- Jamie Shannon
Georgia: See, is good, drink. Me: too dangerous. I get hit, I die. Big problem. End of trip
I left Batumi with my stove kind of fixed by a Georgian man whom didn’t release a smile in the entire forty minutes I was stood in his shop. He didn’t charge me though which was nice. I had some maps of Georgia now and so I was confident when I finally left the city, following the bicycle paths that wound their way along the coast north.
Due to the mountainous nature of the country, the highway takes you quite far north before turning inland but of course I found a road that seemed like a nice ‘short cut'. This ran diagonally across from the coast and re-joined the highway some 100km’s further along.
The road along the coast wasn’t as flat as I had imagined it to be. It was blisteringly hot too which obviously didn’t help but on the other hand, all of these reports online that I have read about the Georgian drivers being some of the worst in the world are categorically, at least in my experience, incorrect. They were actually very courteous.
When I arrived in the first town of any significance, I really did begin to feel on my own. Every single face seemed to burn into me with eyes that could kill. I kind of longed to be cycling with someone else to take the stares away from me but alas, I was back on my own.
With some provisions quickly acquired, I was soon on my way but not before passing a statue that looked not too dissimilar to Maggie Thatcher. I wondered what on earth a statue of her would be doing sat in a small town in Georgia – something to do with her and Reagan and the fall of the Soviet Union. I don’t know.
Having enjoyed the thrill of cruising down the other side of a pass before joining up with a road that ran alongside a beautiful river, I had the wonderful experience of having to change my inner tube in heat that was unbearable. I had a little puppy for company though so at least I had something to look at.
Cycling through Georgia really is quite difficult!
I was tired by this point. Not really because of the cycling but just because of the sheer intensity of the heat. I wanted to camp by the river I had been travelling alongside but I needed to pick up some juice from the next town and so I cycled on. Having done this, I decided to tackle the next pass simply to have it over and done with for the next day and one hour later, I found just the most perfect spot for a good nights sleep next to a river. I love this as I have ample water to wash myself and to drink too.
The heat provided another obstacle for me however; it just made it all but impossible to sleep. This, in addition to sleeping in a tent meant that I had to climb out once every forty minutes or so just to get some air and wash myself. It isn’t good that’s for sure.
I spent the next day cycling along a flat road that took me past crumbling small villages and stray dogs at every turn. Luckily they didn’t chase me though as even they probably didn’t have the energy to do so.
I was however back to cycling through a country where I had at least three or four dog encounters every day from the kind of vicious guard dogs that strike fear into you if you cycle pass ‘their’ turf. I took to carrying a huge stick again but as this was not really having an effect, I decided a rock would be better.
Even when simply following the flat road, I had to stop every half an hour in order to dry my clothes, drink about three litres of water and just get my breath back. Cycling the Caucasus in summer is not something for the faint hearted that’s for sure.
The 20km stretch of road that ran over the hills literally took my breath away. It was simply laughable the way the road ascended and descended through gradients that made me almost weep with frustration. I followed a tractor for a lot of the way and so said hello to the five people that were aboard about seven times. They must have thought I was crazy. Indeed I thought I was crazy for doing this. The only thing that was keeping me going was the thought of a long rest in Tbilisi.
After leaving the city of Zestaphoni, I followed the main highway alongside a river that ran through a huge canyon and where I had the unfortunate experience to be re-introduced to my canine friends. Every 50 metre’s there were these stalls alongside the highway selling souvenirs made of wood and where the owner’s dog would inevitably jump out at me which caused me to swerve wildly into the middle of the outside lane. Not the best thing to do when it’s rush hour in Georgia. After the third time, I finally lost my temper and stopped outside one such stall. Having scanned the area looking for some burly dog owner, my eyes stumbled upon someone quite the opposite. I wanted to be nice, I really did but I was just so angry that I began shouting. The person did seem to understand and from their reaction, I could tell that they were apologizing which was enough. Looking back now, I feel a little guilty but I also could have been killed.
With the ground so hard as to not accept my tent pegs, I elected for a quarry of all places and simply hoped that the large boulders resting precariously above my tent would stay put. It was another night spent sweating inside.
I gradually made my way along the main artery running towards Tbilisi the next day. I climbed gradually throughout and had a few petrifying experiences in the tunnels en route but on the whole, it was a very enjoyable experience particularly as the scenery was simply stunning.
Every time I sit down to rest or eat or whatever, there always seems to be someone whom pulls up and walks over to request a photo. The conversation usually goes as follows:
Nice man from Georgia: Where do you go?
Me: To Tbilisi
Nice man from Georgia: How long?
Me: (holding fingers aloft) – two days.
Nice man from Georgia: today?
Me: Nyet, nyet, nyet. I arrive Tbilisi – one finger, two fingers, two day’s
Nice man from Georgia: Too too far, you come with me, I take you.
Me: No, I only cycle, it’s no problem, I come from Batumi with bicycle so it is okay.
Nice man from Georgia: You come from Batumi with bicycle? You are crazy my friend.
Me: But I come from England with bicycle so I can do it.
Nice man from Georgia: You are crazy man, you must drink.
Me: No, no, no, I must cycle – fast cars (makes sounds of cars) no shoulder (jumps back and forth on the spot trying to imitate that there is no hard shoulder)
Friend of nice man from Georgia enters: You need to drink vino, here drink.
Me: Okay, only one drink. Very dangerous you see. (Mimics cars again)
Both Georgians: See, is good, drink one more.
Me: I must cycle, too dangerous for me. I get hit, I die. Big problem. End of trip.
Both Georgians: Drink some more with us. Lets toast.
