Crossing Georgia and Azerbaijan, we conducted fewer interviews and did less research than we did in Turkey. That was partially by design – we wanted to focus on Turkey and Central Asia, and Georgia and Azerbaijan just happened to be between these regions. Nonetheless, we still interviewed experts and lay people, and did some basic online research on the climate issues in the region. Here’s what we found.
Georgia is one of the few countries on our route that does not (yet) have serious water quantity issues. The western part of the country, and especially the mountains, receive significant rainfall and snow. This also meant that the water was clean and good to drink everywhere we traveled – and in the mountains, a fresh spring could be found in almost every village. The eastern part, and especially the southeast (which we didn’t visit) is drier, and might be facing water shortages in the future, according to a professor we talked with in Tbilisi.
Through translators (and Google Translate), we asked a few laypeople if the climate had changed where they live (Are winters warmer or colder than they used to be? Are summers warmer or colder?). One man near the Black Sea said there was no difference in temperature, but that it rained more than it used to (he said it was because of a nearby reservoir that had been built in the 1960s). In the mountains of Svaneti, we interviewed the man who operated our hotel, as well as his wife and mother. All agreed that winters were far milder than they once were, and that there is now less snow. The man, Davit, said that weather was more unpredictable, and that it made it more difficult for farmers. In contrast, his wife and mother said that life was much easier now because the winters were not as hard. Another family in central Georgia agreed that winters are warmer than they used to be, but they didn’t think it had much of an impact on their lives.
In Tbilisi, we spoke with academics at Ilia State University, where we also gave a presentation on our trip, and with the “Young Greens,” a youth political activist group promoting progressive social and environmental policies. We asked both groups what they thought were the most pressing environmental problems in Georgia. The two groups mostly agreed. The biggest problems, they say, are deforestation and waste management. Climate change did not make the list, although a professor at Ilia State said that desertification was becoming a bigger problem in the country’s southeast.
In Azerbaijan’s countryside, we spent even less time talking to people than in Georgia – we biked five days without visiting many towns, and staying with only one family (who we were unable to ask about climate change – or rather, our limited-English translator couldn’t understand what we were asking).
Azerbaijan’s economy is dominated by oil. Entering the country, I wanted to know if oil was good or bad for the nation. I asked this question the last time I crossed an oil-producing country, Venezuela, and I was surprised how un-nuanced the answer was: oil clearly seemed bad for Venezuela’s politics and economy, as counterintuitive as that seemed. (See the Venezuela chapter of The Bicycle Diaries.) Venezuela seemed struck by The Curse of Oil.
Was Azerbaijan struck by the same curse? The answer seemed mixed, and more nuanced. Azerbaijan’s economy has done very well over the past decade; there are countless new buildings in the capital, Baku, and we witnessed little abject poverty, although admittedly we didn’t go to the more remote areas. However, while people we spoke with mentioned poverty as a big problem, and country data indicates that some certainly exists, the same data show that there is less poverty than in Venezuela, which corresponds with our observations. When I asked people in Venezuela if oil was good for the country, most (surprisingly) said no. In Azerbaijan, one person said “it is a blessing” for the nation, and nobody flat out said it was bad, although some mentioned pollution as a problem. It felt, based on our interactions, like the country was doing economically well, and it was due to oil. Politics, though, is a different question.
In Azerbaijan, we were greeted in almost every town, by a picture and statue of the country’s now deceased Communist leader, and then president, Heydar Aliyev. It actually reminded me of Venezuela, where I had seen pictures of Hugo Chavez everywhere. Before Heydar died, he named his son as his successor, and his son is now the president. In theory, there are elections. In practice, the country imprisons journalists, and elections are far from free. One person we talked to told a story about how, when he was in the army, he went to vote and he and his fellow soldiers received ballots that were already filled out. He asked for a blank ballot – which they gave him after carefully recording his name. Freedom House gives the country extremely low ratings on civil and political freedoms. While oil may not be directly at fault, oil money lines the coffers of the government and its officials, making it easier for the government to be less accountable to its people.
The few people we talked to in English suggested that climate change is an issue that is rarely talked about in Azerbaijan. When we asked our host what people in Azerbaijan thought about climate change, he said “’tis not a topic, actually,” although he said it was more of an issue in Turkey (Turkey and Azerbaijan speak almost the same language, Azerbaijanis watch Turkish television, and the two countries are very close diplomatically). Others agreed that it wasn’t an issue that people talked about – and, perhaps as revealing, they didn’t seem to know much about the basics of climate change.
We spoke to two professors in Azerbaijan about climate change and water issues. The main takeaway from these conversations were that the country currently suffers from both too much and too little water, a problem that climate change will exacerbate. The Kura River runs through the country, draining large portions of Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In the winter and spring, flooding is not uncommon, as there are few dams on the river to regulate the flows from snowmelt in the mountains and rain in the lowlands. In the summer, the water dwindles until there is very little flowing through the rivers – we saw this in the nearly dry tributaries as we rode through the Kura Valley in early July. This is a serious problem, as about half of Azerbaijan’s population relies on agriculture, which is dependent on irrigation. Already, the timing of water availability has shifted, with more water in the spring due to earlier snowmelt and rivers drying up earlier in the year. People are noticing the change, he said, but don’t know what is causing it. This change in the hydrograph is projected to continue and worsen with climate change.
