A Travellerspoint blog

Discovering Turkmenistan

Bureaucracy and desert sand

semi-overcast 22 °C
View Route Olympia - China on Lent's travel map.

The ferry transfer over the Caspian Sea from Baku tu Turkmenbashy deserves a chapter of its own right if one is used to the huge luxury vessels between Finland, Sweden and Estonia. Anyway, everybody survived the appalling hygienic conditions on the boat and we arrived in the port in the evening of Tuesday April 16. Then the real torture started: Immigration issued visas all throughout the night, one by one, and after an almost sleepless night in the ferry terminal we could start our journey the next morning. Allegedly we were the first tourists to enter Turkmenistan through this port this year. From my previous reading about the Silk Road countries, Turkmenistan ranked pretty low on the list already....
The town of Turkmenbashy (Father of the Turkmens, honorary title of the former president) used to be called Krasnovodsk by the Russians who conquered the area of present-day Turkmenistan between 1860 and 1891 and is the starting point of the Trans-Caspian railway line. If the Caspian Sea has any effect on the climate of the area, then certainly on the wind and particularly its direction. With a mostly overcast sky protecting from sunburn during the first days in the desert we were facing a really stiff headwind from the East making cycling quite challenging even though we had now the long desired flat terrain. The interesting thing in the desert that you get hardly any visual sensation of the wind. Only muscles will tell you and so will the sand and dust in the gears...

Camels a re very shy and peaceful creatures

Posted by Lent 22:09 Archived in Turkmenistan Comments (0)

Down to the Caspian Sea

20 °C
View Route Olympia - China on Lent's travel map.

It's been a demanding nine days since Tblisi with no rest day, a surprisingly high relief on the foothills of the Eastern Greater Caucasus and only moderately good weather, rainy particularly during the nights. We haven't had all that much contact with the local people, but needed to get accustomed to the way prices - e.g. in food places - are a matter of negotiation and bargaining. It doesn't help to agree a price beforehand, they'll bring more anyway and also charge for it. Well, a good exercise to prepare for Central Asia, I guess. And people are always curious about what we're doing: to avoid the crudest misunderstandings, we use a printed leaflet in the local languages and a map. Also my little bit of Russian helps a lot, but intercultural communication just involves so many other things than use of words. Things become difficult when people start to touch our bikes or even request a ride. (Stupid me allowed a drunken man in Georgia to do so; I suffered the worst minutes of the whole journey so far.) In that case: Paidyom, we have to go on...

Also the scenery has turned much more Asian recently. While dreaming of drier weather during rainy nights in the tent, the desert was there as soon as we descended into the Caspian Sea basin. Crossing the Qobustan area for about 90 kilometres west of Baku, vegetation disappears: first the trees, then the scrub and finally even the grass on which the many sheep flocks feed. We've seen the last green forests for some time to come.

Elevations along the southern foothills of the Eastern Caucasus

The roads are dominated by two car brands, Lada and the products of a German manufacturer of premium cars. Lorries are carrying either sheep or gigantic oil pipeline elements. Cycling into 2-million-inhabitants-Baku is a process difficult to describe. Approaching the largest city on the Caspian Sea, one first sees shacks and rotting industrial plants relating to the more distant times of the oil boom. Then it's housing areas of the poorer type followed by the belt of furniture and car retailers that have come to represent the 'new times' in so many of the former Eastern Bloc countries. Finally in the central area it is a struggle for biker's survival on the busy six-lane urban highways. And at the very end of the journey there is of course the UNESCO-protected old town, the beach boulevards and all the other sites of national significance. As bikers we can draw the conclusion that Azerbaijan consists of two parts: rich and poor or: Baku and the rest. What keeps them together is former president Aliyev (father of the current president), whose image and statements are on display everywhere.

Proudly presented: first desert image of the trip (Qobustan, 50 km west of Baku)

After 56 days of travelling since Olympia and 3400km personal mileage on bicycle we're now facing Central Asia. Boat departure times from Baku to Turkmenbashi are very flexible and have no fixed schedule, so today is just waiting, waiting, waiting... The organizers are doing a great job to make arrangements which for individual tourists would be almost impossible to take care of in reasonable time. Until a few days ago we had non confirmation of visas to Uzbekistan (the matter was dealt with even on diplomatic level) and a rescheduling of the route through Kazakhstan (or even Afghanistan!) would not have been to everybody's mind. So we have learned to cope with a variety of uncertainties from day to day. And then there are of course all the other personal little and big stories that can occupy peoples' minds much more than the great sights along the way: stories about physical distress, changing social relationships in the group, lost and broken property (clothing items, electronic equipment, one passport etc.), minor injuries and almost-accidents. So:
Bon voyage!

Next update probably from Ashgabat.

Complete track since Tblisi and photo show: http://www.everytrail.com/view_trip.php?trip_id=18163

Posted by Lent 02:01 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (2)

From Georgia to Azerbaijan

View Route Olympia - China on Lent's travel map.

