And Paul has delivered again: here is the video with our highlights of Georgia. From Batumi to Tbilisi, and Stepandsminda to Vardzia.
And Paul has delivered again: here is the video with our highlights of Georgia. From Batumi to Tbilisi, and Stepandsminda to Vardzia.
As we drive through this beautiful piece of the world, we keep hearing a few phrases over and over again. One of these is Откуда ты? – Where are you from? which is shortened usually to just куда or Kuda? Where? Then we say Голландия! – Gollandia, and we get the brightest smiles and handshakes. We have had many conversations about football, when I say Gollandia! people say Snaider, Robben, Kroif. Sometimes we get even laughed at because the Netherlands did not qualify for the World Cup, which is being played right now in Russia. It always amazes me how football is a universal topic across cultures and languages. At the Uzbek-Tajik border one border guard looked at my passport, and noticed my middle name, which is Jaap. Jaap, he said, Jaap Stam! So we discussed the career of Jaap Stam, PSV, Manchester United, Ajax. Just amazing.
Especially at the border posts the border guards are well informed and always up for some small talk in English. The border crossings are a fun experience, every time again and I could write a whole blog post about it. Maybe I will.
We have driven through Tajikistan in the past week, driving on the Pamir Highway and crossing into the Wakhan Valley. The M41 Pamir Highway is the second-highest altitude highway in the world, as it reaches 4655m at some point. The term highway should be taken literally, and has nothing to do with what we usually consider a highway. The road is largely unpaved, goes over high passes, hundreds of kilometers along the Afghanistan and Chinese border, through rivers, gorges, alongside ravines, lakes, deserts, and through lush valley villages. It is the most stunning landscape I have ever seen and driven through. There is no way of describing it, so again I will try and give an impression through some pictures., and Paul is working on a video.
We started the Pamir Highway in Dushanbe, and we took the northern route over the Tavil Dara pass to Qulai Khumb or Kalaikumb, nobody knows how to spell it. This is a stretch of just 296 km, which took us all day, from 9AM to 6PM at night. We tend to drive all day, stopping now and then to take pictures and have some cookies. No lunch breaks because there is nothing along the way. We both have camelbaks (a water bag with a hose we can drink from) in our jackets so we can drink water while driving. Without these we surely would drink not enough.
View of the northern section between Dushanbe and Qulai Khumb.
The next day we drove from Qulai Khumb to Khorog, the day after that to Langar in the Wakhan Valley. From Langar it took a day to reach Murghab, and from Murghab it was another long day to Osh. We followed the Afghan border for three days. It is strange that you are close enough to see people on the other side, you can wave at them and see them riding their scooters. It is safe though, we had no issues whatsoever.
A bridge to cross a river. We made it safely to the other side.
Each day we were presented with different driving challenges. One day we had very rocky roads with steep hairpins up the mountain, the next day they had “repaired” the road by dumping 20cm of fresh gravel on the road, then we had dozens of kilometers with washboard gravel roads, and one stretch of deep sand. Our favourite road surface.
We have been driving between 3500 and 4000m altitude for a few days, fortunately none of us has had any altitude sickness. But even at this altitude, you are surrounded by enormous mountains with peaks up to 7000m and permanent snow and gletschers. It is an amazing experience, being alone up there. We would typically see one vehicle per hour, sometimes even less. From Murghab to the Kyrgystan border there are hardly any villages, you feel like you’re on a different planet.
We expected to see other motorcyclists, but aside from a very nice couple from Slovenia we did not see any others. We did see many cyclists, however. It turns out that the Pamir Highway is for cyclists what the New York Marathon is for runners. We already found it very challenging to drive this road on our motorcycles, and I cannot imagine what it is to cross this barren stretch on a bicycle. Between Murghab and the Kyrzyg border, you cross a pass of 4600m, and it was snowing when we reached the top. There was a strong cold wind and it was about 6 degrees celsius.
But let me try and give you and impression of the sights we have seen.
A typical stretch up the Tavil Dara pass.
We made it to the top. It was a dusty ride however.
Along the Afghan border from Qulai Khumb to Khorog, into the Wakhan valley.
