Georgia had been one of the countries I had been most intrigued by while planning the journey, and so far it had delivered. The majestic Caucasus mountains, the culture heavily influenced by Orthodox Christianity, varied and tasty food and most especially the spirited and vivacious people. So much more of the country I would have liked to have visited and more time to take it in. But my destination beckoned. Still a long way to go, it was summer now and there was a bit of a desert in central Asia to cross!
Instead of the main road from Tblisi to Baku – the capital of Azerbaijan and my next port of call – I went for the more scenic route along the Caucasus foothills by the Georgian hill country town of Sighnaghi. Which meant I would miss the city of Ganja in Azerbaijan, named after the 12th century poet Nizami Ganjavi whose story Majnun and Layla was reputedly the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet. Outside Ganja is the village of Hash.
It was a tough reintroduction to the saddle after a break of over a week – a steady uphill gradient and a long, hot day. Ten and a half hours in the saddle, which is too long actually. Towards the end of the day there wasn’t a decent place to camp, and when the destination is just sixteen kilometres to go… Unknown to me ten of those required struggling up a hill in first gear! Arriving knackered in darkness into picturesque Sighnaghi perched high above the plains stretching below, I discovered the guesthouse I’d been recommended was back up the hill. In no mood to retrace my footsteps I was scoping out the village football field for possibilities to pitch my tent when Giorgi with his son trundled over on his 1967 Soviet Dnepr motorbike with sidecar. A steady throb was rumbling from the idling 650cc boxer twin. It was beautifully maintained with chrome shining. He’d restored it himself and used it as a taxi around town. Giorgi made a call on his mobile then bade me follow him to Lado and Nato’s guesthouse, a father and daughter affair, which turned out to be such a lovely house, and so cheap I ended up staying a few nights. I didn’t want to leave Georgia!
But one of the justifications for hanging on the extra few days in Sighnaghi was the desire to visit the Davit Gareja monastery and I needed to find a few others to share the two hour taxi ride. Approaching a small group of tourists in the town square three Polish students were interested and we made the necessary arrangements. The monastery is remote. Once we left the main road it was more than an hour’s drive out into the arid environment – no water, just dusty hills of dried grasslands rolling into the distance.
Then in the midst of this sea of barren prairie with no obvious water source or natural features, over a rise a town came into view spread out before us. How incongruous. The houses on closer inspection appeared quite uniform, on a grid. In fact what we were looking at was an example of central planning at its most bizarre. At the beginning of Gorbachov’s perestroika, the nationalist government in Tblisi anticipating the possible disintegration of the Soviet Union began taking steps to consolidate their borders. Heedful of ongoing territorial disputes with neighbouring Armenia they decided to found a Georgian town here and establish a proprietary interest in this deserted, uninhabited part of the country. Water? A pipeline was built from Sagarejo forty kilometres away. Who would live there? Incentives were offered to landless peasants from mountainous Svaneti the other side of the country to relocate. Five hundred families came, two hundred now remain.
On the edge of town we pulled up at one of the derelict houses on the side of the road. It had been whitewashed and a sheet suspended over the door, ‘Oasis Cafe’ painted on it. This was getting more odd. A Polish couple had set it up for summer business, hoping enough tourist traffic to the monastery could provide a seasonal living for them. Due to its distance from any other refreshment stop I imagine they’d get 99% of the passing traffic. “It is a bit isolated but we go into town about once a week for supplies. And we have internet!” replied Savere to my query about the remoteness of the place as he poured me a 50/50 draft beer and orange juice, the house speciality. (I was sceptical but it certainly was refreshing.) A sociable, barrel chested guy in his thirties, he was front of house to his wife’s backroom work in the kitchen. On our return he was run off his feet with nearly a full house. The mass concrete structure provided welcome shelter from the heat outside.
