Georgia on my Mind
Posted on June 30, 2015
As usual, we were slow to get moving the day we rode out of Bucharest. Team Tenere packed and repacked the bike a few times, Rebecca still needed to find some riding gear, and I wanted to buy a can of can of chain lube. The breeze on our faces was a relief when we finally rode clear of the baking Bucharest traffic and into the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. With a late start, we ended up hurriedly hunting for a camp spot after darkness had already fallen. We got lucky and happened to ride up a dirt track leading to a perfect groove and grassy hills to make our camp.
I did another oil change to clear out the last of the mangled clutch basket aluminum from my gearbox. As it happened, the less than pristine wilderness provided a perfect makeshift oil pan.
It took all of one day for things to start breaking. The rear rack of the Tenere was piled high with gear and slightly less resilient than we hoped. We stopped for gas and the attendant, who was astonished when we said that we were riding these bikes to Mongolia, directed us to a dude down the road with a shop. The owner proudly led us to view his collection of restored WW2 and Soviet era MZ bikes. The guys in the shop patched up the Tenere and we were quickly on our way. They wouldn’t even take any payment for the help. It was just another fantastic gesture of Romanian hospitality from the wonderful people here that we’d become accustomed to.
We rode alongside the peaks and streams of the gorgeous Carpathian Mountains. It felt as thought the journey had finally begun in earnest and we were stoked.
The only danger we found through the mountains were packs of wild puppies that took a particular liking to Mike.
We rode into Moldova and spent the next night in a farmer’s fallow field and were a bit worried that he’d have something to say about it when we heard him bouncing along the track just before dark. He didn’t seem to be bothered about us in the slightest and simply went about his business and threw us a wave from the window of the truck.
It was a quick crossing of Moldova and into the Ukraine where we found a lovely lakeside grove of pines to turn up the music, crack some beers, cook up a storm, and bed down beneath for the night. We got absolutely eaten by mosquitoes.
Our original plan was to ride all the way east through the Ukraine, which as it turns out is a rather bad idea since the eastern Ukraine is currently engaged in a war with pro-Russian rebels. The usual inadequate research and planning on our part meant that we learned pretty late in the game that we would probably be detained somewhere in the eastern Ukraine before the border. This meant that we would have to make a massive detour north from Kiev and into Russia. The new route meant that an opportunity to look for some surf on the Black Sea near the Russian town of Sochi was no longer be an option (boooo!).
We crossed into Russia without too much trouble, rode through the hot days and slept through hot nights. Pretty much all we did was ride for days. All that was in straight in front of us was a flat, boring road that was slowly baking us through. It seemed that every night we talked about what lay ahead in Georgia. The thought of the snowy peaks and cool mountain streams drove us forward, as many miles as we could manage in a day.
We felt a bit bad in our encounters with friendly Russians when they asked us how we liked Russia and we had very little to say since mostly all we’d seen was a strip of tarmac beneath a white painted line. We occasionally fielded questions like “Why do Americans think bad of Russia?” and did our diplomatic best to foster good relations. We were occasionally reminded that were in a very different place, like when Mike came into the restaurant and announced, “There’s a 6-year old outside smoking a cigarette”. Generally, encounters with the locals kept our spirits high. In central Russia the locals warned us about travel in the Caucuses, saying that we shouldn’t get off the highway any more than necessary. As it happened, all people in the Russian Caucuses did was buy us coffee and take photos with our bikes and us.
The storm finally passed, the sky lightened ahead, and we could now see the Caucusus Mountains in our path. In true moto hobo fashion we spent the night in a crater in the middle of the forest that could only be described as a dirt quarry.
We’d built up Georgia so much in our imaginations that we were ripe for disappointment. But Georgia delivered. On crossing the border, we immediately rode into a gorgeous mountain landscape. Stopping at a town called Kazbegi, where we met some other bikers, a British girl and a Polish guy, who had been living in the Georgian capital of Tibilisi. They showed us an awesome campsite along a dirt track up a picturesque valley.
