Khachapuri Heaven

Georgia is famous for many things. It’s wonderful mountains; warm and hospitable people ; the culture; churches; and it’s wine but as we crossed the border from Azerbaijan we only had one thing on our mind and it wasn’t any one of those..

It was the food. Having spent many years in Moscow where Georgian food is deservedly popular we were keen to try it again and especially in its home county. In particular we were looking forward to Khachapuri, leavened bread filled with delicious oozy melted cheese. We had been telling Alisha and Lucy all about this over the preceding days so after a simple border crossing we headed to the hilltop picturesque town of Sighnaghi. Although the town had a lot to offer in terms of churches, views and cobble streets we rushed past all of this to a delightful restaurant where we could gorge ourselves on our first Georgian meal. It was to be the first of many. At the end of it Lucy was as in love with Khachapuri as we were, even enjoying left overs for breakfast.

Having feasted on a delicious lunch we pulled ourselves away to explore the pretty little town. With lunches like these mind you there was going to be no need for dinner. We wandered the narrow streets admiring the churches and town walls before finding a quiet spot to camp by the river for the night.

The next day it was the time to enjoy another Georgian speciality, its wine. We had heard that the Schuchmann winery allowed you to camp in its grounds so we thought that made a particularly good choice for a spot of wine tasting. First though we were to enjoy another magnificent lunch in the restaurant with wonderful views over the vines. As I wouldn’t be driving for the rest of the day it only seemed appropriate to accompany it with some of the local wine.


Later that afternoon we were given a tour of the winery. In Georgia wine is made in the classical European way but also in its own traditional way, “unfiltered” where the wine is made in big clay pots buried in the ground. At the wine tasting later we sampled both types. It’s been quite a while since we have been drinking wine so we also thought it was a good opportunity to stock up with a few bottles. We spent the evening enjoying one of the bottles and watching the sunset over the winery.

Before leaving the area we spent an enjoyable hour wandering around the Chavchavdze Estate and it’s ornamental gardens. It reminded us very much of an English stately home.

With any capital city, parking for the truck is always tricky. Tbilisi was not going to prove an exception and with the narrow streets of the old town we decided to park above the town around a lake. We were met by an old friend and former colleagues’ driver, George who kindly showed us where to park. It was a great spot from a security perspective and we felt comfortable leaving the truck there while heading down into the city to explore. It was though a popular summer escape from the city and as the evening wore on more and more people arrived until the car park was full. This was fine as everyone was out enjoying the summer weather. As the car park emptied though it was the turn of the boy racers and loud music which meant we didn’t get the most restful sleep.


Tbilisi is a lovely old city full of churches and interesting streets. The churches date from around the 5th century right up until the present day with the largest new cathedral being built since Georgian independence. We spent a couple of days exploring the streets, popping into the churches to admire the frescos and iconostasis. We also took the modern cable car up the hill to the fortress to enjoy fantastic views of the city.

One of my former colleagues, Altaf is still based in Tbilisi and it was great that he was around while we were there and to catch up over a wonderful Gerogian meal. While the girls enjoyed the dancing and folk music we caught up over what has been going on over the last four years and remembering times together. It was quite symmetrical meeting Altaf just a few weeks before we finish our trip as I met with him at this home in Canada after we had been on the road for only a few weeks. A lot has passed since then but it’s always nice to meet with friends. Altaf was a fantastic host and I would like to thank him for a wonderful Georgian meal where we not only sampled Khachapuri but also some wonderful new Georgian dishes as well.

We headed out of Tbilisi taking the main road East. We then turned South as we were planning on crossing one of the quieter borders into Turkey. As we turned off the road narrowed and wound its way along a beautiful valley dotted with fortresses. We were here to visit Vardzia a 12th century cave city. As it was too late that afternoon to visit we drove further along a minor road to camp by the river. It was so nice Gilly and Lucy even went for a swim. However we are not having much luck with campsites at the moment. It was a lovely evening at a lovely spot but was obviously well known. At about midnight a car came down with four men who were out for some beers for the night. Leaving their music blaring they proceeded to make a fire. They ignored us but were clearly settling in for the night so we slipped through to the front of the cab and drove a couple of Kilometres down the track to another spot.

