Georgia by bicycle, D+167, 6 515 km – 31 July to 28 August
⛰️Record of elevation by bicycle: 2610m!
🐺 Our most beautiful meeting?
🌏 Very big itinerary changes!
Just 100 meters after the border crossing, the first word out of a Georgian’s mouth is “vino?!”
Georgia has an ancestral wine know-how, a national pride! At that moment, we didn’t know yet that this exchange said a lot about the turn of our journey!
Georgia is a country that we particularly wanted to discover without really knowing why, a bit of a blind attraction. Maybe because it’s a mountainous country (but on a bike, it doesn’t look like us) and then Anai and his graphic designer’s deformation had a fantasy about Georgian carpets! Well, that’s not enough to explain why we had so many expectations!
New country, new alphabet, it’s nice, but we really don’t understand anything anymore (well ok, we say that every time), nice occupation to decipher those rounded letters while pedaling!
We are gradually finding roads that are less busy and we are not unhappy about that. Too bad for the gas stations!
Batoumi. Funny place between modernity and tradition where buildings grow like mushrooms! Nicknamed the Georgian Vegas, some Turkish friends told us it was THE place to play casino (it’s forbidden in Turkey)! We didn’t really spend too much time there even if there are surely a lot of treasures to discover. In summer it’s crowded, so we prefer to go on! Arriving a bit late in the torpor of city life, we quickly look for a spot for the tent before nightfall. We naively bet on the beach; it was without counting that the edges of the sea are frequented on tens of kilometres at this season: people meet to make the party and drifts, families benefit from the sunset. It’s really not the place to be quiet, and we don’t have much time to explore the surroundings (it’s getting dark). We decide to fall back on the cheapest hotel in the area where we are greeted in Russian by the security guard and a drunk guy who improvises himself as a bike valet. Sorry guys, “Ruski niet”! We quickly realize that English is not very useful here, and that even if the Georgians have a history full of tensions with Russia (still today, since Putin’s dictatorship occupies 20% of the Georgian territory), they mostly speak Russian. Fortunately, Anai has a great command of “KaKti biazabouk” (thanks Rinzine!): “what’s your name?”
It makes the exchanges quickly unproductive but it always has its effect and we now take pleasure in using it in all sorts of ways!
Unlike Turkey, the Georgian hospitality that everyone talks about did not jump out at us! Georgians have a rather closed face and a nicely drawn smile.
We also quickly felt a rather particular climate in the villages we passed through, and at the same time the chacha (local alcohol), it hits the head!
From experience, we assumed that Georgian hospitality did exist, but simply a little more in some regions than others, or maybe you have to be in a hurry to feel it?
As we leave a mini-market, a guy points to Anai’s rear tyre and says “problem! We proudly retort “Problem yok” (“no problem”) before realizing that indeed the tyre is completely flat! Let’s go for the repair, Zaza and her gang come to give us a hand and supervise the operations in a good mood! At the moment of repairing the tube, our tube of glue is all dry. Zaza’s friend loads GG in his own bus and takes him 2 km away, to the “boui boui” of a mechanic for trucks. In 3 minutes, watch in hand, it’s fixed! During this short time, Zaza and Anai were able to play volleyball and football. A good time with this big-hearted team, which, at first sight, didn’t look very warm! 💙
Sulphurous hot springs.
After a night in a gloomy campsite where we are the only people on a huge field, we cycle to Senaki. It’s not easy to camp around here. In Georgia, cows, buffaloes, pigs and horses are free on the roads, on every square meter of grass, and the area in question is quite “urbanized”. There are no guesthouses (many seem to be deserted). The only hotel in the centre of town hosts some form of funeral reception and a bunch of drunk people. Tired, we pass all the same our way to pedal again, towards the river.
We finally find a small guesthouse where, exhausted (and seduced by the incredible place), we decide to stay a few days. The family -who is also hosting their own family- offers us to share a “Georgian barbecue”!
On their advice, a few kilometres away, we discover Beelzebub’s place: smoke escapes from the ground and the water that comes out is boiling!
These are the most curious hot springs we have seen so far! In the heart of the forest, the atmosphere is mystical. To finish the picture, Russian tourists alternate between a boiling seat in the spring and an icy bath in the river: the Georgian sauna?
