Uzbekistan


DSC02757You need to be careful what you wish for. After cycling through the mountains of Greece, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan we were looking forward to some flat roads in Uzbekistan. Our wish was granted we had flat roads which would take us to Tashkent but we also had strong headwinds and temperatures in the low 40s. I think we will have to be more specific with our wishes in future!

The ride into Bukhara should have been easy but not against a 30km head wind which blew sand in our faces and when we found shelter for something to eat blew our bikes over and covered our food in sand.

DSC02769The roads were better than those in Turkmenistan and for the first time since Albania we were seeing people using bikes to get around.  The cars were nearly all small Daewoo/Chryslers because there is an assembly plant for them in Uzbekistan, plus the usual  contingent of Ladas. The driving was pretty good and even on some narrow stetches we always felt safe.

Pip with some friendly Uzbek ladies.

Pip with some friendly Uzbek ladies.

The people were really friendly as well. Whenever we stopped people would come up to us to talk, asking where we were from and how old we were. Fellow cyclists would share our complaints about the wind. There were stretches of desert but also arable land and some trees.

300,000 som= $100

300,000 som= $100

DSC02807The Middle East was certainly different. We were having to keep drinking and drinking because of the heat.  Along the roads women were selling fresh apricots and cherries which were delicious. The cities were fabulous with amazing buildings in Bukhara and Samarkand. The women were wearing bright colours and the sun was very hot. There was a big difference between the official and black market exchange rates. On the black market you could get 3,000 Som to the dollar. Money changers were easy to find but you needed to take a shopping bag with you to carry the notes back.

The old town in Bukhara was spectacular and whilst we were there the annual silk and spice festival was on. There was music and dancing everywhere. Despite the heat the bazaars remained cool.  The old town used to be covered in bazaars with numerous medrassas and mosques. A few of the bazaars remained and the medrassas had been restored. The medrassas were schools with rooms opening out onto a large central courtyard usually with an integrated mosque. Most dated from the 16th and 17th century.

Unfortunately Pip picked up a stomach bug in Bukhara which made cycling a bit difficult. We made an early start to beat the heat and made the 105km to Navoi but Pip was wiped out. We found a hotel in Navoi and I searched for a taxi to take us on to Samarkand the next day. The journey was a bit of a nightmare with the taxi driver spending all the time on his phone and narrowly avoiding crashing a few times.

Samarkand was a lot bigger city with a far less defined old town. The Medrassas were spectacular as were the Mausoleums. It had a very different feel to it though, it felt like a modern city with polished tourist attractions.

Chorsu bazaar Tashkent

Chorsu bazaar Tashkent

We needed to get visas for Kazahkstan in Tashkent and were disappointed that these would take over a week to process. Tashkent itself is a big city spread over a large area with no real centre. It had been raised to the ground by an earthquake in 1966. It had been rebuilt as a modern Russian city with wide roads, big monuments plenty of big parks and thousands of apartment buildings. It had a good metro with grand stations which were all Russian built. It was quite easy to cycle around despite the heat but too big to walk anywhere.

We had been on the road now for a year and hadn’t seen some of our family for nearly 2 years. There were problems on the road ahead through Kyrgystan to China. Whilst waiting for our visa to come through we decided to take a few weeks break and fly home and catch up with our family.

 

 

Turkmenistan in 28hrs!

DSC02735We always knew that getting through Turkmenistan would be problematic. Firstly you can only get a 5 day transit visa, then you have to specify the dates, then you have to catch a boat with no schedule from Baku in Azebaijan to Turkmenabashi. Then there is the 1300km journey to Turkmenabaht and the border with Uzbekistan.

We had read that when you finally catch a ferry you can be held up as there are only 2 berths for docking in Turkmenabashi. The record for the wait seemed to be 72hrs.

We finally got tickets for a boat leaving the same day as our visa started. We were told that the boat was leaving in half an hour so we made a mad dash back to the hotel and the 8km to the new port. No one there had a clue what was going on, after about an hour of getting increasingly frustrated trying to find out what was happening we were told that the boat was leaving from the old port. We flew back to where we started and after going through customs got on the boat at midday.

