Welcome to Georgia!

Posted by Dan
Tbilisi, Georgia

A toothless old man wheeling 10-inch Soviet flick-knives, complete with a hammer head and a camo-sheath, was the first Georgian to welcome me inside the border at Sarpi. His dialect was completely incomprehensible – he seemed to talk in grunts. I was unsure if it was the lack of teeth, or a genuine example of just how difficult it was going to be to understand the Georgian language. Their language is called Kartuli, and has no linguistic connection to any other known language, apart from three mountain dialects within the Caucasian region. In two weeks, we’ve learned a respectable amount and can politely make ourselves understood for the basics, although, when counting to five, I still have to miss out number four!

Our first stop was Batumi, where we took the time to plan possible routes, wait out some bad weather in the nearby mountains, give time for Krista’s strained hand to recover, rest, and stock up on supplies. The item we needed most was ‘Spiriti’ (no, I don’t mean vodka, but methylated spirits for our stove). A wild goose chase ensued and when we finally found someone who spoke Turkish, and could understand our quest, help was all-too easily enlisted.

Traipsing the markets and hardware shops of the bazaar district with our new friend Raoul was fun. He spoke to every man, woman and child selling anything, just in the hope that they had information about where Spiriti could be found. A two-hour search proffered no leads, although it had been interesting to watch Raoul connect with people, to experience how warmly Georgians communicate with each other, and to see first-hand how generous they are. Each person begging or plying some small trade received a coin or two from Raoul – a blind man with weighing scales got business from our 75-kilo friend, and an old woman selling sunflower seeds in cones made from old pages of a book, was more than happy to sell two, Raoul handing one full cone to each of us.


Ironically enough, we lazily found the Spiriti later that evening in the cleaning product section of the supermarket near our cold and dimly-lit hotel room.

Just before we left Turkey, we missed the chance to meet our friend Manu, who is also cycling across the world. However, he was planning on being in Tbilisi on the 6th and 7th of April. We looked at the map and saw that, in order to meet him, we had 500 kilometres to cover in one week. We were determined to get there in time.

Georgia is a country of great geographical beauty. Soaring mountain peaks, green valleys and an abundance of waterfalls and wildlife, with many of the species endemic to the unusual region. We’d worked out four or five possible routes, but we most favoured the mountain road that would eventually descend down to the nature reserve of Borjomi,

Leaving Batumi on the 30th March, the bad weather was ebbing away to leave a clear sky, so we headed out of town for the mountain route, dotted with historic bridges and fortresses. However, on checking we’d found the right road, the man we asked desperately tried to explain to us that it was not possible to take this road. From what we could understand, the pass at 2022 metres would be blocked by snow. We doubted him, but sure the road would be badly surfaced, and with Krista’s left hand limiting her, we took his advice, and doubled back through Batumi, up the coast to Grigoleti.

Along the way, I saw, for the first time ever, huge bamboo growing wild, and its use as fences, ladders, cups and fishing rods. I also saw men ploughing fields using oxen to drag the iron through the rich, brown earth.

Our first camp in Georgia was just outside Grigoleti, on very low land, almost swamp-like. As the air temperature cooled down, mist quickly formed and the cold air and moisture cloaked our tent, while the bullfrogs in the water channels loudly croaked through the night. Mating season on the marshes!

the Georgian terrain

The first village roads were newly tarmacked and we sped along, surprised at the pace that we were setting. It soon changed – the following day we experienced 47kms of potholes and pebbles, at the end of which, in Baghdati, I was introduced to the scary toasting tradition of Georgians. We had simply been invited inside a hardware shop to eat our lunch, instead of sitting on the curb. As our hosts, Larissa and Fridon, learned of our story, they became more and more animated, until a three-litre pop bottle, full of dubious red liquid, was brought to the table. They exclaimed, “Gvino, gvino”. This was the point of no return! ‘Gvino’ is the tradition wine that is brewed in every town and village in Georgia. My relief for having learnt the word for no (‘ara’), was a short-lived sense of safety. For the next three hours, I was as good as bullied into toasting every man and woman that entered the shop. The boisterous toasts extended to their family, dogs, goats and chickens. Drinking the potent homebrew with linked arms, even a local policeman and priest came to toast.

the crazy toasting

That night, we stayed at Larissa and Fridon’s home, in the nearby village of Dimi, and over a feast cooked by the women on a small woodstove, 20 people, half of them visiting guests, crammed the room. This time, I managed to keep my glass covered, toasting with only a sip each time. Most frightening was when Fridon produced various different drinking vessels for special toasts and special guests, including a gold-enamelled champagne flute and a large hand-carved wooden bowl. He filled the bowl and each man was expected to make a toast and down the entire contents. After a day’s cycling, it’s really not the best thing for the body, although, out of respect, it was hard not to join many of the toasts that were touching wishes for the future, for health, remembrance and loss.

