Georgia On My Mind — Part I
Bikepacking Adventures in the Caucasus Mountains
I am so disappointed right now. I just got my cardboard bike box from the luggage carousel at the airport and I was hoping to write a scathing complaints letter but the box is in perfect condition. Thanks a lot, Turkish Airlines. You suck.
I smile and chuckle at my own joke as I pull the box from the carousel and load it onto the luggage cart. Truth be told, I am feeling absolutely elated that my bike has arrived unscathed. I’ve been experiencing an interesting mix of childlike anticipation and mind-numbing apprehensiveness ever since I left Belgium earlier today. Things didn’t exactly bode well at the airport this morning. My clumsy little self managed to rip a large hole in said cardboard box as I pulled it out of the trunk of my car. It was a good thing that, in an uncharacteristically clearheaded moment, I had brought a roll of packing tape. A quick little patch up and a big hug from my 8½ month pregnant sister-in-law later, I was good to go. After an uneventful albeit lengthy flight with a stopover in what must be the world’s dreariest airport — the old Istanbul one — I land in the mesmerizing city of Tbilisi, Georgia right after midnight. I have booked a quaint little apartment in the old part of the capital and will be spending two nights there, giving me ample time to scour the city for hidden treasures in the morning and do some much-needed supply shopping.
The taxi ride into town is exhilarating. The four-lane highway from the airport into the city provides an unobstructed view of Tbilisi by night. And what a sight for sore eyes it is. First impressions: drivers are fucking crazy, cab drivers even more so, red lights are few and far between as is the use of turn signals and people picking one lane and sticking to it. There seems to be an unwritten rule that you must go twice the speed limit. I also learn my first lesson of this trip: agree on a price with your cab driver before he takes off. I found out the hard way that they don’t use a meter and pretty much charge you what they want. Tbilisi at night, from what I see when the cabby does slow down somewhat, making for G-forces low enough for me to be able to actually turn my head and look out the window, is a smörgåsbord of old churches, bombastic palaces, quaint houses with wooden verandas, Soviet-era cinder block buildings and crazy modern glass constructions that seem to defy the laws of gravity. I can’t wait to venture out into this city in the morning. I’ll be very careful crossing the street.
“Share your dreams with everyone, then use their shock and disbelief to motivate yourself.”
I wake up at dawn and after breakfast I decide against heading out this early. The streets are still surprisingly quiet and I have no idea at what time shops here open. Besides, I want to get something else out of the way first: the dreaded bike assembly. I’d hate to come to the conclusion at 8 pm that I am missing a screw. (Or rather, that my bike is. The screws I am missing cannot be bought.) I eagerly cut the tape on the cardboard box, feeling a little like opening a present. Much to my amazement, not much has shifted. Back at home, I spent hours and hours packing, unpacking and repacking this box. Tetris, Level: Advanced. It is also time for lesson two: bring a set of decent Allen keys if you’re going to assemble a bike on location. All I have is my trusty multi-tool. While perfect to tighten loose bolts, it is not exactly the ideal utensil for proper bike maintenance. It took me a good ten minutes to attach one wretched bidon holder due to the angle of attack.
After securing the brake discs to the wheels, re-installing the handlebars, the seat post, the saddle, the pedals and the wheels, I add the harnesses and then strap all the bags and my tent to the bike. Or is it vice-versa? It’s a good thing I have a backpack too because I’ve brought everything but the kitchen sink.
I proudly glance over my handiwork and head on out. First stop: an internet provider for a Georgian SIM card. I decide on 20 Gb of data, which sets me back all of 30 GEL (just over 9€). I want to be able to stay in touch with the home front, assuring them every now and then that I haven’t been mauled by a bear or fallen off a cliff. I’d say that death by inebriated driver is far more likely a fate. Being able to connect to the internet and look at an interactive map to determine my current location and look at weather forecasts will also bring me some peace of mind. I did bring a paper map, but I was a Girl Scout for all of three minutes when I was six, not nearly long enough to earn my Wilderness or Map Reading badges. Maybe now is a good time to make a confession: this is my first bikepacking adventure. A solo one at that. Until about a month ago, I didn’t own a tent let alone knew how to set one up. I had never heard of “guy lines” and didn’t know what an “R value” was. I had only gone camping once before and that was during the Reagan administration. I am an avid cyclist but being a roadie, I am by no means a skilled mountain biker. No wonder my family is shitting bricks.
Next purchase: camping gas. I am not in the slightest planning on cooking three-course meals out on the trail, but I need my coffee in the morning to resemble a human life form. I also brought some dehydrated camping food in case of an emergency. Boy oh boy, I can hardly wait to taste the astronaut version of Beef Stroganoff. Not. Either way, it’s good to have it on hand just in case. I also pick up a couple of cans of tuna and some powdered milk. At least, that’s what I think the bag I bought at the corner store contains. The writing is in Georgian and not only is that a language I don’t master, the alphabet resembles something out of a J.K Rowling book. Street and road signs may be a bit of a challenge.
I had planned on eating out tonight, but I need to hit the hay quite early as I have to get up with the cows. My train leaves at 8 am, I’m not entirely sure I’ve got the right station in mind and I still have to buy a ticket. Besides, there will be plenty of eating out later on. Instead, I’ll pick up some food from the local market and make myself a tasty salad. Dezerter Bazaar is a half hour away on foot and it’s hotter than hell out but I don’t mind. I could take a marshrutka, but what better way to explore a city than by going on a little walkabout? The trek takes me across the river and over to the, let’s say, non-touristy side of town, but I don’t feel unsafe, not for a second. The Bazaar turns out to be enormous. Most stalls out in the open air sell local produce but there is also a covered section dedicated to clothing, shoes and trinkets. The crowd is an amalgam of young and old, men and women but most of the merchants are female and pushing seventy. Pension planning is not a thing in Georgia, by the looks of it. After strolling up and down the market for several hours and getting yelled at by half a dozen angry women in the process, for trying to take a picture of their particularly messy stall, I decide I’ve had about as much of this market as I can stand. I suddenly realize that I am quite hungry. After all, breakfast was almost 9 hours ago. I head over to the nearest stall selling produce. The tomatoes seem to come in a dozen different varieties and they all look plump and juicy. Working the stall is a young lady. I’m using the term “working” loosely as her eyes are firmly glued to the screen of her smartphone. I try to get her attention by coughing ever so slightly. When that doesn’t work, I try a feeble “excuse me, miss” but she doesn’t as much as glance in my direction. To my right, a good ten meters away, is a table of men chatting up a storm. One of them spots me and shouts out, “Can I help you?” in English. (The camera around my neck must have been a dead give-away.) I tell him that I would like to buy some tomatoes, please, after which he yells something in Georgian at the young girl behind the counter. She turns and starts screeching back at him. I can’t understand an iota, but it is pretty clear from her tone of voice and body language that she has no intention to help out the lady tourist with her stupid camera. I stand there with a smirk on my face, watching the scene unfold. For a second, I feel like I have walked smack into the middle of a Chekhov play. Dinner and a show. Right as I’m wondering if I should go and take my business elsewhere, the young man gets up with a sigh and walks over to assist me himself. His name is Ika and he seems absolutely lovely, apologizing profusely for his feckless co-worker. As I pick out my tomatoes and some cucumbers too, he peppers me with questions. Where am I from? What am I doing in Georgia? Am I by myself? I smile and tell him that I’ve come to explore his beautiful country by bike. He inquires about my itinerary and I tell him I am taking the train to Zugdidi in the morning. Ika tells me he is pleasantly surprised that I’ve come to this particular market as most tourists prefer the more posh ones downtown. After insisting on getting a picture with me, a recurring theme during my stay in this country, he gives me his phone number. If I run into trouble anywhere in Georgia, I should give him a call. Having friends all over the country, he will send someone to assist me. Then he refuses to let me pay for my veggies. I insist. “No. Is gift.” I thank him and bid him farewell. It won’t be the last I will see of Ika.
On my way back to the apartment, I pick up a loaf of bread from one of the dozens and dozens of bakeries strewn across Tbilisi. They often house in cellars or the tiniest of windowless shops but finding a bakery in Georgia isn’t much of a challenge. Just follow the heavenly smell of freshly baked bread that permeates the air. The baker welcomes me into his shop, literally with open arms and a booming “Welcome to Georgia!”. I quickly realize that is the only English he speaks. He grabs me by the hand and pulls me to the back of his shop, opening the lid on what looks like a big clay pot half-buried into the ground. The heat radiating out of it is intense but I lean in anyway. The sides of the oven are lined with dozens of long, slightly diamond-shaped loafs. The baker, proudly smiling ear-to-ear, insist on getting me a warm bread straight out of the oven, despite there being dozens of loafs on a rack near the door. I can hardly wait to get back to the apartment and devour this glorious flat bread. It is crunchy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. (Damn. My mouth is filling with saliva just typing this up.) I spend the evening making and eating dinner, checking social media and making sure everything is ready for the train ride in the morning. Lasha, the proprietor of the apartment, has kindly agreed, for a token fee, to store my bike box for me while I traverse the country. One less thing to worry about. I take my bike out for a small test run around the block before turning in for the night.
I’ve barely slept a wink when the alarm starts blaring the next morning and for a split second, I’m tempted to hit the snooze button. Then it dawns upon me where I am and what’s in store for me today and I jump out of bed. A quick shower and an even quicker breakfast later, I’m crossing the bridge across the river for a second time in as many days. Ika assured me that the train station down the street from Dezerter Bazaar is the one I need but when I get to the location Google Maps pointed out I’m not sure I’m at the right spot. There are no train tracks in sight and the massive building in front of me, if anything, looks like a shopping mall. The train tracks are several stories up, as is the station itself. Great, so how do I get there? A helpful local points me in the right direction. I have to ride up the ramp to the second floor, where the platforms are located. The ticket booths are on the third floor. Being quite reluctant to leave my bike unattended outside I decide to take it into the station. I do have a rickety little bike lock but I don’t see anything to attach my bike to. Not exactly a stellar way to start one’s bike vacation: without a bike. Once inside, I spot a security guard, casually leaning on a counter, looking bored out of his gourd. He stares at me with curious albeit not terribly friendly eyes. An escalator is the only way up to the third floor. And it’s out of order. Fuck. Me. Sideways. I turn to the security guard and politely ask him if he’d mind watching my bike for a minute while I go purchase a ticket, muttering “since you don’t seem to have anything better to do anyway” under my breath. “Njet”. Well, at least that’s clear. As I’m looking around for a spot to hide my bike from the masses, I notice an elevator in the corner. Saved! Or am I? That lift looks a little small.
Have you ever tried getting a fully loaded (read: heavier than shit) bike into an elevator that is about 30 centimeters too short? Suffice it to say that Houdini would be proud. I finally make my way to the third floor and head over to the ticket booths. I greet the lady at the counter in Georgian and ask if she speaks English. “Little”. When I tell her I’d like to buy a ticket for the train to Zugdidi she looks at me incredulously and asks, “for train today?” as if she can’t believe I have the unmitigated chutzpah to buy a ticket for a train that leaves before the sun sets. Her eyes only grow bigger when she asks, “train this morning??” Yes lady, imagine that. I want to take a train that leaves in little over an hour. I am later told that most people buy their train tickets days in advance as buying it on the day itself tends to be more expensive. Mind you, I paid 15 GEL (€4,60) for the ticket. If I had bought it in advance, I would have paid 7 GEL. (Oh no, I am ruined. Ruined, I tell you!) Taking my bike on the train cost an extra 5 GEL. Not bad for a 5-and-a-half-hour train ride. She asks for my passport and I give her my Belgian ID card, which buys me another dubious look. She insists she needs my passport. Let me get this straight. I don’t need a passport to get into the country but I do need one to get on a train? I tell her the ID is all the identification I have, take it or leave it. A discussion between her and her manager ensues. Luckily he has no qualms with me not having a passport so moments later I am handed my train ticket. I am informed that the seats are assigned and that my carriage and seat number are on the ticket. When I ask her which platform the train will leave from, she shrugs and says she doesn’t know. I look around. There are no billboards, signs or screens sharing this info but I’m sure I’ll find out downstairs. I thank her and head back towards the elevator for another game of “round peg, square hole”. I make my way to the platform and look for a screen that has the information I need. Great, it’s in Georgian. Just as I pull out my phone to look up the Georgian spelling of Zugdidi, the letters change and the information appears in a more familiar alphabet. The 8:10 train to Zugdidi leaves from… platform 2. Damn. I suppose there is no chance that Georgian Rail only uses even numbers for their platforms and that the one right next to the station is platform 2, is it? Of course not. Now what? There seem to be two ways to platform 2: the tunnel under the tracks or the sky bridge. Which leaves from the floor above. There is no way that I can pick up this bike plus luggage to carry it down let alone up a flight of stairs, so I guess I’m riding the elevator. Again. As I try to re-enter the train station, I am stopped by another security guard. This one means business. He tells me I cannot go in with my bike. I try to explain to him that I need to head over to Platform 2 and he points at the stairs and the tunnel. In the words of William Shakespeare: are you shittin’ me, dude? I shove my bike in his direction and motion to him to try and pick it up. Go ahead, I dare ya. He’ll have none of it. At this point I am so tired and hot — it is well over 30° in spite of the early hour — that I turn my bike around and head for the stairs, while cursing in Dutch. Fine. I’ll take your fucking tunnel.