Local market and fast food in Khorog.
Stunning views along the river.
Our favourite road surface.
A cyclist and local yak shepherds.
We drove along the Chinese border for dozens of kilometers.
We made it to the top (again).
We visited the 7 Lakes in the Fann mountains in Tajikistan. Fantastic landscapes, small villages, great views and a nice camping spot. See for yourself.
Central Asia. I have been looking forward to crossing the Caspian Sea for a long time. Although we already put more than 6000 km behind us, for some reason Turkey, Georgia and even Azerbaijan still felt a bit like Europe, especially Baku. You could already see the Persian influences in the faces, but here, on the right side of the Caspian Sea it is really different. The landscape, the faces, the languages and typography, the roads and the temperature.
We arrived in Aktau, and after our adventures dealing with Kazach customs we did not have high hopes for the rest. But I was wrong, the Kazach people are very friendly, as are all people we have met so far. One thing I have noticed travelling east – people get friendlier and friendlier, everybody waves, they smile, come up to you, talk to you, shake your hand, want to know where you are from. And people look you in the eye, and do not avert their gaze, something we are not used to anymore. It almost makes me feel uncomfortable.
So we picked a hotel in Aktau, and sat down in the garden terrace for some food and drinks. After the long day of being in a Kafka play we wanted to prepare for the days coming up, which we were both looking forward to but also made us a bit nervous. The worst piece of road that we would get (aside for the unpaved roads on the Pamir Highway and in Mongolia) is between Beyneu, Kazachstan and the Uzbekistan border, and after that there is about 500km of absolutely nothing. No towns, no water, no fuel, just desert and road and sun. Aktau to Beyneu was fine, just a full day of regular desert road. With camels. That is very strange, just seeing camels everywhere, strolling through the heat and the empty landscape. There are also wild horses. How these animals survive is beyond me, since there is hardly any green, let alone water.
On the way from Aktau to Beyneu we made a brief excursion off the main road, just to test our off-road skills and to see a rock formation we read about. We found the road more exciting than the rock formation.
We also met up again with Alissa and Andy, a lovely couple from the UK with whom we made the ferry crossing. In Beyneu we also met Jin, a gentleman from Japan who was riding from Japan to Portugal, and we had a great evening exchanging stories and experiences.
The next morning we left early for the Uzbekistan border, and as soon as we left Beyneu, the road turned into something from a nuclear disaster movie. The road used to be paved with asphalt but probably has not been maintained ever since Breznev was Secretary General of the USSR.
We do have video footage but it does not do the road conditions true justice. It started with reinforced concrete slabs of which the top layer was gone, and the iron bars were visible and sticking out at places. After a few kilometers of that it was 50 km of potholes, bumps, dust, sand, and gravel in all combinations. There is other traffic on that road, from cars to huge trucks, everyone crawls slowly forward. At times we had to stop because we could not see anything in the huge dust clouds and we did not want to drive into holes or bump into oncoming traffic. Because sometimes they also use your side of the road, if the road is slightly better. At times it was actually better to drive in the track next to the road.
One of the better stretches of road:
The Uzbek border entry was absolutely painless – the friendliest so far. I had read stories about them checking your laptop and phone for nudity, going through medication etc, and especially since I brought a drone (which is forbidden in Uzbekistan) I prepared to hand it in.
But they were very friendly, they asked Paul to open a bag, went through it a bit and all was fine. I did not even have to open my bags or put it through the X-ray scanner. We were in Uzbekistan in 45 minutes,
We exchanged some money at the border and purchased insurance for our motorcycles (not sure if we need it but that’s the thing with insurance) and drove off. The road was better, but not a lot. Still a tremendous amount of bad asphalt with random surprise potholes, which can be even more dangerous. You think you can get your speed up and suddenly there is this big hole, which can damage your rim and tires if you cannot avoid the hole. So it was a very long day, but in an amazing landscape. Just empty desert, as far as the eye can see.
We felt it was time to bring out the drone. What better place than the one country where drones are illegal.
After another day of hot and bad desert road we arrived in Khiva, one of the first three legendary cities on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan that we would visit. The other ones are Bukhara and Samarkand.
