GEORGIA, 24th July – 5th August 2017
I got a very nice surprise in the morning. I was, as usual, a little sleepy and slow waking up. I was still in the house, probably rubbing the sleep from my eyes, and I heard Dea out on the porch saying something like, “Nice to meet you, I heard a lot about you,” and I realised who it was she must be talking to. I rushed outside and sure enough there he was – Gio. I couldn’t believe it was really him, and gave him a big hug. He’d travelled all the way back here from Trabzon, Turkey, on an overnight bus, arriving at two in the morning, presumably just to see us. We couldn’t believe he’d done that. It was so great to see him again.
We all sat down and reminisced over a breakfast spread that included, I think, the best potatoes I’d had since the day before. It also included, because this was Georgia, and because this was a moment for celebration, a bottle of wine. Gio brought it out and placed it on the table, grinning, and there was nothing for it but to have a nine a.m. drink and enjoy the moment. And the potatoes.
Well we could not very well rush off now, so we spent the morning with Gio and Irina and Shorena. Dea brought out her ukulele and played some very beautiful songs. It was a funny thing, but the reaction of all three of our young Georgian counterparts was, at the beginning of each song, to lift up their I-phones and record the whole thing, something that would cause us later to wonder whether the concept of just ‘appreciating the moment’ was something that was being lost to future generations. I decided to test the theory and took the ukulele from Dea, before belting out a passionate rendition of Eddie Vedder’s Society that was so painful on the ears that nobody would ever want it on record. Their I-phones fell to their sides and the three of them just stood there, open-mouthed, at the cat-strangling-esque noise being made right before them. Oh, they appreciated that moment alright, they appreciated that moment.
Our departure was more easy to leverage after that, and we really did have to do a bit of cycling in the afternoon. Gio gave all three of us a bottle of local wine each as a parting gift, one final act of generosity from this wonderful family. “We love you,” the girls told Dea, hugging her tightly as we prepared to pedal away. We would not forget this place, and must surely have to return one day.
With our spirits soaring we set about conquering the 2000 metre pass. This was always going to be a gradual task, for we climbed only very gently alongside the river for most of the afternoon. The road was narrow and twisted and turned, and was too busy for relaxing, but the pleasant scenery offered some form of compensation. There were a lot of little villages set among the hills, and very few places for camping undisturbed. We planned, therefore, to try and get to the town of Khulo where we could find accommodation, but we made the mistake of relying on Vassili’s GPS to tell us where Khulo was. Vassili’s GPS did not know where Khulo was, and with the road starting to climb more steeply and the skies darkening we had to find a place to camp. It was one of those slightly desperate situations, but fortune shone upon us when a man who looked like Santa Claus in an orange hi-viz found us at the side of the road and told us we could camp next to a construction project. He showed us in through a gate, where we found a patch of grass, benches, even clean flowing water. It was a miracle. We returned the favour by sharing some of our wine with the construction workers before they went home. None of us really felt like carrying it much further anyway.
The next day was a really tough one. The road became very bad, mostly just bumpy gravel, and it climbed relentlessly. We made frustratingly slow progress and only covered thirty kilometres all day. But we did at least finally ascend out of the valley, and ended the day camping on some grassy plains close to the summit. It was a great place to be, with views back down the valley, blue skies, green grass, and fantastically fresh air.
The next morning we rode the final few kilometres to the top of the pass. We all had a real sense of achievement as we summited, and I was especially impressed by Vassili. He’d never done a pass like this before, and hadn’t cycled much at all since his last trip a year ago. Several times on the climb he’d looked about ready to pass out, but he’d kept plugging away and he’d made it. We’d all made it. And we weren’t the only ones. There were a pair of Czech hikers at the top, who I think actually had taken a lift, and as we sat chatting to them, another touring bike rolled up. This one belonged to Alex, a young man from Guernsey who was also going the same way as us. He’d ridden from home and was going, in a vague sense, to Japan, though you would never have thought it to look at his bike. He had only one pannier, a tent rolled up on the back, and a sleeping bag tucked under the handlebars. His sleeping bag was, however, the biggest sleeping bag I’ve ever seen. “Yeah, I’m trying to cut down on the stuff I’m carrying actually,” he said.
