Three things happened as we crossed the border from Turkey into Georgia: first, the minarets disappeared and were replaced by crosses; second, the road became an obstacle course of potholes, pre-pubescent drivers in squeaky Ladas and meandering cows; and third, all the men had hitched up their shirts, proudly revealing their enormous bellies and walked around like this talking to each other in earnest. These things happened so quickly it was like a slap in the face. How could a simple line drawn in the ground guarded by a few police and immigration officials keep two totally different cultures separated so effectively?
Despite the effect of stepping into another world at this magical line, there was a lot of border traffic. Turks keen to lay their hands on cheap booze, cigarettes and petrol were lining up in their hundreds and Georgians in need of bargain clothing and home wears were shuffling through in the opposite direction.
We wanted to reach Batumi (just 15 kilometres from the border) by lunch time so we could visit the Azerbaijan Consulate. It was a Thursday, so it was unlikely the consul would be able to issue our visa before the weekend, but we had to try. We wobbled around the city at snail’s pace. Wherever the roads weren’t completely falling apart, some genius had decided to slap in some cobble stones.
A banner had been erected on the esplanade which touted a recommendation (in English) by hotel mogul Donald Trump. “In five years time, Batumi will be the best city in the world,” it said. That’s a fairly big call Mr Trump! By the time we’d circled around past the main beach to the centre square, I realised my mouth was hanging open. Handsome sandstone buildings lined every street, the intricacies of their design making a simple restaurant look like a museum, innumerable statues and fountains were surrounded by lush, spotless gardens and the pebble beach was dotted with colourful umbrellas and catalogue models lounging on sun chairs. There were signs for alcohol and wifi everywhere. It felt like we were back in Western Europe!
A bit peckish, we pulled over where we saw a market and went inside to buy some lunch. The shop contained only cold drinks, ice creams, some salted nuts and a large variety of sweet biscuits in plastic containers. We selected our purchases and handed them to an old dear behind the counter who then proceeded to tally up our due amount on an abacus. Yes that’s right… an ABACUS! Maybe we were too quick to think we had re-entered the west after all.
The following paragraph is specifically for touring cyclists planning to apply for the Azerbaijan visa in Batumi. If that’s not you, this will probably find the following boring as bat shit, so please scroll down.
The Azerbaijan General Consulate is right in the town’s main square. I would give you directions like “near the fountain and the statue of a lady with a golden sheath in her hand” but… there are fountains and statues everywhere so this isn’t exactly helpful. Batumi isn’t big. Just wonder around the city centre and keep an eye out for the Azeri flag. To apply you will need two copies of your passport, two copies of any visas to prove forward travel (Kazak, Uzbek, Kygryz or whatever although I don’t think these are necessary) and two passport photos. The consul will give you some forms to fill out. He is very friendly, if not a bit inefficient at his job, so feel free to ask him questions about the forms. He will tell you to come back at 11am in three working days’ time with 100 Lari per person. When you do arrive promptly at the consul at 11am in three working days’ time, don’t expect him to be in the office yet. He will slap a blank visa sticker in your passport and then proceed to fill it out by hand in front of you, asking again when you plan to enter and exit the country, completely ignoring the dates you provided on the application form three days ago.
Once we’d filled out the application forms and handed over the appropriate documents, the consul informed us that, because it was a Thursday, our visas would not be ready until Monday. We had four and a half days to mooch around Batumi, so we set about finding the cheapest accommodation available.
In a city where there is not much else to do but get sunburnt and pissed, Ashley and I resorted to very different ways of passing the time. Ashley did a lot of sleeping, generally from about 11 pm until 10 am and sometimes with a mid afternoon kip in between. When he wasn’t sleeping he was eating ice cream which he claimed was medicinal in the scorching temperatures.
I, on the other hand, became a computer junkie, taking the opportunity of electricity and internet to do constructive things like update the blog and back up all of our photos and videos… and some less constructive things like flip through endless facebook photos and talk to my family on skype. It suddenly struck me that the world was not standing still while I was cycling! I suddenly felt very homesick. The more I looked at peoples’ photos the worse it got. Click, click, click…birthdays, engagements, new jobs, new houses, babies, dinners in fancy restaurants, concerts, pretty dresses… I knew that if I talked to anyone at home they would scoff and tell me that I was the lucky one, after all, wasn’t I on an around the world holiday? But I still felt miserable.
I cheered up the instant we were back on the road again and I didn’t have the lure of the computer hanging over my every waking minute. The land became agricultural soon after leaving the city and the population of cows, pigs and chickens on the road and roadside soared. Cold water ran down in pipes to every village from the Caucuses and there was no shortage of empty green fields to camp in, each with their own selection of wild berries, plums, apricots and apples ripe for picking. Though there were plenty of houses around, shops were scarce and we wondered where all the local people bought their food from.
