We stopped just the other side of the border at a small town on the beach. It was getting late and we didn’t want to cycle further in the dark. The roads looked awful by Turkish standards and either for trend or necessity, all cars had no front or rear bumpers and drove like maniacs. GP Tim went on to the larger town ahead. We spotted a bar/restaurant on the beach as the sun was setting. Excited by the new cuisine on the menu we ordered half of it, followed by ridiculously cheap draught beer. We were excited to be in a new country. We had been in Turkey for three weeks, by far the longest in a country so far. There was a much more liberal feel in the air. English pop music blared loudly as people strolled by with more skin on show than we’d seen in the whole three weeks in Turkey. It did not however feel liberal in a positive sense, it felt tacky, almost disrespectful. Had our short time in Turkey converted us to Islam? These thoughts quickly passed as quickly as the cheap beer did, and as the dancefloor filled with booty-shaking teenagers we came to the conclusion that Georgia was going to be fun.
Batumi was a large beachside town described by many as a mini Las Vegas. Visiting Las Vegas is extremely low on our list of places to go so we weren’t too excited about the place. It was however going to be a base for a couple of days to relax after the heat, hills and long cycling days of Turkey. We spent a day off here resting the legs and enjoying Georgian food, which as far as we could tell, consisted of three ingredients – bread, cheese and egg. Take a long loaf of pizza style bread make it into a bowl shape and fill it with eggy melted cheese and you are halfway to Georgia. In contrast to Turkey, Georgians love their beer. The local man of the cloth walking back and forth from the liquor store with 2-litre bottles of beer every few hours was a symbol that alcohol and religion have a much stronger bond here than Turkey. Georgians also love a t-shirt with an English slogan that makes no sense on it. “I like things fast women” declared one beer-bellied man, proudly.
As we rolled out of Batumi fully doughed-up we had an anxious feeling about cycling. We had taken a couple of days off and got used to the comforts of a bed, a roof and generally staying in one spot. These feelings thankfully disappeared as we left the town behind and made our way along beautiful country roads towards the Goderdzi Pass – a 2027metre mountain that was to be our biggest climb yet. Our destination for the day was a nice camping spot at the start of the climb that the kind guys working at a bike shop in Batumi had told us of. One guy also warned us of the many groups of drunk men we will encounter en-route that will try and get us to join them. I wasn’t sure if I was excited or scared. The day’s ride was through lush countryside and then very abrupt spectacular and dramatic mountain views. The only dampener was a puncture on Hannah’s bike. 2-1 to Hannah. People waved and cars tooted as they passed us. They were happy positive toots, but they still scare the shit out of you.
With the heat of the day exhausting our water supplies and nearing our camp spot for the night we stopped at a local shop to top up. “Hi, do you have any water please?” I said to the only person in the shop who vaguely looked like they could work there. I was not quite confident enough to test out the few Georgian words I’d learnt on a ‘Learn basic Georgian’ app on my phone. “Vodka” came a voice from a corner of the shop filled with four men sitting on beer crates drinking clear spirit from label-less clear bottles. “Ah, no thank you”, I smiled as I mimed out that I was riding a bicycle, and that after drinking vodka the bicycle became uncontrollable. “Vodka” said the lady in a strong almost Russian tone who was now behind the counter, clearly not witnessing my acting skills excellently performed to the men. “No, I’m just looking for water” I said gratefully. “Do you have any?” “Yes, vodka” said the lady pointing to a whole shelf full of the clear glass bottles of home brew. “No, water, not vodka, water” I said, in a slow clear tone, shameful of my presumptuous Englishness that everyone in the world can speak my language. “Yes, vodka, have” said the lady now clearly thinking ‘why is this guy asking for vodka but not buying the vodka’. My miming skills which extend to turning a water tap on and filling and drinking a glass of lovely refreshing well-needed water was for some odd reason not understood. The laughing and jeering coming from the four men was pushing me to the point of buying the bloody vodka. I left the shop empty handed and explaining the story to Hannah she pointed at an empty water bottle on the floor. “Show her that”, she said. I returned to the shop. Holding up the water bottle to the lady resulted in a “aaahhhhhh…. voda!”. “Yes, voda, thank you” I said nodding and smiling with relief at resolving the situation. “No” she said “only funta”. “Fanta?” I responded trying to hold back a smirk. “No, funta” she said as she put her palms on the counter and leaned her head in towards mine. She scared me. I bought the funta. We arrived shortly after at a quiet spot well off the main road beside a small river and next to a beautiful old stone bridge. As two boys on the other side of the river fished and poked a small dying fire, we pitched the tent a few metres from the waters-edge and enjoyed the tranquil sounds of the river, the views of the imposing surrounding mountains, and the sweet taste of orange funta.
