August 2018 - Worldtrip Update
Join us on our travels through the mountains of magnificent Georgia, the desertic highways of Azerbaidjan, a chaotic cargo ship cruise to Kazhakstan, and a train ride through Uzbekistan. Plus, a regrettable mistake that made us very very VERY sick.
We left the Black Sea to discover the Svaneti region in the Caucasus Mountains, it is located between the two separatists regions of Georgia. Our first destination was Zugdidi, the last city before a long way up to the mountain town of Mestia. Before we could cycle up there, we needed to stock up on our food reserves, the plan was to carry 4 days of food, meaning a limited amount of fresh goods, and a lot of dry nutrition: oats, bread, milk powder, couscous, rice, buckwheat, nuts, dried fruits, canned sauces, etc.
As we were shopping in one of the rare supermarkets of Georgia, we met Tine & Wim, 2 Belgian cyclists, who were preparing for the ascention as we did. It felt re-assuring that other people were as adventurous as we are.
On our first day to Mestia, the clouds replaced the sun, and steep gradients replaced the flat road. While we were looking for our first campsite, a local invited us to stay in a guesthouse he was still building, for free! The water source, chacha (liquor), sweet fruits, and a magnificient sight of the reservoir were a very refreshing addition. At night we had the company of a fluffy dog, he was protecting us, or so I thought, later in the night 2 big dogs entered the property, and only when I woke up and ran out did he find the courage to chase them out like a little fluffy mad dog. To give you a better picture of what sort of dog he was: The next morning he ate a wasp and we thought he’d die, but he somehow made it and tried to eat more wasps… that’s the kind of dog.
As we cycled up to Mestia, the climate was getting cooler, the roads were a good mix of steady climbs and a few difficult gradients. We rode past a few waterfalls, sighted the first snowy peaks and the first Svanetian watch towers. The river heading to the reservoir was flowing more and more furiously, the cliffs were getting steeper, bathing in it was impossible. Around noon we always bumped into Tine & Wim having lunch, so we stopped, shared food, stories, and these beautiful landscapes with them.
On the 4th day, we finally arrived in Mestia, a touristic town where hikers start their journey to peaks, glaciers, and tiny villages in the mountains. Like every other day we had lunch with the pair, and found a sparkling water spring, the most delicious fresh water we have encountered. Their plan was to take a break in a guesthouse before continuing to the Zagaro Pass at 2700m, our plan was to keep going, so we said goodbye and rode on to Ushguli, one of the highest continuously inhabited mountain villages of Europe. Before we left we had to stock up on food again, it would be another 4 days before we’d reach any city.
The way to the Zagaro Pass had a few hurdles: first the Ugviri Pass at 2480m, from there on the road turned from asphalt into gravel and mud. The weather was becoming unstable, we were afraid to get stuck on the pass in foggy and rainy weather. The climbs became very rocky, steep and difficult. The distance for these conditions was challenging. Plus, it is marked as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. The landscapes, the idea to reach Ushguli, and the Zagaro Pass were motivating us to keep going, our bodies were flushed with adrenaline and our minds with endorphine.
We eventually reached Ushguli, took in the views, became friends with a few roaming pigs, refilled our water supplies, and cycled on. The pass was still a few kilometers ahead. Our bodies natural drugs were fading and replaced by mental and physical fatigue, we started doing breaks every 10 minutes, we became cranky, angry, and started fighting.
After reaching the pass and pitching our tent, Captain Picard aboard the Enterprise-E rescued us. Wait, eh… I meant: Merab, a physics professor, a Star Trek fan (like myself), and his massive 4x4 Toyota spotted us. He offered us water, milky drinks, and protein powder. Hero!
Next day, the path down was even harder, the roads turned into a rocky, muddy, and wet rollercoaster, a joy if we were riding mountainbikes. Mimouna had a particular hard time, we stopped 6 times to fix her bike. #1 The fenders were clogged with mud, #2 the rear tyre teared open, #3 the rear tube exploded as a result, #4 the handlebar bag broke, #5 a screw went missing on a rear bag, #6 further inspections showed that the rack was coming loose. Woaw. We lost hours fixing all this mess, and then we realised that one of her cycling shorts was gone 5km earlier. It took us hours to only ride 35km in mud that day, but it felt like we just rode 80km.
At the end of the second day, the roads turned partially to asphalt again, and we were on our way to Tbilisi. Unfortunately Georgia has very bad secondary roads, they are mostly thick gravel. So we opted to ride on the motorway after a few unpleasant detours, the cops didn’t seem to care, and a wide shoulder kept us safe from motorists.