Half an hour further by dirt road the monastery complex is sited on an arid, rocky ridge. The setting in itself made the first impression, extraordinary to imagine the establishment of the monastery here fifteen hundred years ago. Obviously there must be water, some springs about. The main monastery is carved into the rock. Despite some lulls in activity particularly during communist times, it is still in use today and the figures of the monks form the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church can be observed entering their cells. Visitors are permitted to wander through some of the monastery and poke about in the church and a couple of the monks’ (unoccupied) cells. Remarkable cave like rooms hollowed out of the rock. An hour’s walk up to the other side of the ridge brings you to Udabno, another monastery in the complex and further cells, cut into the rock face looking out across the plains of Azerbaijan stretching way below. Quite remarkable, to imagine the isolation chosen to live, not only in such a remote spot, but then in a cell sequestered away from the rest of the community.
I was curious, and ignorant, as to whether the Georgian Orthodox Church shared the tradition of the Desert Fathers with the Roman Church, and was this the model upon which Davit Gareja was formed. St Anthony in the third century is supposedly the first ascetic to live in the desert proper and is known as the father of Western monasticism. Other men and women followed his example and lived in loose communities. The likes of the imposing Mont St Michel in France and rocky, inhospitable Skellig Micheal twenty miles off the coast of Kerry in the Atlantic established around the 6th century are examples of isolated locations for monasteries influenced by the precedent of the Desert Fathers.
Anthony’s biographer Athenasius wrote that the devil confronted Anthony by tormenting him with boredom, laziness, and fantasies of women which apparently he overcame with the power of prayer, providing a future theme for Western art (the temptation of Anthony). This continued through his life as he moved from one extreme location to another. One of these was a tomb where the local villagers brought him his food, another an abandoned Roman fort in the desert for twenty years where he only communicated and got food passed to him through a small crevice. After doing battle against the demons through contemplation and prayer, eventually “he emerged from the fort with the help of villagers to break down the door. By this time most had expected him to have wasted away, or to have gone insane in his solitary confinement. Instead, he emerged healthy, serene and enlightened. Everyone was amazed that he had been through these trials and emerged spiritually rejuvenated. He was hailed as a hero and from this time forth the legend of Anthony began to spread and grow.”
The world’s first cultivated grapevines are believed to have originated in Georgia – although the area around Shiraz in Iran may dispute that – and in this wine producing region in Sighnaghi I’d tasted Shavkapito, a sumptuous red which (I may have picked this up wrong) is fermented in buried ampullae or clay vessels. Layers of complexity going on. But that experience comes at a price. Already I’d been very pleasantly surprised with Georgian wine, deciding on the more affordable Saperavi as my preference, a drier option to the popular though sweeter, fruity Kinzmarauli. (I’d scribbled in my notebook Mukuzani as a roundish, dry red, Isabella a light table red, and Pino as similar with a bit more body).
Pretty Sighnaghi was a captivating spot and it would have been so easy to hang on a bit longer. There are loads of restaurants, it wasn’t uncomfortably hot though warm enough in the evenings for people to have their TVs outside on the balcony, the accommodation was spacious, homely and cheap, and the views imposing. But I had to remind myself this wasn’t a holiday!
My farewell to Georgia was a $2 haircut in the border town of Lagodekhi after which the barber led me the fifteen minutes walk to a hotel for my final Georgian meal, a very tasty ostri, a type of stew with meat so tender, where I was regaled by Georgian singing at another table (they love breaking into song it seems) and wine was pressed on to me. Though fairly rough local white wine, it would be my last in quite a while.
So, Azerbaijan and into a new country. A culture quite distinct from their neighbours to the west. The Arabic flavour, the muezzin calls and the general uniform restraint of behaviour in public lent the place a distinctively central Asian, perhaps Muslim atmosphere. It felt like I was making headway in the direction east. The young border guards smiled and joked in their nearly non existent English. One succeeded in impressing me when quoting the name of the apparently internationally famous Robbie Keane, remembered Damien Duff then paused before coming out with a strange pronunciation of “John O’Shea, Manchester United”. I’d heard names of the Irish football team quoted to me in the most bizarre places. In a hut in the Caucasus mountains. And on the road from Tblisi in a roadside shop miles from the nearest village a young lad rattled off nearly the whole team to me.