It’s a good thing I have excellent brakes on this bike. Getting it down the stairs is surprisingly easy. Hauling it up the stairs to Platform 2 is a whole other ball of wax. I’ve removed and left some of the luggage at the bottom of the stairs, along with my backpack. Unfortunately this hardly lightens the load since the bulk of the weight is in the bike, the tools and the frame bag, which I’m reluctant to detach, since it’s a major pain in the neck. By the time I make it to the top of the stairs I am sweating like a whore in church. There had better be a bar serving ice cold beer on that train. (There wasn’t.) I feel like I’ve just ran a marathon wearing a ski suit. I lean my bike against a post and dig in the front pocket of my backpack for my ticket. That’s when I hear it. The voice of an angel, in flawless English, “If you hand me your ticket, miss, I will tell you where to go.” I look up and there is a young lady in uniform smiling at me. I laugh and tell her she’s an absolute godsend as I hand her my ticket. “Rough day, miss?” No, it’s great, it’s right up there with my grandfather’s funeral for sheer entertainment. I ask her for her name and she tells me it’s Ella. She inquires where I’m from and if I’m alone. Belgium and yes. My seat is in carriage 4 which is at the very front of the train. She informs me that her boss will be around later to collect the payment for my bike and wishes me a pleasant journey. I thank her again for her kindness and her smile and walk towards the front of the train. Arriving at my carriage, there is another lady wearing a Georgian Railways uniform standing outside the door. As I approach her, her phone rings and I can hear her pick it up saying, “Diach, Ella? Velosipedit, diach. Ok!”. (”Yes, Ella? With a bike, yes. Ok!”) I don’t need to speak Georgian to understand that it is Ella calling to inform her that I’m on route with my bike. How sweet. A kind gentleman gives me a hand to lift my bike onto the train — where were you 15 minutes ago, huh? — and I am told to park it in front of the next door over, which I’m assured will remain closed. My steed is blocking half the corridor but no one seems to care so neither do I. I go find my seat and put my backpack up on the overhead luggage rack. As I’m absolutely dripping with sweat, I don’t want to sit down just yet, so I go and stand near the open door to cool off. The train doesn’t leave for another half hour but I don’t mind the wait. I am glad I decided to come this early. Making it to this point was stressful enough as is, imagine having to do this facing an imminent train departure. I would have torn the security guard a new one if I had missed my ride, that’s for sure.
I’m standing in the open door of the train, plunged in deep thought. On my mind is the somewhat rocky start of the day, but all is well with the world now and all it took was one kind lady. Suddenly a man appears in my field of view. It takes me a split second to figure out why he looks familiar. It is Ika from the Dezerter Bazaar! He’s come to wish me bon voyage and on top of that he’s bearing gifts. A bag of fruit. No. Let me rephrase that. A gargantuan bag of fruit. The mother of all bags of fruit. A kilo of grapes, a dozen kiwis, half a dozen oranges the size of grapefruits and an honest-to-God pineapple. At first, I am too flabbergasted to say anything. I am so charmed and touched by this man’s kind gesture. We stand on the platform for a while and I can’t thank him enough. He reiterates his statement from yesterday, that I should call him if anything happens. How incredibly sweet.
We share a passionate kiss right before I board the train again.
(I’m kidding. I’m more than old enough to be his mother so I doubt his intentions were of a romantic nature.)
The train takes off with a jolt that startles everyone aboard, even the stoic Georgian woman next to me. At first, she seems taken aback by my disheveled appearance but soon she warms up to me and gives me the occasional smile, especially after I have offered her some fruit, which she has politely declined. For the next few hours, she will offer me an incessant stream of cookies. I’ve gladly accepted the first two but when she offers me a third, I politely decline and raise my hand to indicate I’m good, thanks. In spite of this, she still holds up the cookie in front of my face and nods, insisting I take it. This woman is about half my size but it’s clear she won’t take no for an answer. This little scenario repeats itself about ten more times. I try to politely refuse again but she won’t have any of it. After that, I just give up and stash them in my pocket when she’s not looking. By the time we get to Zugdidi, my pockets are bulging with cookies.
I check on my bike, which is perfectly alright and I go find my seat again. What to do with all this fruit? I have over 5 hours to eat it all or give it away. There is no room in my backpack or any of the bike bags, mind you, none. I take out the pineapple and smile. I know exactly who to give this to. Making my way to the back of the train, I find who I am looking for in the very last carriage, which, much to my amazement, is entirely empty, safe from a few Georgian Railway folk. I ask Ella if she likes pineapples and hand it to her. Her eyes grow big and she stutters, “For me? But… it’s so expensive…”. I insist that I want her to have it for being so kind and that besides, I didn’t pay for it. She thanks me profusely and I return to my seat, a little embarrassed.
I spend the next 5 hours reading and striking up conversations with perfect strangers in the hallway. My bike is parked next to two bathrooms servicing my carriage and the next one. There is a permanent line of people waiting their turn and my bike is a conversation starter. Some people speak English, others don’t. There is an astonishingly high number of foreigners on this train. This is somewhat unexpected as Zugdidi is not exactly a tourism hotspot. Then it hits me: it is on the road to Mestia, the ski resort and hipster/hiker mecca in Svaneti. The train to Zugdidi is a comfortable and more importantly, safer alternative for the bus or marshrutkas going from Tbilisi up to Svaneti, given the way people drive here. I talk to people from India, Malaysia, the UK and Dubai.
They pepper me with questions that are hilariously repetitive.
Yes, I’m going to Zugdidi, from where I’ll be cycling to Mestia. To begin with.
Yes, by bike. The cycling bit should have been your first clue.
No, my husband didn’t come with me.
In spite of the absolute stench of the bathrooms, I like standing out here in the hallway. From my seat, I can’t see much of the scenery as I’m next to the aisle, and the window is hazed over. Standing near the door also keeps me from getting motion sick. I think the train tracks are warped by the heat, because the entire route, the train shakes violently from side to side.
I have just made my way back to my seat to get a drink out of my bag when the train stops at a small station, the first of more than a dozen. A man walks past me heading for the door. In his hand is a clear plastic bag, containing a bloody pig’s head. Fan-fucking-tastic. The Deliverance main theme starts playing in my head. To add to it, I get startled by a woman’s thunderous voice, as soon as the train doors open. What on earth is she yelling about? She wants everyone to know she’s selling food, that’s what. The train doesn’t have a buffet car, but people can buy food at the stops. The yelling woman is informing us traveling folk that she’s selling khachapuri (bread with cheese, without a doubt Georgians’ favorite snack) and lobiani (bread with beans and garlic). This scenario is repeated at every stop. Doors opening, people shouting. The smell of the khachapuri is mouth-watering and I am tempted to buy one. In the end, I don’t. I have so much fruit and a ridiculous amount of food in my bag, it seems like such a waste. I eat most of the grapes, a couple of kiwis and an orange. The bulk of the rest of the fruit goes to two elderly ladies in the train who are more than happy to take some of it off my hands. By the time I get off the train, I’m down to four kiwis and one orange, which I hand to a lady getting out of a taxi near the station.
Five and a half hours after we’ve left the capital, the train grinds to a halt at its final destination. For a city this size (population: 70,000) the train station is a bit of a disappointment. It is pretty enough but also very much closed. Damn. I haven’t peed since I left the apartment in Tbilisi. One peek into one of the bathrooms on the train was all I needed to know and then some. Let me just say that it would make the average Peruvian prison bathroom look like the epitome of cleanliness. I figured I could hold it until we got to Zugdidi. Thanks to the big bottle of water and green tea, I have to pee like a racehorse. As soon as I get off the train, the heat hits me like a ton of bricks. The train is air-conditioned and although it wasn’t exactly freezing cold in there, the temperature difference is overwhelming. I need to change out of this long-sleeved hiking shirt, pronto. The station platform and the adjacent parking lot are crawling with people, so I decide to hop on my bike and get out of town. I’m sure I’ll find a secluded area where I can do my thing. I take a left and find myself on what looks like the main Zugdidi road. After a few hundred meters I see a gravel road to my right, leading to a parking lot. My bladder is about to burst, so I decide this is as good a place as any. The people standing around their parked cars look at me curiously as I race past them towards what looks like a dead end. They’re obviously not used to bikers here either, let alone female ones flying past them in half-state of undress. I ride to the very end of the cul-de-sac, park my bike and squat behind a tree to do what I came here to do. Next, I change out of the shirt and into a sleeveless biking jersey. My cycling computer informs me that the current temperature is 39°.
I decide not to put on the bibs part of my mountain bike shorts yet. It is one thing taking off your shirt and standing there in your sports bra, but it is another thing showing your bare ass to the world. There are small children nearby and I don’t want to scar them for life. I’ll put the shorts on later. After applying a thick layer of sunscreen, I leave the cookies from the woman on the train for a scruffy looking stray dog and start pedaling. Let the real adventure begin!
I had expected quite a lot of paved roads for the first 150 kilometers judging by the satellite view on Google — Street view is not available here — but after about 800 meters my GPS tells me to hang a right and I turn onto a dirt road. It is strewn with potholes and rocks the size of cantaloupes and I am instantly glad that I decided to take this bike, with its extra fat tires. The road is so bumpy that I barely manage to go 15 km/h. This is absolutely fine by me. I’m not in a hurry and after all, I’ve come here to ride off-road. On roads like this, there’s a slim chance of meeting any motorized vehicles, let alone ones traveling at high speed. You’d need a jeep on this road, for sure, and not one of them sissy urban SUVs either. Four-wheel drive or bust, baby. The dirt track goes on for several kilometers and then I find myself out on the main paved road again. As I’m cruising along I hear a van come up behind me. I’m about as close to the road’s edge as I deem comfortable but the driver stays behind me, even though there is ample room to overtake. Suddenly, the van pulls up next to me and the man behind the wheels yells out something at me in Georgian. I obviously have no idea what he’s saying but his demeanor is nice so I wave and say “hello!”, trying to make it abundantly clear that I’m a foreigner. He asks “Mestia?” and I reply, “diach”, “yes”. Much to my amazement he points to the back of his van and says “lift?”. I can’t help but laugh out loud. Sir, that’s very kind, but I’ve only gone three kilometers, I think I’ll be alright. I motion that I’ll continue cycling, thank you very much, and he takes off. This won’t be the last time I’m offered a ride.
I take another right and the road turns into a narrow doubletrack. I’m not that far from Zugdidi yet but there are no houses here, only some old train tracks and the remains of what must once have been impressive Soviet-era buildings, many moons ago. Even for Georgia, this is backcountry. I stop again to put on the bib liner of my bike shorts, not a moment too soon. This heat and the constant rubbing of my bike shorts hasn’t done wonders for my nether regions. I apply some chamois cream while I’m at it.
I’m happily merrily cruising along, circumventing the occasional cow standing in the middle of the road, taking in the beautiful scenery when all of a sudden I hear the faintest of thuds. I slam the brakes and look around. What was that? Just as I’m thinking that it was probably my imagination or a cow taking an XXXL dump, I spot it. There, about 5 meters behind me, almost invisible because of its color matching the grass it’s on, is a long, thin bag. My eyes widen as I realize what it is that I had almost missed. My tent poles! I had attached them to the harness of the handlebar bag and obviously hadn’t secured them tightly enough. It’s a good thing I have excellent hearing. That would have been pretty disastrous.
“So, Kate, how was wild-camping in Georgia?”
“Couldn’t tell ya. I slept in hotels and bus stops because I misplaced a vital part of my tent ON DAY ONE.”
For the next hour, I miss most of the scenery because I’m constantly riding with my head down, making sure I haven’t lost anything else. Later that day, I will lose the sandals that are attached to my backpack. Luckily that doesn’t go unnoticed either. It does however make me a little paranoid for the next few days. I’m constantly checking, every time I set foot on the ground and sometimes even while riding, whether my bags and tools are still firmly attached and whether my backpack is still closed. This obsessive behavior wears off as days go by and I’m happy to report that the only thing I lost during the entire trip was a plastic spoon. Pretty remarkable, for an airhead like me and given the shitload of gear I’m carrying. At home, I am constantly losing or misplacing my phone, my keys. Just last week, I left my wallet out on the dashboard of my parked car, in plain view for everyone to see. For five days.
Ten kilometers into the ride, I pass several houses when a man standing in front of his fence greets me with an enthusiastic “hallo, wie geht’s”? I am so surprised to hear German in this part of the world that I laugh and stop. The man asks me where I am from, where am I going, the usual spiel, and he offers me some cold water. I still have loads but the long train ride and the tropical temperatures have made my water almost hot enough to make tea so I gladly accept his offer. Plus, I figure I am safe as there are several children loitering the front yard. As luck has it, the house with the kids is not his, they’re his neighbors two doors down. Ah well, it’ll be alright. He’s a midget of a man and I’m sure I can take him if he decides he wants to tango. I follow him as he opens the gate to his yard for me and I push my bike onto his porch. He tells me to have a seat and asks if I want some food or if I want to take a nap in the hammock. No thanks, just some water, please, and then I’ll skedaddle. He disappears inside the house. I can hear him have a conversation with a woman so at least there are other occupants. In the meantime, I walk over to his front lawn, amazed by the number of small chicks running around. There are at least three dozen of them, zooming up and down the yard. Mommy chicken is there too and it suddenly hits me that she’s the only one who’s been standing in the same spot since I got up. Just as the conversation inside the house evolves into a downright heated argument and I figure that’s my cue to leave, I realize why the big chicken hasn’t moved. Her right paw is tied to a stake in the ground. Dafuq? All of a sudden, the guy appears again. I ask him, in German, why the chicken is tied up and he pretends he doesn’t understand. Seriously? Your German was just fine a minute ago, you jackass, you told me you’d lived in Germany for eight years. I tell him that this is NOT OK. Chickens can’t fly (well) and the entire yard is fenced off. He just stands there with a blank look on his face. Gone is his friendly demeanor so I tell him exactly where he can shove his bottle of water, grab my bike and leave. I am so angry, I’m shaking. A few hundred meters down the road, I pull over. I’m seriously tempted to grab my pocketknife and head back there. Operation Free The Chicken. But I also know that the chicken will be tied up again before I reach the end of the road and to be honest, I’m at the beginning of my journey in a foreign country and God knows what kind of trouble I’d get in. I have a sense that enforcing animal welfare laws isn’t exactly very high on the to do list of John Q Law in these here parts, judging by the number of stray dogs and cats I have seen. So with a sick sensation of guilt I get back on my bike, feeling absolutely powerless. I hope Mister Germany chokes on a chicken bone eating his supper tonight.
