Tbilisi Loves You is the name of the city’s free WiFi service that I could never seem to be able to connect to the entire time we were there. That total time in Tbilisi turned into a much longer visit then expected. When we finally managed to leave after we had spent 7 days and 6 nights in two not so different sorts accommodations.
The first few nights were spent with Couchsurfers in a Georgian style apartment. It was small, fully furnished, but basic. There were six of us staying in a two room flat, where most of the actual living space was out of doors. Though outside turned out to be the best place for all 6 of us (besides the mozzies attacking each of us) because inside there was absolutely no airflow. The apartment wasn’t designed in a well thought out manner. Even with the fans whirling at full blast there wasn’t anywhere to hang out and keep cool at the same time. This strange flow to a living space seems to be common in Georgia. I think it just must be the remnants left over from when living areas were constructed and divided up to accommodate more people inside these older buildings. We did though have a great time chatting and eating big American style breakfasts al fresco with everyone that was staying there and the other highlight of a Georgian apartment is being able to play with the kittens that inhabited the common courtyard, since both of us are suckers for animals. Though after two sweltering nights spent on our sleeping mats, we both decided that it would be best for a bit of privacy and more importantly air conditioning! The temperatures being in the high 90’sF/35C we both felt it was time for a cool down. Plus there were more Couchsurfers coming later that day.
There is only one place in Tbilisi we found that offers both air conditioned private rooms and has an washing machine available for people to use. The Lucky Hostel, not much to look at but it would become our oasis in Tbilisi. We ended up staying long enough to meet up again with Yann and Em, who happened upon the Lucky Hostel for the same reasons we did. I didn’t think we would see them in person again for at least a few more months. Unfortunately for us Brian and I both got sick and this lengthened our stay a lot longer then originally expected, which aided in this happy reunion. This time it wasn’t a stomach issue but just some sort of head cold with tiredness and body aches. So while we spent and unusually long time in a major capital city, we didn’t actually do much but sleep and occasionally venture out to gather things to eat.
There were a few sporadic times when we pulled ourselves together long enough to do some walking about the old city and take in the touristy sights. One of the nights we went out to dinner with some other travelers and had uneasy not at all appropriate conversation over local beverages. Afterwards we met back up with our CS hosts for a fun night of beer pong along side some Russian tourists (we did not partake) and a game or two of euchre (Brian played) at an American Bar called the Dive. The Dive had a few ties to back home and even had some MN Wild posters ready for display. That was an extraordinarily fun night in Tbilisi, made me feel a bit like being home, besides all the Russians. Eventually during our long respite we even made our way into the Georgian National Museum to see their exhibition on the Communist Occupation of Georgia. The reason why we even went to the museum turned out to be the least interesting part but the Persian art there is worth the price of admission, at 5GEL there wasn’t much room to complain.
I feel kind of bad though, because for the amount of time spent in Tbilisi we really didn’t do or see much of this famous Silk Road City, certainly not enough time to even form a proper opinion. Maybe that is a good thing? We didn’t leave Tbilisi with strong feelings one way or the other. When we finally did manage to pull ourselves together long enough to cycle out of the city, I didn’t feel like we had to leave rather that we should leave.
Leaving the city was a lot easier said then done, we ran into this same problem on the way in but thought that it might be easier to exit the metropolitan area earlier in the morning. This turned out to be not the case. We happened to enter Tbilisi during the mid-afternoon, not far from what I assumed to be the city’s rush hour and thought the whole process might be a bit hair raising. From approximately 20 kms outside of the city center traffic was almost unbearable for cars let alone us on our over-sized bicycles. Later on I learned that in Georgia you can just simply buy your driver’s license, no testing or road knowledge needed. This explained volumes me about Georgian drivers and the way their roads work… not well. These early morning hours didn’t seem to stymie the flow of traffic. The only saving grace was a service road that ran alongside the main(only) highway out of town. This little bit of peace went on for about 15 kms before both the highway and it connected up and forced all the traffic onto a two lane road heading for the Northern border with Azerbaijan. We chose this more Northern route thinking that the road would be much quieter then the main and more direct highway to Azerbaijan. Again we were wrong, the traffic being just as busy as in the city just now with less room and no shoulder to soften you exposure to cars whizzing by at incredibly high speeds. It eventually became clear after 15+ kms of this sort of riding that the conditions wouldn’t improve and we had to find an alternative form of transport. Safety being our biggest concern, it was time to hitch a ride. With the amount of traffic on the roads and the size of the passing vehicles, it didn’t take long for someone to stop and pick us up. For a nominal fee of course, this would be the first time we would pay for transit of us and our bikes. Kind of a low point but it was necessary, we both felt very unsafe on this highway. Truthfully the 50 GEL we paid was worth our safety and sanity, we made the 130kms in just a few hours (some roadside stops of course) and we ended up getting dropped off right at the Azerbaijani border. Putting us at least an entire day ahead of schedule.
