Georgia On My Mind — Part II
(Part I can be found here.)
It is 9 am sharp and a balmy 29° when I set off. I head for the big roundabout with the beautiful fountain and swing a left. Kutaisi is as flat as a flounder but Cass has managed to find the one uphill in this city and has added it to route. I tackle the hill with glee. Soon enough I’m headed south and out of town. The roads are wide and paved but extremely busy on this Monday morning. When I finally get away from the crowded city center I find myself on a straight and quite narrow road through a forest. There is no shoulder to speak of, so I’m trying to keep to the right as much as I can, while cars and trucks pass me at speeds that seem appropriate for the Indy 500. In the distance, I see a shape of some kind in the grass next to the road. “Please be a rock. Please be a rock. Please be a rock.” Dammit. The dog perks up as he sees me and I stop to pet his head. There is a plastic bowl with water next to a tree but no food. I park my bike and take off my backpack. I went grocery shopping yesterday and have enough food to last me all day, albeit none for dogs. I feed the pooch half a loaf of bread and a bag of chips. He is absolutely ecstatic with joy, swallowing everything I give him without chewing. When I try to leave, he follows suit. I will never learn, will I? With pain in my heart I chase him off. I feel terrible but he simply cannot come with me. This road is way too busy and I’m afraid that he’ll get run over by a car in no time. He’s much better off in the safety of the woods and close to civilization. I get the hell out of Dodge before he can follow and when I glance over my shoulder I see him standing in the grass, watching me leave. This is fucking heartbreaking. Why am I such a softie when it comes to animals? I need to man the hell up.
My GPS tells to take a right and get off the busy main road. In the distance I can make out the silhouette of the mountains I’ll need to tackle. I pace myself, trying to safe some energy for later, when I’ll need it most. I haven’t seen another human being in almost half an hour when a car overtakes me and then stops on the shoulder. The driver gets out and leans up against his car, without a clear purpose. There’s something about this man that seems a little off. He just stands there, staring at me but then says hello as I pass him. I reply in kind but don’t stop. A few minutes later he overtakes me again but this time he doesn’t pull over. I breathe a sigh of relief. That feeling is short-lived when I see his car coming from the opposite direction ten minutes later just as I’m discarding some of the waste in my backpack into a trash can. He pulls up next to me and tries to strike up a conversation. He only seems to speak Georgian and I tell him in English that I have no idea what he’s saying. He points in the direction he came from, then puts his index fingers next to his temples and makes a mooing sound. There are cows back there? So? Cows are a dime a dozen in this country and yes, I know they like to stand in the middle of the road. Not a problem, I’m sure I can swerve around them on my bike and last I checked humans are not exactly a staple in the bovine diet. I thank him anyhow and get back on my bike while he takes off. It takes me several kilometers to realize what he was trying to warn me about: there is a giant herd of cows taking up the entire width of the road. A young cowboy on a horse is herding the flock, which luckily for me is traveling in the same direction I am. There are dozens of animals and some of them seem a little stubborn, so I decide to help Marlboro Man out. He gives me a big grin and a thumbs up. Undoubtedly I am the first cowgirl on a bike he’s ever seen. Probably the last one too.
We go our separate ways when I turn right a few kilometers down the road, into a small village. I wave at the horseman. Thanks for letting me help out, pal, I thoroughly enjoyed that. I’m riding down the town’s main street, lined on both sides with houses behind tall fences. There are several benches on the side of the street and I decide to stop to get a cold drink out of my backpack. I only have a tiny bit of cold water left in the bottle that I had put in the freezer overnight back in Kutaisi. It still tastes like heaven. As I’m enjoying the welcome break in the shade of the tree, the fence behind me opens and out comes an elderly gentleman. He points at the empty bottle in my hand and asks “вода?” Yes, I’d love some water, please. I haven’t seen any streams or drinking fountains since I’ve left Kutaisi and in these temperatures, I’ll take any offer of water I get. The kind man fills my water bottles from the faucet in his front yard and I notice that he’s letting the tap run for a minute, waiting for the water get a little colder. Bless him. While I’m standing near the fence his grandchildren have come out to look at the lady on her strange bike full of bags. Their candid curiosity is hilarious and I wish I had some chocolate or candy for them. After thanking the kind man, I wave at the kids and hop back on the bike. They give chase for several hundred meters, laughing hysterically.
Ten minutes later I realize my GPS has lost its satellite connection so I have no idea which way to go. I reboot the damn thing but to no avail. I pull over and take a seat on another bench in front of a house. While I check the route on my phone, I may as well use this time to have a snack. It is so hot, I can use the break. While I’m sitting there, a man walks up to me and without a word, hands me an entire branch of fruit, smiles and leaves before I get the chance to thank him. I stare at the yellow produce. What are these things? Surely they are edible or he wouldn’t have given them to me, right? I hesitantly pop one of golf ball-sized plums, which I will find out much later are actually called loquats, in my mouth. Oh my. These are delicious. Imagine a tangy cross between a pear and a mango and you’ll get the idea. Heaven.
The headwind has picked up considerably but I still make it to Baghdati faster than I had anticipated. The wind is so strong that I need to put both feet down when I stop, to prevent my bike from toppling over, in spite of its hefty weight. Baghdati is small and, well, ugly. Gone are the beautiful Georgian houses with wooden porches I’ve been seeing in other cities. They’ve made way for rundown concrete apartment buildings that look like they have seen a couple of wars, bullet holes and all. In the town square, taxi drivers are standing around with their thumb up their ass, looking me up and down unabashedly. I spot a bakery and decide this would be a good time to get some khachapuri. I’m low on food, having given more than half of my rations to the stray dog just outside of Kutaisi this morning, and according to the map, it’ll be a while before I will come across civilization after this town. Unfortunately, there is only lobiani to be had at this place. Hard pass, thank you very much. I’m sure there are other places around serving khachapuri. I hop back on the bike and cycle around town but can’t find any other bakeries. This is nuts. Usually you can’t swing a dead possum without hitting at least 5 khachapuri places in any given Georgian town but here there are none. No wonder this place is all doom and gloom. This must be the equivalent of a Belgian town with a single tavern, but one that doesn’t serve beer. Or a French village without croissants. If I had half a brain, I would return to the bakery for lobiani but I’ve had it with this town so I decide to push on. If all else fails, I still have a dehydrated meal at the bottom of my backpack somewhere and enough oatmeal to feed half an Eagle Scouts troop. I have just turned the bike around when I spot a dog lying on the sidewalk, in between a butcher shop and a small grocery store. At first, I think the animal is dead. He’s lying down, eyes wide open, thin as a rail. JFC. I park my bike next to the grocery shop and head on in. To my surprise, the small store carries dog food, so I buy the biggest bag they have and a bottle of water. Back outside, I kneel down next to the dog. He’s got this thousand-yard stare in his eyes and isn’t moving a muscle. I feel tears well up and there’s an angry lump in the back my throat. This dog is wasting away right outside this shop and no one seems to care. I really fear that he’s gone but then I open the bag of food. Never ever have I seen a dog spring to life this quickly. I start with a handful of kibble but he’s so eager that I decide to simply dump the entire bag of food out on the pavement. The pooch goes at it like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. All the kibble is gone in no time. He’s still sniffing the ground and even tries to eat the plastic bag I hold in my hand, so I head back into the store for two more bags. I also buy some wet food while I’m at it. I empty out half a bag and all of the wet food onto the sidewalk and while my canine friend is eating, I gently scratch his head. I don’t want to give him too much food either, making him sick. He’s quite a sizable dog but I’ve given him close to a kilo of kibble. The remainder of this bag and the other one go into my backpack for other strays that will undoubtedly cross my path in the near future. I look up to see the butcher standing in the doorway of his shop, giving me a look full of confusion and disdain. I can’t help but make a snarky comment. “Yes, you can feed these creatures. Amazing, isn’t it?” Who am I kidding? I’m sure this man doesn’t speak a word of English and even if he does, I sincerely doubt that he’ll follow my example. I do feel a flutter of hope when another man walking by gives me a timid smile and a thumbs up. I spend half an hour sitting on the sidewalk with the dog lying beside me, petting his belly. He’s looking content, or at least more so than earlier and is occasionally wagging his tail. Poor mutt. I take out my phone and look for animal shelters or veterinarians nearby but can’t find any. I will have no choice but to leave this dog here and pray that someone will find it in themselves to feed him occasionally. After petting my new friend one last time, I leave this dreary town. It’s all uphill from here on out, in more ways than one.
A few kilometers down the road I come across a tab with cold mountain water and decide to top up. I pull over, park my bike and look for the filter in my backpack. I still haven’t quite reached that point yet where I’m confident enough to drink the water unfiltered. While I’m getting everything ready, a car stops and two men get out. One of them is clearly a priest. They ask me where I’m from and where I’m headed. When I tell them I’ve come from Zugdidi through the Upper Caucasus and will be cycling back to Tbilisi, the priest blesses my bike and then me, followed by a big, warm hug. They also insist on having their picture taken with me. I’m happy to oblige. They leave and I quickly fill all my water bottles. I’m eager to get going again, as I seem to have good legs today. I’m sure the day and a half of rest in Kutaisi and last night’s khachapuri are in it for something. That and the fact that today’s cycling has been fairly easy. For the first few hours or so, after leaving Kutaisi, the route was relatively flat. I’ve had to tackle a few climbs since then, but none of them are very long and they are all followed by a lovely flowing downhill. My itinerary follows a twisty river and unlike the rivers in Kutaisi and the upper Caucasus, the water here is crystal clear. It’s probably coming from a source up in the mountains rather than from the snow at the top. I keep going at a steady clip and just when I start thinking that I could go on like this all day, Mother Nature retaliates with a giant climb. There is just no end to this thing. I check my phone. According to Google Maps it is another 15 kilometers to Sairme and all of it is uphill. I can do this. The legs are good. I can do this.
Unfortunately the legs don’t stay that way. I haven’t had a real meal since breakfast and even though I did eat a few high-calorie snacks, I have obviously run through those fast-burning sugars. Beginner’s mistake. My glutes and quads are cramping like mofo’s and I’m in hell. The smile I had on my face earlier has vanished. I feel so depleted that I grab an energy gel out of my emergency kit. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I still have to stop every kilometer or so and soon enough, every few hundred meters. This isn’t just the man with the hammer. This is the man with the hammer and all of his carpenter friends. I check the itinerary on my phone again, a tell-tale sign that my morale is fading. Five more kilometers to Sairme, where I can have a decent meal, hopefully. I contemplate having another energy gel but I have a limited stash and it seems like a waste for 5k. What I am blissfully unaware of is that Google Maps is giving me the estimated distance to New Sairme, where the new hotels and spa are. The center of town, where all the shops are, is located another 4.5 kilometers and 300 vertical meters beyond that. The mind is a funny thing, isn’t it? Once I realize Google’s mistake, I feel my confidence disappearing like a fart in a fan factory. I ride those last 4 kilometers on sheer determination.
Sairme looks out of place in Georgia. This is Disneyland sans Mickey or fun rides. I don’t see any houses, just five-star hotels and shops. I instantly dislike it. Part of the charm of this country is the slight disarray everywhere you go. This place is all manicured lawns and flowerbeds. Where is the personality? I don’t see any bakeries or restaurants, but I do spot a supermarket. I sit down on the steps next to the front entrance and break out the phone. I’ve been craving a hot meal for the past 20 kilometers but if I can’t find a restaurant, the store will have to do. Two tiny feet stop right in front of me and I look up. They belong to a cute little girl, accompanied by her mom and aunt. One of the women greets me in English and we strike up a conversation. They tell me there is a place that sells khachapuri up the road, in “a cave”. (Imagine my surprise later when the restaurant appears to be above ground. Apparently, “cave” is how Georgians pronounce café.) They offer to walk me there and I happily accept. On the way, I learn that they’re from Tbilisi but are spending a week here on holidays. We bid our farewell and I order khachapuri from the young lad behind the counter. He asks me where I’m from and upon hearing my response he gives me an ear-to-ear smile and yells, “Lukaku!”. He’s obviously a big fan. I take a seat outside so I can keep an eye on my bike. Soon enough a piping hot khachapuri arrives. I wolf down half of the cheesy deliciousness and wash it down with a bottle of sparkling water that bears the name of the source this town apparently is famous for. The other half of the khachapuri disappears into a Ziploc bag in my backpack. I hate cycling on a full stomach and besides, this’ll make for a tasty breakfast. I quickly settle the bill and hop back on my bike, ready to tackle the rest of mountain. There is a 25-kilometer climb in store for me next. I don’t plan on making it all the way up the mountain tonight as sunlight is fading fast but I don’t see any opportunity to pitch my tent here. There are plenty of beautiful lawns around but I doubt hotel owners would be too keen on me setting up camp in front of their foyer. No sooner have I left the center or pavement turns into gravel and rocks. I am beyond exhausted at this point but as long as I don’t find a place to camp, I won’t be able to stop. Unfortunately, this is your garden-variety Georgian mountainous gravel road: rock face to the left, cliff with river down below to the right. Not a camping spot in sight.
