1. Spoiled Beauty
2. Emotional Breakdown
3. Back on the Road
4. Zugdidi: A City of Refugees
5. The Old Man in the Hut
6. Caucasus, here we come !
7. Cycling in Svaneti
9. Hiking in the greater Caucasus
10. Kukdiani, the Tower of Love
11. Cycling to Ushguli
12. Cycling to Zagari Pass
13. One Night with the Svans
14. On the Road to Lentekhi
15. Georgian Supra
16. On the Way to Kutaisi
18. Central Georgia
6am: A speaker from the cabin is shouting something in Russian. We are arriving in Poti, Georgia!
On the boat, everybody is moving back and forth the tiny corridors with loads of luggages. We also carry all our panniers, reclaim our passports, load our bikes and finally find our way between the the trucks and greasy chains when a big man come to us: “WHERE ARE YOU GOING!? Go back now for some formalities!”
Freshly landed in Poti, we are amazed by the heat. We left Odessa in autumn, but in Poti it still feels like summer. We are wandering the dusty streets of the town in sandals and tee-shirt, looking for a bakery. We finally find a friendly baker who give us a freshly baked bread filled with some paté, warm and delicious 🙂
Tina: Later that day, we taste even more of the delicious Georgian cuisine – a khachapuri ‘cheese bread’ with Kazbegi beer! mmm 🙂 Our first day in Georgia feels just warm! People in the streets are really friendly and helpful.
The mood of the people in Poti is radically different from Odessa, most of the drivers honk and wave at us with a huge smile. We are surprised to see so many destroyed buildings in Poti. We will learn later that it was raided by the Russian army in 2008 during the conflict of Abkhazia.
Before leaving the coast for the mountains, we decided to spend one last evening by the sea, so we bought a bottle of Georgian wine and happily cycled south of the city…
Oh, this could have been a wonderful evening if beach and fields around the sea weren’t covered with waste. Thousands of plastic bottles, plastic bags, kilometres of litters of all kinds… By the time we found an area which was slightly cleaner, we were so disappointed. This place could have been so beautiful if only it was clean. How can people be so dirty?
Tina: Rather than complain about how dirty the beach was, I couldn’t stop thinking where all that garbage comes from. There is minimum litters thrown randomly in the grass around, so one can hardly blame a few locals walking their dogs here. And unless you are completely blind, looking at the way the rubbish lays on the sand, you figure out that it comes with high tide. Hmm, the Black sea is not open to any ocean, maybe it is that the sea gives the surrounding countries back what they’ve been trying to get rid of? From which direction does the wind blow?
The next morning, we cycled back to Poti, quite happy to leave the dirty beach and sit in a café.
JP: A minute after we entered the café, some guys called me at their table. They offered me some pizza and a glass of vodka… I tried to refuse politely, explaining to them that I’m cycling but they made me drink another one… then again another one before I could get back to my table ignoring them.
A minute later we hear a big noise in the street and see people running around. What follows isn’t very nice. Couple of meters from the café, a young girl was hit by a big BMW. She’s laying on the street in a puddle of blood, hands on her belly, she’s shaking, breathing hastily, blood spilling from her mouth and a terrible fear in her eyes… People are shouting, screaming, I would like to kick everybody’s ass, shit! I feel dizzy and powerless… An hour ago we were angry at the way people drive in town, ignoring any rule, and now this girl, all this blood. I hate cars! Oh I hate cars so much! When will we live without cars? Now the guys who poured me some vodka are around, right next to the girl with their breath filled with alcohol, this seems so absurd… I’m biting my lips, telling to myself “don’t go, you can’t go in these guy’s arms, you will live, you will live…”
The driver of the car stands couple of metres from us, stupidly looking around… I wonder how fast he was driving, how did this happen? Fuck, this shouldn’t happen! I’m floating between anger and sadness, far away…
Back at our table, we are sitting for some time, speechless, lost in our thoughts. Staying here just makes no sense now… We don’t feel like cycling either but we decide to go. In the street, the police is drawing marks around the crash scene. Cars are driving by slowly… Do these drivers at least know? Will they drive carefully now? How long will they remember before some horror like this happen again?
We’re heading north to Zugdidi, still shocked by what we have just seen. Some kids happily shout “Hello! Hello!” and frantically wave at us. Strangely we smile back but our hearts are elsewhere…
Cycling for the first time in Georgian countryside, we are quite happy to see that, even if Georgians drive in a totally crazy way in cities, they respect the safe distance when they overtake us on the road. We feel safer here than in Moldova or in Ukraine were we often encountered this kind of matcho-driving-attitude -> I have a big car, get out of my way!
Most of the Georgians we meet in the villages seem genuinely kind, smiling.
There are a lot of persimmon trees by the road so we pick some for the way. Next to us, a pig is also getting some for himself! We are amazed to see so many animals and especially a lot of pigs walking freely by the road. In every village pigs are crossing the road and walking around 🙂
Houses often have an interesting colonial look, often built in wood and sometimes raised a metre or two above the ground. They sometimes have palm trees in their garden 🙂
Later in the afternoon, as if the girl we saw earlier wasn’t enough for today, we cycle past a totally destroyed car in the ditch by the road. Police and ambulances are around but it is hard to imagine anybody had come out alive of such wreck. This is too much for our souls, we keep on cycling silently until Zugdidi…
Tina: The only thing I said to JP that afternoon was: “It’s 112, you will remember now, right?” and he shook his head saying ‘yes’ and asked me to teach him some First Aid when we arrive to Zugdidi.
