So just to make sure we are all on the same page we are talking about the country not the state in America! We never intended to visit this little country when planning our trip, as we assumed we would be cycling through Iran. However, new rules came into force and individuals with British passports can no longer get visas for independent travel. Turns out that us Brits are not so popular in that part of the world! So although we were disappointed about not travelling to Iran we continued north and headed into Georgia – a country we had very little knowledge of.
The first thing that stuck us when we crossed the border from Turkey was that everyone was driving old Mercedes E-types apart from the police who have mini coopers! They were everywhere. Cars regularly were missing bumpers or in a state of serious disrepair. And all cars, not just old clunkers, new BMWs, Benzes, everything. The people also looked very different from the Turks. Churches also replaced Mosques, and the Georgians are a devout, religious people. Often stopping as they pass a church to make the sign of the cross 5 times or so. As Georgia was the second country (first was Armenia) to officially adopt Christianity in the 3rd century!
Our destination was Batumi, which is a city on the Black Sea coast, and was only a short ride from the border. The ride was a pretty one though, you could see snow-peaked mountains to the east and we were hugging the pebbly coastline for most of the way, so we had the Black Sea to the West. Once we got closer to the city we realized that the Georgians were just as bad as the Turkish at driving, if not worse! One interesting thing we did spot several times on the way into the city was women sat on little stools on the roadside with a small table in front of them; they were basically a tiny little convenience store on a stool! They seemed to sell cigarettes, chewing gum, tissues and some snacks and that is it!
In the evening we went out for traditional Georgian food – Khinkali, which are delicious dumplings, best served with beer – to celebrate making it to Georgia (any excuse). The dumplings are fairly big and are made from thin dough with spiced meat and herb filling in a broth. There is a special way to eat the dumplings so that you don’t lose the broth. You are supposed to take the top of the filling where the pleats meet, turn the dumpling upside down and bite a hole in the dough and then suck out the juices hopefully without spilling a drop!
We stayed in Batumi for several days resting and exploring the city. There wasn’t too much to see, the city is quite small and as the weather was grey and cold it seemed a bit sad, tatty and deserted in the same way that many seaside towns do out of season, think of Margate in November. There are several nice parks dotted around and the boulevard along the sea front is a nice place to wander, I can imagine the place is bustling in the summer. The city center has a few grand old buildings but most of the city is soviet-style concrete blocks, there are also a lot of casinos in Batumi. The Hilton and Sheraton hotels dominate the skyline, alongside a large tower in the shape of a DNA helix structure which is the to celebrate the Georgian alphabet. There is also a large Ferris wheel which reminded me of a smaller version of the London Eye. In the evening we managed to find the one hipster bar in the city to go for a drink and I decided to sample the local wine. Georgia is supposedly the birthplace of wine as they claim to have found evidence of winemaking from 7,000 years ago – not sure what the Italians or French would think about this! I tasted a red wine, which was very different from most European wines I have tried and was thick, very sweet, rich and intense.
Initially cycling out of the city was a nice as there is a cycle path along the seafront, however, when this ended it turned into a nightmare. The road was very busy with no hard shoulder and the drivers here are maniacs. The emissions, from the traffic is the worst we have come across to date and this along with the constant honking and speedy, unpredictable driving made for a very unpleasant afternoon’s ride. To add to our woes we had to climb several big steep hills as the road turned inland. Late in the afternoon the road headed back to the coast and we were rewarded with a long descent and a great camping spot – a deserted sea front café with little bamboo huts the perfect size to put our tent and bikes inside!