I’ve ridden about 2 kilometers when I spot a clearing on the right-hand side. Unfortunately someone has decided this was the perfect location for a cell tower and what looks and sounds like an enormous generator. I’m sure that spending one night in the vicinity of a cell tower won’t kill me but that generator is louder than a kindergarten classroom during a sugar-fueled birthday party. It is bound to keep me up all night so I ride on. The road is steep and covered in big rocks. At times I have to get off my bike to push through a particularly rough section so progress is slow. I’ve been going for an hour and a half but I still haven’t spotted a good place to camp. Or a living soul since I left Sairme. Dusk has really started to set in and I’m just about contemplating putting up my tent on the side of the road when I suddenly hear the unmistakable roar of an engine. A large white Jeep is headed down the mountain, so I move out of the way. Instead of passing me, the vehicle grinds to a sudden halt right next to me and the passenger-side window opens. There is some kind of emblem and writing on the side of the door, but it’s in Georgian. A stern-looking man addresses me, first in Georgian and then in rapid Russian. I don’t understand what he’s saying but he seems quite agitated. I ask if he speaks English. “Njet”. He does speak about three and a half words of German, just about enough to make me understand that they are Park Rangers. They are clearly not thrilled with my presence on their mountain. It is getting dark, they say, and the top of the ridge is another 20 kilometers away. I am aware of that, thank you very much, but I’m not trying to get to the top tonight. I point at my tent and try to explain to them that I’m looking for a place to put my палатка . They won’t have any of it. They claim this national park is full of dangerous animals and order me to ride back to Sairme. The man behind the wheel points towards the mountain and says “Tiger! Tiger!” I’m not sure if he means that there are actual tigers here or if it’s a Russian word that sounds just like it, meaning something entirely different. Either way, I don’t seem to have much choice so I turn the bike around and head back to Sairme. The Rangers stay behind me the entire way, partly because they want to make sure I’m obeying their orders, I’m sure, but also because the state of the road doesn’t exactly allow them to go any faster than I am. I don’t know what’s pissing me off more. The fact that I just wasted valuable time and energy riding up the mountain without anything to show for it, or that I’ll have to spend the night in Georgia’s version of Monte Carlo tonight. Any hotel I book this late in the day is bound to charge me a pretty penny.
Back in civilization, I pull over and break out my phone to look for a hotel. No luck on Booking.com. It is well past 8 pm by now, I’ll bet it’s a little late to find a good deal through them. On my right is a man sitting on a folding chair. When he spots me, he walks over and asks, “Hotel?” He points to the building behind him. It looks like a modern building that, judging by the sign outside, is a motel. I’m not in a position to be fussy so I agree. He takes me up a side road that leads to the back of the building and gestures that I can leave my bike outside. I park it next to two touring bikes. Other bikepackers at this hotel? Interesting. I follow the hotel man up the stairs when suddenly the window right above my head opens and I hear a woman’s voice say, “Well, hello again”. I look up and crack a big smile. It’s the two woman who accompanied me to the “cave” earlier!
The motel owner leads me to my room. It’s small but the queen-sized bed looks inviting and it’s a definite step up from a night in my tent by the side of the road. I pay him for the room (which is the equivalent of what I paid for two nights in Mestia but I’m too tired to haggle) and set down my backpack. Two sour-looking ladies, probably not pleased with having this late an arrival putting them to work, throw new sheets on the bed. All of a sudden I’m dying to take a shower but I go and unload my bike first, removing all the bags and taking them up to my room under the watchful eye of the owner and three guests sitting outside. I haven’t used the bike lock I brought but since the two touring bikes are bolted together with an impressive-looking chain, I decide to secure mine too. Something about this place gives me the creeps.
My two lady friends from earlier have taken a seat in the kitchen/dining area and invite me for coffee and biscuits. After putting all my gear in my room, I gladly take them up on their invitation. Shortly after, two other guests, a Georgian couple living in Copenhagen and here on vacation, join us at the table. Upon learning I’m from Belgium and cycling through their country, they cut up two melons for all of us to share. This evening turns out alright after all. We sit and chat for about an hour but then I retreat to my room. I’m starting to get cold in my cycling clothes and I’m in desperate need of a shower. I also want to hit the hay, so I can wake up early in the morning to tackle the mountain.
After setting a new record for the longest shower ever — I may as well get my money’s worth — I plug in my phone and batteries and crawl into bed. It’s been a long day with lots of climbing so I expect to be sound asleep before my ear touches the pillow. No such luck. That coffee must have been stronger than I thought, even though that usually doesn’t keep me awake. I decide to head to the kitchen for some tea and to write in my journal for a little while. I get dressed and step outside. In the dining room area, the owner is watching TV, sitting at the table. Rats. I had hoped to be alone. I plop down on the couch with my cup of tea and start writing, trying not to make eye contact. I’m not in the mood for a chat and besides, he doesn’t speak any English and I’m not up for a pantomime conversation. When I do accidentally look up, he mentions for me to come and write at the table. Thanks, but I’m perfectly fine on the couch. He gets up to get another shot glass from the kitchen and offers me a shot of chacha. I’ve been in Georgia long enough to know that refusing the drink would be considered very ill-mannered. I hesitate for a second but then accept, raising my index finger to indicate that I’ll have one shot with him. I’m not sure what the custom here is, but he downs the glass in one gulp so I follow his example. Uh oh. Big mistake. This moonshine is seriously strong and I instantly feel my eyes water. This stuff will put hair on one’s chest. I set the glass down and cough. The man laughs, grabs the bottle and tries to fill my glass again, so I cover it with my hand. No, thanks, that was quite enough. He insists so I shake my head again but he still holds up the bottle wanting to refill my glass. I get up from the table and mention to him that I’m returning to my room to sleep. All of a sudden I’ve had it with his guy. He’s a little too pushy. (I’m about to find out to what extend in a minute.) I head for my room but he gets up and follows me into the hallway. As I open my door he points at the suitcase on top of the wardrobe. He clearly needs it or wants something out of it, so I get out of the way. He grabs a shirt from the suitcase and heads for the door. Standing in front me, he sticks out his hand, wanting to shake mine. Before I realize what is happening, he’s pulled me up against him and is trying to kiss me. Bleh. If that alone isn’t bad enough, he reeks of day-old sweat. I forcefully shove him to the side and loudly tell him in Dutch to get the hell out of my room. Fortunately he doesn’t insist this time. He is either startled by the loudness of my voice or afraid that the other patrons will hear, seen as the door to the room is still open. He leaves as quickly as he came in. I shut the door and turn the deadbolt twice. Sadly the door doesn’t have a bar lock, so I take the chair and shove it under the door handle. I don’t want this creep in my room in the middle of the night. See, this is the thing with Georgian hospitality. You get so used to people being friendly and offering you food and beverages left, right and center, that your guard goes down and no warning bells go off in your head when a man offers you a shot of moonshine. Next time, I’ll follow my gut feeling.
In spite of what occurred right before bedtime, I fall asleep fairly quickly. Waking up at stupid o’clock, I take another long shower and then head for the kitchen to make some oatmeal. This motel is right at the edge of town and I don’t want to descend any further into the center to get breakfast. Nothing will be open at this time of day anyway. Stepping into the dining area, I notice the creep is sleeping on the sofa and in spite of the ungodly hour, I make sure to slam the kitchen cabinets loudly enough to wake someone out of a coma. I take my breakfast to my room and start packing.
It is only barely after 7 when I tackle the mountain. Correction: when I tackle the mountain again. It’s clear from the get-go that yesterday’s good legs have not signed up for duty today and I know this is going to be a long and arduous ride today. In the first two and a half hours, I don’t encounter any other human beings. I can’t help but wonder if I’m going to right way. Considering there is only one road this has be it, but I turn on the GPS anyway, which assures me I am, in fact, headed in the right direction. On the map, this looked like a major road between Sairme and Akhaltsikhe. I was expecting a little more traffic here, to be honest. Little do I know that the road over Zekari pass is in such a dire condition that most traffic prefers to take the long way around the mountain, a 70-kilometer detour. When I finally do see a car coming down the mountain, I am so relieved that I get a little emotional. I am feeling quite alone on the planet today. I must also admit that the Park Rangers and their “tiger” story have freaked me out a little bit. Occasionally I glance over my shoulder to make sure I’m not about to become some wild animal’s lunch. By the time I hear car number three (of a total of six today), I am stopped by the side of the road, resting my head on my handlebars. The heat and altitude are exhausting. I look up just in time to see the Jeep pull up beside me. The passenger rolls down the window and without a word, hands me a small plastic bottle of water. I smile gratefully and thank him, taking the bottle from his hand. To my surprise, it’s ice cold! I am so flabbergasted I almost forget to thank him. I express my gratitude in Georgian and they take off. Watching them leave, I feel my heart sink. I am clearly not having a good day. My legs feel like rubber and my self-confidence is at an all-time low. If you tell yourself often enough that you’re not going to make it up and over the mountain today, you’ll start believing it. I have just pushed my bike up a 22% grade section of hike-a-bike, which doesn’t help. I try to boost my morale by taking a break next to a little creek, eating the other half of last night’s khachapuri and filling my water bottles. I pick myself and my bike up and swear that if a car comes up the mountain, I will try to get a ride. The little voice in the back of my head tauntingly tells me that with my luck, if a vehicle does come up the mountain (so far, they’ve all been heading down) it’ll probably be a puny Yugo.
As luck has it, it’s not a Yugo at all. It’s a big van with monster truck tires coming up the mountain several hours later. I can hear it coming from a mile away so I get off my bike in anticipation. It is clear that the driver has no intention to stop so I raise my hand in a half-assed salute and take a step towards the middle of the road giving him no choice but to slam the brakes. The driver side window rolls down and I ask, “Abastumani?” The driver nods. When I ask him if I can get a ride he shakes his head, points to the back of the van and says, in English, “Full”. I thank him profusely anyway and apologize for making him stop. I take a step back and try to smile, but I have to bite my lip not to burst into tears. A young woman’s head appears from between the two front seats just as the driver is about to take off and she yells, “I am so sorry!” She really does look upset so I wave at her and say it’s OK, trying to sound chipper. As soon as the van disappears out of sight, I burst into big sobs. I have never been this exhausted in my life. What was I thinking, coming here by myself? I can’t do this. I’m not a mountain biker. I don’t even like climbing. Feeling extremely sorry for myself, I pick up the bike and start pushing again, muttering to myself. Who the hell invented mountains anyway?
A few hundred meters up the road, I hit a clearing right after a bend. The grass looks inviting, so decide to lie down and take a short break, gather my wits. There are far less shrubs here so I must be getting near the tree line. I’ve been only been resting for ten minutes when I hear another vehicle approaching. A small Jeep is coming down the mountain at a decent clip. I ignore its existence, too tired to even pick up my head, even when it comes to a stop a mere 25 meters away. I hear the car doors slam and then a man’s voice. Wait. Is he speaking English? I sit up and see three lads carrying giant butterfly nets standing next to the vehicle, heads turned in my direction. They’ve obviously caught me looking their way, so I decide to do the polite thing and walk over to introduce myself. I am told they are entomologists from Spain, the Netherlands and … Belgium. Well, how about that. He is only one of three fellow Belgians I will see in a month and this is where fate has us meet: on top of a mountain, in the middle of nowhere. The Dutch lad assures me that it’s only a few more kilometers to the top. According to my GPS, the top is 6 kilometers away but the Dutchman insists that it’s only about 4 till I reach a type of plateau. From there on out, he promises me, the road isn’t quite that steep. After snapping their picture, I take off with renewed vigor. It’ll be far from easy to cover the last kilometers to the top, but their words have given me hope.
I’ve only resumed pushing my bike up the hill for about ten minutes when I hear another engine. The gravel path is quite narrow, so I move over to the side. Instead of passing me, the vehicle stops besides me and the next thing I hear is a man asking me, in German, if I need help. I look over and see two males in the front seat of a small Jeep. In the backseat are three women, staring at me bemusedly. I can’t help but laugh out loud. I reply in German that I’m fine and that I don’t need any assistance, but thank you. They take off again and I can’t help but wonder how exactly they were going to help me if I had accepted. Tie me and my bike to the roof of the car? Crazy Georgians. About 30 meters up ahead, the Jeep suddenly stops again and the two men get out. They motion for me to come closer. (Yep. On my way, dude. Where the hell did you think I was going?) I see that the driver is holding something bright yellow but I can’t quite make out what it is until I’m close. It’s a nylon rope. The passenger smiles and tells me that they insist on helping me, because (and I quote) “this isn’t fucking Switzerland, this is Georgia and in Georgia, we help people!” It finally dawns on me what they have in mind. “Are you going to…. pull me up the mountain?” This time I laugh even louder. “Sind sie jetzt ganz verrückt?” (“Are you out of your damn mind?”) They assure me that they’ll go at a snail’s pace and that besides, they’ve done this many times before. This last statement alone should have given me pause, but my judgment seems to be severely clouded by my extreme exhaustion because I hear myself telling them I’m taking them up on their offer. They tie one end of the rope to my handlebars, the other to the tow-bar of the Jeep and then get back in. I manage to quickly get out my pocketknife and stick it in the toptube bag, ready to cut the rope if things go horribly pear-shaped. I also turn on my GoPro. I doubt my friends back home will believe this happened without proof. Or maybe I want to leave clues for the police, when they try to figure out why they found my corpse at the bottom of a ravine.