This morning when I saw the first crash, I felt just terrible not to be able to speak Georgian to get through the crowd and help. Fortunately, the ambulance arrived fast. When we arrived to the second accident, I could only hear my mind saying: “You know what it means when the ambulance leaves the accident slowly and turns off the blue light…”
Zugdidi is a town on the border with Abkhazia. Since the recent conflict in 2008, a lot of refugees from Abkhazia came to Zugdidi. The town used to have about 50,000 inhabitants but today there are about 70,000 extra refugees.
In Zugdidi we are hosted by Jonas, a Sweedish guy who work here for the EU Monitoring Mission. Jonas has to leave the day after we arrived but he kindly leaves us the keys of his flat, this way we can rest a bit.
During couple of days we read books about Georgia and prepare our travel to Svaneti, a remote region in Northern Georgia inhabited by the Svans. The Svans have their own language and culture within Georgia. They live in valleys of the high Caucasus surrounded by mountains of 4000 and 5000 metres, in a land which remained untouched for centuries. Svaneti is so remote it have never been tamed by any ruler. Such isolation means that they kept intact churches with frescoes and artefact dating from over 1000 years old. Until recently it was rather unsafe for travellers to cross Svaneti but Jonas assured us it changed in the last few years and it is pretty safe now.
It is our last morning in Zugdidi. We give a quick glance by the window of Jonas flat, it looks like it’s going to rain. We pack our stuff, get on our bikes and start cycling North-East to the remote valleys of Svaneti…
Couple of hours later, we are sitting in a bus stop, shivering in our rain clothes and hoping the weather will soon improve. People are coming and going under the rain, smiling and waving at us.
We are almost dry when we reach the mountains by the end of the day. The rocky roadside doesn’t offer any nice camping place so we keep on cycling until night.
In the dark we finally find a path which seems to go to some fields. Slowly, headlamps on, we push our bikes uphill until we find a place which seems to be flat enough to sleep. We can hardly distinguish what’s around, dark shapes in the wind. That’s actually a pretty freaky place but it’s too late to search for any better place.
We’re about to start cooking when we suddenly realize we were not alone, someone else is here. We hear some noise coming from the dark… a moment later, a flashlight points straight at us and we hear the voice of a man. We didn’t noticed it when we arrived to our camping spot but there is some kind of shelter in the field nearby. The man is pretty old. He insists for a while that we shouldn’t sleep outside so we quickly pack our things and we follow him down the muddy path to his wooden hut.
We enter in the only room of his mountain shelter. He closes the door. The ground of the room is made of pressed earth, there is no water, no electricity, only one stove and four tables… or four beds? These tables are only planks which can be used either like tables or like beds. Couple of potato bags are hanging from the ceiling. The old man sits in front of his tiny stove in the middle of the room, lights on a cigarette and switches off the light. When we switch on our headlamp he wants us to switch them off. We don’t want to behave like some city kids so we switch them off most of the time. In the dark, he asks us couple of questions in Russian without articulating much, we hardly understand anything but we manage to catch that he is 86 years old. We are starving so we agree with him to prepare some buckwheat for dinner. Still in the dark, he fills his stove with tiny branches.
Later that evening comes the son of the old man. He tries to convince us to go somewhere by car to drink with him but we politely refuse. It is usually quite impolite to refuse to drink with your host but this time our bicycles are a pretty good alibi. I have absolutely no envy to get drunk tonight…
At night, we are lying next to each other, feeling the uneven planks in our back. The air is so full of smoke that I happily welcome the cold draft going through the holes in the wooden wall. Father and son are talking in Georgian while we desperately try to fall asleep.
The next morning, we drink together some coffee and say goodbye to our hosts after offering them our only pack a biscuits. Yes, the old man seemed to love them 🙂
Before hitting the road that morning, we find out a nasty cat was eating our cheese during night! Back on the road, the fresh mountain air biting our cheeks.
As the sun rises, the colour of the lake on our side is slowly turning to an amazingly bright and milky turquoise. When the sun reaches our side of the valley, we enjoy a tremendous breakfast sitting on rocks by the lake.
From time to time we catch sight of some snowy peaks in the background. The scenery is already breathtaking…
Soon we leave the lake and start going uphill on the way to Kaishi, a small town famous for its brown honey. Even though there are no tourist, the atmosphere in this little dusty town is sadly touristy. Every shop sells coke and imported chocolate bars but barely anything local and the sellers are grumpy… We’re happy to leave it behind us and be back in the nature.
At dusk, we are a bit worried because we are short of water. Some locals tell us not to drink the water from the stream but we give it a try, it cannot be that bad in the mountain. We filter it with a tee-shirt, purify it , boil it and finally drink it…
That night we sleep in a schoolyard. The whole village is dark. We even can take a quick shower… cold but good 🙂
The next morning, we take our breakfast in the schoolyard. Nearby workers stare and wave at us. Some of them are wearing the traditional hat from Svaneti… This is such a feeling to wake up knowing that this day will be a sunny and beautiful.
