May 20 – Baku II

I spent some time online this morning looking for cargo ferry transport in Baku and with some searching, found the ticket office (that may or may not still be open) as well as many horror stories about securing passage. In someone’s post, I picked up a name and number of a local “fixer”. A fixer is considered someone who makes things “no problem” for a fee. It’s basically someone who knows people and knows how to get things done. There are generally fixers in all towns, it’s just a matter of finding them.

I had someone from the hotel call Ismahel (+994 552861200) to ask him a few questions – I was quickly handed the phone back because Ismahel speaks English. Of course he does; he’s a fixer, if he didn’t he’d just be another person who I couldn’t communicate with.

I go find Ismahel and he works at a travel agency and has been working on setting up cargo passage for people on the side for quite some time. We spend the better part of an hour discussing the logistics (that actually aren’t), more of a best case scenario. The next possible cargo ship leaving for Turkmenbashi will be this Friday or Saturday – not bad.   The only problem is that my motorcycle passport stamp now runs out tomorrow. He agrees to help and we’re set to meet on Thursday to go to customs and try and sort it out. He tells me I’ll need to bring my bike and leave it at shipyard until the boat sets sail. Perfect, I was hoping to leave my bike at the shipyard for the next few days…sounds like a terrible idea, but you play the cards you’re dealt. So we’ll see what happens tomorrow. I tip Ismahel well for this time and head back to the shack to sort gear and do some minor bike maintenance.

After fiddling with the bike for a bit, I was sitting outside a café having lunch and was looking around at all of the people smoking and taking mental note; almost everyone seems to smoke in Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. When in conversation with someone, they almost always ask if you’d like a smoke and look very offended when it’s turned down. Everyone has given me the same disapproving look when I say no. They’re face kind of crinkles up and the body language notes that they just cant understand why you’d turn down such a generous offer – undoubtedly they’re a bit offended. Maybe they don’t understand the long term effects, so I picked up a pack the other day and on the front of it, in bold letters reads, “SMOKING KILLS”. It’s a banner that takes up the bottom half of the pack – you cant miss it, but if you cant read English….it may as well say “PROLONGS LIFE”…go figure.

Attached is a photo of my current bike storage – it looks a little sketchy next to the Azeri anarchy graffiti, but the people who sleep in this alley seem quite nice.

After a rest day and roaming around the city, I’m already itching to get back on the bike. Stranded in Baku – there could be worse things.

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May 19 – Azerbaijan

I spend the morning in Tbilisi dodging cars, busses and police. The traffic is this city if unbelievable. There are police cars everywhere, but they don’t seem to pull anyone over and are driving just as bad as the rest of the traffic. I constantly wondered what they were doing out there.

Apparently there are no real rules when it comes to traffic flow or lanes, as just about anything goes. My only rule was – don’t get hit. Between the center of the road and the ditch, it’s a full-blown free for all. Go as fast as you can, and move over when someone is coming the opposite direction. Seriously, even police cars pass in oncoming traffic as well as on the right. Nobody is upset, no apparent road rage, it’s just the way it is. When someone honks, it means MOVE OVER NOW, I’M COMING THROUGH – and they do.

After 3 hours racing around the city and playing frogger on my bike, I decide my luck is gong to run out at some point, so I head out of town for Azerbaijan.

I’ve heard the police corruption in Azerbaijan is horrible and traffic fines steep. I read on someone’s blog, it took the man $2000 to get from Tbilisi to Baku, due to fines. Knowing I’ve already blown more than my reserve with the Turkish shipping extortion ring, I decided to follow the speed limit all day. What I didn’t realize is that the speed limit is mostly 50kph (31mph) with some stretches of 90kph (55mph) and on a very rare occasion 110kph (68mph). So it took me about 10 hrs of riding to go 575 kilometers. That’s an average speed of about 35mph. An absolutely PAINFUL stretch of road. I wasn’t the only one abiding the speed limit, as it turns out even the locals drive as they the law limits, and for good reason; I probably saw no less than 50 patrol cars and just as many electronic check points along the way.  Needless to say, I was wiped out and sore by the time I arrived in Baku last night at 9:00. 

