More clear skies, and from the orchard in which we camped the road flew downhill all the way to the valley floor, a perfect start to the morning.
Flat easy riding for most of the day, passing by farms to the the right and the foothills of the Caucuses to the left. Very sparsely populated, a few small houses here and there but we were on our own for the most part, except for the occasional lorry or Lada passing us by.
We pulled off the main road and into the town of Kvareli for lunch. It’s a town that seems to be expecting a big tourist boom soon, or maybe it’s just packed in the summer. There were a few large hotels, presumably not all that full and some wine taverns offering wine tasting to tourists, but were closed for the most part. We found a little bakery and had kachapuri for lunch.
Similar riding again after lunch, as we got closer to the border we passed through some bigger towns. These long towns snaked all along the road, with high fences and walls running continuously almost right up to the road which made the riding feel a bit claustrophobic, as if in a tunnel.
Flat for most of the day, but towards the end there was a short steep hill that we had to climb. Two young Georgian kids in full cycle lycra (one of them in what looked like a national team kit) came racing up past us. I was quite envious of their unloaded road bikes, so mobile and quick. Down the other side of the hill Finn had gotten talking to a local guy on a scooter. He seemed to like bikes, I think he had a small shop, or knew someone who did.
Anyway, we were hard pressed finding somewhere to camp what with the whole side of the road built up with houses and farms and fences and walls. This guy on the scooter whose name was Iosef (like Stalin, he told us) said he knew where we could camp and to follow him.
So we got in line behind him, and soon one of those kids who had passed us out on the hill rode by and decided to join in our little convoy. We went for a good 7 or 8 km, right into the town of Lagodekhi and we were beginning to wonder where he was taking us. Maybe there was something lost in translation, was he taking us to a hotel? We didn’t really want to stay in a hotel but there really was nowhere to camp.
We started riding up towards the foothills, up a long incline through the town. It was starting to get dark. Eventually we arrived at a big new wall and a set of gates that led into the Caucus Mountain National Park! Iosef led us to one of his friends who worked at the park. There was a nice grassy garden area at the front near the gate with a visitors center. Iosefs friend (with perfect English) told us we could camp out on the garden of the visitors center no problem and even showed us where we could get fresh drinking water and, if we wanted, a place to build a fire.
We didn’t build a fire in the end. We put the the tarp up under the supervision of Iosef. It was a clear cold night so we broke out the big winter sleeping bags that we’ve been carrying since Istanbul.
Woke up to clear blue skies today and spent a good few minutes in the morning celebrating how dry all our gear was. After a week camping in the rain we could really enjoy packing our gear away dry and not soaked through.
Yesterday evening we had turned off the main road running East to Azerbaijan from Tbilisi and today we would be heading north, over a pass and to the foot of the Greater Caucuses. From there we would follow the mountains east along an apparently quieter and more scenic road to another border with Azerbaijan.
The morning was clear and crisp, if only a little chilly and we had ride up and over numerous hills as we approached the pass we had to cross today. Very quickly we left the flat farmland and entered sparsely populated hilly country. This place is probably beautiful in summer or autumn but now in early winter the foliage was an almost all the same dull shade of brown.
We stopped for an early lunch just before the pass. The pass itself was not that steep and was a pretty fun climb and as with most mountain ascents, well worth the effort when we got to the top and got to look back, the way we came laid out behind us and the Greater Caucus mountain range out in front.
A long descent then down the other side to the town of Telavi, passing lots of development work going on outside it the town. This region that we just crossed into is supposedly the most famous of all Georgian wine regions and small hotels and winery’s are being built all over the place to accompany the handful at exist already.
Dinner in Telavi, a surprisingly pretty town once you get into it. Picked up a few supplies here before heading out just as it began to get dark. We stumbled across an orchard on the outskirts that provided us a prefect camp spot for the night. Tuckered out after the climb over the pass so went to bed almost immediately.
We spent almost a week in Tbilisi waiting for Iran visa to come through. I think we could have got it done sooner, but we were in the city for a national holiday St. George’s day and also didn’t get our forms in until Friday so that delayed the process a bit.
I know when we were researching the trip we spent a lot of time looking online for information about getting visas on the road, so coming up will be some boring visa information.
Boring visa information below
Getting an Iran Visa in Tbilisi (November 2015)
There’s a lot of conflicting information online about what you need to do to get a visa for Iran. With the sanctions being lifted I think the process is probably going to go through a lot of change. I’ve been reading online that the Iranian government are looking to increase tourism to the country drastically over the next couple of years. You can already get a Visa on arrival if you fly in but that’s useless for overland travellers.
Anyway, all I know about is the process we went through. Hopefully this can clear some things up.
Step 1: Personal Reference Number
Before you even go to the embassy you need to get a Personal Reference Number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Affairs in Tehran. It’s basically a rubber stamp pre-approving your visit. You might read about some people getting a visa at this or that embassy without the Reference Number, but everybody I’ve spoken to so far who got a Visa had a Reference Number, and anyone who didn’t, hadn’t.
There are two ways to get a Reference Number.