As we cycle deeper in the valley, we catch sight of some of the highest peaks of Georgia. Surrounded by such beauty, we almost forget we are pedalling. I am eating sunflower seeds, smiling, feeling so light, this is exactly the kind of moment I dream of when I think of going for a journey. I just feel so happy to live…
In each village, the kids shout at us: “Hello! How are you?”
We sometimes see on the road the traditional sledge from Svaneti – this is a big wooden sledge usually drawn by two bullocks and Svans seem to use it in every season.
One of the characteristics of Svaneti valley is the surprising amount of defensive towers in each village. As this region was never under the control of any ruler, Most of the Svan families were building their own towers to protect from others. The sigh of the villages with all these towers is very picturesque.
By the end of the day, we cross a village and suddenly see a massive bull running out of a courtyard. Couple of dogs are barking at him and he turns towards us… I’m freezing, trying to guess which way it will go. Luckily the beast avoids us ! Later we see on the road some kids riding horses… this is such a beautiful scene, so far from the greyness of our cities. Do these people know how beautiful they are to us? I wish I will never forget that there is still such beauty in the world.
Later, we ask some people if we can set our tent in a field near their village. They instantly agree and watch with astonishment how quickly we set the tent. Soon a man comes to us tells us we are welcome in his home nearby, he insists a lot arguing the night will be too cold to sleep outside. We kindly refuse as we are already settled and we don’t want to disturb. He finally gives us his number and tells us to come in during the night if ever we are cold… Many times he comes back to see how we are doing, bringing apples, pears and even an old army pan which he want to offer to us.
The next morning the tent is full of frost… brrr, it’s freezing but I just love the dry and fresh air from the mountain. The view from our tent is beautiful. The man of yesterday brings us some coffee and a huge piece of local cheese. We don’t know how to thank him for his hospitality so we decide to offer him the chocolate bar we are carrying. In returns he offers us a bag of walnuts and some more apples. There is so much kindness in his eyes, such emotion when we leave…
We soon reach Mestia, the main city of the province of Svaneti. We will stay couple of days in Mestia because this is a great spot to go hiking.
The newly renovated town centre of Mestia is overly clean and lack of character. Sitting in the main square, we feel like in Switzerland, but a few hundred meters from there, the streets look like any other village.
After a cheesy breakfast, we meet an Israeli couple: Sasha and Jonathan. Jonathan is an agro-engineer in compost. Discussing the question of Iran with them confirms once more what I already know, the government attitude often don’t reflect what its citizens think.
In Mestia, we camp in the garden of Manoni pension with a cow and a dog. In the evening we can use the kitchen and sit inside. Manoni is a friendly woman in her fifties. We discuss with her about the recent changes in the region. Ten years ago, Svaneti was still very unstable and mainly in the hands of the Mafia but the situation improved a lot. Since they built the asphalted road to Mestia, there are more and more tourists and hotels are being built all around Mestia. If it continues this way, in couple of years Mestia will become another Zakopane (cf. part 28. Poland).
Up in the mountains, we felt so lucky to be here in the nature, alone, surrounded by so much untouched beauty. We saw wild horses and eagles… You will understand when watching the pictures 🙂 On our way back from the mountain, we met a group of young people from Kutaisi (the second largest city in Georgia). They didn’t speak a word of English but they were really funny and invited us for couple of glasses of wine…
While hiking, we were collecting the rubbish we found in the mountain to bring it to the city. Back in Mestia, when we crossed the bridge, we were appalled by the amount of garbage there. Thousands of plastic bottles and plastic bags were standing there in the mud. A moment later on the bridge, we witnessed a well dressed woman walking with two plastic bags filled with plastic bottles and throwing them away in the river. She did it so naturally, I could hardly believe my eyes… That evening I asked Manoni about the garbage management in Mestia. She told me that in Svaneti, there is nothing like garbage a collection. This means EVERYTHING is thrown away to the river and ends up in the sea. This EVERYTHING probably includes the city bins, so basically the rubbish we collected in the mountain will eventually end up in the black sea… This is making me angry and sad. How can we build hundreds of hotels and even an airport and have nothing to deal with garbage?! How can we be so blind to spoil beauty for something as insignificant as money? I feel so stupid that I was carrying for days on my bike an empty pot of jam, just to leave it in the city bin which will be sent to the sea…
I wonder… Isn’t petrol the biggest misery of our times? Not even mentioning the pollution made by cars, how many millions of tons of plastic are thrown away each year in the nature? Is it worth it? Are we so much more happy? Of course plastic is a wonderful invention but humans are probably not ready for it…
If you think about it, we know so well how to bring plastic goods in remote places like in Svaneti because there is money to be made. Shouldn’t it be the same simple to bring this plastic back to a treatment centre? The only realistic answer here is that, this is not happening because there is no profit to be made…
We leave Mestia with plenty of food, water and some delicious homemade matsoni (Georgian yogurt). We are heading to Ushguli, a remote village in the Caucasus which is said to be the “highest village of Europe which is inhabited all year long”.
The road to Ushguli is not asphalted so our progression is rather slow. We know we will not reach Ushguli by the evening.
