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?
- The capital is Baku and they have oil
- There is a Formula 1 race in Baku
- At some point they won the Eurovision Songcontest. And it’s not even Europe.
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:
- Azerbaijan was the first Muslim democracy in the world (already in 1918, 2 years before they were assimilated in the Soviet Union)
- The capital Baku was designed and built by oil millionaires who engaged European architects to replicate buildings and styles from all over Europe
- The language is close to Turkish, but next to the Ottoman influence they have Russian and Iranian influences as well. But the Azeri’s (as they call themselves) pride themselves on their independence.
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!