Bye bye birdy: June 28
I awoke to Graham, Michael and Sarah rustling around nearby and after pretending not to hear them for a bit finally shook the water off the tarp above my hammock and swung my legs out. The rain clouds had retreated and it seemed as though everything was already well on its way to be dry. The others had removed their tarps and were now comfortably reading in their hammocks. I set up the stove for some coffee and set out any wet articles to dry in the sun. I checked on the small bird who we had tried to make comfortable the night before. The poor thing had passed away during the night and had become ant food. I gently moved the bird to a shallow grave outside of our camp and put him to rest. We spent the morning lazily packing, reading and drinking delicious instant coffee. Recently the only coffees we had been enjoying had been on camping days as the Turkish coffee was small and very overpriced. Even in Europe we had grown tired of the small espresso shots so a full mug of hot instant coffee was greatly appreciated. We mounted our noble steeds and made our way from the forest and out into the fields of purple flowers where we had left the main road.
We continued across the beautiful forested landscape on a well maintained dirt road and eventually came across a large town that intersected the highway. We stopped and ate at a small cafe that served us a delicious traditional Turkish pastry. When we exited the cafe 20 minutes later we were surprised and disappointed to see the sun had disappeared and an ominous rain cloud had moved in. We quickly stopped at a market than made our way to a gas station on the edge of town where we prepared for the quickly approaching rain and ate a bit more. After answering some questions and talking to some inquisitive gas station goers we made our way out from under the cover of the gas station and hit the road heading toward the coast. The miles passed quickly on the high way with the help of some podcasts we had downloaded and we were soon approaching the cost. Intermittent rain had gotten us all pretty wet and we were pretty ready for a stop when we pulled into the next gas station. An Australian rider pulled in as we filled up and we soon learned he was following a very similar route to ours but in the opposite direction. We had been hoping for some tea and weren't disappointed as the gas station owner put his arm through Grahams and enthusiastically lead us up to a small dining area. We sat and swapped stories and advice with the Aussie while drinking tea and enjoying the roof over our heads. Hearing about the route from a fellow biker was awesome and planted some new exciting ideas of possible routes through China and Myanmar. We eventually decided to get back on the road as we still had to find a camping spot for the night. We said our goodbyes to both the Australian and the gas station manager who we all had taken a liking too (especially Graham). After some pictures, swapping of information and a friendly head butt between Graham and the gas station manager we were back on the road.
We wound our way up some narrow mountain roads into some clouds. The mist was so dense it was hard to see Michael riding in front of me. Cars seemed to immerge from nowhere and the landscape was left to the imagination. As we approached the cost we began losing elevation and the beautiful lush hills began peeking through the clouds. Dropping onto the more populated cost we began looking for place to eat dinner. We stopped at a more expensive looking restaurant but were not disappointed as the food was delicious and the staff very friendly. The soup and three teas we ordered warmed us from the inside as the excited wait staff warmed us with their enthusiasm and broken English. Another patron gave us a gift of a delicious pastry-like dessert that was a specialty of the town. After paying what felt like way too much for the meal (though in reality was less than what you would pay at a fast food restaurant in the U.S.) and especially the teas which are typically free, we departed looking for a camp site.
We wound our way along the populated cost looking for a small pull off that would house us for the night and hide us from the road. The houses never seemed to cease though, every turn off we found was a driveway or a disappointment in one way or another. As it grew later we turned inland to find a camp spot and ended up in a small town. What seemed like the entire town was gathered in the town center. Kids were playing, men and women were seated on balconies and porches. As we passed and made our first turn out of the square, all eyes were upon us. The turn was a dead end and we quickly turned around and made our way back to the town square. This time we were greeted with a few whistles and waves as we passed and made our way up the second turn off. This turn seemed more promising as it wound its way up the mountain. Eventually though we grew doubtful of the road as it was a bit too urban for us to find a place to sleep. Part way up a especially steep section we stupidly decided it was not the way to go and soon Michael was sliding down the hill backwards. After a good fight though gravity won and he gracefully rolled off the bike and down the hill. Together we wrestled Hans upright and off the hill. We back tracked through the village and this time it felt like we were in a parade. The entire town was whooping, cheering and whistling as we road through for the third and final time.
We were beginning to get very tired and a bit frustrated with the lack of places to sleep. This had never been a problem before. We stopped at a few more spots along the coast hoping they would result in a good location but were unsuccessful. A paid camping spot revealed itself, however, after getting a price we refused and moved on. Paying for camping, even though it was very cheap, would have felt like defeat and we were not ready to admit defeat just yet. Making our way up farther inland we eventually happened upon a half-built building. The columns were perfectly spaced for hammocks and there was a roof over our head. It didn't feel like the ideal location but it was secluded enough and we were tired enough not to be too picky. We set up the hammocks, hung our wet clothes up to dry on our bikes and hammocks and crawled into the hammocks. Once inside a hammock, the camp spot makes no difference and we were all comfortable and happy as we fell asleep.
Who Needs a Road: June 29th
We woke up to the sound of cars zipping by and the occasional cow bell in the distance. The morning was slow, we boiled some water for coffee, ate some bread and cheese for breakfast and read. Graham finished the book Who Needs a Road by Harold Stephens and Albert Podell. A coworker from Head Rush let me borrow the book and it was so good that Graham and now James are reading it. It's about a round the world expedition during the 1960's. They drive through Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, SE Asia, Australia, Central America and the U.S. and along the way they have more crazy experiences than I could ever imagine. The book is beyond inspiring, and it has pushed us to try and ride our motorcycles from India to Thailand via Myanmar. A route we had originally nixed due to the complexities of getting into the country.
Thank you Bill for lending us this amazing book!
After an animated discussion about how awesome it'd be to ride through Myanmar (the one country Harold and Albert couldn't get into on their trip), we hopped on our motorcycles and road towards Trabzon. We stopped in Fatsa, a town about 100 km from Trabzon, for breakfast/lunch and after riding through a tightly packed city with all dirt roads, we came across a place to park our motorcycles.
Immediately after parking our bikes, we were swarmed by curious men wondering where we were from, what we were doing, how we got here, why we were here, etc. We're starting to get used to the curiosity of people. However, the most frustrating thing is that we don't speak ANY other languages. We can only communicate with sign language and the occasional, terribly pronounced, Turkish phrase we've learned. Fortunately in this case, a man approached us and spoke English well. He translated the peoples questions then took us to a restaurant that he said, "has the best food in Turkey!" He wasn't wrong, we each got a giant plate of cooked vegetables, meat, and eggs. They were huge portions and absolutely delicious. The man who translated the questions, sat with us and we discussed Turkey and the US. He continually stated that he did not like the Turkish or US governments but he liked Turkish and US people, "I like all people" was a phrase he said multiple times. He made us feel comfortable, despite the constant stares of everyone else in the restaurant. After lunch, he invited to take us out for coffee.
"The best food in Turkey!"
We crossed the street and found a spot near the water to get coffee. There, he told us about how he had been a mechanic on a ship and eventually he made it to Tampa where he spent the next 3 years working as a pizza delivery driver. He said he wanted to go back and near the end of the conversation he asked Graham if he could get him back into the US. He seemed convinced that we'd be able to pull some strings and to get him into the states. We told him we'd do what we could, but by no means could we promise anything. The man seemed to be a well established figure in Fatsa, he constantly had people approaching him and speaking to him politely. He seemed to be greatly respected and liked. It's wild that he wanted to leave all that behind to work as a pizza delivery man in the US. The American Dream seems to thrive outside of the US more than in it.