The next morning we drove back to Vardzia and climbed up the hill to explore the cave city where monks used to live. The monks lived in rock hewn dwellings ranging over many floors. Whilst in ruins now there was still a church carved into the rock and a couple of the caves were still lived in.

Unfortunately that was our last sight in Georgia. We are having to speed up our journey now as we near Europe and wished we could have spent much longer in Georgia. Mind you we had certainly eaten our fill of absolutely delicious Georgian food and if we kept eating Khachapuri every day our waistlines would soon begin to suffer. But they taste just so heavenly.

The Caspian Riviera 

From Uzbekistan the Caspian Sea lay between us and our route back to Europe. We could either drive around it or take a 30 hour ferry across it. Driving around it would mean getting a Russian transit visit and driving through Chechnya and the Southern Caucuses. The ferry we had heard could involve a lot of waiting, bureaucracy and was a bit of an old rust bucket. After doing a bit of research we decided to go for the adventure of a cruise across the Caspian. We had had enough of going for visas and had heard that the ferry had become much easier. Our adventure was to start though well before we even boarded the ferry.
From Nukus it was a thousand kilometres across the Uzbek and Kazak desert to Aktau, the port where the ferry left, with not a lot in between. We had met Michael and Cate at various stops as we traveled across Uzbekistan and they were going the same way. Michael had been riding a motor bike but the engine had given up and he had left it in Kazakhstan. Cate was still going strong on hers. As they were going the same way we decided to team up. Michael needed a lift and Cate’s bike only had a seven litre tank. Petrol was scarce in Uzbekistan (diesel even scarcer) and there was not available for large parts of the desert crossing so we would carry a jerry can of petrol and refuel her along the way.
As it was still very hot in Nukus, Cate left very early. We had the benefit of air conditioning in the cab so left at a much more civilised time after breakfast. Later that afternoon we met Cate as a small cafe on the dusty windswept desert steppe. She had been there a few hours waiting with the truck drivers and it looked like the sort of place that a few minutes was way too long.
We decided to push on so that we could camp just short of the border with Kazakhstan which we were planning to cross the next day. “You go first” Cate said “I will be faster and catch you up.” We had agreed that we would stop after 100kms to then travel together. So off we set. The scenery was flat and monotonous and whilst the road was quite good there were some bad pot holed sections. We happily drove the 100kms but Cate hadn’t passed us. Maybe the wind had slowed her down? After half an hour waiting we decided she couldn’t be that slow and turned around. After heading back 50kms we saw Cate. She was riding slowly but thankfully alright. The problem was her clutch was slipping. She had tried to adjust it but it was still slipping. What to do? It was 400kms back to Nukus. She decided she would ride slowly on and we would follow her.
We set up camp that night in the desert. It was nice to be back wild camping after the ancient cities of Uzbekistan. The wind brought the temperature down and we were treated to a magnificent sunset.

The next morning was a short drive/ride to the border. We were a bit early and it hadn’t opened so had to queue. Fortunately tourists were given preference and at every step of the process we were told to go to the front of the queue. Exiting Uzbekistan was easy and Kazakhstan was also going well until it came to doing the temporary import for the truck. First I was sent to the commercial trucking desk. I tried to explain I was not a goods vehicle but initially to no avail. I was told to fill some forms in which made no sense so I kept protesting. Eventually surrounded by customs officers and after a few phone calls they agreed I should be treated the same as a car so I was sent to the car importing desk. Here the man first wanted to see the vehicle, on seeing it he said no you are not a car you are a truck and sent me back to where I had been before. Further calls ensued and yes I was a car. The only problem was the car processing guy still refused to process me despite been instructed to do so. One of the customs officers explained he was the longest serving member of the customs post and wouldn’t listen to anyone. Don’t worry he said it will all be sorted shortly. More calls were made and eventually the head of the customs office came over. Five minutes later I was back in front of the car processing desk. The man was now all friendly and happily processing my documents. It had taken over an hour of discussion but we were glad to be on our way.

On entering Kazakhstan the road took a turn for the worse. It was 80kms to the small town of Beynau and that stretch of road was rough and badly potholed. About half way along we heard a big rattling in our front wheel. We knew what this was. The front disc brake cover had broken off yet again. Note to MAN: you need to redesign these as they really should last more than 10 to 20 thousand kilometres. Pulling to the side of the road we had to remove the front wheel and replace the cover with an old one we had had welded in Tajikistan.  

