The bus ride to Georgia was interesting. Things had been going smoothly - too smoothly, perhaps - in Samsun. We had picked up our order of bike parts from the postoffice metres from our hostel with ease, the bus office was just down the road and we snapped up the last two bus tickets for an amazing price. The bus was fine, but broke down within an hour. Once fixed the driver seemed keen to make up time - queue some fast driving and braking and Jess waking up suddenly the next morning on the floor of the bus after a particularly enthusiastic stop by the driver. At the Georgian border we had to leave the bus to pass through customs (our bikes were literally thrown from the vehicle and as it screeched off it nearly ran over our panniers). Once through passport control we waited for the bus to come through and pick us up, watching forlornly as other passengers reunited with their vehicles and drive off toward Batumi. After a couple of hours had passed we finally admitted defeat and cycled the last 15 km ourselves. It was around 7am and our first impressions of Georgia were 1) beautiful (so lush, so green!), 2) beer (everywhere! beer signs everywhere! Particularly noticeable after Muslim Turkey) and 3) the driving is atrocious (beyond atrocious, but more on this to come).
We were soon in Batumi, a modern tourist city stretched out along the coast with a few skyscrapers and a beach-side theme park. We didn’t explore but quickly found a cafe to sample some Georgian coffee and quiz the friendly waiter on Georgian phrases. The Georgian language is famously difficult to master and we gurgled away pitifully as we struggled to pronounce their rolling ‘r’s and guttural ‘ch’s. Onward along the coast we kept our heads down and tried not to focus too much on the madcap driving. The Georgian drivers were certainly a creative bunch and their approach to overtaking one another (at speed, in tandem, around blind bends) was particularly inventive. Add to this the sudden presence of animals - cows, horses, chickens, the occasional pig - in the middle of the road and Georgia was proving a heady mix for cycle touring. Luckily the scenery was consistently beautiful, particularly the lush green mountains flanking the road, and we managed to stop for a last sea swim with views of Batumi’s skyline before we returned inland again. Nearing the end of the day we hit some hills and dipped in and out of villages with pretty houses and ornate rusted gates. We stopped at one to try out one of our new Georgian phrases (hello, do you know any places to camp?) and were invited in by Nico and her husband for some homemade kachapuri (a delicious Georgian snack - fried dough filled with cheese) and a much needed shower. Nico explained that this was their holiday home and that she worked in Batumi for an American company. She was here surprising her two children who were with their aunt at the coast for the day, visiting a beach with magnetic healing sands that was extremely popular with local people for curing ailments such as arthritis. Nico told us that she thinks most people in Georgia suffer some kind of problems with their joints due to the humidity, something that was later echoed by another Georgian woman of our age who we met near Tbilisi. Nico asked us to stay for dinner with their family but dark was falling so we pushed on to a camping spot they had recommended, tucked away from the road next to a stream.
It was a perfect spot to wildcamp and we were soon asleep, only to wake up an hour later to a huge storm raging outside. The lightning strikes were like nothing we’d seen before, constantly lighting up the tent and accompanied by terrifying rumbles of thunder. We scrambled into our waterproofs and up to the road in the pitch black, jumping up and down in the pouring rain in an attempt to flag down a passing car. Finally a man pulled in and dropped us a few kilometres up the road at a bus shelter. Camping during a storm can make you feel very exposed, particularly when there are no high hills or objects around you to attract the lightning boats, and when your tent is pitched under electrical wires. Tim suggested we’d be even safer knocking on the house across the road and despite some reservations and a barking dog we ran up to the door and asked to shelter in their shed. The man who opened the door spoke no English but his warmth was instantly communicated by his broad smile. Making tent signs, storm signs and shed signs with our hands he responded repeatedly with ‘problem, no, problem, no’ and a big grin. His young daughter was stood smiling shily in the doorway and soon his wife and eldest daughter Iza returned home from work. Iza was 14 years old, utterly adorable and spoke good English. We were invited inside and fed kachapuri, bread, cheese, chai and fruits. Iza explained that they had moved to this big house two years ago and had previously lived with her grandparents, as was tradition for the eldest son of the family. Her parents were rightly very proud of her and pulled out her school certificates for excelling in English. It was currently the school holidays so Iza was working most days at a restaurant in Kobuleti with her mother. We were offered a bed for the night in the living room and dry clothes, and slept well hearing the storm rage on outside, basking in the kindness of this family’s actions.
