Uzbekistan – On the Road

Uzbekistan had so much to see, do and snap, that we made a number of themed blog posts, instead of trying to tell one story.  We hope this posting will give an overview of our tour in Uzbekistan, and show of the pictures we took between the “sights”.

Our posts on Uzbekistan:

Uzbekistan’s roads were generally good to us. We were often on main roads, which were often dual carriageways. But this was rather like Turkey – there was plenty of room and not too much traffic, albeit the roads were not as smart and new as Turkey’s. It was flat. And it was sunny but not too hot. Not too much wind. Out of the desert, there were plenty of little shops and teahouses. Really nice touring conditions. The only bugbear was trying to comply with the hotel registration rules. We mostly managed this, with a few deviations into teahouses.

Uzbekistan’s people were invariably friendly and helpful. We were often flagged down, or addressed from a car crawling alongside: “atcuda, atcuda?” – Russian for “where are you from”. Strangers rushed to take pictures of themselves, or their friends and family, with us. In towns especially, young people would come up and ask to practice their English with us. We were, of course, given melons. And one lovely family invited us in, with delicious food in the local style, and the extended family all joined in too. That was an especially lovely experience, and we thank them again for their kindness.

Just before we got to Uzbekistan, on the ferry, Clare had a severe, if short, bout of food poisoning, and Gid’s tummy was a bit uneasy as well. The timing of it made us suspect a pre-ferry pasty rather than the actual ferry food. But Clare’s tummy then kept suffering from recurring problems which had us calling on pharmacies as we went along. It wasn’t desperate, but the overall effect was weakening and depressing. We took a few extra rest days in an attempt to ease the impact. With various tummy pills and a very plain diet it was sort of kept under control. We needed rest and a long break stop, but the Uzbekistan visa was only 30 days. Whereas we’d always planned a long stop in Bishkek (visa free for 60 days). Thus we altered our plans a bit:

  • Original Plan: From Samarkand, south into Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, then loop south taking the Pamir Highway along the Afghan and China borders, then north into Kyrgyzstan, Osh, then Bishkek. A classic, but tough ride, and in the back country.
  • Plan B: From Samarkand, north to Tashkent, then east over mountains into the Ferghana valley (this road might’ve needed our Tajikistan visas. Across this valley; flat, fertile & historic (have you heard of the Bactrian empire?), to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, then north to Bishkek. Less back country, and three significant passes to cross, but easier  and shorter than A.
  • Plan C: From Samarkand, north to Tashkent, then north to Shymkent in Kazakhstan, then east to Bishkek. This route is pretty flat, and on major roads. This we took, and indeed were able to make pretty long distances most days.

Gallery

Cotton Picking

On The Road

 Generous Hospitality

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A Last Bit of Georgia – And a Big Day

Finally, having calculated, and re-calculated the interaction between the Azerbaijan visa period, the Kazakhstan visa validity, and travel times, we left Tbilisi (really late in a day, see previous blog post about postage), for a fairly horrible main road ride east. Can’t remember where we stayed that night, but towards the end of the day, the traffic was much less of a problem – it was all Tbilisi traffic, not long distance. The next day’s ride was pleasant enough but unmemorable (at least, I can’t remember much of it). Nino, our Tbilisi landlady had recommended a friend’s guesthouse in Sighnaghi, which apart from being up a big hill, was a fine choice. Well, the whole town was up the hill, and a very nice, if totally touristic, town it was too. In Georgia, it’s the town of love, and popular for honeymoons. The guesthouse made a bit of a thing of the family’s folk music, so in the evening, after we’d come back from a nice meal, there was Georgian wine, Georgian brandy and travellers from all over (especially Israel, including Vicky and Aaron we’d met at Nino’s). This sing-song was especially appropriate as it was CLARE’S 60TH BIRTHDAY! Happy Birthday my love!

After a 12km winding route down hill we cruised along on the next day, crossing the flat plain towards the Greater Caucasus (see picture above).  We experienced a new kind of road side stall.

