episode 9: the georgian team shuffle

August 1, 2016

Read next: Episode 10

We saved a kitten in Cappadocia – a little baby girl. She ran out from the rocks while we were walking back to the campsite from “Love Valley” (please see pictures, it’s self explanatory) and she followed us all the way there, mewling and crying the whole way. I bought her tuna and Aaron pulled all the burrs out of her fur while she purred furiously. She attacked the tuna and slept in the lounge room. I gave 10 lira to the owner to let her stay. I figured she’d be the campsite cat and all the tourists might feed her a bit. I don’t know if it happened or not, but it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

We spent the latter half of the day in Cappadocia hanging out with Toon, a Dutch guy who’s riding his motorcycle from Amsterdam to Vietnam (that’s the way to properly do this thing). We went about the markets – the peaches in Turkey are the best I’ve ever had. I could live off them. We sought out the strange rock formations and tried to get our car down weird narrow back roads and up sandy slopes with varying degrees of success. 

The next morning we all got very tired and woke up at 3:30am to see the sun rise from a balloon. We’d wandered around town and haggled with all the companies to find the best price for 75 euro a person. The pilot went so low we skimmed tree branches and could nearly reach out and touch the rocks. I can’t imagine all the stuff we’d need to sign to do the same thing in North America. After we landed we headed back to the campsite, packed up and made towards the border of Georgia.

It didn’t work out very well; we entered Trabzon while the sun set and everything got dark. The coast was too developed to wild camp on so we ended up sleeping in the cars in a truck stop. Can’t say sleeping in the driver’s seat is that great. Could have been illegal. Maybe not. I don’t want to find out. After the light sleep, we woke up at 5:00AM and drove to the border of Georgia like zombies. The line was massive, there was garbage everywhere and it was already hot outside. 

I have always said that if you want to see if two people are actually friends, you make them travel together. You put them in strenuous situations. Get them a little sleep deprived. Put them in a bit of a mess and see if they can problem solve together. See if they can find a solution together in a confusing world where you two are basically the equivalent of illiterate and mute. Unlike most other people, I don’t really have commitments (right now). If something isn’t making me happy, then I change it. I can swing from doing one thing to the other in 30 seconds all because that’s what I want to do and I can. And despite all I’ve invested into this trip to get to Mongolia, they are sunk costs. I’d rather be happy. I don’t stick to things solely because I’m too stubborn to change them. I realized a long time ago the only thing that does is make me miserable.  

I don’t want to spend my time and money driving all day every day with someone who doesn’t seem to want me there. One hour into the 7 hour wait to cross the border into Georgia, I passed my keys to Eric, got out of the driver’s seat, packed both my bags up in 5 minutes and moved them all to our convoy team’s car. Shane would pick up where I left off and in the meantime, I’m in a car with four other Canucks, which is a blast. We blast T-Swift and a bunch of hick Albertan songs that they all yell the words to. You can find me sandwiched in the back seat. Alberta boys, tried and true, born and raised. I’m hoping they help out my Canadian accent. The bags are all strapped to the roof, which is caving in under all the weight, and the whole vehicle needs to be pretty organized for us to fit into it. I’ve got a ride to Kazakhstan and I’m flying from there directly to Moscow. It’s cheaper than the gas it would have cost to drive from Ulan-Ude. Not only that but now the costs of this trip are split five ways, and we all aren’t driving for 16 hours every day to get far enough to meet a tight schedule. I’ll save Mongolia for a motorcycle, done deal.

We’re now in Georgia, a country that I knew nothing about and didn’t know what to expect. Their writing is curly characters and we can’t read anything. I still don’t really know what their currency is called but I’ve got the exchange rate on lock… it’s called GEL, but we’ve taken to calling them George Dollars which is completely wrong. The highways are pretty small and wind through the mountains. The buildings in the older streets are cracked in half but people are still living in them. We’ve got a couple of days to spend before we can cross the border into Azerbaijan. After that, we play it all by ear and everyone is much happier for it. 

We did a day in the city and wandered the Old Town and then headed for the mountains in the north near the Russian border. The road was epic, with huge localized lightning storms thundering over the peaks. Switchbacks made the little matchbox Agila squeak around the corners as we climbed higher and higher passing little honey stands and crumbling stone churches. 

It was drizzling and cold up above 2,000m as we turned off the main road to head to a campsite about 12km off route. I didn’t realize I was about to direct this mission up a 4x4 track, but I did. We made our first teensy stream crossing, rocked our way up the side of the mountain and only bottomed out once in the muck. Straight drop off the side of the valley on one side, the other side varied between old landslides and rock.

When we got to the little town of Juta (a few buildings) we parked the car and took all of our gear and hiked up a slippery steep slope for 15 minutes to the campsite. The mountains were velvety green and towered above us and cows and horses grazed on the slopes. Not much else was there, which was why it was cool. The hour-long 4x4 track was more than worth it.

The next day we ate breakfast at the café and headed deeper into the mountains to hike up to Gergeti Trinity Church. It was a killer 1 hour long hike that was more or less, straight up. The views were spectacular and the clouds seemed to creep in closer by the minute, the afternoon thunderstorms approached as we walked back down. 

And now… more time. Up next is the sketchiest paperwork part of the “stan” experience: the 5 day transit visa to Turkmenistan that we only have a Letter of Invitation for currently. The pickle is that we need to cross the Caspian Sea from Baku, Azerbaijan to Turmenibashi, Turkmenistan on a ferry. This ferry is unscheduled and only leaves when it’s full. No one knows when that is. Barely anyone even knows where you buy a ticket. Apparently you call up some guy called Ishmael and he sets it up for you for $90USD. He must be making a killing. 

In the meantime, you’ve got to turn that Letter of Invitation into a visa at the Turmen Embassy, which is only open on Mondays and Fridays between 1000-1300 (or something). You’ve got to choose your visa dates and gamble that a ferry is leaving near the start of them. If you choose terribly, your Turkmenistan visa can run out before you even land in Turkmenibashi. I have an out: I can run into Kazakhstan visa-free and get into Uzbekistan that way, but the boys have single entry visas to Kazakhstan so they are trapped if this ferry-transit-visa thing goes awry (all countries that border Turkmenistan require visas for Canadian passports). I don’t want to employ my back up plan. I want it to work out so we can all tackle the Pamir together in this matchbox of a car. I want to hear the wheel bearings make that wub-wub-wub sound as the brakes are stinking as we head down from something close to 5,000m while we all feel lightheaded and sick from altitude. Because that sounds like a great time to me. We can yell T-Swift as we dodge all the trucks grinding around those single lane blind corners in the dirt.

Cheers from Tbilisi, Georgia.

Read next: Episode 10

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