The Jeep takes off slowly enough but due to the steep incline, I’m still jolted as the rope suddenly pulls tight and my bike takes off like a rocket underneath me. My heart is beating like a drum but after the initial jostle I decide that this is fun. Absolutely, positively insane, but fun nonetheless. This part of the gravel road is pretty smooth and even though this isn’t exactly the snail’s pace they advertised, it’s nothing I can’t handle. One of the women gets up from the backseat and pokes her head through the sunroof. I want to give her a thumbs up but I’m hanging onto the handlebars for dear life with both hands. She raises her phone and starts to film. I’m laughing and screaming like a banshee as the adrenaline soars through my body. Things suddenly take a turn for the worse when the road becomes a lot rockier. I quickly realize that I’m a little close to the car, which only gives me a split second to spot and avoid any large rocks. My heart rate really goes into overdrive when the Jeep negotiates a bend a little too fast and too wide and I find myself literally drifting through the corner, getting dangerously close to the edge. To make matters worse, they pick up speed even more after the turn. I start yelling at the lady filming me and the car grinds to a halt. The driver gets out and I ask him to slow down a little, please. He smiles and nods as if to say, “Sure thing, lady.” He takes off a little too brusquely thought and that’s when the line snaps. Both gentlemen get out to fasten it again but that’s when I decide the breaking of the rope is a sign I shouldn’t ignore and I quickly tell them I’m good, I’ll take it from here, thanks. They ask me if I’m sure and I smile and send them on their way, thanking them for their assistance. After they leave I check my phone. It looks like I’m more than a kilometer closer to the top. Sweet.
It’s another three kilometers to the plateau but it takes me forever. I have just pushed my bike up and around a steep hairpin when I catch something furry and huge out of the corner of my eye. Startled, I turn my head. Three massive dogs are approaching me, fangs exposed. I’m so exhausted, it takes a few seconds before panic sets in. These creatures look like a cross between a polar bear and a St. Bernard dog. (Do yourself a favor and search Google Images for “Caucasian Shepherd Dog”. You’ll get the idea.) To my left is a hut. I’m hoping these dogs came up here with a shepherd so I start yelling “собака! собака!” at the top of my lungs. Suddenly, the door of the cabin flies open and I hear a man’s voice yell out something in Georgian. The dogs take off in his direction and I relax a little. The shepherd raises his hand in apology. No harm done, dude. I’m in need of clean underwear but then again, you might be too.
In the distance I see some light-colored patches next the road which at first I think is rock but as I get close I realize they’re massive chunks of icy snow. If only I had a soda. I settle for water from a stream up ahead. I’m so tired, I don’t bother to filter it but then I change my mind when I spot garbage in the water. How people can be so careless is beyond me. Especially out here in the wild.
The closer I get to the top the more I can feel my good spirits returning. I am looking forward to the massive downhill that’s in store for me later, but first I want to enjoy the view. Zekari Pass is right on the edge of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park and the sight from up here is amazing. Luscious green mountain tops as far as the eye can see. And the temperatures up here are almost tolerable. I could easily set up camp here but I know it will get close to freezing tonight at this altitude. Besides, it is still relatively early. I know there’s a sizable town at the very foot of this mountain and I want a real meal. If memory serves, there are a couple of restaurants right on the edge of town.
After a short break to take in the view I hop back on the bike. At first the descent is quite a gradual one on a gravel road. Easy-peasy. Soon enough, the gradient gets steeper and the condition of the road deteriorates, making for a very technical and bumpy ride during which I almost lose one of my water bottles. I manage to catch it just in time before it free-falls down the cliff. I’m almost halfway down the mountain when the rocky road turns into a much smoother double track. I stop and peek over the ridge, spotting several large dump trucks coming up the mountain. From up here, it looks like they’re part of some massive road construction in full swing.
When I make it down there, I get yelled at by one of the truck drivers parked in the middle of the road. I have no idea what he’s getting excited about and frankly, I don’t care, so I just smile and wave at him as I continue to make my way down. I haven’t seen any signs telling me the road is closed and besides, there is no way I’m turning around and cycling back up the mountain, thank you very much. I can see dark rain clouds forming up ahead and there’s the unmistakable sound of thunder so I pick up the pace. Trying to avoid a deep crevasse I take a right-handed hairpin bend a little wide and almost crash headfirst into a Range Rover coming the other way. Judging by the advertisement on the side of the vehicle, it’s taking tourists up to luxury log cabins in the national park. Realizing there’s a whole convoy of Jeeps, I move out of the way and let them pass.
After what seems like a thousand switchbacks I reach the outskirts of the town of Abastumani. The very first structure I see is a restaurant. Having studied the map of this area back home I remember this to be a seafood establishment and quite a highly recommended one at that, so I stop for some food. I am famished, which results in me ordering a meal fit for a king. It is by far the most money I’ve spent in Georgia, let alone on food, but by golly, Molly, it is tasty.
I wish I could take my time to enjoy it, but not wanting to be caught in the impending thunderstorm, I scarf down my food in record time, settle the bill and jump back on the bike. It has started to rain but luckily I don’t have to ride far for a decent camp site alongside a small river. I am only partially obscured from view from the road but given the lack of traffic here, other than the dump trucks from the construction site, that shouldn’t be a problem. I set up my tent in record time and just as I’ve taken all the bags off my bike and stowed them all inside when all hell breaks loose. So much for doing some laundry in the river. I decide to hit the hay early and by 9 pm I am sound asleep, despite of the massive lightning storm outside.
I haven’t set an alarm, figuring I could use a good night’s sleep. I’ve been waking up quite early since I’ve been here, mainly because of the sauna-like temperatures inside my tent, as little as half an hour after sunrise. Today, I’m under the protection of a thick tree canopy and it is almost 8:30 am by the time I wake. Crawling out of my tent, I see that other people have set up camp across the river, about 50 meters away. They’ve got a big campfire going. One of the campers is taking a leak in the river so I vow to stick to the water from my bottle.
The cold leftover cornbread from my restaurant visit last night makes for a dry and not very tasty breakfast, but I’m sure it’s a calorie bomb and I need all the energy I can get. As I’m brushing my teeth, I see that my neighbors across the stream are getting a visit. If my eyes don’t deceive me their visitor is a Park Ranger. Are they getting an ass chewing for the campfire? I shrug and duck back into my tent to start packing. A few minutes later, I hear a vehicle grind to a halt so I peak outside. I see a serious-looking Ranger getting out of his vehicle, so I walk up to him and greet him. He quickly ascertains that I don’t speak Georgian so he pulls out his cell phone, makes a call and silently hands me the device. I take it from him and say “hello?”, not really sure what to expect. The friendly young lady on the other end greets me in flawless English and then informs me that the Ranger is about to hand me a ticket.
“Yes. You are in a national park and camping here isn’t free.”
I realize she means a camping permit rather than a fine and I smile. I hand the Ranger my ID card and he meticulously copies my name onto the ticket and then hands it to me to sign. All the writing is in Georgian so I may be signing over my firstborn — if so, the joke is on them. I also pay up the 5 GEL I owe, which buys me a firm handshake and half a smile from the Ranger.
I finish up packing and hit the road. I stop in Abastumani a few kilometers down the road for some pear juice and a yogurt. The next 7 kilometers are all downhill and I take my time to enjoy the scenery, which is stunning. I’m almost out of water but I haven’t seen any streams or fountains. I have passed several houses but there’s been no sign of human presence and I’m a little reluctant to go knock on doors. I kick myself for not having bought any water in Abastumani. I’m down to a few sips when I spot what looks like a pig’s trough with a water hose sticking out of it. I’m not sure this is the best option but beggars can’t be choosers. If I filter it, I should be alright. The pigs come over to observe this strange creature stealing their water.
From here on out, the tarmac ends as does the downhill . The road, for lack of a better word, is narrow, steep and rocky as hell. Houses are few and far between. The unpaved road, the old houses, the roaming livestock make me feel like I’ve been teleported into the Middle Ages. I haven’t seen a car in ages. I sense a bit of a mental dip coming up. Yesterday’s asshole hotel manager, the never-ending ascent, the relentless heat and the loneliness that’s crept up on me today are all taking their toll. I decide to take it easy today. Whether that’ll be feasible with the upcoming route remains to be seen.
I ride through another medieval looking village when suddenly my GPS tells me to leave the gravel road and take a sharp left and follow something vaguely resembling a singletrack going down the hill. I hesitate for a brief moment but then decide to do as I’m told. The short descent is a steep one and is made out of very loose dirt. I put my weight as far back over the back wheel as possible, but I still almost end up ass over tea kettle when my front wheel digs into the dirt making my bike jerk to a sudden stop. Seated on the top tube and using one foot as a stabilizer, I manage to make it down the hill unscathed. Up ahead, there is a fork in the singletrack and no matter how much I zoom in on the GPS track, I cannot for the life of me decide which way is the right one. Deciding it doesn’t really matter — both seem to lead over the same mound — my lazy ass decides to take the less steep option of the two, the one going around the side rather than over the hill. Big mistake. Picture this, if you will: hillside on my left, abyss to the right, a narrow singletrack, covered in thorny bushes. I’m talking brambles on fucking steroids. By the time I realize my mistake, it’s too late. There is not nearly enough room to turn my bike around, let alone a loaded one. I’m getting nervous as is, given the fact that my bike is on my left and the precipice is mere centimeters away from my right foot. I decide to clumsily crawl over my bike, thinking I’d rather have my trusty steed than yours truly take a plunge down the ravine. It takes me two hours to cover the next half a kilometer, pushing my way through the bushes. At a certain point I stop and scream at the top of my lungs, “FUCK YOU, CASS!!!! YOU GODDAMN PRICK!!!” I am absolutely livid. When I finally make it to the end of the track, I am scratched up to hell, bleeding from hands, arms, legs and face. I have also managed to rip several holes in my jersey and bike shorts, but I couldn’t care less. I sit down in the grass and take out my first aid kit to disinfect the rather large cut on my left thumb. I am in the middle of doing so when I feel an unpleasant sensation on my left butt cheek. Apparently I have sat down smack in the middle of an ant hill. The ants are big, red and ticked off. I quickly jump up and do the get-those-insects-off-me-dance. Screw the bleeding thumb, I’m out of here.
Once I make it over the top of the hill, I find myself in an open field. Tied to a long chain attached to a boulder is a beautiful black horse. At first, the poor animal is startled by my sudden presence but when I slowly approach him, he quickly realizes I mean no harm. My heart breaks when I see that his gorgeous face is covered in flies. And what’s with the chain? There are other horses in the meadow and they aren’t tied up. I contemplate freeing him from his shackles but there is no way to detach the chain from the rock. On the other end, the chain is wrapped around the horse’s neck and secured with a lock. I guess someone else has tried to set this animal free before I came along. Another bikepacker passing through, perhaps. While I feed him most of the bread from my bag, I take out my phone and study the route. As I suspected, I should have taken a left at the fork in the singletrack. Then again, I could have avoided this entire short but disastrous section if I had just continued to follow the gravel road from the town. It ends up on the same intersection just a few clicks away. Figures.
Saying goodbye to the bronco, I peddle the rest of the way through the field and find myself on tarmac again. This road looks brand new and the next ten kilometers are a steady but tedious downhill, all the way to the city of Akhaltsikhe (5 bucks if you can say that 10 times in a row). On the outskirts of the city is the rather impressive Rabati Castle but I’m in no mood to play tourist. Instead, I cycle into town and stop at a bank for some cash, drawing curious looks from the tellers. Back outside, I sit down against the wall and contemplate my next move. I could use some real food but 3 pm is an odd hour to go to lunch or even dinner. Visiting a supermarket is not an option either as I’m reluctant to leave my bike unattended in this big a city. I decide to wing it, having plenty of snacks in my backpack. I’ve only been back on the bike for ten minutes when I spot a hot-dog stand. While I wait for the kind man behind the counter to prepare my food — suffice it say it was the most interesting hot-dog I’ve had in my entire life — a small gathering forms around my bike. After the usual questions, a man in an All Blacks rugby shirt asks me how much I paid for my steed. Well, that’s a first. Not wanting to perpetuate the image of wealthy tourists, I lie and give him a figure about half of the bike’s actual worth. His eyes still widen. It’s probably more than he makes in a month and I feel stupid. Then again, I remember the outrageous bike prices in Kutaisi.
Getting out of Akhaltsikhe feels a bit like running the gauntlet. This city is on the intersection between the road leading from the capital to Turkey on one hand and the route from the west coast towards Armenia on the other. The Georgian government is clearly investing in new roads here and I have to ride through several construction sites. I’m feeling slightly anxious. Lots of construction means loads of traffic, mostly trucks. The tarmac looks — and smells — like it was poured 5 minutes ago and is still free of any markings. The wind has picked up considerably and I’m not making any decent progress. I also feel undecided about which way to go. Should I push on and follow my GPS? I’m tempted to head east towards the capital, but in the end, I decide against it. I know I’m still in a rut but knowing myself, that feeling is only temporary. And there only seems to be one road to Tbilisi and it looks like a busy highway or carriage way. Not ideal. I keep riding south, straight into the wind.