 

 

We stopped in the afternoon under a random tree for a swig of water and handful of nuts. Along just a bit someone was working in a bit of field. After our “gamma joba”, somehow, they decided we were worthy of inviting in for chai. We didn’t have much language to share, muddling by with a bit of Russian phrasebook, Google Translate, and pointing and laughing. The old couple showed us a postcard – they’d previously invited in a Swiss cyclist(s?): So, lacking a postcard, we had to sketch them one to add to their collection. Chai was on offer, these were Turkic folk, Azerbaijanis – if they’d been Georgians it would probably have been wine. It’s an interesting difference to Northern Europe, this: borders have been stable for at least 95 years, and in nationality terms these were Georgians – to go to Azerbaijan they indicated they need a visa. But one of the first things they said – about the time we said we were English – was they were Azerbaijanis. For all these Caucasus countries, statistics are quoted X% Georgians Y% Azerbaijanis, Z% Russians, etc. The ethnic identities are (I think) defined from the mother tongues, which is why in the early-mid twentieth century, the big governments (Turkey, Russia), made efforts to stamp out, or at least discourage, the local languages, and teach only the “empire” lingo. They also at times forcefully moved tens of thousands of people about, to achieve particular ethnic mixes to suit their purposes. Not so nowadays AFAIK, but a lot of the border troubles in the region must be because of the mismatch between culture/ethnicity, and state borders. Some of which is our own government’s fault (up to Mr W. Churchill’s generation), as the British Empire was very much a force in the region, and had a particular habit of setting borders to divide peoples, and create weak, manipulable states. Together with our lot, the Czars, the Ottomans, and the Persians were all meddling away in their “Great Game”, it’s hardly surprising the borders, people and politics are rather unsettled. Anyway, these folk were extremely friendly and generous, and I for one felt rather guilty we had no present to leave. Perhaps we should have a stash of postcards from Worthing. The old couple (err, well, they may not have been much older than us) lived in very humble circumstances. Their house was tiny and made of bits. Shady in summer but, if they didn’t move to town in winter, rather horrible then, I expect, even in the mild, plain winter. The kitchen area was out back and roofed, but unwalled and a mud floor, running water from a piped spring . Yet, it was a nice place to be, shady, with a cooling breeze, and everything vital close to hand (yes, including a mobile). They also offered us milk – fresh, but scalded & warm: This was delicious. It seemed to be a truly subsistence farming operation; the cow chewed the cud nearby, ducks on the pond, the agriculture looked like a smallholding, little bits of everything.

Next stop was Lagodehki, chosen as a town to let us cross the Azerbaijan border early in the day. It’s also the edge of Georgia’s easternmost national park, a remote area that runs up into the Greater Caucasus mountains and the Russian border. We knew there’d be guesthouses, and arriving mid-afternoon, were cruising relaxedly up one of the main streets, looking for somewhere to stay. We passed one or two but carried on. A young man seemed to be dozing on a bench, but leapt up as we passed, to ask (in Georgian) if we needed a guesthouse. Well, we didn’t understand the words, but the context made it all plain. The house was unsigned. This seems common for Georgian guesthouses. A cynical  British view would suspect something to do with the tax system. In Tbilisi we’d been mildly scammed when a fellow enticed us into a restaurant, which afterwards presented an appalling bill (and didn’t offer change, when we certainly didn’t intend leaving a tip): Fortunately we’d only consumed one hot drink each, so the “appalling bill”, while infuriating, wasn’t actually much. So we were wary in this case, but with no reason. After a small delay while the landlady whizzed up from the village centre, we inspected, learnt the cost of (amazingly cheap, so we lazily opted for breakfast and dinner, which was still good value, especially as the breakfast was enough to doggy-bag for lunch), and were soon ensconced. Nino (most Georgian landladys seem to be called Nino) provided us with a self contained ground floor apartment. She also wielded a sheaf  of leaflets, and indicated we were only about 500m from the National Park office, and how nice the park was, etc, etc, again all in Georgian, or was it Russian.  It’s amazing how clear it can be without understanding a word. So after a shower, we wandered up to the park office for more information. Reassuringly, the stuffed & mounted bear was quite small.

… and replanned again, so we’d hike tomorrow, staying two nights not one, delaying our entry to Azerbaijan another day. The hike involved a 14km cycle to the start, blissfully unloaded. It was only a day hike, so only a picnic, camera, and swimmers were needed.

