GEORGIA, 23rd – 24th July 2017
The three of us passed by long queues of trucks in the final kilometres of Turkey as we closed in on the Georgian border. This meant that we had to cycle out in the fast lane of the dual carriageway, for the slow lane was completely blocked. Almost unbelievably when the road passed through tunnels the queue of trucks continued, an unbroken line of lorries in the gloom. To get around this obstacle Dea and I hopped up onto the footpath on the other side of the tunnel and bumped our way along. Vassili, our intriguing new cycling companion, continued, unfazed, in the roadway, without lights.
It was almost a relief to reach the border. I’d cycled this way before, and I knew we would find no tunnels on the Georgian side. Had I thought about it a bit more I would have remembered the utter chaos we would find instead, but I was presently too distracted by the sight of Vassili merrily snapping photographs of the border area while standing right in front of a serious-looking official. He wasn’t the most streetwise of travellers, was this Vassili. He was an endearing fellow though. A Greek national in his late-fifties, now living in New York and working as a Professor of Economics, he cycles a few weeks each year, and has gradually been making his way eastwards from Greece with ambitions to eventually ride all of the Silk Road. This latest section of the journey had begun in Trabzon a few days earlier and was destined to end in Baku, which meant our routes and schedules now aligned in a way that made it inevitable we would ride together, at least for a while.
Once the border official had determined that Vassili was not a spy but merely a bit naive we were let out of Turkey. Getting into Georgia was a bit more of a faff. We weren’t allowed through with the other vehicles, and instead had to walk our bikes through the ridiculous-looking border building, which involved a long circuitous walk and a long wait in a crowd of impatient, aggressive people, where our three big bikes got in everyone’s way. But eventually we made it. Georgia. A new country. A new culture. A new companion. Adventures awaited us, that was for sure.
It did not take long for my memories of cycling into Georgia to be rekindled. The big dual carriageway shrank to a narrow two-lane road, busy with chaotic drivers. Dea and I retreated to the shoulder, which in this case was not a shoulder, but rather the hard mud and dirt and grass and gravel and whatever else happened to be beside the road. We watched as Vassili continued in the road, with cars swerving around him, swerving around each other as they made dangerous overtakes, and swerving around the cows, which of course wandered freely everywhere. It was simply madness. It was Georgia alright.
It was with an enormous sense of relief that we reached the coast on the edge of Batumi and switched over to a cycle path along the promenade. Oh, what bliss this was. To celebrate Dea and I set down our bikes and took a dip in the Black Sea. It felt good to be back in Batumi. The last time I’d visited had been in March 2014, and I remembered it as an extremely odd place, full of weird and wonderful buildings that made no sense at all. Now it made a little more sense, for it was summer and there were lots of holiday-makers that these things pandered to. Tourists from Russia, from Saudi Arabia, from all sorts of places, were here to relax and, presumably, escape the real world. As we cycled on towards the centre of town the cycle path grew busy with vacationers pedalling rented four-person sit-down bikes, or whizzing along on rented electric scooters. Dea and I were reminded of our time living in Surfers Paradise in Australia. It was that kind of random place. The kind of place where you can pass by a giant pair of sandals resting on a dozen eggs and not look twice.
Dea and I had booked a hotel room and we made our way towards it. We’d been looking forward to a night of relaxing together, a bit of privacy before continuing with the madness of Georgia. Vassili tagged along with us, of course. I’d told him that when we made the booking we’d been told it was the last available room, but he wanted to come along, just to see if there was another one free. Well, we’d also booked the cheapest available hotel, which probably explained why it was situated several kilometres away from the town centre, on a moon-like pot-holed backstreet. It took a bit of locating too, for there were no signs, and once we got inside we realised it was really just somebody’s house. The three of us were shown to our room and my heart sank a little when I saw that there were two double beds in it. Vassili asked the owners if there were any other rooms available. No, nothing, just this one room. He sat down on one of the beds, looking forlorn, puppy-dog eyes. “I’ll just go somewhere else,” he said sadly.
I slept very badly. The double bed was really just a folded-out sofa-bed and was very uncomfortable. There were also mosquitoes in the room, but the real problem was the very loud snoring that bore right through my ear plugs. For once it wasn’t coming from the lovely Dea, whose melancholic nightly exhalations I’ve become contentedly accustomed to. No, it was coming from our new Greek friend, who of course we let share the room. I think he must have been very tired too, for we’d spent the evening walking some distance into town and back to see what must surely be one of Batumi’s great highlights – the dancing fountains. Dea had never seen a dancing fountain before, and she found the bright lights and rhythmic watery movements so enchanting that she sat there with a big smile upon her face saying things like “I love this” until it all got too much for her, and she had to make a video, which I will try to upload now for your viewing pleasure.
The thing about Batumi is, while it is absolutely wonderful in a weird, weird way, it bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the rest of Georgia. The real Georgia was what we set out to find the next morning. Unfortunately for the first few kilometres this consisted of quite terrifyingly dangerous roads. It is a baffling set of circumstances that the country with the worst drivers of our trip so far should also be the one with the biggest alcohol problems, not to mention that most bizarre practice of keeping cows at the roadside rather than, hmm, I don’t know, in fields like the rest of the world. But I’m sure it was good for our minds, to have to concentrate so hard on simultaneously cycling and not dying, and after a while the traffic began to thin just a little. Vassili celebrated by buying us a giant watermelon, which we tried valiantly to consume in a single sitting, without success. He also insisted on paying for the hotel room from the night before. He was alright, was Vassili. He was certainly a little eccentric, for want of a better word, but he was a good man, and we were glad of his company.