One of the most interesting things we learned from these interviews was that an important reservoir – the Sarsang – is in Nagorno-Karabakh, the portion of Azerbaijan currently under Armenian control. We were told that water is being released from the reservoir in the spring, when it is not needed and causes flooding, and then held during the summer, denying people of water needed for irrigation. As a result, Azerbaijan has lost 120,000 hectares of productive land due to a politically caused water shortage.
We also talked a bit about Azerbaijan’s energy supply and use. Ninety percent of the country’s energy comes from fossil fuels (although ironically, long before we saw our first oil well, we saw a few wind turbines and solar farm). As the economy grows, people are using more energy, most of which comes from natural gas. There is a plan to install more alternative, sustainable energy sources, including small hydropower plants on the rivers, but people understandably question why the country should invest in renewables when oil and gas are so cheap.
As with Turkey, we were left with more questions than answers. People in Georgia and Azerbaijan are not very well informed about climate change, which, given its likely impact on agriculture in both countries, seems like a problem. But we also aren’t sure what people should do with this heightened awareness. Georgia’s domestic energy production comes from hydropower, and their population is quite small. Azerbaijan has huge fossil fuel resources, and how can we say “ you shouldn’t develop that?” Perhaps efforts are best put into adaptation, with the hope that some of Azerbaijan’s oil can stay in the ground longer – and fetch a higher price – if the rest of the world agrees to slow down its pace of consumption
I’m writing from Baku, which Lindsey and I have reached after two months and 3,442 km of biking (2,136 miles). In these two months, we’ve stayed at the homes of 16 different individuals/families – of Turkish, American, Kurdish, Georgian, Dagestani, and Azerbaijani nationality. We picked up a significant amount of Turkish (which is fortunately very similar to Azerbaijani), although our Georgian and Russian (and Dagestani) are fairly limited to “hello” and “thank you.”
One question people have asked me, and one question I ask myself, is how does this journey compare to my last one, from California to Argentina – a 16,000-mile 17-month solo ride across 16 countries. The obvious difference is that I am riding with Lindsey, and that this trip is partially our honeymoon – it’s something that we’ve talked about doing together ever since our Eastern Europe trip. This trip is about bicycle adventure, and it is about climate change, but first and foremost, it is a trip Lindsey and I are taking together.
Riding across Latin America, I often found that I preferred riding alone because it was easier for people to invite me into their homes, and I met more people as a result. Riding as a couple, though, appears to make it no less difficult to meet people – and I sometimes think it makes it easier. Moreover, because we don’t speak the language here, having a partner makes communication a bit easier (we can divide up the tasks of looking up words in the dictionary – and Lindsey is better at language than I am, which makes it easier for me…).
In general, there is more diversity in this region of the world. Yes, there’s incredible diversity within Latin America, especially among the countless indigenous peoples. But the entire region (with the exception of a few small countries) is made up of Catholic, Spanish (or Portuguese, which is very similar to Spanish) speaking countries, all of which were once colonies of Spain or Portugal.
Here, in Western Asia (or far-Eastern Europe, depending on who you ask), we’ve already encountered numerous languages, including Turkish, Kurdish, Georgian, Svaneti (spoken in the mountains of Georgia), Azerbaijani, and Dagestani. Many people also try to talk to us in German, because they think we’re from Germany, or Russian, because that was the “lingua franca” of the former Soviet Union, and most older people in former Soviet Republics speak Russian. As a result, although we’ve been invited into people’s homes almost as frequently as I was in Latin America, our conversations have been very limited. Almost every family calls a friend or family member who speaks English, and hands us the phone to translate. Unfortunately, this rarely works well; the person on the phone usually doesn’t speak well enough for a good conversation. We’ve also, remarkably, had access to Google Translate in a number of situations, which works better than the friend-on-the-phone method. It has worked well enough to ask people whether they think winters are warmer or colder than they used to be. (Most say warmer.)
The diversity in language reflects diverse cultures. We biked through two Muslim countries (Turkey and Azerbaijan) and one Christian (Georgia, which was the second country to convert to Christianity, in 337 AD). Traveling in a Muslim country is very different than a Christian one – especially in villages, where all women wear headscarves, and where social norms discourage men and women from talking to each other. It was strange for us, for example, to stay with families where a man would invite us in and his wife would cook us dinner, but we would never talk to her and she wouldn’t eat with us.