The hike had a few tiny scrambles, but the only challenge really was the log river crossings. Compared to the earlier Georgia hike, the logs were wider, and less high up, and the exercise felt less committing – so we managed to walk across them this time. At the top there was a lovely waterfall, a nice pool for a dip, and a dozen or so Georgians also enjoying the day out and a picnic. One suspects Georgians should be rather good at picnics.

 

Tourists in Tbilisi

Heading into Tbilisi from Mtskheta we’d tried to miss the main road.  The Garmin had come up with another route that seemed fairly direct.  All was going well until it directed us to turn right onto a dirt track directly up a hill.  No way!  The total journey was only 26km but that could take us all day if we hit a really lumpy dirt road, and we were cruising along nicely without too much traffic.

Shortly after this decision the motorway merged with our main road; the traffic increased exponentially.  With a few hair raising moments you’d expect when cycling in a city we made it into the tourist centre and from there to our accommodation.

We had a few days to kill, while waiting for our Azerbaijan visa to become valid. So off we went exploring.

Churches – the most prominent being the new cathedral built in time for the millennium (that doesn’t include decorating the inside, which may take decades). Others date from Byzantine times.

 

Balconies are a special feature of old Tbilisi.

We also visited museums: one on Tbilisi itself, another on Georgia, and the outdoor Ethnographic museum (very similar to Sussex’s Weald & Downland Museum).  We baulked at the 11GEL each for the music museum where it is compulsory to have a guide.  Most of the museums, so far have had information within the cabinets in the home language, Russian, and English and we prefer to  wander round at out own pace.

The Flea Market is another feature of Tbilisi. It’s also good for buying original paintings, or at least, it appears so to our unschooled eyes. Generally the city wears its artistic endeavours on its sleeve, including where we stayed, in Nino’s Guesthouse, which is like a mini gallery.

And there’s lots more to see, out and about on the streets.

New Tbilisi arises in any big gaps. Glass, steel, new and classical shapes. Just as long as it doesn’t look remotely soviet.

The Museum of Ethnology – most houses are between 100 and 200 years old.

All in all, a thoroughly photogenic city, with lots and lots of cheap accommodation.

Day trip to Davit Gareji Monastery Complex (yet more caves)

Errand

Finally, 19th Aug, we left Tbilisi. We had one errand to do first – post the Tbilisi souvenirs home. It took quite a while to find the Post Office, but as from Turkey on, the helpful chap serving wanted to know what was in there, for the customs declaration. Whereupon we came unstuck! The main item is a saddle bag, made in the same way as a kelim rug. Clare’s wanted one since Cappadocia. Normally, carpet shops claim they are “antique”, although often the age is faked, and want well north of $100 (yes, dollars, for some reason). However, Tbilisi’s flea market made no claims of age, and Clare beat the seller down to 110 GEL, much more realistic (about $40). Good. But. Both online and in Nino’s LP guide, there are warnings about the potential difficulty of taking out of countries, or sending, carpets especially and anything that might be part of the nation’s cultural heritage. So, post office man sends us off to the Ministry of Culture to get a letter certifying it isn’t old, and while we’re about it, also covering the two felt glove puppets. They obviously are not antiques, but to be fair, customs might have to open the package to see that. The ministry sent us on to the correct agency. All three are within about a square kilometre of central Tbilisi, but the bikes, one way system, and step-ridden pedestrian accesses, plus the moderate difficulty of finding the places, means it takes a while. The letter itself takes about 30 minutes, and a pleasant surprise is – no charge. Then, embarrassingly, it takes us an hour at least to find the same post office again. Now it’s lunchtime, so everyone is in there, except most of the staff. An hour queueing, then at least 30 minutes to send the thing (lots of forms). We finally set off from Tbilisi at 14:30. Good job we’d planned only a 55km ride to Sagarejo, where, fortunately, it was very easy to find what we think was the only hotel. Let’s hope the donkey bag proves as useful as expected once (if) it gets home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Georgia – first impressions