We were cycling in the direction of Akhaltsikhe, on a road that would take us from sea level over a 2,000 metre high pass, but we made little progress this first day. That was because I had been a little way on this road before, back in 2014. I’d reached a small village, where I’d been invited to stay with a family. I’d stayed a couple of nights and got to know the people of the village, watched them planting potatoes in the fields, played football with them, and got a special insight into the Georgian lifestyle. Now, returning to the same village three years on, I wanted to see the friends I’d made back then. I wanted to return, to tell them of my travels and to proudly show them the beautiful girlfriend I’d found in Mongolia, and the slightly-odd Greek man I’d found the day before.
It wasn’t far beyond the chaos of Batumi that we found the village again, situated in a lush green valley beside a partially dammed river. We stopped at the point where I’d first met Gio, the young man who had invited me to stay with his family over a glass of cha-cha (homemade liquor). I had imagined that somehow arriving back here everyone would be sat waiting for my return, but it wasn’t quite so simple. There was nobody about that I recognised. I knew that Gio was away working in Turkey, in Trabzon actually, but I had the phone number for his sister, Irina. I didn’t have a working phone, but luckily a car stopped to ask if we needed help, and with an English-speaking passenger, it wasn’t long before Irina understood the situation and said she was on her way down to meet with us.
Ten minutes later Irina arrived with her cousin, Shorena, who I also knew and another friend, Diana. It was really so nice to see them again. We all went and sat at a little cafe and talked. I got out my laptop and showed everyone the photos I’d taken three years earlier. They got out their I-phones and took photos and posted them on Instagram. They loved meeting Dea. It was wonderful. After a while Irina invited us to come and stay with her, in the same place that I’d stayed before, up on the hillside.
It was a slightly awkward moment. Of course we wanted to stay, but we still had this pressing schedule to get to Baku in 24 days, so we declined the offer, and tried to explain that we needed to keep cycling, because we had a visa for Uzbekistan, because winter was coming. None of this made any sense to the Georgian girls, and it didn’t really make sense to us any more either. After a while it dawned on us how silly it was to pass up on the chance to stay here in this wonderful Georgian home just in the interest of making distance. When Irina asked a second time we accepted.
We followed the girls down the street and turned away from the river. The house, as I remembered, was up an extremely steep hill. Actually the last time I’d needed help to push the bike up from Gio, although in my defence I had been under the influence of several glasses of cha-cha. This time I managed to push my bike up by myself, but I was still upstaged by Dea, who pedalled away ahead of us all. Irina looked at her in awe. “She is cool girl,” she said, “very cool girl.”
“Yes… she… is…” I said, panting and gasping for each breath alongside Vassili, who was in much the same state of exhaustion pushing his own bike.
We arrived at the house. I was confused. My memory is bad, but this was clearly not the same house. “This is new,” Irina confirmed. The house had been rebuilt on the same spot, bigger than before, but it still had the same rustic charm, food growing in the garden, magnificent views down over the valley and the mountains opposite. Irina and Shorena sat us down and then turned hosts, in the typically hospitable Georgian way. They first placed before us a huge plate of watermelon, which we poked at nervously, wondering how much watermelon it was safe to consume in one afternoon, then cooked us up a feast of delicious dinner, including, I think, the best potatoes I’ve ever eaten. Various people came to see us and say hello. Unfortunately among them were not Irina’s parents, who were away working, nor Luka, who I remembered fondly from three years earlier. He’d been a cheeky twelve-year-old boy who’d told me he wanted to be a singer and had then belted out the most fantastic traditional Georgian melody. He was no longer in town but his mother came to see me. She explained that Luka was now living in Batumi and working as a singer. His dream had already come true. The boy had become a man.
Another visitor was a young man named Merab who could speak some English. We were invited to take a walk with him up to his house, higher on the hill. It was really nice to walk up there, occasionally passing other homes where people waved to us. Everyone knew everyone here. It was a real community. At Merab’s place we were invited inside and met with his family, his mother giving us all a delicious home-made strawberry drink. The people here did not have very much, but they were so generous, so kind. This was such a special place.
On our walk back we were invited into another yard, where half a dozen children ran around playing and half a dozen adults sat around a table eating and drinking. The man who had insisted on inviting us in now insisted we take a drink. This was the side of Georgia I’d not been too keen on last time – the drinking culture. But we could hardly come to Georgia and not have at least one glass of cha-cha, the home-made spirit that was somewhere in the region of 60-70% alcohol. The man showed us how it was done. We had to down the shot, then take a drink of ayran, a watery-salty-yoghurty drink. We did as instructed. “Wow,” I coughed, “that’s quite a combination!”
We escaped again without having to drink more, thanks mostly to Irina’s forcefulness. She was really an admirable character, a lovely human being. I felt so lucky to have got this chance to spend an evening back in this community, to experience this wonderful place again, and to share it with Dea. Walking back down the hill in the darkness, dizzy with the feeling of happiness and/or cha-cha it occurred to me how stupid it was that we almost missed out on this just to make more cycling distance. This was what this journey was all about. These experiences were what made the ride worthwhile. We simply had to make more time for this sort of thing.
Distance cycled: 40 kilometres