The Caucasus – for sure this region is far bigger than we would be able to travel within our six-weeks tandem-cycle- tour. We visit Geogia, Azerbaijhan and Armenia and learn that these countries and their people are more different than we thought beforehand. We take the nonstop flight from Dortmund to Kutaissi, West-Georgia. Via the capital Tbilissi we ride up the Georgian military road into the north near the Russian border and partly same road back again. Then our route leads us through Kakheti into Azerbaijan to Baku on the Caspian See. For a part of the way back to Georgia we take the train. Azerbaijan and Armenia have no open borders due to ongoing disputes. Therefore we have to take a little detour through Georgia before we can enter Armenia. Alongside lake Sevan we ride southbound in a large curve to Yerevan. From there we go north-west back to Georgia. We still have a couple of days to visit Svanetia up to Mestia before we fly back to Germany from Kutaissi.
The first night we stay in a hostel in Kutaissi. After some discussion we may leave our packing material there for the flight back. From now one we are en route.
Through narrow streets we climb up to the Bagrati Cathedrale. The souvenir dealers try to swap Fritz’valuable knife against one of their cheap daggers. We do not fall for it, although the two stylish guys are very friendly.
In the little village Urbnisi we find a quite unconventional space for the tent under the canpoy of the school. It gives us shelter against the rain and drys the tent which is still wet from last night. The local police man comes along to assure us to give him a call if we face any kind of problem. Last night already the police came down to our tent to make sure that everything is ok. Who says that the East is dangerous?
In Tbilissi Fritz suffers from a stomach-intestine infection which does not allow him to leave the house. Lucky enough our hosts provide us with an empty house of theirs. We continue our route a day late with Fritz being still weak. We ride northbound over the Georgian Military road up to the Russian border. On Zhinvali reservoir the Anauri monastary shines in front of dark green hills in the sun. We will see the monastary a second time because we will have to come back the same road down to here before we can turn to the east. The first night on the military road we stay with Mariami, an old lady who offers uns a place to camp near a little village. We take a bath in the river and watch the farmers driving their lifestock back home in the evening. For us quite idyllic, for the people who live here probably not easy.
We ride on into the north. Our travel guides speaks about a quiet road, but the reality is far away from this. Many trucks from Armenia or Iran use this way as the transit route into Russia.
In Gudauri, a Georgian ski-resort, we leave the luggage in our hotel. Next day we cycle the last kilometers to Stepantsminda without the heavy load. Before this, we enjoy the evening mountain panorama in Gudauri. It is not very warm but it is dry and even the sun winks though the clouds now and then. What a fascinating mountain world.
The Kasbeq, with 5047 m Georgia’s third highest mountain, is very popular amongst mountaineers. We won’t climb it, we just take a look from Stepantsminda. They say that the mountain only shows good peole its peak. For us, it pushes aside the clouds for a moment and lets us admire the full beauty. Lucky us.
Inspired by the magnificant views here in the high Caucasus we slide back down to Gudauri. We stop often to take photos or we film with our little actioncam. But somewhere we must have left it. So our GoPro including all films is lost in the Caucasus for ever.
Eastbound through Kakheti
The way to Kakheti, the Georgian wine region, leads us over a terrible gravel road. In serpentines it winds up and down through hilly woodland. We now know that we should only take those roads which are marked as major ones on the road map. Because most of the minor roads have no asphalt. Quite challenging for a 100-kg-tandem plus riders.
In Telawi, a neat town in East Georgia, we meet Curt, an American who studied in Germany not far from our home town. The world is small! Tonight we don’t find a camp ground but a room in the house of a big family. Of course we eat and drink at their table. And, as it is Georgian tradition, there is a toast on each and everybody. Neither our Russian nor our hosts’ English are sufficient to keep up a proper conversation. An so the fourteen-year old daughter plays the role of the interpreter by means of Google translate. Difficult but it works.