Already on the Turkish coast, as we’d read, the dry heat of inland Turkey was replaced by the steamy heat of the subtropical forest. As we progressed up Georgia’s coast it got more so: greenery abounded, the sun baked.  But sweating didn’t work because of the high humidity; naturally, we sweated more as a result. So must the locals, as even before getting to the holiday resort, it was abundantly clear that Georgians don’t follow the dress codes of their Islamic neighbours.  Gid could hardly keep his eyes on the road.
The Georgian side of the crossing was a sort of informally busy hub of transports and retail. It also revived memories of Budapest. Gone were all the Turks’ small practical Fiats,  Fords and Hyundais and their archaic Renault 12s and 70s Fiats. Instead, it seemed every expiring 80s German big saloon had made its way to Georgia to die. The quintessential Georgian motor seems to be a blackish ’85 Mercedes E class, with the front bumper missing, some very dodgy paint repairs, and a really rough engine.
With more dough, an X5 or M class SUV is chosen, although again, bumpers are optional. The reason soon became clear. Traffic is fairly dense, but there are few dual carriageways and rarely are there Turkey’s generous hard shoulders.  So Georgians put their foot down and overtake up the middle of the busy road. Thus it pays to have something big looking, fierce looking, heavy, fastish, with a loud horn and disposable. It also helps that gas is about €0.50 a litre.
That’s the cars. Georgia’s numerous minibuses, buses and commercial vehicles look rather like Turkey’s old ones; everything is a generation older than next door. That’s in the towns and on main roads. In the sticks we see the same, plus a lot more battered Ladas, Volgas, and other Soviet era transport, often ex military in appearance. Of course, Georgia was not only behind the iron curtain, it was one of the Soviet Union’s Socialist Republics. On a bike it  has mostly manifest as being a bit more noise together with a lot more smoke and unburnt petrol fumes. Yuk.
Once we’d got over the initial scare of the overtaking, actually the traffic isn’t too bonkers. In town, Georgians are no less considerate than most Euro drivers, just a little less inhibited with right foot, horn, and what might count as parking. But the English-like traffic density on pretty narrow roads, and fume laden air, were very unwelcome after rural Turkey.  In Batumi bikes were quite common around the seafront, including rental stands. Less common in the towns, and so far, we’ve seen just one on the open road.
We’re also struggling a bit with shopping. The little shops we pass aren’t as poorly stocked as Bulgaria’s, but we sometimes struggle to find variety for lunch, and especially, the “iced tea” that Clare has become very attached to. Plus of course, packs are marked in Georgia’s unique alphabet, often Cyrillic as well; in Batumi often Turkish or English too, but that is less so inland.  Milk = რძე in Georgian and Молоко in Russian. Gideon OTOH now has the option of drinking beer again, though it took a week for this to take effect. We’ll probably get better at shopping, it may well be us, not the shops.
Our first stop was a 5 day collapse in Batumi, Georgia’s premier Black Sea Resort. We’d sussed out a few possible hostels beforehand, but ended up in a guesthouse next door: cheaper and more comfortable. We hadn’t realised how tiredness had built up: This was the first rest stop where we really did very little, over 4 days we achieved:
  • 2 swims in the (warm) sea, one accompanied by a couple of surprises – eurrgh!
  • 2 ambles round sights in the town.
  • 2 or 3 thrillers read.
  • Extra laundry washed.
  • 2 new chains, Gideon’s bar tape and bus-damaged brake cable replaced.
  • Slept lots.
  • Cooked evening meals with potatoes.
  • Failed to significantly improve our Georgian or Russian.
Batumi has clearly been building attractions over recent years, and is very clearly a holiday resort. It was pleasant enough wandering around gawping and failing to find any decent maps.
After Batumi we had initially planned to swing south before heading East. However advice in the hostel was this was a lumpy dirt road and very steep, so we rerouted north, up the main coast road, which was unpleasant, before turning East on more minor roads, which were nice again, except for interludes where topology forces us back to the main road, or the map deceived us into thinking a main road would be, well, a road. There are some hills, but it’s mostly river valleys. We can see steep, densely wooded hills in all directions, but most roads are well graded. The steamy heat makes them harder than they ought to be. On the third day from Batumi we did encounter some short hills of up to 19%, this was in an area flagged with brown signs for a vineyard tour. However locals regard us with bemusement, so we don’t think tourism is a great industry here.
As we progressed east, the climate gradually got drier. No less hot, but once we got to Gori we were definitely back to hot and dry again.
The bigger of the little towns have so far always managed perfectly serviceable hotels or guesthouses. Except once (Kaspi – Nothing!), so we continued 30km to Mtskheta, which turned out to be “not to be missed”, the historic cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church. We could rough camp, but showers are sooooo nice in this heat. Accomodation isn’t well signed, but asking around in the centre has worked so far. A rather smart, new, but underused (totally unsigned) hotel for 60GEL (€23) with aircon and an huge breakfast; then a rather stuffy double room in Bagdati’s hostel for 30GEL; then 40GEL in Kharagauli  for a nice double, which also was stuffy, until the manager tapped on the door with a fan (really, really appreciated). In Bagdati there was a storm late evening and the town’s water supply was cut off, but this was foreseen by the staff who came to warn us so we’d already showered by then. In Gori, which has some tourist attractions including a (the?) Josef Stalin museum, a nice smart central hotel for 60GEL. In Mtskheta, which looked a real tourist trap, Lali’s guesthouse (unsigned but in the Garmin OSM) was very comfy with our own kitchen for 50GEL. The only mis-hit so far was near Surami, where, in gathering dark, exhausted by our hike and 40Km of really rough hilly road, we emerged onto the main road by a shop, and on asking folk where there might be a cheap hotel (iap’i sastumro), were directed above it. The owners (two or three middle aged ladies) seemed flummoxed by the idea, but eventually we were let in. It was only 30GEL, the room was basic and tatty, the washing facilities, without running water, primitive, and the toilet, well, Clare wasn’t impressed. But we slept well enough and nothing unexpected seemed to live in the beds.
In Kharagauli, we were, as often, trawling along the street looking for the hotel the locals indicated, and Gideon observed, 2 doors before, “National Park Office”. We’d not anticipated that from the maps (which, strictly, are of Turkey, except for the little tourist leaflet). Gideon did the shopping, and Clare went to the office to see what we might observe next day: She came back with a plan, which had better have its own post*.
*It does have its own post, blogged immediately before this one.