We’ve also learned about the many conflicts over borders and sovereignty, and learned of forced migrations and wars we had never heard of before. The past century has been tough on the region. In the aftermath of World War I, Greeks were forcibly removed from Turkey (mostly in the west), and Armenians were violently expelled (mostly from the eastern part of the country). The nation of Armenia, with its land much reduced, went to war with neighboring Azerbaijan. Just a few years later, the USSR invaded Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, bringing a temporary end to border disputes. As the USSR collapsed, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought again, and some 800,000 or so Azerbaijanis were displaced from the disputed territory. Many Armenians were also forced to leave their homes. In Georgia, violent struggles have been fought over two provinces, with Russia effectively taking control over them. (I wanted to take a route through the mountains from Svaneti to Tbilisi, but we were unable because the road goes through the break-away province of South Ossetia, whose border is closed and which is controlled by the Russian army). There are many conflicts I’ve left out here – these are just the ones that we learned about through our conversations and reading as we traveled, and my summary here is very simplified. These histories have highlighted just how much more complicated the world is than is suggested by the lines on a map.
The outreach component of this trip is very different from my last one, partially because of the language barrier. On my last trip, I did all I could to draw attention to climate change, giving nearly 100 talks at schools and community centers. Here in Asia, we don’t speak any of the languages, making outreach much more difficult. We’re not seeking out reporters or giving as many talks. Instead, we’re focusing mostly on talking to both experts and everyday people about what climate change means for the regions we bike through. We see this as more of a learning and sharing expedition than a strict awareness-raising one.
With regards to climate change, my most important realizations from the trip through Latin America were about poverty. Staying with people in the countryside who lived at the subsistence level forced me to think about the relationship between poverty and climate change in new ways.
On this trip, in Western Asia, we’ve encountered less abject poverty than I did in Latin America. Turkey has a booming economy, and most of the time we asked ourselves about economic growth and climate change. The country is going to nearly double its electrical power production in the next ten years, and it is building infrastructure that will be there for decades. The rate of economic growth will change as we travel east to nations much poorer than those of Latin America, but for now, it is a big difference.
Climate change is also a lower priority here, it seems, than in Latin America. According to a 2010 poll by Gallup, Latin Americans are some of the most concerned about climate change of any people in the world – according to the survey, of people who had heard about climate change, more than 80 percent in most countries thought it was a serious threat to their or their family’s livelihood. Here in Turkey and the Caucasus, the figure is less than 50 percent for the countries we’ve passed through so far. And, as we’ve found from talking to environmentalists, the issue doesn’t seem to get significant attention from either environmental advocates or government agencies.
Despite this, when we have asked people if the climate is changing, the response has been more unanimous than I experienced in Latin America. Especially in Turkey, most people we’ve talked to say that it is getting warmer, and that there is less snow than there used to be.
Finally, I feel like less of an activist than when I set out from California on my original Ride for Climate. I think that is part of the inevitable process of aging. Maybe I’m less idealistic, but the world also feels more complicated, and I’m actually less sure of what I can say to make a difference. This is partially because the past five years of being a climate advocate have been extremely frustrating, from Copenhagen to the widening partisan divide on climate change in the U.S.
I also believe that the hard work of taking action on climate change begins at the local level. We aren’t going to make a big difference by simply writing about the issue on our website while traveling across far-away places, or even giving a series of presentations here or at home. Big differences are made by people who build social movements, and work for sustained amounts of time within communities and organizations – long adventures can inspire and raise some awareness, but what we need now is action and movement building.
We hope that sharing what we learn on this trip – through this blog, through videos, and through presentations when we return to the U.S. – will help encourage this action. But we also understand that it is a very small part of what needs to happen.
We will now get on a boat and cross the Caspian Sea. We have not yet seen the boat we will take, but it will be a cargo ship that should take 20 or more hours to motor across the inland sea. Then our journey will continue in the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
After longer than expected in Tbilisi, enjoying lots of World Cup, fast Internet, and strolling around the old city, we departed on a Monday morning and rode east. The route was less than ideal, due to crazy drivers and terrible air quality (we learned from the Young Greens that there are no regulations on vehicles, and it shows). After about 20km of unpleasant riding, the road split: the main road continued along the foot of the mountains toward the border with Azerbaijan, while the other went over the mountains into Kakheti, a valley known as the center of Georgia’s wine-producing region. We chose the mountains to get away from the cars. It was the first time we didn’t do our research, so we didn’t know quite how much climbing was involved. The only map we had noted a 1900m (~6000ft) mountain on the road – “That can’t be right!” we thought – “The mountain must be to the side and the road must go through a lower pass.” After a couple hours of climbing and an elevation of 1100m, we made a bet. David guessed that the pass would be at 1301m, on the logic that passes are usually 400-700 m below the peak. Feeling obstinate, I guessed 1621. It wasn’t a bet I wanted to win, especially once it started raining. When the road topped out at 1655m, I celebrated my victory by putting on my raingear for the descent… and enjoying the view. Through the light rain and mist we could see rows and rows of peaks below us in the distance, and ahead of us lay a fun, if slick, descent. It took several more hours to reach the town of Telavi, where we planned to buy dinner food and then find a place to camp beyond the city limits. However, by that point we were soaked and tired, and we succumbed to the idea of a guesthouse where, according to the Lonely Planet, the wine “flows freely” at dinner. The rain continued off and on all night and into the next morning, so we took advantage of the wifi (are you seeing a theme here?) to order replacement gear for my mom to ship to us in Dushanbe and wrap up other things we’d somehow failed to do in Tbilisi.
