Well it’s been some time since I’ve penned my travels. So much has happened and so many places have flown by in the rear view mirror. I’ve even managed to have a “holiday within a holiday”. Currently, I’m in Istanbul. Yesterday I was on the Amalfi Coast. But first, I should probably connect a few dots. It continues in Georgia after crossing the border from Azerbaijan…
Immediately, I sensed I was moving out of Asia and into Europe. So many things seemed to subtly change. One of which was prevalence of English. All of the Georgian customs officers spoke it seemingly well and I was going through the motions of producing paperwork when I suddenly realised I was presenting my car registration from Australia and not the bike’s! I apologised profusely and showed him the correct one on my phone, but by now people were getting suspicious. I quickly rummaged through my paperwork and produced a colour copy of the correct registration and the smiles on the faces returned. Already, the car registration is proving to be an interesting challenge at each border. Every single country so far is looking for a “car passport”, about the size of a driver’s licence, but every time I have to convince them that in Australia it’s called registration and it comes on an A4 sheet of paper. They all claimed to have never seen it before. And I believe them. How many cars or motorcycles actually leave Australia for places like these? I doubt it is many.
Again, the bag check was token. Sorry, I stand corrected. It was non-existent. When they see how tightly packed in everything is, they don’t even bother. One guy asked me to open the smallest bag loosely strapped on top. I produced my flip flops and he was happy. Ticking a box I suppose.
I sped off into the night and enjoyed the fresh evening air on my face. I found myself contemplating more night rides. Tbilisi was less than an hour away and I was looking forward to settling in for the evening. With cars coming the other way (that was after passing 50 stationary trucks waiting to get through the border) visibility wasn’t so great and my heart was put to the test when in a flash a bollard appeared literally in front of me. I managed to dodge it and hit the gravel it was supposedly warning me about. Nice warning. I then concluded that night riding wasn’t so fun after all and dialed my senses up to 11 for the remainder.
Not too much further was a slight incline and as I whizzed along, I saw what appeared to be a man pushing a bicycle with a trailer. Damn, I thought reluctantly, I’d better turn back. And so it was that I met Hamed, the most eccentric Iranian I’ve come across. He was broken down and looking forlorn, but his eyes lit up when I offered help. “Even your offer is enough” he said. But I was adamant we should try to get him going again. He was worried about his steering, but I was sure it was fine and it was the heavy load across his front rack making life difficult. We agreed that I’d ride ahead and see how far the next hotel was. The bad news was it was 8kms. The good news was most of it was down hill. I sped back and informed him. I told him if he could just make the next 1-2kms he’d be right. He could roll down. And with that he set off with me closely observing from behind.
Well, it was nothing short of farcical. He was all over the shop. It was like watching the Goodies or Benny Hill. Cars would fly by and I dreaded he’d find himself attached to the front grill of one of them. He pulled up and it was then that I could see his trailer had broken and was pressing down on his back tyre making progress impossible. It would seem he might have to camp in the open. But at that moment a farm truck cruised past. We looked at each other and I asked if I should chase it. Both his mouth and his eyes said yes! Off I shot and the next minute I’m explaining to Georgian farmers the predicament. For some reason they insisted I go back and get him (which was ridiculous), but I humoured them and gave Hamed the good news. I then rode back and told them it would take him forever to get the bike 2kms to them and with that they turned around and the four of us were soon loading this contraption on their truck. Mission accomplished. By now it was after 9pm. So again I headed off and finally made it to the accommodation at 10pm.
Tbilisi is without a doubt a beautiful city. Nestled in amongst cliffs and a winding river, it is picture perfect, with an old city that has charm and warmth. Tourists are everywhere, particularly Russians and Orthodox Christianity is highly visible with Churches and Monasteries everywhere – quite the contrast to Azerbaijan. I spent a day wandering, climbing and photographing. It’s quite hilly, but everything is close by. My accommodation was perfect and the owners were incredibly hospitable. Whilst meandering I was handed a tour brochure, so I took it back to my apartment and determined my next day’s activities by motorcycle. I couldn’t believe my luck. Places I had never even heard of that looked incredible were easily accessible in a day trip so I combined two.
My first stop was Uplistsikhe. (If you are not careful, you’ll spit, stutter AND swear pronouncing that!) A centuries old cave town that was, in a word, remarkable. It is only 10 minutes outside of a town called Gori whom those of you who are history buffs will recall as being Stalin’s birthplace. On the way through Gori I spotted a fine assortment of KTM 690s and Husqvarna 701s (the 690’s twin) and chatted to their German (and one Greek) riders who were doing their own self guided tour around Georgia (hiring the motorcycles from Tbilisi).