Food shopping for us in Georgia was a new and slightly daunting experience at first. There are not really any supermarkets in the familiar sense we are used to, instead they have smaller shops that have different departments inside each with their own shop keeper. You pay everyone separately, even though it is all inside one small shop! For example they will have a bakery section, dairy section, biscuit section (you buy in bulk not packages), meat section and you need to pay each person individually. In a couple of places it was even more complicated as you need to chose what you want from that specific section and then you were given a ticket which you had to take to a central ticket booth where you had to pay, they would then stamp your ticket and then you had to return with the stamped ticket to collect your items – very different from the Sainsbury’s local that we had gotten used to in London! As you can imagine without any language skills in Georgian or Russian there was a lot of confusion involved in this process and a lot of laughter at the stupid foreigner from the shopkeepers! Once we embraced these crazy shops, we found some fantastic food stuffs, especially for hungry cyclists on a tight budget. Khachapuri is a delicious mix between bread and a pastry and usually has cheese inside although it can also have egg and ham/bacon too sometimes – we never usually know which one we are buying as they all look the same from the outside, so it is an exciting surprise! From the freezer section we came to love their dumplings and mystery meat (spicy ground meat patties in different shapes!), these items were so easy to cook after a day of cycling and very filling, they were also incredibly cheap – the dumplings were probably 10pence or less each and the mystery meat maybe 30 – 40 pence or less. This was basically our diet whilst in Georgia supplemented by large amounts of clementines/satsumas – also very cheap (20p/kg) as they were in season, which were really tasty and gave us some much-needed vitamin C.
The next couple of days we spent riding on smaller, quieter roads through the Georgian countryside and it was very beautiful. We cycled through the foothills of the smaller Caucasus Mountains and we had the snow-capped mountains as our constant view for the next few days. Eventually the terrain leveled out for a while as we followed the river.
Riding in the countryside we were joined on the road often by cattle and other livestock. It seems that in Georgia animals are free to roam as the please. Locals don’t bat an eye when a cow is walking in the middle of the road or a group of sheep cross a street without a shepherd as an escort. A couple of times now we have encountered small groups of young boys and as we approach they seem very excited and happy to see us, they wave, smile and shout greetings. However, as soon as we cycle past and our backs are facing them they throw stones at us!! It is really irritating and puzzling, we are unsure what the correct protocol is for dealing with kids that throw stones! So far they seem to be throwing to miss as none of the stones have even come close but that is not really the point – why do they do it in the first place?
Unfortunately the lovely weather did not last long and was soon replaced with the mother of all head winds! It was whilst we were battling these winds that we came across a fellow bike traveller sheltering from the elements on the side of the road. Christophe is a Frenchman who has been on the road for nine months cycling from his home nation without a particular destination in mind. He is a very laid-back and easy cycling companion, who seems to cycle and take life at the same pace as us – very slowly!
We spent a couple of days cycling with Christophe but unfortunately the weather was unkind to us the entire time. The first night we all camped together we were incessantly badgered by this old Georgian lady and her grandson to come and sleep in her house as it was too cold to camp. We had already set up camp and were cooking so we declined her offer much to her disappointment; it was very difficult to persuade her that we were okay sleeping in the tent! The next morning we visited her before leaving and she fed us home-made hot khachapuri and tea which was kind of her and we were grateful to be warmed up.
Men in Georgia drink a lot, we witnessed it on many occasions. After spending so much time in Turkey where generally tea is the tipple of choice not alcohol, it was strange to be around drunken men again. I believe that because many of the countries we are cycling through are very male dominated in public places, the atmosphere can feel threatening even if it is not. This can simply be because it is always large groups of men with no women present. On one occasion Andre was pestered (pretty aggressively) by the town drunk, it was only when I arrived on the scene that other Georgians stepped in to chastise him (the drunk guy not Andre)! It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is men will be drinking cha-cha (home-made vodka) and they down it by the glass or even bottle. It is a little worrying, as they all seem to drive about after drinking too. Most men we met offered us vodka and if we refused (using cycling as an excuse) they would try very hard to change our mind. It was a little much sometimes!
We had to cross a mountain pass and as we climbed the weather got increasingly colder and wetter, in addition to the strong head wind, we had to cycle in icy rain and then eventually snow! Having additional company made keeping moral up easier, during the harsh conditions. When you are just travelling with your partner it is easy to moan, complain, give up and stop for the day. However, with someone else you are less familiar or comfortable with you feel the need to endure it more and be less of a wimp! I think all three of us helped each other through the bad weather.
