. Fresh out of the oven, it almost burned our fingers trying to eat it after the picture.

The oven

The oven

The Police in Georgia are ridiculous.  They are everywhere and overly helpful.  In West Georgia, every police truck would stop and ask if we wanted a ride to get out of the heat.  Or escort us to the beach.  Or give directions.  I think they’re obligated to stop for tourists (though none know English, so Jacek had to communicate in Russian).

Pedal mashing in West Georgia

Pedal mashing in West Georgia.

Our first campsite.

Our first campsite.  In the middle of a small city in West Georgia, after a police escort to the park.  The police station (always modern and clean) was across the street.  Camping in the city sucks.

Railroad near the beach, near Poti

Railroad near the beach, near Poti

Bikes on the beach.  Not recommended!

Bikes on the beach. Not recommended!  But our last swim in the Black Sea.

Some old Soviet bridge

Some old Soviet bridge

 

Police escort across the bridge.

Police escort across the bridge.

 

B

Small mountains in West Georgia

 

Riding to Mestia

Riding to Mestia

Fuzzy mountain stream

Fuzzy mountain stream

 

Look back at a mountain village

Look back at a mountain village

Mountain meadow

Mountain meadow

 

Riding to Mestia

Riding to Mestia

 

Ride the Snake

Ride the Snake

First campsite

First campsite

Crumbling Soviet mine

Crumbling Soviet mine

 

Roadside blackberries during siesta.  Makes wonderful jam!

Roadside blackberries during siesta. Makes wonderful jam!

 

A few tunnels on the way - it makes the grade more manageable!

A few tunnels on the way – it makes the grade more manageable!

Lots of waterfalls in the mountains.  Good for fresh drinking water and a shower siesta

Lots of waterfalls in the mountains. Good for fresh drinking water and a shower siesta

Typical lunch

High class lunch

Towers were built by rich families for prestige and protection.

Towers were built by rich families for prestige and protection.

 

MOUNTAINS

MOUNTAINS.  Nothing gets you more stoked to cycle

 

Cows are everywhere.  Gotta keep on the lookout around fast corners

Cows are everywhere. Gotta keep on the lookout around fast corners

Beautiful riding

Beautiful riding

Posterity shot

Posterity shot

Georgia is full of backpackers, hitchhikers, bikers and Polish tourists.  It rained in Mestia the day were were there and didn’t want to continue on the muddy road to Ushguli that day.  We asked the police for camping, they pointed at the center garden. Jacek, Andrea, Michael and I set up our tents.  Shortly after, a pair of Polish hitchhiking women show up and set up their tent.  Then a pair of Polish hitchhiking men show up and set up their tent.  We had a full tent town, complete with beer, wine and stray dogs in the middle of Mestia.

Camping site in Mestia

Camping site in Mestia

Caveman Jacek looking for fossils.  After an hour, we found NONE.

Caveman Jacek looking for fossils. After an hour, we found NONE.

Mountain Tower

Mountain tower

Mountain village

Mountain village

I MADE IT.  2600m mountain pass

I MADE IT. 2600m mountain pass

This awesome guy made it too

This awesome guy made it too

I need to make postcards of this stuff.

I need to make postcards of this stuff.

We were so happy to reach Ushguli!

We were so happy to reach Ushguli!

The city

The city.  Throwback to a century ago.

 

More mountain streams.  Haven't gotten sick yet - if it's coming from the mountains and there's no animals in-between I've found it to be safe.

More mountain streams. Haven’t gotten sick yet – if it’s coming from the mountains and there’s no animals in-between I’ve found it to be safe.

 

Camping in Ushguli, an amazingly beautiful area.  Full of pig shit, cow shit, sheep shit, goat shit.

Camping in Ushguli, an amazingly beautiful area. Full of pig shit, cow shit, sheep shit, goat shit and dog shit.

 

The lady across from our campsite killed a pig this morning

The lady across from our campsite killed a pig this morning

Nearby peak - 5200m

Nearby peak – 5200m

Beautiful Caucuses

Beautiful Caucuses

Michael from Austria and Andrea from Germany.  An awesome couple traveling to Central Asia.  I traded my international stove for a propane one with them.