There’s a woman on the side of the road, giving me a big smile as I approach her. I greet her in Georgian but she enthusiastically replies in English and waves. Behind her is a gorgeous wooden bridge across the river. I have just gone a few hundred meters past her when I hear the unmistakable sound of thunder up ahead. There’s about two hours of daylight left, give or take, but a quick glance at my GPS tells me I’m at the foot of a rather lengthy climb. Chances are there will be no place to camp out of view for a few hours so I decide to turn around and ask the woman for directions. She gives me an ear-to-ear smile as I approach her again. Her English is outstanding and she seems eager to help. She informs me that if I cross the bridge and take a right, I will end up in her tiny hometown of Minadze. If I take a left and follow the river, I will find plenty of good camping spots. I thank her, compliment her on her English and take off towards the bridge, which is a dire state. Do cars drive across this ramshackle wooden thing? Some of the planks look like they may give way any time soon, and I’m glad to reach the other bank without getting wet. I spot a couple of houses on the right and a singletrack off to the left, which I get to by hopping across a small creek. Trying to put some distance between myself and the houses, I follow the track for about half a kilometer and decide to set up camp near some trees next to the river. There’s a quaint little beach too, which will come in handy when I want to freshen up in the morning.
The Irish have a popular saying: “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”. I have barely parked my bike when the storm kicks it up a notch. It’s still too light out to see lightning but I can hear thunder both east and west of my location. I quickly but calmly set up camp, keeping an eye on the rapid approach of inclement weather. Though it is creeping up in a rather ostentatious fashion, I will have a place to hide and escape its onslaught in a few minutes so I’m not frantic. Let me tell you, nothing teaches you to set up a tent more quickly than an approaching thunderstorm.
After I set up camp, I get all my gear off the bike and park it under some trees. I cover the frame bag with a small plastic tarp, hoping it won’t get soaked all the way through. It has started raining ever so lightly so I duck into the tent to inflate my sleeping pad and somewhat arrange my stuff. All of a sudden I hear a weird sound that I can’t quite place. It’s as if someone is running a … rasp over my tent. Or sandpaper. I turn around and spot a large shadow on the other side of the canvas. There is some enormous creature standing behind my tent. Letting curiosity get the better of me, I open up the front zipper and peek around the corner.
There is a huge bull licking the water off my tent. He’s quite young and skinny but still taller than my tent. I crawl out on all fours anyhow, knowing all too well that Georgian bovines don’t get fazed by human presence. I approach him calmly — I still don’t want to piss off an animal several times my own weight — and gently shoo him away. I don’t mind the licking so much, but he’s getting dangerously close to the guy lines and stakes. The last thing I want is him tripping over anything and ruining my tent in the process, leaving me exposed to the elements. At first he takes a few steps back but then decides he’s not scared of me in the least or that the water on my tent is too delicious to ignore so he moves around to the other side and resumes his slurping activity. To make matters worse, several of his friends are now within meters of my sleeping quarters. I decide to up the ante and take a sudden step towards them to scare them off. This only helps for a few seconds. No matter how much I flail my arms in the air, they keep moving in closer and closer. There are several large dead tree branches on the ground and in an exasperated move, I pick up the biggest one, wave it over my head and yell “Ya! Ya!”. Finally the entire herd takes a few dozen steps back and I turn around with a smug smile on my face. That’s when I realize I’m not alone. I spot an old man, obviously a farmer, standing 5 meters away near the path along the river. He’s looking none too pleased and as soon as my eye catches his, he starts yelling at me in Georgian. I’m assuming he’s pissed that I’ve scared off his cattle, but I point at my tent and say, “Sorry, dude, but they were going to ruin my палатка!”. Giving me the evil eye, the rancher and his bulls take off and I crawl back into my tent.
I have no choice but to skip dinner that night. Whatever bread I had went to the horse earlier today. I do have a dehydrated meal in my bag but I only have a few sips of water left in my bottle. The river here is nothing like the mountain streams up in Svaneti and I don’t want to chance drinking from it, even after running it through my filter. In hindsight, I should have bought some bottled water from the hot-dog man. Shoulda coulda woulda. I decide that the best way to ignore an empty stomach is to turn in for the night and by 9 pm I am sound asleep, in spite of the storm raging overhead.
The sun has barely come up when I wake from slumber. I have to pee really badly and given the fact that I’m in the middle of nowhere, I crawl out of my tent wearing nothing but a t-shirt and undies. I march over to the trees along the river and do my business. As I’m walking back, I spot a young man standing next to my tent. Where the hell did he come from so suddenly? He grins and looks me up and down, practically undressing me with his eyes. I quickly unzip the tent and grab the first clothes I can find, a sweater and my bike shorts, quickly putting them on. At first, the guy is friendly enough, albeit a little close for comfort. He asks me the usual questions, in Russian, which I try to answer as best as I can, while remaining courteous but aloof. He wants to know whether I’m by myself and as soon as I confirm, I regret my answer. Damn. I should have told him, “No, my husband went into town looking for food”. It’s too late for that now. A few more questions later, most of which I don’t understand but are probably perfectly innocent, he suddenly asks me if I want to have sex. That question, I do understand. I politely but firmly decline. At this point, I’m not all that worried yet. It’s a free country, he’s allowed to ask, just as long as he respects that no means no. When he does ask me again, a few alarm bells start going off in my head. And when he asks me a third time, I point at the ring on my finger, indicating that I’m married. He laughs and shrugs, as if to say, “who cares?” At this point, I’m in full DEFCON 1 mode. The lad takes another step towards me and that’s when I decide I have had about all of this moron that I can stand. When I put on my bike shorts a moment ago, I felt a familiar shape in the right pocket: my Opinel. It isn’t exactly a Rambo-sized hunting knife, but with a ten-centimeter blade, it’s not quite a nail file either. Taking it out of my pocket, I calmly unfold it and defiantly start cleaning my nails. Giving him my best Clint Eastwood impression, I look him square in the eye, squint and with a sly smile, say, “If you come any closer, I’m going to gut you like a fish”.
My wannabe suitor’s eyes go wide and he hastily takes a step back, almost tripping over his own feet. The grin is gone from his face and his complexion has turned a peculiar shade of grey. He politely offers me some water but I decline and say, in Dutch, “I don’t want any water from you either, jackass” and tell him to leave, go, beat it, scram. And just like that, he is gone.
I decide to pack up and get the hell out of there. I’m not all that worried but what if he returns with 3 of his buddies in tow? Better not hang around to find out. I calmly but quickly gather up my gear, load everything onto my bike and head for the bridge. As I’m now entirely out of water, I ride towards a few houses and spot a running faucet next to a fence. The water looks clean but I use my filter anyway. There are two men shooting the breeze down the street and as soon as I start to fill the first bottle, they approach me. If I understand them correctly, they’re telling me that the water isn’t safe for consumption. I try to tell them that it’s alright and I show them my filter but they keep shaking their heads. One of the lads grabs my bottles, empties them out on the side of the road and disappears into his house. Five minutes later, I’m crossing the wooden bridge with three water bottles filled to the brim with tap water. Faith in humanity: restored.
I round the bend and spot two other bikepackers on the side of the road so I pull over for a quick chat. These two young lads are hailing from Stuttgart, Germany and are on a trip in the general direction of Beijing. Great, more long-distance travelers. I feel like such a noob, just sticking to Georgia. For the next half hour, they entertain me with a horrid yet incredibly funny story about an obsessive policeman following them for 4 hours to make sure they stayed off a main road. I wish them bon voyage and they take off like a bat out of hell. Why is everyone in such a hurry?
The rumble in my tummy reminds me that I skipped dinner and breakfast and with no stores in the vicinity, I decide to take it easy. I find half a Snickers bar and my last granola bar at the bottom of my bag, which will have to do for now. According to Google Maps, there are no shops between here and Aspindza, 30 kilometers away. I’m supposed to head towards a monastery up the mountain but I’ve had it with going off-road for now so I stay on the main road. It’s still early and traffic hasn’t picked up yet. I put on the first layer of sunscreen well before 8 am and a few hours later, I put on my sleeves again as my arms still feel and look burnt. The next few hours I stop frequently to take pictures of my surroundings. This area is so different from Svaneti. It somehow reminds me of the south of Spain, the rolling hills, the heat, the spots of arid land. The route is far from flat, but it’s nothing that I can’t handle, even on an empty stomach. In spite of my contretemps with the creep this morning, I feel in surprisingly good spirits.
I have just rolled into the tiny town of Aspindza when I feel a small pop inside my nose and I instantly know what that means: another nosebleed. Crap. I pull over, hop onto the sidewalk and park my bike against the wall. After grabbing a piece of toilet paper from my backpack I sit down, pressing down firmly on both sides of my nose to cut off the flow. A large vehicle resembling a Humvee comes careening past me. I hear tires squealing, then the truck reverses and comes to a full stop right in front of me. A tough guy looking like a SWAT officer — wearing full body armor, camouflage pants, knee pads and casually holding an assault rifle like it was a ham sandwich — approaches me and in heavily accented English asks, “May I help you?” I smile and tell him I’m alright, it’s just a nosebleed, it’ll be over in a minute. He asks if I would like some cold water. Well, I certainly won’t say no to that. When he returns with a huge bottle, he’s accompanied by a woman carrying a small pouch. Without saying a word, she hands me a sterile gauze for my nose and then points at my upper left arm, motioning for me to lift up my sleeve. I’m confused. What is she going to do, give me a vitamin shot? As she opens the bag, I see what her intentions are. In it is a blood pressure monitor. I try telling the friendly cop that there really is no need, but he insists. Fine. Have at it. Next thing I know, I’ve got three people tending to me. The woman is taking my pressure while my SWAT friend is removing my helmet and splashing some cold water down the back of my neck and another guy is getting the bottles from my bike and filling them with cold water. I’m a little embarrassed by all this attention but at the same time I am so touched by their friendliness. This is amazing. (When I later tell my brother about this, he dryly comments that in Belgium, I probably would have gotten a fine for spilling blood on the sidewalk.) After they determine that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my blood pressure — 120 over 70, thanks for asking — the SWAT man asks me about my destination. I tell him that I’m headed towards Paravani Lake and then Tbilisi, eventually. He hands me his card and instructs me to call him should I run into a pickle. After they take off, I sit there smiling for the longest time. Best. Law. Enforcement. Encounter. Ever.
In town, I stock up on some food, eat a snack while I study the map before I get back on the bike. Finding a camping spot may be a bit of a challenge, but I’ll worry about that later. What troubles me right now are the dark clouds up ahead. I don’t mind a splash of rain, especially in this heat, but these clouds look particularly ominous and this is an open area without any type of shelter. I don’t have much choice but to keep riding. Up ahead I spot an 18-wheeler parked on the side of the road. The truck driver is checking his tires and greets me as I pass him. I return in kind and set foot down as he asks me where I’m going. When I tell him I’d headed towards Akhalkalaki, he offers me a lift. Now, in normal circumstances, I would have politely declined. I’m sure this will sound a bit silly but somehow hitching a ride feels a lot like cheating. I’m also a little reluctant to put myself in a situation where I am alone with a man, fearing a repeat scenario of this morning’s shenanigans. But considering the nosebleed and the impending storm up ahead, I take the driver , whose name is Emzari, up on his offer. My gut tells me it’ll be alright.
I’m assuming my knight in shining armor will load my bike into the trailer part of the truck, but that’s not exactly what he has in mind. He climbs up on the space between the cabin and trailer and motions for me to hand him my bike. Wait a minute. That doesn’t look like a safe spot to put a bike. How is he going to secure it? He shows me a handful of nylon straps, the flat kind that usually come with a ratchet, but these clearly do not. I quickly remove my GoPro and GPS and tentatively hand him my bike, curious as to how he will pull this one off. Emzari goes to work with half a dozen straps and I’m happy to see that he is putting some elbow grease into it. He grabs the saddle and wiggles the bike in an effort to assure me that it won’t budge. Right. He jumps down and opens the passenger door for me and nervously I climb inside. My good gut feeling has all but disappeared. My heart sinks even further when the door slams shut and I realize I can’t see my bike in the rear-view mirror. Every fiber of my being now screams to get out of the truck and just weather the storm on my bike, but Emzari has climbed into the driver’s seat and I can hear the engine roar. Too late! The truck takes off and I say a quick prayer for my bike.
It’s funny how much of a conversion you can have when you only know a few dozen words in any given language. In the ten kilometers that I ride along in Emzari’s truck, I learn he was a police officer in Kutaisi for ten years before he decided to give trucking life a try. He’s married and has two children. When he isn’t in his truck, he enjoys riding his motorcycle. In hindsight, he must have thought that this sullen Belgian woman in his truck was unappreciative and rude. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In any other circumstances, I would have just relaxed and smiled at his obvious effort to keep the conversion going but I’m a big ball of nerves. I’m so worried about my bike. Is it still behind the cabin? Has it plunged into the ravine when I wasn’t looking? What was I thinking? How will I continue my journey without a bike or spare clothes? Without my camping gear?