When the rain stopped, we proceeded towards the border, stopping to visit the old city and church/museum at Gremi, and again at a winery where we tasted the best wine of the trip so far. Close to sunset, we started looking for a place to camp. We entered a small village and started asking around, but everybody told us – some with smiles, some looking alarmed by our presence – to go back to the main road. As we started to leave the village, a man who had overheard us asking his neighbor said ‘Dom!’ and motioned for us to come with him. He introduced himself as Omar, and, in broken English, told us we could sleep at his house. Omar told us that he – and the entire village, along with two neighboring villages – was Dagestani. This made sense, given how close to the border we were. Bariyat, our host in Tbilisi, had taught us how to say ‘thank you’ in Dagestani, and Omar was thrilled (or at least entertained) when we thanked him in his language. At his house, we met his mother, his lovely wife Jemila, and his three sons. He had a fourth son, who he told us, later that evening, had died of leukemia at the age of 15. We didn’t know how to express condolences, but we have found that the hand over the heart can mean a number of things, including ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m so sorry.’
Our experience there was such a blend of cultures. Like other Georgians we’d met, Omar brought out some wine and proposed several toasts, but unlike the others, he allowed us to politely decline when we’d had enough. We learned some more words in Dagestani, which he speaks with his mother, and in Russian, which he and his wife speak with their children. We told him we had our own food and tent, but we were served a delicious dinner of homegrown salad, homemade bread and cheese (with the cow watching us from the yard), and fish from a trout farm down the road. His mother didn’t join us until after sunset, as Ramadan had begun and she is an observant Muslim. Omar is a football fan, so we stayed up (too) late to watch Belgium defeat the US, then were given a comfortable bed rather than being allowed to set up our tent. Breakfast was another delicious meal, and as we left Jemila kept giving us food – a block of cheese for the road, tomatoes from the garden, some fresh hazelnuts. We shook hands goodbye, and Jemila pulled me back and gave me a smiling kiss on the cheek. When she smiles, I can see that her teeth – the few that remain – are all gold. I wish we could adequately convey what their hospitality means to us – being too effusive in our thanks could seem offensive, implying that we don’t think they have enough to share, and with 5 cows and a huge garden, I don’t think hosting us was too much of a burden. Inviting us in, though, gave us a glimpse into Georgian – and Dagestani – life that we wouldn’t have otherwise. It made us feel welcome in their country, and the warmth in Jemila’s goodbye made me feel taken care of, watched over by a mother, which is nice when we’re so far from home. I hope our many hosts have enjoyed our company as much as we enjoy theirs – whether it’s because we’re generally likable (I hope), or hosting us makes them feel good about their ability to be generous, or just for the chance to meet people from far away. These are highlights of our trip.
The next day, we made it to the Azerbaijan border. The sign announcing the border says ‘good luck’ on the bottom, and the Georgian border guard told us “you are leaving the last European Christian nation… Good luck” as he stamped us out. Nonetheless, everything went smoothly (the e-visa we had been emailed in Turkey worked just fine) and we were through without a hitch into very rural Azerbaijan. After riding for awhile we managed to change money in Beleken, the first town (even though we didn’t know that was the currency until then), and also checked Internet to figure out our route. We decided to follow the mountains all the way, taking a smaller road to the main highway near Baku. We rode along the Kura valley for the next two days, taking long lunch breaks to avoid the worst of the heat. We crossed many small, depleted streams along the way, and David became obsessed with the topography after realizing that we were biking uphill to each river – up the alluvial fan coming out of the mountains, crossing the very small stream winding its way through all the deposited sediment – then down the other side. We had great campsites – the first night close to one of these streams (fortunately we hopped a retaining wall into a nearby field, as the river shifted course during the night into one of the canals alongside it, and there was a crazy thunderstorm – things were a bit muddy on the way out), and the second night in an open patch among tall enough scrub to conceal us completely from the road. We had enough water, and it was warm enough, to take a water bottle ‘shower’ before bed, which felt great.
On the third day, an SUV pulled over beside us a bit before sunset and the people inside, after asking about our plans and learning that we intended to camp, invited us to their home. It was 20km away, but the lure of a shower, bed, and local company was strong. We barely made it to the turnoff to their town (I hadn’t eaten enough and I crashed in the middle of the final big climb), but when we got there, with the help of some people outside a store, we called them and they came to take us the final 5km, since we didn’t have an exact address. They were a big, friendly family from a larger town near Baku, with aunts and uncles and grandparents all spending Ramadan at their mountain compound. Only one person spoke any English and she disappeared pretty early, so one of the brothers Skyped his girlfriend, who proceeded to translate all night. I recently learned a term that describes perfectly what we experienced in Azerbaijan: guerrilla hospitality. You have no choice. Hosts will hover until you finish in the bathroom in order to find out what you need next; people will practically drag you off the road for chai or to take a picture. It’s well-intentioned but can be a bit intense, especially when you’re tired or simultaneously dodging cars (oh yeah – another fun Azerbaijani trick: swerving towards you as if to hit you, then stopping short. Haha!).
