17 Sep Trip Diary – Georgia
One of the first things you notice when you cross the border into Georgia is the cultural difference. After being stamped through customs without much fuss and making my way through the throngs of taxi drivers, idling coaches, money tauts and lost looking travellers, I was surprised to see the beach packed with scantily clad locals: there was more skin on display here than I’d seen anywhere in Turkey. It was rather bizarre to stand on the pavement overlooking the beach and be able to glance back across the border and compare the difference. It was a clear sign I’d left the dominantly Muslim culture of Turkey behind.
The Wild West
I chose to take the southern route across Georgia, over the 2,500m Goderdzi Pass and on into Tbilisi. Making my way into Batumi wasn’t all that exciting or stimulating. The roads had deteriorated in comparison to Turkey with little in the way of a hard shoulder, and the overcast skies made the landscape look rather grey and uninviting. With dilapidated and abandoned buildings lining the road, a soft wild creating mini tornados of floating rubbish, and a return to encounters with stray dogs, the outskirts of Batumi looked more like the Wild West than southern Georgia. To my dismay, the driving standards were not much different from those in Turkey and I was rather glad when I finally rolled into the city late in the afternoon and found a cheap hostel for the night.
I woke the next morning to torrential rain and a city with flooded streets from the overnight deluge, turning roads into rivers and creating a thousand little waterfalls from rooftop guttering that could no longer cope with the downpour. The whole city looked grey and uninviting, only the small, flickering neon signs that adorned every business brought any colour to the streets. I considered staying put in the hostel for another day but it wasn’t the most friendliest place I’d stayed at, so decided to brave the rain and head out.
A slice of paradise
The wet weather made for a slow day in the saddle and my hopes of finding the smaller southern road free of heavy traffic were soon gone: truck after truck sped past me on the winding narrow road, each one passing me in a spray of water and mud. After 60km of riding, I was soaked to the skin and ready to find somewhere to camp. As luck would have it, I came across a perfect slice of Georgian countryside hidden up a narrow track that led high above the main road, surrounded by heavily forested hills and a landscape dotted with waterfalls. By evening, the rain had stopped and I spent a cold night in what was probably the best wild camp spot of the trip so far.
Within minutes of setting off the following morning, I came across Micheal, the German cyclist I’d first met back in Samsun, Turkey. We cycled at different paces; his bike had a small engine to help on the hills, something I’d never seen before, so although we rode very little together, we would frequently come across each other over the next two days. For the next 24 hours, I made my way through some of the most beautiful scenery I’d seen for some time. The road continued to snake its way between a landscape of forested mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and small towns but despite the map showing that the road made its way ever upwards, the angle remained small with little in the way of noticeable height gain. All this was about to change though.
The road, although not brilliant up until now, pretty much ended at the town of Khulo. From here on, a rough track was the only road connecting the few remaining villages that scatter the mountains before winding its way up and over the 2,500m Goderdzi Pass and down the other side. A line of stationary trucks, overladen with hundreds of hay bails stacked alarmingly high, waited on the outskirts of the town. Their drivers were busy as I slowly picked my way past and they barely noticed me as they made last minute adjustments to their loads or tinkered with the engines in preparation for the climb ahead.
I started the climb around 3pm and by nightfall, I was still a good 10km from the top. The track was almost impassable in places: potholes became craters, dirt became mud, and landslides forced the track to half its normal width. The trucks I’d seen at Khulo soon started to pass me, swaying worryingly from side to side as they picked their way through the labyrinth of holes and rocks. For much of the day, these huge ex-Soviet Russian trucks squeezed slowly past me, often forcing me nervously close to the large drop at the edge of the road before rumbling off, leaving me in a cloud of thick black diesel smoke and deafened from the sound of clanking metal.
Making the pass
Cycling proved hard on such a narrow track. The left side of the track was a sheer drop in most places and the right side was steeply sloped, so finding anywhere flat was almost impossible. As darkness came, I managed to pitch the tent on the outskirts of a small village and collapsed absolutely shattered into bed. That night as I lay in my sleeping bag, I could hear the wolves the locals had warned me about, their howling echoing all around me. On any other night, I would have considered moving but the day had utterly drained me that I fell asleep within minutes. Luckily, the wolves never found me.