On the way to Tbilisi

A constant dilemma is the balance between progressing on our trip and taking the time to stop and look around.  Having ‘fast forwarded’ in Turkey we have the luxury of some extra days in Georgia before our Azerbaijan visa kicks in.
To see the countryside, Gid is really keen to get off the trunk roads as the traffic is heavy but the alternative main roads, shown on maps, have varied dramatically in quality.  One has been 2 lane, hard surface all the way and we’ve made speedy progress while another has been fairly smooth compressed gravel, slower but not bad. The worst was a continual series of ruts, rocks, sand, lumps, bumps, gravel & groves which reduced our speed to 5 km / hr. Very demoralizing to put in all that effort and get nowhere.  The advantage of seeing the countryside is lost as your eyes are firmly fixed on the road.
Having finished cycling at Haragauli, early, because we wouldn’t make the next town on rough roads, I was sent to see what attractions the National Parks office had to offer. I came back with an excursion sorted.  Two days hiking up to a mountain shelter and back: 11 rivers to cross,  a wooded trail to follow. A rucksack thrown into the equation and we were off.
We cycled up to the warden’s shack, which was to be our starting point. Sorted the kit, locked the bikes, handed in our permit and started on the trail.
It was to be four hours of winding our way up a track along side a mountain stream as it wound its way down – tumbling, crashing and swirling through its tree strewn path, gouged out of the rock.
We were crossing the river at regular intervals; sometimes on makeshift tree trunk bridges -we’d practised one of these on our way in with the bikes – at other times bum shuffling or wading.  Some of the promised bridges lay in ruins, possibly taken out when the river was in spate, which meant that some crossings were deeper than expected.
The mountain shack itself was perfectly pleasant; but because the ground  around it was rather rough and stoney we plumped for a couple of bunks inside, sharing the hut with a German and an Estonia who were spending the summer as interns at the National Park Office, even though we’d carried the tent all the way up. This was a mixed blessing when , at 01:00 am. a group of new arrivals appeared, the lead figure clutching a large bottle of vodka. He generously offered Gid a swig when he came over to try and converse. The new arrivals did settle eventually & were gone early in the morning. Like most of the other folk we met on the trail, they were in a 4×4, in their case a little green military looking jeep. We were pretty impressed by the terrain they crossed. The hike back was equally delightful and challenging in smaller doses as we knew what to expect.
Because the cycling itself  can be fairly demanding we rarely take detours from our route. It has to be very special before the extra X km makes is feel worth while; there is plenty to see and we can’t visit every castle, church or historic monument.
However, on this occasion, as we sped along the motorway unable to face another bone shaking day across the lumps and bumps of a dubious main road, we did succumb to the brown sign.  It was a delightful little detour taking us through a small village to an ancient church.  I donned the skirt and headdress, Gid preferring to change into his long trousers, to meet the dress code before entering.  The interior was delightful; very simplistic in its decoration as all the Georgian Orthodox churches have been.  Equally delightful were the people, especially the little three year old lad who followed Gid, coping his hands on hip type actions and the ancient nun who exchanged a few sentences in English.
Another excursion considered well worth the effort was to Uplistsikhe  (on the pending list for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage site) , the cave city near Gori.  Having visited 3 or 4 of these in Turkey we’re obviously now ‘experts’ and this one, dating from the iron age to the middle ages, was quite spectacular.  The site is a bit of a national treasure because it is evidence of some of the earliest habitation in Georgia.  Previously, in Batumi, we had seen evidence of human habitation in that area dating back to 1,800,000 years ago.  Two human skulls on show were quite small and very flat.

