A little bit nervous I cycle towards the border with Georgia. What will expect me there? The border crossing would be a 5 minutes thing, wouldn't I have to explain to everyone, what I was doing here... The Georgians have an own alphabet. Looks very nice, but has nothing in common with our latin or the cyrillic at all. Fortunately most of the signs are in latin also.
Georgia is only slowly recovering from the economic meltdown after the collapse of the USSR. Cycling through towns is often depressing: many houses and industry ruins. Hardly anything seems to be working anymore. But you wouldn't know by meeting the georgians that they are having a hard time. They are proud, in a simpatico way reserved and among the heartiest people I have ever met!
...and they like to drink and party! When I stay in Kutaisi, I want to go to the cathedral above town for sunset. Soon after me, an orthodox priest with 3 other men appear there too. The priest, as you would expect it: long black robe with a silver cross over his belly and a long beard. One of the men has a magnum (!) bottle of self made (as he proudly says) white wine with him. So the five of us sit there, watching the sunset, the priest from time to time singing a song and carefully watching that I drink plenty, while the bottle gets emptier and emptier...
Here in the Caucasus I finally find, what I had been looking forward for some time: springtime! Most of the houses along the road have big gardens, where everything is in full bloom now. Many people are self-caterers. There are countless goose, pigs, cows and chickens on and next to the road. In the towns the shops and their selection have become smaller. Instead there is a lot of self made and backed things to buy on the market, which is better anyway.
Spread all over the country, there are countless old churches and monasteries, usually placed at the most beautiful spots. Some of them I visit along my way. The valley towards Tbilisi is flanked by the high, snowcapped peaks of the caucasus.
For some days I enjoy the town life in Tbilisi: good food, going out, talking with other travelers and the relaxing, charming town itself. The towns name is derived from the hot springs that exist here (tbili=warm). A visit to these bathes, where apparently Pushkin had taken a bath too, is on the list too. In the east of the country I cycle through big vineyards. This is the main wine producing region of Georgia. This I enjoy one more time - probably the last opportunity for a while...
My Azerbaijan visa is causing me troubles. Too late I found out, that I was given only a one month valid visa, which has expired by now already. But that one cost me almost 80$ and 5 days of waiting. Couldn't I easily make a 4 out of that 1? I take the risk and, no surprise, approach the border slightly nervous. My 'extension' doesn't last for very long. Not that it was done so bad, but there simply are only visas valid for 1 month or 1 year... After 4 hours and lots of telephone calls, I know that I have to go back to Georgia. Meanwhile I am spoiled with tea and plenty of food by the friendly officials.
I spend the night together with a rugby team from Tbilisi, staying at a decomposing ex-sovjet 'sport-hotel'. Back in Tbilisi I immediately get a new visa. At the second try, I cross the border with no problems (save the laughers from all the people who knew me already...). Yes, I know that story could have turned out different...
My first impression of Azerbaijan is this incredible green everywhere. For long distances I cycle through beautiful deciduous forests and fertile fields. I travel in the very north of the country along the big mountain ranges. The densely wooded hills often give way for fascinating views into the up to 4000m high peaks of the great Caucasus.
My body has trouble to adopt to the extreme clima change. Within only a couple of days I came from the cold winter into the summer heat. On the hilly roads, full of potholes, I sweat incredible amounts. For the first time I can now cycle in shorts and T-shirts.
Most Azeris are shiite muslims (like Iran). But they take it very relaxed here. Hardly a women wears a scarf and alcohol is widely drunken. Besides that, lots of things remind me of Turkey: the language, the food, the music, the people...
Azerbaijans economy is doing better than many other ex-soviet states, thanks to the oil found in the caspian sea. But here in the agricultural zone, outside the capital not much of that is visible. I enjoy the quite, peaceful villages along the mountains. Time seems to pass at a different speed here.
In many of the bigger places there is still an Intourist Hotel. They are the remains of the standard soviet hotels built everywhere in the ex-USSR. These places are so wonderfully eccentric! From the outside the monstrous soviet architecture beats you. Inside they are totally run down and decomposing. Worst are the sanitation facilities, that hardly work anymore. Then the water has to be fetched with a basket from the floor. But next to the falling plaster and the separating wallpaper there is a ceiling with a beautiful stucco work. The picture is completed with a floor lady (yes that still exists) looking very much like she had just escaped a haunted house, who's name somehow always is Svetlana!
Baku is a booming oil town. snobbish 4WD's and limousines dominate the streets. The coastline south of the town offers sort of a post apocalyptic sight: countless old oil rigs rise from the oily spoilt soil - quite a weird picture in the rising sun.
Along the Caspian sea I cycle first across a barren semi desert. Later in the south it becomes greener again. Often I think that the people here are simply swamped with seeing me. I can see the questions in their faces: Where, what, WHY? But I can impossibly stop and answer the questions for everyone.
All of a sudden two men with a video camera are in the middle of the road. At first I don't want to stop, but then they show me their press ID: from the state TV. The guys don't speak a single word english and have no idea what I say into the micro. I am sure they have found someone to translate it... Every detail of my bike and myself is filmed before I hit the road again under the applause of the big crowd that has gathered meanwhile.
If Azerbaijan would invest all the money spent for the ever present pictures and quotes of the current and former (his father) president that seem to be on every road bend, they had fantastic roads! But this way they are often very bumpy and signs are very rare.