From Batumi to Tbilisi. 17th April – 7th May 2018 We prepared to say goodbye to Turkey. Georgia was ahead and it seemed to me as if we were stepping a little further outside our comfort zone. We put on our brave underpants, cycled past the 5km queue of waiting trucks and presented ourselves at the various windows to the officials. Sometimes they had a sense of humour – they wanted to know the registration numbers of our bicycles – sometimes they didn’t. ‘Passport’ was barked at us. But we got through and emerged on the other side of the border paraphernalia into a different world. In Turkey alcohol is frowned upon. Even though wine is made in Turkey, in some towns it is virtually impossible to buy a bottle, or at least it was for us. I suspect the same applies to gambling and to shows where ladies take off their clothes. Georgia has no such problems. As soon as the last official had thumbed through our passports the alcohol shops began. Vast advertisements lined the road for casinos and ‘live’ shows. We cycled on and with dusk falling followed the Black Sea coast to the town of Batumi. We arrived in the dark, tentatively threaded our way through the city and found a hostel. Fortunately they had a room. We heaved a sigh of relief and went in search of a bottle of wine – well, we’d been a long time in Turkey. Our first impressions were not that good. People on the street were stony faced, almost surly. It wasn’t easy to get a smile. But we put that down to it being a city and tried to keep an open mind .
We spent a couple of days in Batumi, rested, wrote a little, explored a little and enjoyed the food. Khachapuri is a staple. It’s a bread dough shaped like a boat filled with cheese, baked and then topped off with a large lump of butter and a couple of eggs. About two days calories in a single serving but great cycling food.
The modern buildings in Batumi were bizarre. There was a ferris wheel 3/4 of the way up a tower block. Weird and wonderful designs all book ended by blocks of flats that looked as if they should have been condemned years ago.
We thought long and hard about our route to Tbilisi. We could either go along the river valleys by the main road via Gori which was the birthplace of Stalin and where there is a museum and a statue in his memory. Or we could head up and over the mountains on a much quieter route. We took the road less travelled. Which at first seemed like the wrong decision. Every second vehicle was a huge truck full of dirt or rocks or gravel gouged out of the river bed. But as we climbed higher so the trucks began to disappear and we were only being passed by the mini buses that run all around the Georgian countryside. We climbed higher into the mountains and by nightfall still had not found anywhere to camp. Except Chris liked the look of a bus shelter. I wasn’t so sure. We pushed on. Sometimes literally pushing. And darkness loomed. There were some children playing outside a house. Probably a farm so we stopped and admired the boy’s bike. Mum showed up and we asked if we could camp anywhere thereabouts.
We couldn’t really understand much of each other but we got the feeling that the answer was yes so we followed her into the house. Everybody was introduced. The father, unquestionably the patriarch, his wife, their daughter-in-law and her children. Soon on the ancient stove, potatoes were set to fry, tomato sauce, and meat broth was heated . Bread, clotted cream and cheese was set on the table and we were invited to eat. In strict rotation. First to eat was the grandfather and us, next came the women and children. We still had no idea where we were going to sleep but we were pretty sure we’d be found somewhere to lay our heads. Sure enough when our heads started to droop we were shown into a room where two beds had been made up. It was a simple house, the oven was powered by wood and the toilet was a hole in the boards where it seemed to be positioned so as the contents could be raked straight onto the field. They made us welcome, fed us fresh bread and more cream and tomatoes in the morning and saw us off with photo taking and waving. And a warning of more climbing to come.
They were, of course, right. All day we plodded up. Snow was now lying either side of the track. The tarmac road had long since given up and the surface was grit and sand. We passed some quite high snow banks on either side and thought of the impressive photos we would take for the blog. It actually was sunny and not too cold at that point. That was until just the other side of the pass.
Here the snow was piled up a lot higher and the clouds started getting darker.
It looked as if they could be a serious snowstorm any minute… We started on the downhill run. Conscious that with every kilometre we were getting lower and safer. That night we found a beautiful campsite, and lit a fire for Chris to dry her socks. She didn’t quite make it across the ford.
Two days later we made a little side trip to Vardzia, a cave city. Hundreds of dwellings carved into the cliff face, dozens of churches and many wine cellars. All carved Into solid rock. When we returned to the cafe where we had left our bikes we sat between two groups, one from Israel and the other Armenian – a biblical sandwich. Everyone was having a great time, the Armenians were barbecuing great skewers of meat and the Israelis were dancing.
