We all woke unexpectedly late. Jack and Ollie discovered a pile of carefully folded clothes by their door; the wind had blown our clothes all over the car park and our host had gone to the effort of chasing down and returning them. We left for Tbilisi, a little ashamed of ourselves, towards an address in the Old Town that Eddies’ Ice Cream had sent us.
We found the address with only minor hassle. On the other side of the cast iron door, we stood blinking in the sudden gloom of the hallway. The phrase “derelict hovel came to mind. “Taste the history” the sign had said. You could taste something in the musty air for sure. Cracked paint hung like drapes from the ceiling. They had preserved the history of the place by leaving it untouched by redecorators or cleaning products since before the Ottoman Empire. They had thrown in a rusty stepladder for effect. On the first floor: a locked door. On the second, a balcony precariously supporting a menagerie of old children’s toys.
Another passageway took us into the lounge of 75 year old cat lady (minus cats) where we found someone (who was more like 30 years old). We proceeded to mime the appearance of the team members from Eddies’ Ice Creams. Something clicked and she led us upstairs past an empty dorm into a corridor with a low (5ft high) ceiling. Opening the first door and ducking inside, Ollie shouted “Harry”. Harry was not in that shower. “Harry?” neither was in any of the consecutive toilets or bathrooms that followed. Either the boys had flushed themselves to avoid the bill or there had been some kind of misunderstanding.
We retired to McDonalds for air conditioning and free WiFi, sending them a text. They did show up after a while. We checked into the hostel, which contrary to our description was actually fairly pleasant, and drank a pint at a local bar. Our plan to head straight onto Baku died with that pint and we decided to drink a couple more to commiserate. We wandered to another bar before finding a brewery which served bacon flavoured beer.
It was on the way to the first bar that someone tried to sell us a limousine. It was outside the second that we found 5 more limousines (it is unlikely we will ever be able to reply “no thanks, we’ve already got one” truthfully to an offer to buy a limousine again). It turns out that Tbilisi is the birth place of the modern limousine. The history of the limousine started when a local mechanic attempted to sell his car to tailor. Whilst bartering, they drank. Even after they had settled on a price, they continued to negotiate, slipping seamlessly onto the amount of car that the tailor would buy for that price, just as one might haggle for fabric. The final price was 500 Gel for 1.33 cars. The first limousine was made that evening of a Lada 1207 series sawn in half with a third of another Lada welded in the middle. Because the Georgian word for tailor is “Limoshgif”, and the Georgian word for car is “Machina” or “Shina” for short, cars of this kind were called “Limo’s Shina” and eventually, “Limousine”. Tbilisi now produces only a few hundred limousines per year, but the Lada limousine is certainly the most commonly seen car on the road. It is a classic case of the Western world believing it has invented something that existed prior that Georgia is not known for this gift to mankind.
Following a “Mongol Rally Rumour” we walked the entire breadth of Tbilisi in search of other Mongol Ralliers who were at a vague address in that general direction. Pulling away members of the expedition who were periodically waylaid by canny marketeers at strip bars we crossed into the part of Tbilisi that is clearly intended to be its showpiece. A huge bridge lit by invisible LEDs, a fountain that changes its arrangement to classical music, music, tourists the like. A gargantuan tube also appears to be under construction – cannot wait till it is done.
Once we reached the other side, we found no-one. We walked back to the brewery and resumed drinking. This being our second time in the bar (that same evening) we were treated as regulars, which meant having our drinks spiked with Georgian homebrew known as “Jha Jha” or something similar. It came out of an unlabelled 10L white container. It tasted awful. Several of us got halfway through our pints before the bartender manage to top them up for us with more Jha Jha. As Harry Thompson downed a quadruple shot of the stuff, all of us had a sinking feeling that consisted of more than our digestive tracts grappling with Georgia’s finest spirit. Some say Jha Jha includes the hair of the brewer to add personality. Some say it includes some of their skin to give it body. All shake their heads and say “Jha Jha” under their breath the following morning.
Following one more tip-off, we again made our way to the other side of town. The walk was much more colourful this time, including piggy back jousting, wheelbarrow racing and arm wrestling. A veritable festival of sporting activity. The bar was called “Cannabis Bar”. It was actually called “Canudus Bar” but was the Tbilisi hotspot for purchasing cannabis; Steve was asked several times by locals if he was the bar’s resident dealer. Upon arrival, Harry was sick and fell asleep. It was at this point that he became a hit with the locals, who prodded him, poured water over his head and tried to stand him up repeatedly. He spent much of the rest of the night in a back room dosing before Laurence and Dom took him home.
The night wasn’t over yet though and Otto, Jack’s school friend met us to continue the party shenanigans. He took a few of us to what seemed to a hip underground club (halfway between warehouse and mansion), we did a bit of disco dancing and much fun was had. It ended with the third McDonalds in 12 hours, Alex being temporarily lost in the night and us easing into our firm bunk beds at 5 am.
