Salam from Balaken, Azerbaijan! Apologies for the delay between blog posts but we’ve been camping a lot recently and WiFi has been increasingly hard to come by.
Our last post was from Istanbul, from where we departed on Wednesday. The previous day was pleasant: since all of the garages were still closed for Bayram, we took another rest day and some much-needed alone time (hours in the same car and tent can wear on even the closest of friendships). So we went off and found our own cafes to read, write, and drink endless cups of the ubiquitous Turkish black tea.
That night our friend Sera took us to an amazing tapas (are they still called “tapas” if they’re Turkish?) restaurant with a view out over the Bosphorous. A healthy amount of raki, the traditional anise-based Turkish liqueur, accompanied the excellent food. Despite the fact that it’s typically diluted with water, this stuff packs a punch. Sera warned us about the hangovers but true to form we ignored her and were consequently in less than top form the next day. I would venture to guess that it was me (Benjie) who got the worst of it, and I spent a few hours feeling vaguely nauseous during a fruitless trip in search of gas for our camping stove to a bizarrely modern shopping mall in suburban Istanbul.
The mood had improved dramatically by the time we pulled off the expressway a few hours later and happened upon another Rally team, the indomitable Americans known as Boyz II Mon, three guys about our age: Charlie, Harry, and Mark. We have been convoying with them since. First night was at a pseudo-campsite by the side of the highway that would have been perfect if not for the occasional freight train that trundled by about a hundred yards away. The next night we made it to the Black Sea and camped by the beach near the little city of Ordu, setting our tents up just in time to take a swim as the sun set. For dinner we had köfte, essentially small spiced hamburger patties, for the fourth meal in a row.
After enjoying a fifth consecutive köfte meal the next morning, we headed for the Georgia line (not the one from the band). The queue to get across the border stretched along the shores of the Black Sea, and we spent about three hours waiting in the late afternoon sun – ultimately a success, given the stories of seven-hour waits we had heard from other Ralliers. We met another team, Ulaan Rouge, a spirited English couple with a spirited bright red car, and decided to add another car to our convoy. The party capital of Georgia, Batumi, lay only 20 minutes past the border, so the eight of us spent the night there. A very strange place for a party capital, we passed various roadside cows before emerging into a city that could best be described as a blend of Las Vegas and Odessa. Huge casinos glittering with neon lights and skyscrapers with built-in Ferris wheels shared streets with run-down tenements. We passed up a strange hotel filled with green lights and various artificial fauna for a wonderful little guesthouse run by a woman named Alika who could not have been more accommodating, even helping to wash the clothes of eight filthy Ralliers.
The following morning we decided to give our car some much-needed love, so we headed to the outskirts of Batumi and found a garage that had four new tires and two steel wheels for us. We also found a friendly Georgian guy who happily translated for us, and helped us find some cheap jerry cans and beaded seat covers. The baker next door insisted on giving us free bread out of his massive cauldron of an oven.
An afternoon of driving led us to a setting sun and a dirt road somewhere in central Georgia where we decided to set up camp for the night. It seemed at first that no one was around, but eventually a stray sheep led us to a small house where we found a woman and her daughter. Communication was difficult, but with hand signals we were able to explain that we were looking for a place to camp. She led us to a perfect spot next to the nearby river, and one of the Ulaan Rougers and I went in search of food and beer while the others made camp.
Later that night the woman’s husband invited us to their house for coffee and watermelon, which we gladly accepted. It was somewhat surreal to be seated in the living room of a family with whom we can only communicate by typing sentences into Google translate, eating melon and watching Lindsay Lohan dubbed on the Georgian version of Disney Channel. I think it is safe to say that Georgia has been our favorite country so far: everyone we met was kind, interested in our adventure, and very helpful despite communication difficulties.
The only trouble with the Georgians is their driving style. Lanes here are wider than usual, and an unofficial, unmarked “third lane” exists between the two normal ones where people pass each other indiscriminately even through curves and hills where they are completely blind. To make matters worse, animals – mainly cows – are to be found lazily wandering around the roadsides unattended and inadvertently walking into traffic. Our convoy has been communicating via walkie-talkie, coordinating bathroom and fuel breaks as well as issuing frequent cow warnings.
This evening we made it to the Azerbaijan border, which, despite what we had heard about long waits and corruption, was relatively painless. We stopped in the first Azeri town we came to and decided to treat ourselves to a night in a hotel with hot showers and shampoo. Unfortunately the only food we could find at such a late hour was pretty much the same thing we have been eating for days now: meat and bread. That brings me to the title of this blog post, “I’m Still Chewing,” which is in fact nearly the case. Tough pork, beef, and lamb with tough, thick bread have sustained us through much of Turkey, Georgia, and now Azerbaijan.
Since our last blog post we have certainly begun to enter the more challenging half of the trip. Communication is difficult and cultural differences are more pronounced. The course of each day is increasingly difficult to predict. Surprises are becoming the norm—but so far, these surprises have been overwhelmingly pleasant. Most people we meet are friendly and interested in where we come from and where we are going, even if they think we’re a bit crazy and don’t understand a word we’re saying.
Our next stop is Azerbaijan’s cosmopolitan capital of Baku. There we will try to find the Turkmenistan embassy to get our visas, which will allow us to get on a ferry across the Caspian Sea. The embassy has no address, and the ferry has no schedule. So stay tuned!
Benjie, Cooper, and Nick
Dinner with Sera: the beginning of the end
“Raki makes you stronger,” they said. “It tastes good, too,” they said. Yeah, right.
Our campsite on the Black Sea
Waiting to cross into Georgia
The modest facade of our homely hostel in Batumi
New tire day at the shop!
The Rubikhans and Timo, the friendly Georgian who drove Nick and Cooper to the market for supplies
Benjie adorns our car, “Keshav,” with the countries on our route
Badri, a friendly Georgian fisherman plying the waters near our central-Georgian campsite. Cooper spent some time chilling with him on the shore, even though they couldn’t really communicate
Representatives of the Rubikhans, Boyz II Mon, and Ulaan Rouge, with our spontaneous Georgian host(s). (His daughter was too shy to join in the photo)
Keshav makes a high-speed pass (read: 40MPH)
Heading into Azerbaijan
We ran into a Moldovan team on the far side of the border, and celebrated our successful passage into Azerbaijan with bread and beer