Georgia: Dodging cows, cars and thunder storms (21/06/15-02/07/15)

Turkey had been great, but enough was enough. I was excited about travelling somewhere new and the Caucasus seemed like a perfect place to detour while waiting for Ramadan to pass.

Route through Georgia
Route through Georgia

The border official took an eternity looking at my passport, calling his boss over to check things but eventually I was let through – and into another world. I was greeted by a church, but it wasn’t just the state religion that had changed. The people’s faces, the food, the booze, the scenery – everything!

Arriving in Batumi
Arriving in Batumi

The road quickly deteriorated and narrowed and I had to dodge cows all the way to Batumi.

Where?
Where?

Batumi was a strange place – totally different from anywhere in Turkey. All the things that I cared about (basically the cost of food, alcohol, coffee and accommodation) where significantly cheaper.

Old castle near border
Old castle near border

There was also some history in clear sight – within 5km from the border I’d passed an old fortress (although I had no Georgian money yet so couldn’t pay to get inside). That was one of the things I’d been disappointed about in Turkey – the lack of historical sights that are almost everywhere in Europe. In Georgia there seems to be something of historical interest marked in every village.

Batumi promenade
Batumi promenade

In the town there was actually a (stony) beach by the Black Sea. In Turkey the road I’d followed from Samsun had been made artificially onto the water so this was the first time there was a space for people to chill by the coast.

Black Sea coast
Black Sea coast

Along the streets people were selling home brew wine and the shops had home-made beer for super cheap. The local old ‘geezers’ were sitting outside drinking beer and eating smoked fish, instead of the cay and baclava I’d been drowning in in Turkey.

Apartment blocks
Apartment blocks

I’d been starting to find the Turkish towns very ‘samey’ but Batumi was an exciting shambles. There was no cohesion in the place – as if no architect had been allowed to design two buildings next to each other. Some blocks were fancy apartments with curvy balconies, others were square crumbly Soviet flats. Some of the streets looked very Asian to me, while others had an bohemian Parisian charm to them.

View over Batumi
View over Batumi

I took the cable car up to the mountain top to see things from altitude (you might have noticed by now that I love a good view).

A strange water fountain in Batumi, with the water squirting from women's boobs
A strange water fountain in Batumi, with the water squirting from women’s boobs

On the top a big a storm was brewing above the peaks – I nipped back down to sea level to try and get home before the rain came but didn’t make it. The roads quickly became rivers and I hid in a restaurant while it passed. I decided to try a classic Georgian dish – Khachapuri (bread pastry in cream and egg with a huge slab of butter on top). I can eat what I want these days without needing to worry about the extra weight but I wouldn’t trust my heart eating one of these a day!

Khachapuri
Khachapuri

From Batumi I had two choices, either head north and along the easy (ish) mountain road or going go straight east and over the 2000+m Goderdzi pass. I decided for the later – I was feeling well rested and up for a challenge after the flatness that was the Back Sea coastal road.

Water fountain, Batumi
Water fountain, Batumi

The road was gorgeous and the first 50km wasn’t too bad – just gently up hill, cutting through sharp mountain edges.

My bike and a cow
My bike and a cow

It was a big climb from sea level, but nothing impossible. I’d planned on camping somewhere ⅔ the way up but very quickly the rain clouds began to form and I was engulfed in a big storm. I found shelter in an abandoned garage and considered asking around the village for a place to crash – but I didn’t want to take the chance of putting my tent up in the rain and I wasn’t feeling in the mood to be sociable with strangers in my wet state. I looked at my map and figured I wasn’t more than a few km from Khulo so pushed on in the storm. I stopped at the first hotel on the edge of town and when the owner said 20 GEL (£4.50) I was straight in the door not bothering to haggle. I was soaking and exhausted. It rained all evening so I cooked my camping dinner in my room and feeling sorry for myself.

Between Batumi and Khulo
Between Batumi and Khulo

In the morning the rain had stopped. I wandered into the town/village centre to buy some supplies and saw two familiar looking bikes outside a cafe. They belonged to two Swiss guys I’d bumped into at the border. They were both wearing matching Swiss flag jerseys just as they had done when I last saw them – maybe I should have invested in some English/Danish themed outfits for my ride… (I don’t think so).