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Bikes safely stowed

Bikes safely stowed

Clean cabins

Clean cabins

It was a bit of a rust bucket but better than we expected. We were given a 4 berth cabin with clean sheets and there were clean toilets and even showers. Things were looking up. We sailed at 13.30 and after a very calm crossing arrived off the coast of Turkmenistan the following morning where we anchored. This was day 2 of our Turkmen visa. Nothing else happened that day. We met Mike and Valerie on the boat with their little dog Layla who were also heading to Uzkekistan but on an ex army Daf/Leyland converted camper van. http://valerieratcliffe04.wordpress.com/

Azerbaijany oil rigs

Azerbaijany oil rigs

Another sunrise on the Cspian sea

Another sunrise on the Caspian sea

Day 3 of our Turkmen visa, no movememt another hot sunny calm day. We heard rumours that the captain was ill and that was why we were delayed and that they were sending out another captain.

relaxing on board

relaxing on board

Day 4 of our Turkmen visa and we were woken at 6 by the boat raising anchors and heading for port. We figured that we should be on land in a few hours giving us 2 days to get across Turkmenistan. We had planned on using trains but they were very slow so it was looking more like a taxi journey. We chatted to a couple of Georgians who were driving a couple of cars to Ashgabat. They told us that for $100 we should be able to get a taxi to Ashgabat which would take 6-7hrs. Nothing much happened in the morning after we docked until at about 11 we were let off the boat to go through customs.

Turkmenabashi at last.

Turkmenabashi at last.

This consisted of filling out a form which was in Turkmen declaring why we were coming to Turkmenistan and what we were bringing with us. We had to pay $12 each to get into the country. The customs were only interested in what medicines we were carrying particularly any codeine or tramadol.Fortunately Mike had warned us before and we had flushed any offending drugs. The customs offiers were generally friendly and spoke a little English.

At 13.30 we left the port and cycled off to find a taxi. After asking around we found the taxis, and we negotiated our journey. We stuck out for $100 and squeezed all our bags and 2 bikes into a Toyota people carrier and headed off to Ashgabat. The road started off nice and smooth and then deteriorated. At one stage it got so bad that our driver took a detour across the desert which turned out to be a lot smoother until we started hitting loose sand. The last thing we needed was to get stuck in a Turkmen desert. After a stop to clean all the sand off his car we made it into Ashgabat at 20.30. We dumped all our stuff in a hotel and went out looking for food.
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Ashgabat was very clean with treelined boulevards and lots of white shiny buildings. There were giant potraits of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow the President of Turkmenistan on some of the buildings.
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Ashgabat at night

Ashgabat at night

Day 5 we needed another taxi to get us the 700km to the Uzbek border. We got up early and went in search of a taxi. Unfortunately there were diversions so we had problems finding one. Eventually we found another Toyota people carrier and headed off. We spent the journey wishing that the driver wouldn’t drive quite so fast over some truly dreadful surfaces, only slowing down for the numerous traffic police who usually positioned themselves on the smoother roads.

We had been told that the border crossing sometimes closes as early as 6, but fortunately we were dropped off at 5. We stuck the bikes back together fast and cycled up to the border. There were huge queues of lorries waiting but we passed all these and after filling out an identical customs form again only in Turkmen we had our passport stamped rapidly, as the customs officials wanted to go home. Goodbye Turkmenistan.

More form filling at the Uzbek border. The border post was home to swallows who were swooping in and out of the building as our belongings were x-rayed and we were processed. They were busy feeding nests full of hungry youngsters.Once again the customs officers were only interested in any medicines we were carrying. We had to declare all the money we had as you are not allowed to leave the country with more than you have brought in. The guards were friendly and were interested in our trip and where we were going.

It was 8.00pm by the time we hit the road and had about half an hour to ride before stopping and spending our first night camping in the desert.

Costs
2 transit visas $170
2 berths on “ferry” $180
entry to Turkmenistan $24
taxi to Ashgabat $100
taxi to the border Farap border crossing $130
total $604 or $21 dollars an hour to stay in Turkmenistan!!!

Turkmenistan looks to be a relatively wealthy country. Most of the houses looked in good condition. Most of the cars on the roads were more expensive Toyotas. The roads are appalling but they do seem to be building new ones but it looks a slow process. The few people we met were friendly, it’s a shame we had to rush through it, because of their ridiculous transit visa system.

