GEORGIA - A RUSTIC WONDERLAND
The crossing to Georgia is one of the easiest of my trip – British nationals are permitted to stay for an entire year in the country without a visa and the border guards not only speak English but go out of their way to welcome me to their country – I am cheerfully escorted for the first few hundred metres by two smiling policemen driving the world’s least intimidating vehicle, a Smart car. I ride up into the hills and camp in some woodland overlooking a valley. Georgia is another relative unknown for me; just about all I know about the country is that it gave rise to possibly the greatest mass murderer in human history, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, known to most by his adopted name – Joseph Stalin.
One thing I have heard about Georgia is that it is famous for its wine and food, and after more than a month of monotonous Central Asian fare I am eager to treat myself. After a breakfast of bread and jam I spend the morning riding, crossing a row of hills and gliding down into the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. I do not have time to explore the city proper, but even a short ride through reveals it as a gorgeous albeit loud city. I follow the river through the city, watching men fishing from the pavement and basking in the midday sun. The river is beautiful and far more interesting than most city rivers tend to be – complete with rapids and jumping fish. The city feels somehow medieval – stone walls surround the old city and crumbling towers and churches loom tall above the riverbanks.
Georgia is one of the oldest Eastern Orthodox countries in the world, having converted to Christianity back in the 4th century A.D. - although Georgia has been invaded many times and come under the rule of various regional powers, it has kept its distinct sense of identity and remains fundamentally Christian. I am surprised to learn that Georgia has its own writing script, which is completely distinct from anything else I have ever seen, and that the national language is not Russian, as I had erroneously believed, but Georgian.
Although Russian is spoken by some, the younger generation in particular are instead learning English as a second language. Russia is in fact a slightly sore subject in Georgia, for less than a decade ago back in 2008 the two countries were at war over two of Georgia’s northern regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia,a conflict which ended when the Russians invaded Georgia and annexed most of the two regions it wanted. It is strange to think that some of the places I will be riding through were under occupation by an invading power quite so recently.
I am on the lookout for somewhere to eat when I bump into a young Georgian on a bicycle who tells me that he is between bike trips himself and asks where I have come from. Alex speaks good English, and after introductions we ride together through the busy streets to a restaurant which he has recommended. He briefs me on the road ahead, assures me that it will be a beautiful ride and that there aren’t too many hills, then waves me an enthusiastic farewell as I find a table and order lunch. The Georgian speciality I have been recommended is called khinkali, a kind of delicious dumpling stuffed with meat, which goes down so well that I have to order seconds. I have a second helping of the excellent Georgian red wine too, and it is with some reluctance that I get back onto my bike and pedal out of Tbilisi.
The road out of the city is fantastic, with wide shoulders and spectacular views. I cross the river on an enormous bridge and ride into the mountains. The landscape is resplendent with the jaw dropping colours of autumn; golden hills are interspaced with rocky summits painted white with snow. On the skyline I can see an old and battered monastery perched on an outcrop overlooking the valley with the river running hundreds of metres below. Georgia is a fairytale land of old castles and stone churches, and somehow I find myself thinking of the Crusades, of Richard the Lionheart and of my own country. Castles have always captured my imagination. I like Georgia very much.
I spend another sub-zero night camped in a field, then in the morning detour off the road to visit Gori, a place I first learned about as a boy in history class – the birthplace of Stalin. If you had told my teenage self that I would be turning up there on a bicycle, I would have probably laughed, but today I ride curiously into Gori where I find a large statue of Stalin standing proudly in the town square, right next to the ‘Stalin Museum’ and surrounded by ‘Stalin Park’. To find that the man who has arguably killed more people than any other in history now has a kind of shrine devoted to him is quite troubling and I am tempted to spit at the statue’s feet, but he is obviously still beloved in Gori and I don’t want to get mobbed so I satisfy myself with a look of disgust and some more khinkali and wine in a nearby cafe.
