After an incredible trip across the Black Sea from Bulgaria, for us, the unknown of Georgia awaited. We were well rested, full of stale bread and mountains of meat from the ship. We disembarked to a new world, lush green dense jungle like hills, food considerably spicier and once again warm smiling faces. The Georgian mountains awaited and we were ready!
We finally said our goodbyes to our 8 new friends we met upon the ship and promised to try and meet up in Tblisi, the capital. We then rode southwards along the Black Sea to the bustling city of Batumi.
The road from Poti to Batumi was madness. Cars overtook on double solid white lines, trucks swerving for potholes all the whilst cows stood in the middle of the road. The Georgian cows rule over all and stand oblivious to the whizzing traffic. Unfortunately our bikes are well down on the traffic food chain, so it was a very tense 50km to Batumi.
The fun continued in Batumi. As we rode to our hotel for the night, we became quite aware of the cultural and traffic changes. The use of the horn is key for Georgian commuters. Almost every car that passes gives a honk to us. We have been told that this is simply saying hello. A friendly gesture, but in the mix of a thousand vehicles, navigating enormous roundabouts and roadworks, the blasting honks can be testing.
As ever, bike touring normally offers you two options when planning your route. The mountainous, less traffic route, or the lowlands crazy traffic option. As our bike horns weren’t loud enough to compete we headed for the southern mountain ranges.
Jasi was finding herself attracting more attention than she anticipated here. On one occasion a man driving a truck loaded with hay, slammed on the handbrake and excitedly jumped out to take a photo with us. I assumed the photo would include myself, and as I parked my bike, I looked up to see the selfie taking place without me. the man then dashed happily back into his truck and continued on. Must be quicker next time.
Our first mountain pass was to be Groderdzi pass at 2000m. We were 1300m into the climb when two men stopped and asked us for a lift over the pass. The conversation involved only hand gestures and their hopeful smiles that we would accept. The two men were brother in-laws, one with 4 children and the other with 3, at least that is what we deciphered from the hand signals. They had caught Jasi and I at a weak point, and as the road was the worst we had encountered for the journey and as we had still 700 m to climb, we gave in and accepted. This was to be one of our best decision yet.
Our bikes were quickly hoisted ontothe back of the truck. We set to work securing the bikes with hay band. As I tied my farm boy knots, the Georgian man quickly knocked away my inadequate skills and twinkled his fingers to produce a sturdy knot.
We were now on our way, Jasi in the front cabin with the two men and myself on the back clinging on for dear life holding onto the bikes. What an adventure this was, lurching left and right through enormous potholes, steep hairpin bends, meeting hay trucks through narrow passes feeling as if they could fall upon me, this had it all!
As we neared the 2000m pass, we came to a stop. I could hear the radio being turned up to what sounded a traditional Georgian song. Then suddenly, the door flew open and the elder of the two men began dancing in the middle of the road. What a dance it was! He was smiling from ear to ear as we clapped to the beat, twirling and hoping and finishing with a kiss blown to Jasi. As quick as the dancing started, it had finished. With a loud crunch of gears we lurched into motion, heading for the pass.
After the pass, the landscape changed to dry and arid however the people remained so hospitable. On one occasion we were cycling past what looked like a town hall when we were invited in to sit and eat with the family. The feast was enormous, approximately 100 people had eaten here and now we were told to fill our bellies. The feast was in remembrance of a lady who passed 40 days ago. A tradition here in Georgia. As what was obviously a difficult day for these people, to invite us in and offer us food and smiles was a very humbling experience. We shook hands with the extended family and were waved goodbye as if we were friends of the family.
The next 24 hours for Jasi and I was one of the most eventful of the trip. We arrived in the small town of Akhalkalaki and as a stormed approached we decided it was best to finish here for the day. The very first man we spoke to offered to host us. He spoke a mix of German and English and was very excited to have us. From here it all went downhill. We stopped at a supermarket to get supplies for the night. He insisted on 5 beers and we got some yoghurt, we payed for everything but thought that this was a reasonable deal for hosting us. He led us to his home which was extremely dirty, smelling fowl and covered in right wing extremist posters.
The mood then changed. After a brief chat he explained that he was a radical Christian and that all muslims should be killed. Then he did the unthinkable, he gave us the Hitler salute and cracked open his first beer to the cheers of “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free” the slogan Nazism had upon the entrance gates of most concentration camps during WW2). This man was indeed a Neo-Nazi. As soon as the man left the room, Jasi and I packed our bags and left. He was quite annoyed with this. We decided to ride to the next hotel, camping, patch of grass, anywhere away from this man.
The following day we headed for the beautiful alpine lake Paravani. We were within 10km of the lake when again, two men, brothers, gave us directions to their home and invited us for afternoon coffee. A little tentative after our last experience, we accepted. We pedalled 6km to their home and found them waiting for us. What a special couple of hours it was. We were introduced to the entire family. Three brothers and their families lived in the small town and had all arrived for an afternoon snack and coffee.
One of the ladies spoke a little German so we were able to create conversation to all. We were the special guests of the family, they gave us food, coffee, Vodka and more food for the road. I exchanged Skype addresses with one of the brothers who didn’t speak a word of English. He strongly insisted that we must Skype his family when we finish our travels. The grandchildren of the families were then piled onto Jasi for a photo, a must. They offered to host us for the night, but we had our heart set on camping beside lake Paravani so we declined jumped (a little wobbly from the Vodka) on our bike and they waved goodbye until we were out of sight.
Our heartfelt decision to pedal on proved to be genius. We had it finally made it to the beautiful Lake Paravani at an altitude of 2000m and the views did not disappoint. A small monastery lay at the edge of the lake and we were too curious not to see more. We pedalled down the track that led to the monastery and met three monks with big smiles. They offered us for more coffee. After coffee and wine, we asked if we could pitch our tent nearby the monastery overlooking the lake, they insisted! It was our most beautiful camp spot yet and made the climb to the top all the worthwhile.
What goes up, must come down. The reward of the many days climbing the alps was here. There are few better moments for us bike tourers. But on this descent to Tbilisi it had it all. Beautiful views, a strong storm chasing, dogs emerging from nowhere nipping at our heels and km’s of down breeze. Downhill, warmer weather and Tbilisi awaited us.
We are now resting up in Tbilisi and will make a longer stop in order to hopefully process our Iranian visa at the embassy. Meanwhile, we will meet up with a few of our new friends we met upon the ship. We also plan to give the bikes themselves a rest and take a two or three day trip by bus to the Northern mountains ranges to the region of Kasbegi. Here we will finally lay eyes upon the Gergeti Trinity Church!
Jasi and Matt