After being made jump through a few hoops (not so easy with a loaded bike) by a vertically challenged guard with a Napoleon complex, I submitted my passport at the Immigration window and received it back from a smiling officer. Slightly nervous as I had switched passports between leaving Georgia and entering Azerbaijan (long story, I had two passports and depending on visa situations used both) I was super polite to a uniformed guard who in broken English engaged me in conversation about my journey as I was about to leave. Was he checking my story? After a few minutes of playing Mr Obliging Nice Guy it dawned on me in fact he didn’t have an agenda, he just wanted to practice his English. And maybe impress his fellow guards. I had to ask him directly was I free to leave now.
Tourism hasn’t really caught on in Azerbaijan yet, despite the millions they pumped into the Eurovision song contest a few years ago. Or at least it hasn’t filtered through to the provinces. That evening in Zoqatala, a fair sized town, there was no-one who knew where the tourist information was, although I had confirmed its presence with Google. At a military building a soldier was detailed to lead me to a suggested destination. Which we couldn’t find despite his earnest efforts. We then learned from a taxi driver it was closed for the day. The soldier was crestfallen. At this stage I needed to find a shop for some water so he instructed me to wait there before actually running off eagerly, returning with a bottle he’d purchased, refusing payment. I was taken aback – what a credit to his uniform!
In 1918 Azerbaijan became the world’s first Islamic democracy. And it seems there is quite a tolerance towards other cultures, probably due to thousands of years of invasions – by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, Arabs – along with 120 years of Soviet rule. This tolerance however is tested to the extreme by Armenia. Throughout the country I was to hear people speak with anger, and incomprehension, of the Armenian occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to the west. They’re confused at the UN’s refusal to intervene, despite four resolutions demanding an immediate, unconditional Armenian withdrawal. In Georgia, while tolerating the ethnic Armenian minority in their country, I’d picked up on a certain prejudice. “They’re liars. And miserly. It’s just in their culture,” laughed one Georgian about Armenians living on her street. “I say it to them, they agree!” Followed by the anecdote of the unpopularity of basketball in Armenia “because they can’t bear the thought of putting their ball in someone else’s basket!”
The Zoqatala Hotel had a dorm bed for $8 which was fine. Wandering around looking for something to eat, Turkish/Persian sounding music was blaring from PA systems. The kebab cafe added further to the eastern atmosphere. Although Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians live side by side without tension, and all communities apparently are partial to a drink, alcohol was a bit difficult to find until eventually I found a shebeen at the back of a restaurant with draught beer at 60 cents. There was certainly a sense of a clandestine activity, if the down at heel and vaguely worse for for wear company scattered around the grubby tables was anything to go by. Drinking in public bars if not quite unacceptable was concealed and definitely not respectable.
Along the green Caucasus foothills the cycling was pleasant on the quiet, tree lined road heading east. At a major fork a policeman steered me towards the lower road rather than the one I was going to take which, according to the map was a shorter distance to Sheki, my next destination. Nah, he indicated, it was poorly surfaced and further on degenerated into dirt. Besides it was pretty hilly with lots of ups and downs. This was done with not a word of English and my complete ignorance of Azeri! Later a helpful truck driver gave me a tip on a short cut before inviting me to join him for tea (a standard salutation I was finding).
Sheki I’d read was one of the more interesting towns in Azerbaijan so was prepared to do the legwork up hills. Which involved a tough climb for the final ten kilometres. It was hot and I had to stop twice in the shade for a rest. Worryingly my legs were a bit wobbly (shaky to Sheki) getting off the bike and they nearly buckled. I felt weak. Was it heat exhaustion? Unfortunately the shop outside of which I’d stopped sold hardware and nothing to eat. But it did have a shaded porch on which I sat with relief to steady myself and rest a bit. I realised I needed some sustenance, as I’d only had bread and some curd cheese for breakfast and lunch. A van driver pulled in and leaned over to the passenger seat to get something before getting out. He came over and offered me an opened packet of Tuc crackers. We had no common language. How did he know I needed it? I was bowled over, deeply touched at his gesture and could do nothing but smile with relief. I think he understood. It was just the ticket and fortified me the rest of the way.