The cafe owner not only had the time to take tea over to the Georgian orthodox priests working in the fields but also managed to save our khachapuri from being worn as a hat by one of the Israelis…
We pushed on, back past the caravanserai which was the remains of the encampment used by travellers on the silk road. That’s a thought to contemplate! We took a photo of our bikes inside the ancient walls. Our modern camels.
That night we thought we’d sample a B&B. Camping is great but you don’t get to meet many people – of course when we are wild camping we don’t really want to meet many people. So we chose a random guest house and were made very welcome. We declined the homemade vodka but the homemade wine flowed during our supper and we sampled lots of dishes. The wine, by the way was horrible. Breakfast was similar to supper. Lots of dishes including rice and pasta fried potatoes and frankfurter sausages. Did we want vodka? Or wine? We settled for tea. When we left Chris showed everybody where we’d been on the map and the little boy had a sit on Chris’ bike.
It was a beautiful road we followed that day, all day long winding alongside the river. The villages we passed were noticeably poorer. The houses seemed unfinished and built with whatever was lying around at the time.
The shops were spartan and as we got close to the Turkish and Armenian borders there were glitzy casinos alongside depressing looking businesses and shops.
People, despite their sometimes rather dour exterior were friendly. One fruit seller bounded over to Chris and demanded a photo with a hug!
We climbed higher still. All day long the wind was against us. Chris declared she quite enjoyed it! Eventually we reached the pass. (around 2100m) and started a glorious free wheel down the other side. That night’s campsite was named peaceful place. All we heard were the birds in the pine forest.
The following day we were faced with a road junction. Tbilisi was signed both ways. One way was 70 kilometres the other 50 kilometres. But hilly. But quieter. We took the road less travelled and very soon found ourselves climbing again. It wasn’t until about 10 kilometres before Tbilisi that we finally topped out and headed down into the capital of Georgia. The roads got busier, our tempers got shorter and the air was thick with traffic fumes. We headed for a hotel we had seen on a booking website — no room. The hostel we had been recommended – no room. We regrouped, sat in the shade in a graveyard with the solar charger in the sun and booked an apartment. Then cycled across town to find it. ‘Sorry’ the proprietor told us (actually I don’t think he did apologise) we double booked, there’s no room. We tried a couple of random hotels – none had rooms available. An old man saw me heading back to Chris and giving her the thumbs down again and joined in the hunt! He shouted across to someone in a nearby builďing – no they had no rooms – he tried his phone – still no luck. Then he stopped a lady passing by. She wanted to tell us something but language was a problem so he fetched someone from another building to translate for us.- yes, this lady has a room to let – 100GEL (about £30) would we like it? We would.
The next day was down to business. We had to apply for our Chinese visas at the Chinese embassy, my teeth needed fixing (fillings fallen out), a friend of a friend needed contacting and the bikes needed some love and attention.
Hindsight is great. It’s clear and obvious. But not at the time…
In hindsight we should have applied for the visa first. But we didnt. We got my teeth fixed. Which went well although I think I might have been happier if the dentist had been a little busier. When I asked for an appointment she asked when could I come…? She would have done me there and then if the electricity supply had been working. (She used her phone torch to do the initial lookaround.)
Applying for our Chinese visa was important. A big deal. If they said no we were a bit snookered. Cycling the wall to wall meant we did really want to reach the other wall…It is still a long way off. There is still a lot of elephant left to eat but we are over half way. China is starting to feel, if not close, then – possible. We read all the blogs and the websites about the visa application process. We knew they would be very particular at the embassy. The form was fairly easy. Questions about all your close family members and their occupations, your passport numbers, photos and proof of residence in the UK. (We brought along a council tax bill for that.) The difficult bit was the itinerary. They wanted to know where you were going to stay and how you were leaving the country. So we did some serious work with a map and a hotel booking website and booked a dozen hotels across China with a final one in Beijing. We then found a local travel agent where we booked a flight to London. Finally we photocopied the newspaper articles about our wall to wall expedition, carefully stapled everything together and set off. The queuing took place outside on the street. One by one we were let in. Our turn eventually came. Are you Georgian residents was the first question – no – oh then you can’t apply here for your visas. Our faces fell ,our jaws dropped to the floor. ‘But your website says we can’ squeaked Chris. Another person behind the glass partition took an interest. I showed her the newspaper cuttings. ‘We’re on bikes’ we said. The initial ‘no’ became a ‘maybe’. We stood behind the glass watching the body language. Our itinerary was inspected, then laughed at. The maybe turned into a no. ‘But we’ve come this far by bike’ argued Chris. The no suddenly swung back to maybe then became possibly. Then receipts were written passports gathered and the possibly became a definite possible provided we checked out satisfactorily. So we have to wait for 5 days. The word amongst the cyclists is that if you have a Turkey stamp in your passport then they will say no and of course we have a Turkey stamp so now we are waiting. We will find out on Wednesday.