Svanetia starts intensely. Dive into intoxication at the first positive altitude difference.
We arrive at the first/last village to get some food before starting to climb. A bunch of merry men stop us, including an elderly taxi driver with gold teeth. Apart from the alcohol fumes, the exchange is short and not unpleasant. We stop a little further on in a shack sheltered from prying eyes to drink a coffee. The regular customers seem amused and intrigued by our presence. But they don’t understand why we don’t have a beer. Pivo? Vodka? Vino? Niet?! We exchange a few smiles. Then a guy finally gets up to take a picture with us and the bicycles. Excited, he grabs us in turn and gives us a kiss on the forehead. Our route continues on a rocky path (which climbs). As the clock ticks, we start to think about where to pitch our tent. We take a break on a bench when a taxi arrives with a bang and stops at our level, music blasting. It’s the one from earlier with the gold teeth! He sits down between us. We understand that he lives next door and that he invites us to sleep at his place. We refuse this invitation about 30 times, which obviously smells like a trap (and vodka), and the anti-kidnapping alarm is triggered.
We feel that the guy is sensitive, so we have to act tactfully and extract ourselves from this situation gently. We end up standing up when he grabs our arm forcefully and gives us a kiss that is just waiting to get out of hand. We push him away this time with much less diplomacy and get on our bicycles before engaging on a sloping pebble road. After this particularly annoying episode, we don’t want to bivouac in the area. We pedal to the next town where we find a newly finished hotel that has neither a sign nor an employee. Two guys from the shop next door make a few phone calls and a convertible car pulls up. Three guys get out, bottles of beer (1L, regulation size) in hand. One of them will be for us. The manager apologizes a thousand times for not having any staff yet, shows us the room and leaves. His drunken, slimy band of friends/neighbours take care of us. We have to refuse about 30 times new beers and 10 times the night city tour – while drinking beers. (Incidentally, it’s raining and no one speaks English). Sometimes there are moments when you have to trust your snag detector!
With this day’s sequence, we are seriously getting tired of it. “It would be so much easier to travel if at least one of us was a man!
Finally, the only thing we hope is that men don’t behave this way with women in their country!
The next day, we start climbing again. It’s hard but beautiful. On the lower side, tourists stop and get out of their state-of-the-art 4×4 to take THE picture of the viewpoint (the one on the edge of the ravine-if-you-drop-a-don’t-be-dead-but-it’s-beautiful). We stop in turn to have a look, a drink and above all, a break! Several cars pass at full speed on the steep road, honking their horns. One of them slows down, the guy in the passenger seat takes out a gun and shoots through the window in our direction while his buddy at the wheel shoots a bottle of vodka: handy to have two hands! Georgian tradition or stupidity? We were stunned (and a bit deaf).
At the end of the afternoon, as a chalet-café-restaurant takes shape in the distance, we stop and congratulate ourselves for all this beautiful climbing. “We’ve earned a break! A big, beautiful mountain dog passes by. “Splendid” is the only word that comes out of Anai’s mouth. GG remains on his guard, he is still impressive. Shortly after, a painful puppy cry is heard. No taller than three apples, “Loustique”, takes refuge under our table, his head bloody. There was a fight over a piece of kachapuri… the other “bad dog” from the mountains is chased away and Loustique lies on our feet. The coffee turns into writing, drawing, the time passes quickly and the rain starts. We ask if it’s raining to pitch the tent there. Da. Perfect.
Several dogs approach and are severely chased by the small but courageous Loustique. We laugh. “Ah, if we had a Loustique like you with us, we wouldn’t be so annoyed!
When we wake up, we find Loustique sleeping at the entrance, under the tent. We are already sick to our stomachs to have to leave this little cute dog and his other puppy friend who follow us everywhere in our morning preparations. In the background lurks a third dog, the “bad guy”. We push him away several times (especially Loustique, who had a fight with him the day before).
The start. Did the universe hear us?
Just as we imagined Loustique running desperately after our bicycles, he stops at the door of the café. Sad but relieved, we start the descent at full speed. But when we look in the mirror, we realize that it’s the “bad guy” who follows us, hair in the wind, lips and tongue in the air, more determined than ever, at an incredible pace.