The next day the landscape finally delivered what we’d been promised – hot, dry, desert – and a lot of difficult climbs. We camped that night off the road and up a steep hill, behind debris piles made during the construction of a new road. We left at sunrise and had great riding most of the morning. The new road hadn’t opened yet but was paved, so we had a wide, car-free ‘bike path’ for a lot of the way to Baku. At one point we stopped and had a private dance party in celebration of our friends Josh and Meghana’s wedding, which was happening that day. The last few days we’d experienced our first bit of homesickness – thinking of the wedding we were missing, and seeing friends’ posts about their 4th of July weekends – in the mountains or on a river – made us feel far away and that we’d been gone a long time. However, with the exception of more long, hot climbs and the occasional bout of grumpiness (mostly on my part, I admit), we were still having a good time, and we made it to Baku in the mid-afternoon. Our warmshowers host, Cavid (pronounced Tcha-veet, roughly), met us in the middle of the road a few blocks from his house – we were having trouble finding it (despite great directions we had just failed to read) and called him. The call didn’t go through but it registered on his phone, so he set out to find us. Turns out we are not that hard to find
We spent the next 4 nights at Cavid’s very friendly family’s apartment. He’s the only one who spoke English, but his mother smilingly served us as many meals a day as she could, and his brother gave us a ride to the Turkmenistan embassy to see if we could get a visa – we were still entertaining thoughts of going there despite not having received an email with a code that was supposed to come through after submitting an application in Ankara (embassy was closed; glad we got a Kazakhstan visa!). Cavid had just gotten back from his one year of obligatory military service and had a lot of interesting observations about the military and the country to share. We had two meetings with professors who work on water resources, arranged by a friend of a friend, Khumar, who took us out to an incredible lunch at a traditional Azerbaijani restaurant. We also had dinner with a couple who had offered to host us through Couchsurfing – when we told Cavid we had another offer, he convinced us to stay at his house, and we were happy to accept. After speeding through the country, it was great to meet so many people in Baku and to hear their perspectives on life in Azerbaijan. Overall, standards of living seem pretty good (at least in the city – we didn’t go as deep into villages as we had in Georgia, and some people said there was a lot of poverty), but the system is broken – teachers and doctors get tiny salaries, so doctors demand bribes to actually treat you. Government posts are sought after, but a bribe is required to get one, no matter how qualified you are. Oil money is pouring in, and it shows in the (mostly) great roads and brand new shiny buildings, but the education system is terrible. We really enjoyed Baku – it’s a beautiful city, with a lovely and well-preserved old town and crazy new buildings and the world’s 2nd largest flagpole outside the city walls. There is a fondness for lighting things up, and the city’s new Flame Towers are not only shaped like tongues of fire, they are lit up with flame-colored lights – alternating with the waving Azerbaijani flag – at night.
On our second day in Baku, we had gone to the port, following the detailed directions left on blog postings by helpful fellow travelers. The elusive ‘kassa’ or ticket window was closed, but some friendly men invited us into their heavily air-conditioned office and explained in their best Turk/Azeri/Ruski that there are boats to Aktau nearly every day, including 2 that night, and that we just need to come back the day we want to leave, preferably between 9 and 10, or 4 and 5, when the kassa is most likely to be open. This was great news, as reports of ships from Baku range from ‘nearly every day in the summer’ to ‘you could wait up to 2 weeks.’ On Thursday at 4:00 we returned to the port, hoping for a Friday boat. The kassa was closed (the ticket lady was eating; or sleeping? We’re not sure, but she wasn’t there), but we were told there was a boat the next day at 10AM and that we should come back in 2 hours to buy tickets. We returned at 6 (conveniently, there is a nice park for napping as well as an expensive cafe with wifi just beyond the wall behind the port), and the door to the kassa was open but she was still not there. “15 minutes!” said the men in the office. Back to the park, then the port again. The ticket lady is there! Forms were filled out, money exchanged, and then the instructions: come to the port at midnight to go through customs and board the ship. It leaves at… 1AM? 4? We couldn’t tell. We felt a bit frantic, as we thought we had one more night to accomplish our remaining errands (cut most of my hair off to better cope with the heat and quick, cold showers, and shave David’s beard that is getting long enough to prompt people to point and joke ‘Musulman!’; buy food and water for the trip; get US dollars to change in Uzbekistan, as ATMs give a terrible rate; take a tour of the city with Cavid’s brother and see oil-damaged areas near town; buy postcards…) Oh well! We asked about a later boat and the answer was ‘yok!’ meaning that there aren’t any that they know of. So we scrambled off to take care of the essentials (we are still quite hairy), pack up, have one last meal with Cavid and his family, and hug them all goodbye with profuse thanks in all the languages we might possibly have in common. We set off into the night, biking through the Old City to the port – stay tuned for our next post on crossing the Caspian!
Here’s a video of the highest pass we’ve crossed yet — more than 2,600 meters above sea level, in the mountains of Georgia (we will cross many higher passes once we reach Central Asia).