Our translator and friend for the morning
The lunch took a bit longer than expected and it was 2:30 by the time got back on the road. We had decided we were going to stay in a hotel that night to try and get some research about crossing Myanmar done. Once we got to Trabzon, we started looking for a hotel. While riding through the city streets, James got side swiped by a van. It was a slight bump on his right side case that didn't do any damage, but if it had been any harder, he may have been tossed from his bike. Have we mentioned how much we love Turkish drivers?!
We stopped at a hotel and I went in to ask about prices. The hotel seemed alright, but I got weird vibes from the spot and didn't like the suspicious (not curious) looks we were getting from everyone around the hotel. We decided to bail on that hotel.
While I had been searching for a hotel, an American cyclist started talking to Graham, James and Sarah. His name was Robert and he was near the end of his tour from Germany to Batumi, Georgia. From Batumi he was planning on taking a bus to Tbilisi. He'd be in Tbilisi, Georgia on the 4th of July just like us. We swapped contact info and hoped we'd be able to meet up with on the 4th. It'd be great to spend the 4th with another American!
Graham and Sarah decided our best option would be to look for wifi to try and find a decent hotel online. They found one and we road off in search of it. It turned out to be a giant room with a shower and 4 beds. It was perfect. We got sandwich material for dinner and started looking up the possibility of crossing Myanmar. It looks hopeful, but may be a bit expensive. The only way to cross it is with a guide, which can cost 2.5-5k per person. We're trying our best to get the prices down!
Half of our giant hotel room
Troubles at the Georgian Border: June 30th
We woke up in Trabzon with the intent of getting some work done. We had blog posts to write, emails to send, pictures to upload, routes to plan past Kyrgyzstan, and the standard distraction of scrolling through Facebook when we lost track of what we were doing. It was past noon by the time we rolled out of Trabzon, and after seeing how large the city was we decided against going to the monastery knowing it is likely another tourist trap scenario. It was off to Rize to try some fresh tea! Rize is the greenest part of Turkey, and also where most of the tea is grown. A slightly rainy ride up the coast and we were sipping tea at the tea institute. Along the way we saw a dog get hit by a car and spin around about 4/5 times before scampering off into the woods. He looked alright, but it could have just been the adrenaline. The majority of road kill that we have seen in Turkey is dogs and cats with the occasional hedgehog. All three animals are foreign for us to see as road kill and the dead dogs always damper the mood a bit. We ordered a small pot, which turns out to not be that small because we were all pretty hyped on caffeine after ~4 cups of tea each. They light a glob of fat in a little burner that the tea pot sits on top of. The pot consists of two different sections. One for water, and a smaller pot stacked on top that contains super concentrated tea. Once the water is hot in the bottom pot you mix a little bit of concentrated tea with the hot water and then you have a cup of delicious cay (tea). We relaxed and pondered what we were going to do, and where we were going to go for the rest of the day.
Blending in with the locals: Tea and hand rolled cigarettes
It was decided that we had been in Turkey long enough and we wanted to see Georgia so it was off to the border from Rize. You don’t need a visa for Georgia, and the relationship between Turkey and Georgia is not that tense so we assumed it would be a straightforward crossing; for Michael it was. He handed over the passport and registration and then rolled right through. However when myself and James got to the agent she looked at our registration and couldn’t believe that it was real, even though it look pretty much identical to Michael’s. She pulled us off to the side and called over various other border agents to discuss our documents. We gave them the title, but they wanted a document that had the bikes license plate number on it. This is on the bike registration paper, but they refused to believe that our document was real so we were in a bit of a pickle. After trying to show some other numbers on our bikes that correlated to the title and some insisting that these were in fact the real documents they wandered off to ponder what to do with us. This whole time Michael was standing about 30 feet away from us in Georgia. While we were waiting they pulled off another guy who was trying to get in. They did not deliberate that much with him however and turned him around pretty quickly saying that he couldn’t enter. This was a little concerning for me and James. Right after they turned that guy around they walked up to us and we thought it was our turn to head back to Turkey, however the agent spoke a little English and said that our documents would work. He also insisted that these documents will likely not work for Russia and that we should look into going to Baku and getting a ferry across the Caspian. This was disheartening since our documents actually are legit, and we paid $300 for a Russian visa. We will find out soon enough if they let us into Russia!
Once we were through the border we decided to head to a national park that was just inland from Batumi. The mountains here look very similar to Hawaii with their steep green walls with the tops covered by the clouds. Turns out these mountains were volcanic just like Hawaii, and the similar lush environment makes them easily interchangeable. We rode up the road towards the park, and for the first time Google maps led us on the wrong road. It was not a problem though because as soon as we would stop to try and find ourselves a happy Georgian would walk up and help us find our way. After wandering around some muddy roads and crisscrossing a river a few times we ended up in the park and found a nice spot right by the river to setup camp. As we pulled in there were some horses that scurried off and the fireflies were zooming around everywhere. In Turkey beer was expensive and hard to find so we had not had a sip of any alcohol since Istanbul. We were pretty excited to find some large, cheap, plastic beer bottles once into Georgia, and proceeded to indulge ourselves while cooking dinner. After some storytelling and music playing we stumbled back to our hammocks happy to be in a new country and excited to discover where we were in the morning.
July 1: Poti break
I sat up quickly rubbing sleep from my eyes and listening intently. Someone was wandering around our bikes and making quiet the raucous. I quickly unzipped the hammock to peer out and found myself looking at a group of horses and a donkey. I gave a shout at the others and hoped out of my hammock to take a closer look. The animals were very bold and did not shy away as we approached. The donkey had found our eggs which were hanging from a tree. He ripped them down and attempted to eat one. After mingling with the animals for a bit we shooed them off to prevent them from eating various parts of our bikes and our hammocks. We moved back onto the rocky shore and prepared what was left of the eggs and some coffee for breakfast. The sun was shining and it was a perfect temperature so we decided to take advantage of it and set some things out to dry. Michael in particular had an accident the night before as he fell asleep with his open water bottle. Needless to say his hammock and everything in it was sufficiently wet. We spent the morning relaxing, reading and attempting a bit of fishing with sticks as poles and tadpoles and beetles as bait. Besides a few nibbles though we were unsuccessful.
We eventually got packed up and on the road again. We road farther into the park and eventually stopped at a hotel/welcome center where we read about the park and its wildlife. We then turned around and made our way to the main road to make our way farther into Georgia. The roads were in excellent condition for the most part, though the drivers were a bit insane. They would creep up way to close for comfort and try and squeeze past at the most inopportune moments. This almost always resulted in us being almost forced off the road. The other surprise was when the road ended abruptly and turned to a half built and very dusty road filled with potholes. The sign from the Georgian department of transportation apologizing for the state of the road was of small consolation though it gave us a few good laughs.
We stopped in the city of Poti to try and locate some hardware for Graham and Michael's bikes. We found ourselves on a street lined with small hardware shops. As we pulled up the usual crowd gathered and began to help us locate the parts we needed. I went off in search of duck tape while Graham and Michael were pulled into a shop full of nuts and bolts. The search for duck tape was fruitless and most of the Georgians had never even seen it before. We were baffled and our confidence in Georgian engineering a bit rattled at the lack of such a crucial engineering material. The hardware search was much more successful and generously gave us the bolts. As we worked on the bikes we were given apricots and other presents by random passerby's. Graham had a bit of a tantrum when he snapped a bolt into the frame of his bike while trying to replace it. The bolt turned out to not be crucial and we eventually left Poti with no incidence.
