After reaching the Caspian Sea, we had to move quickly to exit Kazakhstan before our thirty-day visas expired. As per usual, Charlie’s Russian visa situation was more complicated than mine. Technically, when we were last in Russia, he had overstayed the 90-days-per-visit that he was allotted. To be on the safe side, he had applied for a ten-day transit visa, but now had to bus back to Uralsk, about 500 kilometers by road, to pick it up. By the time he rejoined me at the Caspian Sea in Atyrau, we had only two days to cover the 300 kilometers to the border.
We re-entered Russia with no problems, but were still feeling the time crunch as Charlie’s visa gave us 10 days to cover 1,000 kilometers. Our first real day on the road, I had a major blow-out on my rear tire; the explosive pop sounded like a car backfiring. We had to leave the bikes and take a bus to the next town, buy a new cheap tire, and bus back. Cheap tires would cause two more blow-outs, and of course multiple punctures, in the coming weeks.
The region of Dagestan is known for its independence struggle, with the nearby conflict from Chechnya often spilling over. Internationally, it seems to be viewed as a dangerous region due to Islamic insurgency and secessionist terrorism. However, it was in this region that we experienced the warmest hospitality in all of Russia. Our first day in Dagestan, we stopped at a café for lunch and a break from the 100+ degree heat. A man in the café, having lunch with his son, bought us potato pirozkhi, which are ubiquitous fast-food savory pastries. After we had finished our meal, the woman in the café set two ice creams in front of us, which she didn’t let us pay for. Even petrol station managers welcomed us in for coffee and to watch videos of the local, Dervish-esque dancing.
We decided to pass through Azerbaijan relatively fast, leaving more time to explore Georgia’s mountains, which we had both long wanted to visit. Nearing the Georgian border, we encountered our first cycle tourist, going the opposite direction. We hadn’t met many young tourists on our trip at all, as we had mostly been in the wilderness, and were eager to chat. We would soon find out that Georgia was full of cycle tourists, and we would see one or two almost every day from then on. In fact, cyclists rarely even stop to chat in Georgia.
Leaving Tbilisi, we headed north for the town of Kazbegi, a 2,000 metre climb through stunning terrain, and the ski resort town of Gaudari. We pedaled uphill for two days, watching paragliders floating over the peaks as we approached the top of the pass. From the town of Kazbegi, it is a further 400 metres to Gergeti, the mountaintop monastery for which it is best known. There is a steep walking path, or a six-kilometer rutted, rocky road. After some cajoling from Charlie, I was convinced to cycle the road so that we could camp at the top. In my lowest gear, I had to stand up to pedal up all the steep parts, and upon the descent cringed as my cheap bicycle rattled down the rocky path. But, it was a gorgeous campsite, and we were cold for the first time in months.
After leaving the mountains, and following a route on Google Maps, we ended up, once again, arrested by the Russian border military. Charlie wrote a separate blog about this third clash with Russian authorities.