The first way is to get in contact with someone in Iran who will make the application for your reference number to the MFA on your behalf. This person will have to be happy to interface with the bureaucracy in Tehran, fill out the forms etc. the advantage with this method is that it is free, the disadvantage is that it is hard to organise and (apparently) takes longer. Up to six weeks, or so they say. I don’t know first hand as we didn’t go this route but it is an option.
The other method is going through an agency. We got in contact with Dave from Stan tours . Dave was really helpful, gave us a bunch of information and at a cost of $50 per person made the reference number application for us. Once we sent them our details over they had the reference number in a week.
You don’t get the reference number yourself by the way, it gets sent to a consulate or embassy of Iran that you designate. They say to be there three days after you get the message your number has arrived, but you can get there later. I think our number would have been sitting in the embassy in Tbilisi for over a month. Once you have the reference number you’re ready for Step 2.
Step 2: Visa Application
This is only relevant to Tbilisi, but might carry over to other consulates. I can say about the staff in Tbilisi is that they are very friendly, but by the book.
The Embassy is open ONLY from 10:00 – 13:00. There is no later opening to pick up a visa, so almost no chance of getting a same day Visa. If you arrive right as they open and have everything ready to go you can hand the form back the same day and get the visa in 1 – 2 days.
When you arrive first you have a short interview with one of the staff. It’s quite informal, they asked us where we are from, when we want to go and for how long. Then they asked if we have a reference number and when he found it in his stack of reference numbers he then gave us the form to fill out.
You need to have an address in Iran for the form, but the guy at the embassy told us directly that booking a hotel for one night and using that address was fine.
He also asked us for travel insurance information. Even just your policy card will do for this, you hand it in during the application and get it back at the end.
Those are the only slightly awkward parts of the application, the rest of the form is pretty easy to fill out. With the form you are also handed a slip of paper with the embassy’s bank info on it. Walk back down the hill, past the fork in the road and back to the wide intersection (about 15 min) to find a branch of their bank. Here just go to a teller, say ‘Iran Visa’ and hand them the slip. Make the deposit (in Euros, our charge was €40)Take the deposit receipt.
You also need passport photos, we didn’t find anywhere that close to the embassy so maybe have these on hand before you go of you want to get all done fast.
So if you have
– a reference number
– passport photos (2)
-Euros in cash
-the number and address of a hotel for one night in Iran
-potentially your travel insurance policy card (this isn’t always required, I think they decide on case by case)
Then all you have to do is arrive for a short interview, get the form, fill out the form, walk 15min down the street to the bank make the deposit and then back up to hand in the form before 13:00. Return the following day or so and pick up your visa. Simple.
End of Visa information
Apart from visa stuff Tbilisi is quite a nice place to visit, if a bit unfriendly to pedestrians. It’s position as an important trade hub between Central Asia and Eastern Europe over the centuries meant it’s been hotly contested by the Persians of antiquity, native Georgians, the khans of the steppe, the Tzars and Bolsheviks of Russia and even the Ottomans. You can get a real feel for all this walking around the city, a twenty minute walk from the old town to the newer side of the city takes you past all sorts of different architecture. There are wide European style avenues and narrow ottoman alleys next to each other.
We spent a good while in the hostel cleaning, repairing and re waterproofing a lot of our gear for the coming winter. The poor weather from Batumi to Tbilisi really put us in our place, and while we are pretty well prepared for winter weather there were a few niggling issues that it was nice to have the time to work on while waiting for the visas.
After a week in Tbilisi we returned to the embassy to pick up our visas. We got them no problem and left the city the same day. We rode up out of the valley that cradled the city and onto the main road to to the Azerbaijan border.
Following this busy road for a while, maybe 20km, we decided in the end to turn off and ride North over the next day. There was a road closer North that skirted the foot of the greater Caucuses that offered a nicer ride into and through Azerbaijan than the busy main artery highway constructed on the flat. It was getting dark so after cycling along the north bound road we pulled off into a field and set up camp
Over the last couple of days we hadn’t been making much distance but today, judging by the map, we would make up for all that. From here to Tbilisi the road was all highway and along the flat. To cap it all off we had a huge tailwind to push us all the way there.
Conditions were perfect, and before lunch we had already covered more distance than all of yesterday. The road was pretty much flat the whole time except for some gradual climbs and for the most part the traffic was reasonable. We were riding on motorway that was still under construction until we passed the town of Gori.
That’s kind of all there is to say about the days riding really. Sometimes an uneventful day of riding is welcome though, especially if it means you get a lot of distance covered. As we got into Tbilisi the traffic got more congested of course, but in comparison to their cities we’ve cycled into it was a breeze to find our way.
Following the river took us straight to the center where we found a hostel to stay at quickly on the back of a recommendation from Adam in Batumi. We opted for a hostel in Tbilisi instead of Couchsurfing or warm showers as we would be making our Iranian visa application here and didn’t know how long it would take.
