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.

Cruising on the Caspian

Well, maybe “cruising” is a bit of a stretch of the word. I’ve had no experience but I’m pretty sure that most cruise boats are a lot cleaner and more luxurious with fewer cockroaches than the Merkuri-1. So there wasn’t enough bed sheets to cover the horribly stained matresses; the furniture was falling apart; and the back door of the ship was left open for the whole crossing. But it did come with 3 solidly square meals a day; some cool travellers to hang out with; friendly Turkish truck drivers; and we even got the only cabin with a bathroom due to having children. The most important thing for me, as I’m the sort of person who gets seasick on a pond, is that the sea was flat as a pancake the whole way – what a relief! Supposedly the boat type isn’t the ideal sort of ship for the Caspian, something to do with it being the wrong shape for the shallow waters, so they don’t sail if it is too windy.


In the end it was “just” a 16 hour wait at the port in Aktau until our ship set sail. We hadn’t checked in the truck the previous evening and there had been a mysterious phone call at 1am in Russian asking where the truck was so we arrived at the port at 8, anxious to make sure it was on the loading list. From then on it was just a long wait, there was a good cafe we could stay in for part of it so it wasn’t too painful. Apart from the mostly truckers; there was one other motorhome; a handful of motorbikes and about 10 backpackers. With virtually no information forthcoming from the ferry company, we made a very convincing bunch of sheep milling around trying to workout what was happening, then all moving en-mass to the next place to wait.


Eventually by 8.30pm the girls and I along with the other foot passengers were onboard but it took Steve a couple more hours to get the truck on, as all the arriving trucks had to reverse off. The girls did very well, chatting away to all the other travellers. But eventually at 10.30 with Lucy dropping on her feet I begged some sheets off of the staff and put them to bed, we left around midnight.


We had been worried if the Caspian Sea option was the best for us, rather than driving through the dodgy bits of Russia. We had heard nightmare stories of people waiting for 9 days for the boat, which runs without a schedule, but we left Aktau 72 hours after arriving so we were pleased we took it. Tracking the previous crossing we had seen they had been stuck outside both ports for many hours but our crossing was only 30 hours, just long enough to catch 2 magnificent sunsets. 


We were woken up at midnight by banging on the door, telling us to return the sheets. It would have been nicer to stay in bed as we weren’t allowed to disembark for a further 2 1/2 hours. The port of Alat, 70 kms south of Baku, has nothing near it: no town, no taxis, no nothing – just desert. Port security also wanted us all out, fine for us we planned to drive just outside and go back to bed till the morning but hard for our new backpacker friends. Stroppy Port security wouldn’t even let them set up their tents or even sit inside the port. So we loaded them all up in the back of the truck and tried to drive out, only to be thwarted by the dam security guys again who sent Steve back to pay another fee that no one had previously mentioned on the other side of the port. I think they were rather surprised to see 13 people get out and wait for a fuming Steve to come back.

It sounds like the start of a terrible joke: How many backpackers can you get in a truck at 4am? Just a few missing from the shot.


We gave up on the sleeping option as the sun started to rise and made for a group of mud volcanoes just in time to see the sunrise over the Caspian. What a way to start the day (or was it end of the night?) with the rising sun reflecting off the cold belching puddles of mud and the strangely bubbling pool.  




Not wanting to incur the wrath of the frequently present Azeri traffic police we had to drop off most of the backpackers on the highway and headed into Baku. Finding nowhere to stay downtown we headed out out to a nearby beach resort, with a beautiful view of the row of oil rigs just offshore. Too wired to sleep we headed into the picturesque old town to explore. Baku was an interesting mix of old and new with the old town walls starkly contrasting with modern architecture funded from money from the recent oil boom. 


Much refreshed the following morning we drove through the desert and into the winding forested hills. The countryside was full of tiny roadside cafes with tables under the trees waiting for customers out on a Sunday drive. Boys sold small bags of freshly picked hazelnuts along the road and smallholders had piles of fruit in buckets; honey; pickles; and jams. We bought boiled sweet corn and fresh figs for lunch from one of them. 

.

We arrived in the picturesquely historic town of Seki in time to explore the compact walled town. The 18th century Khan had two intricately painted palaces with lots of “niches for dishes” – a bizarre but commonly descriptive phrase used all over Central Asia, where the two words rhyme – it always cracks us up. It was the bright stain-glassed windows projecting vivid patterns onto the walls and floor that made the place truly beautiful. The ancient caravanasi is now a hotel but it wasn’t hard to imagine the central courtyard teaming with merchants with their pack animals and the thick walled rooms piled high with goods. A track up a stream bed made for a quiet night’s camp spot.

With just 3 days and, sort of, 3 nights to explore Azerbaijan we barely scratched the surface but we liked what we saw. Unfortunately the time is marching on towards our return back to England, so after a quick border control it was time for our next country: Georgia.