Azerbaijan is not flat!

DSC02692The altitude when we left Georgia was 600 metres and Baku was at -29 so it should be all downhill from the border! The border crossing was straight forward,  our panniers went through an x-ray machine, everyone was friendly. After a couple of hours we were cycling along quiet tree lined roads with excellent tarmac.

Leaving the Balaken region

Leaving the Balaken region

An early start after camping in the cooler woods.

An early start after camping in the cooler woods.

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It was less than 1km before we had our first tea stop, a farmer beckoned us to stop and join him and his family for some excellent Azeri cay. This would set the tone for the rest of the day. It was very hot well into high 30s and cay was surprisingly refreshing. There were shepherds herding big flocks along the road and horse and carts. The few cars were all Ladas.

The Kervanseray Seki

The Kervanseray Seki

We were heading for Seki to stay in the  17th century Kervanseray which had been restored into a hotel. Typically, it was set on a hill and the last 8 kms were all up.  Seki is a pretty city with the truly amazing Palace of the Shaki Khans built in 1797 which has the most exquisite interiors with beautiful stained glass windows.

We stayed in the Kervanseray for one night in a typical vaulted room with our transport safely beneath us like centuries of travellers on the silk road have done before.

Kervanseray Seki

Kervanseray Seki

Fortunately the weather was changing and we had a few overcast days. We made the most of these  to put some distance in before the hot weather returned. The roads were definately up and down. We took shelter in a petrol station from a thunderstorm and enquired about the road ahead. Up and down we were told with 4 ups.Each up got steeper and higher and the downs shorter. The last up was just under 400 metres of vertical climb with an average gradient of 10%. Hitting 17% in places…….

Another thunderstorm and we took shelter in this tea house. We had tea and were given a lovely meal of bread cheese and salad and then they refused to let us pay!

Another thunderstorm and we took shelter in this tea house. We had tea and were given a lovely meal of bread cheese and salad and then they refused to let us pay!

Tea stop in search of "super tarmac"

Tea stop in search of “super tarmac”

The roads were very good and often tree lined which gave some welcome shade. We had asked about best routes at various tea houses and after a general discussion we were advised on the best roads and those that had “super tarmac”. As we got nearer the bigger towns the ratio of Ladas to SUVs dropped. The driving was generally good and we were given plenty of space and felt safe on the roads.

After our up and down day we had made it to Samaxi and stayed in a cheap hotel on the edge of town. The wind picked up and overnight it started raining heavily. This carried on all next morning. We wanted to get to Baku 115km away. It was too wet to cycle and we didn’t want to spend another day in the hotel.

We set off hoping that the rain would stop. It was pretty clear that was unlikely so we decided to try a taxi. We stopped a Lada estate with a big roof rack and negotiated a ride to the edge of Baku. The route took us through scrubby looking desert into Baku.

We liked Baku, it is a big modern city with loads of beautifully kept parks. It has a well restored old town and some amazing modern buildings.There is  a lovely park  with a long boulevard right on the shore of the Caspian. The Caspian glimmers with a rather odd reddish hue due to the pollution.

The roads are big and wide often 6 lanes and cycling through it was easy. Most of the cars were big and expensive and gave us a wide berth. The driving was less frenetic than in Turkey.

Turkmenistan visas

We had read various blogs about getting a transit visa for Turkmenistan in Baku and none had inspired any confidence. The embassy and bank had moved and people reported problems.

We easily found the embassy by searching on gomap.az and cycled there. The embassy opened at 9.30. It is only open for visas on Monday and Friday mornings. We had applied in Ankara and after a little time (the Azeri and Turkish computer systems don’t talk to each other) we were sent to pay at a bank a few km away near the centre. We returned to pick up our visas  170$ lighter. The staff were very pleasant and spoke reasonable english. We posted the details on http://caravanistan.com/visa/turkmenistan/

The next step was to get tickets  for the boat across the Caspian to Turkmenabashi. Again most blogs had covered the difficulties people had encountered. We found the office fairly easily. It is run by a very nice lady who speaks russian. There were no boats today but hopefully we will get one tomorrow.