One morning two young men drove past us and tooted their horn. We’re really quite used to this by now and I delivered my best “ga-mah-jo-bahn” (hello) while waving like the queen. I was amused to see they were wearing shirts that said “I love bikes”. Well well, so do we! And following their lead we pulled over to the side of the road for a chat. They were two best friends from Kutaisi and one of them owned a bicycle shop. He wrote down the address of his shop on a scrap of paper and said we should visit him when we passed through later that day. True enough, we were going through Kutaisi but the problem was the address! The characters looked like templates for Mr Squiggle! We had absolutely no chance of trying to search for it in the GPS so we resorted to the oldest possible form of navigation: point and shoot. It goes like this: we show the address to a friendly looking person on the street (preferably someone young as it’s possible they’ll understand some English, or alternatively, a taxi driver) and follow their hand signals as best we can. We repeat this every 100 metres or so as we inch closer and closer to the target.
It was worth the effort. The two bike lovers, although only 21 years old, were helpful and hospitable. They gave us two new tubes and a bicycle light (free of charge!) before treating us to some traditional Georgian Hodgepori (cheesy bread) and Khinkali (dumplings filled with garlic and minced meat). They then shut up shop and cycled 20 kilometres out of the city with us before turning back home.
The next day we woke up early, ready climb over some of the lower Caucuses to Gori, where we wanted to visit the Stalin Museum. Gori, Georgia was where Stalin was born and the house in which he grew up forms part of the museum. Ashley and I aren’t normally museum people. Because of our total ignorance of most of history, we often find ourselves walking away with more questions than answers… plus, anywhere that charges for entry but doesn’t include a mattress, food or wifi is usually unappealing. But this museum was different. After all, wasn’t it like having a museum devoted to the life of Hitler in Germany?
We bought our tickets and waited for our English speaking guide. In the foyer of the building was a banner that read:
“According to different estimates, during the course of its existence, the Soviet Empire claimed the lives of 15 to 40 million people. This museum was launched at the peak of Stalin’s purges in 1937 by one of Stalin’s henchmen, Lavrenti Beria, to immortalize Josef Stalin himself. In that very year according to soviet statistics, which were significantly deflated, 353 074 people were executed throughout the Soviet Union, amounting to 1,000 executions a day.
This museum is a typical example of soviet propaganda and falsification of history. Throughout various stages of soviet history, the expositions were modified or refocused, but the objective of this museum stayed unchanged, to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.”
And then underneath there was a another paragraph assuring that, with the help of the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection, the descendants of Stalin’s victims and a number of researches, the museum would be transformed into the “Museum of Stalinism” which would give a more rounded and impartial portrayal of the era. I felt quite pleased to have seen this version of the museum, before it became politically correct.
We had a smashing head wind and growling stomachs for the 90 kilometres from Gori to Tbilisi, the country’s capital. We were carrying very little food in our panniers because the heat tends to spoil everything but biscuits, pasta and tinned food very quickly. It also doesn’t help that our panniers are black. In Turkey this had not been a problem, with petrol stations stacked with snacks every few kilometres. But the Georgians hadn’t been lured by the petrol station “experience” yet and stuck with offering (wait for it…) petrol. Between the two cities, we found one small roadside stall where we bought two bottles of coke, some unsalted peanuts and a packet of chocolate biscuits.
Therefore upon arriving at the Hostel Romantik in Tbilisi, we were delighted to find out that as part of the 10 Lari per person per night (around AUS $5), dinner was included! They also offered unlimited red wine which was served in terracotta kerafs, but we were too knackered and dehydrated to even dream of consuming alcohol.
We spent the next day meandering the streets on foot, admiring the ornate but dilapidating architecture of the old city and the shiny glass-windowed casinos, designer shops, cafes and cable car buggies that the neveau riche zipped to and from using their Mercedes and BMWs. Noisy restoration work was underway to bring the older buildings “up to scratch” but I decided I liked them the way they were. It was the sort of tragic, aging beauty that one sees in Italy.
We arrived back to the hostel in the early evening, to find the Olympic opening ceremony was just hours away. Despite planning an early get away the following day, we decided to stay up to watch the Australian team parade into the arena. All the other backpackers at the hostel had the same idea and we all sat there, crowded around the television, watching compatriots from our respective corners of the world (Japan, Poland, America, France, Georgia and Germany) hold their flags high in the air. We are lucky Australia starts with “A” and were able to slip into bed by 2am. Only a few hours later we were packing up our bags ready make the 60 kilometres to the Azerbaijan border.