The following night we found another riverside camping spot, but this time surrounded by low trees and high mountains, so we felt safer when another (much less dramatic) storm rolled in. Tim checked with a local house whose animals grazed where we slept that it was ok to camp. Soon after they came down to show us their fresh water spring for drinking and dropped off a food package with fresh river fish and more kachapuri! We were particularly grateful for the nature of their gift and our calm camping spot the next morning after meeting two young French brothers who were sprawled on the grass next to the road with their bicycles. They had camped by an abandoned building and were joined by some friendly local men who began by innocently inviting them to share some salad and a few drinks before disappearing repeatedly and returning with bottle after bottle of vodka. We gave them some water which they drank at an alarming rate before we cycled on, leaving them to languish in their hangovers.
The route was still following smaller winding roads, with mountains to our right and glimpses of the Ajameti forest left. We passed dozens of Orthodox churches perched high on hills and a few Soviet-era statues in abandoned parks or gardens. That night we bought dinner and beer at a shop in the village of Baghdati and later stopped for a lobiani, a boiled bean bread. Georgians seem to love their fast food and there are little fast food outlets strewn along the road, making it perfect for carb-hungry cyclists. Later we passed the hilly village of Dimi and were slogging uphill hoping in vain for some flat hidden land for camping. We asked some women who waved at us from the side of the road and they called out to their neighbour, who happened to be Zhana, a young Georgian woman who spoke English and had served Tim earlier in the shop. Zhana’s neighbours invited us to pitch the tent in their garden, before showing us a beautiful room at the top of their house where they welcomed us to sleep. Xatuna, the eldest daughter in the house who had a very cute little girl (who in turn had a very sorry and overcuddled puppy) brought out kachapuri and we gave them the beers we had bought. Soon her father, Beso, had brought out his homemade cha cha (grape brandy) for some shots with him and his wife. Xatuna fried the kachapuri with cheese from their family cow and later attempted to teach us to milk it - let it be said that milking a cow is a bloody difficult business and we failed spectacularly.
It was the 8th August and the television news was showing footage to commemorate Georgia’s five-day war with Russia. On this day eight years ago Russia and Georgia engaged in a brief but violent war which left hundreds dead and thousands displaced, as part of the ongoing conflict over control of South Ossetia. Relations with Russia seem to remain strained, though most Georgian people we have met are very welcoming toward Russian people and place the blame solely with the Russian government. The conflict is extremely complex and for those interested in reading more about the politics of this region we would recommend ‘The Caucasus’ by Thomas de Waal which seems to present a balanced account.
lush mountains and so much green
Zhana, neighbours and family
pull the udder one
The next morning brought more rounds of cha-cha with breakfast and a wobbly but enthusiastic start to the day’s cycling. We had to rejoin a main road after Zestaponi so we were back to silently cursing the drivers. The route took us via the famous (amongst locals) Rikota pass tunnel before we rode down to rejoin the river. Every few metres there were small stalls selling delicious fruits, bread, honey and jam and we stopped to stock up for the next day’s breakfast. We camped behind a roadside restaurant and were kept awake awhile by a snarling dog that seemed to be coming closer and closer to our tent!