The bad luck didn’t stop there though. As Cate rode back to meet us she went over a nail and got a puncture in her back tyre. Not having the tyre levers it meant we would need to get it fixed in Beyneu. We took off her wheel but we could not carry her bike on the truck so we left her there on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. At least it was cooler. The plan was Michael would get the tyre fixed in town while we did some other jobs. Cate would try and get a lift into town from another vehicle that could take the bike and if all else failed we would drive back out into the desert with the repaired wheel.
Fortunately Cate managed to get a lift and the tyre was quickly fixed so we all met up in Beyneu. Not wanting to spend the night there we drove out into the desert again. It was easy to pull off and drive away from the road. It was a lovely setting for the evening and again we had a magnificent sunset.

There was only 400kms now to Aktau on mostly good roads with only the occasional rough section. After hitting one of these rough sections we heard a hissing coming from one of our rear tyres. We had a puncture and the tyre was going down fast. We were on a steep hill so I slowly guided the truck down to a level section where we could change the tyre. Having Michael and Cate was a big help as we managed to change the wheel in less than an hour. We hoped this was the end of the run of bad luck. At least Cate’s clutch was holding up.

As we approached Aktau the landscape became less impressive. Aktau is an oil town and we started seeing nodding donkeys and an industrial landscape. We decided to head straight to the port, as who knows we could be in luck and a ferry could be leaving that day. They don’t run to any schedule so you can’t plan in advance we were told they just go when they go. If you ask when it is going they say shortly after it arrives.
Arriving at the ferry office we quickly found the “ticket” office. There was no ferry that day and the next one was in two or maybe three days. Fortunately we could register the vehicles on the ferry list but they would call us closer to the time for us to go back to do all the formalities and to buy the passenger tickets.
With a few days to kill and Aktau not looking that attractive a prospect we found a nice little resort hotel on the edge of the Caspian Sea. Looking one way there was a pleasant sandy beach, looking the other way we were right next to the port! The Caspian Riviera. The most important feature though was it had a lovely pool which Alisha and Lucy had been fantasising about since the heat of Uzbekistan.  

It meant we could spend a relaxing few days. On the second night it was Michael’s birthday and he took us all out to a lovely restaurant for a local meal. The only challenge was deciphering the menu with my appalling Russian.

At the end of the second full day we received a call, we had to go to the port immediately. We thought this was just to buy tickets but it was also to do the procedures for the vehicles to get on the ferry. The process was not straight forward and a combination of my bad Russian, unhelpful officials and no one understanding the process it took a while. There were a number of other travellers taking the ferry too. A couple of other motorbikes and some foot passengers so we eventually worked it out and started to amass a large collection of stamps on our forms. 
I had left Gilly and the girls at the hotel as we knew the ferry would not be leaving until the next day so I was a bit concerned when I was told to take the truck into the port and I couldn’t come back out. Eventually I ascertained that the ferry was not due to arrive until 11 the next morning so I could come back at 8am and complete the formalities. This meant we could have one more relaxing night at the hotel and I could pick up Gilly and the girls. Aktau may not be the most glamorous resort but we had quite enjoyed our short stay there.
On waking up we could see from an App that the ferry was approaching Aktau so we duly arrived at the port at 8am as planned and within an hour we had the truck in the port. It turned out I didn’t need to stay with the truck so I walked back out to Gilly and the other foot passengers to wait. The only question was how long was that going to be?

The Golden Road to Samarkand

When travelling we have stayed in some wonderfully picturesque campsites. It’s safe to say that parking on the street in Samarkand did not fall into that category. The authorities in Uzbekistan require that you register your stay in the country every few nights so you are compelled to use the services of a hotel. Not that the one we were parked outside was that bad, it allowed us to sleep in our vehicle and agreed to register us for a small fee it’s just that it did not have that dramatic wilderness feel of our campsites of the last few weeks.
But then we were not in Samarkand for wilderness but instead we were at the heart of the Silk Road and the heart of the empire that Amir Timur built in the fourteenth century. And at the city’s heart was one of the most impressive sights in Central Asia or the Islamic world, The Registan. Our parking spot may have been a bit noisy but you couldn’t fault its location. We could glimpse one side of The Registan from our window and when we went out that evening we were able to admire it lit up in all its glory.