Across the border to Azerbaijan
Having crossed the border we experience a totally new world. The access roads into the towns are wide and well tarred. Streetlamps decorated with flower boxes line up the roads. Onmipresent giant billboards with the profile of Heidar Alijew, the former president. The people are open and friendly, many of them way to us passing by. We find our first place to camp on the grounds of a lovely family. Next day, in Sucma, the whole village takes care of us. We may camp on the schoolgrounds, although the people are a bit embarrased that they have to let us sleep on the ground. They invite us to stay in their houses. We assure them that we love sleeping in our tent. In return they supply us with vegetables, warm bread and even a water bucket and a piece of soap. We feel a bit like animals in the zoo: constantly new people from the village come along to have a look at the strangers with the funny bike. The school-caretaker grabs our stool and watches Fritz next morning during cycle care.
Through the heat into Baku
It is hot! The thermometer climbs up to 40°C and more, which often shows us our limits. The roads leading through deserted kind of moon landscape seem to be endless. Whenever we stop the heat burns without mercy. So we carry on as soon as possible to at least get a little cooling from the airstream. Everywhere you can find a tearoom where the men meet for a chat. Women are rare in these places. No wonder that we are observed whenever we enter one of the tearooms. The more so as we do not comply with the usual dresscode, wearing these strange bike shorts and jerseys. But it is no problem that Brigitte as a woman in a Muslim country cycles in shorts. At least we got this information from a local guy who stopped his car on the way to supply us with water and bananas. In a café in Agsu a man from one of the other tables comes over and pays for our tea quite unexpectedly. Useless to resist. We will experience scenes like this more often while being in Azerbaijan.
Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, demonstrates its wealth. Beside the neatly restored historical city centre you can spot the modern flame towers on the Caspian sea. We enjoy two days without cycling.
Rescue out of the sandstorm
As we leave Baku southbound we are happy about the strong tail wind which pushes us out of the city. We have no idea yet, that this wind will be a disaster soon. The wind changes to a storm blowing from the side so that we are forced to walk. Sand is being driven across the road, almost blowing us from our feet. We do not know for how long this is going to last and how we will manage to reach our destination which is still about 100 k away. No use to stop as there is no town or village around. Even the car drivers can hardly see the road. Helplessly we fight our way on thorugh the sandstorm. Until a white SUV stops in front of us. Bill, the Canadian manager of a company near by, rescues us into the office. He takes care of our onward transportation by truck and supplies us with food and drink. By the way we learn from one of the staff that this is just wind, no storm. Thank God we did not get into a real storm.
After the truck has set us off in Alät, we hire a car and driver to visit the national park of Gobustan. The wind has calmed down. It is late but for a couple of Manat the guard lets us pass. We enjoy a walk through the prehistoric rock carvings before the driver brings us back to Alät.
We take the night train from Alät to Gäncä. Buying the ticket in Baku already was quite adventourus but loading our heavy gear from the track bed up into the train lets the adrenalin rise high. Luckily the guys from the station police give us a hand, shouting “dawei, dawei” all the time. The train conductor nearly gets a heart attack as our tandem blocks the entrance into the waggon. Repeatingly he askes us to disassemble the bike, which is not possible. At the next stopp the bicycle is stored at the far end of the waggon. The conductors relax. In the meantime we are served tea and receive fresh linen in our VIP compartment. As Brigitte prepares the beds for the night, Fritz chats a little while with a traveller from the Ukraine.
Although the beds feel as hard as rock and the train noisily rumbles over the tracks, we manage to find some sleep.
Detour to Gädäbäy
Having passed Sämkir we ride southbound to Gädäbay. The landscape is said to be very scenic but the thick fog just lets us see the street in front of us. We pedal along through drizzling rain with pictures of a beautiful landsape in our heads.
Again we camp on a schoolground. Very practical that the entrance is covered. So at least we have a dry place to sit. A joungster from the village gives us his mobil number for any case of emergency. The region seems to be relatively poor, ther does not seem to be a lot of distraction for the people. So it comes that we are sourrounded by a crowd whenever we stop for a brief brake. A highlight of our equipment is our paper road map which we carry on our handle bar bag. Obviously such thing is not very common in the area. In Gädäbäy an old man waves with a bundle of banknotes inviting us to have tea and food with him. Unfortunatly we are running out of time as it is late and we do not have accomodation for the night yet.