We woke hours later than expected, probably due to the hypnotic sounds of the river. As I stumbled out of the tent in my pants and t-shirt scratching my head and looking for a place to pee, I was welcomed by a bus load of tourists stood taking photos of the bridge. “Hannah! We need to go! ” I said, trying not to make eye contact with the tourists. We quickly packed up and moved away from the now clearly obvious tourist attraction. We found a place to eat breakfast in a pretty hillside town and filled up on very local dishes of a kilo of cheese smothered in a gravy-type sauce, and pancakes filled with garlic and of course, more cheese. They were delicious but very heavy and a food coma ensued. We debated staying nearby the town as it was by now nearing midday and we had a huge mountain pass on a gravel road to negotiate and didn’t want to get stuck near the top too late in the day.
Half-way up with our tires slipping in the gravel, dodging potholes and searching out any part of road that looked remotely cyclable, thoughts of remaining back in the village were starting to slip in. Time was getting on, but we were still confident and determined to get up and over the pass before sunset. We had heard that attempting to ride up the 18 miles of steep gravel road was enough for cyclists to get picked up by trucks, but not one single motor vehicle had passed us since the morning, and we were still in no mood to be defeated. We were however, both in a mood. Facing a tractor coming down the dirt track in front of us, I chose to stop and let it pass. Hannah however riding behind me was not aware of my decision to stop before she rode into the back of me, crashing to the ground in the process. It was the first fall of the trip and the first disagreement. Hannah told me I broke when I shouldn’t. I told Hannah she was riding too close behind me. The mood was sour as we painfully and slowly crept up the mountain pass. Both the location and the steepness of the climb on our heavy bikes on gravel, were breath-taking, in different ways. Hannah was suffering from some serious, almost blistering chafing from her saddle. The heat was taking its toll on both of us, and any talking since our disagreement was only to complain of feeling heavily dehydrated. Realising that Hannah falling off her bike may have been my fault but still not sure enough to apologise for it, resulted in karma serving me many quick and continuous bouts of diarrhea, requiring many stops for me to jump into the bushes. Our first mountain pass was testing us, and we were failing.
A chirpy Belgian guy came cycling down at speed and stopped to tell us how much he loved cycling downhill as fast as he could. His bike was rattling as his panniers were being held on by bungee cords and duct-tape. Thirty minutes later his girlfriend carefully rode past, her bike in pristine condition. Every corner we took nearing the top we hoped it was the last. The top seemed elusive. We considered calling it a day as the sun disappeared behind the mountains with an unknown amount of climbing still to do. We found a spot away from the road and sat for a moment to weigh up our options. We were tired and weak. Low quantities of water on us and no visible water source nearby made the decision for us that we had to keep on going. With heavy legs and no energy or enthusiasm for all things bike, we arrived at the top of the pass at 2027m, at 7pm. Our hopes of being rewarded with spectacular far-reaching views were dashed. Clouds had rolled in obscuring the views beyond a hundred metres or so. It was a bit of an anti-climax. Still, we were chuffed to have climbed our first mountain pass. It self-certified us as adventure cycle tourers. It was by far the toughest cycling so far and scarily and anxiously a mere taste of what was ahead of us in the mountains twice the height in Tajikistan.