It had been clear most of the day yesterday, but just as we went to sleep a rain set in that hung around all night. In the morning it was reduced to a light drizzle and low clouds hung around just overhead. We set off along the same route, today should take us up over the pass at around 1000m and down the other side to the River Mtkvari, a significant point of progress as that’s the river that our destination Tbilisi lies on, and the first river we would ride beside that drains into the Caspian Sea. As you can probably tell I end up thinking about the rivers we pass a lot these days, I guess because they sort of tell the lay of land and our progress through a country a bit better than passing through roads or regional/county boundaries.
Road was the same as yesterday, so in similar condition – run down, muddy and potholed. It was some real rural riding along roads bordered only by trees and, very occasionally passing through settlements of one or two run soviet apartment blocks and a train station – the train tracks ran beside or near the road all day.
Cresting a hill in the morning we saw for the first time some snow capped mountains I front of us – until now they had always been to our North, at the top of the Greater Caucuses. The cars that passed us on the road were either big, gnarly old Russian trucks, which you would expect to be the type of vehicle necessary to navigate these roads but, bizarrely, the other type of vehicle were tiny, beat up old two seater cards. The splutter up the hills beside us and I had no idea how they got through some of the muddier and more flooded parts of the road – brute force I guess.
A bit confusingly we were also passed now and then by pretty new pick up trucks. Chinese pick up trucks, and always crammed full of Chinese guys. We were really scratching our heads, why were they all out here on this backwater road when the highway was nearby and served the same towns. After lunch we got our answer, turning a corner we came upon a huge construction site, manned entirely by Chinese guys. It seemed they were digging a tunnel through the mountain, but to where I don’t know. Looking on the map it didn’t seem like it would connect any major settlements at all. Strange.
As we climbed higher and the day wore on, the road got worse. It went from being potholed compacted earth to just rocks. And with the heavy rain, a stream was flowing down from the top of the pass along the road all day. We passed by some flooded sections of road with just enough space on the side to wheel our bikes past. The poor riding conditions meant it took the best part of the day to reach the top of the pass, it was close to three o’clock by the time we made it.
Down the other side, through the small town of Surami and into Khashuri, where we finally got something substantial to eat. Once we finished it was starting to get dark so riding out of town on the main road to Tbilisi we found a wide empty field next to the road and pulled off into it. We were down in the flat plains now near the river Mtkvari and framed North and South by mountains, but tomorrow we would be going East along the flat to Tbilisi. We were hoping to make some good distance today because I think overall we barely cycled 50km today! Much of the field was waterlogged but we set up on a patch of dry raised ground. Got the tarp up in the gloaming just before proper darkness and then a nice cup of tea and bed.
We woke up clear blue skies! It was cold, but clear and after a leisurely porridge breakfast we loaded up the bikes while some old farmer jack muttered incomprehensible Georgian to us. We started off with a bit of a steep climb up a hill, but at the top, what a view! The clear day gave us a view of the Greater a caucus range to the north across the plains which had only been partially visible until now. Over the last few days they had received a fresh dusting of snow and stood out sparkling in the morning sun.
We sped down the other side of the hill into the plains, down to the Kvirila river and then through the town of Zestafoni and out the other side, following the river up into the mountains. A gradual climb along the banks followed, running in parallel to the river and railway. Without noticing it we found ourselves back in the mountains again, which we were of course pretty happy about. Before long we arrived at a fork in the road, the main road veered left around the northern base of the mountains, the smaller local road to the right around the southern face. They both met up again, 60 or so kilometres ahead when the peaks levelled off again to plains so we went for the secondary route.
Immediately we knew this was going to be a fun ride, the road was riddled with potholes and the rain had pooled in them and flooded lower areas of the route. We road up and down over the spurs, gradually climbing and every now and then treated to great mountain gorge views. The road was sealed for the most part all the way up the town of Kharagauli where we picked up some food in a local convenience store. The main cause of traffic in the town seemed to be the local police car riding up and down the road, passing us by every three minutes as it reached the limits of town and turned back again.
We rode through Kharagauli and out the other side. Almost immediately the quality of the road dropped, there wasn’t much of the sealed Tarmac left and where the dirt had been exposed the rain and passing cars had churned it up into mud. Still the scenery was fantastic and the road, even in its sorry state was still perfectly rideable, just at a slower pace.
With sunset a little over an hour away we kept eyes out for a nice spot earlier, given we were in the mountains and large flat areas of unused ground were a bit harder to come by. We found an area of raised ground 80m from the banks of the river. We were hesitant to camp right on the bank given the recent amount of rain, but some debris and water sodden ground around the river gave away the high point the river reached over the last couple of days, so even if it did rain heavily our camp would be well clear.
With camp set up and a decent amount of daylight left we settled down to enjoy a relaxing evening in the mountains. A couple of minutes passed and then we heard and saw to dudes on horses galloping down the road. Gave them a wave and they stopped and trotted down to say hi. They seemed like nice guys and offered us a cup of beer from the big bottle they were carrying.
We sat around and gestured for a while until they offered a go on the horses. We thought they’d never ask! Finn hopped up first and went around for a trot, almost riding the horse through the tarp but turning it round in time. I had a go next and this whole horse riding lark seems to be a lot easier on the legs than bike riding, maybe we should swap.
After our little escapade the guys said goodbye and quite literally rode off into the sunset.