Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan


Sunday, May 27th. Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. We're slowly but surely progressing east. We left Istanbul on the 1st of May, heading for Cappadocia. Our initial plan was to ride along the Black Sea Coast, but after seeing pictures of the region around Goreme, with its suggestively shaped rock formations, we decided to make the detour. Ellen had found a little hotel built into a rock, offering a so-called Honeymoon suite, complete with a Jacuzzi, for a very reasonable price. We stayed there for three days, wandering and driving around the region, trying to find the best angles to take pictures of monasteries and phallic rock outcrops. (The pics will be available soon, we're having trouble finding fast connections).

Attractions in the region are many : Whirling dervishes (based in Konya in western Turkey, the whirling dervishes are a sect that believes in spinning around in circles as a means to spiritual enlightenment), underground cities dating back 4,000 years, countless monasteries and pleasant people, despite the ever growing numbers of tourists in the region.

We headed on, off the main roads, into one of Turkeys many mountain ranges. The weather continued to be rather nasty, the roads were very potholed and tourist presence completely ceased. In a village called Sebinkarahisar, we spent a very pleasant evening with a local teacher we met by chance, and a local cook, who was informed of our arrival by the other villagers and sent after us because he spoke German and English. He said we were already the second tourist party this year. What a lively place.

Both on and off the main roads, stopping for gas usually lead to a Question and Answer session accompanied by lots of tea and good wishes. At least they let us pay for the gas. If one measure of hospitality is the little gesture of offering tea to passing strangers, Turkey certainly is one of the most hospitable countries we've encountered so far. We arrived in Trabzon, on the Black Sea, for an uneventful stay agreeably punctuated by a somewhat strenuous (lots of walking!!) visit to yet another monastery, Sumela, spectacularly situated high up inside a mountain wall.

From Trabzon, we rode into Georgia. The border crossing was fairly painless, taking about one hour and a half, and costing $3 per person and $10 per bike. We had been warned about corrupt border guards and police in the region but we hardly had any trouble. We did have to pay once, a probably bogus transit fee, and several of the countless cops that stopped us looked like they were really good at extorting money, but we got away lucky. Lots of smiles and saying in the friendliest voice possible repeatedly in Luxembourgish : "No way, meathead, you're not getting any money" generally works.

The Georgian Black Sea coast was a favourite vacation spot for apparatchiks during the Soviet Era, and the seaside is filled with derelict hotels in the familiar Soviet style, or rather absence of it. Other remnants of that legacy are huge industrial complexes, now left to rust in the middle of otherwise beautiful landscapes.

We spent a couple of days in Kutaisi in western Georgia, where we were introduced to the notion of Georgian hospitality by Lali and Zouri, our hosts : While Lali tried to force us to eat every dish she knew how to prepare, Zouri made an attempt at killing us with kisses and homemade wine. He was very impressed with the only Georgian word I knew: "Bolomde", which means, "bottoms up". I had missed a great opportunity to shut up, as for the rest of the evening, he honored my linguistic skills by finishing his toasts (an old, honored and very dangerous tradition in Georgia) with precisely that invitation. Although women are theoretically exempt from having to participate in that particular custom, Ellen ignored the exemption and tried to help me defend the honour of all foreigners. The following day is best erased from memory for the most part. When we had finally mustered the courage to get up and explore the town, we met Maher, a Syrian entrepreneur who took p! ity on what was left of us, showed us the sights and helped us forget our misery.

Next stop was the capital, Tbilisi, where we indulged in the things you can only do in capital cities in those parts, movies, shopping, Internet and pints of Guinness. As the days progressed, we learned more and more about Georgian wine : There are several hundred varieties of grapes in the region, and the Georgian word "ghvino" might very well be at the origin of the word "wine" as we know it, since Georgia is perhaps the oldest known wine growing region in the world. Maybe that explains why they can drink it like water, while unsuspecting tourists fall like flies after a meager three litres or so.

After a final two days in Telavi, capital of the Kakheti region, and a visit to the Tsinandali winery, we rode on into Azerbaijan. Although Azerbaijan is said to be poorer than Georgia, the country seemed somehow more progressive, more looking to the future rather than the past. Villages and cities were less in a state of disrepair than in Georgia, smiles were offered more readily and the mood appeared more optimistic. After a pleasantly easy (and free!!) border crossing, we stopped in Sheki, site of a palace and an old Karavanserai converted into a hotel. Water and electricity supply tended to be erratic, but the views were great, and at the Khan's palace, we had to pose for scores of pictures with a group of Azeri students that seemed to like our biker outfits.

The following day, as we headed towards Baku, we met Knut Kaspersen, a Norwegian working in Baku, who promptly offered his assistance, organized free accommodation and generally was to make the following days a very pleasant experience. We joined him and his jolly group for a visit of a remote mountain village, before taking up our new quarters in Baku, a very lively town with some great architecture, good restaurants and helpful people. Since we had a five-day transit visa, we only stayed for three days, although we were sorely tempted to extend our stay, if only to sample more of the excellent and cheap Azeri caviar. Next time, once again.

Getting on the ferry to Turkmenistan proved to be quite an adventure, but could be solved with Knut's help, and by haggling furiously (Initial asking price for us and the bikes: $400, reduced to $240 after an hour's discussion). The stories we had heard about the ferry and Azeri customs were not encouraging: From multiple bribes to "the worst ferry in the world" to stories about the captain refusing to let passengers off the ship without further payments, we had heard enough to approach the experience with caution. Lucky again: Azeri customs were the best so far, not only did nobody ask for bribes, but the customs officials actually presented us with a CD and an Azeri flag as a gift. The ferry was similarly uneventful: We were the only passengers aboard and other than a small payment to upgrade our cabins, it was all quite pleasant.

In the next chapter of our ongoing events coverage, we will tell the tale of how the Marquis de Sade was instrumental in designing Turkmen customs procedures, how to herd camels by motorcycle, and reveal the identity of the world's greatest megalomaniac.

Stay tuned,
Ellen & Manou