Khiva is fairly small, but exceptionally well preserved. It does not take a lot of imagination to see the bustling, busy place it must have been in the 16th and 17th century, when it was a famous trading place on the Silk Road. It was especially well known for its slave market. Now it is quite deserted, there are people living in the old part but there is not a lot of life. It does feel like a museum. There are a few tourists, and some souvenir stalls.
There are a few large buildings that dominate the old city, each with a large portal, and sometimes a minaret. We would see this type of Islamic architecture also in Bukhara and Samarkand. In Khiva we again met up with Andy and Alissa again, and had a great evening on the roof terrace having dinner and playing cards.
After Khiva we went to Bukhara, where we also stayed a day and explored the city. Bukhara is larger than Khiva, and has much more life in it than Khiva. It has also large Madrassa’s (Islamic schools) and a large fortress called the Ark. Instead of a lot of text, I will just show you pictures.
Next up: Samarkand. The largest of the three Silk Road cities, and we did a nice buildup from small to large. The sites in Samarkand are further apart, and larger than the ones in Bukhara and Khiva. We stayed at a lovely hostel with a great garden, so we spent some time relaxing and reading under the cherry and apricot trees. We were lucky with the temperature, the week before it had been 45 degrees, now it was a pleasant 33.
Amongst other sites, we visited the Ulugh Bek Observatory. Ulugh Bek was one of the greatest astronomers of all time, and he lived in Samarkand in the 12 and 13th century. He built the largest quadrant of the world in his time, used to measure the position of celestial bodies.
Klick the photo to see a 360 view from the inside:
Uzbekistan was very nice, the people are incredibly friendly, beautiful architecture – true Central Asia. But by this time, we felt we had enough Islamic architecture so after visiting the highlights of Samarkand it was time to leave for the mountains.
And again Paul has delivered – please enjoy a new video with some highlights of Turkey. Such as the beautiful road from Amasra to Sinop, the Sumela Monastery and a not so fun way to spend your afternoon.
We have finally arrived in Kazakhstan!!
It took us 54 hours after we arrived in the harbour of Alat, near Baku, including the 22 hours of sailing and no less than 32 hours of waiting.
When we got to the harbour near Baku, we met 3 Bulgarian motor bikers, Niko, Svet and Rumen. They had been there 3 days earlier, were told that the boat would not leave before the evening of the next day, and so they had left for the night. The next morning, they came back, well before the announced departure time, but the boat had left already left and they had missed it. We decided to sit it out and not leave to make the same mistake.
The port in Alat (near Baku) with the Bulgarian bikers:
Imagine a large parking lot with in the corner 7 containers. One container is a small shop, another a waiting room, then there is a bank container, a toilet container, and some containers with offices. The first container we had to visit was a bit hidden and the entrance was at the back. No signs to indicate it.
So, the Bulgarians helped us. Inside the container we found Vladimir, who told us to wait outside. People walked in and out and after a while we just went in again. Vladimir was a nice guy who spoke English and offered us coffee and cookies, while we waited for him to prepare the tickets. With the tickets we had to go to the bank container to pay, and then back to Vladimir to show the receipt. we got our tickets! This went rather smoothly. However, he could not tell us whether the boat would leave this afternoon or tomorrow morning. Later we heard that they were waiting for 3 or 4 more trucks to fill up the boat before it could leave. The waiting had begun.
In the little shop we bought some things to eat and drink, got out our chairs and sat in the shade. We talked to the Bulgarians, very nice and helpful guys. Then arrived an English couple on one Yamaha XT. Andy and Alissa, who started this year their 5 to 10 years ride around the world! Then came Dave, a 54-year-old British marine on his bicycle and then 2 more German cyclists, who met each other on the road in Turkey. It is very nice to meet these people and listen to their stories and share some time together.
In the evening we bought some vegetables, eggs and sausage and the guys in the waiting room cooked for us and transformed it into a nice meal for only 50 euro cents per person.