During the soul searching stretch of road, I had plenty of time to worry about the upcoming day and need to seek out a cargo ship passage to Turkmenistan. To make matters worse, at the AZ border, the guard to me, and I quote, “I’m giving you 3 days to get out of Azerbaijan, go to port and leave country – understand, 3 days”. He smirked as he slammed the stamp down on my passport. The whole border crossing was a bit of a shit show; after going back and forth between rooms trying to get my passport stamped, I ended up at room “6” looking to buy vehicle insurance. The very round Russian looking man sitting behind the desk blowing smoke in my face, said “10 manat”. Of course I didn’t have any manat at this point because I obviously wasn’t across the border yet to exchange; I offered him $10 dollars (about same exchange rate as manat) or 20 Georgian lira (about half the value as a manat). He took the 20 lira and sat for a moment, he then reached out and snatched another 20 lira out of my hand and said to the gentlemen beside him (I’m guessing), “lira are worthless, I’ll take two” and the two men busted out in laughter and kept saying something about the lira. There is no love lost between the two countries – in fact, we’re lucky to be able to cross between the borders. As I was leaving, the only words spoken to me in English were by some nice young military fellow – “good luck” he said with a laugh, and I was off.

Anyway, tomorrow I need to go down to the shipyard and “discuss” with some Russian-speaking captain that I need passage to Turkmenistan on his fine ship. I must admit, I’m really quite concerned about the whole upcoming process. After a tough day of trying to communicate with no translation app, I’m not feeling very confident at the moment.

No photos today, just one I took a couple days ago in Turkey.  It’s nice to know the opium trade is still alive and well in Turkey.  This was taken well up into the eastern mountains.  There are quite of few of these crops scattered throughout.  Maybe the farmers just really like the colors?

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May 18 – Sarp to Televi

Outstanding ride from Batumi to Benara, Georgia. I had no idea what I was in for and on the map, the route looks like a nice easy ride. This ended up being the most challenging riding I’ve done yet on the trip; with busted up pavement, no pavement, mud, rocks, water crossings, as well as snow – this was certainly a highlight ride. The route took me far up in the South Georgia Mountains and over an unimproved pass, where I spent the majority of the standing on the pegs navigating on an old two track.

I’ve heard good things about Georgia and so far it’s all been true; beautiful countryside and great people. Primarily being a Christian state, it’s nice to see pork back on the menu. The Turkish food was really disappointing and I’ve noticed an immediate change crossing into Georgia.

What a great ride through the countryside and up to Televi, the Georgian wine country. I’m stayed at the Chateau Mere and tested some of the top Georgian wine. Good food and a good nights rest in a bed felt great.

I need to head back into Tbilisi to try and find more camp stove fuel and then onto Baku, Azerbaijan. I believe I’ll be running cruise control on the 4 lane all day today – bummer.

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This isn’t a bad photo, but very realistic on the weather at the top of the pass.  Tough to see.20150518-DSCN0748

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May 17 – Ani Ruins

This was a tough day on the bike. I started and ended the day in the rain. The heavy rains took its toll on the countryside. Heavy winds and rains pounded me from sunup to sundown. A day that should’ve ended around 3pm, stretched until 8 that evening due to the road being washed out by a flooding river. I was about an hour from the Black Sea when I was stopped by traffic police and told the road was closed for at least two days or until the river went down and they could clear the mudslide that covered the road. I had to backtrack about 6 hrs through the very punishing storm I just came through. I’m wiped out.

Photos of the Ani Ruins – highlight of the day and the only time the rain let up.

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The mountain steppe herders erect small stone huts and fencing to wait out the tough winters.20150517-IMG_0495

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The photo above is looking up into one of the temples.  The masonry has been polished smooth and there were two different types/colors of stone used to create the effect.  Spectacular masonry work.

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May 16 – Trabzon to ?

There is a fairly well known website amongst adventure travelers call “dangerousroads.org”.   It’s a list and description of some of the most dangerous roads around the world. I think some are embellished a bit, but most are legit from what I understand. There are two that I plan to navigate on my trip; the most well known is the Pamir Highway on the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border and the other is Trabzon to Bayburt (or something like that).

Today I was on the Bayburt road. The beginning is a paved section of nice winding road along the river that feels really good compared to the 4 lane I was on yesterday. I turn right onto the single lane pavement and continue for a few miles while still enjoying laying the bike over on the curves. The next section starts the gravel portion with the road still in quite good shape, fairly enjoyable while sliding around on the loose gravel marbles. As the road starts to deteriorate, the grade also steps up. Before long, I’m on a full fledged 2 track heading up into the mountains. There are several small villages along the road and the further I get, the more serious the stares become. At some point, I think the whole village was standing on the roadside staring as I continued up the 2 track.