Rising behind Sheki were the steep forested hills of the Caucasus mountains with peaks over 3000m. It had been a trading town on a camel route and my hotel was a former caravanserai, used by merchants to store their goods in cellars, who traded on the first floor, and lived on the second. It was restored and I paid €20 for a single room, way above my budget but worth it for the experience and atmosphere of the place.
I still hadn’t figured out what people ate for breakfast here, and besides there was a distinct lack of eating places – some countries just don’t have a culture of street eating or cafes. I wasn’t passing the market – the obvious place for fast food – and leaving town I sat in a cay (tea) house and ate some dried fruit and some crackers I had with me. Despite my insistence the man would not accept payment for the pot of tea.
And today, peering into a pot in a roadside greasy spoon and pointing “Yes, I’ll try some of that”, was the day I happened upon ‘Piti’, a local dish I’d read about with curiosity. Beans and mutton stew served in a cup. It was the big lump of mutton fat garnishing the top that was the challenge. I went ahead and mashed it all together as is the practice. It was delicious and I was only sorry that was the last opportunity I had to try it – the rest of the country apparently didn’t share my enthusiasm. Leaving, I was accompanied by two grinning young fellas tearing along next to me. They were pretty nimble on their bikes, weaving about, trying to outdo each other with tricks. The smaller of the two had a blaring radio attached to a car battery in his front basket. After a good thirty minutes way out into the country I left them behind when one stopped for water and couldn’t catch up.
In Goychay outside a kebab cafe (hand)painted as a McDonalds I enquired about accommodation options in the town. Two bearded older men bade me sit down and join them for tea. At an adjoining table the clean cut Azer (“from Azerbaijan”) who spoke a little English directed me to a hotel down the road “on starboard side”. Yes, he worked on ships, second engineer he admitted, apologising for his English. Azer insisted on leading me the five kilometres as I followed his new white Hyundai Zahara, increasingly speculating on the type of hotel it was. “Normal”, was the response to my query about price. “International”. What he thinks as my normal and his normal may be quite different. It turned out to be a flashy glass structure. Ah well, there was some waste ground out the back I could probably find a place to camp in. I got a deal for €10 for an AC room. Done.
Returning from a shower wrapped in just a towel, I walked into the bedroom and the first thing my eyes fell upon were two touring bicycles. Hold on. Then Dieter – a big guy, the identical twin of Jack Palance in the 60’s – in a half state of undress and Katya, also cyclists. What a surprise! In more ways than one. I’d walked in to the room next door. Tonight they had decided to stay in a hotel but usually would find a nice camp spot and enjoyed preparing and cooking a meal together. I on the other hand would always opt for the comfortable bed and enjoyed eating locally prepared food. Camping and cooking was done when necessary. The prospect of preparing food for one and spending time every night at a camp spot on my own would not be so appealing. Although I could see how that would be completely different with company. Particularly someone close. And cheaper!
We found somewhere to eat and spent an enjoyable evening over a few beers swapping anecdotes and information. They were about my vintage – well, Dieter anyway, Katja was his second wife and younger – and had opted for pushbikes after years touring Europe on their motorbikes. It was great having a natter with them. It was easy. We covered a lot of conversational ground – I picked up on their enthusiasm for Malaysia which appeared to have made a big impression. And they were also heading in an easterly direction to China. I noted their taking the ferry to Khazakstan and the huge stretch of desert that entailed, to Uzbekistan although they were planning to take a train across. I’d come across that option from a dedicated Dutch cyclist I’d met in a hostel in Georgia (“It’s do-able”, he’d responded) but 600 kilometres on sandy tracks through that big empty space on the map with no settlements seemed a bit hardcore for me. In July! Water, shade, heat, food… And on his own! Thanks but no. My planned route was to cross the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan and then to Uzbekistan.