Courtesy 9C, Kulosaari Secondary School, Helsinki

Sheki is a 100.000 inhabitant city in Azerbaidjan on the foothills of the Eastern part of the Greater Caucasus. Because Internet places are getting rarer all the time, here is a summary of the last four days since Telawi, where we started to explore Kakheti and the Alazani valley plain, main wine growing region of Georgia with several ancient monasteries, such as Alawerdi and Ikalto. Writing from the oil country Azerbaijan, it is even easier to understand the economic difficulties of Georgia, but wine production is a growing business even despite the (now lifted) Russian boycott of Georgian wine. In Kraveli we had a good wine tasting session of the most renowned produces and they even let us taste their cognac from the oldest oak barrel. The vinyards aren't that spectacular in spring time of course.
The same day (Tue, Apr 4) in the castle complex near Gremi we finally met the German group that is cycling from Athens to Peking on a very similar route (www.athen-peking.de). Mit Helm und kurzen Hosen, it was a very beautiful spring day (with summer-like temperatures of close to 30 C), but we have had several rainy nights recently, too. The nearby mountains make the weather very unstable and quickly changing.


Close to the Georgian-Azerbaijan border some of us had a long (most others, including me, only a short) visit to the Lagodekhi natural reserve, which in fact continues on the other side of the border. For the Georgian part, its development is a major investment into the touristcal infrastructure of the area, tourism being the only other growth sector alongside wine production.

Wednesday (Apr 9) was border crossing day to Azerbaijan. With all the bureaucracy linked to our Polish support vehicle it took us a full three hours to be able to start exploring a new country. So for the few hours of the remaining day, an Azeri police patrol 'helped' us with money exchange and finding a good, but expensive dinner place. So here some observations about Azerbaijan after two days: people are just so much more open, betraying that the Azeri people are not only linguistically relatives of the Turks. Where it was tea in Turkey and vodka in Georgia, it's now tea again. To be sure, the Soviet legacy has left behind traces also in the food and drink culture and Russian language is just as common as in Georgia, but we're happy to see the local language written in Latin letters!
Thursday was an exploration of the old road linking the towns of Zagatala and Sheki. Exploration, because it has partly been destroyed by mountain river flooding. So the Caucasus springs not only provide good mineral water but flow down into the plain in braided streams that are difficult to control during snow melting and heavy rain periods. But at this season only small streams flow across the vast gravel river beds and and it took us some stubbornness to ignore the advice of locals to avoid the most damaged part of the road and take a rather long detour. So here is then what we had to do in order to get across:

Track data are uploaded later. The travel map on this blog is also imprecise because it is quite difficult to identify place names for which several spellings exist. Anyway, I hope to write more from Baku.

Posted by Lent 22:15 Archived in Azerbaijan Comments (2)

Over the Gombori Pass 1600m

overcast 11 °C

Leaving Tblisi on Saturday morning was an event. Joint by local racers and their excellencies the Lithuanian and Polish ambassadors on bicycles there were about 50 of us being escorted by Police over the urban and suburban highways out of the city.
The direction is now northwards into the Khaleti region which is famous for its vinyards and monasteries, a combination known from the river valleys of western Europe. To get into the Alazani river plain, the Gombori mountains need to be crossed and on Sunday we made it over the highest pass of the entire journey so far: 1600m, at chilly 6 degrees of temperature. The previous night one of our bicycles fell victim to theft, but was brought back by police after a short time, even though damaged.

Elevation profile Tblisi - Telavi

In Telavi I had the pleasure to meet Beso Kirvalidse who, just stopping his car and wondering about us foreign looking guys turned out to have spent many years working in Tampere and during our conversation thanked God many times to meet someone who could speak Finnish! Besides Jumala he also remembered Perkele, Nokia (the town, not the company) and a couple of other very Finnish things.

Likely this is the last update before Baku (April 13). If you want to be notified about updates, please subscribe to this blog (see right).

Posted by Lent 22:46 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

More sightseeing in Tblisi

There are two things in Georgia that symbolize Georgians hopes: The blue EU flag and of course the Georgian flag with its five crosses. Both fill important gaps left behind by Soviet ideology. Another one, and rather closely linked with Georgian national feeling is the religious revival manifesting itself in the reestablishment of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate. I think of the (now also changing) role of Catholicism in the political changes in Poland or the new alliance between political power and Orthodox religion in Putin`s Russia when seeing how Georgians are creating a completely new national sanctuary for themselves in the Holy Trinity Cathedral overlooking the city. The building is in fact a whole complex including a ring of chapels and is pretty busy already although still under construction (started in 2003).
Positive or negative development, I can't tell - according to S Huntigton's Clash of Civilizations negative - but certainly Tblisi has another important sight on it's list of attractions.

Brand new Holy Trinity Cathedral dominating night view of Tblisi

Posted by Lent 04:41 Archived in Georgia Comments (0)

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