Georgia is markedly different to Turkey in many ways, but one thing it has in common: it’s also a superb place to ride bikes!
From the border on the Black Sea you pass a few surprisingly clean and pleasant white sandy beaches. The traffic however goes from the ridiculous to plain insanity, gone are the quiet, empty and smooth dual carriageways, instead bottlenecking into a busy narrow road where the national sport seems to be head-on overtaking. The approach to Batumi was super busy with traffic everywhere and the place felt generally more aggressive and rougher than most parts of Turkey we had seen.
The town itself has undergone some large scale building projects. Sky scrapers plastered with glass and gold rise high abouve you, one even has a ferris wheel built in to the side of the tower miles above you.
Sadly these projects look dated already, a combination of design and construction flaws. A number lie empty, others part built, whether they are abandoned or not was hard to tell but it was not the slick modern town it wanted to be.
The old town itself was very pleasant, we had lunch in Tower square just as a wedding party was leaving. The contrast with Turkey was clear by just looking at the rather inappropriate outfits that the ladies had squeezed into.
We toured around the city debating whether to stay in town or not. At the tourist office we asked for a map and while inside Marion’s bike had slipped onto a taxi, which was odd as it was secure against a wall. Either someone had accidentially knocked it or the driver was doing it on purpose, but he was pretty angry pointing and shouting at a miniature mark on the bonnet that was probably not from her bike, as she has soft padded foam all over the bars. We decided backed away slowly and decided to leave the city quickly, seeing another angry fight in the street as we left, now it certainly felt different to Turkey.
There are two routes cyclists can take once in Georgia: either the main road in land following a flatter valley via Kutaisi or the mountain route via the Autonomous region of Ajara, where the road turns to ridiculously rough rocks just before a new ski resort and the scenic 2000m Goderzi pass.
Given our experience on the roads so far we opted for the quieter mountain road with what should be spectacular riding.
As is the constant theme in Georgia there were cows all over the road as we left Batumi, the sides were littered by rundown fruit stalls, fires of rubbish burning and some dirty and decaying apartment blocks that looked hardly inhabitable. It was pretty overwhelming so we were anxious to leave and get up into the mountains.
The ever present speeding Mercedes Benzs were briefly superseded by a honking wedding party speeding two abreast with people hanging out the roofs, windows and doors all screaming. There was one particularly close accident we saw with an old lady slowly driving the other direction narrowly avoiding a crash!
The only accident we did see was pretty funny, a steam roller had managed to lose control and go off the road! The driver was not injured, just his pride hurt, as demostrated by how annoyed he got by me taking photos and looking amused, he was not amused – nearly fight number three #welcometogeorgia.
Sure enough the people thinned out and the scenery improved. The river had a few big dam projects ongoing so traffic was a bit busy with trucks carting rocks and dirt about, but generally it was a relief after hectic Batumi. The river was scenic with long rickety suspension bridges accessing the houses on the far bank. We crossed one to access a flat stretch of ground that looked like a camp spot. The wooden planks on the bridge were pretty far gone so i tried to ensure I stepped on two at a time!It was sad to think so much of this traditional life would be gone under hydro dams in the next year or two.
The camp spot was a bit out in the open and a lonely feeling place, it was also pretty stony to sleep on, despite two local girls who walked past saying we should camp there.
We ended up camped in a traditional Georgian restaurant’s garden just before Keda, after a bit of confusion when asking, they kindly agreed, but oddly without any smiling at all, so we ordered some chips as that was all we could afford and translate on their menu! Later on the music was brought out for other diners in the garden as we snuck back to the tent via a wash in the river. With a huge guard dog and big fences all closed up we were trapped but safe for the night.
To help us get riding we ate one if the delicious grape walnut sausages!
We had a good nights sleep and had another wash in the somewhat slimy river. The camp spot was good and the owners super kind if not outwardly happy about life.
The next morning we rode up into Keda and bought the traditional sugar coated pastry baklava for breakfast, the village also had an amazing stone bridge from the 13th century which I think was the time of queen Tamar?
There was also a waterfall that we were told not to miss, but we probably could have! We saw this cool little church before Keda as we sat by the river:
For lunch we stopped at a small traditional Georgian restaurant for our first taste of Kachipuri, a national dish made from bread cooked with a special mountain cheese in or on the top making a calorific a cheesy pie.
The road climbed slowly alongside the river at a pleasant gradient allowing us to enjoy the scenery as we went deeper into these remote mountains.
We passed another longer and even more delicate bridge and stopped to watch the men trout fishing with fishing rods but attached to the line were big nets not hooks, i’m not sure Scotland’s fly fishermen would approve!
We finally reached Khulo where the road became too rough and steep for our touring bikes. There was a great little tourist info box with a very friendly man who negotiated us a space on a rickety ford transit minibus, we helped strap the bikes on the roof, stocked up with food and water and ‘enjoyed’ the lift to the top.
How the van drove up some section I don’t know it was pretty loose and steep. At the top a new ski lift was being installed and we entered the clouds creating a mist swirling and atmospheric ambiance. At the top of Giderzi pass there were a lot more houses than we expected, four cows and three shops.