Every now and then we would get some information on the departure: maybe this evening, we need 3 more trucks, probably tomorrow, at 10 am we will know more. Dave put up his tent to sleep, and when Alissa started to install her tent at 9 pm, she was told not to bother: at midnight we would be in our cabins! At midnight they announced 30 more minutes and finally at 3am we were told to go to customs. This involved a bit of waiting, inevitably, and at 4.30 we got onto the boat and an hour later we had our cabin and could sleep, after nearly 18 hours of waiting.
Dave setting up his tent:
Last passport control at the Azerbaijan border:
The cabin was a furnace; no window, no ventilation. We fell asleep anyways, just to be woken up 90 minutes later by a lady of the ferry who just burst into our cabin unannounced to tell us in Russian it was time to eat. So up we got and into the line with the truck drivers and overlanders to get our breakfast. It was hard to sleep after that, too tired, too hot. The rest of the day we read, we talked with the Bulgarians and the other overlanders, we visited the bridge, talked to the captain, we looked out over the sea, saw the world’s biggest oil city, an amazing sunset and we played card games with Alissa and Dave.
Reading and editing:
World’s biggest Oil City (according to the captain):
After the second night we arrived at port, just before 8 am. We had been sailing for 22 hours. We had heard stories that it would take hours to get through customs, so we were prepared.
First all passengers had to line up with their luggage in front of them for a drugs dog to sniff everything. Then we were put into mini vans who took us to an office where our passports were checked and where we got a form. This was quick and easy, and I started to think that it wasn’t going to be that bad after all. Little did I know…. We had to walk back to the boat and wait on the ramp. We waited for nearly 4 hours, because the Azeri had not yet sent over the forms for the vehicles because of an internet problem.
Waiting to disembark with our English friends Alissa and Andy (Mad or Nomad):
Waiting for the vehicle papers:
At 1.30 pm the papers arrived and were distributed. Then we mounted our bikes and rode for 100 meters to stop for a second passport control. All luggage had to get out of our paniers and were sniffed again by the same dog. Then came another passport control and we had to buy insurance. Then we had to go to a different window, but their system was down, and they had to reboot. This took nearly 2 hours, during which we had lunch. Then 3 more lines at 3 more windows. It was amazing. I had never seen anything like it. It was the perfect example of desorganisation, being sent backwards and forwards from window to desk and back again. Nobody explained what to do and where to go. Nothing was clear. Luckily Niko speaks Russian, asked questions and explained us each next step. At every desk somebody added a form, put a stamp, made a copy and checked what his colleague had just entered in the system. It could have been funny, but it just took too long to laugh about it.
With Niko waiting for the system reboot:
Finally, finally we were on our bikes at 6.15 pm to ride to the last gate. Here it turned out that Erik missing one of the forms and we could not leave. This was the point that Erik was close to losing his patience and that I thought that the whole circus would have to start all over again. Erik traced back his steps and luckily, he found the missing form at one of the desks where one of the officials had taken it, when he shouldn’t have. We were set free, at last, 11 hours after we docked!
In one of the offices by the way, hung a poster on the wall, explaining in Kazakh and Russian that this whole procedure took no more than 20 minutes. Time must be relative after all …
Time is moving fast. Or we are moving fast. Or both. As I am writing this, we are on the ferry from Alat in Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to Aktau in Kazachstan. Which means, that since my last update, we have spent some more time in Georgia, spent a few days in Tbilisi, visited the Gergeti Trinity Church near Stepantsminda, traversed Azerbaijan via Shaki to Baku and managed to get onto the ferry. And we’ve only been gone for little over two weeks, but it already feels much longer. But let me tell you what we’ve been up to so far.
After Vardzia, headed towards Borjomi to end up in Gori. In the morning, as we visited the caves of Vardzia, the weather was still fair but it started pouring once we were on the road again. By the time we reached Gori we were both soaked to our underwear. Glad to get out of those wet clothes and into a warm shower.
Gori is the birthplace of Josef Stalin, and they have a proper museum dedicated to one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century. When you walk up to the museum, you encounter the birthhouse of Stalin (Stalin was his nickname, his real name was Josef Jugashvili). This house has always been at that spot, and they built a marble structure over it, and a large marble building behind it.
