Thursday, November 13, 2008

Out of Iran - up to the Caucasus

First attempt to leave Tabriz was dashed by a 'snap' sound at the front of Julie's bike. It was her front pack rack, probably not helped by her secret hoards of dates and Iranian sweets. (Don't buy cheapo Bor Yueh.) We retreated to town and found a very friendly bike shop. The main mechanic, son of the owner, kept chanting 'Tourist I love you!' There wasn't a perfect replacement but after more than three hours of mucking around, with me trying to temper the mechanic's impatience and be helpful (not easy), we combined a cheap back pack rack with a bit of the old front one. It came together well.

We headed north, buying our last melon for a while. The weather became chillier and chillier and by the time we got to Jolfa things were very wintry. North of the river we could see jagged snowy peaks in Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Jolfa we camped in our last Iranian public park, under one of the familiar rotundas to keep the tent dry.

A desolate road wound eastwards along the border (the river) for 60km past Nakhchivan, the Azeri enclave, to the Iran-Armenian border. As we rode we could see the old Soviet railway line, intact on either side, but blocked off and and partially destroyed since the 1993 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Bombed out carriages lay in no man's land.

On the Armenian side we were delighted to see female border guards in pure James Bond get up - calf high boots, woolen tights and short skirts! It was a novelty to see women gainfully employed and Julie was thrilled! $US 50 at the border for a 3 month visa.

Over the other side it was dark. The only hotel was overpriced and dismal so we camped behind a petrol station (thanks to the helpful chain smoking attendant). He said there were wolves up the road and nowhere to camp anyway. When I asked if I could use my petrol stove he was horrified and said, 'No no no, it's too dangerous!!' We cooked on his hotplate instead.

Next morning we found that there was indeed nowhere to camp - sheer cliffs on one side and barbed wire on the other. In the first town, Meghri, we dropped into another servo to ask about the road. The two men there manhandled me inside and pushed a glass into my hands: '100 grams to make you bold!!!' (meaning a double shot of vodka). They pulled out chairs, vodka (Russian and moonshine), bread, honeycomb, wine, cheese, pomegranates and a strange yellow-orange fruit I hadn't seen before (korolyok in Russian) - it was a persimmon. While feasting they were notably polite but also natural, and straightforward, in how they related to Julie. Would the 'dama' (lady) like wine rather than vodka? A Russian girl with a violin case walked past - Russian border guards are still here. We had a series of toasts and eventually we got off up the hill with a haul of fruit and half a litre of delicious home made wine. More gifts of fruit were made on the outskirts of town. I learnt to be wary of unripe persimmons.

From 500m altitude it was another 2000m vertical up a beautiful valley with golden autumn leaves, persimmon trees and grape vines to the Meghri pass at 2535m. Snow lay on the steep ridges not far above us. We camped just below the pass and it was ominously cold overnight.

From here an icy curling descent down down down into the next misty valley - where it was even colder. An excellent warm midday feast in a local cafeteria. Up again into drizzly rain. A dacha caretaker took us in for the night - more moonshine (ouch). We discovered that the Armenians love Turkish coffee - though of course they objected to this description!

Then over another 1700m pass during which we got snowed on for the first time.
At the top some park rangers invited us into their hut where we were offered Turkish coffee, vodka and a white mush made of calves' hooves and fat boiled for 10 hours. Yum.
On the descents our fingers were getting seriously cold despite full gloves and we made frequent armpit warming stops. The final descent on this day was on a road famous for its 52 switchbacks.

Skipping ahead - we rode to Yerevan and then got an overnight train to Tbilisi in Georgia (as the Armenian - Turkish border was closed). $US 10 each. 60 dram ($45) for a 90 day visa at the border.

Tbilisi was bustling but peaceful and pretty, and no Western tourists were to be seen.
We met an interesting Russian - Alexander, a retired engineer - who invited us to stay at his ex wife's place (???) She turned out to be a fiery chain smoking Chechen. The following night he decided that we should stay with him and his new wife - in their old Soviet one bedroom flat.

From Tbilisi we caught a local train (электричка, or elektrichka) to the west through and past Gori, which is just south of where the worst fighting in the recent war was - Tsingvali. All the locals were telling me things were completely safe. There certainly weren't many soldiers around.

This man was delighted to see us having a break next to a little memorial for his 13 year old son, who had died here in a tragic accident. He insisted on giving us gifts of wine, grapes and persimmons.

We've now got as far as Batumi, on the Black Sea coast - a slightly seedy port town with lots of poker/gambling dens but also an utterly magnificent botanical garden on its eastern outskirts. Groves of mandarine trees everywhere - we picked our own and then were given more along the road. There are also forests of soaring eucalypts along the coast, planted anywhere from 50-100 years ago.

This is the New Zealand section!

The view northeast. Below is what in Soviet times was the Moscow - Batumi railway line. Nowadays only local trains run, and probably no further than Poti, 50km north towards the Abkhazian border. Although Sukhumi, its capital, appears on all Georgian road signs as if you could get there easily, Abkhazia is effectively Russian controlled and its border is closed.

Armenians and Georgians are the most lovely, hospitable people. Virtually everybody we met told us: 'We love and respect guests above all.' Whenever we asked about a spot to camp we were inevitably invited in for the night - most just refused to let us camp, as if it would be an insult.

A word about toasts. In Georgia especially they are long, complex and passionate. I was given a range of theories on what precedence various toasts should take. They would go like this:

'Firstly, I want to drink to peace. To friendship between peoples. That there be no more war and that everybody everywhere may live in friendship and peace...' etc.
'To our guests. We love our guests and will do anything for them. Whatever we have we will share with you. And if we have nothing, we will go and borrow from our neıghbours. Your house is our house, you are our brother, and your wife is our sister. God grant you safe onward travel, and may you return home safely to everyone waiting there for you...'
'To our mothers. We love and respect our mothers above all...'
A little later:
'To our fathers. We love and respect our fathers above all, and they understand more about us than even our best friends...'

These toasts were very genuine, heartfelt and often extremely touching. I was so happy İ knew Russian. Sometimes İ got a special toast for that, they were so delighted at being able to communicate. You'd think they might despise the language, but no, it is a language they have grown up with. Why hate a language?

An average would have been 10 toasts around an evening meal. If I was lucky, I'd get away with drinking the first shot or two and then only sipping. But I ran the risk of being told, 'You've got to drink the lot!' This also applied to full glasses of wine, though then I developed another tactic: 'I can't savour your delicious wine if I skull it!' And delicious it was. Julie got honorary man treatment with toasts, though she could evade them - I couldn't.

Every Georgian household we went to (outside Tbilisi) made its own wine, vodka or cognac. Extraordinary.
We are currently carrying 4-5 litres of wine and some cognac, all of which are gifts from Georgians and Armenians! The perfect antidote to Iran!

Over 9000km now since Urumqi. More soon if luck permits.

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