After 6 weeks in Turkey, we approached the border with mixed emotions. We were already wistful about the call to prayer 5 times a day, endless invitations to drink cay, the delicious food, and striking scenery; we were also sad that we would no longer be able to use our hard-earned, if still rudimentary, Turkish language skills. At the same time, crossing an international border is a concrete ways to feel like we’re making forward progress, and we were excited to experience Georgia. After an easy border crossing, we biked along the coast to the Black Sea ‘resort’ town of Batumi, thinking we might stop at the beach for a few hours and then move on. As soon as we made it from the busy inland road to the pedestrian – and bicycle! – boulevard along the shore, we decided to stop for the day and spend the night there. No sooner had we made the decision then a sudden, urgent hissing sound came from David’s rear tire – the sidewall that had gotten cut in Southern Turkey and that David had reinforced with a piece from his goretex foot covers could hold no more – the tire was done, but we appreciated the convenient timing. He fixed it while Cilem and I set out to find a hostel. Walking through the city, I was struck by how European it looked – I felt like I was in a mini Lisbon with the large, statue-filled squares, balconies over back alleys, and grand public buildings.
We spent two nights in Batumi, splitting our time between the beach and making good use of the fast wifi in our hostel to wrap up the Turkey phase of the trip. Cilem befriended another cyclist, Flavien from France, and he joined us when we rode out of town the next day. We continued along the shore, hoping to visit Kholketi National Park to learn about how sea level rise threatens the wetlands there. However, their visitors’ center did not seem to be expecting visitors (the alarm went off when we opened the door), and the boats – which are the only way to visit the park – were not working. So we rode on, had lunch with Cilem and Flavien, and then bade them farewell – both were heading to Turkey, while we were going onward through Georgia. It was sad to say goodbye to Cilem – we had become good friends in the almost week we stayed at her house and during our time riding together. Hopefully she will make it to California someday so we can host her and take her bike touring. We then biked through peaceful lowland towns with quiet roads containing more cows than cars. As sunset approached, we saw that the area was too populated to sneak off the road and camp, so we decided to ask somebody if we could camp in their yard.
We stopped at a store and asked to fill the water bladder. The shop owner took us to his yard, conveniently right behind the store, and got us water from the well. The yard looked like a great place to pitch a tent, so we asked if we could camp using a handy recording that a Georgian guest at the hostel in Batumi had made for us. The shop owner, Yuri said yes, of course, and invited us in. We spent some time using google translate with their son, asking about climate change (he said that it rained more than it used to, and he thought it was because of the huge Enjuri Dam nearby). Yuri took us on a walk through his huge garden with his grandson Dmitri, picking cucumbers and proudly exclaiming ‘Natural, natural!’ Later we enjoyed the cucumbers along with garden-fresh tomatoes and parsley, homemade cheese, and… some beverages. It started innocently enough with a 2L bottle of beer Yuri brought down from the store. Then out came the chacha, homemade alcohol similar to Italian grappa. Next some homemade wine materialized, and finally a bottle of cognac. In Georgia, one doesn’t sip one’s drink – you wait for the person in charge to make a toast, and then down the whole thing in one go. Sometimes the men will link arms and drink a shot together. I felt a bit less pressure to drink than David did, although Yuri still looked at my half-full glass disapprovingly. Yuri’s brother, mother-in-law, and neighbor all joined as well. As the night unfolded Yuri got merrier and merrier, insisting on calling David “Johnny” and kissing our heads and slapping our backs affectionately saying da, da, da! It had become clear that we would not be camping, and eventually we were led upstairs to our bedroom for the night.
The next morning, after more ‘natural’ salad, bread, and coffee, we thanked our hosts and continued on. It was one of those deceptive roads that looks flat but isn’t, so you feel terribly sluggish as you plod along (though perhaps we were feeling the chacha as well). We passed more towns and their elaborate cemeteries, which consist of small fenced or walled areas holding headstones with the deceased’s photo engraved on them. Eventually we started climbing in earnest, and after leaving the towns behind, came upon the Inguri dam. It was impressive – 270m tall, holding back a rushing river that flows down from the glaciers in the Great Caucasus and producing 1.3 gigwatts – and accounting for a significant portion of Georgia’s electricity. The reservoir was long and deep, filling a narrow canyon that dropped steeply away from the road. We passed almost no signs of civilization – only the occasional beekeeper and roadside shrine to somebody who had died there (not hard to imagine with the steep cliff on one side of the road and questionable driving habits). I worried about finding water and food, and made David stop to sample some honey, which resulted in the purchase of a liter, meaning that honey featured in every meal on the way to Tbilisi. We also stopped when a family waved us over for some watermelon – the stop ended up including shots of undrinkably strong chacha and a roadside serenade from their smiling, guitar-playing daughter. Eventually the reservoir started tapering into the river, and we camped that night on a bank of soft silt left behind by a tributary.
