1. From Trabzon to Tbilisi
2. A Windy Departure
3. Caucasian Shepherd Dogs
4. The Monastery of David Gareja
5. Alone again
6. A Feeling of Central Asia
Snow on the roads, cold winds, hungry polar bears… who would like to cycle in the Caucasus in winter?! Ok, there’s no polar bear around but for couple of reasons, I didn’t cycle from December 2012 to March 2013. In the beginning of March, I went to Trabzon in Eastern Turkey to apply for a visa to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Trabzon is said to be the easiest place to obtain an Iranian Visa. I applied on Friday morning and couple of hours later I had the precious paper in hands.
At the Iranian Embassy, I met Kat and Alex, a couple from Australia travelling on a tandem bicycle. Meeting them was so cool that I decided to stay longer in Trabzon. We spent most of our time sharing travel stories around glasses of cay (Turkish tea), delicious salep or hookah. We also hitchhiked together to the vertiginous Sumela Monastery up in the hills South of Trabzon .
In Trabzon I also met Jacques, a very friendly French guy travelling on a recumbent bike to Hong-Kong. The four of us shared more of less the same travel plan, head East across Iran and Central Asia!
During my last evening in Trabzon, the Australian guys prepared a delicious curry. After that we wished each other a safe and wonderful journey, hoping to meet some day on the road. Maybe in Kyrgyzstan this summer? Maybe before? 🙂
Back in the land of Khachapuri (flat bread filled with Georgian cheese), I stayed stay about a week in Tbilisi, filled my stomach with Georgian food and said goodbye to my friends before heading South to the cold and snowy and mountains of Armenia.
My last days in Tbilisi were pleasant despite the bike packing headache. I enjoyed spending some time with my friends and especially with my Iranian friend Mehdi who took me to a yoga course where we performed a sequence of 108 Surya Namaskara! I will never forget this! I even had blisters on the palms 😉
I am also glad that I met Enikő, a lovely Hungarian woman who introduced me to the French school of Tbilisi (École Francaise du Caucase) where I did two presentations about my travel. The kids there were really interested in my journey. Their smiles and “Wooooow!” when I showed them the photos filled me with happiness 🙂
I will cross six countries where I’ve never been in the next four months: Armenia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan! Thinking of it almost makes me dizzy…
I’m not afraid of cycling alone in remote places, I’m rather excited at the perspective of crossing mountains and deserts, but I know I will sometimes feel lonely, I will feel it even stronger when I will live the most wonderful and intense moments… Don’t they say happiness is only real when shared?
This morning, I am meeting Anne-Laure and Guillain, a French couple from Vélo Nomades I’ve met earlier that week in Tbilisi. We decided we will cycle together to the monasteries of David Gareja.
Cycling out of Tbilisi is quite easy, especially because there is a strong tailwind pushing us south. After asking few times for directions, we reach the suburbs of Rustavi, many disaffected factories, old rusty metal structures, grey chimneys, dilapidated buildings. It is hard to imagine that such desolation is a common environment for the who live here.
By the road, the bushes are filled with plastic bags of all colours floating in the wind. Many Lada drivers wave and honk at us. Out of Tbilisi, we quickly realize that we are not in Europe…
We have three different maps but they are all very approximative so we miss the road to David Garega (which is actually more a track than a proper road and also isn’t signed). This time, we have to face the wind. Reaching 6km/h is harder now than cycling 30km/h in the opposite direction, the wind is just insanely strong, so strong it kicks us many times out of the road! In this wind it is sometimes better to push the bicycle than to ride it.
Once we left the main road, we cycle in a surprisingly beautiful desert landscape. No tree, just rolling hills covered with yellow and green grass undulating in the wind. This is a pleasure for the eyes and for the legs, the wind is once more in our back 😉
There is literally no sign for David Gareja. A Georgian Taxi driver who is lost as well asks us for directions but we can only suppose. Soon we reach a crossroad with some signs in Georgian. We’ve seen on our left a valley with some troglodytes caves so we supposed it might be the way.
Once more we have to face the wind. Cycling these few kilometres are tough. We feel totally desperate when a shepherd tells us David Gareja is actually in the opposite direction! Damn! We are exhausted and we cannot pitch our tent with such hellish wind so we ask this shepherd if we can sleep around here. He instantly invites us to his home.
We are surrounded by eight Caucasian shepherd dogs. They are barking at us while we push our bikes in the wind towards the shelter. We wouldn’t be able to go further if the shepherd wasn’t wish us, keeping the dogs away from us with his stick and stones. I probably was too confident that having him with us would keep the dogs away from jumping on us, but while I was pushing my bike, one of the dog attacked me from behind. I felt the pain in my left leg, then in my right leg. I screamed but the guys hardly noticed me as the wind was absolutely deafening! Anne-Laure looked panicked when she saw that there was blood on the back of my trousers. I told her I feel fine but I didn’t really know how deep were the bites… SHIT! I was never bitten by any dog and here in the middle of nowhere with such wind, I cannot move to seek any help. So we kept on walking to the shelter where we remained locked until the shepherds finished their day of work. Four walls and a roof made of plastic tarps. The house has no electricity and no water, just tree beds, a table with a petrol lamp, a stove, and couple of boxes with the shepherds belongings.