I cross a paved road and find myself on a small dirt road next to train tracks. Up ahead, I see some men with shovels in a ditch. The trench is almost as wide as the road and I only have about a meter to pass, right next to some thorny bushes. There’s a tiny excavator coming my way so I stand in the middle of the shrubs, trying to keep my bike’s tires away from the thorns. As soon as it passes me, I push on. The shoveling men stop what they’re doing and stare, which I’ve figured by now to be a Georgian custom. I stop next to them and greet them, wondering if I’m allowed to continue. One of them asks me if I speak Russian. “Njet”, I do not. “Angliyskiy?”, I ask. No, they don’t speak English. I point in the direction I’m going and ask “okay?” The guy shakes his head and replies, “uhmmm… gas”, indicating they’re working on the gas line. I point at the cigarette he’s smoking and laugh. There are several men walking along the ditch and I figure if it’s OK for them to walk there, it’s OK for me too. The rest of the men wave at me as I cycle past them. Surely they would stop me if it was truly dangerous. After a few minutes I get to the end of the ditch and I have to climb over a small mountain of dirt to make my way to the road. The look on the face of the excavator operator at the end of the road is priceless. I take a right and see a big hill up ahead. I decide this is a good time for a break and a snack. I park my bike in the shadow of a tree and sit down. When I leave 15 minutes later, my bike computer tells me it’s still a balmy 35°, and it’s almost 5:30 pm. Crazy. It’s the first of June. I’d been advised against coming here this early in the season because the mountains might still be covered in snow. I can’t imagine what the temperatures are like in the beginning of August and I wonder why I bothered to bring a sweater and a down jacket. There are winter gloves in my backpack, for crying out loud.
Checking for the 182nd time whether all my gear is still attached to my bike, I decide it’s time to tackle the first serious hill. According to my GPS it’s a 16% incline for the next kilometer, then it “flattens out” to 9%. I start pedaling like a madwoman but soon enough I have to get off the bike. It’s just too hot and this bike is damn heavy. Why did I have to bring so much food? I look behind me and from here, I can see the main road from Zugdidi to Jvari, where I’m headed next. Even from way up here I can tell that the pavement is as smooth as a baby’s butt and the road is as flat as a pancake. I can’t help but think of Joe, an Englishman who followed the same route last year. He advised me to find my own way when I saw fit because “sometimes Cass, the creator of this track, goes up a mountain just for the sake of going up a mountain”. I will certainly keep that in mind if the temperatures stay this way. Luckily water isn’t an issue.
I continue to push up my bike up the incline. Sweat is running down my back in streams. I’ve consumed almost three liters of water since I’ve gotten off the train but I haven’t peed since the Zugdidi alley. I finally make it to the top and am rewarded with a lovely albeit bumpy downhill. There are lots of trees here and I welcome every bit of shade. When I make it to the bottom of the hill, I see a momma pig and several piglets on the left side of the road, feasting on the soft, green grass. I pull over, take out my camera, crouch down and stick out my hand. At first they’re a little weary but some of them obviously feel a little adventurous and come within half a meter, until mom calls them over with a firm grunt.
I put the camera away and look around. I’m standing in the middle of a junction and I try to find my bearings. Next to the intersection, wedged in between two dirt roads is a lovely little patch of grass with some trees. I still have about two hours of daylight but this looks like a lovely place to set up camp. As this is the first time I’ll set up my tent since the little trial run back home, I want to take my time and do it properly while the sun is still up. Maybe the trees at the end will provide some cover so I head over there. I find a nice little spot invisible from both roads and I lay down my bike. As soon as I take out my tent I hear the distinctive noise of snapping branches and a man’s voice. Whoever it is, they’re clearly coming this way. Shit. I was hoping to go unnoticed. It’s too late to hide so I just sit down in the grass pretending to take a break. Two men step out of the underbrush a few feet from me and their voices go mute as soon as they spot me. I wave and smile meekly as they silently walk past me, their eyes filled with questions. Much to my dismay, they sit down on a little bench about ten meters away. Damn, I can’t put up my tent here now. I pack up and leave, heading back to the spot where I saw the pigs. I sit down against a tree and take out my map, pretending to study it. With a little luck the men will soon leave and I can still camp here. Regrettably, lady fortune is not on my side and what ensues is the shittiest pantomime of all time: me pretending to leave every time I am spotted by a local. After about half an hour of this hide and seek game, I give up. Fuck it. So what if someone sees me? I’m not in the mountains yet, this area seems populated and I’m sure I will be stumbled upon by someone no matter where I go. I park my bike under the trees and start setting up camp. Soon enough, I have a bona fide audience. Word must have spread because what looks like half the nearby town comes by to take a peek at the strange woman pitching a tent. Most of them gawk from a distance but two young men actually come and talk to me. They don’t look particularly friendly as one of them asks me in English if I’m a little crazy. Crazy? Sure. But why do you think so? Because I’m putting up my tent here? They stand around ogling me while I continue unpacking, pretending their visit doesn’t faze me. Suddenly they all leave as quickly as they came. Show’s over, folks.
About 20 minutes later, an older gentleman approaches me while talking on the phone. He’s having an animated conversation while standing 5 meters from my tent. I decide to pretend to ignore him. I can’t understand what he’s saying anyway. Is he calling the cops? Will I have to leave? I hope for the best but expect the worst as he finally hangs up the phone and walks over. I say hello in Georgian followed by the English variant, in case the tent doesn’t make it clear I’m a tourist. He sticks out his hand and opens it. In it are three tiny green plums. I take them and pop one in my mouth, biting down. The darn thing is hard as a rock and sourer than a lemon but I grin and thank him. He points at the house in the distance and says “My home. You drink tea?”. I am touched by this sudden outpouring of hospitality and nod. Sure, I could use a cuppa. One of the great aspects of this type of travel is connecting with the locals, isn’t it? As I get up to follow the man, the same two young men and 5 of their friends reappear out of nowhere. I grab my little bag with my ID card and money and wonder if the rest of my stuff will be safe to leave unsupervised. The man sees me hesitate and says to one of the young men in English, “her tent will be okay, yes?” and he nods and says, “yes, no problem.” I shake the young man’s hand and introduce myself. He tells me his name is Ika (must be a popular name) and I ask him if he lives in this town. He nods and tells me he grew up here. He now works in a “noots farm”. “Noots?” He points at the big trees on the other side of the road. Oh, nuts! I understand that they are big business in this country. Every other Georgian dish has walnut stuffing or walnuts sauce and the ones that don’t are sprinkled with chopped walnuts.
I follow the man, whose name is Sergo, across the grass, over a little makeshift bridge, to his house. The young people follow suit. I’m not entirely at ease yet. As Sergo opens the gate to his garden, I spot two houses. One is quite modern and made of concrete, the other an old wooden house. Sergo will later tell me that the oldest of the two was built by his ancestors 200 years ago. He lives in it while doing some reconstruction work on his own abode. I sit down in the garden with the young folk as he disappears into his house. I’m assuming he’s making tea but as I glance over 10 minutes later, he appears to be working on a salad. That’s not for me… is it? Sure it is. “Tea” in Georgia apparently means a meal. There’s a typical Georgian cucumber, tomato and dill salad, a cheese platter and some bread with homemade jam. All of the produce and herbs are homegrown, as is the marijuana that the young men are smoking. They offer me some but I politely decline. I have a massive bike ride coming up in the morning, an uphill one at that, and the last thing I need is a cannabis induced coma tonight. After I’ve had dinner with Sergo inside the house we join the youngsters outside. Communication is a challenge as Ika’s English is quite basic and Sergo’s is not any better. They do try though and I appreciate the effort immensely. Sergo even calls his daughter when he can’t find an English word he’s looking for.
Right as I’m thinking I should call it a night, Ika tells me I should put my tent in Sergo’s yard. I am puzzled by this because all the locals I have met so far seem absolutely sweet and hospitable. I ask him what I have to worry about out there. “Wild dogs. Wild pigs. Bulls”. Those hardly seem life-threatening once I’m in my tent, but Ika won’t take no for an answer. Sergo chimes in too, so Ika and one of the lads walk me back to my tent. They simply pull the stakes out of the ground, pick it up with all my stuff in it and move it to the garden.
Sergo and the guys are going to a football match later and invite me to join them. I appreciate the offer but I’m beat and I’ve got an early morning so I politely decline. Sergo says I’m more than welcome to stay inside the house should I be too cold or uncomfortable in my tent and he shows me the spare bedroom. He leaves the house unlocked and takes off with the guys in tow. I turn in for the night and fall asleep in three seconds flat, in spite of the cacophony of barking and howling dogs in the distance.
The next morning I wake up at 5:30 to find Sergo already up and working in his yard. He asks me if I care to join him for breakfast and I happily accept. I will need all the energy I can get for the bike ride. After breakfast, I pack up my gear. Sergo fills my bottles with cold water from the well, we hug and I take off. I won’t ever forget this sweet man. He’s single-handedly responsible for making me feel welcome and for calming my nerves on the ever so important first night. It sets the tone for the rest of my journey.
It’s going to be a scorcher. At 8 am it is already 30°. Luckily the mountains are coming closer and it’s bound to cool off the higher I go. Right? After about ten kilometers on a quaint gravel track I find myself back on the paved road to Mestia. From now on, it’s nothing but asphalt all the way up the mountain. I decide it’s way too hot for my hiking boots and stop on the side of the road to change into my sandals. In the ten minutes that I’m sitting down I get offered two rides by passing vans. The road I’m on seems to be quite busy and it’s good to know that it’s easy to get a ride should anything happen. Around noon I’m starting to feel peckish but there is nowhere to stop here. Rock face to my right, a cliff with the river down below on my left. I’m headed north so the sun is squarely on my back. Not an inch of shade in sight. I’ve been applying sunscreen SPF 60 every hour since I’m sweating like a pig. It’s almost 1 pm and I’m ravenous when I finally spot a clearing on my right, near a little creek and matching waterfall. There is even some shadow , courtesy of a large tree on the other side of the water. I sit down in the grass and unpack. I decide to eat one of the bulkiest items in my backpack in a desperate attempt to lighten the load: a dehydrated meal of minced meat and mash. To my surprise it’s not half bad. I wouldn’t exactly call this haute cuisine but hunger is the best sauce. The portion is quite large though and I struggle to eat half of it. I lean back again my backpack and a moment later I’m fast asleep, food in hand.
I wake up with a start, roused by my own snoring. Checking my watch I realize I’ve slept for more than an hour. I guess I was in need of some shut-eye. The leftover meal is crawling with ants, so I dump the remainders into the grass for them to feast on and stuff the empty container in my backpack. I pack up quickly, apply sunscreen again and take off. It is hotter than hell and sweat is running down my back in a steady stream. The weather app on my phone informs me it’s 43°. Ideal bike weather. It doesn’t help that I’m on a steep section of road. The ascent seems endless and I have to stop every few minutes because this heat is making me slightly queasy. My GPS decides to crap out and lose satellite reception. Not that it matters, there is only one road so getting lost is well beyond the realm of possibility, but I use it as an excuse to pull over so I can restart the device. Suddenly I spot something moving out of the corner of my eye. A lad on a mountain bike, followed by another one, rides past me at an impressive pace, albeit unburdened by any luggage. Behind them, a woman, at an equally steady clip. She looks at me and my bike, mouth slightly agape. Then she yells, “Well done you!”. I haven’t seen a single cyclist since I’ve been in Georgia, so seeing three in a row out here in the middle of nowhere is much like spotting an ice cream truck in the desert. The sighting works slightly invigorating so I leave the GPS for what it is and start pedaling again. An hour later I arrive in a small town. There’s a hustle and bustle of people on the main street and most gawk at me shamelessly. Kids point and stare. I smile and wave at them. I spot a small grocery store but I have plenty of food so I push on, to then change my mind and pull a U-turn. I would kill for an ice-cold soda. Parking my bike outside I don’t bother to lock it. This looks like a town where they still tar and feather thieves. I buy a bottle of Fanta and some cold water to fill my bidons from the two kind ladies inside and take a seat outside on the steps. Soda has never tasted this good. I down it in record time and hop back on my bike, ready to tackle the next hill.
I’ve cycled for half an hour when I stop on a bridge to take a picture of the stunning scenery. As I turn to walk back to my bike I see a rather large dog sprinting in my direction. It’s not barking but it’s hard to gauge its intentions. This is also my first encounter with a dog out in the middle of nowhere. At first, I freeze. I’ve been told horrible stories about wild dogs in Svaneti. Then I quickly put my bike between me and the canine. Now what? I relax a little when I realize the poor thing is rail-thin and starving and that he is merely hoping to score some food, sniffing my bags with vigor. I don’t have any bread or cookies, let alone dog biscuits so I tear open one of my granola bars. The mutt swallows the whole bar in one go, hardly chewing it, almost eating the wrapper in the process, so I feed him another bar. What is a dog doing out here by itself? I vouch to get some dog food in the next grocery store so I have something to feed any other pooches I meet along the way. As I get back on my bike, the dog starts to follow me but then runs off in the direction I came from. I hope someone in town will feed him something with a little more sustenance.
