Crossing the border into Georgia was a baptism of fire. Within minutes we had seen two crashes, almost run over a cow and our ears were ringing with the loudest toots we had come across on the trip so far. It is incredible how geographical borders shouldn’t really mean much, and yet it was undeniable that we were in a different country.
After a hairy cycle into Batumi, we had a couple of days off the bikes to plan the route across Georgia. Verity had very kindly been bought a massage by her school girls for her birthday, and so we had a surreal and super relaxing afternoon in the Hilton spa (Joe was given free access to the spa pool – we obviously looked like we needed a bit of luxury!). Batumi itself is an odd city – half run down tower blocks, half hyper modern Vegas style architecture – and we had fun exploring and a dip in the Black Sea!
Having not been convinced so far by Georgia (based solely on Batumi and its odd vibe) our feelings soon began to change as we headed east. The rumours we had heard of erratic drivers and aggressive dogs never materialised, in fact we met some of the friendliest doggies so far who ran along side us and waited at the top of hills!
We wild camped for 6 nights in a row as we cycled to Tbilisi – over a couple of mountain passes and through stunning autumn forests. We camped near rivers, tucked away in fields and next to an abandoned church (complete with skeletons which Joe spotted at dusk and didn’t tell Verity about until the morning!). One night, having been told by a farmer that we couldn’t camp due to wolves, we found ourselves camping behind a shack restaurant (basically the front room of someone’s house) and eating a delicious stew with the old couple who owned it. We ended up watching a dubbed version of Blake Lively’s “The Shallows” film on a tiny crackly TV: it’s comforting to know that shrieking at a shark attack sounds the same in both Georgian and English!
The Georgian people often seemed initially bemused to see us, but soon softened and offered us gifts of apples, caci (a tasty orange fruit right in season), walnuts and chestnuts.
Along the way we met our first fellow cycle tourists since Serbia. Whilst a couple of Aussies passed us in the opposite direction and were not particularly upbeat (their trip was soon coming to an end, which may have explained it) we cycled with and very much enjoyed getting to know a French couple from Toulouse. Felix and Clare were great fun and it was a shame that Clare’s knee was making their intended progress slower than ours and after camping together for one night, we then sped on.
We soon met Anton, a bikepacker from Belarus who convinced us that Vardzia – a cave monastery which is remains active today – was worth the detour. With him as our inpromptu guide and translator, he was proved correct and the extra loop was definitely the right decision. Particularly as the Turkish cave cities we saw were often one cave deep, it was amazing to be able to walk right into the complex through tunnels and ladders. The highlight was a beautiful church inside the cliff face with incredibly preserved paintings.
A few days later and Tbilisi proved a good base to wash (us and our clothes!) and fix Verity’s tyre which had exploded at the seam on the unforgiving Georgian roads. We now have a new found respect for tarmac! The city was a fun combination of tumbling down ornate buildings and gentrification, in some cases so extreme we felt we could have been in East London, particularly when having a tiny avocado salad with a cycling touring couple from the Netherlands who we met on Instagram. When we stuck to Georgian classics, we enjoyed fantastic food in the city, either in small bakeries for lunch or cosy restaurants in the evening: khachapuri, kinkalli, and ojakhuri were all seriously delicious wherever we went.
As our Azerbaijan visas didn’t allow us entry for a few days, we took a wiggly route to the border towards the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The few days that followed were the chilliest yet (one morning we had to snap ice off the outside of the tent!) but also our favourite days in Georgia due to some wonderful locals.
Just a few pedal strokes into a seriously long 10% climb, suddenly a big truck started reversing back down the hill towards Verity at quite some speed. Not quite sure what was going on, Verity pulled over to keep out of the way. The truck then came to a stop, with the driver gesticulating that the road was too steep and too long, and offering a lift! As it was getting towards dusk and it didn’t look like there would be anywhere to camp on the side of the road, we gratefully accepted and soon our bikes were lifted up into the back of the tarmac truck (Verity’s saddle and panniers now have a few bits of souvenir tar on them!) and we clambered up into the cabin. It turned out that the climb was indeed VERY long, and the road was still being built so was mainly a muddy and stony track! We were dropped at the summit where the diggers had trucks were left overnight. Just as we couldn’t have been more thankful, we noticed that the machinery was being guarded overnight by two security guards, and they welcomed us over to their campfire and even put on the headlights of their police car so we could put up our tent! We had a great evening sharing food and drinking chaca together.
Our final night in Georgia was perhaps even more special. Stopping just a few miles short of the border to allow maximum distance once through, we pulled into a village and found some back streets. Asking a friendly old man who was sat outside his house if we could camp in the field next door he was, of course, confused at first, but then happy. A few minutes later Annie came to see what was going on, a nine year old sweetie who enthusiastically helped us put the tent up and inflate our mattresses. Within seconds of doing that she was called back over the fence and then returned with grapes for us. Then again with some cranberries, and once more with cay. She and her grandad joined us and we tried to make some sense of each other but more often just nodded and smiled. We started cooking as it was beginning to get dark and soon Annie came back with some garlic and shallots, again, all fresh from their garden. We cooked and ate and whilst sitting in the dark washing up, we were beckoned inside for coffee. We walked around the back of the house, past the outside long drop they use, past the pig, the donkey, the chickens and the ducks and up the stairs to their porch. Grandad was already sat on what turned out to be his bed, outside in the cold but at least under cover. The mum started putting things in bowls and soon there was a collection of homemade picked bits in front of us – pretty much a second dinner supplied by people who needed it far more than we did. We had a fantastic evening in their house (unsure if it was being built or in a constant state of disrepair and unable to ask) and they were an amazing family. The children played with the cat and showed us their school work, and there was much laughter as we mimed animals and learnt to count in Georgian. With slightly foggy heads from chaca and homemade grape cider, we had a warm goodbye the following morning before a misty cycle through a herd of cows and under a sign which read: Azerbaijan border – good luck!