The next day of cycling was a nightmare. A busy road, a hill, 36 degree heat and a 34 km/ hour headwind. We left early but only managed around 8km in our first hour of riding. Finally we reached the top of a long uphill slog and headed downward, but the winds were so strong we still had to pedal hard during the descent. There were few places to stop and rest so we ended up cycling into the government forestry department’s garden at lunch and asking if we could sit at a bench outside their office. We were soon joined by two rather tipsy young men who worked as park rangers brandishing two bottles of delicious Georgian wine to accompany our food. This went down very well though we avoided drinking more than a couple of glasses and had to take a nap after they left. The headwind prevailed but we were determined to make it to Gori that night so we rode single file along the motorway in 10km stints, feeling lucky to finally have our own cycle lane in the form of a hard shoulder.
Gori is an interesting but strange place to visit. It is close to the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone and one of the first things we noticed on our approach were the refugee houses on the outskirts of the town, a result of Russian occupation during the 2008 conflict. There is little industry in Gori but it pulls in some tourism due to its fortress, nearby caves, and the attractions associated with its most famous inhabitant, Stalin. The town’s tributes to Stalin feel strange: the main square and street are named in his honour; the house he was born in is preserved in the middle of the square; and the Stalin museum completely fails to mention the atrocities committed during his command of the Soviet Union.
From Gori it was a brief and beautiful cycle to reach the caves at Uplistsikhe, one of Georgia’s earliest urban settlements. They were hewn into the rock face up a rising hill and afforded stunning views over the river and mountains around. The cycling was perfect, off the main road again, and we ended up spending the night with a family who were staying at their holiday home in a village we passed through that evening. Irma and her family originally asked us in for a cup of coffee as we searched again for a camping spot. Coffee actually meant her mum putting on a spread of cheeses, breads and peaches and their neighbour rushing off to bring us her homemade soup.
Georgian hospitality is legendary, but still quite astonishing to experience. We were told time and again by the people we met that Georgian people love visitors and guests and love to show them generosity. The kachapuri is an interesting example of a dish that is designed for guests, quick and easy to rustle up at a minute’s notice. Georgian life felt more spontaneous to life in England and we were told that people are closer to their neighbours than even their families, always dropping round for food or news. Irma’s mother had grown up in this house before meeting Irma's father who is from Tbilisi and now the family live in the city but visit the village for holidays and are incredibly close with their neighbours there. Irma’s neighbour Nino was round with her children and when they cracked out the family’s cherry cha-cha Nino and Jess found reason after reason to toast one another and drain their glasses (We are the same age - cheers! Your children are beautiful - cheers! I bless your road for safe cycling - cheers!) it was quite a wonder everyone was still standing by the end of the night.
Only Irma spoke English so was busy translating away, but even without a shared language it was incredible how much laughter was shared between us that night. We broke out repeatedly into belly-aching laughter with this group of women, and it wasn’t the first time we experienced the level of humour that exists in Georgia. ‘We do love to laugh’ Irma confirmed. We were invited again to stay the night and Irma’s mother insisted on giving up her bed. We protested for a long time that we were happy to pitch a tent or put down our mats outside but she was having none of this. The next morning Jess woke up to find her shoes missing - thinking they had finally crawled off in indignation at her smelly feet she was surprised to find Irma’s mother had washed them and hung them out to dry.
We were sent on our way with a packed lunch of kachapuri and kachapuri’s heart-attack of a cousin, a snack made with fried dough, cheese and sugar which tasted like doughnut. We stopped on our way to Tbilisi at Mtskheta Georgia’s spiritual home and the first place Orthodox Christianity arrived at in the country. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was beautiful. Its location at Mtskheta was chosen by St. Nino, a much celebrated saint in Georgia - we have already met several women named after her.
