Written by Callie
After reaching the Caspian Sea, we had to move quickly to exit Kazakhstan before our thirty-day visas expired. As per usual, Charlie’s Russian visa situation was more complicated than mine. Technically, when we were last in Russia, he had overstayed the 90-days-per-visit that he was allotted. To be on the safe side, he had applied for a ten-day transit visa, but now had to bus back to Uralsk, about 500 kilometers by road, to pick it up. By the time he rejoined me at the Caspian Sea in Atyrau, we had only two days to cover the 300 kilometers to the border.
We re-entered Russia with no problems, but were still feeling the time crunch as Charlie’s visa gave us 10 days to cover 1,000 kilometers. Our first real day on the road, I had a major blow-out on my rear tire; the explosive pop sounded like a car backfiring. We had to leave the bikes and take a bus to the next town, buy a new cheap tire, and bus back. Cheap tires would cause two more blow-outs, and of course multiple punctures, in the coming weeks.
Our route may seem a bit confusing at this point, as we had re-entered Russia. We were now tracing the Caspian coast through a thin strip of Russia, which contained the Buddhist region Kalmykia, and the Muslim region Dagestan. Kalmykia is the only majority Buddhist region in “Europe”, peopled by an Mongol people who migrated to the area from northwest China 400 years ago. Lenin’s paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk and it’s not hard to spot the Mongol blood in his face. However, during our transit we saw few Buddhist symbols, as our route through Kalmykia dragged us along a punishing dirt track with stretches of deep, soft sand.
The region of Dagestan is known for its independence struggle, with the nearby conflict from Chechnya often spilling over. Internationally, it seems to be viewed as a dangerous region due to Islamic insurgency and secessionist terrorism. However, it was in this region that we experienced the warmest hospitality in all of Russia. Our first day in Dagestan, we stopped at a café for lunch and a break from the 100+ degree heat. A man in the café, having lunch with his son, bought us potato pirozkhi, which are ubiquitous fast-food savory pastries. After we had finished our meal, the woman in the café set two ice creams in front of us, which she didn’t let us pay for. Even petrol station managers welcomed us in for coffee and to watch videos of the local, Dervish-esque dancing.
We made it to Azerbaijan in the required time, and headed straight for Baku, a day’s ride from the border. By this point, we were feeling extremely dusty and dirty. While kayaking, we had grown accustomed to frequent swims, sinking up to our chins in the water for a few minutes just to cool off. Now, after the sweltering days and dusty tracks, it was getting hard to fall asleep in the tent for how dirty and sticky we felt. The night before arriving in Baku, we had made a failed attempt at reaching the Caspian to bathe. We wheeled our bikes down a side track, past a disgusting chicken farm, until we were stopped by an unsurpassable irrigation ditch. In the dark, we decided to use the ditch to wash some dirt off as best we could. As it happened, the nearby oil derricks were spilling crude oil into the flowing water, and we ended up mostly dirtier than before with unsightly stains on our already unappealing clothes.
We decided to pass through Azerbaijan relatively fast, leaving more time to explore Georgia’s mountains, which we had both long wanted to visit. Nearing the Georgian border, we encountered our first cycle tourist, going the opposite direction. We hadn’t met many young tourists on our trip at all, as we had mostly been in the wilderness, and were eager to chat. We would soon find out that Georgia was full of cycle tourists, and we would see one or two almost every day from then on. In fact, cyclists rarely even stop to chat in Georgia.
It seemed that the landscape got immediately more beautiful as we entered Georgia, and our relief at being finally out of the grasp of Russian bureaucracy and authority deepened. (See our last blog for why this feeling turned out to be misplaced!) Mountains unrolled in front of us, and we stopped at a roadside café for beer and delicious Georgian food, which actually had flavour, something often lacking in the more utilitarian Russian cuisine. The next morning, at our first pit stop to fill our water bottles, we were invited for chai, bread, butter and fresh cheese. We reached Tbilisi that afternoon, and spent a few days wandering the cobbled streets and indulging in cold Georgian white wine. After six months of Russian lager, wine tasted so, so good. Buying bottles in the afternoon, and burying them under rocks in a cold river, would become a favorite evening tradition.
Leaving Tbilisi, we headed north for the town of Kazbegi, a 2,000 metre climb through stunning terrain, and the ski resort town of Gaudari. We pedaled uphill for two days, watching paragliders floating over the peaks as we approached the top of the pass. From the town of Kazbegi, it is a further 400 metres to Gergeti, the mountaintop monastery for which it is best known. There is a steep walking path, or a six-kilometer rutted, rocky road. After some cajoling from Charlie, I was convinced to cycle the road so that we could camp at the top. In my lowest gear, I had to stand up to pedal up all the steep parts, and upon the descent cringed as my cheap bicycle rattled down the rocky path. But, it was a gorgeous campsite, and we were cold for the first time in months.
The downside to this route was that it is a dead-end deep in the mountains. We scoured topographical maps, hoping for some way through the mountains so that we would not have to turn around and cycle back the same way. But, pushing bikes up and over 45 degree scree slopes seemed like a bad idea, and we turned around. We found out later that had we attempted our mountain scramble, we would have landed in South Ossetia. Again, see our previous blog for more on misadventures in South Ossetia, an illegally occupied region of Georgia.
After leaving the mountains, and following a route on Google Maps, we ended up, once again, arrested by the Russian border military. Charlie wrote a separate blog about this third clash with Russian authorities.
Once released “back into Georgia”, we headed into the mountains again, taking small paths to avoid main highways. We had some gorgeous climbs on a horrible, destroyed asphalt road, and a 30-kilometer descent that took us all morning due to the road condition. Then it was a cruisey ride into Batumi, a resort town on the Black Sea coast. After a few days of reading on beach chairs and swimming in the sea, we are ready to take on Turkey. We are now only 1,400 kilometers from our finish line. The route looks lovely, following the sea coast almost the entire way. It now truly feels like a vacation, and it’s hard to believe that most of our challenges have been overcome.
From the café I’m now sitting at, I have a view of the sea, and we are about to cross the final border for the trip, change our last currency, follow our last route. It’s all happening so quickly, but it also feels like an age since we set out onto the frozen tundra of Arctic Siberia, plodding into headwinds with frosted hair and freezing fingers.