Heavy thunderstorms escort us on our way. The villages make a poor impression, no sign of roads lined with flowers anymore. Whether it is the proximity to the hated neighbour Armenia or just the miserable weather, we cannot say. But anyway, it is not very attractive here.
But on rain follows the sun. The landscape looks friendlier again. Until the next shower of rain pours down on us. While we take shelter under a shappy bus stop, Fritz detects a big neat looking house down on the river behind us. It is late, we should ask for a place to camp.
No, we cannot camp in the garden, but the family offers us a fresh bed, a hot shower, food, tea and vodka. Next morning we are released to the road by the whole family supplied with cake an hard boiled eggs. We are heading for Armenia. There is no direct way, because Azerbaijan and Armenia have no open borders. So we take a short detour through Georgia before we can enter Armenia. We are curious to see waht it is like there.
The first impression of Armenia is creepy. We bump over bad roads passing poor villages and deserted quarries where the machines are rotting away. Alaverdi, a forgotten industrial town, deep down in the canyon on river Debed, never seems to get any sunshine. The rest of the Sovjet industrial plants are falling apart beside decrepit houses.
We are presented a total different picture from the numerous monasteries of the country. Armenia is said to be the first state worldwide which installed chritianity as state religion (beginning 4th century). Until we can see the picturesque Haghpat monastary we need to crawl up several serpentines through which even modern coaches groan up. The reward is a scenic place only sparsly frequented by tourists. Mountain panorama included.
Fortunately the main road through the Debed canyon is closed. Otherwise we would not have seen Odzun, a little village hight up on the canoyn-edge. Up here the world looks far more friendly than down in the canyon. The old cathedrale of Odzun is being renovated. Nevertheless many visitors gather on the with churchground. The priest allows us to camp anywhere we like. And as we pitch up our tent under a historical tombstone, a group of girls in folk costumes dance to Armenian music. Later on the churchground becomes quiet, the stone saws are silent and the place belongs to us for the night.
Lake Sevan, the giant reservoir on 1900 m above seal level, is an important water- and energy- supplier for Armenia. But the idyll is deceptive. Since the collapse of the Sovjet union and the conflicts with Azerbaijan Armenia was cut off the energy supply from those countries, so that the water from lake Sevan was used bejond the fair for energy production. The result was a threatening fall of the waterlevel. In combination with the ruthless overfishing the ecosystem was in severe danger. Meanwhile the state has taken counteraction, which will hopefully preserve the wonderful landscape in all its beauty.
We camp above the lake on a free field. It is windy, taking a shower with cold water becomes a test of courage tonight. But the wind also has something good. The laundry drys out quickly.
Our camp on the Sulema pass
One further day we ride along the west side of lake Sevan, passing Hayranavank monastery and the giant graveyard of Noratus. In Martumi, on the south end of the lake, we leave the lake southbound. The road leads us high up to 2400 m over the Sulema pass an so to the most romantic camp on this trip. Shortly before the top of the pass we pitch up our tent offside the raod behind big rocks. Today we need to heat up our shower water with our cooker but even so the ice cold wind lets us finish our body hygiene in record time. A thunderstorm lets us disappear quickly in our tent. In the morning we are given a splendid sunrise with shepherds driving their lifestock through the endless expanse to the grazing grounds. Who needs breakfast TV when having this scenery.
On the other side of tha pass a sign post leads us to a carawanserai below the road. What looks quite unconspicuous from the outsight transfers us back into the world of 1001 nights, as soon as we step inside. In here the travellers on the Armenian silk road seeked shelter for the night. In our minds’ eyes we see colourful garments, steaming tea and men enjoying their shishas.
The view over the mountains and the joyful anticipation of a relaxed descent in wonderful weather lets us spend the lunch break here before our tandem rolls downhill.
Even having left the mountains far behind the road still descents so we let the tandem roll on. The view is less spectacular now but we gather many kilometers without effort today. Finally we find one of Armenia’s rare campsites, where we will stay the night. Christoph, a guest from Switzerland recommends to visit the Noravank monastery on the far end of a long valley not far from here. He says that the ascent is quite easy to ride, just the last part would be steep. Obviously he does not cycle too often. For a 9% slope on a rough road is quite a challenge at the end of a long cycling day. Even when you ride without luggage. Nevertheless we enjoy the evening ride through a narrow gorge which opens into a v-shaped valley. Finally, on top of the mountain the monastery shines in the evening sun in front of deep red rocks. It was worthwhile. Happy and tired we return to the campsite.