Reflections on Central Asia


Lucy

.
We entered the ‘Stans with high hopes to see beautiful mosques, rugs, architecture and eat interesting foods. We had been studying the Silk Road so we knew about the history. I was hoping to see some camels laden with goods trekking across the desert. I would have loved to see it in its former glory with merchants bargaining in the markets and buying jade, silk, turquoise and carpets. It’s called the Silk Road because that was the thing mostly traded with China. We saw some caravanasis where they stayed at night and yurts the official houses of the travelling nomads. 

Mummy bought some blue tiles, just like they had on the buildings. They were very pretty, I liked bargaining like a real merchant. 

.

We went to a tea shop where they served nuts, raisins, sweets and tea. I loved the solid crystals of sugar they crunched with a sweet delicious flavour in my mouth.

To leave Central Asia we had to cross the sea, I was sad to leave but I always knew we would have new adventures in the next place. 

.
Alisha 

.
From mountains in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to mausoleums in Uzbekistan and deserts in Kazakstan. Central Asia is a riot of culture and traditions that are mixed into their modern lives you see herders with cell phones, yurts with satellite dishes and ancient mosques with security cameras. 

I enjoyed Kyrgyzstan because it was a nice cool place with mountains and difficult roads and just the sort of place strange people like us like to hang out. Tajikistan was much the same, it was funny being a stone’s throw from Afghanistan (well a daddy’s stone throw I didn’t quite make it). If I had to think of one word to describe Uzbekistan it would be HOT in the truck once it hit 54 degrees. If you want to feel 54 degrees then go into the hottest sauna ever and times the heat by a 100. If you haven’t got a sauna then book a flight to Uzbekistan. Kazakstan wasn’t so hot which was a relief but it was boring, landscape-wise, at least the bit we traveled through if you show me a picture of a bit we traveled through and a bit we didn’t I wouldn’t of been able to tell the difference. 

In Uzbekistan I saw a few too many mosques, they where all blue-tiled and had a dome if you seen ten you’ve seen them all there is absolutely no need to see five million more. 

.
Gilly

.
Melons are everywhere in Central Asia. Delicious and refreshing and piled up high on every street corner. Flat light bread still warm from the tandoor oven and mutton kebabs, served with salads made for delicious meals, with melon, of course, for desert. The ‘Stans’ shared Russian heritage made Steve and I nostalgic for our time in Moscow. While I will never enjoy dill liberally sprinkled on every single meal, we did search out some of our old favourite foods. Steve and Alisha embarked on a multinational search for authentic pelmeni (steamed meat dumplings), a mutual passion after sharing many a bowlful when Alisha was little. 

Although there is a lot to choose from, I thing for me the highlight was the Pamirs and the Wakhan Valley. Dramatic scenery; snow capped peaks; uninhabited wilderness; right next to a fascinating rogue state (which sadly I am never likely to visit); swollen rivers of snowmelt; and challenging roads made it an unforgettable part of the adventure. 

.

Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan: Samarkand; Bukhara and Khiva all enthralled us with their historical significance and amazing architecture. Whilst I couldn’t get enough of turquoise domes and blue tiled arched entrance ways, I could have done without the 45°C heatwave we had whilst we were there. 

.

An unexpected perk of the need to register in a hotel for most of your nights in Uzbekistan (something that was never checked when we left) was meeting other travellers. Since trekking in Nepal, we have met very few other travellers and no other overlanders. Central Asia in the summer is quite popular with independent travellers, motorcyclists and especially long distance cyclists. It was also great to hangout with another overlanding family, our first since Africa, in Samarkand. It was also fun to pair up across the desert with Cate and Michael. At least with the catalogue of minor mechanical problems both the truck and Cate’s bike had were easily fixed with many hands. 

Steve

.
There was a lot of diversity in Central Asia; from the mountains to the desert, from the cold to the heat, from the unusual to the familiar. After living in Russia many things seemed comfortingly familiar and yet there were also some striking differences. The people were warm and friendly and yet we managed to enjoy lots of time in solitude in beautiful settings.

Kyrgyzstan was so green after the starkness of Xinjiang in China. Everywhere we went there was green meadows with running rivers and often the nomads with their yurts and horses camped for the summer. Tajikistan was more stark and rugged but the Pamir Highway and Wakhan corridor were barrenly beautiful with a raging river and pockets of green between it and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan was all about the ancient Silk Road cities. Whilst these have now been spruced up for tourism and at times felt a little soulless there is no denying the eye catching timeless beauty of the monuments. Even in the baking heat we just had to go out and see them again and again.

We did not see a lot of Kazakhstan, mainly desert, but got to to camp there with new friends which was wonderful and saw some amazing sunsets. It was slightly surreal arriving at the Caspian Sea, an oil town and beach resort all rolled into one but one which allowed us a welcome break before the ferry crossing across the Caspian Sea.

.

Central Asia is a beautiful area of the world rich in diversity. We have met many more overlanders and long term travellers here than in other parts of Asia but it is still largely untouched by mass tourism and you really can get away from it all into areas of natural beauty.