Exiting the port south of Baku proved almost as convoluted as entering on the Kazakh side, but we managed to rapidly wear down any resistance from the three customs officials searching the car… The first was unfortunate enough to open and sniff the jar of chilli just as a gust of wind came through, blowing a good dusting into his eye. He retreated to the bathroom to wash it out, and a second was sent by his superior to check on him when he failed to return. The superior, having declined our offer of a consolatory sweet, then decided to try the kurrut, which have become increasingly salty as they have dried out. After biting enthusiastically into a whole one (we mostly nibble bits off) and looking quite surprised at the taste, he then foamed at the mouth for a couple of minutes before waving us through lest we despatch any more of his team.
We’re sure Azerbaijan has a lot to offer the traveller, but for us the most poignant feature was the most consistently smooth tarmac we had seen since China. So we headed west as fast as we legally could. At least mostly legally, as we couldn’t find anywhere to buy the mandatory third party car insurance, and decided we weren’t going to waste time hunting. It took us less than 24 hours to get across the country and in to Georgia, where we had hoped to spend a week mountain biking. We now reckoned we could spare just a day and plotted a route to Kazbegi National Park. We were a little hindered by Georgia’s picturesque wine region, but eventually prised ourselves away from a delicious vineyard lunch and, after a couple of mountain passes, some epic thunderstorms, and a steep and rough river crossing, found a campsite amongst the region’s fabled and beautiful wild flowers. We managed a short ride from Juta the following day, making a note to come back to this easily accessible outdoor playground, with so much potential for both summer and winter fun.
Leaving Georgia, we met with the most obstructive border guards of our whole trip: surprising given the ease of entry and friendly welcome when we arrived. Not happy with Giles’ West Australian paperwork the guards initially refused us exit from the country. When we protested the ridiculousness of this they took our paperwork to the Turkish side to drum up support for their stance. The Turks evidently had no such worries, as our paperwork was then processed without further comment or delay and we passed through the Turkish side without difficulty.
The east of Turkey has to be one of the great surprises of the trip. Expecting dry and arid hills, we initially drove through high and open bright green pastures, feeling like the Yorkshire dales at 2000m, before diving down through alpine villages into deep gorges and ravines where the road snakes along the river edge overlooked by ancient castles and keeps. A big mountain landscape then took us past the Derince Reservoir before we joined the main road west, following the shore of the Black Sea most of the way to Istanbul. Once again, we made a mental note to return.
Istanbul was, as expected, busy and stunning. We stopped briefly on the way in to finally replace the cracked windscreen from Kazakhstan, which had been worsened by some slightly over-zealous cleaning by a gas station attendant, and squeezed through the narrow streets to our hotel. Arriving in the afternoon we managed a quick tour of the Blue Mosque before it closed to the public for prayers, and then wound our way down to the huge bazaar, hunting for spices to take home. The market is a vibrant blend of European, Middle Eastern and Asian produce and culture, with everything from Dysons to diamonds hidden down narrow alleys and under stairwells. It is vast, and warrants a day spent here alone. I eventually managed to extract Cas, but not before she had three bottles of pomegranate molasses clinking around in her bag.
The final few days of our adventure are a bit of a blur. We covered the 3000km from Istanbul to Calais in four days, winding through Bulgaria, Romania (including the fabled Transfagarasan, Top Gears’ “best road in the world”, on a sunny Sunday afternoon with apparently everyone else in Romania…), Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and finally into France. Our final night was spent in a campsite bar watching the women’s football World Cup semi final, drinking local Belgian craft beer, and feeling a very very long way from the Mongolian steppe.
We expected a slow customs process in the morning, bringing a foreign car into the U.K., but we rolled on to the ferry without even a nod to the unusual number plate, joined a few caravans and bus loads of excited French school children, and waved goodbye to a remarkable journey that has covered 20,000km on some of the highest, toughest and remotest roads in the world. We didn’t really know what to expect on setting out from China, and many of the places we’ve been through we couldn’t have placed on a map before we started. Our world geography has improved if nothing else. The mental strain of this trip – worrying about the vehicle, frequent changes of country and culture, and the pressure of driving to a deadline – has been far greater than we had anticipated, and we would have loved to have longer. But it’s been an incredible privilege to be able to squeeze this journey through such vibrant, friendly and diverse cultures and landscapes into a chink of time between two jobs, and a fantastic way to come home.
We are delighted to be home and are now settling back into life in Edinburgh, where normal service has resumed – I am collecting in and playing with my various lent-out toys, and Cas is destroying the garden in the knowledge that I will then be forced to help put it back together how she wants it. She has also started work as a consultant paediatric anaesthetist, of which I am extremely proud.
And so here we end. Thank you to everyone who has read, contributed to and shared this blog over the last three months. We’ve enjoyed writing it, and hope that it has inspired some of you to visit this vast, fascinating and maybe misrepresented region of our planet. We’re sure you’ll be warmly welcomed, wherever and however you go.