Later on in the day I headed north and made my way to the Ananuri fort Complex. Perched on yet another stunning lake, this Church and fort was the perfect postcard. The ride that wound along the lake was so much fun and with the weather starting to cool, I was in my element. It was hard to believe that literally 24 hours earlier I’d neither heard of nor planned to visit these places and now they were deeply etched into my fondest memories.
Arriving back at the apartment I declared to the apartment owners that it was beer o’clock and I offered the same to them. I strolled into the convenience store and grabbed a nice large cold one (500ml is standard over here). Before I knew it the apartment owners were inviting me into their small ground level apartment for wine and food. Despite my sweaty state I had to oblige and then proceeded to gorge on stew, bread and cheese and of course wine. Speaking in the worst Russian known to man and a little bit of English, we managed to get some form of conversation happening with plenty of laughs. Then came the heavy stuff. I was drinking shots of all sorts of homemade vodkas (I presume) and the odd liqueur. Next thing we were doing photo shoots with the swords on the wall! It was nice farewell evening in Tbilisi.
Armenia was next and with a tight time frame I figured I could squeeze in two nights at the capital Yerevan with a short pitstop at the beautiful Sevanank Monastery on Lake Sevan. It didn’t disappoint, nor did the ride there which took me the scenic way through mountains and fields in the shortest amount of time. My only concern was my luggage on my bike when I climbed up to the monastery. The local vendor kids were climbing all over my bike begging to be ridden around and joking that whilst I was away one of the others might let my tyres down. Many a truth said in jest. They had all the street smarts. But I got back and everything was in order, so I felt pretty damn good to be getting on my way again.
I arrived in Yerevan and faced a similar predicament to the one in Baku in finding my AirBnb accommodation. Old apartment buildings set in behind the main street with unlabelled buildings. Fortunately, help as always was on offer and a local rang the host’s number for me. In the meantime, another older gent conversed with me in Spanish. Turns out he had lived in Cuba for several years. I wondered if he had been part of the Soviet military, but we didn’t manage to get that far. A couple of minutes later, a beautiful 30 year old girl emerged from around the corner and I couldn’t help but think to myself “Please be my host!” And it was! Diana, her mother Nelly and her brother Artur were simply the best hosts. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, I felt so welcome and included. As soon as arrived so too did a friend of theirs and before we know it we are eating dinner and drinking wine around their small table. The apartment had a gorgeous view of the Cathedral and I felt quite at home chatting with the three of them.
The next day I spent strolling through the city along Northern Avenue, a very modern and lovely pedestrian mall that leads to a magnificent staircase called The Cascade (like the Spanish Steps on steroids) which hides underneath a modern art gallery, a visit to the History Museum of Armenia and also a visit to the Armenian Genocide Museum. I had heard bits and pieces about the Armenian Genocide, but the visit to the Museum was very worthwhile. It’s stark exterior reflecting the cold and horrific events of the early 20th century along with the timeline like presentation inside I found to be very effective in presenting what is probably one of histories’ darkest tales. Overall, I felt deeply saddened and distraught. Furthermore, the vast time period over which it all happened in itself is hard to comprehend.
I returned to the apartment in time for a visit with Diana and Nelly to the Symphony orchestra. Nelly had invited me that morning and I was eager to embrace the occasion. Nelly’s friends played in the orchestra and it was the perfect evening. Along with the usual strings (violins and cellos etc) and wood winds (clarinets etc), there were a couple of traditional Armenian instruments that were amazing. I was blown away by the skills of one girl playing what I think was a Qanun. It was such a great night and I insisted on taking Diana and Nelly to dinner. They were both fascinating and full of life. For example, Nelly was on Armenian X factor and made it to the final only to give up her spot for a young person. And Diana, after recovering from a broken leg and deciding to go to the gym, did a bench press which impressed the local gym staff so with two months training became the Armenian powerlifting champion! Then proceeded to retire! Hilarious. They told me they felt like they’d know me for longer and I totally agreed. My only regret was having just two nights in Yerevan, but it was exactly the kind of experience travellers revel in when so far from home. Meeting wonderful people who take you into your homes and hearts and prove again and again how beautiful humanity really can be. I hope I see them again.
I jetted off the next morning to the remote border with Georgia (further West of where I’d come in). I needed to head back to Georgia in order to get to Turkey. The ride was quite peaceful and scenic. Like most of the journey so far, rural areas always were poorer and some of the living conditions I observed to be very simple. The crossing was a no fuss affair and before I knew it I was back In Georgia. Two countries in five nights. Quite the change of pace.