Monthly Archives: May 2014

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.