After a quick poke around in Gori’s impressive hill fort, I get back on the road and spend the next two days riding hard for the coast. Georgia is a wonderful country to cycle in – the roads are wide, the traffic is low and the scenery is stunning. I ride gradually up into the mountains, passing through sleepy villages and hillsides dotted with pine forests. Georgia feels poorer than Azerbaijan for I see many dilapidated buildings and rusting cars, but it also feels more characterful. Many of the villages I pass through have old churches, and I see lots of open wood fires and stone chimneys spouting smoke. Vendors on the roadsides sell fruit, vegetables and freshly baked bread; Georgia has an undeniable rustic charm to it.
After coming down from the mountains in a long and pretty descent following another river, the rest of my afternoon is an easy ride west along a much flatter landscape with fields and meadows all around. As I get closer to the coast the fields turn to wetlands and I can smell the salt in the air. I ride hard, determined to reach the sea before the sun sets. I make it with only minutes to spare, arriving just in time to watch the sun go down amidst a gorgeous violet sunset.
It is a particularly sweet moment for me as it is the first time I have seen the ocean since leaving the Gulf of Thailand five months and over 12,000 kilometres ago. I remember thinking then that it would be a long time before I would see it again; the Black Sea was an impossibly far away prospect, something in the vague distance to aim towards but which never seemed within reach. To have made it through is a major milestone for me, a sign of just how far I have come. I sit for a long time in silence on the shore, watching the sunset fade to twilight and the stars slowly come out. I feel very much at peace.
Eventually I pull myself together and get my tent set up on the beach, cooking up some potato stew and waxing lyrical in my journal on the joys of bicycle travel. The next morning I watch the sun rise and hit the road again for the short final stretch along the coast. It is very pleasant riding with mountains to my left and the water to my right; I am elated to be cycling alongside the sea once again. I arrive by mid moring in Georgia’s second largest city of Batumi where I have been kindly offered a place to stay by a Couchsurfing host.
I spend the day relaxing and then the evening pursuing what has become a developing passion for Georgia’s wine industry. Batumi is a pleasant city, with picturesque cobblestone streets clashing aesthetically with some fairly ugly skyscrapers. Having cycled a hilly 1000km in just one week, I am tired from my ride through the Caucuses and would love to spend a few days with my feet up in Batumi but I am still determined to make a surprise appearance back home for Christmas so I don’t have the time to spare – with only just over a month to go and still well over 4000km to pedal, I will have to get a move on.
The weather has been blessedly dry for most of my time in the Caucuses, but unhappily my luck runs out on the morning of my departure from Georgia. The streets of Batumi are flooded and the rain is coming down in torrents as I brace myself against the cold and pedal towards the border. I am feeling thoroughly miserable when I make the grave mistake of thinking to myself ‘I bet I get a puncture now’. Predictably enough, I have a puncture within minutes and am left to lament the unequivocal correlation between bad weather and bike issues.
I am sheltering under the roof of a small petrol station and fixing the flat when an enormous, bear like Georgian man comes over from the next door garage to see what I’m doing. With sign language and a weak smile I explain the problem, giving him a thumbs up to tell him I am fine. My new friend, whose name is Ivan, is determined to help however for he waves aside my protestations and insists on giving the tube a professional patch job in his garage. I want to tell him that I’ve fixed punctures all over the world and that I know what I’m doing, but my Georgian is limited to ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and ‘wine’ so I simply thank him (gmadlobt) and watch as he does an incredibly thorough repair, buffing the tube to perfection.
Ivan tells me with sign language that he used to cycle, but then hurt his knee and took up smoking instead. I look out ruefully at the deluge but have to reluctantly admit that my knee is fine, so I turn down his offer of a cigarette, refit my wheel to my bike and ride back out into the rain. An hour later I cross the border and am stamped into Turkey, the final country between here and England for which I need a visa. Europe is now within reach.
Although I have only spent a few days in Georgia, it has already become one of my favourite countries. It possesses a charm which I have found in few other places, and the ease of getting around both in terms of visas and road conditions means it is definitely a country I will be coming back to. Abundant with caves, castles, hill forts, mountains and rivers, Georgia is a wonderland for anyone looking for adventure and beauty. With friendly people, great food and delicious and cheaply available wine, it is a place that I would recommend to anyone. As I ride west into Turkey I am focused intently on the road ahead, but it is not because I want to get away from what I have left behind. The Caucuses have been a joy to ride through and I look forward to the day when I return. I’ll be taking the long way round, but one day my bike and I will definitely be back.