On the road, there are occasional army trucks and some people working…
After a pass at 1800 meters, we cycled very fast downhill avoiding the potholes and rocks on the road. This looked like a mountain biking session, pretty tough for the rims and for our wrists. At dusk, we finally arrive to a village. We will not be able to rally the next village before the night… Should we ask some locals for a place to sleep? We don’t even have time to ask that a man comes to us and kindly invites us to camp in his garden.
He has in his eyes the determination of people having a tough life. Sitting in his kitchen, we are getting warmer by the stove, watching his wife baking bread for the whole family. Soon we are invited to sit at a table and offered some tea, bread, jam and vegetables. The woman is shy but smiling at us and feeding her last child. After we finished our dinner, we retired to our tent and had to fight with the friendly dog who tried to squat our sleeping bags… At night It started raining and we could hear the pig grunting around. “Please little piggy, don’t eat my tent !”
The next morning, we pack the tent under the rain and start cycling. The road is very muddy and sometimes we have to cross small streams. We are cold but the most annoying is that we cannot see anything of the breathtaking panorama of the road. Do we want to make it to Ushguli with this weather?
Soon we reach an old watchtower by the river. The tower seems to be in a good state and it looks uninhabited. It could be the perfect shelter for us. After having a look inside, we carry all our luggage and bikes up, trying to balance on the wet wooden ladder and past the tiny tower door. We are very excited about staying overnight in a watchtower, the ground floor is perfect for storing the bikes, the first floor can be our room and the second floor can be used to dry our tent. Soon after we settled, a jeep stopping by and a couple of men come toward the tower. Who are they? What do they want? I’m a little stressed when I go down the ladder to greet them and explain them that we just hide from the rain. One man is a local tourist guide and tells me that we can stay here as long as we want but he warns me that it will be freezing cold at night. I also shake hands with the owner of the tower and promise him we will not set his tower on fire.
We spend most of the day reading and sleeping. Before night, Tina discovers a spring next to the tower. After a little bit of digging and reorganising of some stones we can refill our bottles with the cleanest and freshest mountain water. Back in the tower, we sit by the window, watching the complete obscurity outside… A car is coming on the road so we switch off all lights but the car stops in front of the tower and some people get out. I’m quite sure they have seen us so the best I can do is probably to go there… as I come closer I recognize the man we met in the morning, he gives me a bag full of fruits and vegetables and tells me “Happy Christmas”! We are delighted by so much kindness.
The tower is almost 400 years old. It used to be custom tower controlled by an influential family. They asked all people passing on the road to pay a fee. Nowadays it is called the tower of Love. One day, a girl from the family jumped from the tower to the river because she could not marry the man she loves. I don’t know if there are ghosts here but there are definitely a huge spider and also a little mouse who did a huge mess during the whole night, throwing little pieces of stones from the walls all around the room.
The next morning, after a long and cold night, we peer out of the tower and see a clear blue sky. Time for us to leave! The road is still very muddy from all the rain of yesterday. Around us the summits are all covered in snow.
This region is home to some of the oldest churches and frescoes in the world. It is so remote that it remained untouched for centuries, even during the communism. A man in a village opens for us the chapel of St. Barbara which dates from the 9th century. Inside, there is an icon from the 6th century. Trying to imagine what was life like in that time is just mind-blowing…
On the road, we meet a French couple travelling by Jeep. They tell us they live in Kyrgyzstan and they are just here in holiday: “Cycling here is a good training before Kyrgyzstan!”
We cycle then in a gorge for a while, this is splendid but exhausting. Soon we reach some pastures and catch the last rays of sun. There are wild horses by the road and we can distinguish in the far some signs of civilisation. We are almost 2000 metres high, we should soon arrive to Ushguli.
A huge dog is barking at us. Next to us, an elderly woman wrapped in her shawl in trying to open the gate of a pasture. Many cows are standing on the road and to avoid them we are basically cycling from puddle to puddle.
The streets of Ushguli are just paths of mud and stones. The only shop of Ushguli is closed at the moment but a man in front of it shows me to wait a minute, then he lets out a huge fart!
Tina told me later on “JP, that was pretty nasty what you did in front of the shop, to fart like this!” and I look at her in amazement “Hey, but that wasn’t me, it was this guy! How dare you think that I would … what?!”
We spent that night in a hostel in order to get a good night of sleep because the next day we will have to cycle to Zagari Pass which is 2600 meters high. We also take the opportunity to make a washing but that was a mistake. We didn’t notice that our room had no heater and the walls were so thin that the temperature remained around 5 degrees all night long. When you spread out your laundry in a room which is almost freezing, it is not drying very fast… with this temperature, we could have slept outside, especially if I consider the coldness of the hostel owners. Most of the time, it is when we have to pay something to sleep that we have the less friendly hosts.
We spent the night in Ushguli, the highest village of the valley. It is 5 degrees in the room when we wake up. Our freshly washed clothes didn’t dry in this temperature we don’t have any other choice but to wear some wet tee-shirt and dry them on ourselves. Outside, it’s 2 degrees, which is not very engaging yet but it looks like today will be a sunny day!
When leaving Ushguli, we are followed by a friendly dog who protects us from other dogs! From now on and for the next 50 kilometres, we shall not cross any inhabited village on the road…
On the road ahead of us lies what remains of a dead cow. The corpse was eaten by some animal… Wolves? Bears?