After 30 km, we stop to eat. The dog is still there. A girl feeds him: we think he will stay there. But no, he seems to have a life mission and decides to go back on the road with us!
Shortly after, two drunk men, dressed as military rangers, stop us on the roadside to invite us to have a drink (on the edge of the grave on the side of the road). It smells like a trap, we don’t understand much, they are nervous and not very friendly: we politely refuse! One of the guys insists, gets closer and pulls us by the arm: neither one nor two, the sheepdog doesn’t like it and starts to show his fangs and mimic an attack! It calms down! They leave and take the road again (drunk).
We leave silently, a little shocked by this kind intervention.
We spend a first night in a peaceful bivouac, all three of us.
In the early morning, we hurry to look at the front of the tent: Lasha -that will be his name- is still there. The shepherd who patiently guards his two cows. This will be the meeting that will change the course of the trip, at least for the next few days. This big and beautiful mountain dog full of testosterone, who pees everywhere!
We feel like a herd on bicycles: he pulls us over as soon as we stray too far from the middle of the road, and groups us together if one of us is getting ahead, or behind. He teaches us to find water and shade and to enjoy the rain and the climbs (conditions in which he can join us without difficulty). He even pushes us to confront the wild dogs to defend him. We are now decked out in stones and facing up. Crossing villages is never done discreetly or without pain: he takes the time to greet all his colleagues (who are wandering or not) and it doesn’t always end peacefully. Bivouacs have never been so easy. The pace is slow and life is simple and without any sloppy guys.
Svanétie is a magnificent region, we do not regret one second to have gone up!
So we cycle for a very long week with Lasha, from Mestia to Ushguli and we climb two passes: we find it quite funny, especially as we have never cycled in the mountains (or only the downhills)! We always thought it was “not far from being stupid” when we saw the cyclists pedalling like crazy on the climbs. So, with a loaded bike….
As we never imagined to climb so high, we didn’t imagine it would be cold either. Only equipped with a sheet ( with 40° in Istanbul, we sent our sleeping bags to India…!), the nights are extremely fresh. We end up finding a sleeping bag/blanket with some relief in Mestia. We can continue the climb.
The first pass: 1900m. We spend a nice evening with our German friends in a van who bivouac next to us (as long as they don’t get too close to the tent, they are “allowed” to talk to us), Lasha takes care of keeping the cows, bulls and buffalos at a reasonable distance. If you’re going to climb a pass, you might as well stay and enjoy it!
The second pass: 2610m. Our ultimate record without even loading the bikes in a truck (besides, we would have trouble finding one)! The rocky roads didn’t help us but we did it! We imagined a party committee at the finish, champagne, confetti, fanfare, polka dot jerseys, photos… NADA! Meadows, meadows, meadows and glaciers! (We are not far from shedding a small tear of emotion, under the bewildered eye of Lasha, who is just looking for a spot of shade).
The way down.
We asked ourselves all the questions in the world and we turned the situation in our head in all directions: what to do with Lasha? He decided to follow us, he seems to have adopted us! It’s true that it’s quite common for a traveller to be followed by a dog in Georgia: dogs are so cool! But over such a long distance? That doesn’t happen. We imagined adopting him, finishing the trip with him, taking him to India and then to France… Then, even if it broke our hearts, we had to settle for a much more banal ending. Lasha is an old dog, he doesn’t like the heat and above all he likes his freedom! There was no chance of putting a dog collar on him or forcing him to be tied up with a chain. We kept on wobbling; and then another wolf-like compatriot also started following us and guarding the tent with Lasha. We did everything to prevent this from happening: it was impossible to get rid of her! After some good descents, we end up crossing some villages with peaceful and smiling people: it feels good! They seem to take good care of the dogs. Small hitch: a third one started to follow us. Next village: a fourth! Next village: a fifth, but this time with a collar! Our nerves can’t take it anymore: from laughing to cracking up, we understand that it’s a good idea to leave them together, in this cool and peaceful place. A big descent is coming, the road has improved, so we decide to go for it: we pedal at full speed, without turning around, silently shrieking. It’s a bivouac with a heavy heart, 40 km further on. We secretly and selfishly hope to see Lasha in the early morning. It will of course be a disappointment.