It is almost 6 o’clock and I have to start looking for a camping spot soon. Grassy areas are few and far between on this mountain road, let alone secluded ones. I haven’t seen any decent camp sites when I pull into a small town called Khaishi. According to Google Maps there are two B&Bs in this wee little town but I’m determined to camp, a resolve I’ll regret later. I buy a loaf of bread from one of the food stalls along the main road and carry on. Just outside of town the road crosses over to the left bank of the river and becomes narrower, more winding and even steeper than before. I continue to pedal while I keep my eyes peeled for a camping spot, slowly but surely running out of daylight. I brought a decent flashlight but the prospect of having to pitch my tent in the dark is filling me with dread. Besides, what are the chances of me finding a decent camping spot in the dark? I’ve ridden for almost ten kilometers since Khaishi, all of it uphill, and I’m seriously contemplating turning around and checking into one of the B&Bs when I spot 4 houses on my left. On my right, there is a small meadow near the river. This is perfect. It’s a few meters lower than the road and part of it is hidden from sight by thick bushes. I get off my bike and carefully walk it down the steep dirt road leading to the pasture below. I see the remainders of a campfire, so I’m not the first one to pick this spot. Good. I lay my bike down in the grass and quickly unpack my gear. First things first, the tent. I set it up close to the bushes. Daylight is fading fast but I choose not to use my light, to avoid being spotted. This whole wild-camping thing still has me a little on edge. After all, I’m a woman on my own and I don’t want to attract any unwanted attention. I am glad I picked a dark green tent — it also came in white, orange and pink. Pink! Who would want to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb while sleeping out in the wild? Not me.
I have just set up camp when I catch a glimpse of a scarfed head above the bushes. Instinctively I duck. Damn. It’s obvious I have been spotted, so I might as well come out of hiding and go say hi, if only to make sure that I’m not trespassing. I walk up to the road and stroll over to the woman standing near the bushes. She must have come from one of the houses across the road. She looks me up and down and says, “привет” (”privet”, Russian for “hello”). Little do I know this is the informal way to greet someone, as opposed to the more formal “Здравствуйте” which I am familiar with. In other words: I have no clue what she’s saying, but the word she utters sounds a lot like “private” so I think she’s telling me I have to leave. When I ask her as much, she reassures me I can stay, then points to her house and makes the eat and drink sign. That is so kind.. I thank her and she walks away. I can’t help but smile. And it only gets better: three more people cross the road later that evening to check if I need anything. One more in the morning, offering me breakfast. Maybe it’s different in other parts of the world, but if I would set up camp in a field close to houses in Belgium, chances are someone will call the cops. Then again, wild-camping is not legal in my home country.
Since everyone and their sister seems to be aware of my presence, I decide to build a fire. It’s not summer yet and up here in the mountains temperatures drop quickly and significantly once the sun has set. I’m a firm believer in the LNT (Leave No Trace) philosophy but I’ll make a fire in the same spot as the previous tenants of the camp ground and I will take some of the empty plastic bottles they’ve left behind to even the score. There is also another reason for the bonfire: I’ve brought a bag of marshmallows, a chocolate bar and some cookies to make s’mores. I’m almost giddy with excitement, I can’t help it. I’m such a child sometimes. I quickly gather some dry wood in varying sizes and build a small fire. My troop leader would be so proud. After unpacking the rest of my gear, I make some tuna salad and eat it in front of the fire with the bread I picked up in Khaishi. The bread is stale and nowhere near as good as the loaf I got in Tbilisi but I’m too hungry to care. Traffic has all but died down on the road above. The only sound that is left is the roar of the river. It is impressively wide and wild. Judging by its concrete grey color, it consists mostly of melt water coming down the mountains. Guess I won’t be going for a swim in the morning. I’d be back in Zugdidi in ten minutes flat. Once I’ve polished off the tuna, I grab the makings for the s’mores out of my bag. I roast the first marshmallow golden brown and stick it between two cookies, waiting for the chocolate to melt. This is just what the doctor prescribed after the long ride I had today. Surely this is good carbo-loading for the ride tomorrow. Funnily enough the first s’more doesn’t really hit the spot. Maybe I should have gone with dark chocolate instead, this seems overly sweet. I have another one anyway but can’t help but feeling silly. This is why I’ve been schlepping this massive bag of marshmallows and, wait for it, two boxes of graham crackers up the freaking mountain? I decide to wash the whole thing down with some hot chocolate and a little bourbon from my hip flask. There, that’s better. I take out my journal and add an entry for today in shorthand. The few sips of booze and the heat from the fire have made me a little woozy so I decide to turn in for the night. I’m fast asleep three seconds later. Life is good.
I wake up to a strange noise. It sounds like someone is eating right outside my tent, so close by and smacking so loudly that I can hear it over the roar of the river. What the hell? I unzip the tent and catch a glimpse of brown fur running away. I quickly realize what is going on. I only had a few sips of hooch last night but in my drunken stupor I have forgotten to take my backpack inside the tent. To make matters worse, I also hadn’t zipped it up. I might as well have put up a big, flashing neon sign: “Free buffet for all critters and wildlife”. The content of my bag is strewn across the grass. As far as I can tell, the creature has eaten some of the bread, the cookies, a bag of oatmeal, one of my dehydrated meals — so much for the Beef Stroganoff — and the bag of powdered milk. I instantly feel bad for the little scoundrel. How hungry do you have to be to eat powdered milk?? I also notice that the bag of marshmallows is missing. I look around and spot it in the grass near the river, little white dots spread out in the grass. Oh well, guess I won’t be hauling those up the mountain anymore. Part of me is relieved. There are plenty of spots to buy food and I’ve been dying to try the local cuisine but I’ve been forcing myself to eat the food in my backpack first to lighten the load. I look around to see if I’m missing anything else and that’s when I spot him. The Little Rascal. There is a dog sitting about 25 meters away on the other little path leading up to the road, obviously waiting for me to leave. My heart breaks. Even from this far away, I can tell he is quite thin. I take the rest of the bread and tear it into pieces near the bag of marshmallows, which I empty out into the grass. He may as well have the rest of them. I return to my tent and boil some water for coffee and breakfast, while packing up. The dog must either still be terribly hungry or feel like I’m not a threat as a few minutes later I catch him walking over, tail tucked between his legs. He looks terrified. I talk to him in a soothing voice and try not to move too abruptly while he wolfs down the rest of the food, trying to make him understand I mean him no harm. He takes off as soon as he’s gobbled up the rest of the fare.
I have just started eating breakfast when I get another visitor from the nearby houses, offering me food and water. We have a short conversation but he leaves as soon as he ascertains that I don’t need anything. The final visitor of the morning walks down the embankment with a big smile on his face just as I’m about to finish breakfast and I quickly realize he is no local. He’s wearing bike shorts and when I glance over his shoulder I notice a heavily loaded bike sitting next to the road. The lad greets me with an enthusiastic “hello there!” and I crack a wide smile. His name is Flo — short for Florian — and he’s German. Having left Berlin in April, he has cycled through Turkey to Georgia and is on route to Kazakhstan. He is a cheerful lad and I’m thoroughly enjoying having a conversation with someone in a language that I can actually understand. While we’re chatting, Flo helps me load the bags onto my bike. There are no trees nearby to lean my bicycle up against and I haven’t quite gotten the hang of loading the bags while my trusty steed is lying flat on the ground. I tell him that I’ve been having a great time so far and how amazed I am by people’s genuine kindness and hospitality, which has helped me settle my anxiety about wild-camping somewhat. Flo tells me that everyone is anxious in the beginning, especially if you don’t speak the language. He’s a seasoned bikepacker but he assures me that he gets scared too. He’s just had a terrible night, camping right next to the pavement on a tiny patch of grass, behind some concrete blocks lining the road. I know the spot, it’s just down the road and I had contemplated setting up camp there too. I’m glad I didn’t. At 3:30 am he was woken by a car with dimmed headlights driving up to and parking right next to his tent. Probably some local kids trying to scare the living daylights out of a tourist. Poor Flo.
By the time we’re done talking and I’m finally all packed up and good to go, it is 9:30 am. In a moment of blatant honesty I tell Flo that I actually prefer cycling by myself, going at my own pace, no offence. He quickly reassures me that he prefers it that way too. Soon enough we split up. I can tell why he was a little eager to go on by himself: he takes off like a rocket. At this speed, he’ll be in Kazakhstan by the day after tomorrow. I take it easy, taking in the beautiful surroundings when suddenly I realize that my tires have been at the same pressure since day one, set to ride off-road. I pull over and get my pump, adding some air to the tires. I also apply a thick layer of sunscreen, which I had forgotten this morning. I feel like I’m one shade of red away from turning into a lobster. It is so incredibly hot already and I’m running low on water, having used quite a lot on the oatmeal and two cups of coffee I had for breakfast, not to mention brushing my teeth and freshening up. I kick myself for not taking my early morning visitor up on his offer for more water. I’m down to half a bidon, which will last me all of fifteen minutes in this heat. Exiting a tunnel, I spot a little waterfall on the left. It’s not ideal. In order to get water, I will have to have to climb over some slippery wet rocks but I have no idea if another opportunity to get water will present itself soon so I decide it’s worth the risk. In front of the waterfall are a couple of tourists taking pictures. We exchange some pleasantries and I ask them where they’re from. “We’re from the Netherlands!” They smile when I greet them again, this time in Dutch. Angelique and Paul are traveling through Georgia. “By car”, Angelique quips. They’re absolute sweethearts, even offering me some of their sunscreen when I mention that I’m running low. I ask them to keep an eye out while I climb over the railing to get to the waterfall, so “they can call an ambulance if I break my neck, hahahaha”. We end up chatting for about half an hour, exchanging stories. They tell me about the lovely B&B in Mestia where they spent the night and provide me with directions. I’m not sure I’ll make it there tonight as it’s still over 60 kilometers and 2000+ vertical meters away. Thanks to me being a chatty Cathy, first with Flo, now with this couple and thanks to the tire pressure stop, it is almost 11 am and I’ve only ridden 3 kilometers since my camp site. Three! I do really want to make it to Mestia tonight, which in hindsight, is a bit silly. It’s still early days and I haven’t quite shaken the “have to”-feeling yet. I still feel I have to get up early, I have to cover a certain distance every day. It’s nonsensical. I’m by myself, I can stop whenever I damn well please. This isn’t a race. The only thing I have to do, really, is get my ass to Tbilisi by June 29th so I don’t miss my plane ride home. And if I don’t make it there by bike, there’s always the train or bus. Chill, woman!
I only filled up the biggest of my bidons at the waterfall — climbing over slippery rocks while carrying three bottles requires a dexterity which I simply do not possess — and in this unbearable heat that won’t last me very long. The rock face being on my left and me cycling east-northeast means I never have any shade to shelter from the sun so I’m drinking like a fish. When I spot a little creek on my left, I pull over for some additional water. As is so often the case, there is a little pipe sticking out of the rock face, providing a constant stream of ice-cold mountain water. At this point I’m still a little paranoid about the drinkability of the water — even though I’ve seen locals drinking straight from the source — so I filter it just to be on the safe side. The last thing I need is a bad case of the Aztec Two Step.
While I’m filtering the water, I decide it’s also a good time for a snack, or, to use bikepacking lingo, “second breakfast”. As I’m reaching for a muesli bar in my backpack, blood suddenly gushes from my nose. It’s my first nosebleed in a while and it’s a bad one. I figure it’s just the heat — I’m not high enough up the mountain yet for it to be caused by the altitude. I pinch the bridge of my nose till the bleeding finally stops and use some of the cold water to splash in my neck and wipe the blood off my face. I feel a little woozy and nauseous but I get back on the bike and push on. I hear a car approaching so I move over as far to the right as I can. I’ve been warned about Georgian drivers, but so far, their behavior towards me has been nothing short of amazing. The first time a driver coming up behind me honked, my initial response was something along the lines of “what is your problem?” You see, in Belgium, if a driver honks at a cyclist it usually means “get out of the way!” and that’s putting it politely. Here, I quickly realized that people tap their horn to warn me they’re coming. They may have been going 150 km/h right before spotting me, they all overtake me at a snail’s pace, giving me a wide berth, usually going as far as driving in the left lane. Most of them wave as they pass me, which fills my heart with joy. Soon enough I start waving at them as soon as I hear them coming. Even drivers in oncoming traffic honk and wave. Sure, they more often than not hang out their window to get a good look at me, but I don’t mind. It’s obvious that the locals are not used to cyclists, let alone female ones riding a big ass mountain bike with tons of luggage. (In a few weeks I’ll meet a Polish bikepacker who will tell me that she finds all the honking and waving extremely annoying and I can’t help but pity her. Where’s the joy in your life?) This particular car, a fancy Mercedes, slows down to a walking pace. I look over and in the passenger seat is a posh looking woman wearing Jackie O sunglasses. She gives me a Mona Lisa smile and much to my surprise, a surreptitious thumbs-up. Nice!
I feel like I’ve wasted enough time for the rest of the day and decide to skip lunch for now. I’ve had quite a sizable and calorie-rich breakfast and I don’t feel hungry just yet. When I spot a little restaurant I do decide to stop for a quick cold beverage. Parked outside are three motorcycles with German license plates so I greet the bikers sitting on the terrace in their native tongue. Still feeling a little queasy, I decide to sit down for a minute and drink up here instead of chucking it down while riding. The owner of the bar is also sitting outside and when he hears I’m from Belgium, he brings me a glass of wine, because “his favorite soccer team is from Ghent”. I tell him that’s where I live and he looks like he wants to hug me. He seems so pleased that I don’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t want any wine, feeling the way I do, so I drink it anyway. It’s a good thing it is a small glass and I actually like the taste a lot. Georgians have been making wine for more than 8,000 years, starting a whopping 5,500 years before the French took a crack at it, sacré bleu! I finish my sparkling water too and leave, telling the German bikers that “they should give me a push up the mountain” if they run into me later. (Of course they pass me on a downhill a little later, but the third biker slows down anyhow, smiles and yells, “still need a push?” Smartass.)