Michael from Austria and Andrea from Germany. An awesome couple traveling to Central Asia. I traded my international stove for a propane one with them.

Mountain goats!

Mountain goats!

M

Goat party

 

Pig party

Pig party

 

Another fine bridge.  Didn't cross this one.

Another fine bridge. Didn’t cross this one.

Proof!

Proof!

Starting the descent.  I burned through my front and rear brake pads over two days.

Starting the descent. I burned through my front and rear brake pads over two days.

Taking a break in the middle of the road

Taking a break in the middle of the road

Mountain flowers were in full bloom.  There are many bee keepers in the mountains.

Mountain flowers were in full bloom. There are many bee keepers in the mountains.

 

Michael making magic stew (it's just tea!)

Michael making magic stew (it’s just tea!).  Jacek does not look impressed!

Riding down from the mountains, it gets hot.  We come across a swimming area made from a small dam and a diverted mountain stream.  It was a legitimate race to see who could strip down the fastest and dive in.

Swimming hole

Swimming hole

Cooking tea, Jacek's method.

Cooking tea, Jacek’s method.

Bike bath after muddy mountain riding

Bike bath after muddy mountain riding

Michael waiting on Andrea in the first small village on the descent from the mountains

Michael waiting on Andrea in the first small village on the descent from the mountains

 

I’m still not sold on Georgian cheese.  It’s salty.  VERY salty.  Sometimes the block of cheese even has salt crystals sprinkled on top.  It’s difficult to eat without something to soak up the sodium.  At least it keeps very well because of the salt.

Typical cheese

Typical cheese

After we reach the flatlands, Andrea and Michael decide to spend a night in Kutaisi.  Jacek and I continue cycling.  We meet a pair of English cyclists – speed guys.  They were decked out with proper gear and sponsored.  They were genuinely positive people and talked with amazing speed and stamina.  They slowed down for a day to ride with us; we found a campsite across the river.  The catch is we had to cross this crazy Indiana Jones bridge.  We were rewarded with a good river for swimming.  Locals were there, some fishing.  While the Englishmen were talking a mile a minute, a loud sound from the river made us all look back.  The locals were fishing with grenades!

Bridge...one at a time!

Bridge…one at a time!

Near Gori we met up with an awesome French couple, an Iranian, and by coincidence, back up with Michael and Andrea!

Near Gori we met up with an awesome French couple, an Iranian, and by coincidence, back up with Michael and Andrea!  All cycling, of course.

We set up camp in the sandstone formations.

We set up camp in the sandstone formations.  After I unsuccessfully try to fix Andreas front derailleur, we all eat dinner.  The French couple play their flues and sing in harmony into night, and Moslim plays an Iranian guitar-like instrument that sounds magnificently exotic to my ears.  Bike tourers have excellent community.

Khathapuri, a common Georgian food.  Basically a cheese quesadilla.

Khathapuri, a common Georgian food. Basically a cheese quesadilla.

We find "miracle plums" on the side of the road in Gori.  Snacking ensues.

We find “miracle plums” on the side of the road in Gori. Snacking ensues.

 

Wonderful quiet ride on side roads into Gori

Wonderful quiet ride on side roads into Gori

Old cave town near Gori.  One of the oldest villages - cycling through it was easy to see why this valley was settled.

Old cave town near Gori. One of the oldest villages – cycling through it was easy to see why this valley was settled.

 

Picked up another traveler

Picked up another traveler

 

An afternoon beer makes for difficult afternoon cycling

Afternoon beer makes for difficult afternoon cycling

Andrea and I are doing OK

Andrea and I are doing OK

The flat valley to Tiblisi

The flat valley to Tbilisi

Partner

Phase two really feels different than the first.  I am traveling into the mountains with Jasik (Yatsik), a Polish grandfather who worked as an Electrical Engineer.  He is traveling extremely light and inexpensively – his budget is around 8 Euros per day.  I expect to learn a lot from him as we trek into small Georgian mountain towns.  I doubt I will post here much due to limited internet access.

