It will have taken us six months to cross the Asian continent, from the shores of Thailand to the oil wells of the Caspian. The Caucasian countries give us a warm welcome, the town of Baku surprising us with its modernity; Azerbaijan is a new nation in the making, wallowing in its black gold ; the mountains of Georgia remind us of the Pyrenees whilst its remote villages convey a certain unconscious melancholy.
Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea
The stages of our progress through the Caucasus: unwinding, then quiet, and finally serenity. We reached Baku in Azerbaijan, the last country to require a visa in advance. From now on, no need for red tape of every sort in foreign embassies in order to continue our homeward journey. On June
13th late in the afternoon, we ride through the big rich capital without taking time off for sightseeing. It is getting late and we need to be well clear of the city to pitch camp and, in the morning, to find our route leading to the Black Sea. We leave behind us the Caspian and the stressful hours crossing Turkmenistan.
Our first shock: the prices! Azerbaijan is awash with oil and the cost of living has soared as a result of a record growth rate of 34.5% and 29.3% respectively in 2006 and 2007. So we reverted to our old habits of bread and banana breakfast, not too bad as it happens. We put out of our heads all thought of good meals in restaurants, and rationed ourselves to a coca cola or a coffee to get us through the hottest part of the day
Then, while we are using an internet connection in a cafe in the little township of Goychay, we meet Safar, who invites us to share a shawarma and a beer with him. Only too pleased to have a captive audience, he tells us the history of his country. Azerbaijan is a Muslim nation but alcohol is allowed, he says, clinking glasses with us for the third time. Safar explains that customs here are only marginally influenced by Islam. Faith appears to be something believed rather than lived, more a way of thinking than a way of behaving.
Having explained why Azeris feel a measure of hatred for Armenia and its inhabitants he calms down to talk about big brother Turkey. The two nations are very similar in language and culture, joined in solidarity by a common slogan: ‘Two states, one nation’. Relations with neighbouring Armenia are very strained over the question of Haut-Kabarach, an enclave inside Azeri territory occupying twenty per cent of its entire space, but controlled by the Armenians. It is not possible to cross the Armenian frontier by land from Azerbaijan. We have no choice but to pass through Georgia to reach Turkey.
The road to the Georgian frontier is flat and monotonous, without much of interest. We exceed our planned daily quota by doing respectively 115 km, 145 km, 142 km and then 117 km, pressing to gain time in case something worthwhile turns up.
Means nothing to you? Nor to us, either. It is written in the Georgian alphabet and says: ‘Sakarthaveto’, or ‘Georgia’. Georgian belongs to a tiny language group with no connection to any other on earth, rather like our Basque. In fact nobody knows where it comes from, though some say its structure resembles Sumerian. We are intrigued by the thought that there are parts of the world like this where a language has survived intact through thousands of years of history. Happily (or not, as in our case, considering our low standard) everybody speaks Russian, a leftover from Soviet times.
Luckily the few words we picked up in central Asia pass muster for the essentials.
On the other hand our legs tremble a little as our map reveals the seriously high mountain summits awaiting us over the next 400 kilometres of our route. Apparently Georgia is one of the oldest Christian countries along with Armenia. And we are delighted (especially Brian, the gourmet) at the appearance of sausages in the shops. And even by our exacting French standards it must be admitted that they weren’t at all bad. Also, the bread was well up to standard. So, that night’s menu in our tent is a sausage fry-up! And with health in mind we add fresh raw vegetables and fruit for the vitamins (not to mention our consciences). There’s also supposed to be good local wine as well but we have not yet had a chance to try it. It must be said that, given the gruelling route ahead. It might have been a bit over the top.
We manage our first 2,000-metre col pretty well. Helped by a following wind we dodge between showers, although the sky has looked menacing every day since we crossed the border. Our secret aim is to reach France without being rained on again, but this seems unlikely from where we now are. The mountainous panorama raises our spirits and the flowering fields add an element of gaiety to our travails. It is not that we are fed up with 2,000-metre summits, but, well, we haven’t had a proper pause since Tajikistan and fatigue takes its toll with the accumulation of days. Inevitably morale is affected.