Georgia has a turbulent history, and our path showed clearly its recent troubles. A couple of days later, two 13 year old boys we met in the village of Ubisi tried to explain their current feeling towards their troubled homeland. Powerfully patriotic, their hatred of Russia and unease was demonstrated by the slideshow set to emotive traditional music that Giorgi had on his mobile phone. It showed bombed buildings and dismembered dead bodies in a nearby town that had been caught up in the fighting of 2007. We camped in the boys’ village that night, near the river, after a look inside the 9th century monastery, which had a tower that had been designed to hide and protect people in ancient times of war.

In the night, we had an unexpected visitor to our camp. We were woken at 2am by heavy, stomping footsteps that to a dead sleep felt like they shook the ground. Something quite big was looking for food. Its breathing was loud and slow. We held our breath, scared and excited. Was it a bear…..??? It moved around outside, tripped on a guy rope and growled. I searched for footprints the next day, honoured that it might have been a very wild animal, like a bear or a wolf. Krista suspected a wild boar, and our biologist friend and nature expert, Manu, was inclined to agree with her. But I know what I’d like it to have been.

Interestingly, we did happen upon a bear as we entered the small village of Vani. It was being abused as a petrol station’s guard, and was chained by its neck to a metal cage, on which it was climbing and hanging from. It had a demented, teased look in its eyes. I was also saddened by roadside stalls all along the way which had wolf, bear and badger skins hanging for sale.

bear in jail

We didn’t manage to leave Ubisi early. Our early start was delayed when Turkish truck drivers invited us to çay. Their kitchen set-up was quite impressive, neatly stored in a custom-made box under the trailer. It opened out as a table, with a gas hob and an array of Turkish breakfast treats, such as cheeses, olives and bread. We were excited by the familiarity of the Turkish language, culture and food and Big Baba, the most animated truckie, said he’d seen us pedalling out of Rize, on the Black Sea coast of Turkey.

Turkish truckies and their warm welcome

As we rolled slowly downhill into a heavy headwind, we knew that the caffeine hit would be a welcome assist to the morning. For the rest of the day, we pushed on hard into the strongest headwind we’ve had to fight on this journey. Our 30km uphill to the 1000 metre pass was made relentless, as all day we were pinned back by the wind. The odometer barely registered the turning of the wheel as we laboured slowly upwards. At 5.30, and with the quickly sinking sun, we finally reached the summit, where snow still lay, and we camped with a stunning view of towering, white mountain peaks in the Lesser Caucasus.

Descending, we were forced to join the main road as many of the secondary roads had been blocked by winter landslides and eroded river banks. It was traffic-heavy and very fumy. Like Whacky Races, vehicles of various deterioration, belched past us, sometimes three-abreast. From time to time, we had police escorts riding behind us to shield us from the reckless drivers. Fortunately the wind was with us this day, and we flew along effortlessly, the road flanked by 3000 metre mountain ranges to the north and south. Beautiful.

Nearing Tbilisi, we passed Gori, which lies 30kms directly below South Ossetia, the province that was bombed in 2007. The traffic backed up as it queued to pass over a river on a narrow steel bridge. We supposed this to be a temporary bridge as the one shattered and collapsed in the river just 10 metres away, looked as if it had been bombed. A heavy military presence, signage for the new military base for Georgia and hundreds of possible refugee homes encouraged our assumptions.

Today, huge demonstrations have passed us in Tbilisi. People from all over the country have travelled here to march on a peaceful protest at Freedom Square, outside Parliament, to insist on removal of the current corrupt Prime Minister Saakashvili. They have chosen this day, the 9th April, in memory of the 20 hunger strikers who were massacred by Soviet troops on that date in 1989, for demanding independence. This finally came two years later on 9th April 1991.

Tblisi freedom march

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