We’re getting close to the city of Akhalkalaki when we hit a stretch of road full of potholes and the truck is jerking violently from left to right, in spite of its snail’s pace. I ask Emzari to pull over. If by some miracle my bike is still attached to the truck, this is a surefire way to lose it. The truck has barely come to a halt when I jump out, heart racing in my throat. Much to my elation, my bike is still in the same spot. Emzari unties my bike and I help him get it down while I’m grinning like a ninny. We exchange Facebook details and I thank him for the lift. When he goes to shake my hand, I grab it and pull him in for a big hug and he breaks into laughter. I think he just realized why I was so nervous.
It has stopped raining and I decide to take a little break by the side of the road and eat. From here it’s only a hop and a skip to Akhalkalaki. The road that leads to it is next to a river and I can see ample camping spots on the other side but according to Google Maps there are no bridges across the river until I get into town. There’s nothing but rock face on the other side of the road so I have no choice but to push on. Akhalkalaki is an unimpressive town but the sheer amount of traffic is staggering. I am only about 30 kilometers from the Turkish border to the southwest and Armenia to the southeast so there’s a constant stream of trucks rolling through town. I stop and break out my phone. Judging by the satellite view of Google Maps, the road leading out of town is more of the same so finding a secluded camping spot will be nigh impossible. Par for the course. I fire up Booking.com to see if there are hotels or B&Bs here but no such luck. I’ll just have to continue my way until I spot a place a camp. Mother Nature has other ideas and has a really unequivocal way of making that clear. Dusk is setting in and I can clearly see the lightning flash, followed by a loud bang mere seconds later. I have to find shelter, now. There’s a little unpaved road off to the right and I decide that is my best bet. The sky has turned a peculiar shade of purple and I’m in no mood to push my luck so I set up camp right here and now, about 15 meters away from the road. It’s in plain view of the trucks slowing down to negotiate the hairpin bend but I don’t care. I set a new speed record setting up my tent and throw my bags inside and hop in. The storm is breaking in all earnest now and my tent is shaking violently. Then the hail starts. I decide to share the fun and take out my phone to make a short video which I then send to my brother through Messenger. His reply comes seconds later and contain only one question: “Will your tent hold up in this???” Well, I certainly hope so. I’m not all that bothered about the weather. What does worry is my location near the road. If the cops spot me they will likely ask me to move. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. The temperatures have dropped significantly so I quickly get changed into something warmer and tuck in for the night. I have just closed the zipper of my sleeping bag when I realize I forgot to lock my bike but I can’t be arsed to go out and take care of it in this weather. I’m sound asleep as soon as my ear touches the pillow.
No one came and woke me last night to tell me to skedaddle but I’d rather not push my luck, so I get up at 6 am to pack up and leave. Crawling out of my tent, I get a strange look from a farmer leading his herd of cows down the path. I’ll bet this is something he doesn’t see every day. Akhalkalaki is still peaceful and quiet when I hop on my bike. Riding through the center of town, I see a lot of boarded up shops. Finding food, especially at this hour, will be interesting. I am almost on the outskirts of town when I see two small dogs near what was once a gas station, so I stop to feed them the day-old bread and leftover sausage from my backpack. It isn’t much but it’s all I’ve got. It also means that I won’t have anything to eat but they look hungrier than I am. I’m sure I can pick up some food later and if all else fails, I have a melted Snickers at the bottom of my bag somewhere which will be fine till I reach the next town 20 kilometers away. There’s a little shack up the road and a middle-aged man steps outside to investigate what the racket is all about. When he catches sight of me feeding the dogs he gives me a smile and a big thumbs up. I reply in kind. The smaller of the dogs is quite skittish but obviously famished and vigorously wagging his tail, happy as a clam about being fed. After all the food is gone, I hop back on my bike. I have barely gone a hundred meters when I spot more strays and I feel bad for not having any food left to give. I almost miss the little grocery store on the other side of the road and slam on the brakes when I spot it. Leaving my bike on the curb, I step inside and greet the lady behind the counter in Georgian. She replies in English. That obvious huh? I pick up what has become my staple food on this trip: bread, cheese, tomatoes. The friendly lady asks if I want some coffee, telling me she just made a fresh pot. I happily accept. The brew I am handed is hot, dark, very sweet and stronger than a herd of stampeding buffalo. I’ll take this cup of joe over Starbucks’ water-dressed-in-black any day of the week, thanks. Yes, it’s in a plastic cup, but it’s tasty and it only cost 10 cents. The lady points out that she has some dates on sale. “Good energy for biking, miss.” She has a point so I grab a bag. These will be quite heavy to carry around, but they’re little pockets of sugary goodness that’ll make a nice change for the Snickers bars I’ve been consuming like they’re going out of style. I also grab a cold khachapuri, two big sausages and an additional loaf of bread, stuffing then in my backpack, which is now again bursting at the seams. After finishing my coffee, I head back in the direction I just came from and divide one of the sausages and the bread among the 6 other strays I just saw. I also ride back to the deserted gas station and feed the jumpy little mutt (and his friend) some more sausage. I sit down on the curb, taking my sweet time and this time he trusts me enough to grab a piece right out of my hand.
Content that I haven’t left any hungry pooches in my wake, the time has come to get back on the bike. According to my GPS, I have to take a left across the river and down a gravel path just out of town, but I’m not sure if I want to. Traffic seems to have died down a bit and I’d much rather stay on the road for a little while. While I’m contemplating my options, I see two cyclists coming my way. They stop and we exchange pleasantries. The two lads, hailing from the Czech Republic, are headed towards the Turkish border. Tied to the rack of one of the bikes is a clear plastic water bottle and one of the guys points at it and asks “Chacha?” I laugh. This early in the morning? I’ll pass, thanks. They tell me that they haven’t seen a cyclist in about a week and now there’s two, separated by a few hundred meters. Sure enough, I spot a young man on the side of the road a few minutes later, bike upside down while he’s working away at the rear wheel. I stop and startle him by saying, “You must be Lucas”. For a second he looks stumped but then quickly realizes I must have bumped into the Czechs. He gives me a firm handshake, smiles and says, “Lucas, from Wisconsin, USA”. I guestimate he’s in his early twenties and he’s about as fit as they come. What is also impressive is the size of his saddle bags. His bike and gear combined must be twice the weight of my setup. Then again, I would bring twice the amount of gear too if I was cycling from Istanbul to Singapore. Lucas, who crossed the border between Turkey and Georgia yesterday, spent the night out in a soggy field near the river and his tires are caked with mud. We agree to cycle together for a little while so I patiently wait for him to clear the sludge from between his brakes.
The road we’re on is straight as an arrow and mostly flat. The pavement is strewn with potholes and Lucas’ saddles bags are bouncing up and down like crazy. He turns around and yells, “Are all roads in Georgia this bad?” I assure him they’re not. As a matter of fact, most of the paved roads I have been on have been absolutely smooth. This road reminds me of the roads back home and I’m constantly swerving to avoid holes that are deep enough to bathe a small child in. Lucas is going at a decent clip in spite of his heavy bike but then we hit a small hill. I swiftly overtake him as he grinds to a near standstill. This hill isn’t very long but it sure is steep enough. Behind me, I hear a vehicle approaching and when I turn around I see the driver of a pickup truck engaged in a conversation with Lucas. Then the truck picks up speed and overtakes us both. I wait for Lucas to catch up.
“Let me guess”, I say, “he offered you a ride”.
“How did you know?”
“You better get used to it. Won’t be the last time”.
We both come to a complete halt at the sight of a huge white monstrosity of a building next to the road, our mouths slightly agape. It isn’t so much the way it looks — I’ve seen plenty of modern buildings in the capital — but rather its location that stops us in our tracks. It looks to be an enormous train station in the middle of nowhere. This is wild. There doesn’t appear to be as much as a goat shack in a ten-kilometer radius. (I later read that the station was opened in 2017 with much fanfare as part of the Euro-Asia railway and that it has been sitting empty since. The local population who were hoping that this place would bring some much-needed employment opportunities to the area sadly haven’t been included in the project.)
Shortly before noon, we arrive in the town of Ninotsminda. Seeing some movement out of the corner of my eye, I look up and am mesmerized by myriads of stork sitting in nests they neatly built on top of nearly every electric pole lining the main street. What kind of magical place is this? I almost crash headlong into Lucas who has stopped in front of a small grocery store. We leave our bikes outside under the watchful eye of a toothless old man drinking a beer on the curb. Stepping inside, I am instantly transported into the Soviet Union, circa 1982. This place is barren, even by Georgian standards. The only produce consists of tomatoes and onions sitting in plastic containers in the middle of the floor. There are shelves lining both sides of the shop but half of them are empty. I quickly step outside again while Lucas goes on the search of something to eat. This place is bumming me out.
We also stop at a pharmacy down the road as Lucas wants to buy some ibuprofen. I accompany him, on a quest for some decent sunscreen as I’m running low and the lotion I’m using doesn’t seem all that effective. I’m sure the excessive sweating is in it for something. When I ask the pharmacist behind the counter what kind of sunscreen they carry, she says, “only for children”. I quite like the sound of that. The kids stuff tends to be waterproof and probably has a higher SPF rate than the one I have. She keeps insisting “it’s for children” and I have to tell her three times I’ll buy some anyway before she shrugs and grabs a tube off the shelf behind her. Is there a shortage of children’s sunscreen that I’m unaware of? Some obscure law that prohibits adults from using it?
We leave the town behind us and head east towards Saghamo Lake. Once we’ve left civilization behind us, we stop for lunch. We find a clearing in the small forest next to the road. Nature even provides a table in the shape of an enormous flat rock. I break out the tomatoes I procured this morning and cut them up into my mug, adding some cheese. This’ll make for a simple but tasty salad of sorts. I also scarf down half the cold khachapuri while listening to Lucas talk about the Turkish leg of his trip. I’m only halfway through my tomato and cheese concoction when Lucas has finished his food. It’s obvious he’s eager to leave and tell him it’s alright if he doesn’t want to wait for me. He seems embarrassed that I can see he’s dying to get going and explains that he wants to reach Tbilisi in two days. Quite the feat since it’s 170 kilometers the way the crow flies and the road there is far from flat. Lucas hands me the URL to his website, we say our goodbyes and I watch him ride off into the distance. I take my merry time finishing my food.
It’s not all that sunny anymore but I still slap on some of my newly acquired sunscreen before I leave. The lotion is thick and white and no matter how long I rub, it leaves big white streaks across my arms and face, giving me a geisha-like appearance. I don’t care. This isn’t a beauty contest and I’m done burning to a crisp. Not that there’s much of a chance of that happening today, given the dark clouds. Maybe Lucas was onto something, leaving before the weather turned. For the next few hours I try my best to outrun the downpour and much to my surprise, I succeed quite admirably. I can tell by the streaks in the sky that it’s raining to the north and west of my position, but not above me and the direction I’m going. This is a good thing, since that is also the direction the wind is coming from, meaning the clouds are being blown away instead of towards me. Ever since I left Zugdidi an eternity ago it seems, I have been plagued by the strongest of head winds, in spite of the different directions I have been going. At first, I cursed the incessant gale. The mountains and the heat were big enough a challenge, not to mention the loaded bike. Then I realized there was no use in stressing out over it. I started seeing it as Mother Nature’s way to tell me, “Chill, bitch. Pace yourself. Take in the view, for crying out loud.”
After Saghamo Lake, I head north. According to my map, I am getting closer to the Javakheti Plateau. The landscape consists of wide-open plains littered with old inactive volcanoes. While not as impressive as the wild and rugged Upper Caucasus mountains, there is something about the view that is very appealing to me. This is where I will take the bulk of the photos I shot while in this fine country. Not only do I stop frequently to take out my camera, I will also make a small detour around Paravani Lake, completely enthralled by the sights.
There are two downsides to this area: the open plains offer little to no protection from said head wind. And even though there is very little traffic here, this area seems quite popular with one type of tourist: Range Rover Russians. Not only do they drive at warp speed, their roadside manners are not quite as chivalrous as the Georgians’. On more than one occasion, there is but half a meter between their vehicle and my handlebars as they careen past me, almost knocking me over in the process and certainly scaring the bejesus out of me. Given the strong head wind, I also can’t hear them coming till the very last moment, in spite of them nearly breaking the sound barrier.
In Poka, a town on the southeast bank of Paravani Lake, I have a lovely chat with three Polish bikers. Judging by the number of stickers adorning their motorcycle luggage, this isn’t their first rodeo. They rode their bikes from Poland through Ukraine and then took the ferry to Turkey, pretty much the same route Tomek followed. Tomek. I wonder how he’s doing these days. I received a message from him yesterday that he is in Armenia now. Unfortunately, his bike got stolen on the very first night he was there. Someone took it while he was sleeping soundly in his tent. He has decided to continue his travels on foot and has bought himself a cheap backpack. He’s a brave lad, I’ll give him that. I make a mental note to secure my bike to a tree every night with the POS bike lock I brought. It may not stand up to a 2€ nail clippers but it’s the thought that counts.
