(James) Despite the sound of growling and barking dogs charging around our tent all through the night, we slept well. Em’s euphoria at being alive ensured that she was still chirpy even as we had our gruff ‘wake-up call’ (Turkish soldier banging on our tent and shouting ‘Morning’!) at 6am. We promptly packed up, but not before the soldiers brought us over a cup of tea and complimented us on our ‘beautiful’ tent which we sadly informed them didn’t come in a camouflage option! We were slightly apprehensive as we left, not knowing what the rest of the road to the Georgian border, still some 80 mountainous km away, had in store for us. Having left, we were quickly enjoying good tarmac, although our visibility was limited by the grey cloud above and below us. However, before long the sun soon started to burn through the cloud and we were rewarded with blue skies and incredible scenery and, of course, the chance for us to dry our kit out on the move! (And I was finally able to use the ‘facilities’ provided by the natural surroundings; my attempts the previous night had been met with failure due to a motion sensitive military search light!!)
We’d read that Posof was the most remote border crossing in the Caucasus but still weren’t prepared for how isolated and backward things were up there. The alpine scenery matched that of Switzerland but here the local population live in simple stone huts with tarpaulin roofs and horses seem to be the main/only form of transport. Hard to believe that this is in the same country as cosmopolitan Istanbul and we certainly felt a degree of sympathy for the Kurdish people; we couldn’t help but think they have every right to feel a little bit forgotten/abandoned by a government that should surely be trying to win their hearts and minds and make them feel part of what is, for the most part, a dynamic and rapidly modernising country.
With the last of our Turkish currency, we put enough petrol in the bikes (no cards accepted) to get us across the border where we looked forward to enjoying fuelling up for less than £1.80 a litre! We were finally released from Turkey without too much fuss and the Georgian officials seemed to forget to charge us for anything and after only a cursory look at our luggage, sent us on our way, the whole process taking little more than 45 minutes. The first five kilometres were memorable for two reasons; firstly, the road was atrocious and took us some forty minutes to cover, and secondly we were sweltering as we were still wearing our waterproof inners and with no forward motion, were soon turning into human ‘boil-in-the-bags’! Cue us taking turns to stand guard in the middle of the road while each of us stripped down to our pants by the bike to take out our inner layers. An English backside is not normally the first thing a visitor to Georgia might expect to see!
Fortunately the road soon improved and having passed through our first Georgian town (very Soviet looking), we were soon riding through deep gorges and trying to avoid the insane Georgian drivers who clearly haven’t adapted well to having cars more powerful than Ladas. Our map (once again) had towns written on it in English which wasn’t particularly helpful as it meant stopping at road signs to try to decipher the Cyrillic when we got to junctions. That’s not to say that the road signs weren’t dual language, they were but Georgian and Russian, which on reflexion seems overly generous as generally the only Russians that come to Georgia tend to come as part of an armoured tank division! Anyway, cars passed us with inches to spare and had no qualms about doing so even on blind corners. We did stop for half an hour to chat with two Italian bikers, Marco and Paulo, who were doing a similar route to us but in the opposite direction and so were able to swap stories and provide advice for each other on the roads ahead. We had decided that we would try and get to Tbilisi that day and after a couple of hours of fairly hairy roads, were shocked to find ourselves expressing relief at being on a two-lane motorway and enjoying the safety of having our whole lane to ourselves!
Inevitably, as has been our wont, we reached Tbilisi at rush hour which, in the 100 degree heat, didn’t help Em for whom this was the first bit of big city riding we’d had since the accident. Within an hour we’d found the hostel (a specific place we’d had some packages sent to) which was located up an extremely steep and broken cobbled alley. While I just made it up, Em knew her limitations and decided that this one was not worth the risk so having ridden up and spoken to the guys at the hostel, I came back down to get her bike and give her the news that despite us having booked, there were no beds available for us. Obviously feeling bad, they tried to find a solution for us which was to stay in one of their flats down the road – no beds there either, but we were able to set up our tent in the courtyard. An additional kick in the groin was that the person with the key was currently out meaning that instead of enjoying the two things we’d been talking about all day, namely a shower and a cold beer, we had to sit in a sweaty riding gear until 9 o’clock that night. Not ideal!