 

 

 

Georgia beautiful Georgia

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Georgia is beautiful and despite what some blogs say has some excellent roads and very friendly people. We enjoyed one of the best downhills ever dropping down from Tsalka to the Algeti river. Losing 600 metres over 13km on smooth roads with amazing scenery. We also had the un-nerving experience of cycling down through a thunderstorm as we dropped down from 2000 metres. What started with a bit of cloud from above, turned into torrential rain with thunder and lightening as we dropped down through it.

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We came in from Posof on the Turkish border into Akhaltitze and followed the valley up to Ninotsminda and then past lake Paravani and onto Tbilisi. The scenery along the valley from Akhaltitze was breathtaking. We met Den who was heading into Armenia and then on to Iran and eventually Australia. We cycled together for a couple of days and we were sorry to say goodbye when we headed off to Tbilisi.

This is where we parted our ways.

This is where we parted our ways.

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Bridge over the river Paravani

Bridge over the river Paravani

mountain vilage Paravani

mountain vilage Paravani

Another amazing downhill on good roads brought us into Tbilisi. A beautiful city with some lovely old buildings (some ravaged) and plenty of interesting new ones as well. We spent a couple of days enjoying the sights and eating very well. All for very little money, for a capital city it is very good value. We discovered some excellent Georgian wines.

Amazing downhill that went on for ever.

Amazing downhill that went on for ever.

One of the main difficulties cycling through Georgia was staying sober. Everywhere you stopped people were keen to get you to try their wine or spirits. We stayed in a guest house in Signaghi with Nato and Lado who owned a vinyard and were keen to show off their wine and spirits. We were soon joined by their friends ad neighbours who were happy to move on to beers as the wine and spirits began to run low. How do they manage to get up in the mornings?

The start of the evening with Nato and Lado with white wine red wine and spirits all ready to go!

The start of the evening with Nato and Lado with white wine red wine and spirits all ready to go!

From Tbilisi we headed east towards Lagodekhi and the border with Azerbaijan. Once again the roads were good. We were having a rest when a car stopped and Lado got out offering to drive us the 100km to his guest house in Signaghi. We were heading towards Signaghi and took up his offer for the accomodation but not the lift. The next day we bumped into the whole family on the road again this time about 30km away from Signaghi. They offered to take our panniers to ease our load. We were already suffering with the heat in the high 30s and were only too happy to accept particularily as the last 8 kms were all uphill.
Signaghi is a beautiful small town perched on a hill overlooking the plain and a wine growing area.

Signahli

Signahli

From Signaghi it was a short 50km ride to Lagodekhi and the border. We set off early to avoid the heat and got to Lagodekhi very quickly. We decided to go up to the Lagodekhi nature reserve where a friendly ranger offered to look after our bikes whilst we went for a hike along one of the trails to a waterfall. This proved a bit more strenuous than planned, having to cross rivers by paddling and scramble up steep banks. We camped in the reserve which was home to wolves, bears, lynx and coyotes.

Very cold water.

Very cold water.

The following day it was a short ride to the border with a quick stop to buy our last Georgian bread. You can smell the bakeries before you come upon them. They sell the bread through a small window, which is often hard to spot.
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We spent just under 2 weeks in Georgia but would  have loved to have stayed longer. We needed to keep heading east before the summer came. Georgia is a great place to visit. It is getting back on it’s feet after the war with Russia and they have invested heavily in developing their tourism. All it needs are more people to visit. It is a great place to cycle tour, you just need to be able to hold your alcohol!

The castle at Akhaltsike, renovated complete with restaurant and wine tasting, empty.

The castle at Akhaltsike, renovated complete with restaurant and wine tasting, empty.

North East Turkey

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Beautiful gorges, wide open steppe, alpine valleys and mostly good roads. We were expecting something more barren! Powered by a tail wind we flew east from Erzurum along a big but quiet road heading for Kars. We turned off at Horasan following a river valley which gradually narrowed into a gorge.
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We camped by the river in a beautiful spot. The next day we climbed up to the steppe and enjoyed a long downhill to Kars.

downhill to Kars

downhill to Kars

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Kars is an interesting and cosmopolitan town with a lot of russian buildings dating from the 19th century when Russia had control of the city.We bumped into Cihan an english student who was keen to practice his english. He fixed up for us to meet his english class that evening. We had a fun time, Kars university has nearly 20,000 students from all over Turkey. They must be a hardy bunch to survive the very cold winters with snow for 5 months and temperatures down to -30c.