We followed the tourguide who told in a very matter of fact way about the various artefacts that were on display. Such as foto’s of Stalin throughout his life, his coat, his desk, cigars, original cabinet furniture and his death mask. It was a bit one-sided, there was no mention of the millions of lives that were lost during the Stalin regime. It was mentioned again and again that Stalin had been proud to be Georgian, and it was weird to notice that such a large part of the history of Stalin was avoided.
A gift from the Netherlands to Stalin:
But it was an interesting visit and morning nonetheless.
Leaving Gori, we visited another cave city, the site of Uplistsikhe. This one was first inhabited in the early Iron Age, and has also been settled and expanded with a monastery by Christians starting from the 4th century, later conquered by Muslims in the 8th and 9th century. This was a huge site, and I must say, after visiting Capadocia and Vardzia, I have seen enough caves and cave dwellings by now. But still, impressive how they built the tunnels and caves.
We then took the back roads to Tbilisi, avoiding the highway and touring through small villages instead. Only the last few kilometers were highway. We were close to the city, and both running low on fuel. But we have these handy range indicators on our motorcycles, and mine told me that I could drive another 60 km’s on the fuel in my tank. We figured we get into the city and then would fill up, in just 2 kms. And then my engine quit. It just stopped. So much for the range indicator.
I parked the bike on the shoulder of the highway, and Paul stopped as well. We dicussed briefly whay to do, and we decided that I would sprint across the highway (it was not very busy) to the petrol station on the other side. We had an empty waterbottle, and so I went. Paul waited with the bikes. I managed to get 3 liters of fuel (apparently this happens more often, because the attendant had enough empty bottles) and sprinted back. On the way back to the motorcycles I encountered a police car, and although it was pretty obvious what I was doing, they did not say or do anything. And Paul had his encounter with the police as well. As he was waiting, another policecar stopped, and asked him if there was a problem and where we were from. Paul said “From Holland, and out of fuel, we’re stupid!”. The police just laughed and said “Welcome to Georgia!”.
In Tbilisi we had booked an appartment in the city center, very close to the Opera building. It had a large bedroom and a good parking spot for the bikes. Time to do some laundry, some relaxing and some sightseeing.
Tbilisi is a nice city, lots of tourists and it has a real capital city feel. It is beautifully situated along the river, with a fortress and an old town overlooking the city. It also has all facilities. Paul had been quite unlucky with his devices in the last few days. First he dropped his iphone, cracking the screen. Secondly his Garmin navigation started acting up, then his Gopro mount broke and I watched his Gopro bounce down the street at 70 km/h. But the most serious issue was with our Cardo intercom sets. His unit would not turn on most of the time and if it did, it had very erratic behaviour. Having no intercom on such a trip is not only very boring, it is also very inconvinient and we were quite worried that we would have to do without communication for the rest of the trip.
So first order of business was to get Paul’s iPhone fixed, and then I was going to have a look at the rest. We found a good shop which fixed Paul’s phone in 40 minutes and replaced his screen. I managed to find a torque 6 miniature screwdriver (the only tool I did not bring) and opened up the Cardo unit. It turned out that the heavy rain we had a few days before had gotten into the unit, and the thing had started corroding already a bit due to moisture. I dried it out and with a toothbrush I removed the corrosion. That did the trick! We have a working intercom unit again. I was also able to fix the Garmin – a bit of sand had gotten into the edge of the touchscreen, and lastly the GoPro: what we thought was a cracked lens was just the cover. We removed it and the GoPro is working as well. So all is good again.
The rest of our time in Tbilisi was spent as real tourists, sightseeing, walking around and looking at the city. At our last night there was a huge demonstration on the main street, the Shota Rustaveli Bulevard. This was very close to our apartment. As we found out later, it was against corruption and nepotism related to a murder trail verdict.
In the evening we met up with Max from Germany, and Didier, a Frenchman living in Melbourne, both driving their motorcycles in the same direction as we do. Didier is an impressive character – he has been driving all over the world on his motorcycle, Africa, Congo, Nigeria, South America, Asia – just amazing. We would end up meeting Didier again in Baku.
