What a difference a border makes. Within kilometres of passing into Georgia I felt the difference to Turkey.
Instantly the cars were different (mostly run-down Ladas and hefty soviet style trucks), the faces changed and the ubiquitous minarets of Turkey were replaced by crucifixes adorning the peaks of distant hills.
The most crucial change however was the language and the script. I had managed to wrap my head around some very basic Turkish by the time I crossed the border – enough to get by. Suddenly all that knowledge was useless and all conversations were again incomprehensible.
Georgian script looks a little like Thai to my eye – quite pretty and flowing – but impossible to understand. Thank god they include phonetic English translations on their street signs or I would have been stopping every few kilometres to check my route.
Georgia is noticibly poorer than its Turkish neighbour and this was most clearly evident by the petrol stations. In Turkey they were vast sprawling buildings with cafes, food, çay and sparkling pumps with station attendants. Often in Georgia I couldn’t tell if a station was open or closed, and they seem to sometimes double up as the home of the person running them. The station above was open for business.
There are two main routes across Georgia. The first follows the busy roads north from Batumi then east through the major cities like Kutaisi and Gori to Tbilisi. The other goes east from Batumi through the mountains before joining the major road from Khashuri and heading to Tbilisi.
I took neither of these. I had enjoyed my time in Ardahan so much that I decided for a more desolate route that no blog I had yet read had followed, skirting the south of the country near the Armenian border through the agricultural highlands of southern Georgia, through Tsalka and to Tbilisi. (All roads lead to Tbilisi).
It’s not necessarily a route I would recommend to others. There’s a reason not many ride it – there isn’t much to see compared to the northern route, and it takes longer. However, it’s a beautiful and often remote part of the country that not many experience, and with its many rough edges I found it very charming.
My first night in Georgia I sprung for a hotel in the town of Akhaltsikhe. It wasn’t very nice, and I paid too much money, but the boys behind the desk roped me in for an evening of sausage eating and heavy drinking. Heavy drinking would become a theme of my riding through Georgia – the offers of çay of Turkey replaced by offers of home made wine, beer and vodka.
The boys asked me what I know about Georgia and my ignorance was obvious to all as I mumbled something about wine, mountains and conflict with Russia. Then one of the guys whipped out his phone and played some YouTube clips of traditional Georgian dancing. It’s actually pretty amazing – very fierce and passionate – a lot of jumping and spinning. “This is Georgia!” he drunkenly cried, and we kept watching dancing videos for the next hour.
Much of the countryside’s architecture was aesthetically ramshackle along my route. Small brick houses cobbled together with what was available, with a stove inside for warmth and cooking. Must be freezing here in the winter. I was riding through the end of spring and there was still patches of snow on the high plateau.
They’re an industrious people, the Georgians. Don’t need your van any more? Use it as a shed to keep your pile of dirt dry!
It was common to be waved down by men on the side of the road and invited for a drink. These guys caught me as I was hiding in the shade trying to have a fast and quiet lunch. I initially rejected their offer for vodka but they were so persistent that I figured one or two couldn’t hurt. Five vodkas in we were all good mates. My favourite toast was when one yelled out in stuttering English, “To everybody being best friends” and we all cheered and drank our shots. I left the lunch a bit wobbly on the bike but in a very good mood.
There’s some excellent camping in Georgia. Along my southern route I was spoiled for choice most of the time. My best site was just inside the tree line to the left in the picture above – a lovely secluded spot next to a slowly flowing river, only 2k from the nearest town.
I rolled through the hills towards Tbilisi, only occasionally being stopped by local traffic jams.
This southern area of Georgia is largely Armenian populated. Despite living in Georgia and sometimes being born in Georgia, whole towns would speak Armenian and not understand when I spoke to them in Georgian or show them my Google Translate app with Georgian script.
Not many people know this about me but I have a weird thing for abandoned buildings. Walking through their dilapidated corridors and hearing the floors creak underfoot scares and excites me in the same way a haunted house does for a child, and my mind races to put together stories about what happened in this now empty shell from an earlier time. A surprising treat in Georgia were the numbers of abandoned buildings to find and explore – the country is littered with them.
Scary old farm house. Possibly haunted.
Freaky old mental facility for the criminally insane. Probably actually an old school.
They must have decided half way through construction that they just didn’t really need this railway any more.
The looming concrete supports of this half built railway bridge were so foreign in this natural setting. Almost like a piece of modern art.
Modern art #2.
I’ve got no idea what this place was. I would love some suggestions. It was a big courtyard with walls on all sides, buildings lining the perimeter and a large grassy area in the centre. In the very middle stood a tall metal viewing cage, into which a person would climb and then have a 360 degree view of the property. Everything in me wanted to climb into the cage but I wasn’t sure my travel insurance would cover it.
My stay in Tbilisi was much longer than expected – nine nights. I had planned for it to be four. I was held there in limbo by (still ongoing) visa problems which will be the topic of a future post. Still though, it was fun to see the city and move beyond the touristy sites while getting to know its back streets and hidden underground bar scene.
There are many beautiful facades in the strees just off Tbilisi’s touristy Old Town – made all the more characterful by their state of mild disrepair.
There’s nothing wrong with being a bit of a tourist with hostel chums sometimes either.
In Tbilisi I also met Thomas – a solo Italian tourer going the same way as me with whom I would ride with all the way to Baku.
We left the city on Georgia’s Independence Day. Distracted by the festivities we didn’t push out until 2pm.
This kid’s moves were pretty sweet but I was more impressed by the way his hair stayed perfectly still as he spun about.
The ride north out of the city took us over a final mountain (1200m) and through some rain storms but with my new company it was a pleasure. Being caught in the rain is easier with company, and with Thomas I finally got some pics of myself riding the bike that didn’t involve a tripod.
The rain taught us to be innovative campers, and we escaped an evening thunderstorm by sleeping the night inside an abandoned trailer by the side of the road.
A gift of salted pork fat was presented to me one day as I walked through a small town looking for a screwdriver to fix my pannier bags. It looks unappetising but one taste and I was in love. It’s a thick slab of fat, heavily salted and smeared with spices. I couldn’t figure out if it had been cooked or cured, or if it was raw. You slice small strips from it and pop them in your mouth – pairing very nicely with the home made red wine we were gifted earlier in the day. Must figure out how to make this stuff in Melbourne.
From Tbilisi to the border with Azerbaijan, beautiful roads were ridden,
Lovely people met,
And abandoned hotels explored,
Until we found ourselves at the end of one road and the beginning of another. Time for country number three.