Georgia is a small country stretching about ⅔ of the way across the mighty Caucasus mountain range between the Black and Caspian seas. For centuries it lay between the great superpowers of the Ottoman, Persian and Tsarist Russian Empires. It’s proud people were forever the thorn in their sides resisting occupation at whatever cost, yet prospering from the trade that traversed it’s important geographical position between these 3 powers. Likewise for us it was an important staging post on our journey. With Iran proving to be too expensive for us to motorbike across, we were left with only one option of riding around the north of the Caspian if we were to avoid the discomfort and expense of a boat from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. Before that there was just the small obstacle of the Georgian Caucasus to cross first…
From day one in Georgia we realised that this would be more of an obstacle than even it sounds. The Caucasus rise to 5,642m at Mt. Elbrus, Europe’s tallest mountain. However, it was not so much the scale of the mountains that proved a challenge. It was the roads that snaked through them and the multitude of calamities awaiting even the suspecting road user around every corner. Stationary obstacles such as crater-like potholes, collapsed roadways and boulders blocking one’s safe passage were only expounded by dynamic obstacles such as nonchalant cows who had no regard for their own safety and dare-devil matschutka (minibus) drivers who had no regard for anybody’s safety. Despite the challenge, the roads also provided fantastic riding and adventure. From twisting tarmac surfaces, smooth as butter, leading us through serene ancient forests to steep, boulder-strewn dirt tracks which had been washed away by multiple landslides, all flavours of motorbike touring are catered for in this one small, mountainous country.
A road of particular note offered us our hardest day of riding yet. It started nicely on steep but rideable dirt tracks which afforded us magnificent mountain panoramas.
However, it soon descended into a 4 hour, 17km ordeal where Lottie fell face first into a large muddy puddle, Ryan fell down a steep ravine with the bike coming to rest on top of him, bikes were bent and backs were broken from lifting said bent bikes.
Despite the tears and profanities at the time, we look back proudly at having successfully negotiated this ‘road’ and are more confident about tackling the upcoming obstacles of this adventure which had suddenly just become very real. Definitely type 2 fun though…..
Not only had the roads taken a change from the straight, monotonous dual carriageways of Turkey, but so too had the faces and culture. It was almost like re-entering Europe with EU flags in every town and culture similar to that of the Slavic countries that we had visited previously. We enjoyed the best live music yet with some haunting folk music high in the mountains and made the most of Georgia’s fantastic wine and culinary treats. Our top recommendation is a Georgian staple; Khinkali, meat and corriander filled dumplings, washed down with a generous portion of cheap but brilliant Georgian wine. When on the move though, Georgia’s bakeries provided generously with all kinds of pastries and breads, stuffed with cheese, eggs, beans, sweet potato-esque mush and something that resembled meat. All very delicious, no doubt entirely nutritious and thankfully very cheap as we were hooked!
Apart from great wine and great food, Georgia is also blessed with amazing mountainous scenery. Not only was it great to ride through on our bikes but it also provided some world class trekking. We took advantage of this with a trip to Svaneti in the far north of the country where we enjoyed one of Georgia’s most celebrated treks from Mestia to Ushguli. Early in the season, we had the mountains and valleys nearly to ourselves except for our new best friend, dog. We awoke on the first morning to find our trusty companion outside the tent patiently waiting for us to wake from our slumber. Expecting him to be an angry, territorial sheepdog, we soon came to realise that he knew these trails intimately and would happily lead us along the scenic paths, move cattle out of our way and even cross raging torrents with us for only the occasional scrap of bread or sausage that we could spare him having not packed enough for ourselves in the first place. He was totally loyal, that was until we neared the ancient village of Ushguli where he quickly scampered off to guide his next posse of tourists and left us alone to be thoroughly disappointed by this tourist filled town. A wonderful scenic hike let down only by its eventual destination.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the only let down in Georgia. Despite their reputation as warm, generous hosts, we found Georgians to be at least initially a little cold and their customer service of the ilk that discourages you from visiting a shop or restaurant twice in the hope that the next one would be better. Without doubt we found plenty of exceptions, notable examples being; a Mullah that brought his daughters along to visit the mangy looking bikers who were camping in a nearby river bed and give them popcorn and delicious pear juice; the Anglophobes/Irishphiles of Saint Nino’s Monastery who toasted us countless times after they invited us to join in with their celebratory feast; and of course Aleks who we met at a rugby match and taught us how to snack on sunflower seeds like a Georgian. However, perhaps it was just a come-down from the absurdly generous Turkish hospitality back to reasonable normality, but more than once we caught ourselves thinking we would have felt more welcome, respected and appreciated in Turkey.
Some of the best people that we met were at the fantastic Why Not? Tbilisi Hostel (www.whynothostels.com/tbilisi/). This was a old school, proper backpacker hostel with great atmosphere, helpful staff and travellers from all over the world (although overwhelmingly German) with their own interesting stories and madcap plans. We enjoyed it so much here that we happily spent 9 nights here in total either side of our Svaneti trip whilst waiting for our Russian transit visa to be processed.
The visa wait also allowed us to squeeze in almost 5 games of international rugby whilst in Tbilisi as the U20 Rugby World Cup happened to be in town at the same time as we were. Future rugby stars, cheap beer and lively Georgian supporters provided ample entertainment and cost us less than 2 pints of milk at home. Brilliant!
Almost as famous and spectacular as its rugby are the Georgian Fortresses and Orthodox churches and Monasteries. Almost littering the country, everything from crumbling ruins to brand new huge roadside monasteries provided photo opportunities galore, welcome shade and a glimpse into some fascinating history. Overlooking the most famous of them all, the Gergeti Trinity Church, we made camp and took time to find out more about Orthodox Christianity from a patient and helpful monk. Still not clear about its differences from western Christianity, we nonetheless left taken aback by the beauty of the artwork and glad to see that these tourist honey pots were still practising places of worship.
This brought us to the end of our time in Georgia with fond memories of adventure and great food, perhaps slight disappointment in its hospitality but also a yearning to sneak back and more fully explore this beautiful country which was once described as the Greatest Fortress in the World. For sure, it definitely deserves a second look!