Making our way towards the mountains we wound our way along small winding roads dotted with cows, pigs and geese. As the sun began approaching the horizon we began looking for a place to eat or a market. We stopped to get directions and were approached by 3 boys. One of them spoke very good English and was ecstatic to use it. We continued on and found a nice super market with what seemed to be a family enjoying the sun out front. The one who looked to be the father lead us inside and helped us pick a delicious meal of bread, vegetables, cheese and some meat. We paid for it and spent a bit of time talking with the family. It was primarily younger boys and we decided to attempt a "butt jiggle" with them. We have been doing "butt jiggles" since the beginning of the trip and it is exactly what it sounds like. We set the Gopro up in a memorable location and shake our butts in front of it. The boys were a bit hesitant at first but a few of them joined in whole heartily after a bit. We said our goodbyes amidst lots of laughter and headed down the road to find a camp spot.
We had hoped to find our way into the mountains and away from the populated areas but as the sun began to set we found ourselves in a rural but populated neighborhood with little hope of leaving it soon. We found a somewhat secluded area next to a beautifully clear stream and a field that didn't look to be on anyone's property and began making some dinner. The stream bed consisted entirely of white and grey river rocks that could be seen almost perfectly through the perfectly clear water. As we unpacked a young man approached and introduced himself as Jaba. We asked him permission to camp there and he gave us a shrug and a not very convincing ok. He left and returned a bit later with his brother. His English was limited and our Georgian nonexistent so the conversation revolved around google translator and lots of videos from his phone. A older man came and joined us for a bit as well. They wanted to smoke with us so we rolled a cigarette and attempted to talk some more. They were baffled that we were camping on our journey and even more surprised to learn all 4 of us were sleeping in the tent. We quickly reassured them that we were not gay and avoided sleeping in the tent whenever possible. Eventually they left us to eat dinner but returned not too long after with a 2.5 liter plastic beer bottle full of very cold water. Jaba drank from it then encouraged us to do the same, saying it was good water from the mountains. The water was indeed very cold and refreshing. Jaba said goodnight and left us to setup our tent. To avoid cramming all 4 of us into the 3 person tent, Michael and I set up a shelter between our bikes using a tarp and some rope. While not perfect it would keep us dry in a small rain shower. We crawled into our makeshift tent and quickly fell asleep to the sound of the creek beside us.
Feasting with Giants: July 2nd
Today was one of those days where everything felt fairly normal, but a lot of weird things happened. It all started by waking up to ~20 cows walking around our campsite on the river. As usual, the giant animals were curious and started to lick and chew on all our stuff. After a couple firm "No"s, they left our stuff alone. Then, as we were packing up to leave, a butterfly landed on my finger. I was able to transfer the butterfly from my finger to my nose, where it hung out for the next 10 minutes or so. Just chillin on my nose while I packed up my motorcycle.
Graham snapped an awesome pic of this bull checking out the tent
My good luck butterfly
The goal of today was to find a campsite near Tbilisi. So we started towards Tbilisi. We needed gas fairly badly, so we stopped to fill up. It was an entirely normal looking gas station, however some strange things happened. First, the attendant filling Graham's tank overfilled the tank and spilled/sprayed gas all over Graham. He took it in good stride and didn't show his frustration at being soaked by gas (that he had to pay for).
While I was filling up my gas tank, I got hit by a car. I was sitting there, on my bike, waiting for the cashier to bring me my change, when a dude driving an Audi hit my side case. It immediately tipped Hans sideways, pinning us up against the fill up station. I couldn't move and I was lost for words. People started yelling at him and instead of backing up, he tried to move forward again. Only smooshing Hans and I harder into the gas station. I found my words and yelled at him to back up. He just looked at me glassy eyed and didn't move. Finally, a gas attendant got him to back up and I could right myself and Hans. I was flabbergasted at the whole situation. Graham and James said the driver looked pretty drunk. That would most likely explain why he was such a terrible driver.
Almost immediately after filling up our gas tanks, getting sprayed by gas, and getting hit by a drunk driver, we got pulled over. It was our first run in with the police and I'm sure it won't be our last. Graham had a couple empty plastic beer bottles dangling from his side case (something that's become fairly regular for us to do) and they must've been a beacon for the police. We all got breathalyzed. Mom, you'll be happy to know that's the first time any of us have been breathalysed and we all passed with flying colors! It was ironic that I'd been smashed up against a wall by a drunk driver and we were the ones being pulled over…
After the gas and cops scenarios, we were finally on our way towards Tbilisi. We stopped in Kutaisi for lunch. After lunch we found a McDonald's with some FAST wifi. With the wifi, we were able to find a road that bordered the Algeti National Park, just east of Tbilisi. It looked like it could be a great place to camp. The ride was about 4 hours away from Kutaisi so we got back on the bikes and road towards the park.
It was during this ride that I realized how terrible and terrifying Georgian drivers are. They have little regard for the rules of the road and instead of passing us, they ride right up next to you and slowly start to merge into you. The only options to keep from getting squeezed off the road are to 1. abruptly slow down and let them merge, which could lead to getting hit from the rear or 2. speed up so that you're still in front of them. They did not seem to like it when we sped up, therefore we had to slow down. We did not like it, but I guess it's better to be safe than try to beat Georgians at their own style of driving.
After a lot of frustration with the drivers and a few close calls, we made it the road bordering the National Park. We turned off and were delighted to find a washed out, pot holed dirt road. It's always a blast to take our bikes up roads most motorcycles wouldn't be able to, but this one was extra fun. We saw one car along the road (a 1990's Mercedes) filled with guys in military uniforms, but other than that the road and the area was ours. We road for about 45 minutes then we tried to find a campsite. We found a pull off to check out and were astonished at what we found.
In the middle of this giant forest was a 30 ft structure of a man carrying a sword and blowing a bugle. It was unreal to see such a giant structure in what felt like the middle of nowhere. We had to camp here.
James and the Giant
We set up all our sleeping stuff and began cooking between the legs of the statue. It was Sarah's last night of camping so we had to have a good meal. We made fried sausage sandwiches with cheese, honey and vegetables. Sarah also sliced up an unbelievably delicious salad. Sarah's love for having vegetables will be greatly missed when she's gone. Hopefully Graham, James and I will continue to eat vegetables regularly once she's gone.
Notice the beautiful salad (Sarah looks pretty good too)
We decided to finish Indiana Jones. While we were sitting under the legs of that giant statue, I couldn't help thinking about how wild it was for 3 Americans, and 1 Aussie, to be sitting under a Soviet Era structure in what was once the Soviet Union. "Stalin must be rolling in his grave" was the joke of the night.
Near the end of the movie, we saw head lights in the distance. They had to be on our road, coming towards us so we decided to close the movie and keep our lights off. Maybe it was because of the car full of soldiers we saw earlier, the eerie statue or the movie but we all got a bit spooked. Luckily the car passed and nothing came of it. However, we decided to bail on the movie and go to bed.
While I was reading, I felt something crawling on my neck. I just assumed it was beetle or ant so I grabbed it and tossed it in front of me. It was a giant spider. As I've said before, I hate spiders and this one was no different. It freaked me out. I fell asleep with spiders on my mind. Not my favorite.
To Tbilisi: July 3rd
I woke up to a drizzle of rain on my tarp and realized that in my dash to try and conceal the bike from the car the night before I had left my sleeping pad, jacket, pants, and boots all away from the shelter of my tarp in the rain. It wasn’t raining to bad though so I hoped it would pass and my stuff could dry out before we left. When the drizzling died down I hopped out of the hammock and we were consumed by the clouds. After about 100 feet the mist consumed the rest of the world and the statue looked impressive projecting through the mist. We had a slow morning making coffee and reading a bit beneath the statue before continuing down the dirt road towards Tbilisi. We were above 4000 feet in elevation and it was cool to be back up in some mountains. No more than 10 minutes down the road we came across a 50 foot tall cross popping out of the center of a hill. There were crosses that looked liked swords stabbed into the hill around the massive cross and some steps leading up to it. At the base of the hill an amphitheater with large pillars was nestled amongst the green grass. On all the hills surrounding this strange place there were iron statues with shields and swords that looked to protect it. From the top of the hill we had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, and it was of the weirdest but most awesome things I have ever stumbled upon.