The sun is creeping towards the horizon and I need to start thinking about finding a sleeping spot. I’m trying to put some distance between myself and Poka as there are no secluded spots in this open plain. I do need to haul ass though as the weather has once again suddenly taken a turn for the worse. I have just spotted a grassy knoll on the right side of the road that I might be able to use for some cover. I decide, in an attempt to be stealthy, to cycle past it and see if I can get behind it from the side, instead of making my presence known to anyone who may be paying attention by clambering over it. Suddenly, I hear the roar of an engine behind me and I look over my shoulder to see a red van approaching. The driver slows down next to me and yells something but I can’t understand what he’s saying. I just say “hello” and keep cycling. The man behind the wheel keeps trying to get my attention, but I just ignore him. I want him to go on his merry way and not pay attention to me while I’m getting ready to set up camp. I’m in no mood for nocturnal visitors. After a few hundred meters of driving next to me, the driver decides he’s done with me ignoring him, overtakes me and pulls over to the right side of the road, almost taking out my front wheel in the process. I slam the brakes and curse. He gets out of his van and addresses me in Russian, asking me if I’m alone out here. I decide to give him a little attitude. I point towards the dark clouds on the horizon and say in English, “Dude, there’s a storm coming. I don’t have time for this shit.” I’m hoping my stern voice conveys the “fuck off” message I’m aiming for and I start pedaling again, leaving him standing by the side of the road. When I glance over my shoulder he has gotten back into his van but hasn’t taken off yet. I am grateful for the small bend in the road that obscures me from his view and I take the opportunity to abruptly swing a right and duck behind the small hill. Circling back about 10 meters, I lay my bike in the grass and crawl up to the top of the mound on all fours and peek over. Creepy Red Van Man is still sitting in the same spot. I look over to the right and see a white car approaching from the north. Cops! For a split second, I’m am tempted to run towards the road and flag them down, but what good would that do? For starters, there’s no way to know if they speak English. And even if I do, what do I tell them? “This man is making my skin crawl, please tell him to get lost”?
I walk back down to my bike and decide to move a little further away from the road since anyone driving south will still be able to see my tent. Not that it matters all that much, it’ll be dark soon. I set up camp and get all the gear I need off my bike. I cover the frame bag with a plastic bag to protect it somewhat from the elements. I peek over the mound again to make sure the creep is gone and duck inside the tent. There isn’t a tree in sight that I can secure my bike to, not that it really worries me. What is a source of concern, however, are the big, dark clouds suddenly looming overhead. I have barely changed out of my cycling gear when the storm breaks. It is even worse than yesterday’s squall. Lightning is followed almost instantly by ear-splitting thunder, indicating the storm is directly over my tent. The fly of my flimsy abode is flapping wildly in the gale force winds. I quickly move all of my bags to the left side of the tent and pray that I secured the guy lines firmly enough. After about an hour, the storm leaves as quickly as it started and I roll over to my stomach for some much needed shut-eye.
(In hindsight, the Red Van Man may have been trying to warn me about the impending storm, especially given the fact that I was cycling out in the middle of nowhere. In my defense, I was intimidated by his demeanor and I probably would have reacted differently if he’d been a woman or had had a female passenger.)
I wake up shivering in the middle of the night. Yesterday was pretty cool, but it is downright freezing now. I get the down jacket and merino wool long-johns from my bag and when that doesn’t help much, also put on an extra pair of socks and my wool hat. Why is it so cold? The answer comes to me when I turn on my GPS in the morning. “Current altitude: 2200 meters”. Yes Kate, might that explain the snow on top of the volcanoes, perhaps? I’m such an idiot. I’m not in the mood for stale bread so I just pack up and leave, vowing to stop at the first shop I come across. I do pop a few dates in my mouth. Thanks to the nightly temperatures, they’re rock hard but they’ll provide me with some energy till I find some decent grub.
I take off in the direction of Paravani. It is still quite cold but the sun is out and it is warming both my skin and my soul. I cannot get enough of the sight of the volcanoes across the lake. They look even more stunning in the morning sun. I pull over to the left side of the road, grab my camera and snap a few pictures. I turn around just as a white Lada Niva pulls up. Behind the wheel is a rather cool looking young man with a 5 o’clock shadow and a beanie. We exchange greetings in Russian and he asks me if I need any food. Before I can reply, he reaches out the open window and hands me a handful of cookies. I smile and thank him and take a step closer to the car to take the cookies from him. From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of something furry in the back of the SUV and at first, I think it’s a couple of dogs. Then one of the pooches lifts up its head and that’s when I realize that it’s not a dog at all. Laying down in the back of the Lada, in the trunk and where the back seat used to be, are about a dozen sheep, snuggled up closely together. There’s something so incredibly surreal and Monty Pytonesque about the whole thing. The beat-up Lada, the grungy I’m-too-cool-for-school driver, the sheep giving me a casual “sup, dude?” look. After the Lada takes off, I stand by the side of the road with a case of the giggles for a good few minutes.
I spot a dumpster on the side of the road in Paravani and I decide to pull over to get rid of some of the garbage I’ve been collecting in my backpack. As I’m making my way up the hill, a man steps outside the house to my right, garbage in hand. He pauses when he spots me. I pull up next to the trash can and say hello. He smiles and says, “Coffee?” This is Georgia in a nutshell. I may be an axe murderer but this guy just invited me into this home without even asking as much as my name. He gestures to follow him. I park my bike outside and follow Vasily in, where he introduces me to his wife. She makes me a cup of Turkish-style coffee that is so strong you could float a horseshoe in it. Holy smokes, this stuff will keep me awake for a fortnight. Vasily and I sit down by the window. A backgammon game covers most of the table. He explains to me that he used to be a dairy farmer, owning a 1000 head cattle ranch. Now that he’s a little older, he bought this house to turn it into a restaurant. He shows me one of the dining areas, where a big oak table is set for 12 guests. Adorning the wall is a huge fresco, which Vasily proudly tells me his wife has painted. She’s quite the talented artist. The conversation turns to my travels and Vasily inquires about the places I’ve been and where I am headed. His eyes grow large when I tell him I cycled over the Caucasus Mountains but he laughs out loud when I tell him I am hoping to get to Tsalka tonight. He thinks I should stay in Paravani, which “is much prettier”. I don’t doubt that for a second, the views alone are spectacular. The town itself isn’t much to look at though and I was hoping to be able to take a shower tonight. According to Google Maps, there are no guest houses in this small town. I thank Vasily and his lovely wife for the coffee and their hospitality and hit the road.
After making a quick stop at the small grocery store just up the road, I tackle the last ascent of the day. I didn’t get that much quality sleep last night, but I feel quite invigorated. I do stop frequently, but more often than not, it’s not to rest but to gaze over the lake and the mountains in the background. I find this place quite remarkable. Other-worldly. Besides the constant howl of the wind, it is very quiet here. No birds, no people, no machinery or planes and only the occasional aforementioned Russian car. I could easily spend a few more days here, if it wasn’t for the lack of accommodation and decent camp sites. I have just about left the lake behind me when I spot a bright red gravel road to the left of me. I take out my phone and have a peek at the map. This is the beginning of a road that circumvents the lake. It’s still early and I do want to snap a few close-up pictures of the volcanoes, so I decide to make a little detour and head towards Akhali Khulgumo. This town, with its population of 133, its unpaved roads and the haphazardly placed houses reminds me of one of those Nunavut settlements in northern Canada. I snap some pictures of the mountains and the town and then decide to have a quick brunch. With a backdrop like this, I could sit here all day. Trust me when I say that these pictures don’t quite capture the spirit of this place.
I start feeling lazy, which is my cue to go. Coming here took an eight-kilometer detour over a very bumpy and rocky road, but it was so worth it. I get back onto the main road. From here it’s another three kilometers to the top of the climb, followed by a huge downhill. I have just made it over the top when I stop to make sure all my bags are still firmly attached and that there are no flapping straps before I start the descent. In the distance, I see a cyclist making his way up the hill, huffing and puffing. I try to encourage him by telling him he’s always made it to the top and he laughs and stops. We shake hands and, as you do, ask each other where we’re from. “Belgium”. “Ha! Small world”. I end up chatting for almost half an hour with Elias and his girlfriend Hannah, who joins us shortly after. They’ve been on the road for several months, having started in Belgium, on to Germany, Austria, Slovenia and a slew of other countries before reaching Georgia. Next up are Ukraine and Moldova. I start feeling embarrassed about being a Chatty Cathy, so I wish them happy trails and take off. The ensuing downhill is 12 kilometers long and at times quite steep. Due to the smooth pavement and the heavy bike, I’m picking up speed rapidly, soon hitting 80 km/h. I remind myself of the promise I made to my big bro and take it easy. This means braking incessantly and that has me a little worried. It is considerably warmer here than at the lake and my brakes must be heating up like crazy. I’d rather they wouldn’t crap out in the middle of the descent. When I stop and touch the front disc, I almost burn my fingers. I decide to stop every so often to allow my brakes to cool and to take in the view. From up here, I have an unobstructed view over the Kvemo Kartli valley below. It looks lush and green. And flat. I quite like that. Flat is good.
If I was hoping for paved roads down in the valley, I’d be sorely mistaken. The road is made up of gravel but it looks like someone recently dumped a truckload of it. It is deep and not hard-packed yet and my wheels keep digging themselves in, making me get off the bike and push on several occasions. Even cars are taking it nice and easy.
In a small town I pass a group of about two dozen kids hanging out in front of a store. They stare and I wave. A handful of them shout “hello” with such enthusiasm that I stop to talk to them. The girls seem shy and they mostly giggle but the boys’ curious questions come in rapid succession and I do my best to answer them all. They tell me they’re on a summer break. School doesn’t start again till September, giving them a three-month long holiday. I wish them a great summer and take off. Oh, to be young again.
The gravel has just given way to pavement when I spot a young man on a bike pulling out of a side street. Spotting me, he circles back to meet me and says, “Bonjour, ça va?” He cracks up when I reply in French. Originally from France, Florent and his Ukrainian wife has been living in Georgia for 5 years. They recently bought a house on the shores of Lake Khrami and are remodeling it with help of some French and Polish friends, all bikepackers like myself. He points to his backpack and tell me he just picked up some beer from a local brewery, would I care to join them for a brewski? Would I ever. Florent takes me down a little singletrack away from the main road. He tells me they’ve been digging all morning, trying to get to the water mains since they don’t have running water at the moment. I laugh and ask him whether that’s legal. It isn’t, but he insists that there is no other solution. The local authorities can’t be relied upon to provide all the houses with access to water, so they don’t intervene when people get creative. Besides, water in Georgia is plentiful and dirt cheap, which I’ve noticed on more than one occasion. It is not uncommon to see running water taps in people’s front yards. Introductions are quickly made and I am asked to take a seat at the table, in between Manu and Valentin, two French lads who are currently traveling across the globe on recumbent bikes. The table is loaded with food, all vegetarian. It is so nice to have a decent meal, not to mention a conversation in a language I understand and speak. I laugh when Manu mocks my Belgian-French accent. His smirk disappears when I tell him I’m not a native French speaker and that my mother tongue is Dutch. I listen intently to everyone’s adventures, especially when one of the Polish girls talks about her recent trip to Iran. The table is cleared and coffee and tea are served. Florent invites me to go canoeing with them on the lake and says I am welcome to spend the night, but I can’t. I already booked a hotel in Tsalka for the night and I’m in dire need of a shower. The lads accompany me outside. We walk past the French doors leading from the hallway to the living room and I instinctively duck when I spot something flying right over my head out of the corner of my eye. Florent takes me into the living room and points at the ceiling. In the corner is a bird’s nest. “The five eggs just hatched the day before yesterday so we decided not to do any work in here just yet. We’ll wait for the baby swallows to fly out.” Wow. That is very considerate of them. We quickly leave the room again because momma bird is obviously starting to get anxious. I say goodbye to everyone, thanking them for the glorious meal and set sail for Tsalka.
The hotel I booked only has a street name but no house number on the listing and there also isn’t a sign outside indicating it’s a hotel. I cycle past it a few times and if it wasn’t for the pictures I found online, I probably never would have found it. The Soviet-era building reeks of faded glory on the outside, but is surprisingly modern on the inside. I find the owner in the dining room and after paying what I’m due, he takes me up to my room. The bed is a tiny single but everything looks very clean and the bathroom is massive. I’m allowed to park my bike inside in a storage room and the owner makes a big show of locking the door, assuring me that my bike will be safe, which is much appreciated. Back in my room, I unpack and then get something important out of the way first: I hand-wash my dirty clothes and hang them up to dry. I also take a quick shower. Lying down on the bed, I look up some information about Tsalka. According to Google, there are several restaurants in this town, but one of them jumps out due to its raving reviews. After a quick nap, I wake up absolutely famished. I put on a dress and sandals and head out.