We visited Ani, a medieval Armenian city from the 10th century, wiped out by Genghis Khan and his hordes as they swept west. It still is an impressive site perched next to a gorge in the middle of a vast steppe. One of the many parts of the Silk Road passed through this city which rivalled Byzantium in it’s day, wth a population estimated at 100 000.

DSC02542From Kars we headed north to Lake Cildir sitting at 2,000 metres. we passed through small villages and were surprised to find that cows were the main farming stock at such a high altitude. The small houses had bricks made from cow pats drying outside for their winter fuel. The wind was picking up and it had become very hard work trying to cycle into it. We managed to find some shelter among some trees by the lake and camped early.

DSC02543There were new roads being built everywhere we went in Turkey and as we headed for the border sure enough they were road building again. This usually consisted of digging up the old road and replacing it with something a lot wider. Whilst the road was being built you were expected to cycle or drive over compacted gravel and grit. As lorries went past you were engulfed in choking clouds of dust.

DSC02547We had to cross a 2,500 metre pass to get to the border which proved to be an ordeal with steep gradients and a strong headwind. We ended up walking a lot of the time. We were rewarded with a 1000 metre plunge down to Posof with a mixture of road building and bumps. The scenery was fantastic as we dropped back into a beautiful alpine valley filled with blossom and green trees.

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Posof is a nice town set on a steep hillside with a few hotels and eateries and was our last stop in Turkey. We celebrated by booking into a hotel and had a hot shower. The next day it was a short ride to the border with Georgia.

We had spent 2 and a half months exploring Turkey and had grown to love the country and the people. The scenery is awesome and so varied. Almost everybody we met were consistently friendly and welcoming. We had been worried reading some blogs regarding the dogs and the risks of camping wild. We found the dogs a nuisance especially some of the big Kangal dogs who would launch themselves at us from some of the farms. Getting off the bike and then talking calmly to the slavering beast  did the trick. They would soon get bored and wander off. We never had any problems camping and even in the remotest spot would often bump into a goat or cow herd who were always friendly.

Although we loved Turkey I don’t think we could live there. Mainly because of the dogs. There are so many strays around, often all they wanted was a bit of affection. Pip would usually give them a stroke. We would end up being followed back to wherever we were staying. No if we stayed in Turkey we would be over run by dogs in no time!

 

Ankara

 

A view of Ankara from the castle

A view of Ankara from the castle

Turkey is a huge country and even with a 3 month standard tourist visa you can only scratch the surface of it. We needed to head on to Ankara to sort out visas for onward travel and meet up with some friends we had made through warm showers, who were now living in Ankara. We caught another coach to Ankara from Neveshir. This was once again painless, we turned the bike handlebars round dropped the saddles and took the pedals off and stowed the bikes standing. The coach was very comfortable with frequent stops and even a steward service serving tea and snacks.

Pip with Sema and Ilker

Pip with Sema and Ilker

We learnt in March that we could not cycle through Iran as they had changed the visa requirements for UK residents to needing to be accompanied by a guide. That left us with the route through Georgia, Azerbaijan crossing the Caspian sea and then on through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. We needed to apply for Uzbek and Turkmen visas whilst in Ankara. We had already applied for our Azeri visa online through Stantours.

View from Mustafa's apartment

View from Mustafa’s apartment

We had booked a room with airbnb not realising how hilly Ankara was. It was only a 8km ride to the apartment but it was all up hill and very steep in places. Unfortunately we were crossing Ankara in rush hour and every driver was on a mission. There was no room on the roads for a cyclist, you just had to keep out of the way.

The old market

The old market

Ankara is a modern bustling city with an excellent transport system and some nice parks. We caught up with our friends Sema and Ilker who showed us around. They recently had been touring from North America to South America but had to come home after reaching Mexico because of family illness.