Istanbul – Getting In

This is posted out of order as we’d overlooked this nearly-finished draft!
Research into getting into Istanbul, whilst all agreed on using the D020 and approaching from the north, was mixed – catch the ferry, use the river-side route/ cycle path – the latter lasted for a whole 200m, catch a bus.  All at least agreed that cycling was to be avoided due to the heavy traffic and manic drivers.  Gid spent some time looking into the ferry option.  Despite finding a 2016 timetable, pinning  down a departure point, time and destination that met our very flexible needs was impossible. Actually, there probably isn’t a ferry that runs along the coast in the way we wanted – the buses meet the needs of that route. Cycling it was then! Initially we took the aerial route into Sariyer.
Having been reduced to pushing the bikes up the hill (we no longer have bike friendly gradients) I pushed my bike down. The back wheel was skidding as I tried to keep the bike under control whilst walking down, this didn’t inspire confidence in my ability to ride.  At the bottom we abandoned any hope of back tracking to find the elusive ferry ‘terminal’ and headed on down south.   Istanbul old town, where our apartment was, was 30km away.
Initially there was a wide promenade and all seem good.  This came and went as we progressed from one town to the next along the route.  When ever it existed we sort it out as it provided a respite from the traffic.
Into Istanbul, the Garmin couldn’t locate the apartment.  Frequently places have been spelt differently on road signs and the map which makes the navigation more difficult. The Garmin may recognize one spelling but not the other.  So it was down to Gid who used his phone to track us in to his pin-point, but we had to keep stopping to check our route.
It’s a city, so the traffic was heavy but two local youngsters showed us how to do it by giving a demonstration on how to dart backwards and forwards across the traffic using all three lanes going in our direction.  Gid again fared better than me as he boldly stuck his arm out, to fork left, and crossed all three lanes of traffic, at a major junction.
 Finally, AirBnb’s habit of sending all communications to email, itself, and texts, meant we easily met up with our host and were tucked up into the comfy apartment a few km into the suburbs.

Istanbul Photo Gallery

Views of East Istanbul

 

Views of European side, Istanbul

 

Out and about

 

Shops and produce

 

Local street market

 

Topkapi Musuem and park.  Topkapi palace was the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans since 1453.

 

Hagia Sophia museum – Originally a Christian church. Built in 532AD by Emperor Justinian.  After 1000 years as a church it was changed into a mosque.  Because the church had lots of mosaics, Sultan Mehmet the conqueror plastered over them to create the mosque.  Now the building is a museum.  The mosaics have been uncovered but the building has kept aspects from both religions.

 

Blue Mosque

 

 

Basilica Cistern – built in 532 AD by Emperor Justinian and was for centuries the main water supply to the city.

 

Grand Bazaar – over 4000 shops in the world’s largest covered bazaar.

 

European side Heritage tramp and second (to London’s underground)oldest underground in the world.