The rain came and went, but the cloudbursts were short and sweet. The hills were lush and the creek had kind of a grey cast to it that reflected the composition of the underlying bedrock. The next morning, we bid farewell to our camp mates as they bounced off on their 20 year old BMW, and we followed not far behind.
The next day we made our way up to a monastery perched high above Kazbegi. The walk ended up a bit tougher than we’d thought and didn’t bring enough water to drink on the way. The trail was steep and rocky, difficult to get too many steps up without sliding a few backward. We finally reached the top and were treated to a stupendous view of the surrounding mountains.
There are hardly any tourists in Georgia and relics like centuries old forts are totally abandoned. We just rode the bikes right into the middle of them to find some shade behind their walls. We descended the Caucuses for the wine country to the town of Sighnaghi, staying at little place perched at the edge of a ridgeline with a precipitous drop to the valley floor below. The road snaked down from our perch to the valley where the temperature began to climb.
By the time we crossed into Azerbaijan, headed for the Caspian Sea, the temperature was nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Both the bikes and their cordura-clad riders were reaching their limits of comfort and once again were dreaming of Georgia’s cool mountain air in our faces rather than the blow dryer provided by the lowlands of Azerbaijan. We made quick time to the capital city of Baku, given that they would only issue us a 72-hour permit for the bikes before they had to be out of the country. Our plan was to catch a boat from Baku across the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan. It just happened that the European Games were happening in Baku at the time. It was quite a big deal with top European athletes from every Olympic sport running about Baku, elaborate decorations through the city, heavy security detail, and a grand spectacle of the closing ceremony.
Our 72-hour limit for the bikes complicated things slightly, since the boat has no set schedule and we have no idea which day it may be sailing. The day that our permit ran out in Baku, I woke up with some stomach sickness that had me curled up into a little ball and a 15 hour-long boat ride was not the most inviting thought. Now our only alternative to avoid a fine was to deliver the bikes to the customs office somewhere in Baku. Unfortunately no one seemed to have any idea where this was. I visited one building after another, trying to get the concept of ‘customs office’ across using hand gestures to little avail. The concept of customs would seem to be a universal thing at any border or port in the world but I may as well have been asking where to buy a giant watermelon. One office seemed to know what I was talking about, brought me in and sat me down, took my import permit and documents and carefully filled out some form and handed me a little slip of paper. After a few hand gesture questions, it was apparent that this office had nothing to do with customs.
With my stomach still doing backflips I hadn’t eaten all day, and in the extreme heat I was barely keeping it together riding from one frustrating encounter to another. I was just about to give up when I tried a final office at the ‘new port’ about 7 km away. A bald man with a small grey mustache and a formidable belly led me into an office with a couch turned into a bed and a television playing a movie with sword fighting and damsels in distress. The big boss likes to make himself comfy. He took my import permit form and tapped away on his computer for 20 minutes while I stared at the swashbuckling heroes flying about the screen in that rainbow double vision you get with poor reception. The longer he spent, the more hopeful that I’d come to the right place, but I’d been fooled before. After the computer tapping was finished, he photocopied my documents and seemed to indicate that we were finished… with something… But I had no idea what. We went outside and I did my best to get us on the same page with hand gestures that I was going to leave my motorbike there and walk away. When Mike went to the same spot to drop his bike off the next day I was relieved to hear that mine was still there.
Now we all wait at the ready in Baku for our boat. Each day we call at noon to find out if a boat will be leaving at 3 PM from the port in Alat, two hours away. But we can only buy tickets and retrieve our bikes at customs here in Baku, so the only way to do this is a last minute race for the boat. Every day we pack everything up to be ready for the mad dash to grab our bikes at customs at the new port, get back to the old port to buy tickets, then ride to Alat to catch the boat. After all of that running around to catch the boat, it will take 15 hours to go like 200 miles. Today we called at noon and were told that the boat actually left early this morning. This has got to be the most retarded ferry system in the world. It’s just about July now and time is ticking away for us to meet our visa schedule and get to Mongolia before Mike has to fly back to the US. We’re going to need a boat to show up pretty soon.