Uplistsikhe caves, where paganism meets Christianity
some splendid Georgian scenery
Next stop - Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The cycle in wasn’t too enjoyable, so we’ll skirt over that. We loved Tbilisi, but that was a good thing because we ended up staying there for over a week trying to sort out visas. On our first morning we went to the Azerbaijan embassy and jumped through the usual hoops (booking hotels that we will cancel later, walking an hour in each direction to pay the visa fee at the Azerbaijan bank, trying not to mention the bikes). The Chinese visas were a breeze in comparison (lovely woman, obtained a double entry visa in one day!) Alas we were waiting and waiting for our Azerbaijan visa and, on the advice of a man working at the travel agent across the road from the embassy, visited the office daily to see if it was ready. The office was only open a couple of hours at a time and inevitably flanked by a queue of anxious jostling people. We met a few colourful characters whilst waiting, each with their own theory about why their visa isn’t ready yet. Tbilisi at least offered lots of lovely relaxing tourist activities, including the sulphur baths which smell like eggs but leave you feeling soft as a baby and ready to sleep like one. We also managed to catch up with Irma again over dinner, and gleaned some inside information about the crazy drivers here. Apparently it was far worse 10 years ago when bribes were readily accepted for driving offences, before the entire traffic traffic police (around 30,000) were struck off. Now, it is easy to acquire a car in Georgia due to the cheap imports from Japan, and even easier to get a licence. Irma has one, which she doesn’t feel safe to use, and told us that on average people take around 5 driving lessons which don’t teach you how to drive but rather provide tips on what to expect in the test. We had an amazing night with Irma, and also found it interesting to hear about life in Georgia from somebody our age. Irma works six days a week (and 60 hours) at a furniture shop and gets paid 100 USD per month for her efforts. Georgian costs are lower than in England, but prices by our calculations are not any lower than one third, making her salary by comparison extremely low. Irma confirmed that she can’t save anything, despite the fact that at 31 she still lives in the family home (the norm in Georgia). Foreign holidays are simply not an option, and she has yet to visit Batumi. Another reminder of how lucky we are in the UK. We feel embarrassed about our constant complaints about house prices in London and our inability to be grateful for the amazing quality of life we have back home.
Finally we emerged from another trip to the Azerbaijan embassy clutching our passports with visas for China and Azerbaijan inside them! We wasted no time in jumping on our bikes and speeding off. Navigating the evening traffic out of Tbilisi was hairy, so we left the main road early and headed toward the Gombori Pass, a road that would be full of turns and climbs. We slept in a stubble field, pitching our tent in the dark on bumpy terrain with a packet of nuts for dinner. Yum yum.
The next day was what could be termed a 'beautiful slog'. The road climbed gradually at first, before the turnoff to the pass which marked the beginning of a seriously steep winding stretch in the heat of the afternoon sun. We passed a roadside honey stall and Gevi, a beekeeper and absolute legend, invited us to sit in the shade of his truck and dolloped masses of sweet fresh honey onto our plates. Our eating habits have rapidly deteriorated on the trip and mealtimes now resemble feeding time at the zoo, add to this sticky dripping honey and it was no wonder that Gevi looked bemused as we vied with the eager bees to gobble it down first. After this welcome break we made it to the top, 1620 metres above sea level, the views were spectacular (over the mountain pass and surrounding meadows) and the descent, in the crisp air of the early evening, seemed gloriously never-ending. Distracted, we forgot about the need to camp and by the time we passed through the town of Telavi night had fallen. Tired and bickering about how best to proceed, we pulled into a winery and asked to pitch up in their carpark. A man named Zhaza came out and ushered us through the gates, showing us to a perfect grassy spot right outside the indoor wine cellars where we could set up for the night. He took us down to the wine cellar and pressed two bottles of dry red wine and a corkscrew into our hands. Apart from Tim stepping in dog poo and stepping it into the tent pegs, it was the perfect night. We slept extremely well and woke up to Zhaza's cries of 'Jessica! Ted!' (close enough). Away nice and early, the air was fresh and the route was stunning, through the wine country with views of the mountains and glimpses of the Caucasus Mountains range, dotted with flocks of sheep and drifting clouds. As we pushed on toward the Azerbaijan border we were sad to rejoin the busy main road, yet a smiling man driving a tractor stopped, leant down and handed me a fresh loaf of flatbread! Georgian kindness always seemed to lift us up when we were down. What a country this has been.