The Azerbaijan visa was pretty simple in Batumi.  Two passport copies, two photos and $172 gets me a month in the country.  The consulate was pretty relaxed – we arrived at the building on time (10am) but were told to wait 10 minutes by the guard.  We wander down the street a few meters and a man starts talking to us in English – “Do you want coffee?”  We shake our heads and continue on, but he presses: “where are you from?”  – I answer.  He says he’s the consulate.  We get a coffee with him as he smokes a few cigarettes.  Sufficiently buzzed, we all walk into his office and fill out the paperwork.  Two hours, no fuss.

Across the Black Sea

The process to board the ferry felt like a quest in Zelda.  The man I was in email communication set up a meeting at the ferry main office in Odessa at 11am the day of boarding.  I walk over from my hostel and was greeted with an overly (for Ukrainian standards) jovial middle aged man.  After payment, I receive a booklet with an inordinate amount of carbon copies of my ticket and an excessive amount of ink stamps.  But this isn’t my actual ticket – I need bike to the Ichillivsk office and meet a woman at 4pm who would give me the actual ticket.  I got detailed directions to the office (including a picture of it) and GPS coordinates.

I walked back to the hostel, packed up my gear, said my goodbyes, and set off on the 10km journey to the ticketing office.  This was the first time back in the saddle for a week and it felt PERFECT.  It was comfortable and familiar.  The ride out from Odessa was OK: excessive traffic moving in and out of the roadway, dogs, narrow roads.  Par for the course.  I get to the ticketing office only an hour later.   Feeling the freedom on my bike, I ride around the peninsulla and stop in a bar for a beer, then in a “produkti” for some snacks on the road, and another bar for some delicious food: three soft meat patties, mashed potatoes and borsh, for about $4.  It’s about 3:30, so I ride back to the office and find Ewa, a nice Polish woman on a long adventure that I met at the hostel, waiting outside the office.  We go to the office and receive more pieces of paper, more stamps, and lose one carbon copy.

It’s then a short ride from the office to the waiting area.  Ewa takes the bus, I ride.  In the small stuffy waiting room filled with a ridiculous amount of baggage, we meet two other cyclists (Canadian and Polish) and two Polish women.  We all make friends and wait.  We look at our tickets to find out our rooms, but the information doesn’t appear to be there.  We joke about a third area and more stamps to get our room.  Advance two hours and we get metered in, two-by-two, to the customs area.  There’s a big X-ray machine and I fear I’ll have to unload my bike and put the bags through the machine.  Nope, it’s just there, nobody puts any bags through. OK.  I get my Ukraine exit stamp and go to another waiting area.  We all end up waiting there for another two hours (total = 4 hours!) before we were allowed on the ship.  It felt like the passengers really get second-class treatment to the trucks and train.  Luckily there was a bar attached to the waiting station, but strangely enough all the doors were locked, ostensibely for some security concern.  No problem, they opened the window and took orders.  I wasn’t particuarly interested in food or beer, though, I just thought it was a good way around the system.

We eventually board the ferry after four hours of waiting.  As I receive my room key, the lady behind the counter notes “all announcements are in Russian, so follow the crowd.”  In fact, signs here are a strange mix of English, Russian and German, with most signs only in one of the three.  No smoking signs are everywhere (except a small smoking room) in a futile attempt to quell the urges of nearly every Eastern European on the boat.

Passengers come from everywhere – many Georgian truck drivers, but Ewa and I find two Polish women backpackers, one retired Canadian bike tourer, a great Slovak couple touring the Caucuses on motorbike, and one old-man-of-the-sea Polish bike tourer who I plan to ride with.  This makes for an excellent crowd; my money spent on overpriced beer, my time spent staring at the sea, learning the Georgian alphabet (second new alphabet on the trip!) and watching movies with Ewa.  I’ll just not talk about the food.

Hugh

Hugh

Ride around Illichvsk

Ride around Illichvsk

Definitely Mafia

Definitely Mafia

Ewa at the window-bar

Ewa at the window-bar

Tourers!

Tourers!  Hugh and Yatsik

My berth - I had it all to myself

My berth – I had it all to myself

DSC03611

Crimea

Crimea

What is this supposed to be?

What is this supposed to be?

Port Batumi

Port Batumi