April 13

After an incredibly pleasant stay in Baku where I made so many friends and had such a good time, we were finally able to make it to the boat today.  We got notice at 11am that there was a boat, and it was leaving at 7pm – we had to pick up tickets by 12 and be there by 5!  Not a hell of a lot of time to get things done, so we summoned the help of our Azeri crew. After about ten minutes, Chinara told me she would be able to come over and help me with the tickets – great success.  She called the ticket office who told us that we had until 1pm to get tickets, so no need to panic, then she arrived at 12 at our place with a taxi in tow.  Kamran arrived at the same time, and he ran upstairs to help Ryan get the taxi sorted out, as well as consume the rest of the new Game of Thrones episodes before we headed out into the great Asian yonder. 

We made it to the ticket office pretty quickly, with Chinara asking one pertinent question on the way – would we need our passports? I assured her that probably wouldn’t be a problem.  Obviously, I turned out to be wrong, but with scans of my passport on my phone, and Ryan’s quickly sent through to her phone we managed to dodge that bullet.  Just as we were about to leave, Chinara’s face widened in horror as she heard the woman in charge say that there was no boat today, but thankfully, that was to Turkmenistan – we were still on our lucky streak. Our boat, however, would not leave until 10pm, so we didn’t need to be there until 8.  Since it was 1230 and we’d just had a number of near heart attacks getting ourselves in order we headed back to the flat to relax. 

Since the port the ferry leaves from is, of course, 70km south of Baku, we had a taxi booked for 615.  As it arrives, we realise it’s way too small to get the bikes in, so Kamran calls two more and as I stress on the steps outside the apartment, they slowly make their way over.  We manage to fit the bikes inside one of the taxis, with only a little shoving, and we’re off!  It takes us about an hour to get to the port – made more difficult by the fact that it’s so new it doesn’t show up on any maps – and after we’ve unloaded our bikes and bags, we quickly dash through customs to find the only boat in the port – the Agdam, our home for the next day – or potentially more.

April 4

Woke up hungover as shit, and once we’d finally dragged our bodies out of bed, we went for lunch at a London pub and had a full English.  Not enough beans and the sausages were a bit weird, but it was excellent nonetheless.  Afterwards, we returned to the Shirvanshah’s palace to take the posed photos again, as Umut and Jochem wanted to do it.  After wandering around the old town and having a pint in an Irish bar while watching the football, we went to an Azeri volleyball game. 

Women’s volleyball seems to be a big game in Azerbaijan, and people take it very seriously.  One of Jochem’s friends work as the physio to Lokomotiv, so they quickly became our team.  I must admit, I wasn’t expecting much, but one I was able to understand what was happening it turned out to be awesome. Our team won as well, which was nice, and after screaming ourselves hoarse we went home and I passed out.  Waking again at 1am, it turned out everyone was still up drinking beer so of course I joined them and stayed up until 6am. 

April 3

We woke in the morning to meet Jochem, a Dutch guy working for the Embassy, and Vicente, a Spanish guy who had been studying in Baku.  They were Umut’s flatmates and super friendly – Vicente offered to show us around Baku which was real nice of him.  He showed us some of the sights, then took us to a miniature book museum, which was surprisingly cool, and then we headed to the Shirvanshah’s palace where we got some incredible photos taken.

That night, we had a few beers then came incredibly close to booking flights to Las Vegas for Umut to marry his American girlfriend.  We’d found flights, arranged what to do with all our stuff (one of the guys would take a night train from Baku to Tbilisi) and figured out how to continue on as we’d have to miss out Turkmenistan.  Just as we were about to book flights, Umut’s girlfriend wisely told us that if they got married, he would have to stay in the country for at least two months otherwise he’d be barred from American citizenship.  So we ended up going out to a couple of bars and clubs instead and had a great night, but man, we came so close to a side adventure that we could really taste it.

April 2

Woke early and on the road quickly, keen to get to Sheki as soon as we could.  It was a chill morning and the clouds were in, but thankfully it wasn’t raining too hard.  It didn’t take us too long to arrive, two hours or so, and once we arrived we did the usual – go to the main square and find some WiFi.  In this case, a basement tea/beer shop, which I felt to be an odd combination.  With a little help from google translate, the guys in the shop were able to tell us where we could get a bus to Baku, how long it would take and how expensive it was.  As we need to be there tomorrow, bright and early, we’re bussing it to Baku. 

The bus station wasn’t hard to find, and buying tickets considerably easier.  The man spoke English, the only bus that we could put our bikes in was leaving in an hour and it was only 6 Manat.  Result!  Ryan decided to guard the stuff, among the rapidly growing crowd of people, and I hopped on mine, sans kit, to head off to the caravanserai.  Of course, it was the top of the bloody hill and cobblestones all the way, but it was beautiful, and suitably ancient.  I wandered around for a few minutes, then realised my bus was leaving in a half hour so high-tailed it back down the hill to the station.  We loaded up our bikes – literally wheeled them straight on – and embarked.  The trip was slow, incredibly hot and full of truly terrible azeri music and TV, but we got to Baku in six hours, so a punishment worth managing. 