Me: Okay one more.
They ask me at about this time if they can take a photo with me to which I of course reply yes but after which more wine is served. I usually leave soon afterwards but stop again quite soon to drink coffee and to get my head straight. I need to be careful you know.
So this is how my break stops go.
On this next occasion however, it was an entire wedding party that turned up. Food was given and received with much gratitude and wine was handed to me in quick succession. One girl spoke quite good English and I explained to her the reason why I couldn’t drink more than one but she said it would be no use declining. I was their guest and I would have to accept.
I reached the top of the pass a little later and was confronted with a choice: Take a road that seemed like it climbed around the last part or use the 3km long tunnel that went through it. I chose the latter and it was without doubt one of the most terrifying parts of my stay in Georgia thus far.
With my torch wrapped around my head and my hi vis flapping elegantly in the breeze, I was on my way into the darkness. Even though there was absolutely no shoulder, I figured I had done this a thousand times before and so I kept on going. With the sounds of the trucks coming up behind me and the tunnel curving away to my right, it was a pretty terrifying experience to be honest.
I cycled on and came to a stop outside a market where I grabbed some important items of food, namely chocolate and an eggplant. When I was paying however, I could see from inside a group of men looking at my bike quizzically and sure enough, when I exited, I had a barrage of questions thrown at me. The funniest of which was probably what the pepper spray on the handlebars was for. I assured them that It was only for dogs and not the Georgians.
It was now just one straight road really all the way to Tbilisi. The only problem was that I had so many obstacles in my way as I followed the main highway. It was really busy and my shoulder was made entirely of dust and gravel which kept being thrown up into the air and thus blinding me in the process. Pot holes meant I had to swerve every few feet to avoid coming a cropper and the cars seemed oblivious to my being there and so would often use the shoulder to overtake. On top of all this, every 50 metres a huge dog would jump out at me from one of the many petrol stations that lined the road. By the fifth ‘attack’ I had had enough and let out my anger on one of the owners whom actually seemed genuinely sorry. He even helped me pick up some of my things that had been thrown out of the front pocket of my bag when I had collided with a rock some seconds earlier. A little later, I realised I had lost my head torch. I rode back to where I had stopped but it was no use. It was gone. Six years I had had that. I was a little gutted.
As darkness loomed, I spotted a river and the perfect place to camp just off the road and so I wheeled my bike off the highway. At the very least I would have access to running water and thus a shower of sorts.
I continued along the highway the following morning and it felt good to be cycling when the sun was not melting my tyres. The road was flat. The wind was non-existent and in a few hours I would be in Tbilisi.
By the time I had arrived at Gori, the highway had really begun to get busy. With the speed limit being lifted to 110km/h and a lack of a helmet to reassure my head I was doing the right thing, I decided it was time to return to getting completely lost on the smaller roads.
I took a turn off that led to Gori, birthplace of Georgia’s most infamous son, and having negotiated my way into the city, became a little stuck when I arrived down a street to be confronted with about six railway tracks. I motioned to the workmen nearby if the opposite side led out of the city and with a positive answer from them, began to make my way across. No easy feat with a bicycle as heavy as mine. I got some help though which was much appreciated as being stuck in the middle of a railway line isn’t something I like to do.
When travelling by bicycle, you really appreciate the scale of the land
It was around this time that the landscape began to change quite rapidly. The lush green forests and mountains of the west were now being replaced by a much more barren and dry plateau. It really could not have been any different. It felt even more sweltering here too so I was determined to make it to Tbilisi today. I couldn’t even contemplate another night inside my tent but my progress was inhibited by the fact that I got completely lost on the backroads. I had three different maps but none of them seemed to match the others and so I eventually cycled into villages that became increasingly more remote and isolated until I eventually ran out of tarmac. I asked some locals which way I had to go to find the small town that would take me back towards the highway but was directed to some more tracks that led down from the mountains I now found myself in. These tracks led me through this scorching and barren landscape that reminded me of my time in central Spain.
Eventually, I could see the town I wanted in the distance but it was another hour before I arrived. I was quite impressed at this point as to just how well my little bike was coping. Apart from some small niggling problems with the fenders and rear rack, she was putting up a good fight with everything I was throwing at her and I was confident that she would indeed last the whole trip.
Tbilisi is situated in a valley and so I spent the rest of the day gliding through this spectacular scenery over super smooth roads and with the wind cooling me down. After the previous few hours, this was a blessing and I had reached the northern limits of the city by half five. I sat down, enjoyed a super cold bottle of coke and began daydreaming that my visa applications were still progressing smoothly.
I know I complain every time I enter a large city about the fact that it’s dominated by cars but it’s not really this that annoys me. It’s the simple fact that a lot of a cities roads are set up only for the movement of cars. On a bicycle, you have no chance. In this regard, Tbilisi really does take the biscuit. The sheer volume of traffic staggered me as I assumed it was a small city. How wrong I was.
Despite this, I was enjoying joining the throngs of traffic as I made my way through the city. You really do have to assert yourself because if you don’t, you simply won’t get anywhere as no one will slow down to let you through.
As is normal, I became completely disorientated as I got closer to the centre. The traffic was crazy and there were no signs that pointed to anywhere like a city centre – just suburbs which were not represented on my map.
With so many different roads, roundabouts and overpasses, I now had no idea in which direction to turn to in order to locate the river. that would lead me to the centre. My solution to this was to walk over to a couple of buskers and to ask for directions. Luckily they spoke English and after some minutes of conversation, they said they would walk with me towards the river 2km’s away. They even bought me a beer from a petrol station. I was their guest.
And that was my ‘short’ story.