It was not even thinkable to get out of the shelter even to get the disinfection spray with these blood hungered beasts waiting for us outside. When Guillain went close to the door we saw the huge muzzle of the animal trying to bite him through the crack of the door. Anne-Laure was a little frightened they would break through so she kept a brick by her side just in case.
This is one of these moments when I wonder what the hell am I doing here! The wind exhausted me so much. Sitting by the fireplace, I defreeze my fingers and eat some honey to get back a little power. I’m glad to see that my wounds are only superficial and later the shepherd ensure me that his dog is ok.
All together, they are five shepherds, all from Azerbaijan, and they have a total of a thousand sheep! We have dinner with them, eat some delicious cheese they made themselves with potatoes and buckwheat. We also prepare for them some salad. Anne-Laure and Guillain communicate with them in Turkish… When comes the time to pee, tree shepherds surround us with sticks and make sure that no dog is attacking us 😉
Laying in my sleeping bag, on a shepherd’s bed in one corner of the room, I listen to the wind raging outside and the tarp flapping loudly above us. I hope tomorrow will be less windy because I will have to cycle the opposite way heading to Armenia…
The next morning we wake up early with the shepherds. After a quick breakfast, we hit the road again.
The wind blows in the same direction as yesterday but luckily it is not as strong. Soom we reach the Monastery of David Gareja.
The monks of David Gareja live in troglodytes rooms but this part isn’t accessible to visitors. The monastery is built on the side of the mountain overlooking the valley.
I have to admit that it is less impressive that I had imagined but the ride there was worth it. I really enjoyed the landscape in the desert.
After a last meal by the monastery, it is time for us to separate. Anne-Laure and Guillain will head East to Azerbaijan while I will head West to Armenia. I haven’t cycle alone since autumn 2011 when I came back from Istanbul to the Czech Republic. After wishing ourselves good luck, I am getting further from my friends, alone…
It is hard to explain how this moment feel but to me, it is like being at the very bottom of a very, very long ladder and the only way is to climb it all. Yes, I have a very long way ahead of me, between 6000 to 7000 kilometres before I reach Kyrgyzstan this summer. I know there will be great moments and hard times… but I also know I will not let my fears to make me doubt, I will do it.
After cycling with a strong headwind for the whole afternoon, I am finally back to Rustavi, only couple of kilometres from Tbilisi. I desperately try to find a café to sit and write but the people I ask cannot understand a single word of English! I asked two teenage girls: “City centre?”, “Rustavi Center?”, Centrum? Rustavi?”, they just look at me and burst out laughing, great! I finally managed to find a café by myself but the only café they serve is Nescafé. Disappointing. 🙁
It is already dark when I leave the café. I don’t have a clue of where I will sleep so I try to locate the road I will need to follow tomorrow and start cycling in the night. This is the kind of moment when I feel really lonely but at the same time there is this almost unreal feeling that my life is so light, that anything can happen… I finally ask at some small shop on the road if I can put my tent in their garden. The daughter of the owner speaks English and she tells me that I can sleep anywhere, meaning anywhere but not in their garden! I finally pitch the tent near the shop. There’s a lot of space in my tent, I didn’t remember it so big…
After a very special breakfast of kiwi, cheese and halva, I get back on my bicycle, heading to Armenia. I already feel better than yesterday about being alone, but it is still heavy… I try not to think of all the difficulties ahead and just keep a curious eye on what I see. After cycling up a hill, I take a tiny track heading to Marneuli. I only see couple of shepherds with sheep and of course, shepherd dogs! Since I was bitten, I keep in my pocket couple of rocks for the dogs and I’m not too bad at kicking them!
Such space, grass everywhere… This green immensity, sometimes spoiled by a house or a truck evoke Central Asia to me. I can say now that Georgia has everything, from wonderful mountains in the north to plains and deserts in the South-East.
Arriving to Marneuli, I pass by dozen of abandoned factories, huge grey concrete blocks with broken windows, steel structures covered with rust. The streets of Marneuli are messy and dusty, it is such a contrast with the bustling avenues of the cosmopolitan Tbilisi. It is time to spend my last 4 Laris (about 2 Euros) for some khinkalis. I think I will miss Georgian cuisine.
Later, on the main road leading to Armenia, I am once more amazed by the desolation of the towns I pass by. Some babushka in dirty blouses are sitting on crates in the dust and exhaust fumes, trying to sell couple of vegetables or some cheese. The old soviet cars are very smelly and noisy, many people shout at me “Odkuda? Odkuda?” (“where are you from” in Russian). Sometimes I stop to explain them a little bit about my travel.
By the road I meet an old shepherd who offer me a chocolate candy he kept in his pocket. He probably has so little for himself but refusing his present would offend him. Later on, a man and his son invite me to their home. They want to offer me hospitality for the night and they promise me some khatchapuli and homemade wine but this time I refuse. I explain them that I am heading to Armenia and do not wish to cycle back to Marneuli…
In front of me: mountains, mountains and more mountains… Armenia is a very mountainous land and I know it will be tough! I have heard from some friends that Armenia is actually much more damaged than Georgia. When I reach the border, I really wonder what I will discover on the other side…
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