Georgia the long way round
So onto Georgia and a wholly different country from Turkey but a great experience all the same. We entered the country through the ‘back door’ so to speak. With no trace of tourism in sight and the local families all hard at work cutting hay in the fields, we were a little thrown at first. The first villages we came to were silent, with no visible shops or banks, just fairly impressive huge grey houses with shady gardens and plum trees lining the road. The signs are cyrillic so unhelpful to us initially. We reconsulted the map and kept riding until we came to Akhaltsikhe, a large town in the shadow of an enormous restored castle. We withdrew some Lari from an ATM and it wasn’t long before Chris had sniffed out the cheesy pie shop on the High Street and ordered a selection of this national delicacy.
Considering how knackered our legs were feeling from five days straight in the mountains, our decision to take the long route to Tbilisi along the south of the country, almost to the Armenian border, rather than the more straight forward route north still mystifies me. This is what we did though thinking that the route promised some great camping spots at the alpine lakes shown on the map. And to be fair, we had some cracking spots. The first night though was probably the best when we checked into Hotel Chico at Aspindza after only 47km of riding. It was already 4pm by the time we arrived for our ice-cream stop and the views from their terraces were so spectacular we enquired about the price. £20 for a beautiful room and a restaurant with 50p beers sealed the deal.
The next day took us to the market town of Akhalkalaki, high up in the mountains and about 40km from the Armenian border. It’s a town at the crossroads and its contrasts became evident to us in the three languages spoken – Georgian, Russian and Armenian. The Armenian shop owners were having nothing of our attempts at Russian and the Georgians just laughed at us. Bland, low, featureless buildings on broken roads didn’t promise much, but then we turned a corner onto a fresh food market that continued further than we could see. Food is always cause for excitement so we parked the Trolls and marched on in. One nuance of the Georgians is their love of Tarragon. It certainly adds flavour to the cucumber and tomato duo that has been our staple three meals a day for some time now. Big bunches of it were on sale throughout the market and we added it to our food bag. I also took the opportunity to try the Tarragon lemonade we had seen people drinking everywhere. A seriously evil looking bright green soft drink it tastes as bad as it looks I’m afraid. We wandered the market for quite some time. Chris focussed on adding some variety to our food bag whilst I gawped at the women. Most were dressed to the nines in strappy heels and short tight dresses, swinging handbags as they greeted each other with kisses on each cheek. They looked so out of context with the surroundings, yet their ability to strut the broken streets without twisting an ankle indicated years of practice.
Back at the Trolls, we had stowed our finds and were about to set off when another cyclist appeared and laid his bike down in front of us whilst excitedly asking whether we had a chain tool. He had just discovered his broken chain link and looked up to see us on the other side of the road preparing to leave and couldn’t believe his luck! We got chatting as Chris fixed his chain and he told us he has been living in a Monastery located in caves in the countryside for the past month, so St Christopher is clearly looking after him too! He was a nice guy, a Spaniard, who likes to think of himself as a ghost who passes through the places he visits leaving no trace and avoiding attention. He was grateful for Chris’ help and insisted on buying us one of the local fresh yoghurt drinks and showed us his detailed map of the area as he was worried about one of the roads on the route we were planning. It turned out to be good advice and we had to extend our route a little more to avoid an unsealed road up a mountain to the first lake we had planned on camping at that night.
We enjoyed our riding through Georgia. For the most part it continued to be fairly tough going through the mountains, but small rewards such as a driver leaning out the window to pass us each a chocolate, or going off course a little to visit a convent promising fresh cheese and discovering a small community of nuns in the middle of nowhere producing exquisite cheeses, honey, cookies and truffles, finding the inconspicuous hole in the wall in each village to buy hot, fresh bread and cheesy pies. On peering into the darkness of the small hole we would usually find a cavernous interior with a wood fire and a proud baker only too happy to show us around.
Quirks were the way most food is sold by weight, from cheese and vegetables to the huge array of breakfast biscuits and chocolates. It’s sort of like pick ‘n mix except that mixing is not on unless the shop person picks for you. At one point east of Tbilisi, this extended even further to a run of specialty towns in that we would ride through a town where all street vendors only sold cheese so we would feel obliged to stop at a vendor and buy some cheese. The next town would only sell melons and the next only dried fruit stuffed with walnuts etc. This ensured some good interaction and banter in each town as well as a continued source of calories and energy, not to mention something to look forward to. The perfect cycle touring set up really.
On the hazards side, the drivers turned out to be everything we had read. Dangerous, crazy hooligans who scared the hell out of us countless times a day. The dogs were the same as were the hostel patrons in Tbilisi. I won’t go into detail about the hostel and the sisters who ran it but rather say that we were relieved to get out. Once again we had a storm for our descent from the mountains. This time there was heavy rain for several hours which turned into hail and then fog. Enough fog for us to miss a turn and add even more distance to our route. We did make it out of the country alive and happy though and our last experience of the Georgia was when I handed over our last 75 lari cents (hardly any pennies) to a roadside seller and asked for a tomato and a cucumber. She filled an entire shopping bag with tomatoes, cucumbers, tarragon and grapes and gave us a big happy wave off to the border of Azerbaijan where the exit sign from Georgia wished us luck!