We did not want to cycle much more down the other side of the pass and agreed to stop at the first spot that looked okay to pitch our tent. We walked our bikes towards a sign declaring the pass’s altitude and took a half-hearted selfie. There was more life than expected at the top and a small restaurant looking like a mountain farm-hut housed a lady at its entrance inviting us in. We didn’t want to cook as we were too tired, so we wandered in to see what was on offer. The lady greeted us like an auntie we hadn’t seen in years and her smiley, grey-haired and instantly likeable husband was equally welcoming. They wore many layers of clothing revealing how cold it must get at this altitude. On the shelves of the tiny restaurant stood a lonely box of snickers and a few packets of crisps. On the floor were cardboard boxes of onions and trays of eggs. Behind the counter was a wonkey-eyed man in a farmer’s hat who we guessed was the son of the couple. In front of him was a single draught beer pump. His hands were placed either side of it on the counter as a show of sole responsibility. We asked the lady if we could eat before we continued on to find a camp spot. She looked at her husband and without opening her mouth or changing her facial expression, asked him a question. He responded in the same manner, no words or visible reaction. “You can camp here, next to the restaurant” she said. We looked at each other and quickly and gratefully accepted their offer.
Two pints of the wonkey-eyed-man’s beer was ordered and we asked the lady for a menu. There was no menu. The lady told us to sit and assured us we would be well fed. We sat looking around the tiny restaurant of two tables at the many photos on the wall of passers-through, and stickers advertising adventurer’s journeys from various European start points to destinations in Asia and beyond. A priest and his family entered the restaurant and sat at the only other table next to us. After some small talk about our journey and his family, he asked us the burning question. “What religion are you?” he said with seemingly pending disappointment at our answer. “We appreciate all religions” we said. “Hm” he managed, returning to his now more interesting than us meal. We ate our delicious dinner comprising a large pot of garlicky melted cheese with a huge side of pizza style bread to dip, and then retired to our tent to looked for our thermals, tend to Hannah’s chafing, and eat frozen and out-of-date snickers bars.
We woke to find the previous night’s mist curtains pulled revealing the most incredible view. Sitting atop the mountain pass looking out across Georgia we soaked up the mountain air and tranquillity. It was truly stunning and a reward for all of yesterday’s hard work and discomforts. We went back into the restaurant for breakfast, which was effectively the same as last night’s meal. This time however, the garlicky, cheesy, eggy mix was inside the pizza bread. It was hard to leave the beauty of the mountain-top behind and we compromised with a very slow descent for kilometres on end soaking up the surroundings. We played in a waterfall; we stopped and spoke to every child; we stroked every dog we came across in the simple but gorgeous hamlets. The houses were beautifully primitive wooden structures, with wild animals grazing the surrounding grounds and wandering in and out of the houses. It was an admirable display of self-sufficiency, simplicity, and solitude. It made me wonder if the residents saw the same beauty in their way of living as we did, or whether they were desperate to live in more developed surroundings.
A car pulled up beside us and the chirpy driver asked in a Russian accent where we were from and if we had any marijuana. He was disappointed at our lack of class A’s and informed us he would find some himself. He parked his car at the side of the rocky track and disappeared on foot over a hilly mound and was gone. Strange chap, we thought. Twenty minutes later the car pulled up beside us again. ‘Stop! I have a present for you’ he said and handed through the passenger seat window a small bottle of alcohol. The strange Russian was in fact a lovely guy from Belarus on a driving holiday. The alcohol was from his hometown and came with a verbal strength warning. A quick taste and throat-burn confirmed the need for a warning, and we thanked him greatly for his generosity.