We arrived in Baku at 8pm on the outskirts of the city, and after a suitably traumatic ride, involving the only route into Baku being a motorway, going the wrong way, some bloody mental driving and Ryan’s front light not working, we arrived outside The Brewery, a pub in the centre of town where we were meeting Umut, our host from couchsurfing.  We headed inside to find a crowd of expats and a large number of Scots, which was a pleasant surprise, and we whiled away the evening telling them of our adventure so far, before a stroll through Baku to Umut’s place where we passed out.

April 1

The vino may not pack a hangover, but the tchacha certainly does.  I rolled out of bed this morning, bleary-eyed and non-bushy-tailed (smooth-tailed?) and after washing my face and having some breakfast while completely failing to be able to communicate with the owner, we grabbed our bikes from outside and headed off.  It seemed like someone had gone through our stuff, but camera, wallet, phone and passport were all there so no harm, no foul. 

The hangover was manifesting itself in us being completely unable to cycle quickly.  It took us a few hours to reach Lagodekhi, and when we stopped at a petrol station for a break, Ryan discovered that even though our mysterious raider hadn’t taken any of our things, they had taken all of his dollars.  A quick check of my bag led to the same conclusion.  Annoying, but they hadn’t taken anything useful, so screw it. 

When we arrived at the border crossing we discovered that the guards spoke good English, and we all had a good chat about what we were doing.  It’s nice to see people smiling again as well – in Georgia it’s rare for people to smile at you on the street I’ve found.  I think it’s a hangover from Soviet times – they’ll wave, but people seem to be less willing to return a smile. 

We had great riding from the border to Zagatala as most of it was downhill, but the road to Gax was the worst we’ve had on the trip.  It started off well enough, but soon devolved into a dirt track and slowed us down considerably.  At one point while the road was still good, I was convinced I was going to be robbed. A car slammed on the brakes as soon as it passed me, a door opened and a thick, deep Russian voice shouted out ‘Davai!’ and then the two other doors opened and three men in leather jackets jumped out and walked towards me.  I put my hand in my pocket and unfolded my knife in case things got interesting, but they immediately broke into smiles and laughter.  Tension eased, I explained what we were doing, and a few seconds later Ryan arrived and we headed off again. 

We arrived in Gax late in the day, and after the local youth team came to say hello, we rode off in the direction of Sheki.  Sheki has one of the best caravanserais on the Silk Road, so I was keen to go see it.  We asked for directions, as the maps hadn’t been great in telling us road conditions, and we were pointed to a road that didn’t even appear on our maps.  Who cares, so long as it’s smooth.  And it was.  It was beautiful.  Smooth, flat, with a great big hard shoulder and no cars. 

We stopped to camp once we’d ridden to the bottom of a big hill, and just as we were looking for a place to set up, a man and his little brother turned up on their wee motor trike.  They told us that this place was no good to camp, and dragged us over the road to a farmer tending some sheep.  These guys had never met I don’t think, but they soon found us a place to sleep.  The farmer – or as it turned out he wasn’t a farmer – was leaving the house he was, so we could have it for the night.  He lit us a fire, made us some tea then buggered off to let us relax.  I say house – it was a single room with a bed and a stove, but it felt like heaven to us.  A quick meal of rice and we were asleep, hangover finally subsiding.

March 31

Finally headed out of Tbilisi this morning.  Took us a while as Ryan’s brakes were a bit of an issue and navigating the city itself was pretty confusing.  Once we hit the road we cruised pretty well, stopping once when an ex-champion wrestler and his friends hailed us down to drink a few glasses of beer with us.  The countryside wasn’t as pretty as western Georgia, but the people were still incredibly friendly, waving and calling out to us as we passed.  The road towards Tsnori was great fun and as we headed through the town itself some Georgian guys called out to us, so of course we stopped for some food.  The tchacha came out pretty quickly, and after a few glasses we were invited to stay with someone.  The tchacha continued, as did the vino for quite a while. 

March 30

No mail today – the plane was coming from Israel.  Our visa for Turkmenistan starts one week from today so time is starting to screw down on us.  It’s a problem.  We simply don’t have enough time to cross Azerbaijan by bike and arrange things for Turkmenistan. 

We decided we needed to leave asap, but had a few things to sort out first.  Just as we sat down to get them done, the internet cut out of course so we were sat holding ourselves for twenty minutes until we upped and sat outside a closed cafe that had internet and got them done. We’re trying to get our things sent to Baku now instead of Tbilisi, but no idea if it’s going to work.  Ryan went out to try and pick up some replacement brake pads for his bike as it didn’t looking like his were coming through and he was even able to pick up some fuel for the stove!  He got back at about 4pm, so there wasn’t really much point in leaving by this point.  Even though nothing had arrived for us with Nino, I went to meet her and her friends.  They were incredibly nice and after some mulled wine we went to an authentic Georgian restaurant and had a few beers and an illuminating discussion about Georgian politics.  Nino is an journalist, and is quite anti-government, which is funny as both of her friends have positions in the govt.  Considering politics is a massive deal in Georgia, compared to the UK at least, as they’ve only ever had three or four democratically elected leaders, it was a very interesting night.

