Day 312 – Following the Mountains to the Sea
Soviet Structures and Amber Wine
It’s been more than two weeks since we last pitched our tent. The winter weather hasn’t been so encouraging. Leaving Tbilisi, we decide to pass through the wine region of Kakheti and bike the long way to Azerbaijan. Since Turkey, the days are getting slightly longer, the nights warmer. Before climbing the mountain between Tbilisi and Telavi we pitch tent in a field down a dirt lane, quiet and calm. There is evidence that shepherds have made campfires on the borders of the meadow, so we do the same. As the temperature drops, we cook dinner, laugh, and take slugs of whiskey.
At the pass, a man stands beside his car admiring the view. We do the same. In a soft Swiss accent he begins to tell us about the subtleties of the region’s famed amber wine, aged underground in earthen pots known as qvevri. The next day we seek out the Marani Ruspirir organic vineyard for a tasting.
How will we know where to find it? “Find the weird looking building and keep going.” Later we learn this domed building was a weather station used in Soviet times. It housed a hail cannon used to break up crop damaging hail storms.
A few hundred meters down the road is the entrance to the vineyard. Giorgi meets us with a smile on his face and in thick French explains to us his dream for the vineyard. One day he hopes not only to continue producing renowned wine but to welcome guests to his “living farm,” where they can participate in the garden, prepare traditional dishes, and enjoy fine wine.
And fine wine it is. For two hours, we are treated to a wine tasting, Georgian-style. After “tasting” the majority of six bottles and making a sizable dent in a bottle of chacha, Georgian eau de vie, we make verbose toasts to Georgian winemaking, the Caucasian mountains and our host.
Out of the Enclave
As we cycle east, we enjoy the constant company of the towering Caucasian mountains on our left. It is with little pressure that we stop often to buy warm loaves of lavash, traditional Georgian bread. Stuffing hunks of it into our mouths, it’s thick, chewy and the best bread we’ve had since France.
There are many villages along the route, and it is not always evident to find a campsite. One evening, we decide to squat in the skeleton of an unfinished house. Another, the night before we cross the border to Azerbaijan, we are hard up for a campsite. The area around the road a fenced off hunting reserve and a bit muddy. A few kilometers before a village, a large farm appears on our left. We mime a tent and sleeping to a worker. He cracks a smile and opens up the empty building by the gate. Sweeping out the room with a homemade broom, he shakes our hands and wishes us good night.
Though Georgia had a distinctive European-feel, as soon as we cross the Azerbaijan border, we notice a Turkish influence in the hospitality. In Georgia, we found people standoffish, but in Azerbaijan we are immediately invited home with Jakob, the owner of a tea house. A three-hour celebration follows. Several neighbors stop by to meet the foreigners and drink vodka. It seems that everyone drives the same Lada car. Petrol is dirt cheap, and many folks find employment as taxi drivers. Significant investment in the local infrastructure has taken place; farmers all seem to have newly renovated houses and we have to admit we’ve never seen farms so clean! Not a cow pie out of place in the barnyards.
It’s All Downhill to Baku
Compared to Ashley, who doesn’t like to navigate much, Antoine is loyal to his Komoot cycling application. Each morning, he insists the ride is, “all downhill to Baku,” though it never is. The road rises and falls, through forests and plains. One evening we stumble upon a stunning campsite up a hill far from the road. The sunset drags on, and we relax in our own slice of calm and solitude.
Before we arrived in Azerbaijan, we didn’t know it was a particularly windy country. It is. One day, we have the wind to our backs, and enjoy being pushed along. The last two days before we arrive in Baku, we finally leave the Caucasian mountains behind and are confronted with rolling desert and a headwind. For hours we push uphill against the wind with no reward; when it is time to ride downhill, we must also push against the wind. The desert is barren, yellow and vast. It looks like a scene out of star wars. Every few kilometers there is a large collective farm, but we don’t know who could be farming out here, where nothing grows and no water flows.
The change is stark when we arrive in urban Baku, a roaring metropolis full of ambitious sky scrapers, rich Azeris, and oil-and-gas expats. How strange to note the difference between the city and the village; a phenomenon that never ceases to put us ill at ease.
After two days of rest, we begin to prepare for the Caspian Sea ferry crossing, from Baku to Aktau, Kazakhstan. Due to the strict measures being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we are told the port is closed until further notice. We call each morning for news, unsure how long we’ll be stuck here. But we are headstrong, and don’t feel like the adventure ends here. Aktau is waiting for us; we will arrive.