On midday the next day, I finally rounded the last of the hairpin bends and arrived on top of the pass, completely worn out but happy in the knowledge it was downhill from here. Once again I bumped into Micheal. He’d done the right thing and got a lift up the mountain on the back of one of the trucks, and after sharing a few glasses of wine with some Russian motorcyclists who had come up from the other side, we started the bone-shaking ride down the mountain together. The road didn’t improve for 20km down the mountainside and thanks to the loose gravel, endless potholes, and crazy truck drivers, descending was almost as slow ascending, if not quite as tiring. But what the road lacked in quality, the landscape made up for. At a slightly easier angle, this side of the mountain offered long, far-reaching, and simply stunning views over Georgia. It was just a shame my eyes had to be fixed on the road ahead for the most of it, just in case I disappeared down a hole.
Back to the tarmac
After rejoining the relative smoothness of Georgian roads, I spent three more days on the main highways heading towards Tbilisi. On one of these days, shortly after leaving the city of Akhaltsikhe, I found myself on a beautiful stretch of road that followed the Mtkvari River that provided the kind of riding experience I’d been longing for. The river, through the centuries, had carved a valley out of the surrounding hills. Huge rock walls loomed high above the road, waterfalls splashed playfully down to the river, and eagles circled high above. The easy riding and the quiet road all added up to a perfect day in the saddle and I went to sleep that night, with the tent pitched next to the river, a happy man. That all changed 20 hours from Tbilisi.
The longest day
As I tend to when I’m visiting a big city, I had booked a hostel in Tbilisi in advance as camping options are always limited. But, the Goderdzi Pass had taken longer than I thought and 24 hours before my planned arrival in the capital, I was still 130km away. My map showed a fairly short ascent before a rather long and pleasing looking descent that should allow me to effortless cruise right to the hostel door. Despite 130km being a long day in the saddle, I decided I could make it in time for the booking and set off early from my camp determined to do so.
The day started well. I found myself at the top of the ascent by early afternoon still feeling fresh despite a couple of sections being far steeper than I thought they would be and glad the hard bit of the day was behind me. Or, so I thought. Just outside Kiketi, the road forked. One way went left through the town of Tskneti and on into Tbilisi and the other also ended up in Tbilisi but would add an extra 20km to my day. Naturally, wanting to make Tbilisi as soon as I could, I chose the left-hand fork, but the road abruptly ended after only 5km without any warning. A steel fence had been erected across the road and large concrete bollards ensured there was no way through. The cheap map I’d picked up at the border had let me down and gave me no option. After a lot of swearing and dust kicking, I had to turn around and head back.
To add insult to injury, not only was the other road longer but it would also end up winding its way uphill for most of the extra 20km. It was almost 6pm before I got my first glimpse of Tbilisi, still way off in the distance about 25km away. With only around an hour of daylight left, I pushed on in the hope that the punishing ascent would soon ease and I’d make it to the city before nightfall. As luck would have it, not only did the ascent end around 18km from Tbilisi, the road actually started to head downhill and actually became one of my favourite roads of the trip so far.
For the next hour, I cruised at speeds close to 50kmph, weaving in and out of traffic and shooting through the small towns that lay just outside Tbilisi. The closer I got to the city, the steeper the descent became. I carved my way around hairpin after hairpin, overtaking the heavy city traffic that had built up and my smile grew bigger and bigger with every kilometre. The riding, after being so hard for most of the day, was now effortless and enjoyable. The descent didn’t end until I was well and truly in Tbilisi and just as the sun set, after a ride of 157km, I arrived at the door of the hostel, tired and sweaty but happy I’d made it.
I really enjoyed the four days I had around Tbilisi, walking the streets for hour after hour on both sides of the river and exploring as much of the city as I could. I spent hours wandering around the vibrant street markets and looking around the many museums and ended each day outside a different pub or cafe. I discovered and gorged on Georgia’s wonderful food: from Khachapuri, a cheese filled bread normally eaten as a snack or appetiser to the more filling Chakapuli, a stew made from veal or lamb and considered to be one of Georgia’s favourite dishes. The city was so good in fact that, on my ride out, I felt quite sad to be leaving.
From Tbilisi, I had less than 80km to cycle to reach Azerbaijan. I chose to spend one more night camping in Georgia, putting the tent up amongst a few trees close to the road only 10km from the border. This last night turned out to be a fitting end to my visit to this country. The skies were clear and I lay in the warm evening surrounded by total silence watching stars shoot across the sky. It might have been tough at times, but Georgia is one amazing country to cycle through.
This blog covers the trip between Sept 6th – Sept 17th, 2017
All the images from my time in Georgia are available on the gallery page of the website or by clicking here