September 9: Sheki, Azerbaijan
7:42. Today we will exit Azerbaijan at Balaka and enter Georgia at Lagodekhi.
10:10. After a very scenic 90 minute drive we are approaching the border. Tensions don’t seem to be running nearly as high as when we entered and exited Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. A clipboard is passed around the truck for another guessing game. I predict we’ll clear customs and be on the road in Georgia in one hour and nine minutes.
10:20. Over the last hour we’ve met several shepherds and their flocks and dodged a few herds of tasty looking Jersey and Angus cattle that were milling around on the road. We’ve passed orchards, vineyards and hazelnut groves. The area is known for its honey, grape and nut production and judging by the number of butcher shops, they aren’t just milking those cows. Most butchers display a fresh cow’s head on a pole or hook, or in some cases just sitting in a pan of blood outside the front door.
10:25. We arrive at the border and start the clock.
12:04. Whew! That was the easiest border crossing yet! We’re through the entire process (exit and entry stamps, bag checks, declarations and money changers) in one hour and 39 minutes. My guess would have won the prize had I not delayed us by 30 minutes when there was an issue with my Azerbaijan visa. We’re not going to talk about that though.
12:20. It doesn’t take long to notice some startling differences between Azerbaijan and Georgia. The houses on this side of the border are older and most haven’t seen a paintbrush or a lawn mower in decades. In the city of Baku we saw mostly BMWs and Toyotas and in rural Azerbaijan we saw more late model Ladas. Here the Ladas are early Soviet era. Most have body panels in several different colours offset by large patches of bondo and primer. I saw one guy driving on the highway with no windshield and two dangling headlights. We haven’t seen donkey carts since Uzbekistan but there are plenty here in the wine region near the border.
13:30. We park outside the city gate and are shuttled to Nana’s Guest House where we have reserved four twin rooms and two doubles. We’re met at the door by Nana, a plump woman of about 50 who answers every question and replies to every statement with a semi-reassuring “no problem.”
Except there is a problem. There’s another group of 50 in Signagi for a wedding and every place in town is fully booked. Nana has mastered the art of double and likely triple booking her small guest house. “No problem,” she says, “you can put two boys in this 3/4 size bed and three more in that Queen.” Helen insists that we have a reservation for four rooms with two single beds and two rooms with double beds. “No problem,” says Nana. Somehow everyone eventually gets a bed for the night. (Two French girls who arrived after us will sleep in Nana’s bed. I suspect we got the rooms they had reserved.)
17:00 Jess and I rent ATVs for an hour-long guided tour led by two local teens. The quads were fun and the views from the top of the mountain were spectacular. (Tip to Georgian ATV operators: Those things should be tuned up and the breaks checked once every 20 years or so.)
18:00. On the way back to Nana’s we stop at the market for snacks. The variety isn’t up to North American standards but then your average 7-11 doesn’t sell homemade wine and cognac in recycled Coke bottles for less than a buck a bottle. The cognac actually smells quite nice.
19:00. Everyone else heads to Pheasant’s Tears Winery for a wine tasting with food pairings. I’ve read the online reviews and I’m not convinced this is a “must do.” Besides, I’m stuffed after a late lunch with three types of cheese. I’m reminded of something I noticed yesterday on Facebook.
21:00. The others return from the winery one and two at a time. Apparently it got messy. One part of me is glad that I missed it but another part – the part that stares at car accidents and roadkill – wishes I had been there.