Further down the mountain we came across Dr Tim again. He had passed us and our tent the night before and camped further down the mountain. We cycled together for the afternoon through rapidly changing landscapes of rocky mountains, lush green hills and finally to a river flanked by giant intimidating rock faces. All three of us kept looking at each other smiling, confirming the sheer beauty of our surroundings. We stocked up on a few random supplies in a village shop and looked for somewhere to camp. A rope bridge across the river appeared a couple of kilometres down the road. We looked at each other with approving smiles, both Tim and ourselves were now well trained in sniffing out a good sleeping spot and we knew we had struck gold. Flat grass in a flowery meadow, next to the river, hidden by trees and a sun just setting behind a mountain backdrop – perfect. We played ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’ with our random selection of ingredients and produced something mildly pleasing to eat. Tim was no chef so luckily there was no food envy. We stayed up chatting for a while before the excitement of getting into bed was too much for all of us. We slept with the roof off our tent under the stars whilst Tim opted for his hammock amongst the trees. We fell asleep smiling and whispering about how much we were loving this beautiful country. We had only been in Georgia some five days, yet we were both totally love-struck.
As Tim took a turn in the road towards the higher mountains of Georgia, we took the mountain lake road and climbed up from 1000m to over 2000m on the most beautiful gradually climbing road through fields of wild flowers. It was the most beautiful road we had ever ridden on. We were both silent and smiling, not just at the surroundings but in the knowledge of the same shared feelings. We had been told of an app called ioverlander, designed for touring cyclists and drivers to share places to sleep at night. We had read of an idyllic lakeside spot on some land next to a monastery maintained by monks. It sounded intriguing. It was early in the afternoon as the monastery came into view. The location was just breath-taking. The mountain backdrop and lake were too incredible to pass, and we very quickly agreed to take the afternoon off and enjoy this beautiful spot. We dropped our bikes down in a meadow next to the lake and strolled over to the monastery to seek permission to stay. The stereotypical short, tubby, hair-deprived monk in brown robe I had expected turned out to be a bearded young monk in tracksuit bottoms and a fleece. He had the air of Greenpeace activist more than man of the church. Either way, he was incredibly hospitable and declared the Monastery’s meadow next to the lake was God’s land and for everyone to enjoy. He invited me in for tea. I declined, thoughts of quickly erecting the tent and lazing in the meadow at the fore of my mind. I regretted this decision after and wondered what interesting conversations could have been had with a modern-day monk over a few cups of tea. As the sun set, the mountains glowed in a kaleidoscope of purples whilst birds put on an air and sound display in the foreground. It was the most incredible camp spot so far.
We met a Swiss couple cycling from Vienna the next morning, and we spoke at length about routes, building our own bikes and who had the nicer coffee. They had the same panniers as us which revealed that we had been fixing ours to our bikes incorrectly since leaving London over two months ago. Oops. They asked how far we had cycled the day before. When we told them we had only managed 80kms, they laughed. “What did you ride yesterday” we asked expecting a huge admirable distance. “14” they laughed. They had got ‘stuck’ in the lake region they exclaimed. We understood why.
More beautiful road through remote hamlets led to a steep downhill where we clocked up speeds of over 40mph. We celebrated our fastest recorded speed of the trip by eating vast amounts of Georgian pizza buried in cheese and egg (it’s called Khachapuri – google it, you won’t regret it). As we made our way towards the capital, Tbilisi, headwinds slowed us right down, or we’d just eaten too much pizza and were heavier than the morning. Gusts of wind came from the side as we turned a corner. We were nearly thrown off our bikes towards a serious drop. We stopped for a moment and discussed waiting it out, but we were so close to Tbilisi. We were tired and wanted to arrive as soon as possible in the city of which we had spoken about our desires to visit for years. We cycled uncomfortably in the open surroundings before Tbilisi came in to view and the outskirts provided some protection from the elements. Hundreds of metres above the city, we paused to take in the view. A mix of new and old architecture and a slicing river filled the valley below. We descended at speed into the city through different neighbourhoods of tall modern generic offices and apartments, juxtaposed by steep cobbled streets lined with gorgeous traditional wooden houses with ornate balconies, tall narrow windows, and wrought iron gates covered in twine. We arrived at our apartment and home for the next three nights at around 9pm that night – 12 hours after waving goodbye to the young monk. Our host passionately shared the city’s offerings and we strolled out into the night to explore, walking like we were on holiday.