Who or what killed this cow doesn’t much matter to us but we have a problem: on our way stands a bull mooing to death by the carcass and two other cows. They block the only road to Zageri pass. We stay motionless for a while, observing the scene and wondering what to do. Finally we decide to slowly pass near them. We are of course frightened of any unexpected reaction of the bull excited by the smell of blood so we talk to it, hoping that this will keep the beast calm…
The mountain scenery when cycling to Zagari pass is amazing. We are alone on the road, surrounded by wonderful mountains, with the dog following us since Ushguli…
Cycling uphill is hard on this destroyed road but soon we reach 2600 metres, Zagari pass! This is the highest point of our travel so far. Our dog is still with us, we pet him from time and then he runs ahead of us.
Cycling downhill on a Jeep road is a real pleasure surrounded by such nature… From time to time there are puddles blocking the road. We usually cycle across or push our bikes inside from the side of the road depending on how wide they are. At some stage, we reach a really big puddle. I know I can bypass it easily but I have kind of “an excess of optimism”, I take some speed and try to cycle across the pool, and of course, I get stuck right in the middle of it. The next step is to choose on which side to fall! Hum… I put my right foot to the bottom and soon the cold and muddy water (which comes almost up to my knee) slowly fills my boot… Tina who carefully pushed her bike to the other side is laughing about my silly idea… I am actually laughing too, happy that I didn’t fall with all my bags and the clean clothes drying on top of them. Now, my boot will take about 3 days to dry. I learned it too late but when something like this happens to you, it’s a good idea to fill you boot with newspaper.
As we get to lower altitude, we are once more amazed by the beautiful autumn colours of the trees…
We know there are some wild animal in this area but the only wild animals we encounter are horses, and our dog runs and barks at them as if they were any threat to us… Come on doggy, leave the horses in peace! 😉
By the end of the afternoon we see some military truck coming towards us… yes, we are soon back to civilization 🙂
The first villages we cross after Zageri pass are uninhabited, just a couple of abandoned houses. Cycling in the valley in this season we are quite early in the shadow. We keep cycling until a we hear a man calling from the forest. From between the trees, he is waving at us, begging us to come to his house which is up the hill. On the way to the house, an old man with an axe helps Tina to push her bike on the steep muddy path.
They are two sons in their forties living with their parents in this remote house. They tell us that are the only people living around here so we “have to” stay with them for the night. Their dogs keep barking at ours but ours is bigger and rather peaceful so we’re not really worried for it. We let it to lie down by our bicycles and rest. He was extremely tired in the last kilometres, falling like a log on the side of the road every time we made a break.
In the courtyard in front of the house, there’s a traditional sledge from Svaneti. A few stairs lead to the main floor. Apples are drying in the corridor. All the family members live together in one big room. There’s a stove in the middle of the room and four beds with couple of clothes hanging by the wall. They also have another smaller room in which the ground is absolutely filled with apples.
Our hosts heat some water so we can wash our feet, this is a real pleasure after cycling in my wet boot. We can communicate a little bit in Russian but not much. As usual in these cases, the photo album we carry is very useful, it is something easy to discuss and it shows a bit who we are…
When our feet are clean, they invite us for dinner: lobio (Georgian bean soup) with bread and cheese. For all the people we meet we are a good reason to drink. This time again, one of the sons keeps on refilling our glasses with some rather horrid home-made wine which we have to drink glass after glass… and if Tina can argue that she is a woman, I have not such excuse 😉
We spend then the night on our mattresses in a corner of the room. Somehow the grandma did not sleep in the same room as us. She might have felt uncomfortable to share the room with strangers… or is it the fact we are not married? Anyway, we feel a bit sorry that she went to sleep in another place…
The next morning we are offered some potatoes and cheese for breakfast. The plates are on a chair. We eat with our fingers. Getting ready for a rainy day…
We tried to convince our hosts to take our dog but they didn’t want to so we’re back on the road with him. Finding what to do with the dog is a real issue for us because we cannot keep him all the way to Kutaisi and we guess it’s someone’s dog…
Soon we reach the first shop since Ushguli! In front of it are two bullocks and two men discussing. Under the rain, this scene looks like some centuries ago. The shop? An empty room with a table covered with apples and a few shelves with a couple of chocolate bars. On the counter is an antique wooden abacus. When the shop owner hears the story of our dog, he accepts to keep him and find a Jeep to bring him back to Ushguli. The dog doesn’t like the idea to stay attached but he listens to us and stays calm while we attach him. he seems so sad to see us go without him. It’s a bad feeling to abandon our new friend but we had no alternative choice…
The way down the valley isn’t so beautiful under the rain. There are no more Svan towers in the villages and no more churches. Just couple of old houses and the occasional old army truck.
The road is very muddy, our bikes and shoes are all covered in dirt…
As we reach lower altitudes, we enjoy the wonderful autumn colours of the leaves, from dark green to yellow and deep red.
A few kilometres before Lentekhi, we are back on asphalt for a while. Pedalling become astonishingly easy… Lentekhi is one of the biggest town in the area. There we can buy bread and even eat some delicious Kubdari (bread filled with some spicy meat).