Between Batumi and Khulo
Between Batumi and Khulo

I packed my stuff and headed off. The road was beautiful but the road suddenly deteriorated and was soon a total shambles – nothing but a stoney dirt track. I couldn’t believe it – this was an orange road on the map! The type of ‘main road’ that would’ve been a motorway in Turkey. I climbed an exhausting 1,500m on the last 30km to the mountain top.

Poor road conditions towards Khulo
Poor road conditions towards Khulo
Poor road conditions towards Khulo
Another dodgy road

The views didn’t last long as I soon ended up in the clouds, unable to see more than 5m in front of me. It was an eerie last section that just kept going up, up up…

Cow in the clouds
Cow in the clouds

Finally I reached Goderdzi pass, my first 2,000m mountain pass at 2,025m. Apparently the view was stunning but I couldn’t see a thing. It was cold, and the distant thunder that had been following me finally caught up and the cloud drizzle turned to pouring rain. The way down was awful – I couldn’t cycle any faster than 10km an hour as the road was in such bad condition. Large sections had just become a river in the rain and it was hard to spot the potholes in the conditions. It was one of those afternoons where everything went wrong – my front panniers were missing a part (a problem I’d forgot about on the smooth roads in Turkey) but on each big bump they kept falling of my bike meaning I had to stop all the time. I had bad stomach cramps, maybe from drinking some dodgy water or food, my new wisdom tooth was causing me lots of pain and I was cold and wet in the rain. In a few places the road was completely washed out and I had to cycle across streams hoping not to hit a rock or pothole. Eventually I did, and had to put my feet down to catch my balance – the stream was deeper than my feet so then even the plastic bags over them wouldn’t save me.

Goderdzi Pass - 2,025m
Goderdzi Pass – 2,025m

Again, I pushed on to the next town – there was no way I was putting my tent up in this storm. I reached Akhaltsikhe and managed to haggle a hotel owner down to half his asking price. I sat in my room feeling like shit. For the first time I’d hit a real brick wall. I was suffering from loneliness, depression, lack of motivation and fatigue – all dangerous feelings that had been building up over the last few days. When I looked at my map I didn’t feel proud of how far I’d come, but rather painfully aware of how far I was from home. I’d had enough of the rain – it feels like I’ve been battling storms for a month now, ever since I left Istanbul. It’s June for God’s sake! In the UK it rains a lot, sure, but I see a big storm once in a blue moon – whereas here thunder seems to accompany me on a daily basis.

Cycling down the mountain
Cycling down the mountain

I was annoyed to be paying for accommodation again – I was desperate to get back in my tent. Georgia has been the best country for camping so far and yet I haven’t been able to pitch anywhere.

Akhaltsikhe castle
Akhaltsikhe castle

The next day was better though – I only had a short ride planned so I visited the town’s castle before I left. I didn’t realise the town was famous for anything, but the castle looming over the centre looked unmissable and the town was clearly a good stepping stone for visiting some nearby attractions.

Akhaltsikhe castle
Akhaltsikhe castle

The castle was very cool – it had been nicely restored and the view from the top was great.

Between Akhaltsikhe and Borojmi
Between Akhaltsikhe and Borojmi

I cycled on in a good mood, the road followed a river but was surrounded by steep mountains.

Another looming thunder storm
Another looming thunder storm

On the way into Borojmi there were a few very odd looking Soviet style blocks of flats poking out of the mountain side. Some of them very narrow but more than ten stories high.

Apartment block near Borojmi
Apartment block near Borojmi

I found a hostel in town, hoping to find some company to cure the loneliness, but I was the only one staying there and the place was really grim.

Hostel in Borojmi
Hostel in Borojmi

I went to a bar round the corner and watched (yes – another) storm pass all evening. I was annoyed that I wasn’t in the tent, but pleased I hadn’t tried to camp in the weather.

Between Akhaltsikhe and Borojmi
Between Akhaltsikhe and Borojmi

My plan for Borojmi was to take a day off and go hiking in the national park. But the weather forecast was for storms the next day, so I decided to skip my day off and carry on cycling.