Nude bathing in your own private sulphur bath followed by incredibly good wine and culinary treats. Now that is how you relax for a couple of days off the bikes. Tbilisi translates as ‘warm place’. Not because of the wonderfully warm nature of its inhabitants, but because of the natural hot springs that adorn the area. We can’t lie, we had no clue what to expect in the local baths. Each country seems to have its own rules and traditions in terms of what to wear, how to clean yourself before getting in, and whether or not you can chat and socialise. When in doubt, google it.
Arriving at one of the many, many baths in Tbilisi freshly cleaned and towels underarm, I asked the glamorous lady at the counter if my wife and I could borrow her bath for half an hour. “Make booking, come back in two days” I was told. Oh. On to another less appealing one we resolved. Problem was, none of them were particularly less appealing. They were all beautiful, elaborate buildings with Middle Eastern style ornate tiling inside and out and a luxurious warm glow from the lighting. We settled on making a booking for that evening at another bath house that was on our very touristy ‘top ten baths in Tbilisi’ list.
If we are not on our bikes, our favourite activities are walking, eating and drinking, and Tbilisi allows for all three in abundance. Despite its valley location with many steep roads, Tbilisi is very much a walking city. Hours and hours were spent walking along the river and getting lost down small cobble-stoned alleyways, looking up at beautiful architecture, down into wonderfully dank wine cellars, and through mouth-watering food menus. We avoided the fancier establishments near the river and instead sniffed out a busy eatery by a bus station. There were a few sets of eyes upon us as we entered but we were generally made very welcome so proceeded to drool over the menu. After much deliberating we fizzled our choices down to six plates of food. A smirk and an ‘anything else?’ comment from the waitress translated as ‘you greedy buggers’. Now, I don’t particularly like the word ‘foodie’, to me, a foodie is anyone who enjoys eating food as opposed to eating purely for fuel. But, if someone was to ask us if we were foodies, we would answer a very enthusiastic ‘Yes!’. Tbilisi dramatically surpassed our expectations in terms of food. We knew from a few days in Georgia so far, that it would be comforting, but we had not anticipated the incredibly vibrant colours, fragrant smells and spice-filled flavours. We asked about ingredients, wrote down recipes, and took photos to allow for attempted efforts to recreate the dishes back home. We devoured all six plates and returned to the same place a further three times in two days.
We had chosen not to take advantage of the renowned wine scene in Tbilisi that day. Thoughts of being half-cut in a boiling hot sulphur bath didn’t sound fun. Instead, we went for wine tasting. Clever huh! A glance down a dark, musky grape smelling set of stairs led the eyes to a wall of wine and large oak barrels. “Would you like a taste?” said the polished, slick looking man as I ogled his wine from floor to ceiling. “Yes please” I said, after a very fake “eeerrrr?” in an effort not to sound desperate. Now what is it about being polite with tasting? “That’s delicious, thank you, I’ll pick up a bottle of that later, don’t want to carry it around with me” clearly translates to the wine vendor as “that was lovely, but I’m a cheapskate bastard and only came in hoping for a freebie”. Why can’t I just say that? Why do I play the game? Maybe next time I told Hannah, both knowing we would forever be discerning addicts of the game.
“I can see your willy!” said Hannah, when I asked her to take a photo of me in the sulphur bath. “Only send it to my brother then” I said in response. Soaking your cycle-shredded muscles in warm, naturally heated sulphur-rich water is the perfect remedy off the bikes. We had our own private bath. Hannah got bored. I did naked handstands.
Looking like two hot prunes we left the wonderful experience behind and cooled off at a corner table on the rooftop of a quaint, traditional restaurant perched on the side of one of Tbilisi’s steep natural walls. The views across the city were remarkable. You couldn’t help but be drawn back in time by the beautiful old buildings and the fragrant smells of herbs and spices. We drank more delicious wine and more exquisite food. The pattern of the day became the theme for our short but punchy time in Tbilisi. We could have stayed longer, a week, a month, many months. We fell it love with it. But we had to remind ourselves we were on a cycling expedition. We often say we will be back to a place when we leave. Sometimes you say it wondering when however, and questioning if you ever actually will. There are no such doubts with Tbilisi. We WILL be back.