What is this place?
We saw a car coming down the road from the other direction, and we weren’t sure if this was a place we should be running around or not so we got back on the bikes and continued on. When we passed the car it was just a guy gathering flowers from the surrounding hills. The road continued up and we were right along the crest of a small range of mountains. There were no trees up there, and we may have been above alpine. It was just strange because the hills were so green that it didn’t feel like it was above alpine. We were just beneath the clouds and it was almost like we were flying through them. We passed a gypsy looking outpost where a family had brought their livestock for the summer. There was a large herd of sheep and we spooked the horses a bit as we rode by. They lived in a makeshift structure of wood and tarps, but it looked pretty comfy. I was pretty jealous of their spot up in these pristine mountains. We continued on and found the road to Tbilisi, however the floods a few weeks ago blocked off the road so we took the long way and wove our way down into the valley that Tbilisi is nestled into. We were not looking forward to contending with the maniacal drivers of Georgia condensed into a small space, and they didn’t fail to surprise us with their blind lack of caring about lanes or people and definitely gave zero s#$^’s about running us over or running us off the road. Either way we found the spot to meet up with Sandro to get the keys to the AirBnb pretty easily. The place was nice and we were happy to crash there for a few nights before heading north and into the unknown. We headed across the street to a restaurant that Sandro had recommended and ordered some Georgian food. Michael and James both ordered some chicken that sounded really good, but me and Sarah ordered a different dish so we could try some different kinds of food. We weren’t entirely sure what it was, but it didn’t taste that good. We thought we ordered chicken, but it tasted a bit like ground beef. Turns out it was chicken heart, liver, and lungs. I wouldn’t recommend it. The rest of the food was pretty good though and we headed back to the apartment to relax and research some more stuff about Georgia before heading out on the town later.
I have become fascinated with this place. The people are incredibly kind and helpful, the landscapes are breathtaking, there isn’t trash everywhere, and their history is really interesting. Their language and their ethnicity are completely unique to Georgia. The language is one of the closest modern languages to Aramaic which is the language spoken by Jesus. They are ethnically different to the surrounding Islamic countries and have been sheltered from Russia to the North by the massive Caucasus Mountains. Christianity is not only popular here, but it is growing in popularity with almost 90% of the population belonging to a Christian denomination. This also makes them pretty conservative, and they have little tolerance of gay rights and other religious denominations. They seem to like America, but don’t like Obama. This was a little curious because they like George Bush. I have never been to another country that is a fan of Bush, and they even have a street named after him. After talking with a few people they don’t like Obama because of his Muslim name. They are all under the impression that his is Muslim, and therefore seems to be an enemy considering the surrounding countries are Muslim and they have historically battled since the beginning of time. Bush was very openly Christian and I believe they like/dislike the presidents based entirely on what religion they may or may not be.
After doing some research we headed downtown to meet up with our fellow American biker friend, Robert. After flagging down different cabs we still couldn’t communicate where we were trying to go. I am under the impression that they don’t use maps because even pointing to a place on a map seemed to confuse them more. A guy must have been watching us constantly failing to explain where we wanted to go, and he came over and looked at the map. He understood where we wanted to go and motioned us to follow him. He was not a taxi, but wanted to give us a ride downtown out of the goodness of his heart. He wouldn’t take payment and didn’t want a drink either so we thanked him and he sped off into the madness of traffic. Once out of the car we realized we were not in front of the bar we had looked up, and we instantly felt a bit lost. However pretty much as we hopped out of the car Robert strolled down the street and we had found our friend! He had the same address pulled up and so we had both arrived at a random street in the middle of Tbilisi. It didn’t take long to find that bar and it was a really cool atmosphere. The bar is called the ‘Dive Bar’ and it was started by American expats. There were beer pong tables, cheap beer, and a conglomeration of expats and Georgia locals. It was a great environment and we all met some very interesting, happy, and intelligent Georgian people. Quite a few beers and new friends later we headed off to find a new bar to explore. On our way out one of the guys we had been hanging around with pulled Sarah aside and told her that he was actually from Iraq, but didn’t like to mention it to many people. After learning this we wanted to tell him to proud of where he was from, but he kept insisting that he was from nowhere. It was really sad to see someone so insecure and unhappy about where they were from. My appreciation for the good ole US of A increases every day. Turns out the bars are all pretty well cleared out by 2 in the morning and everyone heads to the night clubs. Instead of drinking more we sat down and had some Georgian food before heading back and passing out. Michael had a gambling streak in him and even though it was around 3 in the morning he had visions of winning a large pile of Lari, so he set off in search of a blackjack table while we all passed out. We learned in the morning that he kept getting kicked out of the casinos for having sandals on and ended up walking across half of Tbilisi before finally betting on roulette and winning 5 Lari, which he spent on the cab home. He wandered back in around 5 in the morning. First night in Tbilisi was a great success.
Rest, Romance and Freedom in Tbilisi: July 4
I awoke basking in the beautifully cold air of our apartment. I lay in bed enjoying the warmth contrasted with the cold air and listened to my audio book for awhile. I eventually made my way out of bed to enjoy the warm shower. It was almost noon by the time everyone was up and ready to go. This was definitely a result of the night before but also just from having a nice place to stay and catch up on sleep. We decided to head into down town Tbilisi for some food and to explore the city a bit more. We found a taxi, which were extremely affordable, and made our way to Freedom Square. We meandered the streets looking for some good cheap Georgian cuisine to satisfy our appetites and soon found a fast food stand. The stands were common and offered delicious baked goods full of beans, meat or jam for less than a dollar. We ate on a bench along the side of the road and enjoyed the quaint vibes of downtown Tbilisi.
Moving on down the street with full belly's we entered one of the wine shops. We were greeted by a blonde haired girl who's dress was not very fitting for a wine shop with a tight pink miny skirt and a loose fitting yellow t-shirt. The girl invited us in and beckoned us to gather around a wine tasting table where she poured us three different red wines and a glass of chacha. Georgia has the oldest record of wine making at around 8000 BC and we were excited to finally get to sample some authentic Georgian wine. The chacha which is a vodka made from grapes had a lot more bite than the wine at around 50% alcohol and was taken as a shot. After the tasting we browsed their selection of wines some of which came in very intricate bottles sculpted into men, swords and more. We felt obligated to purchase some wine and found one or two good bottles for a reasonable price. Earlier in the trip Michael had purchased a wine skin and I had been a bit jealous so when I saw another wine skin at this shop I jumped on the opportunity.
We continued to wander the streets which had a medieval and almost old western feel to them taking in all the sights, sounds and smells. Stopping in to a photo shop we printed some pictures of ourselves with our website and information to give out to people we met. While they got these printed Graham slipped into a barber shop to get a beard trim for his date with Sarah later that evening (Sarah was leaving at 4 in the morning the next day).We eventually tired of walking and stopped at a small cafe nestled above the store fronts. As we entered the one room cafe it felt more like a grandma's house than a cafe with everything being finely decorated and antique looking. A few cabinets were full of china glasses and a number of old looking tapestries lined the walls. The cafe's air conditioning felt great and the large drinks they brought out were delicious. Sarah got a frappe which was particularly good, although not very frappe-esque. We relaxed for a bit before deciding to return to the hotel to rest and get some work done. We stopped at a grocery store on the way home and me and Michael slipped away to purchase some candles and chocolates for a little surprise we had been planning for Graham and Sarah.