Every Armenia-tourist knows this picture. Khor Virap monastery in front of the biblical Ararat mountain, where Moses stranded with his ark. Although the mountain no longer belongs to Armenia, it still embellishes the state emblem. Following an anecdote the Turks once complained that as the Ararat was located in Turkey the Armenians had no right to have it on the state emblem. The Armenians countered with the argument that the Turks had the moon on their flag. And everybody knew that the moon definitivly did not belong to Turkey.
Directly behind the monastery a high barbed wire secures the border between Turkey and Armenia. The relation to the western neighbour is problematic, also because of the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks during the last century.
Again we get hold of a fantastic place to camp. A farmer allows us to put up our tent on the field right below the monastery. Not any no-matter-how-fine hotel could compete with our spot. Only in the morning we need to speed up, as busy hands already rake the dry grass for the hay harvest. We should clear the place.
Although the general living standard in Armenia is far below central Europe you can find glamour miles with high-price boutiques in the capital. Frequently luxury limousines pass by being steered by joung guys who would hardly have a driving licence in our country. Corruption, meaning a lot of money in the hands of a little number of people, is still present in Armenia.
On Sundays the local artists present their paintings for sale in a little park in the City centre. While waiting for clients they eat and drink. They invite us to try their home destilled apricot vodka, tomatoes and cheese. What a jolly gahtering.
After dinner Bob, our Warm Showers host takes us to his neighbour, a chatschkar stonemason. In a tiny workshop, hardly bigger than a garage, he produces artistic-cross stones which you can find on nearly every churchyard in Armenia.
We leave Yerevan northbound passing the Aragat on the east via Gyumri. From there we head for the Georgian border. Again children are amazed by our giant vehicle. Always being cautios, just looking from the distance. Less cautious are the kids in the village where we spend the night. In the dark when we had gone to sleep already, they attack our tent with stones. One of them hits the tent. A fist-sized hole is torn into the outer fabric. Although Fritz chases the kids immediatly he has no chance to get hold of them in the night. Next morning the adults only shrug their shoulders as we could not name the culprits.
We are cross with the Armenians. Think that they are hostile against strangers and we are looking forwar to leave the country. But next day we will be proven wrong. At a hospital near the border we ask whether there is a place to camp nearby. The night guard of the hospital invites us to sleep in the gate house in a little room with two beds. As if that was not enough, Rastom brings us for dinner into the staff cafeteria and lets us have a shower in the physio department. They are freindly, the Armenians. Silly boys being on bad jokes can be found everywhere in the world.
Back in Georgia we first head for Vardzia, an old rock town in a 500 m high rock face. We pass this peculiar bridge made of an old railway waggon. But the floor inside the waggon is already rusted through so it is no longer usable.
Vardzia: In the 12th century about 3,000 homes for 50,000 people were built into the rock face as a fortress against the Turks and Persians. Due to erosions only fractions of them are still there. Nevertheless this construction is absolutly fascinating. The monastery, which has been the home for 500 monks, still is more ore less completly in good condition.
Although the way up to Vardzia is not easy for cyclists, we would always come here again if coming back to Georgia. Because not only the rock town but also the road up there offer many stone-witnesses about life many centuries ago.
Across Goderzi Pass to the Black Sea
Everywhere at police stations or other public buildings you can see the flags of the Eropean Union. The nation feels being associated with Europe and would probably like to be member of the EU. Would this desire last if the Georgians knew more about environment protection and the expenses realted to it? We find a pretty place by the river, take a bath in the presumed clear water just to see later on this guy washing his car including the motor carelessly in the river. After he finishes he himself takes a bath also. He parks his car in some distance to us but even when it gets dark the man is still there. We wonder why he does not go home. What is he doing here? We are a bit concerned. Fritz talks to him and learns that he has to watch his excavator, which is parked here, against thieves over night.