I stop for a snack right at the foot of the next ascent. According to my GPS, it’s a long and steep one, so I better get some food in me. I’m craving something savory so I decide on some cheese crackers. I desperately need the salt. I usually don’t sweat much while exercising, but in this heat, perspiration is gushing off me. For the very first time in my life, I have salt stains on my clothing. The sweat is also washing away the sunscreen I have been putting on incessantly. My arms are a deep shade of red so I put on some long sleeves. Absolute madness in this heat, but I have no choice. I wash the crackers down with some tepid water and get back on my bike. Time’s a wastin’. The road in this area is particularly bad. There are entire sections of pavement missing on the right side. Big concrete blocks have been put up to stop people from plunging down the cliff to the river 25 meters below. I make sure not to ride too close to them. Farther up ahead, a sizable landslide has blocked off the entire left lane. I’ve almost made it to the top when I spot some construction workers on the side of the road, shoveling away. Even in this heat, they’re wearing overalls and I instantly take pity. I don’t see any vehicles in their vicinity and they don’t seem to have anything to drink, so stop next to the first worker, a strapping young lad, and offer him some water. At first, he declines. He probably thinks I need it more than him, but I point at the other bottles to assure him I have loads, so he does take a few sips. To show his gratitude, he gives me a push up the mountain, like a mechanic in the Tour de France. Any chance I could hire you, good sir?
When I finally make it to the top, the view is so stunning I want to take a picture. Some other people, obvious tourists such as myself, have pulled over to ooh and ah at the panorama. One of them, a Canadian lad, walks over and strikes up a conversation about my bike. His vehicle of choice is an indubitable Pussy Wagon: an electric blue Toyota FJ Cruiser with massive wheels. I jokingly ask him if he’d like to trade it for my bicycle. As I’m talking to him, I can feel the tell-tail signs of another nosebleed so I quickly put my head down. It’s even worse than the first one and of all of a sudden everyone around me is reaching for tissues. Two people offer me a ride, but I assure them I’m fine, it’s just the heat. I do decide to sit down in the grass for a while, feeling squeamish again. Mestia is about 25 kilometers away and I do want to make it there tonight but maybe I should be realistic. My body is obviously trying to tell me something I shouldn’t ignore. At least the next 3 kilometers are all downhill which is a nice change. I try not to break any speed records on my way down but it’s still an exhilarating run. A constant in the back of my mind is the promise I made to my brother, a pledge to be careful. The short rest at the top and the ensuing downhill has made me feel slightly better so I tackle the next climb with an invigorated feeling. In light of this, I turn down the offer of a ride with 20 kilometers to go. Thirteen kilometers down the road, I curse that decision when the man with the hammer hits me in the middle of a steep incline. Only 7 more kilometers to go to Mestia and plenty of daylight left, but I am dead. Done. Debilitated. If you gave me a million bucks to cycle 10 more meters, I would unceremoniously tell you to fuck off. I also had another nosebleed a few kilometers ago although it wasn’t as bad as the first two. I am so depleted that I almost keel over as I try to get off my bike. I haphazardly lean it against the railing, not giving two shits whether it falls down the ridge right behind it, and plop down on the ground. I’m on the verge of tears. Clearly I’m in no shape to carry on, but what are the other options? Pitch my tent in the middle of the pavement? There’s not even enough space right next to the road to put my sleeping bag let alone a tent. I figure I’ll just repose here for a while and then push my bike to the top of the hill.
I’ve been sitting on the side of the road for all of three minutes when the cycling gods take pity on me and send help in the form of a van. The driver pulls over and asks me the same question I’ve heard several times before: “Mestia?” This time I gladly accept. What follows is a ride at breakneck speed down a very windy road with a precipice and a 25-meter drop just a meter or two away from my seat, but I’m too exhausted to care. I want to marry this man and bear his children. I am dropped off right in the center of town and I thank my knight in shining armor a dozen times as he pulls my bike out of the back of his van. I’m ashamed to admit that I never even got his name. Remembering the B&B that was recommended to me by the Dutchies, I pull out my phone and look it up on Google Maps. It’s about 200 meters from where I’m standing which is about all I can manage at this point. Just as I’m about to get on my bike, I hear a familiar voice say, “Well, fancy meeting you here”. It’s Flo! He’s been in Mestia for several hours, which is no surprise. He tells me he’s met some other German bikepackers at the campsite on the outskirts of town and they’re going out for dinner. Would I like to join them? Oh, would I ever, but first, I’m in desperate need of a shower. We agree to meet up later and I take off, in search of my guest house. I blame my state of utter exhaustion for riding past it three times before I locate it. Right now, I couldn’t find my own ass with both hands and a flashlight. At the lodge, I am greeted by Mischka. Angelique and Paul didn’t exaggerate: he is the sweetest guy. Everything you could hope for in a host and then some. I leave my bike outside the front door and Mischka takes me up to my room. I decide to book it for two nights. I’ve only been cycling for two and a half days but my butt resembles something out of a horror movie scene and the nosebleeds have got me a little concerned. Better to err on the side of caution. After I settle the bill, I go and unpack my gear, leaving nothing but the bike outside. It’s inside the gates and Mischka reassures me it’ll be alright. (When I step outside the next morning, I find it covered with a plastic tarp because it had been raining that night. Courtesy of my lovely host.)
After a quick shower I put on some clean clothes and walk towards the little plaza in search of my German friend, feeling like a new woman. I find Flo and his newfound besties in Café Laila. Rumor has it that this place serves the best grub in Mestia. Not an easy feat in a town that is obviously catering towards tourists and where every other building houses a restaurant, coffee shop or snack bar of sorts. I am quickly introduced by Flo to Sylvia and Toby and before I’ve had a chance to take a decent look at the menu, a waiter appears. My three companions have already received their meals and what they’re having smells divine, so I just order the same. I’m not a fussy eater as is but I’m so famished I’d eat anything right now. I’m dying to try the local cuisine and it doesn’t disappoint. My German is not nearly good enough to have a full-fledged conversation so I’m glad my mates make the effort to speak English, which they do quite well. Toby is a little subdued, especially for a beer-guzzling German, but Sylvia is a wild one. When we finally do leave the table, quite sloshed (speaking for myself), my sides hurt from laughing. I couldn’t have hoped for a better ending to an arduous day. Not surprising, I sleep like a baby. Like a log. Like a baby log.
I’m woken up at 8 am by construction across the street. No matter, I can take a nap later. Check list for today: buy sunscreen, do some bike maintenance, wash my clothes and once that’s out of the way, do fuck all. I pick up some bread from the bakery on the corner, when it finally opens at 9:30 (!!), some jam and cheese from the little grocery store and then take my time having breakfast while reading the news. Last night I noticed a number of stray dogs on the plaza, so I add “buy dog food” to my to do list. I go through all of my luggage with a critical eye and decide to get rid of some of the things I don’t want. I have two lighters so no need for a fire steel, which I give to Mischka. I leave a couple of the bags of oatmeal and some dehydrated coffee in the drawer in the kitchen for the next traveler to find. After a short nap, I decide to have lunch at Café Laila and Mischka joins me. He’s found out that I speak French and is happy as a clam. I don’t think he gets a lot of opportunities to practice it here. I have my first ever khachapuri and it’s decadently cheesy. Not being able to finish it all, I give the leftover to a stray outside, a tiny puppy. The rest of the day is spent tinkering with my bike, buying sunscreen and trying to buy some kibble for the dogs. I go to three different grocery stores but none of them carry dog food, a common theme in Georgia. The smallest of stores out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere will sell 20 different kinds of cookies but nothing for canines. Par for the course. I feed the dogs in the plaza the next best thing: bread and sausage. I also look at my itinerary for the morning, which will deviate from the GPS track I’ve been following. Toby and Sylvia, who’ve been riding the route in the opposite direction, have informed me that there have been several landslides on the off-road section to Ushguli I was planning to take, making it completely impassable. They also warn me that the locals will try to deter me from going up there, because the mountain pass is covered in snow. There is still a significant but not insurmountable amount left. Guess the winter clothing I’ve brought will come in handy after all! Dinner consists of another exquisite Georgian dish called lobio at, you’ve guessed it, Café Laila. After another warm shower I turn in for the night.
I think mountains were invented here in Georgia
I get up, have a quick breakfast consisting of oatmeal and two cups of coffee and then leave at the crack of dawn but not before taking care of something else first. I bought three more loafs of bread and some sausage yesterday. I head on over to the plaza to feed the pooches, under the watchful eye of some marshrutka drivers. I’ve left a handwritten note for Mischka in my room, thanking him for his hospitality, feeling a little sad that I couldn’t say goodbye in person. The mountains beckon. I have barely made it outside of town when I am surprised to hear someone call out my name. It is one of the lovely Indian men I met on the train to Zugdidi. I stop and we exchange pleasantries for a moment and then I’m off again, while he wishes me safe travels. Same to you, sir! I vouch to take it easy today. The rest day has done wonders to my sore body but I don’t want to push my luck. I will stop when I get tired and eat before I get hungry. In my backpack is another khachapuri I picked up at dinner last night, which will make for a lovely lunch. There are quite a lot of huge pine trees lining the road so finding shade won’t be a problem. Besides, the weather forecast is calling for rain today. So far, they’re pretty darn off the mark. There’s not a cloud in the sky and by golly, Molly, it is hot! It’s a good thing that I had the presence of mind to put two of my water bottles in the freezer overnight, so I have cold water. For all of half an hour, but still. I stop several times to take pictures of the gorgeous surroundings, not covering a lot of ground the first few hours and not giving a damn. Every few minutes, I am passed by a marshrutka carrying tourists up the mountain to Ushguli. I will see hundreds of them today. Most of them give me a wide berth, but one passes me so closely that I’m almost knocked over by the turbulence in its wake. I guess at least one Georgian is not so keen on cyclists. May the fleas of a thousand camels infest his pubic hair.
I stop at a small intersection, not because there’s a traffic light — I haven’t seen one of those since Tblisi, not even in Zugdidi — but because there’s a river of melt water flowing across the road. It’s not particularly deep but very wide, damn fast and what’s more: it’s full of debris. Mostly little rocks the size of golf balls but some are considerably larger. I’m tempted to ride through it anyhow but I fear that if one of those bigger stones hits the wheels of my bike, I’ll end up on my ass. Not a pleasant perspective. I decide not to tempt fate and walk through it. Remember the arcade game Frogger? Yeah, it’s a lot like that. I wait by the edge until I think there are no big boulders coming and then sprint across. My feet and bike shorts get soaked in the process, but in this heat, who cares? I actually welcome the refreshment. I do stop a little farther down the road to wring out my socks — I don’t want to get athlete’s foot — and while I’m sitting down, I hear the roar of a motorcycle. It’s the German bikers from the day before yesterday! They’ve recognized me too and honk and wave.
It’s not even noon when I stop for lunch. I’m not ravenous by any means but I had breakfast very early today and I want to get some calories in me for the rest of the climb. As I’m eating, a squad car comes down the mountain and slows down. I give the policeman behind the wheel a thumbs up, indicating I’m fine and he waves at me with a big smile and carries on. I eat half of the khachapuri and a melted Snickers bar. That should do. I have just gotten up to leave when I spot a young man, pushing his bike up the hill, so I sit back down and wait for him. He approaches me with a big grin on his face and we shake hands. His name is Tomasz (Tomek for friends and fellow cyclists) and he hails from Poland. He is cycling from his home country to a yet to be defined destination in Asia. Which road he takes will be determined by fate, last minute decisions and red tape restrictions. We both hop on our bikes and quickly determine that we are riding at a similar pace, that of a sleepy snail. I also find him to be considerate, chill and funny so I welcome his company for a few days. Tomek hasn’t eaten yet so after the climb and the subsequent descent, we stop near the river, about 15 meters away and a few meters down from the road. Mother Nature kindly provides us with a log to sit on. We exchange travel stories while Tomek eats and I snack.
Suddenly a dog runs past us on the road, at full throttle. An odd sight, so far from civilization. I figure it’s a stray so I get up and whistle at it. The pooch stops dead in its tracks and looks around, trying to determine where the sound came from so I whistle again. This time it spots me and makes a beeline for us. She’s a young dog, pretty big and as goes for most dogs around here, quite thin. I feed her the other half of the khachapuri, some of the leftover bread and a granola bar. We pack up and leave and our furry friend follows suit, figuring there is more food to be had. She’s not wrong. For the next few kilometers the road is somewhat flat so we are going at a decent clip, but the dog keeps up easily, looking happy to have made some human friends. Soon enough the paved road turns into a narrow, winding dirt path up the mountains and the tempo drops considerably. I suddenly realize something odd. Cycling uphill alongside another cyclist makes me stop a lot less frequently. Funny how that works. It’s not that I have more energy, my legs and ass hurt just as badly. It just makes me more resilient in a moral sense, I suppose.
We are in a very remote area even by Georgian standards. We’ve gone two hours without seeing any houses. The only other evidence of human existence is the incessant stream of marshrutkas. Their presence is a little more nerve-racking now. The road is barely wide enough for a car let alone a car and a cyclist. In addition, our four-legged furry friend, whom we’ve called Laika, has a tendency to jump in front of cars to bark at its wheels. I am terrified she’ll get hit and we’ll be stranded with a wounded dog far away from the nearest vet. She also runs in front of our bike wheels a few times, which isn’t so much a problem when we’re going uphill but Tomek has a near-miss hurling down a hill. Maybe we should have discouraged her from following us after we gave her food down in the valley. It’s too late for that now.
Gravel turns into mud on the next stretch but nature makes up for it by making the scenery jaw-droppingly beautiful. The rock face and surrounding mountains are rugged and the grass is lush and dark green. We also spot some ruins of houses and a typical Svaneti guard tower so we stop to take a picture. As Tomek points out, time hasn’t just stopped here, it never existed. A little farther up ahead we cross a bridge and find ourselves in a one-horse town. There’s a little restaurant with a big sign outside informing travelers they have Wifi but it doesn’t look like they’re currently open for business. There is also a little shack next to the river that sells drinks, so we park our bikes next to it. Tomek decides he doesn’t want a soda when he realizes they’re not refrigerated. I point out that this shack probably doesn’t have electricity but he quips that they have a big fridge in the shape of a river 5 meters away. I need the sugar and get a Fanta. Price tag: 1 GEL (€0.30). I give the old lady behind the counter a fiver and tell her to keep the change. We fill up our water bottles from the well next to the shack.