Musings I have to admit that prior to doing our research for this trip I knew very little about Georgia. An ex Russian state I imagined it to be rather drab with grey square buildings and a serious faced people used to being told what to do. I had no idea of what the countryside would be like or the towns and would have had difficulty finding Georgia on a map. As our research progressed a picture emerged that was very different from my rather ignorant image and people who had been there described beautiful Alpine scenery, a friendly hospitable people with a rich and diverse culture , outstanding historical sites, and a people who were patriotic and proud to be Georgian.
The reality has surpassed our expectations and we feel we have “discovered” Georgia and been delighted by what we have found.
Like most countries its history is complicated and gives you a headache trying to work it all out but it seems that over time the country has been taken over by the Mongols, the Persians, the Ottomans and of course the Russians, each leaving their mark. Two figures from history stand out and they are King David in the 12th century affectionately known as David the Builder and probably brother to Bob. He was a man with a plan and he brought together the Muslims and Christians showing tolerance and winning loyalty on both sides. This was a good time for Georgia with stability, growth and security. Tbilisi became a multi ethnic metropolis and was positioned on the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Then followed Queen Tamar who was David’s great grand daughter who continued and extended her great grandfathers legacy. She is so well respected that she is now known as King Tamar which is very annoying.
The Russian bit is of course the bit we have partially lived through and I have memories of the break up of the Soviet Union and the chaos that ensued. For Georgia this wasn’t an easy time and the President at the time Edward Shevardnadze used questionable methods to keep the country under control.
Georgia seems to have come through and gives the impression of a country on the up. It wants to join the European Union and we see EU flags everywhere. Prices are sometimes quoted in euros. We have also seen projects displayed as funded by the U.S. government.
A few little interesting factlets about the country are that it is believed that Georgia is the birthplace of wine with evidence of viniculture stretching back 7000 years and the country producing 500 varieties of grape. The wine we have had has been very nice and was once offered in a horn which felt rather strange but the next time was offered in a plastic bottle which seemed more normal.
Georgia has hominid remains dating back 1.8 million years. The oldest link to modern man found outside Africa.
Georgia was one of the first countries to officially adopt Christianity in 337 AD.
Rather scarily there are 103 spa resorts in Georgia and 2400 mineral springs. Tbilisi has natural hot sulphur baths in the heart of the city and we have wandered past and even wandered in to have a look but can’t bring ourselves to risk a slippage or coming out smelling of rotten eggs.
Last but not least is the belief in Georgia that “The guest is a gift from God”. This is very hard to believe in our case when we turn up in a town covered in dust or mud, with cracked lips and red noses, usually looking very lost and bewildered and sitting on dirty bikes. People are always kind like the man at a garage who brought us out a drink and sliced fruit and insisted we rest before going up a hill. The group of students who went past us in a car and the turned round and came back to ask if we needed anything, the family who took us in one night when we couldn’t find anywhere to camp, the people who have hooted and smiled and just generally been very nice. Thank you Georgia.
Time and space.
I don’t think that anyone reading this blog will have any sympathy whatsoever when I bemoan the fact that we never seem to have any time. Our days are full of practicalities like eating, sleeping and riding our bicycles which leaves little time for more pleasurable activities like sitting and staring, knitting and making bread. My knitting needles have sat in the bottom of a pannier for months and are getting rather bent and dirty. The wool I brought had to be disposed of after it got wet and muddy. I have knitted one item which was a bobble hat for Ruby (my bike) Unfortunately a goat very delicately nibbled off the bobble and that has now been replaced with a Turkish tassel which does look rather chique and has the added effect of making us look as if we are going very fast.
We have had one attempt at making bread but decided that bread is available everywhere and it is much easier to just buy it. Maybe if we are ever in the middle of a desert and breadless we may give it another try.