As we descended down the mountainside from the pass, it was pretty cold and we were feeling quite hungry. Along both sides of the road were small wooden shacks lined up, one after the other perhaps 50 or more in total. Inside each shack was usually an old lady and a large hole in the ground or well – that was a giant oven! These little huts sell a special type of sweet bread that has raisins inside and is unique only to central Georgia. The woman takes an uncooked flat loaf and then sticks it to the inside of the brick well, then covers the hole with a wooden lid and leaves it in there for 5 – 10 mins. When she removes it the bread it is golden brown, warm and incredibly delicious.
Late in the afternoon we found a little restaurant with a wood burning stove and we ordered lots of food and spent the afternoon warming up and drying off. As the evening arrived a large party of Georgian men turned up to celebrate a birthday. It wasn’t long before we were coerced into joining them; there was no option really. The party had a very strange atmosphere, it was held in a room off of the main restaurant with only men in attendance, no women. The group sat in a smoky room drinking a lot of home-made wine and vodka, with a small band that would play occasionally. It didn’t feel like any one was enjoying themselves and the three of us all felt a bit uncomfortable. Everyone at the party was very friendly towards us but the atmosphere felt a little like it was on a knife-edge and it can go the other way at any moment. There were elaborate and extremely regular bouts of toasts that would last a long time, the occasional toast/prayer where some of the guests would get on their knees and then drink their wine. It was a party I will always remember. As usual with a large group of very drunk men, the unpredictability of their behavior always makes you feel slightly nervous. The time to leave the party arrived when we were encouraged to toast to Hitler, which didn’t go down to well with a Brit, a Canadian and a Frenchman; as you can imagine it was quite a shock. As surprising as this was it wasn’t the first time we had heard this. We are often mistaken for German cyclists in Georgia and have heard ‘Heil Hitler’ called out a couple of times as we have cycled past. We are a little confused about the reason for this and find it quite disturbing.
After several days of cycling together we finally had to part ways with our new friend Christophe. We are sad to see him go as we enjoyed his company and there is a large part of us that wishes we were going with him South to Iran but alas our road is onwards to Tbilisi. The weather got progressively worse throughout the day and when we cycled into Stalin’s home town – Gori, we were feeling very miserable, wet and cold. We spent a while looking around the city for somewhere dry to pitch the tent and hoping someone might take pity on us and invite us to sleep in their house for the night, but we had no luck. Eventually we came across a large building that was covered in the EU flag and had large EUMM signs everywhere. We weren’t sure what EUMM was but we were drawn to the familiarity of the EU flag like bees to honey hoping somehow to be saved from the rain and cold – and it worked! We arrived just at the time that the staff were leaving and got chatting to a very lovely German woman named Annette that offered us some tea, a warm place to dry off for a couple of hours and a hot shower. And whilst we were talking to Annette the young Georgian security guard said that we could stay with him and his family later that night – we were both very happy and grateful to these lovely people.
Annette was a very interesting woman who had travelled and worked in and out of the German foreign office all over the Balkan countries. She had spent the last couple of years in Georgia after the war between Georgia and Russia ended, monitoring the situation in the occupied areas. After warming up in her cozy flat for the evening we said goodbye and headed off to stay with our new Georgian friend and his lovely family for the night. We were made to feel very much at home and fed huge amounts of delicious food and Georgian wine – a much nicer way to end the day then cooking in the rain and sleeping out in the cold!
Our night in a warm bed prepared us well for our last push to the capital city Tbilisi. It was always going to be a difficult day as we still had a long way to go and the weather was forecast to be bad with snow, a headwind and low temperatures. The morning was not great as the snow was more like icy sleet and it stung your face and eyes, which was pretty grim, although, on the plus side the wind wasn’t as strong as expected! Sods Law meant I ended up getting the first puncture of the trip on the side of the highway in the icy sleet! Typical! As we reached the outskirts of the city the weather improved but the traffic got worse!