To get to the Black Sea we have to cross the Goderzi Pass on over 2,000 m. Which is generally no problem if you have a proper road to travel. Here we struggle over a gravel piste through woodland. In addition to that we could not fill up water and food in the morning. Thank God there is a hut where we get fresh spring water and delicous shashlik. The pass is quite busy. We are a bit puzzled whyit is no proper road.
Heading for Batumi
Passing picturesque historical bridges we finally roll towards the Black Sea coast. On the way we meet Lars and Alina, a cycling couple from Leipzig. They are on a 7-month-trip to the East. Unfortunately we all have to move on, we would have liked to stay a bit longer and share cycling stories. The sky is overcast but it stays dry and so we reach the glamorous seaside resort Batumi by late afternoon. Like most cities the arterial roads are hectic and noisy. Garages and car washes line up the streets, busy people everywhere around. Not ideal for cycling. Having reached the seafront we catch eye on peculiar holiday architecture which still surrounds old shabby apartement blocks. It is just a question of time until the last of them have dissapeared and been replaced by modern glass palaces.
We cycle along the overcrowdes boardwalk before we finally find a hostel for the night.
Svaneti is a must when coming to Georgia. Originally we planned to cycle this part of the country at the beginning of our trip but due to the bad weather then we postponed it to the end. In most beautiful weather we slowly climb up the (by car drivers considered as being in good condition) concrete piste. The beauty of the landscape is contary to the condition of the road. The further we come into the picturesque north the worse the road condtion is. Not only that the surface is terribly rough but we also need to take care on in-between downhill parts if we do not want to fall into the next pothole. The route is tyring because the altitude we gaine on climbing is often lost through the next valley. We cycle pass the giant Jvari reservoir up into an alpine plateau.
Shortly before Mestia, the town with the famous defense towers, we leave our luggage at the local grocery store and cycle the last kilometers without the heavy load.
Mestia is a touristic hot spot. Many Jeep-tours start from here further north to Ushguli over dirt roads. We se a lot of the impressive defense towers but have to go back as it is late and we still need to find a place to camp.
Back to Kutaissi
Like on the Military road we have to go back the same route again. There are only a few days left for us. We visited all places we wanted to see. Now we can be relaxed cycling back to the airport. Despite the bad road we roll along quite well. But suddenly the front wheel get out of control. At a speed of about 50 k/h it skidds once or twice and the next moment we find ourselves lying cross on the road. What happend? Due to the frequent braking downhill the front tyre must have moved on the rim so the the valve finally was torn out of the tube. Thanks to our bulky bags and helmets we only suffer some abrasions on arms and legs. But later on Fritz has problems with his wrist. It hurts and is swollen. Not good, because only Fritz can steer the heavy tandem. Will he be able to hold it with the sore wrist? We already discuss alternatives to cycling but Fritz is not the one who gives up.
So we keep on cycling. In fact under police protection. As already on our way up we again are escorted by a patrol car. Not only that the police follows us for some miles, even when we have to repair a puncture, the guys patiently wait until we finished. On the outward route we were even invited to camp in the garden of the police station. Very cool campground.
We stay the last night by the river outside Senaki. The water is warm, we enjoy an extensive swim. Tomorrow we will buy some plastic wrap for the bike and collect our pack sacks at the hostel in Kutaissi. We will have plenty of time to disassemble and pack away everything at the airport, because our flight is due only early in the morning the following day.
Another exciting, partly quite adventurous trip is coming to an end. Although it has not been outstanding regarding the total distance or elevation gain we have experienced this journey as extremly exhausting. The three nations which we summarized under the name “Caucasus” could not be more different to each other. While the hospitality of the Azerbaijanis overwhelmd us, Armenia impresses every visitor with its numerous monateries. And Georgias magnificent landscapes will alway be remembered by us.
Again we met warm people everywhere. Reservations agains the “dangerous East” have been proved to be wrong. Not one moment we have felt insecure. The police was always concerend about our security. Kids, who dared to come too near to our bicycle were driven away by the older ones. That we “had to” sleep in a tent, namely on the ground, embarrased the people. Voluntary no one would do such a thing here.