Hammock and chair road-side stall
Hammock and chair road-side stall

It was an interesting day – I deviated from the main road and found a perfect little tarmac road that meandered through villages. There had been a bad car crash in Kashuri so I was pleased to be away from the crazy drivers. I like the Georgians – they all smile and wave and the kids all great me with ‘hello’ from a mile away. In Turkey the kids mostly greeted me with ‘merhaba’, but in Georgia none of them say hello in their mother tongue, which I find interesting – considering as I look more like I could pass off as Georgian rather than Turkish. They say ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘what is your name’ before the English runs out and they start blabbering away at me in Georgian, baffled that I can’t respond even though they (quite accurately) assumed that I couldn’t speak any Georgian to begin with…

Another rubbish road
Another rubbish road

In one area the street was lined with more than 50 road-side sellers flogging deck chairs and hammocks – nothing else.

It's not just the Georgian drivers that have no respect for road safety - it's the cows too!
It’s not just the Georgian drivers that have no respect for road safety – it’s the cows too!

And in one of the village everyone was selling big buckets of cherries to the traders in town (I assumed).

Between Akhaltsikhe and Borojmi
Between Akhaltsikhe and Borojmi

I didn’t need to buy any though – there are dozens of cherry and mulberry trees around here so I’d already picked enough fruit for the day.

Stalin museum, Gori
Stalin museum, Gori

I stopped in Stalin’s birth town, Gori and visited the museum of the main man himself. It was very weird museum – big and grand and stuffed full of Stalin memorabilia. His childhood photos, strange gifts donated to him from supporters around the world and one especially strange room that was dedicated solely to a copy of his death mask. The whole place felt very ‘cultish’ to me, but apparently they’re all big Stalin fans in this town.

Stalin's death mask
Stalin’s death mask

I cycle 15km out of town before dark and finally was able to pitch my tent. I wanted to stop close to Uplisthike cave city so that I could visit the complex in the morning, and just along the road to the entrance I found the most amazing campsite of the trip so far. I’ll let the picture do the talking!

What a place to wake up!
What a place to wake up!

In the morning I was in a wonderful mood again – the sun was out and my morning view breathtaking.

The best campsite so far...
The best campsite so far…

The cave city didn’t open til 10 (and I was up with first light) so I relaxed with my book and my new Turkish coffee cooker in peace and quiet (only interrupted by a cow that found me in my dry creek which did some loud ‘moo-ing’ before running away).

The solution to my morning coffee problems...
The solution to my morning coffee needs…

The cave city was very cool – I had the place entirely to myself for the first hour before the tourists arrived in their buses.

Uplistsikhe cave city
Uplistsikhe cave city

The city hill-top location provided gorgeous views over the valley.

Uplistsikhe cave city
Uplistsikhe cave city

I walked about the rocks for a while, my only company being the many large lizards out sunning themselves.

Lizard
Lizard
Lizard
Another lizard

The valley widened and I hoped to reach Tbilisi in a day. Everything was going well until I heard the thunder behind me. I looked over my shoulder and half the sky was dark grey. I cycled as fast as I could with the the clouds chasing me through the valley, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up and I knew I was in trouble again – but still I couldn’t find anywhere sheltered.

Secret tunnel to the river
Secret tunnel to the river

I reached a village just as the rain started to fall and parked my bike under petrol station roof.

And another storm approaching...
And another storm approaching…

All the Turks had told me that Georgia is a much more dangerous and poorer country than theirs. I took the first comment with a pinch of salt, but the latter was obvious – all the village houses look like they’re on the verge of falling apart and the roads are in awful condition in many places. Look at the petrol stations for example – in Turkey they were all big glossy national/international chains but here in Georgia they’re often just shacks with a couple of tubs hanging out on the road.

Look at those rosy cheeks - not the first vodka he's ever had!
Look at those rosy cheeks – not the first vodka he’s ever had!

Anyway – in this one the owner invited me into his ‘office’ which was just a room with a calculator till, a bed and a gas cooker. Clearly his minimal house as well as business. He said some stuff in Georgian that I didn’t understand and then one word that I did – ‘vodka?’ like it was the most normal thing for a cyclist to fancy in the middle of the day. I said sure, which for me was a shrug and a Russian ‘da’ (I embarrassingly couldn’t remember the Georgian word for ‘yes’) and he whipped out a bottle of Fanta with homemade vodka in. He chopped up a bunch of tomatoes and cucumbers (and covered them in salt as everyone here seems to), found some bread and cheese and then start filling up some monstrous shot glasses to the brim. I struggled to get them down in one but tried my best to look cool.