By the time we’d washed and showered and pitched our tent in the yard (at a heavily reduced rate), it was gone 11pm and so we headed out to get some dinner and finally find that elusive cold beer at a place recommended by the guys at the hostel. We were looking forward to a traditional Georgian meal (the food and wine here has a good reputation, in fact Georgia is said to be the birth place of wine). We got lost, but having asked two girls for directions they very kindly drove us round town to the restaurant and dropped us off at the door. We sat down and immediately asked the waiter, who appeared to speak English, for one glass of white wine and one large beer. Thus ensued a comedy of errors. Simply ordering the drinks took a good ten minutes to get across, including us pointing at people drinking beer and gesturing to the picture of beer on the menu. In then took a further five minutes to sort the drinks (the bar was only five metres away, the place wasn’t even busy – I was tempted to go and pour it myself) but our eager anticipation turned to pure bewilderment as he placed on the table one glass of white wine for Em (perfect) and for me, one half litre stein of…. white wine!!! We couldn’t help ourselves and burst into desperate laughter. We should be clear at this stage, we this isn’t a case of some jolly foreigner coming in and ordering obnoxiously in his own language – surely no bar in the whole entire world would even consider serving wine in a pint glass?! Having asked what it was, and explaining that we never mentioned anything about a pint of wine (surely we’d have just ordered a bottle), it then took an extra few minutes to get across to him that I still actually wanted a pint of beer! Eventually I did get it, and can confirm that it went both smoothly and quickly, and we went on to order our food, which was lovely – although only half of what we ordered ever turned up!! That night we slept like babies, not even managing to undress or get in our sleeping bag.
We’d arranged for two packages to be sent to us at the hostel in Tbilisi – one by post and one by DHL – and discovered that neither of them were actually at the hostel. Our DHL package had arrived but was being held by customs (the locals laughed when we said we only given our postal parcel three weeks to get here) so on Tuesday afternoon we went with Tater, one of the hostel guys, down to the customs office to try and retrieve our package. It proved highly difficult to get a taxi in Baku as the drivers are a moody bunch of sods, one of them wouldn’t give us a ride because ‘petrol is too expensive’!!! Anyway, cue three hours of utter mayhem, shouting and near fights at the customs office as Tater tried to get them to hand over our parcel. The sheer incompetence and obstinance of the staff at this office can’t really be described to anyone who hasn’t experienced it but suffice to say, they pretty much made up reasons why we couldn’t have what was rightfully ours and changed the reason every time we (Tater) countered their argument. Meanwhile, this same frustrating inadequacy was affecting the two dozen other people who’d been allowed through the first set of barriers (there were still more outside being held back by security guards) and were crowding round just four windows, all shouting at the same time. All in all, a bit of a bun fight!
We spent what time we had left in Tbilisi trying to see some of the old town which is really pretty with a river flowing through it and houses old churches clinging to the edge of a high gorge on one side. The rest of the town, including the area where we were staying, has tons of character and is filled with amazing but crumbling old buildings that people continue to live in despite subsidence causing huge cracks right through the middle (many such crevices were simply stuffed with paper and old clothes). We planned to leave on Wednesday but a phone call back to the Turkmenistan embassy in Istanbul revealed that our transit visa still hadn’t been approved and sent through to Baku (Azerbaijan). We didn’t want to get to Baku before it was ready as, despite the fact that we had 30 days Azer visas, our bikes were only allowed in the country for 72 hours. So in the end, we spent an extra day in Tbilisi which was actually quite handy as it allowed us to finish our make-shift storage canisters for the bikes – our package from England contained the bits needed to complete our improved storage tubes (thanks guys!)