The next morning we left our campsite and kept climbing. Up and up and up we rode, with the occasional downhill to erase our upward progress but help with forward movement. It was very pretty, and very hard. Snowcapped peaks started rising up behind the steep green mountains around us, and we kept going up. Our goal was Mestia, the main town of Upper Svaneti. Svaneti refers both to the region, high in the Great Caucasus, and the people, who speak a distinct language and have lived in the isolated valleys for millennia, avoiding many of the conquests that the rest of Georgia endured due to their remoteness. However, they haven’t been entirely safe over the centuries, and the region is known for tall stone towers where families would take shelter during invasions and blood feuds, which apparently were common until quite recently. We arrived in Mestia around 5:30, just in time to share a beer in the town square, where 2 cows grazed and play-fought around us.
We stayed at a guesthouse recommended by a group of Italian cycle tourists that we met in town, and the owner arranged for our bags to be taken to our next destination – Ushguli – in a van driving a group of tourists there the next morning. We wanted to drop weight for this leg of the journey because we knew it was unpaved most of the way, a rough uphill track to a tiny village near the highest mountain in Georgia. After handing all of our worldly possessions off to the driver the next morning, we started off. We were soon passed by a horde of Estonian cyclists and their Georgian guide. We played leapfrog with them all day, along with the Italians – the most cycle tourists we’ve seen this whole trip! It wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected, although only the first few kilometers were paved. We arrived in Ushguli around 4:00 and agreed that this was what we had come looking for in the Great Caucasus. Ushguli is a small collection of neighborhoods made up mostly of stone houses in varying condition, connected with narrow muddy paths and sprinkled everywhere the iconic stone towers. It sits partway up a valley created by the Shkhara glacier, with Shkhara Mountain glimmering behind it.
We decided to camp in the yard of the guesthouse where the driver had delivered our bags. The Estonian group was staying there, and their guide helped us out with information about the road ahead and translated questions about climate change so we could ask the family who ran the guesthouse. They are Svaneti natives and have lived in Ushguli for generations – the current owner’s parents ran a guesthouse during Soviet times, and his mother still lives there, helping his wife cook amazing food and charming the guests. They said that the Shkhara glacier had retreated in past years, and that winters are warmer now. The women said that this makes life easier, but the man said that overall the weather is less predictable, making it difficult for farmers to grow their crops.
We decided to spend two nights so we could visit the glacier, and it really felt like vacation. We left our bags at the guesthouse and biked up a dirt road through a valley lined with green meadows where the villagers’ cows, sheep, and goats were grazing. Every few minutes I’d look up and see Shkhara mountain looming closer, though its peak was covered in clouds. After about 6km the road turned into a narrow track, and we ditched the bikes in the bushes and continued on foot. After awhile we reached the toe of the glacier, covered in silt and small rocks which were occasionally released from the glacier’s hold and came rattling down its slope. We could see how the glacier had carved the valley, almost all the way down to the village, and how it had deposited sediment, from silt to gravel to boulders, as it moved downhill, leaving them in place as it retreated. We had lunch out of reach of the falling stones, hiked back down to our bikes, and enjoyed the downhill return journey like giddy children. We rode through streams, along meadows full of wildflowers, and stopped to take dozens of pictures. Our bikes held up well, though this whole leg of the journey would have been more comfortable with front shocks.
We left the next morning knowing we’d have about 10km of uphill on dirt to reach the pass, then another 60 or so of mostly downhill, still on dirt. It was more challenging than the route to Ushguli, but ultimately doable, and we were rewarded with great views all the way up. Descending from the pass, we saw another glacier, then followed a river through a dense green valley where we didn’t see another soul – except for one Polish man on a motorcycle, doing a loop through Svaneti in the opposite – and much more difficult – direction. We weren’t sure if we’d make it to our destination for the night because progress was so slow, but after passing through several small, fairly run-down looking villages in the lowlands, we were delighted to discover pavement for the last 10-20 km.
The next day brought us to Georgia’s second city of Kutaisi, which was the capital in the past and currently houses the parliament. We took an early evening break there for a beer and some Internet errands, then continued along the now-busy highway to look for a campsite. After several false starts, we turned off the highway and pedaled past a few homes and fields before stopping in front of a shop, where we deployed our handy recording to ask about camping. We were told we could camp behind the shop, but before we set up our tent a man appeared and struck up a conversation. Our Georgian never advanced beyond “hello” and “thank you,” and our Russian was even worse; however, we understood he was inviting us to his house, and soon two little girls showed up, one of whom – Mariam – spoke fairly good English and ended up being our translator for the night.
Our host, Giorgi, brought us to his house and introduced us to his family. Mariam’s father showed up, and when we asked about Internet (to use google translate), we were shepherded to Mariam’s house. When we arrived, the table was set – as if they’d been expecting us – and before long we were offered the most delicious cheese in Georgia, crepes, salad, and, of course, drinks. Mariyam’s father made several toasts, each of which required downing a shot of chacha or wine. At some point, Mariyam Skyped her brother Otto, a university student in Tbilisi, for high-level translation so we could ask about climate change. It turns out that Otto did a summer program in Amherst (David’s home town), has visited DC, and speaks perfect English. After several nights in guesthouses, it was great to stay with a family and make new friends. Mariam in particular charmed us – at nine years old, she had an impressive command of English and a lot of poise and confidence, serving as the translator for a room full of adults. Everybody was so warm and excited to have us there, something I have slowly gotten used to after our experiences in Turkey, but which still floors me every time. Otto put it nicely: “they are proud of their generosity, and happy to be able to host you.”