March 29

Still nothing arrived with Nino, and the situation is starting to look a little dire.  Considering I’ve been able to find new brake pads I’m not in such a bad situation, but Ryan definitely needs some new ones and we’ve not seen any in the places we’ve been to. 

Another problem is that we simply don’t have enough time.  I was far too tight with my scheduling of crossing countries, and that’s left us with an issue.  We need to be in Baku at least a day or two before the 6th – when our visa for Turkmenistan starts – but after some sleuthing, I found out the Turkmen Embassy in Baku is only open on Fridays and Mondays.  Considering we’re not going to be able to get there tomorrow, we need to be there by next Friday.  But we really need our stuff to arrive in Tbilisi, so want to give it the maximum chance for it to get there.  Nino tells me there’s a flight coming in on Monday with mail, so fingers crossed our stuff will be on there.  I think we’re going to have to take a train across at least part of Azerbaijan, or we just won’t have enough time. 

I spent the day today looking around town, especially the fortress on the top of the hill and the statue of Mother Georgia.  Tbilisi is a really cool looking town, and it feels incredibly genuine.  I highly recommend it to anyone – it combines the shabby chic of southern France, like Nice, with the some of the trendiness of Berlin and a little dash of Soviet what-the-fuck to make a really awesome city.  At night, I met up with a friend of my brother’s, Sandro, who is a really cool guy.  He worked as an artist in London and Moscow for some time then came back to Georgia and ended up opening the first gay-friendly bar in the country.  It became incredibly trendy, and it’s easily one of the coolest bars I’ve been to in my life – very low-key with great music and Sandro’s paintings on the walls.  2am came and went and I realised I should probably head back, so I wandered through the streets of the city, trying to count how many leather jackets I could see.  I quickly lost count. 

March 28

Tbilisi was one of our drop points for packages, parts and spares, so I’d been given a contact by my friend Vlad with whom we could have things sent.  Nino was perfectly happy for us to have our stuff sent to her, but by the time we’d arrived none of our stuff had and it wasn’t looking good.  Not to be deterred, we went to a local bike shop that had some expertise in touring bikes – most of the bikes in Georgia are downhill or cross-country bikes due to the poor quality of the road – and we got a bit of a tune up.  I picked up some spare brake pads in case the ones I’ve had sent to Nino’s don’t arrive and Ryan got some work done on his bike.

As we were waiting for our bikes to be looked over, we wandered around looking for some place to eat and stumbled into a Wendy’s, an American fast food chain, which was both disgusting and delicious in equal measures.  Tbilisi has a lot of American fast food chains: Subway, Dunkin Donuts; Wendy’s; and the ubiquitous KFC, Burger King and McDonalds.  I think this is because of the heavy presence of UN and NGO’s in Tbilisi, but I’m not really sure.  After we got our bikes looked at we cycled through the streets of Tbilisi and went back to the hostel to rest.

March 27

Great night last night, plenty warm so didn’t really need the sleeping bag too much.  We get our stuff together, make some porridge and wave goodbye to our new friends and start to ride.  Well, after three hours we’d done 14k, which is a truly horrible amount of distance.  We were going uphill the entire time, but it was the headwind that was the real kicker.  It was just incredibly powerful, knocking Ryan off his bike once and literally forcing me to a halt as I was going downhill – I’ve never experienced anything like it on a bike, it was about 50km/h winds.

As I’m puffing away up this hill, I see two cyclists in the distance coming towards us and they turn out to be two french guys who’ve been riding recumbents for the past two and a half years around the world.  In every city they went to they tried to set up an art installation and they carried all the gear they needed to do it – which is an insane amount of kit.  We talked for an hour or so and then we all carried on, with them being taken by the wind down the valley and us crawling into it up the hill. 

We finally managed to get up the tunnel that took us to Khashuri and once we were at the tunnel I decided that the distance we were doing was not enough to keep us to our schedule – not a big deal unless you realise that if we miss our dates we won’t be able to continue as we won’t be able to enter the countries we’ve got visas for!  We cycled down through the tunnel and once we arrived in Khashuri we had an option.  A train in four hours, taking three hours, that we might be able to get on for 1 Lari, or a taxi for 50 Lari, taking an hour and a half.  It wasn’t a difficult decision, and 90 minutes later we’d arrived in Tbilisi.  One confusing moment was when we’d arrived in the outskirts of Tbilisi, and either the driver was not happy about driving in the city, or didn’t know his way around – he called a friend to come drive us into the centre while he sat in the boot with our bikes. 

Minutes after we’d pulled up near a park and were loading up our stuff, a cyclist (named Georgi of course) came up to his asking for a pump and we fell to talking.  We explained what we were doing and he recommended a hostel in the old town.  We pushed our bikes through the cobbled streets and up to the hostel – which was also the one a friend Sandro had recommended it turned out – and Ryan went in to check there were rooms.  I heard screams coming from inside and rushed in to see our friend Suzi, an American  we met in Thessalonike who’s been on the road for the past ten years or so, in the room we were going to be in!  We grabbed some cheap dinner and fell asleep early, exhausted by the day.