To make our tears flow through our armpits (and become poets). So we get up and decide to do in one day what we would usually do in two. We pedal without stopping and we swallow kilometres under the heat which starts to increase more and more. After the greenery and the coolness of the nights, it’s an oven and a climatic shock! We share a part of the road with Mickaël, a Frenchman who thought he would “only go as far as Croatia” with his old Decat’ bike and his backpack. While chatting, we realize that he knows the tiny village (400 inhabitants) where Anai comes from as he went to high school with one of its locals: it’s a really small world!
Just before arriving in Kutaïssi, we are greeted on the side of the road: incredible! It’s our two Germans in a (rented) van, waiting for their plane. They look at Mickaël and ask us where Lasha is. You’d think he’d turned into a human!
The arrival in town is in heavy traffic: Lasha is definitely better in the mountains!
Kutaisi and the Guesthouse toilet.
We ate some delicious specialities in a restaurant but obviously Georgian food does not really suit Anai. For this reason, we stay a few more days in Kutaïssi to recover from our emotions.
After such a long break, we wonder if we can still ride a bicycle! We get on the bikes early in the morning to avoid the suffocating heat. The road is not really fun, the traffic is busy, it’s hot but above all the gusts of wind make the task exhausting and dusty! At an intersection, a man insists on pointing us to the (hight)way. We resign ourselves to listen to him (especially as he has decided to escort us to the junction), finding ourselves pedalling on the 4 lane road with the wind against us. A treat. After a lot of sweat, a good dust bath and only 40 km on the counter, we end up in a beautiful gas station at the entrance of Zestafoni. A motel in the background. “What if we made our wildest dream come true and slept IN the petrol station, overlooking the car park? “Come on!”.
On our way to the capital. Ok this time, we really move forward! Today it’s going up, it’s still windy, and on this road under construction, the traffic is still very busy (and the trucks, legions). After 20 km, we take a quick look. “As soon as we find a shady spot, we stop and hitchhiking! We don’t even have time to set up when a 4×4 with a trailer (that we look at with envy) stops: “need help ? Come, too much traffic ” Life is magic ! We load the bicycles in Levan’s trailer and head for Tbilisi, a little help for 200 km, anyway!
We spend a pleasant journey in good company talking about Georgia (oh yes, because in addition to being nice, he speaks English!)! Today, we really moved forward! Incredible change of landscapes: in only one tunnel of 2 km we go from a green nature in the west (humid, and even almost tropical sometimes) to ultra-dry landscapes (like Far-West, almost desert) in the east!
Tbilisi. It’s easy! We unload the bikes from the trailer, and we are in the heart of the Georgian capital. It’s huge, we clearly didn’t expect this! After these exhausting kilometres, we take a well deserved break for a coffee on the terrace. After a few sips, a waiter arrives with a tray full of good things to eat: we think it’s a mistake, but he insists “Gift from my boss”. Surprised, we follow him with our eyes; he then goes to another restaurant: “Istanbul Café”! Undoubtedly ! Turkish generosity has struck again, but in Georgia! We even get an çay: it’s heartwarming!
Getting out of the capital. After 15 long kilometres to get out of Tbilisi, here we are in arid landscapes worthy of what we imagine of Texas. People are smiling, they offer us fruits, they say hello. In spite of the heat, we ride for miles. While we had planned to bivouac before the next border, here we are in front of the customs of a country that attracts us a lot but for which we had said to ourselves over and over again: “never in a million years on a bicycle”: Armenia!
To end our loop of Georgia by bicycle in style, a final interaction with one of its inhabitants.
It’s 8am, we’re a few km from the border. We see a guy getting out of his shiny 4×4, Texan profile, hat, pointy shoes, white shirt over a crisp tank top. He seems to be holding something but we can’t quite make it out. He moves forward and crouches down next to a dog that comes wagging its tail. And suddenly: BAM! The dog turns around, whining with all its might, tail between its legs. We have just realised that he has just been shot at point blank range by a pellet gun held by this same guy who then looks at us and displays a certain smile of satisfaction that is chilling. Tradition? Foolishness? The question is asked.
Even if this country has been a very nice cultural, historical, ( dog) and natural discovery; at this very moment we are happy to leave to meet Armenia! Moreover, from the first km, we feel good and the people are sober, smiling and warm: it’s good for the mood!