Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan + Georgia | Dashoguz - Ashgabat - Turkmenbashi - Baku - Tbilisi | 15th to 28th December 2015 | 17,496km
Day 397 - 31km by bicycle, 315km by van
Woke up in a frozen tent a couple of km away from the Turkmen border. Arrived bright and early, wary we needed to make use of every minute of our 5 day visa. Emerged on Turkmen soil 3 hours later and $96 each lighter - by far the most expensive visa to date. Having spent half an hour trying to hitch the wrong way, we eventually relocated to the correct side of Dashoguz and a chap transporting rice cakes kindly took us 300km south, close to the town of Darvaza. The road was arrow straight but required constant weaving to avoid the enormous potholes. Combined with the carbon monoxide seeping into the cabin Flo was feeling quite badly by the time we arrived and piled into a roadside Chaihana with a smoking chimney. ‘Can we stay here, please?’ we asked. ‘Yes!’ was the reply. ‘Excellent, because Flora is already asleep’.
Day 398 - 225km by truck, 28km by bicycle
Amazingly, given the amount of vodka, shashlik and dancing Luke had enjoyed the night before, we awoke pre dawn and began stumbling across the desert following a orangey glow on the horizon. After 5km, we saw it for the first time, a 70m wide gas crater known as ‘The Door to Hell’. Soviet geologists thought they had discovered oil here 40 years ago but when one of their rigs collapsed they realized it was gas. To prevent harmful gasses escaping they set it alight and it has been burning ever since. Back at the chaihana we were told they had kindly found us a truck heading for Ashgabat and we were duly bundled in, with all offers of payment for the overnight stay flatly refused. Only once in the truck did we understand why they had been so keen for us to leave. We were missing $220, a headtorch, the multitool and more oddly, all of our toiletries. Ill feelings were tempered slightly once we’d arrived in Ashgabat for a pre arranged stay with a lovely French-Turkmen couple who spoilt us with 5 courses of French-Turkmen fusion cuisine!
Day 399 - 575km by train
A grey wintery day didn't do much for the whistle stop tour of the Turkmen capital's marble buildings, fountains and pristine parks. Getting a train is notoriously difficult for foreigners and booking the bikes on would have been a nightmare without the help of Mira and Florian. They showed us exactly who we needed to discreetly slip a few extra manat to, ensuring our bicycles travelled without harm, and packed us off with an enormous çörek, turkmen bread, and beer for the 14 hour overnight ride to Turkmenbashi. The port is named after the previous Turkmen president who gave himself the honorific title meaning 'Father of all Turkmens'. The current president appears photoshopped into montages everywhere, looking stoic by a yacht, by some crops or studying a map.
Day 400 - 6km by bicycle
Disembarked and found the ferry port by 10h00, leaving nearly two full days left on our visa and lots of sea worthy looking ships in the docks. Told that one would be leaving for Baku in 4 hours time and to sit tight until the ticket office got the go ahead to issue tickets. Success! …or not. After 4 hours we establish from the only other person waiting with us that the ‘parom’, ferry is now going ‘zavtra’, tomorrow.
‘Parom, zavtra’. A pattern is forming. This is the final day of our visa we explain to the guys we think are in charge, who have had our passports since we arrived. At 21h00 the only one speaking any English comes out with a big smile on his face and says ‘My friends, we must deport you from Turkmenistan!’. We establish that this means we will be put on the next ship to Baku - which is exactly what we want anyway! Dash out to shops for supplies as, as of 00h00 we can’t leave the port.
Officially deported from Turkmenistan. We agree in writing not to return for three years and have our finger prints and mugs shots taken, which does serve to pass some time. ‘Parom, zavtra’.
Another day and night in the port. ‘Parom, zavtra’.
Day 404 - 300 km by ferry
Woken by a stampede of people legging it to the ticket office - a boat has been confirmed! Excited to buy a ticket to pay for our own deportation. The ship does eventually leave around 18h00, 5 days after we arrived.
Day 405 - 3.5km by bicycle
Dumped on Azeri soil in Alat, 70km south of Baku and pitch the tent in the dark.
Day 406 - 200km by van, 32km by bicycle
Pedal onto highway and take up position to try and hitch a ride through the desert part of Azerbaijan, for which we also have only 5 days to transit through. Hitchhiking with bicycles is quite challenging and another example of how impractical it is to travel 'with a bicycle' as opposed to 'on a bicycle'. A posh minivan eventually lets us in and deposits us 200km up the road. It’s Christmas eve! Short cycle to find a camp spot in a field of animal skulls.
Day 407 - 87.5km by bicycle
Merry Christmas! The cafes in this country are like kilometer markers and we stop at to Skype home. Camp in a sheep field.
Day 408 - 88km by bicycle
Flat riding along impressive tree lined roads with big mountains to our right. Enter Georgia in the evening and feel like we haven’t done Azerbaijan much justice. Maybe next time…
Day 409 - 55km by bicycle
See first actual christmas tree! It’s terrible. Immediately obvious changes in Georgia - churches, castles and lots of wine. Climbing up to the walled city of Sighnaghi that evening we’re invited in for dinner. Glass in hand, we’re told that Georgians believe in drinking lots of wine as they 'don’t want it to turn to vinegar'. If we were drinking too slowly they would point at our glass as say drink, 'don’t leave any for enemies'. Dancing. Hat wearing.
Day 410 - 115km by bicycle
A final savagely windy day into Tbilisi and our transit mission was complete. We were knackered. Just enough energy to find a place that sold Khachapuri, a Georgian national dish, which means cheese bread and is literally a delicious heart attack on a plate. We ate it before we could even get a photo.
Transit totals - 446km by bicycle. 1615km by van, truck, train and ferry.