Back at the apartment we were all exhausted so we put on a movie and cuddled up on the queen bed to watch "Inglorious Bastards." The movie was well enjoyed despite me sleeping through part of it and Graham and Sarah leaving before the end to go on their date. Michael and I finished the movie and began setting our surprise. We set a romantic table and spread in Graham and Sarah's room using what resources we had. We laid a table cloth (a hand towel from the kitchen), flowers (a potted plant we found in the apartment as we could not find flowers), and a bottle of wine we had purchased at the wine shop on the table. To finish the spread we added the candles and chocolates and made sure the room was nice and tidy. Satisfied we headed to down town Tbilisi to get a bite to eat and meet up with Sarah and Graham.
We arrived at Freedom Square and soon found dinner at a kebab place. The kebab's were delicious and we splurged on a beer for an extra dollar. After dinner we met up with Graham and Sarah at a very modern and artful looking bridge. We then went and explored a park across the bridge. The park was lively and fun with vendors selling toys and sending neon colored helicopters into the sky only to come back down and land on unsuspecting park goers. The park looked out on the old city of Tbilisi which was a castle brightly lit and sprawled half way up a hill. We eventually made our way back and retired to the hotel. Once at the hotel I distracted Sarah and Graham while Michael lit the candles. Sarah and Graham were pleased to have the romantic spread waiting for them as their date had turned out a little less than romantic with some mediocre restaurant. Michael and I returned to our room for another movie while Sarah and Graham enjoyed the candles, wine and treats. It didn't take long for the movie to lull both me and Michael to sleep. The day was very contrasting to any independence days back in the states but was very necessary and gave us a chance to recuperate and get our feet back under us. More than anything it was the place to retreat to and leave our stuff and just be that the apartment offered. It's odd how you never feel that tired or dirty or smelly until your shown the other side of the spectrum or even just normal, everyday living circumstances.
Someone's Missing: July 5th
Today was strange. James and I woke up and Sarah had already caught her flight to Istanbul where she'd catch her flight back to Australia. Graham drove her to the airport at 2 am. It's back to just the 3 of us and it feels weird. No Sarah to help us pick out the best food, no Sarah to help us keep our heads straight when things don't go right, no Sarah to help Graham calm down after a "Grahamtrum" (a Graham tantrum), no more Sarah! I was bummed and I can only image how Graham was feeling. We got up slowly and started to work on our blog with the hopes of getting one posted. Unfortunately, we had to leave the Air B&B before we could get anything completed.
We went out for breakfast and got some Khinkali (a Georgian dumpling filled with mushrooms or veal). They're absolutely delicious. It felt strange eating with only the 3 of us, but we made the best of it by trying to figure out a schedule for the next couple legs of our trip. We heard back from a company who does guided trips through Myanmar and the cost was $1750/person, much cheaper than our original quote of $2800/person. If we can get more people to join the trip, the cost per person will drop significantly. Therefore we posted on the HUBB (a motorcycle adventure touring website, horizonsunlimited.com) asking if anyone wanted to join us. We're still hoping for responses!
Our date for entering Myanmar is September 1st. Therefore we have to cross Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and India by September 1st. We quickly learned that our schedule will be jammed packed until then. Our goal is to be in Kazakhstan by July 10th. We'll try to make it happen!
We finished breakfast, got on our bikes and headed north towards Stepantsminda the final Georgian town before Russia and home of Kazbegi a 16,500 foot mountain that in a perfect world, we'd have plenty of time to try and climb. The ride was phenomenal. We started at 1,400 feet above sea level in Tbilisi and made it to 6,000. We passed pristine mountain lakes, giant herds of sheep, bee fields, and the steepest/greenest range of mountains I have ever seen.
The mountain range was unbelievable
We made it to Stepantsminda, had an overpriced cup of "milky coffee" (instant coffee with milk in it) and began searching for a campsite. After 6 miles of bumpy, dusty roads we found ourselves at a monastery over looking the town of Stepantsminda and surrounded by giant mountains. It was beautiful! However we decided to camp a bit down the road, in order to stay out of anyone's way. We got back on our bikes and road into our camp spot for the night.
***Image of Monastery
We set up our hammocks on some aspen trees that could barely hold our weight then went for a hike. On the hike we stumbled across some plants that I was convinced was poison ivy. I've had poison ivy a couple times in my life, but the last time was in 8th grade and I had it everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE). Turns out I'm hyper allergic to it and it spreads much easier on me than other people. The itch is unbearable. Crossing through sandy, hot Kazakhstan with poison ivy may be one of the more miserable experiences in my life. We washed our legs and hands with soapy water and hoped it was only a harmless vine.
We made dinner, which consisted of rice, sausage and a tomato/cucumber salad in honor of Sarah and went to bed.
Into the Motherland: July 6th
I woke up to my alarm going off at 5 in the morning so that we could get up and watch what was surely to be an epic sunrise over the mountain we camped beneath. I got out of my hammock and the ground was wet with dew and the light dusting of rain we got the night before. I woke up Michael and James and we started cooking up some eggs and coffee for breakfast. The sunrise was not really that epic, but it was nice to be up early and enjoy the morning. We wanted to get to the border pretty early because we figured it was probably going to be a tricky one based on the troubles we had already had with our registrations. As we were packing up our stuff I noticed a bolt that holds my boxes on had wiggled all the way out and was dangling on the side of my bike. It turned out to be pretty difficult to actually screw the thing back in because it was partially stripped, but we eventually got it in there. Now we were on our way to the Russian border! Except after we got all of our stuff on the bikes we noticed that James had a flat tire. We pulled all our stuff back off the bikes and started the arduous process of removing the rear tire and swapping the tubes. The tire was pretty stiff so this ended up taking quite a while. In the meantime I started checking all my bolts and dousing them in loctite while Michael changed his brake pads. It was after 12 by the time we had gotten James’ tire back on and we were hot, sweaty, and covered in dirt.
James was a little dirtier than everyone else
We rode back down to Stepantsminda to grab some much needed food before heading to the border. A Russian motorcyclist pointed us to the best place to get khinkali and we headed straight there. A very nice Georgian lady greeted us with smiles and insisted that we should each get 10. We eventually convinced her that 5 each was enough, and the man wasn’t lying about the best khinkali. They were delicious. Now we were sufficiently grubbed up and ready to get into Russia! The ride to the border was by far the prettiest one we have done yet. The mountains were covered in bright green grass and jagged rocks protruded from their peaks. They shot almost vertically out of the valley we were riding through and a chocolate river was raging towards Russia. We once again had some confusion about our registration at the Georgian border, but I don’t think they cared quite as much since we were leaving the country. We got to the Russian border after passing hundreds of trucks parked along the side of the road waiting to get in.