By the end of the afternoon we almost reached Tsageri but we decide to camp before the town. We find what looks like an abandoned stage… There’s a fence so it is probably a private place but we just want to sleep and leave the next morning. When we pass the gate, we hardly imagine that we will meet anyone tonight…
Our bicycles being terribly dirty from a whole day cycling in the mud, we decide to wash them in the stream just behind the stage. After a while, I hear some noise and go back to the stage to have a look… one, two… at least thirty people are here, from kids to elders! They have music instruments and start to play while some others are filling the table with food, what the hell is this? Is it a wedding? The answer is no, this a Supra, a traditional Georgian feast organized this time by the priests of the monastery of Saint Maxime.
When they see me, the priests grab me by the shoulders and invite me to join them at the table. I can’t even leave them to fetch Tina, but when she come she is welcomed in the same manner…
Georgian Supras are led by a Tamada (which is like a toastmaster). According to Wikipedia, “a successful Tamada must possess great rhetorical skill and be able to consume a large amount of alcohol without showing signs of drunkenness”. In our case the orthodox priest in front of us asked us many times to raise our glass of wine and drink it bottoms up for numerous reasons. People were filling our plates with all types of delicious Georgian food and the kids kept asking us to dance and take photos with them! So we were taught some Georgian folk dance with our mountain boots 🙂
After a while, the priests showed some signs of drunkenness. Their singing felt a little more approximate but they kept on drinking with us, for Georgia, for France, for friendship between Georgia and France. They asked us to put our right hand on the heart while listening to them singing the Georgian national anthem and then I was asked to sing the French anthem! What?! I tried to refuse politely but Georgians are very persuasive so, I stood up and sung a little of it. This is probably the weirdest moment I lived in Georgia. Tina concluded something like “You don’t even know the lyrics of your own anthem?!”
The funniest moment of the evening was probably when some kid came to us and gave us something that looked more or less like a candle. We wondered if it is some kind of orthodox tradition… What should we do with this? Should we light these candles? With the table candle in front of us, we try to light it but the people around tell us not to do so and start laughing! Well, wrong guess. This strange candle-like thing is actually called churchkhela, this is a Georgian sweet made of nuts threaded together and coated in grape juice and flour.
After some more drinking, eating and dancing, everybody stars to pack. The priests asks us to kiss the massive golden cross which they keep around their necks. Funnily, this reminds me of some American rappers wearing heavy golden dollar signs 🙂
In a blink they are gone and the stage is desert, dark and silent again. This was so sudden that we wonder if we dreamt it or not. No, we definitely didn’t dream it, they left us some khatchapuli and some wine… It is time to sleep.
We woke up on the stage after this amazing Supra with the priests. Our heads were surprisingly light despite of all the cheap wine we drunk the day before. That morning, we ate some of the remaining Khatchapuli for breakfast while contemplating the thick fog rising from the river to the valley.
Soon after leaving, we reach Tsageri. It’s a small town with apparently not much to do, one of these places where you are looking for the centre while you are already in the centre 😉
We ask some locals where we can find a café.
“You want coffee?”
The man goes into a shop, talk for a second with the owner then invites us to sit inside at a small plastic table. This is not a café but the woman at the shop counter prepares for us some coffee and brings us some pastries. Outside the men are watching our bikes with great interest. In Georgia, we often see groups of men standing around a car, first on their hips, and when someone is pointing at some specific part, the others are usually doing an approving grin. It is really funny to see them doing the same with our bikes. When we finish our coffee, we ask the shop owner how much we should pay but she insists that it is free for us 🙂
The road to Kutaisi is only partly surfaced, there are long stretches under construction. When we arrive at the end of a section under construction, we are surprised by a stupid driver driving right into us an avoiding us in the last second. The car just before him was slowing down to enter the section under construction and this guy in his sparkling new four-wheel drive decided to take him over without even watching if anyone was coming… This is the kind of moment when your heart jumps just because of some stupid asshole (I’m sorry but I can’t find any other word).
The valley is very beautiful, this is a pleasant ride downhill. A man stops his car by us to offer us some apples. “Are you going to Tbilisi? Do you want to follow us?”
This is nice but this guy probably never cycled in his life, Tbilisi is approximately 400km from here !
It is quite warm in the sun, this looks like a perfect moment make a small break by the river and wash ourselves. We had too many days without shower 😉
We imagined that the road would mainly go downhill until Kutaisi but we were wrong. After a pretty long ascent we reach the pass and enjoy beautiful panorama on the hills around. This looks like the perfect place to eat the persimmons we were offered on the road. Persimmons are everywhere at this season and they are deliciously juicy.
After couple hills, we reach Tskaltuba. The city looks big on our map and we hope to find there some internet connection in a café but we can’t even find a café! I probably looked a bit desperate on the main place. Some drunkard came to me and kissed me on the cheek… Hum, hum… I looked even more desperate then 😉 I ask at the bank if there is any wi-fi place but the woman at the counter tells me there is no such thing in Tskaltuba but fifteen minutes later we find internet in the hall of a business hotel. After 10 days of abstinence, we can read the messages from our friends and families.
Cycling at night on the main road to Kutaisi, we look for a place to camp in the dark. The few rivers that are on our map are actually dry so we end up in a village a few kilometres before Kutaisi. A man guide us to a place where we can camp. We decide to sleep under the stars this time. The day was surprisingly warm, it’s like if we went back from winter to the end of summer in only two days!