Thrilled to finally get to the Georgian capital, we were hoping to fix and clean our bikes, acquire spare parts, wash ourselves, our equipment, and most importantly get some rest and chill out with Mimouna’s brother, Kerim, and his partner, Diana.
Having Diana and Kerim around us felt great, they drove a similar route to ours from Berlin to Georgia with their VW van. Hanging out with them felt like we were back home, sharing delicious meals, relaxing in spas, and visiting the city. We made plans to leave the city while waiting for our Chinese visa, we decided to explore the Kakheti region, we jumped into their van and left our bikes in Tbilisi. Remember the regretable mistake I mentioned in the article intro? We’re almost there.
After a few hours roadtrip, we stopped in a green meadow, near a river, with mountains all around us. We discovered a great bathing spot, enjoyed the sun, and Mimouna cut my hair in the open, because why not. Next morning we rode on to find another spot in the woods, we were completely alone, at first. Preparing meals, setting up our camp, relaxing, and trying out our new fuel stove with mixed results.
As sunset approached, a group of men flocked to the area, they started a meaty barbecue, packed out liters and liters of homemade wine and liquors, and of course, invited us over. As time passed, they grew fond of us, Diana helped a lot, she speaks perfect Russian, so she was our translator. Toasts after toasts, stories after stories, everybody got drunker and drunker. The bread, cheese and tomatoes were delicious but not enough to cope with the high percentage wine, if you can still call it wine. Mimouna and I went to sleep early, our tired bodies were not used to that amount of alcohol, and this is the beginning of a horrible night.
First of, thunderstorms, very very close thunderstorms, deafening bangs, buckets of rain pouring on our tent every second. The ground was shaking with every strike somewhere in a 4km radius. It was a terrible feeling to lay in a tent. I was petrified, and now being awake I started realising how nauseous I am, I had to get out, but I couldn’t, so I tried to sleep, hah. The storm eventually calmed down allowing me to get out a first time. I puked, but it wasn’t enough, my brain, or what was left of it, wanted to purge my body in every way, so I sent a first fax in complete darkness, good thing I was trained in the art of wild-camping since a few months now. This went on a few times during the night. In the morning I realised how feeble I had become, my appetit was gone, I could not eat or drink anything without throwing up, I was afraid to get a cold because my immune system felt weakened. Mimouna started being sick as-well, so here we were lying around in the van, trying to sleep, rushing to empty ourselves everytime our body demanded it. With time, my gut was completely empty, so I started vomitting blood. As if the situation wasn’t bad enough, now I was wondering if I had a stomach ulcer in addition to what seemed like my first alcohol poisoning.
Given our conditions, we collectivly decided to head back to Tbilisi and find a cosy home for next night. The drive back was another test of patience, it took us 30% more time to head to Tbilisi, Mimouna had to throw up multiple times, I was trying to hold it together laying in bed, we lost one of my shoes due to the many stops, but we made it. Our situation got better gradually over the next 2 days, it took time, water, electrolytes and dry bread. Since then Mimouna and myself have a strict no alcohol policy on this trip, cycling all day everyday does not mix well with alcohol consumption. Lesson learned.
With a better stomach, we spent the next days doing what we do best: relaxing, sharing meals, and slurping cafés. With our Chinese visa in the pocket it was now time to say goodbye and head to the next country: Azerbaijan.
Our plan was to cycle east to the port of Alat within 5 days and take a cargo ship over the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan.
The road was grotesque at times, especially in the second largest city, Ganja. Massive soviet-style monuments, parcs, and buildings welcomed us on large empty avenues. Decorated and carved walls lead in and out of some cities, and the president is omnipresent on big signs welcoming you everywhere. Of course, always the same face on different backgrounds. Behind this facade we discovered gravel streets, poverty, and wobbly homes. From here on people asked us more and more if we’d like to pay in US Dollars as their money isn’t worth much. At the port of Alat we were even forced to pay in USD, the ATM didn’t contain any Manat, or at least, not enough to pay for a ferry ticket.
This brings us to Azerbaijan bureaucracy. OH. MY. Buying a ferry ticket is possible, as long as you are insisting and ask a lot of questions over and over again to a lot of different people, nobody from the employees can give you a single clear answer on how to proceed. Nobody told us when the boat would arrive, so we kept checking multiple times a day, we eventually waited 3 days due to bad weather. It wasn’t so bad though, we build a little camp with other cyclists, hitch-hikers and travelers behind the ferry building. We exchanged a lot of information, laughters, and meals. After 5 days on Azerbaijan roads, in the sun, against the wind, it felt like a nice break.