We woke to find everyone in the dorm with us, even though Eddies’ Ice Creams had rented a private room. Alex was curled up on the floorboards. As people came to (and Harry, with only a slight wobble, sprung fairly cheerfully from his bed) we pieced together what had happened to Alex, though gaping holes remain. He had wandered from the club and walked for a very long time. Roused somewhere he did not at all recognise, by a policeman who slapped him repeatedly in the face, he walked for a further two hours until he reached the hostel at 9am.
Dom took the Ice Cream Team to see their van. They had been hoping to move on that day but it was not to be. So we wished them the best and set off towards Baku and our ferry to Turkmenistan. We were halfway there before we realised we had forgotten to collect our cutlery.
We reached Azerbaijan border without incident in just 45 minutes. The queue looked roughly as long as the queue at Georgia, so we settled in for a short wait. The queue moved forwards by about 4 cars every half an hour. It was incredibly slow. As we waited, we read and wrote up notes. We looked forward to the ferry from Baku which we were told combined the joys of both…
The only entertainment was a minor soap opera that emerged when two sleek 4x4s managed to nip in front of us, jumping the queue, as we pushed the limo. A mob of irritated Azerbaijani men quickly formed. Several brought their children either to witness how grown men sort out problems or to neutralise any potential violence. As entertainment, it could have been improved by subtitles. Dom occasionally lingered on the edge of the mob nodding and frowning to show support in evicting the interlopers, but to little avail. In common with much of modern script-writing, they really dragged it out. It was difficult to discern what the line of the discussion could have been beyond
“You pushed in!”,
“Yeh, so what?”
…but it went on for at least an hour.
Unlike your usual soap opera, ours lost interest in its own plot and latched onto its audience for plot continuation. We watched as the mob backed down and tangibly rotated towards the limousine, like a flock of carrion birds wheeling about in search of new prey. It was possible that we were at fault for having not simply driven and closed the gap as everyone else was doing. We tried our meek smiles. If all else fails, wave them over to the map on the boot of the car and show them the route. They were just genuinely curious. After we had exhausted that, there followed the customary saying of the names of British football teams and players. Football: a universal language.
Three of us went through security on foot, leaving Ollie to take the car through. As we waited on the other side for several hours we had premonitions of anal cavity searches, issues with the lock box for which we had the key, a thorough strip down of the car. We fended off the men with decks of Azerbaijani currency and wowed the security guard with the powerball to pass the time.
It was 6 and a half hours before Ollie found his way through. Of the time spent at the border, only 10 minutes was spent on any kind of administrative process, the rest Ollie spent talking to the driver behind him, though neither spoke the other’s language.
Once across we spotted a bulge in the tire and swiftly changed it. During the change we were approached by an English speaking Azerbaijani. Friendly, eloquent, confessional, he seemed like a good guy and found us places to sleep and eat after dissuading us from continuing in the dark towards Baku. The beds were made of wire fences and fairly large cockroaches stalked the corners of the room, but we were exhausted and grateful.
We faced the twin challenges of buying a new tire and finding the right fuel. It took 5 petrol stations and 6 tires places before we were ready to go.
We had been warned that the police were “extremely proactive” in Azerbaijan (we had also heard something about the fact that they would take you out to sea and read you your rights, asking you to write them down – this was somehow tied up with the ferry from Baku…) and the former proved accurate as we were pulled over despite driving at the speed limit and having the full contingent of necessary paperwork. Steve was instructed to take his passport into the police station where he was asked to pay a $300 fine for speeding. Feigning confusion and repeatedly saying “money for the embassy, yes?” Steve artfully negotiated the price down to $0 and we drove on.
After sighing with longing at the countless watermelon stalls by the side of the road we finally capitulated and pulled over to indulge. Jack stepped up to the plate with our only manat to buy us the biggest watermelon conceivable. Even offering the service of his voluptuous body, trying the “walk away” trick and remonstrating with emphatic gestures (lanky arms extended wide), we received only a modest watermelon. A dark day for mankind.
Heavy with defeat we almost gave up on the rally on the spot. We probably could have made it to Baku but we could barely bring ourselves to progress, so hopeless seemed our desolate plight. The watermelon was barely larger than a human head. We closed our eyes and pictured the ferry. It was there that they would tell us how to live. They would impart words of wisdom and courage and we would scribble down every single word.
From then on, Azerbaijan was flat, arid plains. We drove for a while towards a promising looking mountain range but it evaded our enfeebled approach. Much of the motorway was limited to 60km/h, dropping to 30km/h to pass police stations and junctions. It was slow going.
Bored, we took a turning and drove towards the horizon through the dust in search of a place to camp. We were sure we were several hundred metres from any kind of civilisation by the time we set up the tents. In the following 20 minutes, we had spotted over 30 Ladas and 20 trucks 100m from us driving on the main off-road track linking the outskirt towns to Baku. Going over 60 mph, a Lada and Truck flanked us from the right and left. “Paruski?”. “English”, “Tourist”. They laughed and drove off.
That night, we used the mosquito net for first time and slept out in the open.