The next morning, after a quick shower in a field, we head to Kutaisi. Cycling in the Georgian cities, we have to pay attention to everything around because no one seems to respect any rule, even in one way streets the cars are going both directions…
Kutaisi is the second largest city of Georgia, but it doesn’t look like a big city at all. The previous government built in Kutaisi a modern building for the parliament which cost about 200.000.000 $US. This is one of the most expensive building in the world and Georgia could afford it. However, we’ve also heard that the new government doesn’t wish to use the new building because it was built by another political party. Talking to an English teacher, we’ve heard that in some schools, kids have to share their seats because they don’t have enough chairs. This is just one of the many aberrations we’ve heard of in Georgia.
As we couldn’t find any host with Couchsurfing in Kutaisi, we decided to stay a few days in a guesthouse and rest a bit. At the guesthouse we meet Karl, a German writer currently travelling in Azerbaijan and Georgia to gather some information and ideas for his next book.
The main attraction in Kutaisi is perhaps the Bagrati Cathedral. What amazed me the most in Bagrati Cathedral were the rays of light in the mystical incense filled atmosphere. Recently I was contacted by Wikipedia to allow them to use my photograph for their webpage. Here is the link 😉
Before leaving Kutaisi, we decide to visit the famous Gelati Monastery up in the hills. We went there by Marshrutka (Marshrutka is a name given to minibuses in many post soviet republics). Our Marshrutka had 13 seats including the driver’s one and we were 33 people inside! Thinking that I’m totally stuck in such machine on Georgian roads makes me regret my bike.
Gelati Monastery is indubitably beautiful, with plenty of old murals, but to me it was not worth risking my life in this overloaded Marshrutka. I generally prefer the beauty of nature to historical buildings.
Couple of metres from there, out of sight from the tourists are piles of waste that people throw away in the nature. We’re really sad to witness so often such garbage dumping.
Nearby the monastery is the tomb of David the Builder, the greatest and most successful Georgian ruler in history. I’m standing nearby, looking at all the people walking on his grave with their mobile phones. I don’t know what to think…
At the monastery we met Kathleen and Jonas, our host from Zugdidi. That was a nice coincidence. Jonas drove us back to Kutaisi and we had a meal together. Kids were begging for money, grabbing our legs with suppliant eyes while their mum was standing a bit further watching how they perform. A moment later, an old woman came to beg at our table and when we refused to give her money, she tried to steal our piece of meat! I’ve never seen such a thing!
I am deeply sorry to witness such poverty but I really don’t know how to handle such behaviour. I cannot hold all of the world misery on my shoulders. I was already angry at all the shop owners who constantly tried to cheat me in Kutaisi. The same morning when buying two khatchapuli, the seller charged me double the price, I expected it so I gave her back the cash and told her it is not correct. She had a look at it and gave me one more coin but when I checked again I realized she fooled me again! Do I really look that stupid? I went back once more. It was pathetic, she simulated some hardcore counting then she gave me back my money.
Luckily we also met some honest shop owners in Kutaisi and we kept on buying our food there for the rest of our stay.
It is raining when we leave Kutaisi. That night we sleep in a forest. The next morning we see people searching for mushrooms nearby our tent.
A strong front wind slows us down that day. While we are alone a straight road, a Mercedes overtakes us really close and honk when passing by us. We’re freaked out, if we moved only fifty centimetres to the left he would have crashed us! How the hell can people be so stupid!? Maybe I should stop cycling, I am too much on my nerves these days…
A moment later, we sit in front of a shop, eating some matsoni and the seller comes to offer us some biscuits. I smile but I’m getting tired of jumping from bad mood to good mood.
We are heading towards Tbilisi but we decided to follow some small roads south of the main one. We are now cycling in the hills, uphill 12%, downhill 12% and so on… Sometimes we get a view on the snowy peaks of Svaneti couple of hundred kilometres to the North. In the villages, young men are standing by the road and doing nothing all day. They are sometimes laughing at us but we just ignore them…
In the afternoon, we reach Zestafoni. The city centre is no more than one busy street with plenty of cars, vans, trucks coming and going in the dust and the noise of market sellers. We search in vain for a calm place to sit down. By the bridge, tons of garbage, plastic bottles, bags and old crates… The air is a mixture of foul garbage smell and exhaust gas.
Back on the main road to Tbilisi, we find a café with internet ! We buy there a khatchapuli and sit for a while. It is already dark when we get back on the road, time to look for a place to camp! Soon we see a little path leading uphill on our right and decide to follow it. There is an abandoned house and we stop there, checking with our headlamps if this could be a good spot for the night. When passing by a bush, Tina hear some noise. It sounds like some trapped animal… We have a look in the bush and see a cute tiny puppy dog stuck in the needles! Who could throw this puppy here?! I fetch my gloves and get in the bush to extract him. He is so beautiful but so weak, he cannot even stand and his leg. We try to feed him with Khatchapuli but he won’t swallow nor drink anything. We even try to make him drink using a wet tee-shirt but he doesn’t drink. He just keeps doing the same weak noise. Soon he stops moving.
“Hey you’re not dead little puppy!!!”