The dirt road is getting muddier by the minute and I can’t help but admire Tomek’s perseverance. I’m riding a mountain bike with fat tires but his bike was obviously made with one purpose in mind: to ride pavement. His tires aren’t even half the width of mine. Not that it matters on this current stretch of road. It’s too steep an incline to ride, so we get off and push our bikes. On the flatter section that follows, we stop because melt water is making its way down the rock face and across the path. It has also washed away some of the road, leaving a big water and debris filled hole behind, about 6 meters across. There’s no way around it. We could walk through it but the water is much deeper than our boots are high. I decide to bike through it. No guts, no glory. My heart is racing but I make it safely across. Three cheers for three-inch tires. Tomek decides to walk through it and gets his feet soaked for the second time today. It is late afternoon and the marshrutkas are now coming down the mountain. Barreling down is more accurate, in spite of the narrow dirt road. I’m sure they know this mountain path by heart, but there are no barriers here and one small mistake is all it takes to plunge over the cliff to the rapid river below. I see that Tomek is getting a little annoyed because we have to stop and pull over every time we see a vehicle coming towards us. Ushguli must be very popular with tourists. I spot a vehicle coming our way and we move close to the edge. I can hardly believe my eyes when I spot Dutch license plates on the Jeep. This guy sure is far away from home. The driver stops, greets us and laughs when I respond in Dutch. We have a short conversation. He tells us he admires us for going “all the way up to Ushguli” by bike and wishes us lots of strength and stamina, assuring us the worst part is behind us. He says he’s feeling quite lazy in his Jeep all of a sudden and we don’t have the heart to tell him we’re going much, much farther and higher than Ushguli.
The nice Dutchman was right, there are only three steep sections left, followed by two hairpins and from there on out, it’s almost flat to Ushguli. Muddy but flat. We haul ass on the last stretch and ride into town victoriously, quite pleased with ourselves. We’re also very hungry, so we pull into the first restaurant we see. I want to sit outside since I doubt dogs are allowed inside restaurants. Laika has followed us for 23 kilometers up the mountain and I feel that deserves a reward. We order a couple of main dishes, bread and two brewskis and go sit at one of the wooden tables outside, Laika at our feet. Poor mutt, she must be exhausted. The food takes forever and when it does finally come, my dish is not up to par, the meat chewy and greasy. I end up giving more than half of it to Laika, who doesn’t complain. I feed her some of the bread too and she lies down in the grass next to the table with a pleased look on her furry face. Doggy happy, me happy. Tomek makes fun of me, telling me I’d go bankrupt if I fed every stray dog in Turkey. Apparently it’s much worse there. I make a mental note never to cycle through Turkey, my heart simply couldn’t take it.
I go inside to settle the bill and for another bathroom break. When I step outside several minutes later, Laika has vanished. Tomek didn’t see her leave so we have no idea in which direction she’s gone. Part of me is pleased — she’s much better off in a town with lots of tourists where people are bound to feed her — but I also feel a little glum. She was with us for most of the day and I quite enjoyed her company. My rational side knows that I would have had to say goodbye at some point so I try not to dwell on it. Still.
We have a little daylight left so Tomek and I decide to keep going. Ushguli is beautiful, stunningly so, but very touristy and setting up camp here in town is not an option. We ride out of town and pitch our tents a couple of kilometers up the mountain. Finding a good spot isn’t easy. There’s no shortage of grass here, but none of it is really level. We find an area that seems adequate down a little side road and decide this will have to do. We’re both beat from the long climb and the road only gets steeper up ahead. After setting up camp, we share some of the bourbon in my flask and crawl inside our tents. I take a last peek at the sunset. The view is amazing from up here and I want to take a picture with my mind.
I love nocturnal thunderstorms in the mountains. When I’m in the safety of a big house. In a flimsy tent, not so much. They’re so much more spectacular when you have nothing but a thin tarp separating you from the elements, I’ll give you that. Factor in the cold — it was a balmy -2° last night and I was freezing in spite of wearing my entire wardrobe — and the fact that I woke up all the way at the bottom of my wigwam a few dozen times and it all adds up to a pretty rough night. At least now I know why one should always set up camp on level ground. The polyester of your sleeping bag and the nylon surface of a sleeping mat make for one slippery combination. It’s like trying to sleep on a children’s slide covered in Vaseline. My alarm goes off at 6:15 but I’m so tired that I don’t get up till 7. I don’t think I wanna go to school today, mom. When I zip open my tent I see at least two things that instantly cheer me up: the clear blue sky and the dog sleeping in front of Tomek’s tent. Laika is back! How on earth did she find us up here?
We’re hidden from the sun in the shade of the mountain behind us and it’s still quite cold. Tomek and I pack up our gear. You can tell he’s been traveling for a while. He’s got this packing up business down to an art form. It also helps that he’s got large panniers instead of the bikepacking setup I’m using. I constantly find myself completely emptying out my bags because the one thing I need is always at the very bottom. I make myself some raspberry flavored rice pudding for breakfast, feed the dog the leftovers and a muesli bar and we’re ready to hit the road. Laika hasn’t moved from the spot where Tomek’s tent was, not even getting up as I fed her. She must be tired. As we’re leaving, I’m not sure what to do. Shall I call her? Should we leave her and hope she’ll go back down the mountain path towards Ushguli? She suddenly realizes that we’re leaving and gets up and that’s when it dawns on me that this isn’t Laika at all, unless she grew some cohones overnight . It’s another pooch that looks just like her, same breed, same color fur, same size, but this one is male. And he’s got a bad limp, only using three of his paws. It looks like he’s decided to join us and I don’t have the heart to scare him off. We stop at a little mountain creek just a few hundred meters from our camp site and fill up our bottles. Being close to pastures — we were visited by cows as we were packing up and one bovine tried to eat Tomek’s socks — I decide we use my water filter to be on the safe side. It takes some time to fill up all of our bottles and meanwhile, the dog is resting in the grass. When we leave again, he stays put this time. I think he’s decided to stay here after all and I’m relieved. We’re about the climb to 2600+ meters and cross a snow-covered mountain pass. When I turn around a few minutes later I see he’s gotten up after all and is following suit. His hobbling gait is breaking my heart. In hindsight, I should have shooed him away right then and there. But one look in those big brown puppy eyes would have made the most heartless person melt, trust me on this.
The following 4 and a half kilometers are some of the toughest I’ve ridden. Well, walked while pushing a heavy bike. We are able to cycle some parts in the first kilometer, the rest of it is hike-a-bike due to the steepness but also the condition of the path. The climb seems endless. In every bend in the road, your mind tricks you into thinking that’s the end of it, you’ve made it, you’re at the top. SYKE! The stunning view makes up for it and we stop frequently to take pictures. When we do finally make it to the top of Zagar pass, it’s almost 11 am and we decide to take a break and get some food in our bellies and the dog’s. I feel responsible for his presence and that is not a pleasant sentiment.
At first we think that the stories about snow are wildly exaggerated or that they are legends to keep tourists from coming up to this pass and break their necks. Or that it’s a cunning plan to keep us in Mestia so we spend all our money there. All we see are big patches of leftover snow on the side of the road and covering the grass but it looks like it’s one sunny day away of melting. Little do we know that nature is just giving us a taste of what’s to come. Up ahead it’s not like we’re waist deep in the white stuff but cycling through it in not an option, so we have to walk. Have you ever tried pushing a bike through a thick layer of wet snow? You should try it, it’s fun. Just make sure you’re not in a hurry. I have Gore-Tex boots on my feet but they get soaking wet anyway because the snow gets into them. I’m still wearing shorts but I’m glad I’ve put on my down jacket. We’re still struggling through the snow when we see two other people pushing bikes approach us from the opposite direction. We’re freezing but we stop anyway, not to just to say hello but to also gauge what the condition of the road up ahead are. The woman looks at me and asks, “Are you Kate?” They met Flo the day before and he told them I was on this trail too. Mascha and Mark warn us that the descent is quite gnarly and advises us to take it easy. We will also run into an excavator clearing the path of debris and snow, so they tell us to be careful especially since the driver is a bit of a prick. In return, we provide them with an update on the state of the path down to Ushguli and we part ways.
We have just started the descent, which is indeed quite technical, when I hear Tomek yelling something behind me. His brakes, which weren’t the best to begin with, are barely working so he has to take it slow. I don’t mind, at least this will allow the dog to keep up. We’re forced to get off our bikes a dozen more times because of snow blocking the path. The excavator mentioned by our pals up the mountain is parked in the middle of the path near the foot of the descent, the driver nowhere in sight, but we are able to squeeze through. I’ve almost made it to the bottom when I hear the unmistakable roar of a river. Shit, we have to cross that? It’s not that deep or wide but the rocks look slippery and the current is strong, the water freezing cold. I’m glad to have Tomek by my side. I’m not sure I would have made it through the stream without his encouragements. Making it across safe and sound we sit down in the grass to wring out our socks and pour the water from our boots. We’re still sitting there when we see the excavator coming down the path, clearing it of snow. Tomek and I look at each other and then break out in laughter. Where was that freaking thing half an hour ago?
The road on the other side of the river is in slightly better condition but not for very long. The path becomes steeper, rockier and narrower by the minute and is riddled with technical switchbacks. I’m taking the lead, trying to warn Tomek when it gets dangerous, so he can hop off his bike in time or use his feet to assist the brakes. For the umpteenth time today I’m pleased with my bike choice but I pity poor Tomek. The lad’s got some serious bike skills, coming down that path unscathed. I’m in awe. Of him and of the dog, who turns out to be a little trooper. If we see a butcher shop, I going to buy this pooch a big, fat, juicy steak.
The descent levels out somewhat and I pick up the pace a little because it’s starting to slightly drizzle. I see a few houses up ahead. This must be the village of Tsana. If memory serves, there’s a little shop here. I’m hoping, and I know Tomek is too, that we can get our hands on some food. Both of us are running low on supplies. I have one dehydrated meal left but I’d rather keep that for when it really counts. There is also some oatmeal in my backpack but I balk at the idea of having another bowl of watery mush. I stop near a shack that has a hand-painted “Fast Food” sign but it looks closed. There’s a Jeep parked out front, engine idling. A large man wearing army fatigues and a weightlifter’s belt gets out of the vehicle and asks me in Russian if I’m looking for food. I most certainly am. He also inquires whether I’m alone and I tell him I have two friends arriving any minute now. (He later informs us he was about to take off when I arrived so it’s a good thing I rode ahead. We would have had to ride all the way to Mele, the next town after this one, which is 20 kilometers away, to score some food.) A few minutes later, Tomek arrives and greets the big fella in flawless Russian. This guy is full of surprises. A short conversation later, our Georgian friend disappears into the tiny shack and we sit down at the table outside. I glance at the mountains to our right. The clouds coming our way are impressively dark. It looks like all hell is about the break loose and I’m glad we’ve got a shelter of sorts. The wind has also picked up and I’m starting to get cold, so I get my rain jacket out of my bag. In record time, food appears out of seemingly nowhere. The shack doesn’t appear to have any running water, light or electricity, so imagine my surprise when we’re served a genuine feast. There’s a huge omelet, a platter with Georgian cheese, a tomato and onion salad, a cucumber salad and bread, followed by coffee and cake. I grab some of the bread and go feed it to the dog who is guarding our bikes. Our host catches me in the act and offers to get more bread for the dog, for which I thank him profusely. This big lad has a heart for animals. We’re still enjoying our meal when it starts raining in earnest. I call our furry friend over and he hides under the table. Our host tells us to move our bikes on the other side of the shack, under the shelter. While he’s inside the shack, I secretly feed the pooch a large chunk of my omelet, followed by some cheese and more bread. The steak will have to wait, buddy. I count about ten houses in this town, I doubt one of them is a butcher shop.
Have you ever seen horizontal rain? I have. We’ve got a roof over our heads and we’re still getting soaked. Our host beckons us inside the shack and closes the door. In spite of the small window, it’s darker than a black steer’s tookus in here so he fires up the gas stove to provide us with light and some well-needed warmth. I’m wearing my rain jacket but poor Tomek, only wearing a short-sleeved cycling jersey, is shivering. Outside, Mother Nature has decided to throw thunder, lightning and some hail into the mix. Looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while. And what do Georgians do when they get bored? They drink and sing. We get served some chacha in shot glasses. It’s strong enough that the smell of it alone will make your eyes water. I’m sure that three shots of this will make grown men cry. I look out the window at the canine and am relieved to see that the table is providing him with ample protection from the elements. Meanwhile our host inquires about our country of origin and when he hears that I’m Belgian he smiles broadly and says, “Van de Walle”, in a thick Georgian accent. It takes me a second to realize that he’s talking about Robert Van de Walle, a Belgian judoka who won gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. This lad we’re sharing a shack with was his sparring partner when Robert came to Georgia to train. Small world.
(I will later meet three other people who claim to have trained with Robert here in Georgia. He must have come here often.)
We’ve been here for an hour and a half, most of it inside this wooden box and I’m getting a little claustrophobic. It doesn’t look like the rain is going to let up any time soon. At least the hail has stopped and can’t hear any more thunder so I think we should make like a tree and leave. Tomek is in favor of staying put until it stops raining but that might mean being stuck here for hours. I’m enjoying the company, but I want to get off this mountain before it gets dark. The meal comes to a total of 35 Lari (€10.70) and I leave a nice tip, which gets me a bear hug, a kiss and an extra candy bar for the road. I tell him I’ll make sure to say hi to Robert for him. We suit up in our rain gear and take off, the pooch in tow.
