Today we woke up in a spacious 6 people dormitory with beautiful sunlight. The night before we decided to take an easy day and to go to the city centre for some sight seeing and breakfast. The first time since the start of the trip that we really could "waste" some time. It was about 600 km to Baku and we didn't know the road condition, so we thought it better to do the trip in two days and enjoy the traveling a bit more. Probably partly inspired by Grant, the Oz master of slow travel, and also feeling guilty towards our friendly host who's so proud of her country.
We walked from the Dodo hostel towards the new town and from there to the old town. There weren't too many breakfast places in the old town, only a few fake traditional places for tourists, so we ended up in a darkish but local place at the Freedom Square. Smoking is still allowed in restaurants and bars in Georgia, and people smoke a lot, which added a new fragrance to our smelly biker palette. The breakfast wasn't too spectacular, but hey it filled our stomach. We slowly walked back to the hostel and packed our bikes. On the way to the hostel we passed a strip club which turns into a flower shop during the day. Interesting synergies in business.
Finding the road out of Tbilisi seemed to be challenging, but wasn't too hard in the end. We drove on the M5 towards Sighnaghi and Lagodehki. A very nice drive in the sun. About 100 km down the road we came across an old fort, so we stopped and took some pictures. A shepherd was herding sheep in some shrubs at the base of the fort. Time seems to move slowly in Georgia. The country is distinctly more European than Turkey is. Georgia's countryside is lush green and hilly, with a backdrop of snowy mountains of the Caucasus. The only modernization is the incidental rusty brown railroad track or rusty brown electricity masts. It sometimes feels like we warped into Driving Miss Daisy or Fried Green Tomatoes (must see road movies about southern american states). Also the houses reflect this southern american atmosphere, with their verandas and cast iron balconies overgrown with green foliage. Focus in Georgia seems to be on quality of life and craftsmanship. This is also reflected in the rich Georgian kitchen. Really a shame we didn't have more time to explore Georgia further.
After the fort we drove on until Sighnagi were the main road continued straight to Tsnori. We consulted a few local taxi drivers and decided to take a short cut which goes through Sighnaghi itself. It's a nice drive on gently winding roads and it took us by surprise that, when we entered the village, we were on an very high hill with a grand view across the landscape. The road outside the city went steep down with narrow bends. HJ coming from the flatlands took the road on his own pace, at one stage being overtaken by a Lada which just plummeted down in free gear.
The road towards the border became more desolate with only a few drivers and the villages were a lot less developed. Just before the border we found a decent gas station so we decided to fill up as we were almost on reserve. The first sign of the upcoming border was a big blue road sign saying 'Azerbaijan Border, Good luck', a forebode of what would be coming? The Georgian's have a cool sense of humor. The border crossing itself was relatively easy. We could bypass the queue, but by the time our paperwork was done the queue had passed us already. On the Georgian side, one of the border control staff spoke perfect Dutch, as he had studied medicine in Leiden. It was unclear why he was working at the border. On the Azerbaijan side it took some time. The officers had a quick look in one of the panniers and then decided they didn't want to see the rest of the luggage. The guard who handed us the papers back tried to intimidate us by asking annoyed where the presents were. We laughed sheepishly and said it would indeed have been a great plan to bring small wooden clogs indeed. Sorry sir.
During the time we were waiting, the sky had become a lot darker and a storm was rolling in above the mountains on the Russian side. Our destination in Azerbaijan for that day was Shaki, a mountain village between the Georgian border and Baku. We tried to pick up some speed to avoid coming in by dark and rain. The road conditions were much better than we anticipated and we managed to out run the storm. At a police check point we decided to take an inside route along the foot of the mountain, through a village called Qax. The road to Qax was even better than the main road and went through beautiful scenery. In Qax we had to find the inside road to Shaki. We asked various people in the village but got various directions. We decided to go with the most common one. A shaky old bridge brought us to a small mountain road which soon turned into gravel.
The light was starting to fade, so we didn't feel fully comfortable. After a sharp bend we ran into another police check point. This time we were happy to come across it, as most check points had been really friendly when they found out what we were up to. We asked the officer the direction to Shaki as the road was splitting. He pointed to the road to the left, which looked the least attractive. A "suit" in a big SUV pulled up clearly asking about us. The officers got nervous but flagged that there were no problems. The SUV blasted away on the road to the right. We pointed to the path to the left and asked Shaki? The officer said yes, but pointed to the front tire and said problem. We pointed out the road on, the map and the officer confirmed, so we decided: no problem.
When crossing a bend we saw that the road was still under construction. We had to navigate through the construction site to get on the foundation of what would become the road one day. The foundation consisted of relatively large grey stones that look like they were collected from river beddings. There were some cars taking this route as well so we decided to charge ahead. Holes in the road were easy to spot and the surface was quite smooth despite the large size of the stones. We maintained a steady pace, leaving the dust trails of the cars far behind us. We didn't know how long we would have to drive on this road. It started to drizzle a bit and it turned dark now. The dust started to stick to our vizors so visibility got a bit low. Interestingly, small communities had sprung up along the impromptu road, catering to local travelers. Their strong and sometimes colorful lights helped to guide us through. It felt good to be standing on the pegs and the bikes made it really smooth. Some of the stones hit the engine bash plates really hard and one stone went through HJ's rear mud guard, but these types of road were the reason why we were traveling and it felt really good. After 30 km we reached a small village and we were back on asphalt again.
The next village was Shaki already. At the main square we took a wrong exit and ended up at a silk factory. A clear proof we were on a branch of the silk road. A few turns later, we reached the impressive Karavan Saray hotel, where we enjoyed a good dinner and a well earned sleep. Unfortunately, we were just too late for the tea ceremony.
* Driving Miss Daisy http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097239/
** Fried Green Tomatoes http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101921/