Countries blend together like paints on a palette and now that I had gone West from Central Asia, Europe’s influence was seeping in. The familiar feeling of being in a big city was brought back by the sounds of revving engines, squeaking tyres, uninterpretable chatter, all blended with the smell of exhaust fumes and the sticky, grimy pavements. Buildings were tall now, shops were well-stocked and streets housed expensive brands of clothing and electronics.
I observed my reflection in one of the shop windows and saw a very tired, unkept, messy traveller. I was relieved to be so close to neighbouring Georgia and my resting place for the winter. I still didn’t have a job or place to stay arranged and I didn’t know anyone there, but after the challenges faced thus far, these ones didn’t seem to bother me.
For now, I was staying in Baku for three nights. The feeling of homesickness combined with self-doubt and loneliness came creeping back when I started to relax. But when Brian and Lorenzo, two cyclists from America and Spain, walked in, those negative emotions went away.
Over the course of the first evening, I finally realised that it was the lack of conversation I was suffering from; travelling for months with people I cannot say more than ‘hello’, ‘my name is Tom’, and ‘I like your country’ to had had its effect on me. I had gone too much into my own mind. Laughing again, genuinely, not politely, was like re-learning a skill.
I made a promise to myself to make English-speaking friends in Georgia and build a temporary life for myself so I felt ready to continue in Spring.
After three nights of long, deep sleep, I felt fantastic. I made another promise to myself to go more slowly from now on; positive thinking became my normal state of mind when well rested, contrasting starkly the negative feelings which seemed natural to a more tired mind.
Before leaving Baku, I put the doubts about me doing this trip to bed once and for all. I made a list of all the positives of me doing this trip and realised that I was one of the luckiest people in the world. I wrote:
– I am free to make my own choices; I can rest when I want, move when I want and go where I want.
– There is no negativity that I seem to get from people when I know them for a long time. And if I don’t like someone, I can just move on.
– People are much nicer on the road.
– I am not obliged to talk or listen to anyone, if I don’t want to.
– No competitiveness between me and my partner.
– Hitchhiking alone is easier, trucks have one spare seat.
– Listen to music whenever I want.
– I can go at my own speed.
I walked out of the rich city of Baku, which I thought was an introduction to the rest of the country. But Azerbaijan after the city limits sat in a dark shadow of the capital; the government is very wealthy, but it does not filter down to the general population.
The road became shrouded in light grey mist, which was loomed over by trees losing their leaves for the winter. Littered ahead of me were men and children selling bags of walnuts. The first man shook my hand and then followed me, the next grabbed my arm which I pulled back, and after him I just ignored them.
I walked West towards Georgia for two hours before coming to a café. I stopped not because I was hungry, but because there were three men lurking behind me as I was walking.
I spent an hour in the café enjoying the internet and a plate of chips I had treated myself to. The usual questions from interested locals came.
‘Are you a tourist?’
‘No, I’m a fucking local. What do you think?’
I didn’t say that, obviously.
Stepping out of the café into the hazy distance I could see nothing but even more salespeople. Luckily, a shiny white car pulled in next to me with an English-speaking man who asked if I wanted a lift.
He took me to Gebele, about half way through this small country. I had not planned to stop here at all, but when I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the rugged, sugar-white mountains in the distance.
I bought a few days’ of food, hiked up the river and found a spot in the trees. My summer sleeping bag and tarpaulin would not be enough for the cold nights ahead, so I would have to make a fire and keep it going over night.
My phone ran out of battery as I was enjoying some Pink Floyd with a cup of tea. No pictures would come from the coming days, but I liked the purity of that.
The next day, I opened my eyes to see mist snaking between the peaks as if it was constricting them. After some time, a hidden peak was revealed. I felt hypnotized by its glistening icy face. As if I was possessed, I walked up the river towards it.
After an hour, two armed soldiers came into view. They told me that I was about to walk illegally into Russia.
I did nothing else that day, apart from piling up the fire wood for another cold sleep.