This post covers our route from Batumi across southern Georgia to the capital city of Tbilisi, which we rode in early September.
As we had to arrive in Central Asia before October, we didn’t have much time to explore all of the beauty that Georgia had to offer, particularly in the north. Our experience is only of cycling West-East along the Goderdzi Pass, or the Batumi-Akhaltsikhe road, known for the rough and tough climb up to 2,027m. Georgia is a fantastic country and the people are incredibly friendly. The drivers are pretty crazy in the big cities; in rural areas hitching a ride is easy. Northern Georgia is on the top of our list for hiking in the future. After getting a little ill in Batumi, we made sure to use our SteriPen when filling our water bottles up from taps and springs.
The Turkey-Georgia border crossing is an experience. The ‘50s gateway into the country is a very odd structure, like something out of the Flinstones cartoon. The queuing system is also odd; people will make the pilgrimage from their cars in the queue, only to walk back and remain stationary. No one turns off their engine either so we pushed through as quickly as possible to avoid succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.
We were asked to go through the scanner at customs. The guard sighed when he saw our loaded bikes but waved us through once we’d verbally confirmed we had no alcohol. He didn’t however ask if I was smuggling any Giardiasis in my gut, which made an explosive arrival once we’d checked into our Batumi guesthouse.
We were bogged down in Batumi for three days with illness and tiredness from the last few days. We saw what we could of the city but didn’t feel we were missing out not exploring in full health. The drivers were far more aggressive than in Turkey so we didn't want to ride. The beachfront promenade was quite garish - a manifestation of when taste lags far behind newfound oil wealth. Street corners were busy with groups of guys waiting for casual labour work, who tended to pour over any woman that walked past. These men also chose to lose heat by rolling their t-shirts onto the top of their beer bellies, which I had not seen in public before…
Once back to relative health we prepped the bikes for the Goderdzi Pass. The majority of the first part of the route was on sealed surface, which gently ascended over the lesser southern Caucasus. The last 30km however were brutal, on steep gravel including on the pass itself. We reached the top after two days, which happened to be atmospherically bleak. Clouds rolled into the open door of a shack that we sheltered in for some home-cooked Georgian food.
Descending on the gravel on the other side was almost worse than riding up, particular due to the heavy downpour. We stopped after a short time and found a secluded wild camp spot nestled among the pines.
It’s worth mentioning that by this time we began to tune in to Georgian driving style. It differed greatly to Turkish drivers who we’d found considerate to cyclists despite all the warnings from many people. Georgian driving is a lot more chaotic; faster, more swerving, and lots more use of the horn. Beeping could mean hello, goodbye, I’m right here, I’m overtaking, I’m not overtaking, I’m avoiding a cow in the road, I’ve arrived at my destination etc etc. It almost becomes meaningless. I began to think of a contemporary adaption of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ fable; ’The Georgian Who Beeped His Horn’…
The next stop of significance was Vardzia. A network of hollowed-out caves dating back to the 12th century, discovered after an earthquake revealed the insides of this man-made wonder. We stayed in a nearby guesthouse where the elderly owner, with a surprising amount of vigour, served us with an amazing breakfast and dinner from produce grown exclusively in her garden. She managed all this while tending to her young grandson and several farm animals.
We went on to ride through the bleaker but beautiful plains of Georgia. There was a gritty existence in the small villages we passed through. Housing seemed inadequate to shelter from the looming winter. People seemed to have as hard a life as the ragged Transit vans seen everywhere on the roads here. Experiencing this prior to our arrival at Poka St. Nino monastery for the night only added to the sense of a welcoming oasis that it was.
Our Instagram friends WorldsSpokePeople had recommended we visit the monastery as they had done. The light and storm were fading as we pulled outside the unassuming building on the edge of the Lake Paravani, but we managed to catch one of the monks outside the building who invited us inside. Before we entered, the monk requested something in Georgian. Unfortunately we didn’t understand even with his gesturing involving pointing at himself and the bike. We ruled out that we wanted to have a go as that would be very ‘un-monkish’, especially given he was in full regalia. It was only when we got inside and the English speaking volunteer translated that he did in fact want to have a ride on my bike. I obliged. Here’s a short video for proof…
The ‘lead monk’, as he shall become known, insisted we eat and drink tea, pointing very clearly at the food to avoid any further confusion. We did so as we sat on warm sofas in a large hall with other monks and guests of the monastery. We chatted idly with the English-speaking volunteer before being shown to a room that they kindly allow us to stay in for the night. Only rule was no hanky-panky (separate beds only). In the evening we were invited to witness an orthodox recital in the main part of the monastery. Lit only by candle light, it was a very moving experience.
We then made our way to the capital of Tbilisi, a super cool cit, where we met many travellers living there semi-permanently for the good nightlife and cheap cost of living. We spent some time at the popular Fabrika, an old factory converted into a multi-use space, including a hostel, workspaces, a barbers, as well as food and drinks. We met up with Amy (@the.roadmaker), a cycle tourer waiting the winter out there, for a BBQ with other expats. Amy had also very kindly brought over a much needed care package from the UK after a recent trip home. We spent our final evening meeting up with locals Levan and Natia who’d got in touch with us on Instagram (@stichoza), to sample the delicious Georgian speciality, Khinkali, and local red wine.
October was nearing and we needed to speed up if we wanted to get to the Pamirs before winter. Everyone we’d spoken to was indifferent about cycling in Azerbaijan, therefore we took the decision to get a train from Tbilisi to Baku, From Baku we then planned to take the boat journey across the Caspian Sea to Central Asia.
Current Stats (as of 14.09.18):
Total days cycled: 90/103
Total rest days: 13
Total distance completed: 5,932 Km
Best food: Khinkali
Weirdest moment: Photographed for Georgian Tourism on the Pass!