So our peloton had grown to four as we started down the other side of the pass. But we hadn’t gone more than a few hundred metres when Alex realised that he had a puncture and we all had to stop. This did at least coincide with us passing an interesting-looking mosque, and Dea and I went to take a look at it. Georgia is a predominantly Christian country, so we’d been surprised to see quite a few mosques on our way along this road. The imam of this one was a very friendly man, who soon followed us out to see what all the fuss was about with regards to Alex’s tyre. It turned out that Alex was not particularly experienced with fixing punctures, which meant that Vassili was offering his help, which in turn made me think that I should probably help out as well. With all of us crowding around, it no doubt made the imam think perhaps he should lend a hand too, and then just when we thought we had it all under control, what should happen but two more touring cyclists came along up the hill the other way, and of course they stopped to see what they could do too, and within an hour or so the puncture was fixed and we could all get back on our way.
We rolled on down the hill for a couple of kilometres and then Vassili came to a halt. “I’ve got a puncture,” he said, and we all stopped again.
This side of the pass went down through unpopulated forest, but the road was bumpy gravel that made much of the descent not entirely pleasant. At least there was plenty of conversation to keep things interesting. Alex was a nice easy-going guy and good to chat with, but then I made the mistake of asking if anyone knew any good jokes, and Vassili started on a long story about Sigmund Freud, and the descent was ruined again. Eventually we reached a tarmac road that grew increasingly busy as we proceeded towards the town of Akhaltsikhe, which announced itself to us with a big fortress on the hill above town. We had the idea to spend the night at a cheap hotel here, but Alex and Vassili, who were ahead, cycled past the first couple of cheap hotels, and we ended up outside a Royal Palace of a hotel. “Well, we might as well go in and ask the price,” I said, and Alex, Vassili and I, coated in filth, sweat dripping off us, wandered into the giant foyer. The many receptionists looked at each other nervously, and were probably pressing the button for security as we approached their desk. The hotel was not in our price range, but a big man, no doubt the security, came along and escorted us out the back door. Good man that he was, he led us right off the premises, and showed us to a much cheaper guest house around the corner.
That evening Dea and I went out for a meal with Alex. Vassily was an interesting fellow who didn’t ever seem to eat, and so he didn’t need to join us, but Alex had dressed up for the occasion, wearing the same grey shirt and shorts he’d been wearing all day. The three of us found a nice place and had a veritable feast. Georgian food is some of my favourite, with a fair selection of vegetarian food, and on this particular evening I enjoyed the best potatoes I’d had since a couple of morning’s earlier. We chatted more with Alex over dinner of course, not to do so would have been rude. He was a very relaxed character, who seemed like he’d just decided to go off and ride his bike around the world one day. He didn’t have any silly challenges, his only goal being to enjoy himself. He could take a day off whenever he wanted, stop, take a lift, whatever. He told us he liked to stop in cities and stay in hostels to meet other young people and go out clubbing. “What do you wear?” we wondered, given his limited possessions. “This,” he said, looking down at his grey shirt and shorts. “I just go out with my cycling shoes on.”
We continued the next day on a busy, narrow road through a valley which might have been pretty and tranquil were it not for the exhaust fumes and horn beeping. Vassili and Alex, both wearing dark clothes, cycled in the road, while Dea and I bumped along on the gravel shoulder hoping no one was going to get run over, and not very much happened. The next day we escaped onto some smaller roads, with the valley now widened out into a broad plain. These roads were naturally much more enjoyable and we even had a big tailwind that carried us on towards Tbilisi. To escape this wind and camp we ended up all four of us sleeping together in a ditch. Luckily it was quite a spacious ditch, especially after Vassili had spent half an hour trimming the weeds with a pair of scissors. It was our last night of camping together and the effects of our arduous journey coupled with his severe malnutrition were obviously getting to poor Vassili, who began to tell us that ghosts and aliens were real, and no doubt already here on Earth, living among us. I felt like this was perhaps a signal that Vassili was trying to tell us something about his own origins, but before I could push the issue Alex suggested we make origami paper swans, so we did that.