Three months ago whilst cycling on the border of Poland and Slovakia we bumped into two female cyclists, it was cold and rainy so we didn’t stop and talk for as long as we would have liked. However, one of the girls, Gabriela, mentioned that she was moving to Tbilisi in October and if we were passing that way we should get in contact and she would put us up for a night or two. Probably the poor girl was just being polite and had no idea she would have us turning up on her doorstep several months later, but she welcomed us like we were old friends and we were happy to see her again. It’s amazing what a small world it is out there.
Tbilisi is completely different from the rest of Georgia as it is much more modern and westernised. We spend most of our time frequenting some very cheap yet delicious restaurants that Gabriela took us to. Aubergines, walnuts and shish kebabs feature often on the menu along with lots of different dumplings! We also went thermal underwear and sock shopping at the giant labyrinth of a market in Tbilisi, which sells everything; it was an interesting experience! Georgians get up very late even in the city most things are not open until 11am. I really like the city, it has a lot of character and there are still plenty of beautiful, grand old buildings and churches but they are often hidden or in a state of serious disrepair. We spent a long while exploring the back streets and alleys of the old town before heading to the sulphur baths for a relaxing soak! We had our own little room, which unsurprisingly smelt pretty eggy! The room had two showers, a naturally heated plunge pool and a long marble slab to lie on. The room gets very steamy and hot very quickly and you need to take lots of cold showers to keep from overheating. It was a nice way to spend an hour soaking in the hot sulphur water.
Gabriella was a lovely and very generous host and we especially enjoyed her delicious porridge every morning. However, after extending our stay for several days longer than originally planned we decided it was time to leave the comfort of Tbilisi and head into Azerbaijan. On our last night we had a celebration for Gabriella’s friend, Luba’s birthday and it was also Andre’s name day in Slovakia – so we ate lots of pancakes, cake and washed it all down with beer!
Crossing the border into Azerbaijan turned out to be more difficult than we anticipated. The ride from Tbilisi was nice and flat and we made good progress however, as we reached the last town before the border, lots of people seemed to be flagging us down and shouting things at us. For awhile we just thought they wanted us to come drink tea with them and as we didn’t want to stop we carried on cycling, although after a while we stopped to find out what was going on. We managed to work out that there was no border crossing on the road we were taking and we would have to turn around and cycle back 30kms before getting on the main road and then cycling another 40kms before reaching the border crossing. There was no way to cut across because of a large river with no bridge and a mountain range! If this was true we had cycled all day and ended up further from crossing the border than when we were in Tbilisi this morning. We decided to continue the last 1 km to the border just to check it out and make sure this was not some cruel village joke they play on foreigners. When we got there we found there was a border crossing but, only for Georgian and Azerbaijani citizens! This was so infuriating, we could see Azerbaijan on the other side of the fence literally a stone’s throw away but we were not allowed to cross. Very dejectedly we began to cycle back the way we had came and cover as much distance as possible before night fell.
We finally decided to call it a day stopping at a little village off the main road. We had noticed that the closer we got to the border the more the architecture changed, there were what looked like large oversized shiny metal open garages attached to each house. We soon found out that this change was because the people living in this part of Georgia are actually Azerbaijani. We asked a few villagers if we could pitch our tent on their land and they all declined, which was a shock, they seemed a little scared of us. We found a camp spot by some abandoned buildings on the outskirts of the village and started to cook dinner. We were soon approached by a group of youths who would not leave until we agreed to pack up our tent and come and stay in their family home, they were very insistent and sweet! Once inside we were offered lots of tea and chocolates, which made a nice change from vodka! I think we are going to get on well in Azerbaijan!
Georgia was an interesting and beautiful country to cycle through and we would like to visit again in the summer when the weather would be kinder to us. The Georgian people are similar to their national dumplings that we loved so much. They don’t seem anything special on the outside but once you get to the centre they are warm and lovely!
For more photos from our time in Georgia click : HERE