Just before the border with all the trucks
As usual we got the special treatment for some reason and they kept motioning us to cut in front of everyone else and head straight to the front. They had a strange lack of efficiency at the border, and it was soon obvious why the line was so long. We drove up underneath a covered area, parked the bikes, and walked over to a kiosk to show them our documents. They really did not like our registration once again and kept asking for a bike passport. We showed them our carnets which seemed to do the trick. The carnet de passage is a document that some countries require to allow you to temporarily import a vehicle. Russia wasn’t one of those countries, but they seemed to like the looks of the document better than our registration. I don’t think they could read what it said but it had our bike information and license plate numbers….o wait… turns out my carnet had some wrong information on it. Where the license plate number is on Michael and James carnet’s, mine showed my title number. This could be a devastating mistake because they had already checked Michael’s bike with that number and now could not find something that showed my plate number. I freaked out and tried to think of another way to show them the plate number, but my mind was racing to all the things this could possibly mess up. I would have to go back to Georgia, figure out how to get a new carnet by trying to get a hold of the unresponsive RAC (the company we got the carnet’s from), and wait a few weeks until I could get a new one. By that time we would be way behind schedule and not be able to ride across Myanmar or potentially even India. James told me to take a breath and after showing them my registration again with my carnet they seemed to deem it worthy and let us continue on to the next station. We walked over to the next station and had to fill out some customs forms. The forms were entirely in Russia, but there was an English example on the wall so we followed that one. We took it over to the next kiosk only to be ushered back to fill out a few more documents. This time a lady pointed at different lines and told us to sign or date the different lines. We had no idea what we were agreeing to, but it was necessary to get into Russia. Now we finally had everything we needed and we headed back to the kiosk. The lady was pretty nice there and spoke a little English. We showed her our registration, carnets and passports and she disappeared into the kiosk. It took about ten minutes but finally Michael’s passport and a piece of paper was pushed through a little window and slapped down with approval. We were going to get in! James put his through next and they took an equally long time to do his. By this time we had created a line and in this line there were some Ukrainian motorcyclists who were touring through Georgia and into Russia as well. They were interested in our bikes and asked us where we were camping. We pointed to a spot just on the other side of the border and they pointed somewhere else. We were pretty tired so we didn’t want to go very far after the border. Eventually they slapped James’ passport out in a similar fashion and I pushed my documents through the hole. For some reason they spent an extra long time looking at mine and our Ukrainian friends seemed annoyed by how long this was taking. Eventually they called me into the kiosk to ask me about my documents. They were exactly the same as Michael and James’! Why would mine not be sufficient? Once again the registration for some reason was not a good document in their eyes. I pulled out my title and that seemed to do the trick. They then told me to go grab the titles for Michael and James bike. They were surprised to know that the bikes were our own and that they were from the US. They thought they must be rentals of some sort, and it took some convincing and pointing at the title to prove they were ours. Eventually these documents ended up working and they finally slapped my passport through the little hole. We were actually getting into Russia this time! We rode off and I felt extremely relieved, but also anxious about my messed up carnet. This is a serious problem, and could make it very difficult to get through countries in Southeast Asia. For now though it worked and I could breathe again. The few hours we spent at the border were very tense, and it felt good to finally make it through. We continued on and missed the turn off to the mountains that we were planning on camping in so drove through Vladikavkaz and decided to just go along the way to Astrakahn and find somewhere soon. After stopping for some gas that cost a whopping 32 rubles a liter (roughly 50 cents), we made it to some kind of military checkpoint. There were lots of soldiers and they all had AK 47’s of various sizes. They motioned us off the road and we saw that our Ukrainian motorcycle friends where there as well. They once again inquired about where we were staying and since we had no idea we decided to follow them because they seemed to have a predetermined spot. The officers at the checkpoint laughed at us when we showed them our documents and waved us through so we were on our way with some new Ukrainian friends. What I failed to realize is that the city they pointed to on the map was about 250 km away, and we were pretty much starving and exhausted. It was also 8 pm. We drove off with the leader of the Ukrainian crew leading the way and passed through lots of towns that were filled with mosques. I didn’t really know what to expect from Russia, but a large Islamic population was definitely not something I was expecting. There were a few more military checkpoints, but they didn’t pull us aside. I later realized that we were driving straight through Chechenya. When we stopped for gas I asked them again where we were going and that was when we discovered we still had about 200 km to go. The roads were good, but the drivers were horrendous and it took a lot of concentration to not get run over by insane cars everywhere. This was going to be a long 200 km. We were rejuvenated though when Ivanovich, the leader of the crew, said something about a beach to sleep on and his friend in Makhachkala. It was around midnight by the time we finally made it there and everyone was absolutely exhausted. It was also miserably hot so all we wanted to do was lay down and go to sleep. Makhachkala was a bustling city and the mosques all had the green lights lighting up the minarets to show that you could eat. Ivanovich must not have know exactly where we were going because as we were driving next to cars he would yell to them and converse in Russian for directions on where to go. It seemed to be pretty efficient though and everyone was very social. Every time we stopped someone would ask us something in Russian. Having no idea what they were saying we responded with “America!” We ended up following a car that had previously almost hit us to the center of the city. A young man named Sasha emerged from the car and introduced himself to us. This seems to be a common practice in Russia. Every time someone arrives somewhere they got to everyone in the room and shake their hand. I like this tradition and it is easy to see why they are so social. Ivanovich’s friend was going to meet us at the city center so we waited. A lady showed up about 2 minutes later and we were once again following a car through the city. We ended up at a public beach and she said some things in Russian and pointed to the beach then took off. Our visions of camping in someone’s backyard on a nice beach on the Caspian had vanished. We drove to the far corner of the parking lot and inspected the area. It was pretty trashy, there were lots of mosquitoes, and there was some strange workout club that was going on at 1 in the morning. There were actually lots of people there swimming and working out, and the whole place was pretty strange. We were exhausted though so it was home. It was hot as hell and we were sweating profusely. The idea of squeezing into the tent sounded awful so we laid down the tarp, blew up our pads, and laid down. We were still sweating a lot, and now the mosquitoes had stationary targets. We were absolutely miserable, and couldn’t fall asleep. Ivanovich came over and asked us if we wanted to go for a swim. Seeing as there is no way we were going to fall asleep a swim sounded great! We all went down and jumped into the calm waters of the Caspian. To our surprise the water wasn’t even that salty. It felt incredible and the whole atmosphere was surreal. There were storm clouds on the horizon, and massive bolts of lightning would light up the mountains in the south. There was a couple swimming near us and the girl was topless. There were about ten massive Russian guys doing pull-ups and practicing boxing moves. There were a series of tents along the beach for sunbathers in the day time. The best thing though was the refreshing water. We got out and felt completely rejuvenated. Our moods had changed and we were happy to hang out with our Ukrainian friends. They started pulling out stuff to cook so we went and grabbed the only food we had; some rice and a bouillon cube. We laughed that our cooking stoves were pretty much the same and it didn’t take long before Ivanovich pulled out a 2 liter plastic bottle of cha cha. I had opened my bottle of wine, but when I offered it to him he gave it to his girlfriend and handed me back a shot of cha cha. We did a cheers and washed it down with a piece of bread and a small slice of fish. It was actually pretty good. It started to rain so we move to one of the sunbathing shelters to continue cooking, drinking, and trying to converse. We ended up drinking the whole thing of cha cha and as we began to giggle like little children Ivanovich maintained a cool demeanor. We wondered if he thought we were soft. They had cooked up a pot of oily fish and I wasn’t brave enough to try it, but they would plop a chuck of fish in their mouth and then expertly extract the bones as they chewed it down. I think they liked our rice as well. Once the food and cha cha were finished we stumbled off to bed around 4 in the morning. We had been up for almost 24 hours and it was quite the day.
T-boned in Makhachkala: July 7
"Good morning!!!" I looked up through the mesh of the tent to see a Russian police officer peering through with a giant grin on his face. I was still in my boxers from swimming the night before and it had been too hot for a sleeping bag or anything so I felt a bit naked laying in front of the officer. We popped up and Michael asked him if everything was ok. He smiled and said okay a few times before making his way back to his truck to get his giant AK-47 assault rifle and join his comrades laughing and talking with the Ukrainians who had lead us here. We quickly packed up our pads and our tent and got our bikes packed up. We were all in a bit of a funk from the excessive chacha and lack of sleep the night before. The heat of the day was already in full force and we were sweating profusely even though it was only 9 in the morning. We hadn't eaten anything except for a little bread, fish and rice since the afternoon before and our stomachs were reminding us at this point so we were eager to get some rubbles and some food. We went and said goodbye to our Ukrainian friends and got a few pictures and made our way from the very strange beach we had called home for the night.