The switchbacks start as the air starts to get a bit colder. On a fully loaded big bike, some the rocky switchbacks can be a bit challenging to maneuver, it’s certainly not as easy or fluid as on my smaller machines. I continue to zig-zag up the switchbacks and though the small villages. This road is fully legit and blast to ride. After about an hour I feel I’m starting to get to the top and an armed man steps out and stops me. He is a security guard for (?), and informs me I cannot go any further due to snow and rock fall. I ask a couple of different times on a couple of different translation aps to make sure I’m at a hault. I am.

I dismount and have couple glasses of tea with him the other 4 security guards stationed up there (still not sure why they are there), making the usual small talk; where are you from, what do you do, etc. The farther I get into Turkey, the more unbelievable it is I’m from the US. I turn back and head east to the next drainage and give it a try.

This road isn’t as challenging, but spectacular nevertheless. A high mountain pass from Guneyce to Oulece is still covered in snow and certainly a blast to ride.

I stop for fuel in Asagi Ozbag and am standing at the pump holding the bike straight upright for the attendant. I notice an old man walking by using a fairly long walking staff and staring at me in certain amazement. I don’t pay much attention until I feel a poke in the back; I turn my head and see him poking me with his fully extended staff and mumbling. He again pokes me in the leg this time. I turn back to the attendant with an amused grin and then feel a good thump on my shoulder. The old man has now grabbed his staff with both hands and starts smacking me in the side like a Turkish piñata. I’m in a bit of a pickle because I can’t let go of the bike, so I turtle up as best possible and take a couple more good wacks from the long staff. Two men rush over and grab the man and pull him away. Wow – I’ve just been caned!

I would guess the man wasn’t quite right upstairs; but you never know, maybe he thought the same of me. I cant imaging what was going through his head, I must have looked like some kind of alien in the helmet and full riding gear. All in all, not a lot to do but laugh off the flogging and finish up with the attendant. This drew quite a crowd and a good opportunity to check in with the onlookers about the next section of road to Yusufeli.

I pull over at 6:30 and set up camp outside of Karabagla and cook up some rice and veggies. Somewhat of a cross between Spanish rice and stir fry. With so many roadside markets, I’m eating a ton of fresh fruit and vegetables on the road.

I received a text alert tonight from the US state department about a protest in Tbilisi, Georgia Sunday and to avoid downtown. Depending on the border crossing tomorrow, this was going to be my next stop. Maybe I’ll stop and join the rally.

Other than one roadside beat down by on old man, the Turkish hospitality continues.

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May 15 – Scenery and Religion

I decide to head into Sinop and see if I can find a fuel canister for my stove and with some help from a local, get led to a shop that miraculously has what I’m looking for.

I quickly head east for a long drive up the Black Sea coast to Trabzon, about an 8 hr ride. The Black Sea is anything but its namesake; it reminds me of the California coast in many spots with the road winding up the coastline through one small town after the other. It was really a spectacular drive – a bit of a yawn on the newly paved highway, but nevertheless, really pretty.

I stop for fuel in a small town and am greeted by a man who is interested in the bike and speaks very little English. He takes me to his sisters restaurant on the water and orders me a buttery pasta dish. Albeit a bit heavy, it was a really nice gesture and experience.

Only 2 days out of the city and everyone I come in contact with is extremely helpful. Ever time I stop by the bike, a crown draws around and people do whatever they can to help; it’s tea at gas stations, leading me to the market, lunch, etc. The common theme that almost always seems to come up is religion – obviously Islam. I know very little about general religion and even less about the Islamic faith.  I’m reading a book about Muhammad so I do my best to fit in when needed – when in Rome….

I was having tea at a gas station with 4 gentlemen and one of the men mentions he is a historian (keep in mind this is all done with a Google translation app). Sometime before I left Big Sky, I read that archeologists discovered remnants of man dating back 400,000 yrs bc somewhere in Uzbekistan. To share in conversation with the historian, I ask if he knows anything about these findings. He quickly snaps back (in Google translate – but body language says it all) that its not correct, that man comes from Arabia. “Of course” I type out on the app…. Allah is from Arabia. This turns the conversation to the Islamic faith and some questions to me. I show them a couple of Islamic books I have on Kindle (one of which my Muslim friends from Istanbul gave me), along with a downloaded version of Koran for Dummies and all is good again. There’s a lot of smiles and handshaking, I am clearly one of the group again and I’m served another tea.