I will gladly cycle all the way to the Zagar pass from Zugdidi twice more if I can ride the downhill that follows after Tsana again. For the mountain bikers out there: imagine a 20-kilometer long pump track. Adrenaline is racing through my veins and I am having the time of my life, in spite of the rain, in spite of the mud and in spite of all the creeks, streams and waterfalls we have to ride or walk through. Tomek is soaked through and through but at some point he just stops caring. I, on the other hand, am quite comfy and snug in my Gore-Tex pants and rain jacket. The only thing that gets soaking wet are my socks, from all the creek crossings. Tomek’s brakes have crapped out all together now so he has to take it even slower than before. His hybrid bike does have front suspension but his tires are too skinny to be cruising down here at full throttle anyhow. It’s a good thing it’s quite the gentle descent but I still admire his courage. We have just waded through the umpteenth creek and are stopped for a quick emergency repair on Tomek’s handlebar grips when a car pulls up besides us. It’s a sedan, which is an accomplishment in its own right, given the state of the road. In it are four people. The driver, who informs us they’re tourists from Hungary, inquires whether it is possible to make it to Ushguli from there. Sure. If you have 4 dirt bikes or a Range Rover in your trunk. We tell him about the snow and the river he’ll have to cross and the general roughness of the road, especially from Tsana upwards. There’s also only about three hours of daylight left. Much to our amazement, the driver states that he’ll try his luck anyway and drives off. Alrighty then, guess we’ll read about you in the newspaper in the morning.
(Not to worry, they do eventually come to their senses as we see them heading in the other direction several hours later.)
It has stopped raining and the sun is out again so we pull over to get out of our rain gear and wring out our socks for the fifth time today. We’ve lost our furry companion halfway down the mountain. We ran into a couple of Czech backpackers with two dogs and he obviously preferred to stay with friends of his own species. It’ll be easier for him to keep up with them so perhaps this is a good thing. The road gets wider and a little later we find ourselves on pavement again, for the first time since yesterday afternoon. Up ahead is the town of Mele and we stop at a B&B for some bread and cheese. The hostess seems disappointed that we’re not spending the night — I take it they don’t see all that many tourists here this early in the season — but she’s all smiles anyway and allows us to fill up our water bottles from the faucet in the garden. We decide to ride for as long as we can, daylight permitting and then we’ll find a camping spot next to the river. We’re back in civilization now and the roads are newly paved and wide. We’re also still going downhill and on roads this smooth that means we’re picking up speed, which is a little worrisome for Tomek and his brake-less suicide bike. I take the lead and switch on my GPS so I can warn him of any sharp bends in the road. Luckily there are none.
We find ourselves a quaint little campsite right next to the wide river, hidden from the main road. It must be a popular spot because we see the traces of several campfires. By the time we’ve set up our tents, the sun is setting. We decide to build a fire so we can dry his soaked clothing and our socks and shoes. There are several little ponds and as soon as dusk sets in, hundreds of frogs speak up. Must be mating season. They’re loud little fuckers but I doubt they’ll keep me awake tonight. I am absolutely spent. I also spot something else that I haven’t seen in nearly two decades: fireflies. There’s just something magical about these creatures that makes me smile. We toast our bread next to the fire and enjoy a simple but scrumptious meal. Georgian cheese is an acquired taste but I am really starting to enjoy it. Desert consists of a cup of hot chocolate spiked with some whiskey after which we turn in for the night. I see some lightning far off in the distance and wonder out loud if it was smart to put up our tents this close to the river. The water seems awfully close and awfully high. “Not a problem, we’ll be fine”, Tomek assures me. Famous last words.
A big storm woke me in the middle of the night and I had to get out of my tent in the middle of it because I’d forgotten to pee before I crawled into my tent. In spite of this, I’ve had a good night’s sleep and I feel refreshed. I get up to find Tomek already working on this bike, swapping the brake pads in the front with the ones in the back, which still have a little life in them. He didn’t want to stop and do this yesterday because it’ll be quite time consuming as he has to take off both luggage racks to get to the brakes. In the meantime, I pack up as I’m much slower anyway and have breakfast. I grab my roll of TP for another morning ritual and walk off to find some privacy. And then I see it. The water. I hurry back to the tents.
“Tomek! We have to leave. We have to leave NOW!”
It rained relentlessly overnight and the river has forked about 20 meters up ahead, cutting us off from the main road. We’re stuck on an island and will have to wade through a rapid stream to get out of here. The water looks quite deep and is very murky so we won’t see what we’re stepping on. Our camp site is slightly elevated so the water is streaming into the frog ponds. Soon enough, this entire area will be flooded. We quickly grab out gear and bikes and three crossings later make it safely to the other side.
There’s a little more downhill in store for us but the strong headwind is slowing us down considerably. The scenery is a drastic change from yesterday’s. Snow-covered peaks have made way for mountains filled with luscious green pine trees. Tomek and I joke that we seem to wake up in a different country each day. I think he’s installed the new brake pads a little too close to his rims because he’s being a slow poke today, even though he’s the one anxious to make it to Kutaisi tonight, 100 kilometers away. I’m getting a little antsy but I try to shrug it off. On the outskirts of a small town I see a dog standing in the middle of the road and as we cycle past it, it starts to chase us, probably hoping we’ll give it some food. I have nothing but oatmeal, instant coffee and a dehydrated meal in my bag at this point so I don’t stop. Instead, I speed up, but Tomek is taking his sweet time and the dog is still on his tail. I don’t want another pooch following us for 20 kilometers and eventually breaking my heart, so I try to egg Tomek on, but to no avail. Does anyone have a firecracker to put up his ass, please? Finally the pooch realizes it’s a lost cause and gives up. Sorry, buddy.
You just know there is too much wind if you’re going down a 5% decline and you have to keep pedaling not to stop. I’m starting to get used to the heat but my skin hasn’t caught up yet. In spite of the overcast afternoon yesterday and the thick layer of sunscreen, my arms are firetruck red again by noon so I put on my sleeves. I’d rather overheat than burn to a crisp. We have some bread left for lunch but it’s drier than a camel’s butt hole in a sandstorm so we stop at a little store. Stepping inside I feel like I’ve traveled back in time to the Soviet Union just after WWII. It only seems to sell the basic necessities; bread, toilet paper, laundry detergent and Cocoa Puffs. There’s nothing to spread on bread. No butter, no jam, no sliced meat of any kind, no produce, nada. We settle for mayonnaise, which oddly enough comes in a little pouch. At least there’s cold beer in the fridge. Outside, we sit down to enjoy our simple meal. The store owner brings us an extra chair and two little bags of peanuts, which we accept with a smile. Calories! Afterwards we take a dip in the nearby stream to cool off and then we hit the road again. Up ahead is a big hill and after this morning’s long descent, I appear to have forgotten what it’s like to climb. The heat, the steep never-ending ascend, the incessant head wind, it’s all too much for me. I’m suffering while Tomek finally seems to have found his cycling legs.
In spite of the long sleeves my arms feel like they’re burning up so when I spot a small pharmacy in the next town I pull over for some after-sun lotion. Tomek follows me in to translate but either he doesn’t know the right word in Russian or the pharmacist, a young girl, isn’t old enough to have lived in the Soviet era, because she doesn’t seem to understand what it is I need. You would think that one look at my maroon arms would be all the clues she needs but she gives us a sheepish look at then says “ointment?”, probably the only English word in her vocabulary. Fine, I’ll take that. Anything to moisturize my skin.
We stop for water at a bus stop and decide to have another bite to eat. It’s going to be a long day and there are several more climbs coming up. I suddenly remember I have a small can of tuna left at the bottom of my bag which will go nicely with the small piece of bread we have left and some mayo. Outside the bus stop is a small Border Collie looking at me with big sad eyes so I decide to share my lunch. I’m a little reluctant to feed him because I don’t want him following us afterwards so I come up with a cunning plan. There are some Czech bikers sitting by the side of the road and I approach them asking if they speak English. They nod and I ask them if they’d be willing to feed the dog once we’ve left. There’s no way this little tyke will be able to keep up with motorcycles. They smile and agree.
We’ve just started tackling the next hill when we come across an old taxi parked half on, half off the road. Next to it is the driver flagging us down for assistance. He’s got a flat tire but can’t seem to work the jack so we stop to help him out. I quickly realize he’s quite intoxicated, leaning against the car for much needed support. While Tomek is trying to figure out the jack, which is at least as old as the car, I turn to him and say, — in English, pretty confident the man won’t understand — “Are you sure we want to help this guy out? He’s three sheets to the wind.” I can just picture it now: we change his tire for him and to thank us, he ploughs his cab into us a couple of clicks down the road. As it turns out, the point is moot. The jack is broken so there will be no changing tires today.
I am beyond exhausted. My feet feel like they’re covered in blisters, my ass is grass, my leg muscles are screaming for me to stop. We pass a few little grocery stores and I ask Tomek whether we should stop for food as we have none left. He prefers to push on to the city of Tskaltubo, where we can get some decent food. I turn into one of those nagging 5-year-olds in the backseat of your car. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? How about now, are we there yet?” For the first time since I’ve met Tomek, I regret not being alone, even though we only have a few more kilometers to go. He’s the sweetest and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in crime, but those 6 kilometers to the city are 6 too many. If I had been by myself, I would have put up my tent right then and there, right by the side of the road. Without any food. I wouldn’t have cared. I even feel too tired to eat.
My appetite returns as soon as we arrive in Tskaltubo. This city, known for its slightly radioactive mineral springs, is an interesting mix of manicured lawns and vacant palaces. This place is Urbex heaven. I use Google Maps to look for a nearby restaurant and we settle for an eatery in the vicinity of the bus station. We can sit outside which means keeping an eye on our bikes. Both famished, we order a feast. The waitress speaks a little English and has a warm smile. A few hungry looking stray dogs are lingering nearby, as they would, waiting for a clumsy patron to drop some food. The table next to ours is occupied by two young Georgian men and they’re being quite generous towards the canines, throwing them the occasional piece of bread. At the next table over, there is a sourly looking man in a red shirt shooting them disapproving looks. When one of the larger dogs growls at a small pup, Red Shirt gets up and before I realize what he’s up to, he kicks the dog in the ribs. Hard. Instinctively, I jump up and start yelling. “Oy! Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I doubt that he speaks English but the tone of my voice speaks volumes. He turns towards me and starts shouting at me in Georgian. He’s a good head taller than me and looks about two KFC family buckets away from upsetting the planet’s rotational axis, but I refuse to back down. When he realizes I’m far from intimidated he sits back in his chair. I give him the evil eye for the remainder of the meal, practically daring him the say something every time I feed the dogs. My main course consists of an entire chicken — I kid you not — but unlike the tasty first course, this isn’t hitting the spot. Either the chicken was really old or it had been dead for a while. No matter. More for the pooches.
After our meal, we settle the bill and leave the waitress a generous tip. After all, she has to put with Kicky McFatty over there every day as it turns out he’s the manager of this establishment, if you can believe that. Next we on head over to the nearby pharmacy. The waitress has been kind enough to write down the Georgian word for “sunburn lotion” on a scrap of paper for me. Before we take off on our bikes again, I cover both my arms in a generous layer of lotion and it feels like instant relief. Happiness comes in a small package sometimes. The food has invigorated me somewhat but my bum and feet still feel like they’re on fire. I’m trailing Tomek, who’s like an Energizer Bunny. He keeps on going, going, going. I have no idea where we’re going but it doesn’t look like he’s about to stop. I lose my cool. I’ve absolutely had it with cycling for the day. Tomek, bless his heart, calmly tells me that I should look for a place to camp. I’m in charge. He’ll go where I’ll go. If I wasn’t this tired, I’d hug him. I scan our surroundings but there’s nowhere to set up a tent here. We’re on the busy road to Kutaisi and putting up our tents on the side of the road is a surefire way to attract attention. I swing a right down a small road. We cycle past a brick wall that appears to border a large field. Is this a parking lot of sorts? We ride through the open gate. On our left is a small building with the tell-tale signs of abandonment: broken windows, weeds growing every which way, cobwebs in the doorway. We can hide our tents and bikes behind some thorny bushes adjacent to the building. This isn’t perfect but it’ll have to do. I would not cycle another meter for all the gold in Arabia. We quickly set up camp, careful to stay away from the thorns. I show Tomek the soles of my feet, trying to convey why I was unable to go on. Lucky for him, I’m not willing to show him the rawness that is my butt. In spite of it still being quite early, I fall asleep before my ear hits my pillow. I’m so dead to the world, it is quite astonishing that Tomek manages to wake me around 10:30 pm by calling out my name. It must be the panic in his voice. “Kate! We’ve got company…” I can indeed hear the idling of an engine nearby. A car door slams. They seem to be leaving, but I soon realize that the driver is merely maneuvering his vehicle so he can shine its headlights onto our tents. All of a sudden the car horn starts blaring. What in the hell… ? Tomek is brave enough to peak out of his tent and is giving me status update. “There’s a second car now. Should I let them know we’re here?” Oh, I think they’re quite aware, Tomek. Who do you think they were honking at? “Should I talk to them?” I’m honestly too tired to care. All I want to do is go back to sleep but Tomek keeps talking.
“There’s a third car.”
“Now one of them is leaving.”
“Wait, no, they’re back.”
“What do you think they’re doing here? Making drugs?”
In my mind, I picture a gang of young hoodlums cooking meth in the abandoned building 10 meters away. A mental image that surely would keep any sane person awake at night but I’m half asleep. For all I care, they could be using weapon’s grade plutonium to make a nuclear bomb in there. I. Just. Want. To. Sleep. Tomek finally decides that speaking up is the lesser of two evils, so he sticks his head out of the tent and yells something in Russian in the general direction of the cars. We’re tourists from Belgium and Poland, cycling through your country. Is it okay if we camp here? The answer is short but sweet.
Great. Awesome. Swell. Can I go back to sleep now?