We originally wanted to camp at the pass but with the mist and lack of suitable open space between houses we started the ride down towards Adigeni.
There were lots of highly excited kids running around us as we slowly negotiated the pot holes and loose gravel descent with our skinny road tyres doanw the other side.
Finally stretches of old tarmac appeared in random 5m bursts that helped, it was better surfaced than the climb up though!
There were a few spots to camp off the road but not any near water as the valley us quite steepdown to the river. We finally rolled into Zarzna, the home of a cool monastery with some friendly monks. We hung about chatting to the monks and kids via a girl who spoke a bit of English.
Finally we set up camp by the river below the town in a nice spot that offered great views of a tremendous thunder storm rolling and cracking all around us.
We returned to the monastery for pictures before making headway to Tbilisi.
The below was the view out from the monastery:
The interior was painted with stunning old Frescos:
Akhaltsikhe was huge surprise as there is a huge great castle perched above the town. It has undergone significant renovations and was incredibly photographic!
As we have seen a few times now, the approach to renovating historical buildings varies from the Disney tourism end to the educated historical approach. The castle at Akhaltsikhe was certainly at the Disney end with a bar and Hotel but no original interiors replicated/restored from any historical period.
This was the view from the castle back over the town:
One of the villages had this very Soviet mosaic celebrating the 200 years before Edward was born in 1983, not sure why.
After the town we rode up through a densely forested hillside to the so called Green Monastery, hidden away behind the trees was this church and next door were the wooden monks quartets. It was such an atmospheric place.
This area of Georgia bills itself very much as the meeting point of Asia and Europe and testimony to this and the countless invasions over the centuries, were many stunning forts perched above villages or on rocky out crops.
Here is another castle view:
Next up Bojormo, where we had been told how nice the town and national park near Bojormo was, but we didn’t feel like stopping for a longer look, after our first impression at least.
We headed on to Khashuri later in the day and just before the town we saw a sign for a campsite in the hills. It was nothing more than a small garden perched upslope from the valley floor, reached by crossing a long suspension bridge. The garden offered great views of the hills. This was the evening ride to the camp spot it was pretty magnificent:
We didn’t have much food just pasta and peanuts so I tried to poach a couple of ripe looking sweet corn cobs from a field. In true just deserves, it was hard and tasteless so we couldn’t use it anyway!
The guy was all on his own at the house where we camped which must get lonely but we enjoyed rare hot showers and had breakfast despite a complete language barrier.
The next day we just wanted to cover the distance to Tbilisi so we stuck to the main road. Detouring to some of the fantastic fresh fruit stalls along the way.
We also had stretches of the brand new dual carriageway that was under construction all to ourselves. Although in true Georgian style the odd Land Cruiser had snuck on across the construction site and was flying down the middle towards us. It was a long way to Tehran still!
Along this road we passed Gori home to some rare still standing Stalin statures, we also passed a fantastic Socar service station but not much else.
We also passed a petrol station that said 24hr etc but it was just stuffed full of hay, the images of horse and carts pulling up to refuel amused me!
We battled the strong heat and long distance and finally made it into Tbilisi! This was the moment Marion finished her tour! Little did we know that it was still about 20km to the centre!
Marion celebrated in Tbilisi’s Freedom square which felt like a good spot to be the end of her tour!
It proved hard to find marion a cheap flight home that didn’t cross or enter Ukraine nor got cancelled on us. Finally we found one and had it finally confirmed with LOT airlines in Poland. It was later in the week than we hoped meaning a bit longer staying in Tbilisi but I needed some the me to sort things out and then relax. We visited these hot sulphur bath houses by the river. They are private baths underground with just these brick domes with vents showing. We took a look inside but when its 38° outside sitting in a hot bath is not ideal.
This was one of the more tasteful newer buildings designed to look like a older one along the central Rustaveli main street.
ET phone home, no it’s just marion pointing at the gold cathedral in Tbilisi!
So after spending a day sorting out flights I picked up my Azerbaijan visa from Medea travel next to the Azerbaijan embassy. Annoyingly both have recently moved and we went to the old address, they are now by the river and the embassy is a huge fancy building that you can’t miss so am Medea for directions. It took 4 hours between been popping in and then picking up the visa, which was ideal for me, I strongly recommend using Medea travel.
We also met up with my old friend Andy Welch, he’s behind the Geo-riders Georgian MTB bike tours and numerous other projects like Prepare Pack Pedal cycle touring book. Sadly I was too late so missed his latest guided bike tour but it sounded and looked amazing, we will certainly be back with MTBs as we wanted to visit the high caucuses because they look breathtaking.
So after sorting everything out I detoured around Tbilisi’s bike shops and discovered they’re pretty awful for modern road and touring bike kit. Decent wide 700c tyres were non existent nor were 10 speed cassettes. I ended the day empty handed and still on skinny tyres, which might make life interesting. I don’t have time for the online air drop which takes 10 days so I will persevere.
Tbilisi bike shops are OK for MTB kit with Go Extreme and Cube bike shops being the pick. We picked a bike box up from Buru which was easy but not the best bike shop it seemed.