Unfortunately not everything was great at the port, there were 4 dirty toilets for hundreds of people, fresh water was rare, somehow the pipes would run dry, sometimes we had to wait for half a day to get a few liters. Vegetables and fruits were lacking in the shop. Electricity was scarce, there were 2 plugs, one in the café, and another in the office. Now you are probably imagining buildings, erase that image, all these services are provided from within 3 different ship containers with no indication to what is inside them.
When we crossed the border to embark, the officer asked Mimouna where her car was, after a while we realised that on entry they somehow marked that she entered Azerbaijan by car… A Mercedes to be precise. After a while they corrected the issue, and we were allowed on the boat. Azerbaijan bureaucracy at its best.
The cruise was rustic, a 2 bed cabin, shared bathrooms, small primitive meals, everything smelled like heating oil, I suppose this is the ship’s fuel. We spend 2 days crossing the Caspian Sea before disembarking at 1am, welcomed by a grumpy Kazhak border unit, they searched absolutely everything, we waited for multiple officers to allow us through different check points, asking us the same questions their colleagues already did before, we were tired and annoyed, we only wanted to sleep.
We cycled a few kilometers up the road and camped behind a bus station with other folks, sadly this woke up a dog who barked endlessly until the owner woke up and insisted we unmount everything and camp inside his property, we refused, we only wanted to lay down and be left alone. In the morning we woke up to fresh water and bread he had left for us during the night, such a gentle and warm welcome! We thanked him, shook his hand, and rode to Aktau.
In Aktau we had the surprising pleasure to find European brands, sweet pastries, and other western foods for cheap for the first time since Bulgaria, we filled our guts with German puddings and French pain au chocolat. It felt like heaven after Azerbaijan.
Altough Kazakhstan felt very appealing, people seemed “normal” and easy going, some even greeted us shouting “Astana Cycling Team!” we had other plans, from Aktau to Bukhara (Uzbekistan) there isn’t much except 2000kms of desert. So we booked a 2 days train ride.
The first train took us from Aktau to Beyneu, the last city until the Uzbek border, it was such a comfortable train, not only was it clean and spacious, it was better than any sleeper European trains I had ever traveled with, and even topped the comfort of ICE, TGV, Eurostar and Thalys, sorry Europe we aren’t there yet.
In Beyneu we had to switch trains at 4am, this train would arrive late in the evening in the Uzbek city of Nukus. It was a brutal contrast to the previous train, the only similarity was that it was a sleeper train. Was it clean? Hell no. Spacious? Nope, people were literally sitting on my lap. Silent? Absolutely not, there were no cabins, no doors, and sellers would run through the train offering absolutely everything from iPhones, to pants, to dried fish, breads, tea, coffee, liquor, you name it. The train was a strolling market. It wasn’t comfortable, there were no blankets, no pillows. It smellt like quaranta formaggi, the toilet was terrible, and getting any sleep in these conditions was difficult. It was obviously a train of contraband, everybody was smuggling something, people were shuffling around cases and bags trying to hide stuff, but there was no place to hide anything, this was the sole idea of how this train was build, allow for border patrols to control absolutely everything.
And they did control everything, as they came into the train, the ambiance changed from a loud bazaar, to anxious silence. They took random people and walked away with them, the language barrier for us made it even weirder, we could only guess what was going on. Some of them came back, seemingly relieved, only to be taken away again minutes later. Bribes were passed along in stacked passports, the cops played mental games with loud mouthes and gave them back their passports without exit stamps until the very last moment. They were quite curtious to us and we were only quickly searched, what interested them most were our phone pictures. As we entered Uzbekistan the same show happened again.
We finally arrived in Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, an Autonomous Republic within Uzbekistan. Relieved to disembark from what we now call the “circus train”. The next train would only leave next day in the afternoon, giving us time to visit the city. People were happy to meet us, we happened to arrive at some sort of national holiday, and were gifted with the opportunity to witness a lot of local folklore and culture. The city was a nice place to ride our bikes, people cycled around a lot on old solid soviet race bikes, charming!
After the previous unforgetable train ride, we were pleased to have a cabin to ourselves until Bukhara, watch the next 1000kms of desert from the window, and plan our trip through Uzbekistan.
Which we will report more about in our next article.
From Chengdu, China, land of the pandas, Yves.