What I’ve learned so far in Turkey…..the Turkish really like to be complimented on their beautiful country, and whenever in a pinch, make a reference to the “7 Hills – birthplace of Muhammad?” to smooth things over.

2nd day of no photos – I’ll do better tomorrow.

May 14 – On the Road

I’m the road at 5am and still navigating traffic in Istanbul – I’m shocked it’s this heavy this early.   Even with my GPS helping me out of town, I find the highways’ fairly complex with multiple changes switching to multiple different roadways. With only a bit of backtracking, it still takes about 4 hrs to get completely out of the city/cities. I head northeast toward Sinop trying to stick to back roads and small towns. I get exactly what I’m looking for as I wind and weave my way north.

The route takes bit longer than expected, so I start to look for a place to camp around 6pm. I head up into the mountains and decide to test my luck on a cattle track leading up into the woods. I find a small grassy clearing and set up camp for the first time of the trip. I guess I’m still working on the bugs, because I find my camp stove doesn’t match my fuel type – shit. I end up cooking my dinner over a small fire and cash out around 9.

I’ll sort it out tomorrow – I’m wiped out.

May 13 – A fight breaks out

Bribery, Extortion and or just pain ignorance. I’ve gone through all of the possibilities and finally landed on ignorance.   The shipping company is just a shipping company and is certainly trying to get as much as possible for their work. The problem as I’m finding out is with the Customs subcontractor – I’m fairly certain they’ve never dealt with this type of cargo before and don’t know what to do. Citizenship, tax id, personal identification number; it’s all an attempt to cover their ass should they make an error. As I finally found out today, they have classified the cargo as hazardous material and have increased their rate to store and process the shipment.

We started again at 8 am going through the same process as all of the other days. One room to the next getting signatures on the same pieces of paper that we already have signatures on.   There always seems to be the same questions and same confusion with my shipping agent and the customs officials yelling back and forth to each other. At some point in the verbal melee, a loud crash from upstairs dominates the yelling. Another loud crash, clank, bang, etc. – the room goes silent as we listen to what sounded like the building was falling down. Some people run for the door, a couple people ran up the stairs (hero types) and others just stand and listen. I’ll looking for the easiest route out as I fear gunshots are about to be fired – maybe a disgruntled worker? After what felt like 10 minutes of ruckus, security guards bring down two men who have apparently gotten in a fight. What a crazy think. 1 min later its business as usual and the yelling starts up again between the customs agents and shipping contractors.

Finally, my agent does the wash of the hands gesture and its over; they’re going to bring out my bike. We get it placed on the loading dock, start breaking the crate apart with a hammer (no drill) and unpack the bike. With about 10 people standing around, I they pay off the agent with $3,000 in cash ($2100 of which goes to the customs office) as everyone looks on. I pull out my empty pockets after the deal hoping to signify that I’m broke – no more money. As he scurries off with his cash in pocket, I work on getting the bike set up and head out.

Finally, I’m off. I cannot wait to get out of the city. I’ll head up north toward  the coast and with any luck get away from the hordes of slick carpet salesmen and sunburned tourists. If it feels like the adventure is about to begin, I’m not sure where that leaves me with what I’ve just experienced.

I stocked up on a few staples at a local market and I’ll push off in the am.  I few photos from the day.

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The market

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May 12 – Lost

That didn’t go so well today.

On the positive side, I did some pretty complex navigating around the back streets of Istanbul. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous several times today in the locations and situations I was finding myself in. I was probably 10 miles deep into the sprawl – its unbelievable how massive this place is. By comparison, Florida is the most populated state in the US with 19 million people – Istanbul alone is 17 million strong in a fraction of the size of the comparison state.  Navigating through the Gobi desert was simple compared to what I went through today.

Regardless of were I found myself (my phone/GPS died mid day), there was always someone around that went out of his or her way to help. I believe most everyone was just curious about me.  

Although I feel like minority in the mainstream areas of the city, it’s not until I was wandering through the impoverished areas today, that I understand truly what a minority I was. I was on some wild goose chase to find a social services office that was supposed to issue me a “temporary ID card”. As it turns out, the building nor the temp ID card exists. From the best I could tell, I believe I ended up with a Turkish tax id number?? This is supposedly the last piece of documentation I need to get the cargo released. It’s safe to assume the receiving shipment company and privately contracted customs company have never received a motorcycle before.

