On Wednesday 13 July we left Georgia well rested after an untypically super lazy week in Tblisi. We had to stay this long to wait for our Chinese visum to come through, which it did. We got the 90 plus 90, double entry, six months until first entry visa. This is happy bike traveler-speak for the best kind of visum we could have wished for. Through the ever useful Caravanistan site we found out that the Chinese embassies of Bishkek and Almaty are no longer issuing visas, so we were very happy with this Tbilisi solution. There is no bureaucracy stopping us now, at least not until we get to the border of Laos where we will hope to get a visum on arrival.
We used our visum limbo to sleep in, to shop for some camping supplies (to other bike travelers: most things you would be looking for are impossible to find in Tbilisi) and to enjoy some of the sights as a non-cycling tourist. One day trip that I would recommend to anyone would be the bus from Freedom Sqaure to Davit Gareja, a cave monastery on the border of Azerbaijan. The frescoed caves that make up the monastery are spectacular, as is the desolate and arid landscape around. We left our bikes at home since Tblisi is total mayhem traffic-wise and the public transport is virtually free and easy to navigate. The first two days we were in a busy ‘work’ mode: dropping off our passports at the embassy, running errands, not finding camping gear we were looking for. We then snapped out of the hectic state of mind and headed for the classical boiling hot sulfur baths. Our minds and bodies went into a deep and total relax mode from which we only fully emerged once we got back on the bicycle. These lazy days are needed too, and the recuperation means we are 100% ready for the Armenian mountains.
We managed to pick up two words of the unique Georgian language during our stay: Gamarjoba means hello and madloba means thank you. On our last day we finally remembered one more: Nakhvamdis means goodbye. Nakhvamdis Sakartvelo!
Also: we added more pics to the Georgia photo album
Since the last blogpost in Ushguli we climbed to the 2600m Zagar pass, descended to the lowlands via a very tough dirt track and have come back to the ‘civilisation’ of Tbilisi. We are by now getting a little bit skinnier despite the khachapuri caloriebombs and Cyrils beard is getting pretty wild. Three months on the road already, it is flying by.
After Ushguli we made the final 8km and 500m altitude push for the Zagar pass in perfect weather. The track was bad but again doable because it wasn’t too muddy. No traffic, just us, two French cyclists and snowtopped mountains all around. On the other side of the pass the weather turned foul and we started our descent in clouds and rain on an even worse track. Water was gushing down around us and we had to navigate big stones and rocks. We ended up doing 20km in total that day because the descent was even harder than going up to the pass. We camped in someone’s garden in Tsana village, the first inhabited place we came across. In the following two days we kept descending through lush green and wet mountainland, on narrow roads stuck to steep rock cliffs, riding through the occassional village. The track through the villages is made of mud and a collection of puddles ranging in size from saucer to SUV, filled with a greenish mixture of rain water and cow dung. We slalom around the puddles but sometimes we have to splash right through them. This was too much for the bikes, even for the Rohloff: the shit glued all our moving bike parts together and we had to wash our bikes in a mountain river to be able to keep cycling. We didn’t realize the region would be so uninhabited so in the end we ran out of food and had to do the last 20km to Kutaisi on an empty stomach, including some Ardennes-like steep little climbs in very hot weather. On one of our last nights of camping before Kutaisi we met a group of hiking Ukrainians who had a cooked a very tasty soup and shared some of their food with us.
We loved the 10 days of wildcamping wilderness of Svaneti, but at the same time we were also really looking forward to putting all of our gear through the washing machine and exploring Tbilisi. Again we find ourselves questioning the notion of civilisation as soon as we enter the city: the pollution and the noise of the traffic are overwhelming. Tbilisi has a small old town which is geared towards tourists with souvenir shops, wine bars and guest houses. The rest of the city consists of mostly Soviet housing blocks and new high rise development. It stretches long and narrow from North to South in a river valley between two hill ranges. Insanely busy North-South roads full of shiny new 4WD’s, taxis, beaten up yellow minibuses are impossible to cross for pedestrians. There are no cyclists. Still, the vibe is relaxed and we are quickly finding our way around town by public transport.
We love Georgia and we are very happy with choosing to do the tough but stunning Svaneti loop. It is such a small and quirky country, and considering it’s small size it is disproportionally full of natural beauty, history and culture. The people we have met are kind and funny even though we can’t always share a language. We are happy to find that they love our own quirky little country right back because of Sandra Roelofs, the hugely popular Dutch former first lady.
Today we went to the Tbilisi Botanical Gardens which is a lovely quiet oasis just South of the old town. We have found a bench in the shade next to a river where we are writing, editing photos and reading up on Armenia. Close to the gardens are the Byzyantine sulphur baths which we will enjoy tonight. On Wednesday we will hopefully pick up our Chinese visum before we continue South to Armenia and Iran. We are after all cyclists, we want to keep moving.