It took two more days to get to Tbilisi, mostly on a main highway that was fast, but tiring, since you can never relax even with a wide shoulder. We camped another night in a field, and visited the Stalin museum in Gori, his hometown. We found it kind of creepy – the museum had been constructed in the 1950s, starting with razing the neighborhood around his childhood home and basically building a mausoleum around it. Behind the house is a huge building filled it with photos from Stalin’s youth, through his involvement in the revolution, role in Soviet government, WWII, and finally his death mask. There was very little actual information – just brief captions in Georgian, Russian, and English – and no mention of all the terror he caused. Still, it was worth a stop, if just to see how Georgia handles the memory of its (now in)famous native son. We also met a cycle tourist just outside of Gori – he had ridden to Georgia from his hometown in central China over the past 10 months. His favorite parts? Iran and Tibet.
After Gori, we followed the main highway to the capital, arriving on the outskirts of Tbilisi in the late afternoon, when four ‘lanes’ of traffic fought each other down the road following the Mtkvari River. We carefully picked our way through the cars to our Couchsurfing host’s house in a great part of town near the Old City, where we got a warm welcome from Zurab and Baryat. We stayed with them for 3 days, eating delicious homemade borscht, watching World Cup, running errands, and learning from Zurab what it was like being Georgian in Soviet times, and from Baryat about her native Dagestan. We spent another three days at a guesthouse in the Old City so we could make more progress on logistical fronts – writing blog posts, editing photos and videos, making contacts in Azerbaijan and Central Asia – and see more of the city. We also gave a presentation about our trip at Ilia State University, had dinner with Maryiam’s brother Otto, and met with a youth environmental organization he put us in touch with. Tbilisi is a lovely city with an old core of twisting back roads beneath a hilltop fortress. While it looks mostly European, with churches everywhere, like the whole region it has a mixed history that is reflected in its architecture – there are Turkish-style baths (which we enjoyed our first day to recover to the ride) and a mosque where Shia and Sunni pray together, large Soviet-style buildings, as well as shiny modern buildings and bridges. We visited the national museum, which had a great exhibit on the Soviet occupation, but the highlights for us were walking up to Deda Georgia, a huge metal statue representing the country, with Zurab and Baryat one night, and visiting a small canyon, complete with waterfall, right in the middle of the city, with Otto. We felt remarkably safe in Tbilisi, as we did in all of Georgia. While we couldn’t communicate well with people, everybody was friendly and welcoming and made sure we were well-fed.
We are about to bike into a water-stressed region of the world.
The following map shows the ratio of water withdrawals to a country’s total available renewable water resources, as calculated by the Pacific Institute. That is, it shows how much water people extract in a given year divided by how much water is replenished by rivers and rainfall. Note that some countries, such as those in the Middle East, are “mining groundwater,” and thus extracting much more water than is sustainable (the ratio is bigger than 1).
Azerbaijan, where we are now, is an arid country that uses more than half of its water resources. And soon we’ll be in Central Asia, riding across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are siphoning off most of the water that would normally flow into the Aral Sea. This area is second only to northern Africa and the Arabian peninsula for unsustainable water withdrawals.
Note that “withdrawal” is different than “consumption.” Some water that is withdrawn is returned to rivers and water tables. If the water is well treated (at a wastewater treatment plant, for instance) and returned to a river or water table, it can be withdrawn again further downstream. There are many ways to measure water stress, and the map below is just one. For my favorite maps of water stress, visit WRI’s Aqueduct maps.
We’ll report more as we visit the Aral Sea and cross this region.
If you look at the map of our route, you’ll see almost 500 kilometers of hitchhiking in Eastern Turkey.
We did this because we wanted to bike both the Black Sea of Turkey and the mountains of Georgia, and we didn’t have time to bike the entire way and make it to Central Asia for our visas. So we hitchhiked. You can read about the trip and see pictures here.
Below is a video I made of this one-and-a-half-day journey.
I downloaded a good deal of country-level data from the World Bank recently, mostly to better undserstand the countries we’re biking through.
Below is one of the simplest metrics: GDP per capita over the past few decades (measured at exchange rates, in current US dollars). A quick look at this graph tells me the following:
These numbers also explained a bit why this trip is different from my journey from California to Argentina. So far, in Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, we’ve encountered much less abject poverty than I experienced in Latin America. That isn’t to say there isn’t poverty — there is. There’s just less of it. Also, the economies here are growing quickly, which is reflected in the many new buildings, roads, and power plants (especially in Turkey) that we’ve seen.
Below is the graph. For comparison, the GDP per capita in the U.S. is over $50,000 per year.