A typical petrol station
A typical petrol station

If only I could have a glass of cay instead now! After the third shot it was still pissing it down outside and after the fifth I had to stop him. Luckily the rain finished on cue and I hoped back on my bike. Within the first 5m I realised how drunk I was – and I still had another 50km to go! I wobbled onward massively regretting my midday session. Another shower made me stop under a bridge and I drank as much water as I could and ate all the food I had to try and sober up as best I could.

Village store
Village store

After another 30km I was shouted at by a group sitting above the railway tracks in a village. They were two Japanese, and Russian girl and an America guy. The Japanese had cycled from China and they were all staying with a Chinese wine merchant who lived round the corner and was happy to have visitors stay in his house. It was very random, but I was invited to stay, and was more than happy not to have to cycle any more (and have a beer with them in the sun).

A sorry-looking football pitch
A sorry-looking football pitch

I took the next day off – the house was too nice and I wanted to fix some stuff on my bike. That evening a Malaysian girl and a German guy arrived, so we had dinner with 7 nationalities between the 8 of us!

My host's dinning room
My host’s dinning room

I hadn’t realised that we were on the edge of Mthseka – a famous town outside Tbilisi that I’d wanted to visited anyway. So I cycled to the Cathedral nearby before I left for the capital – only 20km away. The Japanese guys had been cycling with a rabbit they were given in east Iran, so I obviously had to get a snap of that before I left.

The rabbit on tour
The rabbit on tour

Tblisi was a cool city – I liked it (even if I was a little disappointed not to see any tigers prowling the streets after the recent floods). I stayed in a cheap hostel and spent my day off wandering around the centre.

Tblisi
Tblisi

I left Tbilisi with my compass pointing south and expecting to be in Armenia after a few hours of cycling, but my Georgian adventure wasn’t quite over just yet. On the way out of town I had my first car crash of the tour. I was cycling next to a car’s back left corner down a narrow one-way street when the driver suddenly pulled in to the left without notice. I was left with no time to react and so I slammed into his side. The collision was entirely his fault, but I should have known better than to be cycling anywhere not completely obvious.

My wheel getting fixed
My wheel getting fixed

I checked for damage – my shoulder took a knock and was hurting a little (but nothing major), and my bike looked OK. I cycled on another 5km before I realised that something felt wrong with my steering. I checked my front wheel (which I can’t see for my handlebar bag) and saw it was badly bent – no way I could cycle on it. It was so wonky I wasn’t even sure it could be fixed but I walked back towards town to find somewhere to get it looked at. A couple of local guys very kindly gave me directions to a repair shop and paid for my taxi there.

Between Tbilsi and the Armenian border
Between Tbilsi and the Armenian border

In the shop the mechanic gave me bad news – he thought the damage was too great and that I should buy a new rim, but he didn’t have one in my size. I found another shop, and in that place the guy reckoned he could straighten it and that it would be safe to ride. The language barrier was frustrating as usual but I let him try and he did a pretty good job (and much cheaper than a new rim) – let’s just hope it holds up!

Dinamo Tbilsi vs FK Qabala (UEFA qualifier)
Dinamo Tbilsi vs FK Qabala (UEFA qualifier)

It was now 5.30 – I was hoping to ride out of town to camp nearer the border but it seemed like a waste of time now. Feeling defeated I cycled back to the hostel I’d left in the morning. I went for a walk around the area and got a little lost when I stumbled across a football stadium with lots of people outside. I asked at the ticket desk what the game was (UEFA qualifier Dinamo Tbilisi vs. FK Qabala [a team from Azerbeijan]) and how much tickets were. When she said 5GEL (less than £1.50) my evening plans were sorted. Actually the game was pretty good – Tblisi won despite having a man sent of in the 50th minute. You couldn’t drink alcohol inside but I’ve never seen so many sunflower seeds in my life.

Car crash
Car crash

In the morning I left the capital again. Second time lucky? Thankfully yes. On the way out of town I passed another car crash in a big junction I’d passed yesterday. Why can’t they just drive like normal people?

Chickens for sale
Chickens for sale

The landscape became drier and more yellow. The fields were growing wheat and corn and everything glowed in the burning sun.

Between Tbilsi and the Armenian border
Between Tbilsi and the Armenian border

 

Finally, I was at the border. I took one last photo of a watermelon seller and was off into Armenia…

'Watermelon Man'
‘Watermelon Man’

 

 

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