The bike blues were once again with us as we rode out of Tbilisi. They don’t last long. Today a ride up and over a 1600 metre climb didn’t help matters though. I was struggling. I was lacking energy in the heat and was feeling under-caloried. After two months on the road I was noticing the weight loss. Despite gorging vast quantities of food, I just couldn’t keep up with the amount of calories we were losing each day. A nice problem to have for a ‘foodie’, I agree. The heat was also not helping the condition of our bodies. Despite attempting to keep on top of our salt, mineral and nutrient levels, we were too often feeling deflated and even sick. It was a stark reminder that despite making conscious efforts to keep on top our body conditions, we were doing something that was, well, very damaging to our bodies. The body most certainly is not made for sitting in a saddle, cycling a silly number of miles in the sun all day for weeks on end. It was something we chose not to dwell on. Our bodies are miraculously resilient and a two-week holiday on a beach somewhere at the end of all this would surely fix things. Another nice problem to resolve we thought. Onwards and upwards.
Rolling down the other side of the big climb was not as fun as it should have been. Sharp bends. Potholes. Traffic. Big insects flying into your eyeballs. And rain. Lots of rain. It was at least warm rain and a quick comparison to cold English rain made us grateful for its refreshing qualities. As we neared the bottom the skies behind us lit up with lightning. A deep, too-close-for-comfort rumble followed. Bikes and storms just don’t mix. We’d ridden far too many sodden miles so far on the trip so sped up, hoping to out-chase the storm. We arrived at a ghost town and sniffed out a lovely looking café run by a lady who really couldn’t give a shit about serving to English cyclists. Everything we pointed at on the menu was greeted with a shake of the head. Her half-open eyes merely making contact with us added to her disinterest. We settled on whatever she could feed us and ordered a couple of beers knowing we weren’t far from our intended wild camp.
The rains cleared and we rode around a pretty lake that held wild camping spots, or so we were told by another cyclist we had met earlier that day. A few swimmers and bottom-half-dunkers lazed in the lake as we eyed-up the only spot around the lake that looked both vaguely hidden, and flat and open enough to camp on. It wasn’t a great spot, and my fears of wild camping in a spot where we would be bothered returned. We had no choice – it was getting dark. We pitched up the tent and hoped nobody would come by this late. We sat in a large decked open-air amphitheatre cooking up a basic meal whilst looking at an empty stage backed by the now empty lake. A castle on the other side of the lake sat proudly raised-up and surrounded by forest like something out of a Disney film. A huge rainbow topped off the scene. It was a beautiful spot. Laying in the tent an hour later the Princess’s castle was blaring out 80’s pop music. You have to laugh in these moments.
Being woken in your tent by laughs and torchlight is not fun. Especially when it is not your wife. It must have been around 1 or 2 in the morning. The laughter belonged to what sounded like at least three young men and was edging nearer. Their torchlight hit our tent seemingly unexpected as the laughter and footsteps abruptly stopped and was met with silence. A sneaky giggle and snort and a few intentional shakes of torchlight on the tent were as bad as the taunting intimidations got and the group moved on, probably disappointed at someone else having taken their drinking spot. We woke up sad. Not at the lack of sleep the party castle or giggling boys deprived us of, but at the realisation that today was our last day in Georgia. The last few hours in fact. Georgia had been our favourite country so far. And not knowing it at the time, probably our favourite country of the whole trip. It had everything we love – great food, wine and beer; hospitable and characterful people; an interesting history; beautiful nature; an air of outer-European exoticism and almost Middle Eastern feel; and adventure around every corner. Georgia was like going on holiday to a friend’s house. It looked after us, fed us, ploughed us with wine and entertained us. It gave us a loving wave goodbye whilst thanking us for coming, wishing us a safe journey, and demanding we come back again soon.
Watch our 1-minute video of Cycle Touring Georgia here…
And for the ‘Foodies’…