We are currently enjoying a rest day in Ushguli, after 3 days of climbing. From Batumi we followed a very busy road alongside the Black Sea until we veered inland, towards the mountainous Svaneti region. From the small town of Jvari onwards we climbed about 3000m in 4 days time to one of the remotest and the highest inhabited places of Europe.
Ushguli lies alongside a muddy and rocky track at 2100m altitude, some 45km from Mestia, the nearest town. Whether Georgia is still Europe is up for debate but the Georgians sure want to be part of the EU. From our little campsite we are looking up at the highest mountain of Europe; the Xsara is 5062m high. Another unique feature of Ushguli and the Svaneti region are the towers. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries every family here built it´s own high guard tower with a house attached and surrounded by a wall, to protect themselves from marauders. Or from eachother, as blood feud is a tradition here that is only slowly disappearing. Some 175 towers are still standing in the valley of the river Enguri, surrounded by wooded mountainslopes and snowcapped peaks. Until the town of Mestia got a small airport the very difficult road was the only way to get here, and only in the summer season. The Svan people have a very strongly preserved own cultural identity and their own oral language that separated from the Georgian Kartuli some 5000 years ago. The region feels wild and mysterious, in no small part because it is so hard to get here. Today we took a walk around the village and it looks like nothing much has changed in the last 1000 years, apart from small groups of tourists arriving by jeep tour, hiking, or by bicycle of course.
Cycling in Georgia
The cycling has been very interesting lately. From Poti onwards we were followed by a police car. This apparently happens more often as we´ve read about this involuntary escort on other cycling blogs. The police wanted us to stay in a hotel (´is safe! Camping not safe!´) but in the end they let us stay next to the police station, which wasn´t so bad since we got to enjoy their hot shower. We made friends with a couple of locals but the police chased them away, which made for a very awkward and somewhat sad situation. We enjoyed hanging out with the locals and I´m sure nothing much happens in the village to entertain them. They were very sweet and bought us food. I´m quite sure they were the bad boys of the village but we never felt threatened, until the police made a point of chasing them away like a pack of stray dogs. Not nice.
The day after we managed to shake off the police around lunchtime, when our escort followed two German cyclists who we cycled together with. We waited a bit longer to get back on the bike and were never joined by a new police car. In the late afternoon another police car got sight of us and prepared to turn around for the obligatory escort, quick flash of their lights and a short blast of the siren to get our attention. We didn´t want to spend another night next to a police station so we asked the first guy we saw sitting next to the road if we could camp in his garden, which he happily accepted after a second of surprise. The police never found us and we had a lovely night camping behind Iridio´s old wooden farmhouse on stumps. Iridio brought out the home distilled fruit schnapps and many toasts to Sakartvelo, friendship, family and love were made. Good times.
From here on we started to climb out of the flatlands and into Svaneti. In two days we climbed to the town of Mestia, enjoying one more night of camping next to a little road side restaurant where the owners Nino and Bairon sang traditional Svaneti songs for us. The road to Mestia is very good and spectacularly beautiful; a roaring wild river cutting through a steep valley, no traffic, only a few villlages. After Mestia things got serious; a small pass took us to 1900m, then straight down to the village of Bogreshi in a narrow valley. Just past the village is an abandoned Svan tower where we spent the night cosily inside, on the first floor with a window overlooking the road and the valley. A wonderful experience, the most beautiful camping spot we have encountered so far.
From the descent of the 1900m pass the road turned into a difficult mud track which we enjoyed immensely. We have been very lucky with the weather so the track was doable, not too rutted and dusty, not too sticky-muddy. Climbing to the 2160m altitude of Ushguli took us through canyons and gorges and a couple of tiny little village with more Svan towers. Every corner of the track is hard work but so breathtakingly beautiful.
We discovered two special museums. The Svaneti museum in Mestia holds an incredible collection of local religious and household artefacts. The only thing I found strange was the signs speak of the objects in the past tense, when it is clear this culture has not disappeared just yet. The small and austere churches here hold incredible historical artefacts, gifted to them through the ages and kept. I am not sure if these things belong in a museum when the culture is still alive and in practice and the objects still in use.
Another precious place was the ´museum´ of Ushguli. It is the house of Zoar, built by his parents in 1939. The interior is decorated with communist symbols; plaster hammer and sickles on the wall, a star on the ceiling. There are stuffed animals, antique mountaineering equipment, tradtional Svaneti hats. Zoar plays songs for us and talks about his days past as a mountaineer.
Today in Ushguli we are hanging out with a couple of French cyclists and gathering courage for the short but steep climb along the dirt track to the 2600m pass tomorrow. There was a thunderstorm last night with some heavy rain so we hope the track is not too muddy. In the worst case scenario we will have to push our bikes up the 8,5km to the pass. After that a slow descent along the dirt road towards Lentekhi, and onwards to Tblise where we will spend a week, trying to get our Chinese visum and enjoying old town city life. For now we are loving the wild outdoors.