The rest of the night is pretty uneventful. Or if it wasn’t, I was blissfully unaware. When I wake in the morning, our nightly visitors have either returned or have spent the night in the building. Hilarity ensues when Tomek and I realize they are hardly the juvenile delinquents we had envisioned them to be. These men are clearly pensioners and judging by the sounds emitting from the building next door, they are into woodworking or some other handcraft. I’m pretty sure they were as spooked by us last night as we were by them.
Tomek and I forego breakfast as Kutaisi is all of 15 kilometers away. I’m planning on finding a cheap hotel where I can spend a night or two but Tomek, who is a much longer trip and wants to keep it as low-budget as humanly possible, is more interested in spending the night in a dormitory. I’m too old for that shit. I had a lifetime’s worth of sleeping in dorms when I spent 6 years in boarding school as a kid. I want my own room and bathroom, thank you very much. As most hotel rooms have two beds anyhow, I try to convince Tomek to join me, free of charge. The price of the room will likely be the same regardless of the number of guests. I finally seal the deal by booking a room that costs 4 euros a night. For an extra euro, we’ll even get bed sheets, imagine that. No sleeping bags for us tonight.
The road to Kutaisi is a busy one and for the first time since I’ve been in Georgia, I stress out over the traffic around us. It’s a two-lane road but drivers seem to be under the impression there are three as they overtake whenever and wherever they see fit. I try to hug the shoulder as much as I can. Luckily Kutaisi is but a hop and a skip away. The Dutch couple I met before Mestia told me they weren’t all that impressed by the city so I’m not sure what to expect. I think it’s absolutely lovely. Cycling through the center on our way to the hotel, I see quaint little town squares, a small city park with benches and trimmed hedges, an impressive fountain in the middle of a massive round-about. The whole place oozes cleanliness. With the help of Google Maps we have no trouble locating our lodge. The proprietor is a smiling Georgian man by the name of Joseb. He speaks English but I still have a hard time understanding him due to the fact that he has but a single tooth left in his mouth. I let Tomek be in charge of the conversation as I settle the bill for the next two nights. The hotel consists of two buildings with a courtyard sandwiched in between. One of the buildings is quite modern and houses the newer rooms. Our room is in the older of the two structures, which Joseb informs us used to be a school. The carpet in our room has had better days and our “private” bathroom is across the yard but at 4€ a night, I couldn’t possible care less. The mattresses are firm and the bed linens are clean. We quickly unload our bikes and head for the city center. The rumble in my stomach reminds me that we skipped breakfast, so the shower will have to wait. We settle on a little restaurant in the town square, taking a seat outside in the sun. What ensues is a scrumptious meal. Ice-cold beer, a divine salad, tender meat right off the grill. Life is great. After the strenuous and somewhat stressful day we had yesterday, this is exactly what the doctor prescribed. Once we finish our late lunch, we stop at a shop and stock up on beer. This will not be a productive day.
I spend an eternity in the shower, washing away several days’ worth of sweat and grime. Tomek has plonked himself into a chair in the courtyard, overlooking the river, beer in one hand, smoke in the other. I head upstairs to unpack my bags and make sure all my battery-operated gear is charging. When I return from the room, I find Tomek having an animated conversation with another young lad. Polite introductions are made. Lucasz from Poland is on a week-long vacation in Kutaisi, accompanied by his good friend and colleague Inna, a Ukrainian woman. Both of them live and work in the UK and they are home-bound the next day. Lucasz wants to know if we have any plans for dinner. We had quite a late lunch and when I tell him I doubt we’ll venture out tonight, he invites us to join him and some locals for supper. He’s making bigos, a popular Polish dish and I can see Tomek’s eyes light up with excitement. At 7 pm, we head over to the dining room adjacent to the kitchen. At the round table in the middle of the room, I count 7 people: Lucasz, Inna and 5 locals. I am handed a plate and a glass mug and am told to grab a seat. Don’t mind if I do. The table is chockablock with deliciousness. Food for 15 people and twice that much booze. No one seems to care that two strangers have joined, at least, no questions are asked. Besides Lucasz’ bigos, there is a Ukrainian type of hash-browns (courtesy of Inna), eggs over easy, meatballs, sausages, fried potatoes, deviled eggs, a cheese platter, bacon, french fries, three different types of salads and a glorious tomato and parsley sauce that I could eat by the spoonful. One of the locals, a teddy bear of a man who will spontaneously hug me later this evening, has brought several bottles of homemade wine. Someone has filled my cup with red wine while I wasn’t looking and when I reach for it, I am quickly stopped by Inna who’s seated to my right. She whispers, “Don’t. You have to wait for the first toast”. Ah yes. The toast. I’ve heard about the Georgian custom of raising your glass before you drink. Soon enough, one of the Georgian lads gets up with his drink in hand and solemnly delivers a speech that is easily 5 minutes long. Victor, the only Georgian in the bunch to speak Russian, translates what is said for Inna, who translates it into English for us. During the course of the evening, this little scenario is repeated a few dozen times. I don’t understand half of the speeches but I’m having a blast.
I make sure to drink slowly, having noticed that my cup gets refilled every time it as much as goes half a centimeter below half-full. Lucasz and some of the Georgians are drinking brandy, copious amounts of it at that. Lucasz, who is drinking the spirit at the same speed I would down lemonade on a sunny summer day, is plastered in no time. Inna tells me that they’ve had dinner with this posse every day since they’ve arrived. Their Georgian friends have been cooking for them night after night, not even wanting Inna or Lucasz to get groceries or contribute in any other way.
After several hours, the party moves outside so we can toast and drink some more and enjoy the view of the river below. The water is a muddy shade of grey at this time of year but will be crystal clear from august onward, once all the snow has melted in the mountains. As is the custom, guests have to give a speech too. When it’s my turn, I profusely thank my hosts of the evening and profess my love for their gorgeous country. I came here to cycle and enjoy the beautiful landscapes but I never thought that the ones that would steal my heart were the locals. Never ever have I felt such warmth and hospitality from total strangers.
Around 10:30 pm I notice that the table in the dining room hasn’t been cleared yet, so I start taking dishes into the kitchen, in spite of Inna telling me to let them be as it’s not a custom in Georgia for guests to clean up. Screw that. I’ve been wined and dined by these lovely people, I’m not going to let them do the dishes on top of that. By the time they’ve noticed what I’m doing, the table is cleared. I go back outside to thank everyone for the lovely dinner and wish them a good night and then head for our room. In spite of the limited number of cycling miles today, I am exhausted. It’s 11:30 pm and I don’t want to spend half the day in bed tomorrow. I set my alarm for 8 am which still constitutes to sleeping in given the ungodly hour at which I’ve been getting up most days, but when it starts blaring the next morning I turn the darn thing off and go back to sleep. I get woken by the hole in my stomach at 9:30 and after a quick shower, Tomek and I go on the hunt for breakfast. According to Google Maps there are several bakeries in the vicinity but we only manage to find a store selling savory breads. If you’re hoping to find sweet Danish in a city like this, you’re in for a rude awakening. Given the choice between meat and bean filling, I choose the latter and go for a lobiani. I have high expectations, as Georgians seems to have a magic way to make the simplest vegetable utterly delicious. The lobiani is a bitter disappointment though. It’s stale and not all that tasty. I eat half of it to satiate my hunger and the other half goes back into the bag. By now I know much better than to just discard leftover food. There are too many hungry strays who’d be more than willing to polish off any leftovers. Sure enough, I see a stray in a little park on our walk back to the hotel. He doesn’t seem all that interested in lobiani but I leave it for him anyway.
Tomek is planning on leaving today. From Kutaisi onward, our routes no longer coincide. His journey takes him further east, towards the capital where he will need to apply for a visa for Iran. I will be traveling further south, towards the Turkish-Armenian border. I already told him yesterday that he is more than welcome to stay another day. The room is paid for and I’d welcome the company. I can tell that he’s enjoying himself here and since I know he’s not in a hurry to go — one of the advantages of traveling solo — I ask him again if he wants to stay and he agrees.
All of the clothes I have brought are stinking up to the high heavens, so I’m desperate to wash them. Joseb has told me that there is a washing machine and that we should talk to the maid if we want her to load the washer. The housekeeper in question is a 40-year old woman with 60-year old eyes and ditto smile. Most of my stuff is merino wool and I want her to set the machine as cold as it will go. I ask Tomek what the Russian word for “cold” is but I get blank look from the lady when I try to explain what I want. It’s my pronunciation, I’m sure. Luckily Joseb brings solace before the machine is turned on. As he turns away, I quietly hand the laundress the 3 GEL for the wash and another 15 I motion her to put in her pocket. She looks at me with wide eyes and points at herself. Yes, this is for you. She hugs and then kisses me and when I return a couple of hours later to check if the machine has done its thing, I find my laundry drying on the clothes lines in the washroom. She just made my day.
I decide to give our bikes some much needed TLC, checking the brakes, cleaning and lubing the chains. Tomek hasn’t cleaned his chain once since he’s left Poland and it shows. I still manage to get it as good as new, with the help of a little sponge and some dish detergent I took from the kitchen. Tomek’s bike is also in desperate need of a set of new brake pads and he has found a bike shop across town that is open. We decide to hop on our bikes instead of walking. This is fun. I’d forgotten how well my steed handles when it isn’t bogged down by a shitload of luggage. We’re riding down a busy dual carriageway that takes us through the city and much to my amazement it has a bike lane, the only one in the entire city. It mostly serves as extra parking space for taxis and marshrutkas but beggars can’t be choosers. I watch our bikes while Tomek ventures into the bike shop looking for spare parts. Outside, there are several second-hand bikes on display. I saunter over to take a peek. No wonder there are almost no cyclists here in Georgia. The prices of these — pardon my French — rusty heaps of crap are astronomical, especially given the average wages in this country.
On our way back to hotel we pick up some tomatoes, cucumbers and dill, the makings of a tasty salad. My body needs the vitamins. Later tonight we will get a khachapuri or two at one of the many shops nearby. Back at the hotel, I walk down to the laundry room to check if my clothes are dry yet. At the very end of the hallway leading to the washer is the tiniest of dogs. Threefinger — yes, that is her name — is with the new guests who have arrived while we were cycling, a Ukrainian woman and her boyfriend. Edwin hails from the shores of Alaska and is your proverbial obnoxious and loud American. I can be quite the potty mouth myself but every other word out of his piehole is “fuck”. Fuck this, fuck that. I want him to stay away from us — but leave the dog, please, she’s adorable — but unfortunately he’s decided Tomek and I are his new best friends, even though I’m not exactly hiding my contempt. I’ll give him some points for having rescued the stray puppy from outside a restaurant, but he doesn’t seem to treat her all that well. For starters, he’s giving her beer to drink, claiming she won’t drink water. Really now. Let’s test that little theory of yours, shall we? I quietly get a bowl from the kitchen and fill it with water. When I put it next to the bowl of beer, the pooch goes straight for my bowl. I give Edwin a tell-tale look. She’s not my dog and but I hope that my little show has convinced him not to give her any more beer. Who in their right mind gives alcohol to an 8-week old pup? I don’t want to imagine the effect it has on her tiny little liver.
Edwin’s girlfriend, all smiles at first, is clearly not happy that she’s not getting any attention and comes out of her room to argue with her man several times. They fight over everything, the dog, the fact that he’s ignoring that she’s sick, their broken-down Lada Niva. Edwin has been drinking like a fish and the drunker he gets, the more unpleasant he becomes. I’m done with their drama and his swearing so after dinner I retreat to my room to write in my journal and pack my bags. I commend Tomek for staying out there and watching the show unfold. I’m fast asleep by the time he comes up to the room.
I wake up at 2 am, scratching myself like a mangy dog with fleas. My legs are covered in mosquito bites and the itch is driving me bonkers. That’ll teach me to camp out and build a fire near stagnant water. I don’t spot any new bites since we’ve been in Kutaisi but I don’t contribute that to the lack of mosquitoes here. I’m sure there are plenty around but they just can’t find any free space between all the other existing bites to sink their fangs in. Bloodsucking little pricks. Mother Nature also has another gift in store for me. I’m on the rag. Awesome. This couldn’t happen two days ago?
The next morning, I am slow to rise. Tomek is still fast asleep. I’d love to say goodbye to him and thank him for his company but I don’t have the heart to wake him up. I take one of the two hip flasks of whiskey I have brought and the spare little titanium camping stove and put them in his luggage. I take my merry time in the bathroom. Who knows when the next opportunity to shower will present itself? Walking back to the room I see a long-haired dachshund in the courtyard. I try to feed him some of the leftover bread I have earmarked for breakfast but he’s not interested. Instead, he leans up against my leg and looks at me with big, round eyes. I realize he needs something else from me: some lovin’. Poor strays, I doubt they get much attention from humans, or at least, the kind of attention they crave. I sit down at the table outside and while I have breakfast, I take my time scratching behind his scruffy ears. Tomek is awake. He’s found the flask and is bringing me a gift in return: a schoolbook. It looks like something first-graders use to learn how to spell. I’ve told Tomek a few times that I’d love to learn Russian. On his travels, he spent some time in Transnistria, a de facto independent republic in Moldova. A tour guide took him to a school that hadn’t been used in several decades but that still looked as if students had left it in a hurry the previous day. I know this book is his prized possession and I am so touched that he’s giving to me. As he hands it to me he chuckles and says, “so much for trying to lighten the load in your backpack then.” I wouldn’t care if the book weighed 5 kilograms, I love it. I put it in one of my dry bags so it won’t get damaged, grinning ear to ear. Tomek heads out in search of breakfast. By the time he returns I’m ready leave. Luggage strapped to the bike and all. I give Tomek a long and warm hug and we vouch to stay in touch. Edwin is awake too and while I could have done without seeing him, I’m delighted that he’s brought Threefinger along. I’m going to miss this little squirt. I set off without looking back. Onward and upward.
(Part II can be found here)