Restaurant Pontia is owned by Julieta, a tiny white-haired lady of Greek descent who’s been running this place for many moons. I am shown to my own private dining area outside. There is no fixed menu so Elena, Julieta’s daughter, gives me a rundown of today’s options. I pick the fish dish, grilled trout, along with a tomato and cucumber salad. Several of the reviews I read mentioned that the khachapuri here is to die for, albeit it a little different from the standard bread and cheese snack that is served in other regions. When I ask Elena about it, she explains that her mother makes it with puff pastry instead of the more commonly used bread dough. The pastry is home made to boot. She does warn me that it takes a while to make and asks if I have the time, then laughs out loud when I tell her I have almost two weeks before I have to be back in Tbilisi for my flight. One of the waiters brings me a pint of frosty beer and some bread and while I’m waiting for my food, I take out my journal for a quick entry. Elena appears with my salad, puts it down on the table and says, “I added a few slices of cheese for you” and winks at me. The salad, as I’ve come to expect, is heavenly. I don’t know what it is about tomatoes in this country. Is it the sun? The soil? The exact variety? They have ten times more flavor than any tomatoes back home. The waiter reappears with the trout and I ask him for another beer, which is served promptly. I delve into the fish, which is grilled to perfection. By the time the khachapuri arrives I am quite full, but the mere sight of it is enough to give me an appetite again. I’ve had some pretty tasty khachapuri in the past two weeks, but this one is next-level. I manage to finish half of it and wrap the other half in a napkin for later.
The total tab for this glorious meal? 18 GEL, just over 5€. I leave a handsome tip, say goodbye to Elena and saunter back to the hotel, where I fall into a khachapuri-induced slumber.
The bed is tiny but very comfy and I sleep like a baby. I wake up early and totally ravished. Unfortunately I didn’t think to buy anything for breakfast yesterday and all I have is stale bread. I look up the grocery stores in town and am surprised to see that one of them is supposedly open 24/7. Really now. In this small town? I wait till 8:30 am to be on the safe side before I head out. I go downstairs to find the owner first, to ask him if it’s alright if I spend another night. My knee feels a little sore today so I could use an extra day of rest. Besides, I have oodles of time. The hotel guy is more than happy to accommodate me for an extra day. I get the impression that there are no other guests here. I had booked the previous night through Booking.com and paid 40 GEL. When I hand him a 100 GEL note this time, 80 GEL is handed back to me but I don’t think anything of it. I figure that either spending two nights in a row or not using Booking.com is cheaper. And it’s still more than I paid for a double room in Kutaisi, a city with 70 times the population of this place. I thank the good man and he jokes he’d be more than happy to give me a massage. I simply laugh it off, thinking to myself, “I’m sure you would. And as soon as hell freezes over, I’ll take you up on that offer.”
I take the stale bread and head on out to the shop, which is of course still closed, so I head the other way, towards last night’s restaurant. In the little square behind it, an open-air food market is in full swing. I casually stroll along the aisles. Most of the produce is sold out of the back of a van or car. There are a few stalls set up but most of them are selling clothes. I spot one lady selling cheese. She only seems to have one variety, called Guda. This is the cheese that is widely available in the tiny roadside shops I’ve been frequenting. Made from goat’s cheese, the texture is somewhat akin to feta but it’s harder, drier and very salty. I didn’t like it much at first but I’ve acquired quite a taste for it. The cheese lady catches me looking and cuts off a thin slice, offering it to me. This cheese seems to be of a softer and riper variety than the ones I’ve been buying and I am instantly hooked. I buy a big chunk of it. Next to the cheese stall, a man selling honey is trying to convince me to buy a big jar. The honey looks absolutely divine, thick and golden, but I simply don’t have the room to stash a one kilo jar of honey in my bag and from the looks of it that is the only size he offers so I smile and politely decline. The stall sits at the very end of the market and in the open space behind it, I see several dogs hanging around. I walk over to them and start tearing up the two loafs of stale bread from my bag, dividing it among the pooches. I’m being extra generous to the runt of the litter and a dog that is obviously too scared to come very close. The honey man walks over to me and I’m assuming he’ll ask me where I’m from or something along those lines, but he wants me to write down my phone number. He’s looking a little too eager so I polity decline but he insists and asks if I’m staying at a hotel nearby. And if I want to have dinner with him tonight. I thank him but no, and walk off to put an end to the conversation. I pick up some tomatoes, a cucumber and a couple of bell peppers on the other side of the market and leave. As I stroll down the main street, several locals stare and laugh as I walk by. I turn around and see why. In my wake are 8 canines, making me look like something of a Pied Piper of Hamelin, luckily minus the rats. I pick up two extra loafs of bread from the bakery on the corner and feed it to them too. Next stop: the grocery shop which has opened in the meantime. I’ve been craving some junk food so I buy a couple of bags of chips and a bottle of Fanta but also some tuna, butter and a jar of Nutella. When I walk back out, all of the pooches are gone. I head back to the hotel and put the food in the mini fridge in my room.
I’m spend the rest of the morning reading on a bench at the nearby park and snacking. I buy a bag of loquats and a watermelon from one of the fruit stalls along the main road, trying to compensate for the lack of fruit in the past two weeks. When I get back to the hotel there are two bikes outside, loaded with luggage. They belong to Peter and Tommy, two young German brothers who are cycling around the world. We share the watermelon while they tell me tall tales of their travels. They head for their room and I take another stroll down to the grocery store for some sausage. There are two dogs and a cat at the hotel. One of the dogs is an impressive looking German shepherd attached to a chain in a closed off part of the front yard, the other looks like a black sheep dog. Sweet as pie. Even though he still has his four limbs, he only uses three of them, holding up his front left paw as he limps along. When I ask the hotel owner what is wrong with it, he shrugs and smiles as if to say, “who knows?” I have noticed that the German shepherd, who is clearly used as a guard dog and who’ll bark at anyone walking or driving past the hotel, gets ample food while the black dog gets table scraps. When I arrived yesterday, I had some sausage in my backpack, which I fed to the cat and black dog, but even the German shepherd gets a few pieces. When I return from the store, I run into the owner again. He offers me another massage and this time, I don’t even bother to respond. The guy is pretty harmless, but he’s a little too nice, in a sleazy kind of way. At some point, he even knocks on my door to inquire why I am indoors, as the sun is shining. I’m sure he means well, but I just want some peace and quiet. What I don’t want is a rendition of the Sairme hotel incident.
I feed the two dogs again in the evening on my way out to the restaurant, but the cat is nowhere to be seen. And when I arrive at Pontia, there is no sign of Elena. There is a man working the register, but he doesn’t speak any English so I don’t know how or what to order, since there is no menu. Two lads are standing nearby having a smoke while they’re waiting for their food to be served and one of them comes to my rescue, offering to translate. He passes my order to the waiter so I thank him and go look for a table. My interpreter and his buddy insist I join them at theirs. They strike me as absolute gentlemen and I happily accept. I could do with a little company and a dinner conversation. When we get to their table, it looks like they were expecting me (and perhaps a few other people) when they ordered food. There are 4 different types of grilled and fried fish (“all caught in the lake behind us”, Vladimir informs me), a few different salads, a plate of cheese, French fries and some kind of ratatouille. Vladimir and Giorgi insist I dig in, even though I have food of my own coming. The rest of the evening, they entertain me with wild stories about Georgia and its people. The two of them run a restaurant/wine bar in Tbilisi but they are out here on business. I am still only about halfway through my enormous shashlik— seriously, that thing was half a meter long and none of the men wanted any — when they both have to leave. Their taxi has arrived and they need to run off to an evening meeting. They apologize profusely for leaving me on my own, but I tell them it’s quite alright. I thank them for the company, the food, the stories, the belly laughs. We exchange Facebook details and off they go. About two minutes later, Vladimir sticks his head around the corner to let me know that they picked up the tab for my food. I tell him that really isn’t necessary but he smirks and tells me it’s already done and disappears again. I take my time finishing my meal. There’s enough fish and beef left to feed two more people. Suddenly I feel something move at my feet. I peek under the table and see a little calico cat staring up at me. I smile. Tonight is your lucky night, cuteness.
I walk back to the hotel in exceptionally good spirits and head for my room. There is still no sign of the hotel cat but I figure I’ll just give her a double ration of sausage in the morning. I’m in bed reading when I hear soft meowing at the front door of the hotel, which is just below my window. I put on my shorts, grab a sausage and my knife and go downstairs, figuring the cat has returned and is hungry. As soon as I unlock the front door, something furry runs right past me, brushing my leg. I look down and see a tiny kitten sprinting towards the hallway, crying its little head off. The poor little thing is obviously famished. I try to open the knife but it appears to be stuck and the kitten, having smelled the sausage, is really putting some effort into his meows now. Fearing someone might hear, I pick him up, hide him under my shirt and make a beeline for my room.
Back in my room, I finally manage to unfold the knife. The kitten is barely giving me time to cut bite-size pieces from the sausage, nipping at my fingers with impatience. Ten minutes later his tummy is full and he curls up in my lap, purring away. What am I going to do about this little ball of fur though? I just know I don’t have the heart to put him back out, left to his own devices. It has also just started to rain and I can hear thunder in the distance. On the other hand, I don’t want to get in trouble with the hotel guy either and getting kicked out of a hotel in the middle of the night. I decide to set my alarm for 5 o’clock and sneak the kitten out of here before anyone’s awake. I lay down some toilet paper on the bathroom floor in case he needs to go potty.
I wake up well before my alarm starts blaring and find my little feline friend firmly snuggled up against my side, catching Z’s. My heart melts. At 6 am, I decide I’ve pushed my luck as much as I should. I feed the kitten again and head downstairs. The front door is still locked meaning the owner isn’t up yet. Good. I kiss the kitten on his little head and put him outside, feeling rotten. As soon as I try to close the door though, he slips right past me and runs into the hallway. I give chase but he disappears into what appears to be the laundry room. Ah well. I figure this is fine. If the owner finds him when he wakes, he’ll put the kitten outside. Mission accomplished. I head back to my room and get some more sleep.
It is 8 o’clock by the time I head downstairs again, where I bump into the German lads who are getting ready to leave. Next to their bikes, on the windowsill, I spot the kitten. He’s still here! Peter tells me that the kitten isn’t a stray but belongs to the hotel, which would explain why he was so dead set on getting inside. He is sitting this high up because he’s afraid of the grown cat. I guess she’s not his mother then. I am somewhat relieved the kitten has shelter but it doesn’t exactly thrill me either, given the state of the other pets here. The Germans take off and I turn my attention to the kitten, who’s still trembling with fear. I feed him and his canine friends the rest of the sausage. Suddenly, the door behind me opens and the owner steps out. He picks up the kitten and takes it inside. When he comes back he asks me, probably for the tenth time since yesterday afternoon, at what time I’ll be leaving. I tell him I’m almost done packing. I don’t know why he’s so anxious. This hotel has no other guests. Is he expecting a bus full of American tourists? As it turns out, he’s afraid I’ll leave “without paying”. Excuse me? I tell him I already paid him in full but he insists that I owe him another 40 GEL. Not exactly a big wad of cash, but he is obviously trying to scam me. If he changed his mind about charging me less for the second night than for the first, I’ll be more than happy to throw another 20 his way, but that’s it. All of a sudden I can’t wait to get out of here. This guy has been given me the creeps since I got here and my gut feeling wasn’t wrong. I show him the rates on the Booking.com app and practically throw 20 GEL in his direction. I head upstairs and finish packing. Back downstairs, I grab my bike out of the storage, take it outside and strap all the bags in place, under the watchful eye of the owner. All of a sudden, he’s sweet as pie again, even offering to hold my bike as I get the gear on. I’d love to say goodbye to the kitten but when I go looking for him inside, he is nowhere to be seen. Maybe that’s just as well. It may make it impossible to leave. I give the black dog a last pet and belly rub and take off, barely granting the owner a look. I start pedaling and look over my shoulder, somewhat hoping to catch a glimpse of the kitten one last time, but instead I see a black pooch following me. I stop and he plonks down next to me, tail wagging. “You’re adorable, but I can’t take you with me, buddy”. I ride back to the hotel to make sure he doesn’t follow me all the way to Tbilisi. Back there, the owner is going absolutely apoplectic. He towers over the poor mutt and screams at him to get back behind the gate. The dog cowers in fear. I park my bike and tell the man to put a sock in it. I walk the dog to the front yard, wait for him to get in and close the gate behind him. Strolling back to my bike, I tell that jerk with as much disdain as I can muster, “I’m not surprised your dog wants to come with me. Are you?” and ride off before he can reply. This time I don’t bother to look back.
On my way out of town I stop at the bakery for some bread. I want to buy some sausage too, but the grocery store isn’t open yet. I continue cycling until I’m out of Tsalka and I park my bike on top of the hill, near a pile of concrete pipes on the side of the road. I climb on top of them and sit down for breakfast. From up here, I have a nice view of the valley. I cut the bread and make a big stack of Nutella sandwiches. One of them I eat right away, the others go into a Ziploc bag for later. I’m not all that hungry but I need to get some food into me for the long ride ahead.