We stopped at the first bank we happened upon and pulled out some Rubbles. As we waited in line for the atm, Sasha, a Russian we had met the night before appeared out of nowhere. He spoke a little English and we asked if he knew a place to eat. He said he knew of a good place and that we should follow him in his car to the place. Before we set off to find food, Sasha discretely sold a mysterious bag to another Russian who we had sparked up a conversation with in line. We then followed Sasha around the city to Josper Grill. After waiting a bit for it to open we were welcomed in by the owner and Sasha. Sasha helped us order and got us situated very nicely. His English was not the best so we communicated through phone quite a bit. He asked us to take a few videos one of which was us saying that we liked Ramadan. He eventually said his goodbyes as he had other things to do. His seat at our table was shortly taken by the owner. The owner could not eat due to Ramadan but offered us tea and his company nonetheless. Once again we found ourselves talking through the phones using google translator and videos of our lives to make conversation. Before long the T-bone steaks we had decided to splurge on arrived looking more delicious than I could have believed. It turned out to be even tastier and tender than I expected as well. The sauce that was served with it was one of the best sauces I've had with a steak as well. It was well worth the wait and exactly what I needed to put a kick back in my step. We spent a good 4 hours talking with the owner and one of his friends and enjoying some tea. We were anxious to get to Astrakhan so we said our goodbyes and suited up for the ride. After the usual pictures the owner generously sent us on our way with some extra juice and feeling very satisfied.
Once on the road we all tuned into our audio books and were soon making good headway up the coast. We found a good speed and while we were passing the occasional truck we were traveling the same speed or a bit slower than most of the traffic. This didn't matter to the cops working the speed trap, however, and we were soon being waved off the road by a cop standing in the middle of the road. A bit confused why they were stopping and what they wanted from us, we didn't pull over immediately. We realized the urgency and pulled over quickly when one of the cops scrambled into the car and turned it on ready to pursue us. We turned around and came back and were beckoned to approach the cop car. The cop sat in the back of the car with a laptop and through some gestures we were told we were speeding. After some sign language, that we later learned meant we would be taken to jail, and a bit of confusion we realized they wanted money. Graham opened his wallet and offered them the Georgian currency he had left. They were undeterred and wrote $100 USD on the window. I attempted to pull out a bit of money and was quickly motioned to put it away or I would be put in handcuffs. They then beckoned me closer to the car where traffic could not see us and asked for 1000 rubbles each. After a bit of bartering we ended up having to discretely place 1500 rubble in the seat pocket in front of the cop (the cops could not touch it or it would be considered a bribe). The demeanor of the cops instantly changed and they became our best friends. They asked us about our journey and where we were from and attempted some humor. We were not super stoked on the whole situation, especially Michael, and quickly got on our bikes and back on the road with little friendliness on our part.
As night fell we pulled up to a small house with pictures of food outside and a few faces peaking through the metal gated door. We pulled off our helmets and in our best Russian said "food" and made the eating motion. Shortly after we were inside in a small room being made a kebab by a large and friendly looking man while drinking coffee and tea. The entire dinner cost us less than $5 and was more than satisfying. Moving on we headed further down the coast keeping an eye out for a place to camp. We pulled off a badly rutted dirt road next to a pond with a number of people fishing. We pulled off the road and down into a forest with sticks, leaves, cotton and trash littering the ground. It didn't take long before the hammocks were up and the bikes locked up. After a tragic poop that left Graham's butt speckled with mosquito bites and plenty of complaining about these bites we were all inside our hammocks hiding from the swarms of bugs. Sleep came easily as the last few days had been some of the hardest of the trip.
When the Pavement Ends: July 8th
We woke up to swarms of mosquitoes. They weren't as bad as the night before, but they were terrible enough to make us pack up fast. Without much thought we hopped on our bikes and road towards Astrakhan. We had about 450 km to make it there, which was our goal for the day. Without traffic, we thought we could do it in 4 or 5 hours.
We road ~100 km and stopped for gas. We were dehydrated. The heat is unbearable (~103 degrees Fahrenheit), even when traveling 60+ mph. We sweat profusely while riding and the moisture evaporates almost immediately, causing us to lose water much faster than we can take it in. We got a 6 liter jug of water and finished it almost immediately.
Graham taking full advantage of a water spicket
While filling up our tanks, we noticed a woman walking out of a store wearing an apron. It was the first sight of food we'd had that day and decided if she was wearing an apron, she must be a good cook. We weren't disappointed. We had a tomato and cucumber salad, bread and a bowl of soup with a giant chunk of chicken in it. We even had a cup each of real coffee. The first coffee that wasn't instant in a long while. I felt refreshed. A full stomach of water and food plus full gas tanks made me feel much better about trying to tackle the heat of the day. We set off, looking forward to a cold beer in Astrakhan.
PepPods + coffee provided us with more than enough energy
We made it about 20 km when the road ended. Just ended. Perfectly paved highway that lead straight up to and ended at a giant sand dune. I've never seen anything like that before. It's like they just gave up on making the road and called it quits. After a couple laughs of bewilderment, I looked at the map (Google Maps pulled up on my phone) and realized we missed a turn about 1 km back. Thank God, I thought, we weren't totally lost. We road back to the turn, only to realize the highway that was marked on Google Maps was actually a sandy dirt road. A major point of the trip is to get off pavement and ride dirt roads, plus Google Maps says this is the highway to Astrakhan. So, we road down the road feeling hopeful and exhilarated.
Graham was the first to fall. Then he fell again. Then I fell, then James fell, then I fell again. Within ~5 km of riding, we each fell 3 or 4 times. None of us had ever ridden on sand, let alone with 100lbs of gear strapped onto our bikes, and it showed. Whenever we'd come up to a particularly sandy patch, my whole body would tense up, I'd grab the handle bars as tightly as possible and hope my front wheel wouldn't loss traction. As soon as the front wheel loses traction, the swerving starts. The rear wheel takes on a life of its own and we start making giant S turns. It took us quite a few falls until we realized the best way to get out of the "S turn of death" was to gas the throttle. This forces the rear wheel under the rider and straightens the bike out. Except when it doesn't. Sometimes I'll gas the throttle and instead of righting myself, I do a donut and get flung from my bike.
***Image of sand dunes
We rode the sand road ~15 km until we came across an oil rig with men working on it. They looked absolutely bewildered to see us there. We mentioned Astrakhan and they laughed and shook their heads. They drew us a map in the sand and it turned out, we had taken a wrong turn about 5 miles back. We hopped back on our bikes and discussed our options. 1. Go back to where we made a wrong turn and continue on the sandy road towards Astrakhan or 2. Get back to where the pavement ended and take a detour where we knew there was pavement, towards Astrakhan. Considering we had no food, no water, no extra gas, it was 102 degrees and we had ridden 15 of the ~75 km of sand road in 2 hours, we decided to go with option 2.
We got our asses kicked by that road, and from what we've heard, the roads in Kazakhstan are just as bad if not worse. The only difference is, we have 3,200 km of sandy road through Kazakhstan instead of 15. On top of that, our Kazakhstani visas only allow us 2 weeks. If we aren't out within that timeframe, we could be put in jail. I hope we get better at riding through sand!
The best section of the dirt road
We finally made it back on the paved road. We got water and snickers bars, took a selfie with a sailor from Kazakhstan and began our detour. We road for a couple hours, saw an amazing sunset and found a spot for dinner. We ordered spaghetti and meat. I ended up with rice and meat, while James and Graham got spaghetti. The portions were small, but delicious. James went to the bathroom and found out that it didn't flush. I needed to go #2 as well and decided to bite the bullet regarding the no flushing. Immediately after sitting down on the toilet, a girl knocked on the door. After a minute she started banging and yelling in Russian. I frantically finished and tried to flush the toilet, but James was right, it wouldn't flush. I washed my hands and opened the door looking apologetic. She started yelling in my face (in Russian). I wasn't apologetic anymore and was happy James and my turds were still in the toilet.
