The Covid-19 Hurdle: My Big Bike Trip De-Railed
Updated: Apr 21
On the 14th March 2020, I awoke to a text message from a German friend cycling a couple of days ahead of me. It read “You had better cross the border to Azerbaijan soon, they’re closing the border today”. This was it, Covid-19 had finally arrived in the Caucasus.
The text message read.. “You had better cross the border to Azerbaijan soon, they’re closing the border today”
For months I had been hearing about this respiratory virus in the news. I’d started to witness the mistrust from locals who believed any foreigners were a risk. Although, up until this point restrictions had been isolated to parts of Europe, Iran, and China. None of the borders I needed in the Caucasus or Central Asia were yet affected. I couldn’t plan around what I didn’t yet know, so I stuck to the plan.
The plan had always been to have a rest break over winter in Tbilisi, Georgia. Then once spring hit, continue cycling into Azerbaijan and through Central Asia. I had a visa to enter China already, but I wouldn’t reach China for many months yet so there was time to deal with that problem when I arrived at it.
I packed up my bike to leave Tbilisi after a long winter break.
I had packed my bike and left Tbilisi a few days earlier and met a friend in Lagodekhi to hike a little before saying my final farewell to Georgia. Since Logodekhi is right on the border, I tossed up the idea of rushing into Azerbaijan that day. But I don’t like making snap decisions — least of all snap decisions that are very big decisions.
Time for Rational Decision Making
I did what my brain does best and I sat down to analyze the situation rationally. A lockdown of some sort was likely to be imposed sooner or later, with other restrictions following along.
It worked in my favour to remain in a country I was already familiar with, and where I had a network of friends. Whereas, I had not yet visited Azerbaijan and I only knew a couple of cyclists already there. On top of this Georgia has a very flexible visa regime allowing citizens of many countries to stay visa-free for up to 12 months, so I knew I wouldn’t be pressured by the risk of overstaying a visa. It was a tough, but ultimately a wise decision to turn around and stay in Georgia.
The moment I decided to turn back to Tbilisi, I wasn’t particularly happy about it.
The Long Road Back to Tbilisi — for my Bike
Many things have a silver lining and I decided to cycle back to Tbilisi a different way, so I could see some new sights. Unfortunately, spring weather in the Caucasus can be a little precarious and a snowstorm rolled in a day after I left Lagodekhi. I’m not a fan of cycling in these kinds of conditions, nor camping in them, so I made my way to a hostel in Telavi to wait for the bitter cold to pass.
In the very early days of the Covid-19 pandemic things were a little chaotic and authorities essentially didn’t know what to do with tourists. One afternoon the local police followed one of the guys back to the hostel. They then proceeded to tell us we had to leave and go to Tbilisi immediately. I baulked at this and explained that I was traveling by bike and that it would be dangerous for me to cycle over the notorious Gombori Pass in snowy conditions.
After some negotiations it was accepted that we would leave the following day, but that I would have to leave my bike in the hostel for the time being. It was too difficult to fit my bike in a share taxi and the hostel owner kindly suggested I could store it there until I was able to return for it.
Little did I know it would be several months before I was able to travel back to Telavi to collect ‘Shirley’, as I had come to affectionately call my Surly Long Haul Trucker. The day after I moved into a flat in Tbilisi the government announced a lockdown and ban on public transport moving from city to city. But she was thankfully, safe and secure in Telavi for the time being.
Wait Out the Storm and Dance in the Rain
I am an eternal optimist and I assumed, like many others, that this virus would disappear in a few months. I could wait it out — after which time I could get back on the road, a little delayed but continue, nevertheless. I was wrong. I watched my Chinese visa expire over time, and more countries double down on travel restrictions.
I bought a backpack!
Meanwhile Georgia had closed their borders relatively early and managed to retain a relatively Covid-19 free status for much of 2020. Which meant that domestic travel was entirely possible and to some extent encouraged. It would seem strange, but I have some very fond memories of the bizarre year that 2020 was. There’s a saying that roughly goes ‘life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain’. As kitsch as that is, I went with it. I switched things up, bought a hiking backpack, and hiked all around Georgia.
Wrong Yet Again
By the end of summer 2020, it was time to stop waiting for this to blow over and fly back to Australia. I had assumed that given a little more time over the summer period the situation would ease off further and I could then opt to fly back to Australia. As the pandemic eased so would the pressure on air travel, making flights less at risk of cancellation, and generally cheaper. If I returned to Australia, then I could potentially restart the bike trip from the opposite direction. It seemed like a pretty decent plan B (or was it plan C, I did lose count).
However, after a seemingly overnight decision by the Australian Government to put a cap on arrivals, returning to Australia by any means then became prohibitively difficult and expensive. And so, the bike trip was thoroughly derailed, plan B also in shambles — it was now time for plan C.