After being dropped off at the border there was a bit of panic when I discovered that my handle bar bag was unlatched and open after being unloaded from out drivers vehicle. Upon further investigation I realized that my camera was no longer inside and I couldn’t remember where I last saw it. Eventually after frantically searching all my bags a calm serenity came over me realizing that it was stolen and there was nothing I could do about it. It’s a strange feeling when you come to terms with something that is completely out of your control, all that is left is the calm. To tell you the truth I wasn’t even mad, strange for me I know. Just to be extra sure it was stolen and not missing we contacted Yann & Em back at the Lucky Hostel to see if I hadn’t left it behind. They got back to us rather quickly with the news that my camera was still at the hostel and what should they do with it? Some quick thinking on Brian’s behalf saved the day, well at least my camera and a few hundred dollars. We know some people traveling through Tbilisi and on their way to Azerbaijan. These being the same people we applied for visas together with in Batumi. After contacting everyone via Facebook, the plan was hatched to transfer my camera to a Polish friend named Ewa where she would leave it at her hotel in Baku Azerbaijan. Where then we could pick it up after we arrive. I am normally not a forgetful person and am usually able to account for all my possessions when traveling. I even remember double checking our room at the Lucky Hostel, looking under the beds before we left. Just goes to show you that you can’t remember everything, I just happen to be lucky that we have so many amazing friends that are willing to help a person out. Otherwise I would be shopping for another camera on this trip and one time was more then enough!
One of the reasons we couldn’t go back to Georgia and retrieve my camera was that we had already entered Azerbaijan by the time I got the news my camera was still back in Tbilisi. Azerbaijan only allows a single entry on their visa, I could go out but would have to apply and pay for another visa to get back in!
Entering Azerbaijan is easy for cyclists, assuming you have got all of your paperwork done in advance. Right from the beginning we where greeted with special treatment from the border guards. Being able to cut in line in from of all the cars waiting patiently to enter, sometimes I feel bad about this sort of thing but then I remember how often they have the advantage on the roads and I quickly move on from feeling shame about this small sort of privilege.
As we cycle on into the country we are continually met with shouts from passing cars of “WELCOME TO AZERBAIJAN!” I think that is the first time I have ever understood something that was shouted at me from a passing car. Almost everyone is friendly and welcoming. There is also a great change on the roads from feeling small and aggression towards to here in Azerbaijan to a bit more calm and less stressful. Unless you are in a roundabout, then it’s every man for themselves.
So far the cycling here is a lot like Turkey was for us, less then impressive. And hot, lets not forget that important issue as well. Here it just happens to be much more dry than we have been used to and the arid climate makes for thirst cyclists. Another problem because water is more scarce during the summer months and also not safe for our western immune systems, everything must be filtered! This has been a huge adjustment for us and one we will have to get used to over the coming months, because not much is going to change with water quality until we arrive back at home. Availability of quick and easy food has disappeared as well. Towns are spaced further apart and restaurants with edible food stuffs are becoming more erratic. It’s quickly becoming apparent that if we want to eat we will have to begin cooking everything ourselves. Another big change from the fast, cheap, and easy roadside meals we have been able to get everywhere up until this point.
So far we have only reached into Azerbaijan as far as Sheki, a town in the Greater Caucasus north of Baku. This place was known as an actual silk city on the Silk Road where travelers for hundreds of years would stop to trade goods. It’s got a bit of a reputation as one of the historical jewels of Azerbaijan and is a good way point for us as well. We are staying in the town’s Caravansary for the next few days before we decide which way we will go to Baku. The Caravansary is a 500 year old hotel that has assisted travelers for at least half a Millennium with a cool place to rest, food to eat, and occasionally a place to put your camel. Not a bad place for a couple of bicycle tourists who are tired and smelly from the dusty roads. Except that it is up hill further away from the center of town. But it’s comfortable diggs are perfect to sit in while we figure out what lies ahead.