Sorting visas out was relatively painless. We took a taxi to the Uzbek embassy armed with copies of their online visaa application form and colour copies of our passports and passport photos. They spoke some english and told us to come back in 6 working days. We managed to get them down to 5 and they took a phone number in case of problems. They phoned the following week and the only hassle was having someone with a Turkish ID number so that we could pay the 80 dollar visa fee in the bank across the road. Thus armed with the confirmation slip from the bank we picked up our 30 day visas. Time 1 week cost 80 US dollars per visa. Next was the Turkmen embassy, again english was spoken, we had to copy a letter stating why we wanted a transit visa with entry points and dates. We supplied them with colour copies of our passports and Azeri and Uzbek visas and passport photos. We were told it would take 10 days and we could pick the visas up in Baku.

The Anitkabir

The Anitkabir

We had a relaxing stay via airbnb with Mustafa who was an airline steward and an excellent cook. We enjoyed the sites in Ankara, particularly Ataturks Mausoleum the Anitkabir. This was set in lovely grounds and included a museum documenting the amazing work he had in building the modern secular Turkish state. Changing everything from the turkish language and alphabet to the judiciary and education system. Giving women equal status and voting rights and even changing the way people dressed.

Ankara Otogar

Ankara Otogar

After 10 days in Ankara it was time to head east. We booked tickets on a bus to Erzurum a 13 hour overnight ride. Once again this went off smoothly having told the bus company we had bikes. 13hrs later we arrived in Erzurum at 8.00 am ready to hit the road.

Turkey the mediterranean coast and Cappadocia

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looking back down to Kas

looking back down to Kas

We had put off the climb out of Kas for a day, our pension faced the climb and it looked steep. We decided to head back on the main road as it didn’t look quite so bad. After 10km and over 600 meters we had made it to the top. It was a bit cooler here but already in the mid twenties. It felt as if we had hit summer already, but it was only early April. There was a beautiful smell of orange blossom everywhere. The mediterranean coast was much more barren than the Aegean with the mountains coming right down to the sea. There were fewer sea birds around. The towns were very different as well. Kas was pretty and touristy others such as Demre were modern working towns. In Fethiye we came across areas that had been taken over by expats and enjoyed a curry and some fish and chips for a change.
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There were still Greek and roman ruins scattered along the coast.The tourist season was coming and everywhere restaurants were being cleaned out and renovated. Hotels were beginning to open. As we got nearer to Antalya huge leisure complexes appeared surrounded by walls and protected by security guards. Already busloads of holidaymakers were arriving.
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The roads were good and until we got near to Antalya the traffic sparse. We went through some beautiful national parks in the mountains, the tallest of which still had some snow on top. The warmer weather must have cut short the ski season though.
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Antalya was a surprise, a modern city with a pretty old town area that was cycle friendly? It had cycle routes that followed the tram lines, we were a bit dubious at first but the system worked well and the trams were not very frequent.

The old harbour Antalya

The old harbour Antalya

All the hills had taken their toll and we needed a break, We had 5 weeks left on our visa and Turkey is huge. We decided to catch the coach to Cappadocia and spend a few days walking. The coaches in Turkey are excellent. They connect the big cities through out of town big coach stations. We bought tickets stressing that we had 2 bikes to carry and with some trepidation cycled out of Antalya. We needn’t have worried, I took the pedals off and dropped the saddles and turned the handlebars around. The bikes fitted in standing up with no problem. The coach was comfortable and we were served tea and snacks during the 9 hr trip. After the climb through the mountainsa lot of the countryside was flat steppe and featureless.

Cappadocia

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The coach took us to Goreme a small village in the centre of the national park. The rock formations were amazing and they spread out along numerous valleys which cut into the sandy terrain. There were countless rock houses and we stayed in a cave hotel cut into the hillside. We explored the many walking trails through fantastic scenery. The rocks varied in colour from white to pink to red and yellow. They had been formed after volcanic activity finished tens of thousands of years ago. We walked along love vally so called because the rocks looked like giant phalluses. Rose valley, red valley and dove valley. It was very quiet and we only saw a few people despite walking for hours.

We indulged ourselves in a balloon ride, after an early start we clambered into a balloon with 12 others for an amazing flight. We flew with Butterfly balloons who were very slick. The ride took us up to a 1000 meteres and right down to nearly ground level through some of the valleys. The pilot landed the balloon back on the trailor and we all celibrated with a glass of champagne.