We do have a list of distracting entertainments which include quizzes, a word game called Crossword and at least once a day we go through all our overnight stops which have been named right from “Chapel of Rest” near Melmerby in Cumbria to “Subterranean” where we stayed last night in Tbilisi. The list is now 202 places long and a few days ago and for the first time we managed to go through the whole lot with no mistakes. The exercise is of course now taking longer and longer and we usually save it for going up long hills. I wonder if by the end of our trip we will have a hill long enough to do
The one thing that we have not enjoyed about Georgia has been the traffic, the congestion and the fact that both of us after spending some days in Tbilisi have sore throats, stinging eyes and are sneezing and coughing more than is normal.
Our route through Georgia was designed to minimise our contact with what we had heard was rather crazy and inconsiderate driving and I think to a certain extent it worked but that didnt mean that we still didn’t have some very scary moments. One of the most frequent and terrifying happenings is when drivers overtake cars as they were coming towards us. There was always the expectation that we would be the ones to get out of the way and this was communicated by flashing of lights and sounding the horn until we had to get off the road. The state of some of the roads also means that drivers drive on both sides to avoid potholes. I found myself wondering sometimes if it was a country that drove on the left as it seemed so random. Many cars are old and very batterred, windscreens are often crazed and broken, bumpers missing front and back with tyres that look as if they have been in situ since the Russian occupation.
We learnt that during the Russian times you didnt need to sit a driving test but could buy a license for $100. Now there is both a practical and theoretical test but the former is held in an enclosed area and not on a real road.
Hooting has taken on an extreme quality. We have got very used to the use of the horn ever since southern Europe where it became the soundscape to our lives. One gets to understand the language of the horn and whether the peep is a friendly hello or a warning or an angry outburst because you are adding 10 seconds to someones journey home from work.
Different countries hoot in different ways and the difference between Turkey and Georgia has been the most extreme.
There are three elements to a hoot:
Distance between the hooter and the hootee at the time of the hoot. In Turkey this could be anything from 10 to 100 metres both ways. In Georgia the hoot occurs as the hooter is just passing the hootee causing the latter to nearly jump out of his or her saddle. Having this information though does mean that we can now brace ourselves for the shock of the hoot.
Volume. Georgian hoots seem louder but that is probably because they are experienced at very close proximity to the
Length of time of the hoot. Generally my research shows that the length of time of the hoot is shorter in Turkey and we had a very strange experience of one hoot in Georgia that went on for minutes until the car had gone out of our hearing. We wondered if the hoot mechanism had become stuck on.
Variables within the anatomy of a hoot are whether it is accompanied by a friendly wave or smile. A musical hoot which is common on lorries can cause confusion as it always sounds friendly but might not be.
Cycling in Tbilisi itself has been different again and I have found myself cycling in circumstances that I could never have dreamed possible before this trip. For example cycling along a 4 lane highway that was about to join another highway from the right. This meant joining the stream of traffic on our right and crossing it to get onto the far right hand side. As we were approaching this situation and my brain realised what had to be done it began to rebel and said. No I don’t want to do this and I am going to panic, stop the bike and fall down in an hysterical heap and refuse to go on. Brain decided that this could cause a major pile up and wondered whether carrying on with ones eyes closed might help but again that idea was rejected. Instead brain became brave and assertive told me to carry on at speed with my right arm stuck out and ease my way over. It was a miracle and a bit like Moses parting the Red Sea while cars slowed to allow us through and we carried on despite my legs feeling like jelly and my nerves completely shredded.
We visited a wonderful bike shop in Tbilisi, one of the bike shops that will be added to my list of Best Bike Shops in the World. I was talking to one of the lads and asking him how they sold any bikes in Tbilisi as we have seen very few fellow cyclists on the streets. I also commented on the bad driving we had experienced. He looked very solemn and nodded his head and said. There is a special place in hell for thesepeople. I thought that was a bit extreme as I am sure that if we met any of these drivers away from their cars they would be different and most likely friendly and nice. I think driving here is like the dodgems at the fairground every man for himself and survival of the fittest or most assertive.
Pete and I have been in one another’s company now for 6 months night and day. I don’t think that we have spent such a continuously long time together since we first got married 36 years ago. We are getting on surprisingly well and most situations are discussed and decisions that have to be made are done so after much discussion until agreement is reached or until I throw a tantrum. The other day however as we were looking for a camp site Pete decided without consultation that we would stand a better chance of finding somewhere if we crossed the river. He had seen this bridge and without discussion made as if to go across it. Stop! I screeched and I refused to go across. It really looked very unsafe and I could hardly believe that he had come to a unilateral decision to cross the river on it.