After having had a wonderful week in the Pamirs we had turned away from the Afghan border and headed further into Tajikistan. As the roads improved so did the volume of the traffic and the crazy overtaking. We thought it was going to be a lot harder to find places to camp but on our first evening we turned down a side road, and after asking the nearby locals if it was ok, parked up for the night a short walk from a reservoir.

The next day we decided to bypass the capital Dushanbe and instead headed back up into the mountains, this time the Fan Mountains to spend a couple of nights by the side of beautiful Iskander-Kul. As we wound our way around the lake we came across the President’s summer house situated in a lovely spot with a view over the lake. He didn’t seem to be in residence so we were sure he wouldn’t mind if we parked for the night just down the road from him.

Heading down from the mountains the lowlands of Tajikistan were hot and the land was been intensively farmed. We headed into the second largest city in the country, Khojand and found a place to park by the river. The parking spot wasn’t much but it came with a bonus, a large car wash so we were able to remove the weeks of dust that had accumulated on the truck. That night we headed into town to sample Tajik kebabs.

The next day was an early start as we were crossing the border into Uzbekistan. We had heard a number of horror stories regarding the crossing and how they could spend hours searching your vehicle and were particularly concerned with any medicines you brought in. Leaving Tajikistan was very easy with the biggest concern being whether we had enjoyed ourselves but the guard on the gate to Uzbekistan was surly and made us wait while he decided whether to open the gate or not. Not a good sign. In the end entry into Uzbekistan was costly but straightforward. The guards did search the truck but not extensively and with good humour. They only gave a passing glance to our extensive medical kit. We would have been through the border in an hour except for the fee for a vehicle of over 6 tonnes to enter the country, a whopping $665. We had heard about this possible charge but had hoped it wouldn’t have applied to us. We spent an hour arguing with the customs officials that surely we must be exempt and it only applied to commercial vehicles. They were very helpful making a few calls to see if there was any way around it. We are fairly sure it was a legitimate charge as they showed us the relevant regulations which we could just about understand with our bad Russian and when we did pay it was at a bank and we received very impressive receipts! There was even a list of 27 countries whose vehicles are exempt and we asked the customs officer to read the list to us. I got hopeful when he started reading a list of EU countries, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany etc but when it came to the UK it was not there. No this was not just a Brexit effect, France wasn’t on the list and nor were Italy or Spain. We heard how a Frenchman had spent 2 days at the border arguing before paying so in the end what could we do but pay. We couldn’t go back as we no longer had a valid visa for Tajikistan.
With that behind us it was time to head to Samarkand and the wonderful night view of The Registan.
Samarkand though is not just about The Registan, it’s a large city and we spent most of our time around the historical part. Gilly and I had visited 21 years ago and whilst the sights were the same the roads around them had changed. It had been smartened up and the roads with the traffic had been moved further away from the sights.  
We had a wonderful mornings sightseeing visiting the Shah-i-Zinfandel, an avenue of grand mausoleums followed by the Bib-Khanym Mosque.

From there though it was time for us to take a full tour of The Registan in the daylight. Whilst it was full of souvenir shops they could not detract from the dramatic beauty of the Madrasahs and of the impressive square they made with the three of them together. It must have been quite a site for the caravans when they rolled into town after weeks in the desert all those centuries ago.

Our final stop was to visit the mausoleum of Amur Timur himself. A magnificent blue tiled domed building underneath which is set his tomb and that of his sons, grandsons and teachers.

One other thing we hadn’t expected in Samarkand was to meet some other overlanders in trucks. The hotel we were parked at was full of long distance cyclists and when we arrived there was another overland truck already parked there. They left the next morning but later that afternoon a Belgian/French family pulled in. As they had 4 children this proved to be great company for Alisha and Lucy even if they only knew a few words of each other languages. We fared much better as Nicholas and Johanna spoke English well. After not having met many overlanders in Asia it was great to have some to talk too about the journey ahead, they were heading to Australia so we each had tips to share on the journey in front.
We had two lovely evenings with them going out to enjoy local Uzbek food. And on the last night we all had to come back for one last view of the simply magnificent Registan.