Extract from Morgan’s diary, 17.06.13: “This afternoon we stopped earlier than planned when Siphay deposited the contents of his midday meal on the roadside. We left him resting on a bench while Brian and I made ourselves a snack of brochettes on skewers and a tomato salad. And then, after his last mouthful, Brian announces that he isn’t feeling too good either…. I am now left on my own at the table when a guy appears and sits down opposite me. He proceeds to offer me an enormous glass of what must qualify as the most revolting beverage of our entire journey: at a guess, white alcoholised vinegar… Out of politeness, but also to get away to join the others who were waiting for me, I drained the glass as quickly as I could. It took me a good ten minutes… It is still daylight and we pitch camp in a field. Now it is Brian’s turn and he disgorges his brochette. Feeling for him, I look the other way. As for Siphay, he is already prostrate in the tent. I wait for nightfall to go to bed. Sitting on a tree trunk I read, and think and write. Our bodies are tired out and we need rest. If we carry on like this we will arrive in France in a hearse! Then I project myself into the future and imagine plunging into the Black Sea to make up for these difficult days. To my surprise I catch myself smiling as I sit on my branch.”
The Black Sea
Our desire to complete the journey between the two seas has turned into an obsession over these last few days in the Caucasus. Our choice of the southern route through the country takes us over some very difficult stone strewn road surfaces. Villagers stare with curiosity or suspicion and the ever increasing dilapidation of their houses calls to mind a country just emerging from war. To keep to our daily quota of 100 km is a real challenge under these conditions, all the more so when rain comes on as well and, cursing, we pump away at our pedals, with no option but to press on, soaked to the skin. In three days’ time it will be 21st June and here we are freezing at a mere 1,000 metres altitude, and the mountain summits all around us are clothed in snow. The sun vanishes behind this realm of mighty gods ringed with fir trees, and we huddle in our tent after a dip in a cold mountain stream, a night time toilet reminiscent of our trip through Alaska… Thank God for the sausages….!
Hallelujah! Next day we awake to a radiant sun! The sky is clear and there is this smell of pine trees. Yes it’s still cold but this coming 21st June may well mark the start of summer. We appear to be the only travellers on this road threading its way through a world of wild flowers. The atmosphere is one of peace, the mountain sumptuous. But reality soon catches up with us as the pretty macadam road turns into a shattered pathway, steep and trying. The air is cold on the climb to the 2,000 metre col, but we are streaming with huge beads of sweat. Reaching the top after several exhausting hours is deliverance; all that remains now is the descent to Batum on the Black Sea coast. 130 kilometres more to reach the landmark on which our sights have been set for the past few days. We are looking forward to a horizon where the sky and sea merge into one another.
A group of Russian tourists coming the other way in a four- by-four stops and we chat for a couple of minutes. It has taken them half a day to drive here from Batum and we have given ourselves three days to ride there. We tell them emphatically: «We’ll be there this evening! » and they laugh at us. But we can go faster downhill than motorised traffic. Now and then we switch our minds off altogether and freewheel at full speed over the earth, mud and loose pebbles… Without the diabolical headwind that has now got up we would have covered the remaining kilometres in a jiffy, but the descent is proving to be as heavy-going as the ascent. To give ourselves extra energy (at least that is our pretext) we indulge in a katachapuri, a Georgian speciality – a kind of cheese tart. Nothing could be heavier for a descent against the wind! We are driven onwards by the determination to get it over with, and to glimpse our salvation, the sea.
Nine hours of cycling that day with (too) many uphill climbs between the descents (why are roads sometimes constructed in this way when overall the valley is one long downward slope?) and we lay our bikes on the shingle at Gonio and plunge, euphoric, into the Black Sea. This is one of those moments when, thanks to our solidarity developed over decades of friendship and three years spent living permanently together no words are needed to express our mutual congratulations for having completed the 150 kilometres and the 1,500 metre descent that has led us to our Holy Grail. We look at Turkey to the west, our new playground for the next few hundred kilometres. But now it is time for us to rest…