The next morning we rode into Tbilisi. Having ridden in on the main road three years earlier I knew what an absolute nightmare it was to do so, and so I wanted to try and take a route through the suburbs on smaller roads. Alex and Vassili, with no previous experience of the main road into Tbilisi, preferred to just crack on, so we split up, agreeing to meet up later for dinner. We watched them go, said a little prayer for them, and then made our own slow way on the back roads. This took a long, long time, because the roads went up and down the hillsides Tbilisi is built around, and were not all paved, or existing, but it was a tremendous adventure, and we got some amazing views of the city we otherwise would have missed out on.
We made it eventually to our hostel, which we had pre-booked in a moment of silliness. It was the Alcatraz Jail Hostel, and the dorms were made to look like jail cells. Oh, what fun this had seemed when we’d made the booking, yet how appropriate it now was. Our own journey had become a bit like a prison. We somehow were still clinging to the idea that we could make it to Baku within the 24 days, if we just spent one night here, then hurried across the flat southern plains of Azerbaijan as fast as we could. But that morning Alex had said that he was spending five nights in Tbilisi, then taking the more interesting northern route to Baku, and we felt somehow jealous of his freedom. We really were doing things wrong here, and something had to change. Dea and I talked it through, and decided we needed to relax, let the Baku challenge go, spend a few nights here, take the more interesting road. We could survive doing the Pamirs a few weeks later. We needed to slow down and enjoy the ride there first.
We spent three nights in Tbilisi in the end, an interesting city if ever there was one. A big advantage of our hostel was that it was situated in the old town, the historic heart of the city, full of narrow streets, crumbling buildings, ramshackle wooden balconies and mysterious piles of rubble. Beyond it, down by the river, modern buildings and a dramatic modern bridge enlivened the river, all of it lit up by bright neon lights at night. On our second night we joined up with Alex and Vassili, and a German cyclist called Chris they’d found, for dinner. Chris was the opposite of us, taking things incredibly slowly. He’d been in Georgia for a month, and had just given up on doing the Pamirs. He’d go south instead, through Iran, maybe to India. It was an eye-opener as to how differently people can cycle tour, and a really nice evening, and frankly a great relief to see Vassili eat a good meal. After dinner we all went outside and sat on a park wall beside the road to eat ice creams for dessert. We then watched with interest as policemen came and blocked off the traffic. Soon the street was empty of all motor vehicles, until a large police escort came through. There was at least a dozen blacked out vehicles, many with the American flag on them, sirens flashing everywhere, and a helicopter even swirled overhead. It wasn’t until later that we discovered that the US Vice-President Mike Pence was passing through town.
From Tbilisi Dea and I cycled on alone. Vassili was taking the southern route to Baku across the flat plains, while Alex was staying in Tbilisi a couple more days to go clubbing in his cycling clothes, so it was back to just the two of us. Our options for getting out of the city were limited, and we mostly had to take the horribly busy main road east. We suffered it for thirty kilometres until the turn north-east towards Telavi that we’d read would take us on a quiet road up into the mountains. It did no such thing. It took us on a busy road up into the mountains. Getting away from the traffic in Georgia was no easy task, but with cars beeping us at every turn we made surprisingly light work of the 1600 metre pass.
The roads continued to be busy and dangerous all the way to the border town of Lagodekhi, where we rented a hotel room without wifi. It felt like the first time we’d truly relaxed in months, the absence of wifi meaning there was nothing else to do but put on a movie, open Gio’s last bottle of wine, and chill the hell out before Azerbiajan. A couple of times during the last days we’d encountered cyclists heading in the other direction, who sadly warned us that the roads would be much the same in Azerbaijan. First up was a Belgian couple on a short trip from Baku to Tbilisi, who we had a pleasant roadside chat with. Then on the streets of Lagodekhi itself we bumped into a remarkable American woman named Amaya and a Frenchman named Eric. They told us that they had been on the road together for a staggering eleven years, cycling somewhere in the region of 200,000 kilometres in that time. ‘You must be mad!’ I thought.
Some links if you’ve got some time on your hands:
Vassili’s blog (contains lots of altitude readings)
Alex’s blog (not updated
for some considerable time at all. He’s not even riding that bike)
Amaya and Eric’s blog (a remarkable story)
Akhaltsikhe – Borjomi – Tbilisi – Lagodeki
Distance cycled: 559 kilometres