Tina is holding him, talking to him but he won’t move…
She suddenly break in tears. “He died in my arms!”
I feel so sorry…
A minute later we watch the dog again and realize he is still breathing but he’s definitely on the edge. While exploring the house I find three other puppies that someone abandoned here. They are a little bit in better shape but they are weak and have nothing to eat or drink. We brink them their little brother, let them food and drink some old tee shirts to protect them from the cold. What else can we do?
Back on the road at night, we take pictures of the way so we might be able to explain to someone where are the puppies. Soon we reach a roadside restaurant and ask the owners if we can camp somewhere around. They offer us to sleep in separate dining room with our bikes and invite us for a tea. I am often amazed by the spontaneous generosity we meet.
That night, sitting at the table in our room, I am drawing some explanations for restaurant owners so they can explain to their customers that there are abandoned puppies in a nearby house. This is all what we can do and this is pretty little. It is not very common to care for dogs here…
The next morning, we leave once more the main road for a small one after seeing couple of crazy drivers. Tiny roads are usually more scenic but also much slower. The villages we cross are usually very poor, with buildings from the communist era or sometimes people living in shelters covered with wood and plastic, but most people are friendly. Today we are offered some lemonade in a bakery while another man offered to keep an eye on our bikes.
We are going uphill in the valley. The front wind is so strong that we sometimes loose balance and are about to fall from our bikes, but we keep going on! Soon the road becomes a dirt track. I start to like dirt tracks because there are not many cars and if there are, they cannot be so fast.
That night we really struggle to find a place to sleep. In a village, we ask a woman if we can put our tent in their garden. She looks at us suspiciously and after a moment send us away! Hum… Later we find a private field which looks fine but we realize after that the terrain is too muddy and it is going to rain. We finally manage to put the bikes in a field uphill which is almost flat.
The next morning is cold, rainy and foggy. I try to dry the tent under the rain, my fingers are frozen. Back on our bikes, the muddy road stick to our tires and the gusts of wind in the rain sends us droplets which bite our faces. We’re having a hard time…
Soon we reach Kashuri. We need to find a host in Tbilisi so we desperately look for a café with wifi but after an hour and a half going all around the town we give up and ride again. Our mood is a bit down in the weather and so we decide to stop in a roadside restaurant. The waitress doesn’t speak any English but we explain her we want some soup and a main dish. We get the soup and wait about two hours for the main dish… no main dish? Allright, it is already dark outside so we pay and leave. Soon we find a field where we can camp.
At night, I went out of the tent to pee (in cold weather, the human body need it much more). It is dark all around me except from the shiny stars and the little orange glow of the tent. Standing naked outside, I feel the wind urging me to get back to my sleeping bag but I keep watching the shiny sky while the speakers of the laptop are playing Bob Marley. “Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!”
This is such an odd moment 🙂
The next morning, two old shepherds are sharing our field. They watch us packing our things. This time we follow the main road until Gori, the native city of Stalin. I can’t believe the way some people drive in Georgia. We saw a truck overtaking another one in a curve without any visibility, then, coming towards us, 3 cars overtaking a bus while someone was coming in front, I expected to see a crash but actually they managed to pass all together by the bus!
After Gori we spend another night in a field. This is our last camping before Tbilisi and that night we eat a lot of halva! 🙂
The next day is cloudy so we swiftly pack the tent thinking it will rain but soon the clouds get away and the sun is here. The road is pleasant and the faces in the villages are sometimes really amazing. In three consecutive villages, we see some people preparing a dead pig.
When we get close to Mtskhreta, the nature becomes more arid. We are surrounded by very special bare hills looking like a giant papier-mâché landscape (papier-mâché is a Gallicism I didn’t know about!).
We were advised to visit Mtskheta on our way to Tbilisi. There we admire the truly beautiful Svetitskhoveli cathedral dating from the 11th century. Around the cathedral, the streets and houses are all freshly renovated and everything seems fake and designed for tourists… “Do you need hostel?”
“Excuse me sir, do you need a room?”
On the road to Tbilisi, we catch a scenic view on Jvari Monastery.
Arriving in Tbilisi was long but it wasn’t half as hard as I imagined it, but I imagined hell ! We managed to find Canudos bar, the place where we were supposed to meet Petra and Ali, our hosts in Tbilisi.
After a week with Petra and our new friends, we decided to spend winter here in Tbilisi rather than in Trabzon as we originally planned. Tbilisi is a bustling city and we have now a lot of good friends here. I have to admit that I also fell in love with the Georgian cuisine.
What about the people we met?
There are Meri and Miranda, two lovely Georgian girls who helped us a lot to find a flat and became our friends. We also met Morgan and David, a French couple travelling from France to India walking with a donkey and a mule! We’ve met Mehdi from Iran, he is one of the nicest person I ever met…
… and also Nino, Sylvain, Agris, Martín a lot of Giorgi from Georgia and couple of Ali from Iran 🙂
Last autumn, I’ve spent many afternoons sitting in Naxvandis café and writing, reading or even learning Czech. Tina started the translation of a book from French to Czech…
Couple of weeks later we decided to split up. We actually want different things. At the time I write these lines, Tina is a teacher of English in Tbilisi and I am about to continue my journey alone.
We are following different roads now and we think that’s for the best…
<< previous article next article >>