Anyway, I’d like to think its just ignorance of the process with the shipping company that landed me on this goose chase today. With my Turkish tax number, believe I have all of the documents needed to get my motorcycle released. Now I have to come to grips with the additional fees their looking to charge me.

Hopefully tomorrow is my last day in Istanbul.

No photos today – as much as I would’ve liked to capture some of the moments, places, and to share what the density of 17 million looks like; I couldn’t bring myself to pull out my camera today. It may be the character in the faces of the impoverished that makes great photos, but it felt disrespectful to pull out a camera on the people that were so quick to help.

May 11 – Customs Day

I was up early (too early) and sat atop the hotel roof with the early morning sunrise over Sultanahmet and the modern Istanbul over on the Asia side of the river.  Perched above the upcoming chaos is the best place for me; I’ve always liked cities from afar, but have never been crazy about being in down in the mix. Unfortunately this is where I was headed after a quick tea.

I was heading out to the customs office to meet up with my freight forwarding representative, who is going to help me get through the process.  The company has an extremely nice website with a fleet of new jets, cargo ships, etc.  Very impressive and I anticipate it going very smooth.  I took a 45 minute subway/tram ride with multiple connections to its termination, where I switched over to the bus for the last 30 min of my trip. I walked the last mile or two to Delta Cargo Logistics (not associated with Delta Airlines). Upon arrival to my gps point, I determined I must have the wrong address because I was in an alley where certainly no self respecting business would operate business.

I happened to find a small sign (about 8” x 12”) on the side of a hallway leading up a trash filled stairway. On my way up I passed a couple of offices that by the look had been deserted in the not so distant past. On the top floor was Delta Cargo. It all came clear when I walked through the door and found a company in a warehouse style space that looked like it had just moved in. It was wicked hot with minimal lights, no floor covering and a few old metal desks scattered throughout. I now understand these companies to be a shell of a business, that special in seemingly noting more than good web marketing and some experience on the ground knowing others in the business.

After a brief introduction, I hopped in a busted up minivan with a non English speaking gentlemen that took me to the customs department where I was to meet another non English speaking gentlemen who would help me thorough the process of securing my cargo.

This photo doesn’t do it justice, but somewhere amongst these chain smoking, close talking Turkish men, was my freight forwarder specialist.

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We spent a good 6 hours going from one run down Soviet era building to another, getting sometimes a signature, sometimes a stamp, and mostly a wave if the hand, which was clearly the universal sign for “get the hell out of here”. We finally made it to a modern warehouse that was too large to comprehend – finally, I was sure my motorcycle was in the mix of the well-organized rows of storage racks. We picked up one more stamp and left the building to a taxi station. I assumed something went wrong – of course I didn’t know this, because my logistics specialist spoke as much English as I did Turkish (none).

We took a 20 min taxi ride somewhere, where we ended at another cargo warehouse; certainly not modern and nice like the last facility. I sat around for another hour or so watching men on their break play backgammon and drink tea. This may have been the highlight of the day; I’ve honestly never seen backgammon played at such a high rate of precision and speed.

At some point, I saw a forklift come around the corner with my crate. We quickly unpacked it and all gathered around admiring the magnificent KTM. We were almost done; one more stop upstairs to get the final papers in order and I’d be on my way. NOT. The customs agent went through all of my paperwork and continually denied my documents. These situations are kind of funny, because luckily anyone who can speak some form of English gathers around to help. I believe we ended getting all documents approved with the exception of a Turkish ID card, which I’ve never heard of being required. That’s apparently it, without a word (not even a Turkish goodbye) I watched my liaison walk out the door and jump in taxi. I guess I’m on my own again.   It’s a taxi, a bus, a subway, a tram, back to the hotel and my laptop to do a little research.

So….tomorrow I’m headed about an hour and a half into the city to find a government building that may issue me a Turkish identification card. Then a tram, a subway, a bus, a taxi back to the chain smoking, close talking Turkish men.   Gotta love it and to give credit where its due – i certainly appreciate all the help i received today.  The guys certainly knew there way around and   provided a monumental help.  To be continued.

I finished off my day on top of the 7 Hills bar/restaurant, eating drinking and watching the sun set on St. Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

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