We left the restaurant and Graham was approached by a man. It was immediately apparent that he was drunk. He started talking to Graham and was friendly enough, but he started grabbing Grahams neck and arms and wasn't showing any sign of leaving. Finally, one of his friends came out of the restaurant and pulled him inside. We didn't really know what to do in that situation, but something tells me it may not be the last time we're approached by a drunk person.
We left the restaurant and began searching for a campsite. We found a dirt road off the side of the main road and decided it was good enough. The mosquitos came in torrents and we worked our best to be in the tent as quickly as possible. Once in the tent we spent the next 10-15 minutes killing the 30 or 40 mosquitos that had made it in with us. We lay there, sweating in the heat, trying to fall asleep to the sound of mosquitos buzzing all around us.
Garage Parties in Astrakahn: July 9th
When I woke up there were about 50 mosquitoes buzzing an inch from my face on the outside of the tent. We decided that we would wait until the sun got up a little higher and hopefully scare them off. As soon as the sun hit the tent our plan seemed to work and the mosquitoes magically disappeared. We packed up quickly and headed off towards Astrakahn. We made it about 20 km before the road once again disappeared and a sandy mess of a dirt road was our only option. This road they had at least attempted to put gravel on so it wasn’t deep sand like the previous day. We moved slowly initially, but then the sand gave way to gravel, and finally to a brand new paved road. The paved road continued all the way to Astrakahn and we cruised into a nice McDonalds around noon. After a super cheap meal, due to how terrible the ruble is currently doing, we had located some hotels that were near the only motorcycle shop that popped up on Google. We found one that was decently cheap and it had a fence around it so we could park our bikes somewhere safe. By this point it was about 40 C, we were sweating profusely, smelled terrible, and covered in dirt and sand. The hotel staff must have thought we were animals. We continued to sweat as we carried all of our crap up four stories to our room. Once we were finally moved I showered, but as I got out and realized I was still incredibly dirty so I jumped right back in again. Turns out all of us did the exact same thing as we underestimated the amount of filth on our bodies. Once clean we had compiled a massive list of things we needed to do before heading into Kazakhstan. On top of this list was looking for tires. My rear tire is pretty worn and so is Michael’s so we walked over to the motorcycle store to see what we could find. The motorcycle store was actually a guy’s garage with the word “Yamaha” spray painted on the side of the building. We spent the next 30 minutes explaining that we wanted tires through Google translator, and then they said they would take us to the tire shop in their van but first we should bring the bikes over. We brought over the bikes and they approved of them and looked them over. Then me and Michael hopped in the van while James stayed with the bikes. We stormed around the city for almost an hour going to various bike shops in the far corners of the city. We walked into a grocery store one time, and then through a random door in the back that lead to a motorcycle store. I have no idea how you would know it even existed. After driving around everywhere it turns out there are not any tires that would fit our bikes in the entire city. This was a bit disheartening as I was looking forward to a new, knobbier tire that would do better on the crappy roads to come in Kazakhstan. We headed back to the garage and tried to source a few other parts we needed.
1949 Soviet Miltary bike. They were very proud of it
One guy sped off on a scooter to go look for them. In the meantime the owner’s son gathered some tomatoes from the garden in the back and sliced some bread for us. He brought out some salt for the tomatoes and it was delicious. He also introduced us to his dog ‘bulbous’ which we later discovered translates to ‘dunce. ’ A woman came into the garage with her boyfriend and various other men. Everyone who entered went to every other person in the shop and shook their hand. When the woman heard us speaking English she came over and said with good English and in a surprised and interested manner “What the hell are you doing here?” We explained what we were doing and she suddenly became our translator. Chairs were brought out and we were sat down to eat some more tomato while she translated what we were saying. It was great to finally be able to converse with the people we had spent most of the day with. It did not take long before a big Russian man with a beard asked us if we wanted some vodka. Seeing as we were in Russia we decided to not worry about all of the things we had to and drink some vodka. He hurried off to a store to find some, and the little boy ‘Artum’ hopped on his bicycle to go get something as well. Our translators name was Svetlana and she soon received a phone call asking if we wanted cognac or watermelon vodka. We didn’t really want watermelon vodka but we were in Russia so that was what we went with. To our delight the man returned with a watermelon and a bottle of vodka. Astrakahn is known for tomatoes, watermelons, and fish. Therefore as soon as the vodka was put on the table, and the watermelon was cut they pulled out some smoked fish for us to eat. It was basically like a fish jerky and it was pretty tough to chew. They showed us how to rip the head and the tail off then you peel the scales and eat the jerky beneath. We took a vodka shot and toasted “to health” in Russian. We proceeded to toast to various other things as the night turned a bit more blurry for me. Before things got hazy though we were told that the man who bought the vodka was formerly Spetsnaz, Russian special forces, and the owner of the shop pulled out some German army knives from WWI and WWII. It was crazy to think about the history behind the knives and how they finally found their way to this shop.
German military knife from WWII
We were also invited to a Russian BBQ the following day and to go water skiing the next. We were quickly making friends and the garage had transformed into more of a block party. They asked how we had gotten to Astrakahn and when I mention Dagastan everyone fell quiet and stared. Svetlana explained “We hate them,” Referring to the southern states of Russia. The southern states were Islamic and it definitely seemed like there was tension, but to stop the entire party because of the word ‘Dagastan’ was pretty humbling. She continued to explain that they hate our president as well and probably American’s too, but we were motorcycle riders so we were a part of a bigger international family. It made me think about all of the good people we have met who ride motorcycles, and how enthusiastic they have been to help us.
I missed the memo on which camera to look at
Around this time things start to get a little hazy after one man continued to pour us more and more shots. At some point our Spetsnaz friend had gone to grab his KTM and ended up escorting us home on it. He rode along the sidewalk and revved up the 2 stroke doing burnouts most of the way back. Artum rode his bike with us as well and Bulbous ran loyally by his side. I bought some sour cream chips for some reason and then we passed out.
Aftermath of a Russian block party: July 10
I awoke on the small, saggy cot that had been laid out in our hotel room. Michael's alarm was blaring meaning it was time for our free breakfast. After a quick snooze we all stumbled out of bed and down into the heat of the kitchen. The vodka and cognac shots given to us the night before had not treated us well and Graham worst of all. We drank coffee and were surprised when our egg breakfast turned out to be two boiled sausages with a dab of ketchup and some sinus clearing mustard. Regardless the sausages quickly disappeared and we were soon back up stairs in the coolness of our room. Graham and I quickly fell back asleep while Michael got to work on his blog posts. Eventually we all awoke and got to work on the list of things that needed to be done prior to entering Kazakhstan the next day. While me and Graham wrote our blogs, Michael walked to a nearby motorcycle store to look for tires and other bike necessities.
Michael returned very successful with almost all of the necessities he had set out to find. Unfortunately we were still short a few tires and parts but nothing that would prevent us from moving onward. After a quick trip back to the motorcycle store to check for more parts we setup outside of our hotel to change our oil and do some maintenance. We were kept company by a band of ragged looking pups and their even worst for wear mother who lived in the abandoned building next to our hotel. Once again I was impressed by the kindness and helpfulness of the Russian people. In the short period we were out there, we were approached twice to see if we needed any assistance. Furthermore, the hotel concierge was extremely helpful and offered to cook us dinner if we went and bought the supplies. We finished up maintenance and headed inside to get some work done on the blog and other preparations for the long bumpy road that was Kazakhstan looming before us.