The discussion was heated and only resolved when I threatened to stay on this side of the river and sleep under a tree and see him in the morning. That worked and we plodded on a bit further and found a very nice spot that didnt require a river crossing at all. Democracy in action. Tbilisi
We have had an enforced rest in Tbilisi awaiting visas which in a way has been frustrating but in other ways has been rather wonderful. If someone had said you can have 10 days in Tbilisi Georgia and do whatever you want to do you might feel rather lucky. So we have tried to relax and have walked the streets and tourist sights absorbing the history, becoming experts on the cuisine, sitting in quirky cafes watching the world go by and enjoying the sunshine. The down side has been the traffic the large number of beggars who are sadly mainly elderly ladies and the general noise and hecticness of city life which isn’t really our scene.
We have shrunk a bit since leaving home
Tbilisi however has a nice vibe and a cafe culture and appears young and vibrant. After Turkey it was good to see women wearing whatever they wanted to wear and young people out having a good time.
Much of the city is being renovated and we were told that major swathes of streets have been inspected and deemed either to be torn down or rebuilt as they were. We walked through an area that looked like a war zone with crumbled buildings or just the front facades still standing. JCB’s roared by and people went about their everyday business amidst the rubble and the dust seemingly unperturbed.
As we have had to visit dentists and bike shops this has meant that we have travelled to the suburbs and wandered back streets which I think for both of us has been the most fascinating. We have seen ancient, crumbly buildings with wooden balconies and beautiful doors with washing hanging outside and obviously occupied despite not looking terribly safe. We have seen huge cracks which make the houses look somewhat precarious but with children playing outside.
We have visited the Tbilisi cathedral on a Sunday which was a strange experience. This is the main Georgian Orthodox Cathedral and we had heard that it was somewhere we could see a mass and hear the polyphonic music that Georgia is famous for. It was very crowded and busy and entering the church was like entering a busy market place with a hub of conversation, jossling crowds and the mass going on despite all that. Nothing seemed very reverent but we did hear the marvellous chants of the choir and enjoyed seeing the priests in their golden garb promenade around the church. It all looked more like a performance than a church service.
We took a cable car up the hill to visit Deda the enormous statue that represents the Mother of Georgia. She welcomes the friends of Georgia with a bowl of wine but at the same time threatens the country’s enemies with a sword.
Tbilisi is where it is because of the sulphurous waters and their apparently healing qualities. The story goes that in the 5the century when King Vakhtang Gorgasali was out hunting, a wounded deer fell into a hot sulphur spring and was miraculously healed. The king decided from that moment to have the capital of his country here. The baths are a great attraction and very popular despite being quite smelly, even from the outside.
There are a lot of avant garde structures in the city as well making it a pleasing mix of old and new. The main artery through the city is Rustaveli lined with impressive buildings , museums and art galleries. One really could spend longer than 8 days here and still not see everything but we still hope we get our visas in 2 days time!
Why don’t you do your trip by motorbike?
This was a question that we were asked by a young Iranian guy when we were waiting in the queue to apply for our Chinese visa.
It rather threw us both and we didn’t really know what to say. Well, I ventured, we don’t have motorbikes. That sounded a bit weak so Pete said, we like to go slow. That sounded even weaker so I blurted that we like travelling by bike. Then Pete took the bull by the horns and said. Well if we had wanted to do the journey quickly we could have travelled by plane but where’s the fun in that
I think we really should sit down and think about the answer to this question before someone asks us
I have always liked Katie Melua and have one of her albums. I knew she had some connection with Georgia but didn’t know she was Georgian and moved to the UK when she was 8. We were in a cafe where they were playing her music so I looked her up. Her song There are 9 Million Bicycles in Beijing has now taken on some significance to us.
We await our Chinese visas with some anxiety and it will be a moment to celebrate if we find that stamp in our passports on Wednesday. We will then apply quickly for a visa for Azerbaijan which is our next port of call. I think any country that has a Z in its name sounds exotic and exciting.
Applying for our Chinese visas has made the elephant rather restless and we think he maybe getting ideas above his station despite already having lost 2 legs and half a tail. The lady in the Chinese Embassy who checked our application shook her head in dismay when she saw our route through China and I don’t blame her as it all seems rather bonkers but we shall see.