After Tbilisi we drove on the Georgian Military Highway close to the Russian border, near Vladikavkaz. There, close to the village of Gergeti lies the Trinity Church, high in the Caucasus mountains. From the village, which is already at a height of 2000 meters, it is 400 meters more up to the little church. The road up leading up there is bad and muddy, but we tried it anyway. We mastered the hard part, only to find the road blocked by construction workers, who are working on paving the road. We had to leave our bikes and hike the rest of the path up a very steep hill. The church is surrounded by mountains of 5000 meters high, unfortunately they were covered in clouds so we did not see the snow-capped peaks. But the view was stunning nonetheless.
You can see the church high up.
The path up the hill:
After the hike:
Georgia is a very nice country – friendly people, beautiful landscapes, good food and wine, I would like to have spent some more time, maybe gone up to Svaneti national park, but this will have to wait for another time. Now it’s on to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is a country that I have not thought a lot of. What did I know of Azerbaijan?
So you can’t say that I came well prepared. But that has changed. Some facts that I have learned in the past few days:
Leaving Georgia and entering Azerbaijan was more or less straightforward – by now we have learned not to queue at the border but just drive up to the start of the queue. The local people find it very normal and even encourage us to skip the line. After the formalities of leaving Georgia and entering Azerbaijan, going through border control, customs and purchasing insurance for the motorcycle we drove on in the direction of Shaki.
The first impression I got from driving in Azerbaijan is that it reminds me of a park. The road that we drove on was lined with majestic trees, and well-kept grass that reminded me of a lawn. The bottom parts of the trees were all painted white, and it felt we were driving up a very long driveway up to a castle. Really strange, you could tell that the trees had been planted but why I don’t know. But it is pretty.
Shaki is a town that at first does not look like much. We let our GPS guide us to the city center, checked into the first decent hotel that we saw and settled down for the day. We went for dinner in a closeby restaurant, which had an interesting concept. Instead of just getting a table, this restaurant has lots of wooden cabins inside. So we got our own little cabin, and sampled the local food. Azeri food is very tasty – as everything heavy on the meat, but with enough vegetables.
The next morning we walked through town, looked at the typical Shaki architecture and visited the caravanserai and the Palace of the Shaki Khans. This was the summer residence of the Ottoman rulers and was built in the 16th century. it is famous for it’s stained glass windows.
Click on the next two photos to have 360 degree views of the caravanserai:
The Palace of the Shaki Khan::
After the palace we walked by a nice house and were invited in by a man, who turned out to be the master craftsman for the stained glass windows. He was the 4th generation of craftsmen in his family, and they had all worked on the Palace. The construction of these windows is very intricate, it consists of tiny pieces of carved wood that fit together like one of those wood puzzles. They don’t use glue and it is very sturdy while looking very delicate.
You can see his ancestors on the wall behind him:
After Shaki we went on to Baku.
Baku itself is a grand city. You can tell there is lots of money here – tall, well kept buildings from medieval times, the late 18th, 19th and early 20th century, as well as glass towers with LED lighting at night. Expensive cars, well-dressed men and women, lots of restaurants and bars. We rented another apartment and went on a city walking tour with a private guide, an Azeri English teacher who also gives tours in the city. She was about 35 years old and next to lots of information about the city and the country, she also gave a nice insight into Azeri culture and society. We had some good discussions as well.
We would have liked to spend some more time in Baku, but we did not want to miss the ferry departure, of which we did not know when it would leave. We spent a morning figuring out if we could get information on the departure and tickets in Baku instead of driving to the sea port of Alat (about 70km south of Baku) but we turned up empty handed.
So we decided to pack up and leave for the port. I won’t go into details about the whole process. Let me summarize by saying that it is a weird process, nobody knows when the ship leaves until it suddenly leaves at 3 in the morning, and it involves a lot of waiting (we arrived at 13:00) on a parking lot and a lot of forms and stamps. But the good news is that we are underway to Kazachstan, the ship is OK, we have a cabin (our private steam box, it is 30C without windows) and three meals a day.
And plenty of time to write a very long post.
On to the Glorious Nation of Kazachstan!
Paul has been working really hard to capture our first few days in a short video. How do you tell a story about four days of highway? I think he did a great job, see for yourself.