Dieter and Katja’s experience cycling through Turkey didn’t sound too positive, particularly Kurdistan which they’d found extremely misogynist. I began wondering at some stage were they a little intolerant, overly defensive? I had noticed with some couples cycling that shared experiences can reinforce negative attitudes and a kind of micro siege mentality may develop, us against the hostile natives. Did they feel under threat, or of being ripped off? I wasn’t so comfortable falling in with the expected responses of agreement and tut-tutting when they told of some young guys being smart around them and Dieter rounding on them with threats. He picked up on my lack of conviction. “Yes I know it may sound like arrogance,” he reacted quite firmly. “But if you feel your lady is vulnerable in a situation, you take a stand. You don’t want a risk.” Fair enough. Was it perception of risk? In my year or more travelling around Africa by motorbike, and on this bicycle trip, I had never experienced what he was describing. But what did I know? My experience could well have been very different in that particular culture in the company of a woman and I could imagine reacting similarly. I knew at the base of our reactions is something about fear.
A long corkscrew climb lay ahead of me on the road to Baku and I wasn’t looking forward to it, particularly in the heat. So when stopped for a break at a junction town and a taxi driver wagged his finger and recommended an alternative, taking a left up to the city of Ismaeli before continuing east and so avoiding the corkscrew, I fell upon his advice with delight and some relief. Great! (I do that. When gathering information from people to help make a decision, my tendency is to hear loud and clear what sounds more favourable to me. As opposed to an objective weighing up.)
It was a lengthy but gentle climb to Ismailly. The temperature was more moderate and this region had the appearance of prosperity with green fertile fields, good roads and fancy cars. Where it was ‘Ladaland’ on the lower road through the desert with old Soviet jalopies the norm, up here it was half an hour before I spotted anything but an Audi, Lexus, Mercedes or top of the range Toyota, most of them white.
The cycling was pleasant through this soft agricultural scenery until it got pretty damn steep, but at the crest I felt some degree of satisfaction. “Yeah Hugh, that’s just part of cycling you’ll have to get used to that kind of graft. And it wasn’t that bad was it – you eventually got to the top…” At altitude the cooler air was relieving. It had been a struggle but I’d done the hard work and was up on the ledge. Wrong. A little further as I came upon the magnificent view down to the plains far below my eye swivelled around in alarm when I saw a river valley between me and the next hill. A river only means one thing, unless there was an extremely long suspension bridge. Which was unlikely. The road had to descend to the bottom and climb again. Aargh! I was a very tired boy eventually arriving in Shamakhi.
Where unfortunately there was no hotel. I had been looking forward to the comfort after a really hard day. Ah well. On the way out of town a shashlik in an outdoor roadside restaurant was tough as leather, as one hand flapped continuously at the incessant flies. The beer was flat. I gave up worrying about the clusters of them landing on the rim of the glass. But I was sent over a portion of watermelon by the local policeman holding court at a neighbouring table. Darkness was falling and following a dirt track over a hill opposite, past the town dump, I pitched the tent. The view was some compensation – empty uninhabited landscape stretching into the distance.
But where did these cars come from during the night? At different times half a dozen crawled over the poor track fifty yards away from my tent. Where could they be going? I was confident the tent wasn’t picked up in the headlights but would wait until they passed before dozing off again. One car did stop. I waited, then the car door opened. Hmm, this meant a visit and I got ready to deal with it. I didn’t expect trouble, it was more the pain of engaging with… what? Curious locals, young bucks after a night out looking for distraction, territorial villagers running me off? I needed to sleep. But no sound of approach followed and eventually the vehicle slowly continued. Maybe they were just taking a leak.
The next morning it was a caramel bar for breakfast. I paused at the previous evening’s restaurant to wash my face and found the proprietor sweeping the leaves around the tables with a switch. He seemed offended I hadn’t accepted his offer to camp there. When I pointed over the hill to where I’d camped his eyes opened wide as he made snakelike movements with his hand. I’m glad he didn’t tell me that last night.
Descending the now dry and arid landscape, it was a gentle cruise all the way to Baku – including one twenty kilometre freewheel! And quite a culture shock on a six lane highway entering the modern, bustling capital. This was going to be fun – city life!