An hour goes by and I’m still in the same spot, the sandwich long gone. My eyes keep going back to the silver roof in the middle of town. Even from this distance, I can tell that’s the hotel. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been crying pretty much since I sat down. The good spirits I was in last night have made way for downright depression. I feel awful about leaving the kitten behind. Peeling myself away from my breakfast spot I get back on the bike and start cycling, but my heart isn’t it. It takes me well over 2 hours to cover the first 5 kilometers. In these 5 kilometers, I’ve turned my bike around about twenty times to ride back to Tsalka, only to talk myself out of it. I finally stop on a bridge, right before the top of a hill. This will be the last time I’m able to see Tsalka. The tears are rolling down my face in earnest now and I let out a cry in frustration. I’m mad at myself more than anything else. I feel increasingly stupid for allowing myself to care so much about a kitten that I’ve known for less than 24 hours. He has a roof over his head and I’m sure he’ll get fed but that man is absolutely awful. I doubt the kitten will get all the love and attention he needs. But what can I possibly do? I can’t take him with me either way, even if I can convince the hotel owner to give him to me, although I’m sure he’d let me if I paid him. But what if I continue my journey to Tbilisi, find a place to securely park my bike and take a marshrutka back to Tsalka? I could then find a vet who will give him the necessary shots so I can take him to Belgium with me. All of a sudden my heart is racing. I take out my phone and search for information on what the terms are for bringing a pet from Georgia into Belgium. Twenty minutes later I’m none the wiser. I find several sites with info, but none tell me how old the kitten has to be to be allowed to travel. I also find conflicting information on the waiting period. I frantically take off my backpack to look for my journal and turn to the last page, where I wrote down the email address for the Belgian consulate. Grabbing my phone again, I mail them and my sister, who is a vet, asking them for information. I also send a message to Turkish Airlines, to find out what their policy is on taking a pet on a plane. I jump back on the bike, all of a sudden not feeling so down anymore. I have a plan and that is giving me hope. That hope is brutally squashed when I check my phone several hours later. My sister estimates from the picture that I sent her that the kitten is much too young to fly. And in order to be allowed into the country, he doesn’t just need a series of vaccinations, there is also a quarantine period of several months involved before he’s allowed to enter Belgium. And here come the waterworks again. Seriously, have I sprung a leak or what?
I set up camp near Algeti Reservoir. A little too close to the road for comfort, I park my tent in a clearing in the woods. I can see the cars on the road from here, but if I don’t turn any lights on after dark, they won’t spot me. The ground is also covered in dry leaves, which makes it virtually impossible to sneak up on me without alerting me. Just to err on the side of caution, I do take advantage of the presence of trees to lock my bike to one of them. My thoughts go out to Tomek again. According to Google Maps I am right on the edge of a National Park so I may get a visit from Park Rangers again in the morning.
When I wake up in the morning, I look like I’ve been ridden hard and put away wet. My face is all bloated and my eyes are bloodshot, thanks to my incessant crying yesterday. I need to snap out of this rut I’m in. There’s nothing I can do. I can’t save them all. While I eat a couple of yesterday’s Nutella sandwiches for breakfast, I reach out to my buddy Ludovic, a seasoned bikepacker, through Messenger. He’s the voice of reason I need right now and as I expected, I feel much better by the time I get up to pack my gear and leave. I’m almost out of water so I use some Listerine to rinse my mouth after I brush my teeth. This area is very dry and desolate so it may take a while before I can fill up again. The reservoir in the valley below looks mighty inviting and I’m tempted to go for a swim but even from up here, I can tell that the water isn’t all that clean.
I have just started the descent towards the valley when I notice that my rear tire looks suspiciously flat so I pull over. I haven’t come to a full stop yet when I spot a small beagle across the road. Most of the dogs I’ve come across are quite shy but this one is a cheeky little mutt. He sits down right next to me, tail wagging, with a look of hopeful anticipation on his furry little face, before I’ve even parked my bike. If he thought that I looked like someone who might give him food, he’s not mistaken. I’m all out of sausage so I feed him one of the bags of crackers I bought to snack on. He inhales the food without chewing so I feed him the second bag too, followed by some leftover chips. I only have one sandwich left and it’s covered in Nutella, which would make him ill. Using my cupped hand as a makeshift bowl, I pour some water into it, which he happily laps up. I now have only a few sips left, but I’ll be alright. It’s still early and not that hot yet. If all else fails, I’ll flag down a car. I pump up the rear tire, pet the dog for a few minutes and take off.
As luck has it, there is a water fountain just a few hundred meters down the road, in an alcove on the left. It’s in the middle of a steep descent and if it wasn’t for the car parked in the right lane, I surely would have missed it. I hit the brakes but by the time I’ve come to a full stop, I’m 50 meters farther down the road. I hike back up to the fountain and where I am greeted by a man and two boys. While they gush over my bike, I fill up all three of my bidons with ice cold water, downing half a bottle in one greedy gulp.
I stop in the next town when I spot a small grocery store. As I’m walking my bike across the parking lot, I see a group of older men sitting under the trees next to the shop. One of the gentlemen walks over to me as I’m parking my bike and the usual conversation ensues. I am then asked if I would like to join the group for a drink. It’s still early and since I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere today, I gladly accept. We exchange pleasantries and I am offered a seat on the improvised bench, next to a bear of a man. His name is Dato and much to my surprise, he is fluent in Spanish. Over the course of the next half hour, the conversation is a funny mixture of whatever Spanish I remember from college, some German, with a bit of Russian and English thrown into the mix. In spite of the early hour, they are drinking beer and what I can only assume is chacha. Someone tries to hand me a brew but I tell them it’s a little early for alcohol for me and I hear a few of the men snicker. When I try to get up to go buy a soda next door, I am told to stay put and one of the men runs inside instead. I’m not even allowed to give him any money. The atmosphere is relaxed and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. From what I gather, all of these men are retired and enjoying life. Good for them. I’m just about to tell them I’m hitting the road again when a van pulls up and the entire group cheers. A man jumps out of the driver’s seat and opens the sliding door, taking out a couple of plastic crates. Next thing I know, the table is covered from one side to the other with small dishes of food. Someone hands me a paper plate and I am told to dig in. Truth be told, I’m not really hungry as breakfast was little over an hour ago, but the grub looks inviting and I don’t want to be rude, so I try a few different kinds of fish and some grilled eggplant with garlic. It’s only 10 am but I’m sure it’s lunchtime somewhere in the world.
I’ve been sitting here for about an hour and my ass is starting to go numb, which I take as my cue to hit the road. I say goodbye to the men and thank them for the food and the soda. Dato and I get up and he walks me in the direction of my bike. A few of the men have gathered around a barrel and are rolling a couple of doobies. Another one is smoking weed out of a homemade bong, which he has cleverly crafted from a plastic soda bottle. I am offered to take a hit but I’m not interested. I have had my fair share of reefers in the past, but even then, I would only smoke out of the comfort of my own home. I am a bit of a lightweight when it comes to grass and I really don’t want to get sick, especially since there is no way of telling how strong their pot is. Besides, I don’t think that getting baked is a good idea when cycling up and down mountains. Dato is not taking no for an answer and insists I take one hit, but I decline again. He offers again and that’s when I decide it really is time to leave. I shake my head again, say goodbye and walk away.
It is obvious that I’m getting closer to Tbilisi. The small towns are coming in rapid succession now, there is a lot more traffic and the children I meet have more attitude. I decide to make a little detour to get away from the busy road and cycle through the small town of Koda. Spotting a drinking fountain I stop to fill up. A few small children are playing in the adjacent basin. They stop their splashing and stare as I park my bike and greet them in Georgian. They don’t look a day over 6 but there is one slightly older kid with glasses that seem slightly big for his thin face. “Hi, my name is Lucas. How are you?” Well, aren’t you a polite little man? I introduce myself while I fill up my bottles. The little kids speak a little English too. They know two sentences, to be exact: “Hello, how are you?” and “Fuck you, motherfucker”. Charming. Next to the drinking fountain is a small shop and I’m in the mood for a cold soda. As I’m parking my bike, a small group of kids cross the street. These are a little older than the ones at the fountain, probably in their early teens. They gather around my bike and one of them asks if he can take it for a ride. I hesitate. Since I’ve been in Georgia, the only bikes I’ve seen were ridden by seasoned bikepackers. I’m not sure this kid, confident as he may seem, knows how to ride a bike. And even if he does, there’s a snowball’s chance in hell he’s ever ridden one with this much luggage. Even I had to get used to the added weight the first few days. If he falls and breaks my bike, I’m stuck out here in the middle of nowhere where bike shops are few and far between. I actually haven’t seen one since Kutaisi. So I tell the kid I’m sorry, but he can’t ride my bike. He doesn’t seem pleased but it is what it is. I walk into the shop and get a soda and a couple of snacks for later. I also want to buy some candy for the kids outside but when I glance over to my bike, they’ve all disappeared. I shrug, pay for my soda and take it outside. I’m enjoying my frosty beverage when the kids from the basin walk over and they’re repeating one of the two sentences they know with utter conviction, like a mantra. The shop lady decides this is no way to treat a tourist and comes outside to tell them off, giving me an apologetic little smile.
After I finish my soda, I hop back on my bike and pedal down the street. I’ve barely gone 100 meters when something sails over my head and I turn my head to see what it was. The teens from the shop are hiding behind some shrubs and are pelting me with small apples from the nearby tree. Most miss their mark but one bounces off my helmet and another hits me squarely in the knee. I slam the brakes and skid to a stop. In Dutch, I yell, “if you guys want an ass-whoopin’, I’d be more than happy to oblige!” and they all take off running. Brats.
I make it to the end of the street without any more drama and find myself back on the busy road I was on earlier. Not sure which way to go, I spot a small bench across the intersection, so I make my way over there and have a seat. I take out my map and phone to try and find a route away from traffic. Sitting here, I have a bit of an audience. A teenage boy with a skateboard walks past the bench a few times, eyeballing my bike. And about ten meters from the bench, a dog is observing my every move. I open my backpack and take a step towards him and he starts to run off, but stops dead in his tracks when I shake the bag of chips I’m holding in my hand. I guess his hunger far outmatches his fear, because when I dump half of the chips in the grass and take a few steps back, he runs towards me and pretty much inhales the chips without chewing. I also take one of the sausages out and cut off a piece. When I hold out my hand, the chips have convinced the dog that I’m good people, because he now ventures close enough to gently snatch the sausage from my fingers. A few pieces later and he allows me to rub his head and then lies down by my feet. I decide to hang out in the shade with my new friend for a while and write in my journal. A short while later, a man holding a plastic bag of tomatoes crosses the street and asks me a question in Georgian but I don’t understand. I’m trying to explain to him that I don’t speak his language, but he keeps talking in full sentences. And then skater boy appears out of thin air and comes to my rescue, asking in English if I need any help. I tell him the gentleman is asking me something but I don’t understand so he offers to translate. After they talk, he tells me that I am being invited for dinner tonight by the man and his wife. The hospitality of Georgians really is second to none. I ask the boy to thank the man for his kind offer but that my backpack is full of food (mostly dog food, but I keep that part to myself). I turn to the man to thank him in Georgian and he gives me a chivalrous hand-kiss. After doting on the pooch for a little while longer, I take off. According to Google Maps, there is a small road that leads towards Kumisi Reservoir that will allow me to stay south of Tbilisi. With still more than a week to go before my flight back home, I’m in no hurry to make it to the city just yet. Back in Tsalka, Vladimir told me I should head east towards Kakheti, the wine region.
Luckily the small road towards the reservoir isn’t all that far because traffic on the main road is absolutely insane. There is no bike lane so I stick to the shoulder, which is littered with glass and rocks. At the intersection with the dirt road, three men are tinkering on an old Lada and they stare in unison as I pass them. I want to wave but am afraid to let go of the handlebars, even with one hand. This little dirt track is riddled with potholes and large rocks, so I slow down a little. I’m assuming this road doesn’t get a lot of traffic. Ten minutes later, I spot a tractor heading my way, so I get off the road as it is too narrow to accommodate the both of us. The driver gives me a strange look too and I’m starting to wonder if this path even leads to anywhere. I couldn’t find it on my paper map but it is clearly defined on Google Maps. I figure that if all else fails, I can still head back to the main road or get off the bike and walk. For the next hour, I don’t meet any other vehicles. I do get chased by a couple of dogs until their shepherd calls for them and then waves at me as if he wants to apologize for their behavior. No worries, my man, dogs will be dogs. Besides, your dogs look like a couple of purse pooches compared to the massive sheep dogs in the mountains. The sides of the road are lined with fruit trees and I stop to pick some wild apricots and black mulberries. I’ve been eating the latter by the handful as mulberry trees are so common here. They’re very easy to spot too: just look for a purple stain on the pavement where falling berries have been crushed by passing vehicles.
I have almost reached the reservoir, which looks more like a lake to me. I’m weaving through a herd of cows standing in the middle of the dirt road, taking it slow so I don’t startle them. The cows here never cease to amaze me. Back in Belgium, they’re quite jittery creatures. And bulls have been responsible for the death of many a farmer or even the occasional oblivious hiker crossing a field. Here, they don’t seem fazed at all by my presence. All of a sudden, I see a small creature in the distance, trotting towards me. When she gets closer I see that it is a small beagle, or rather, what is left of it. I’ve seen more skinny dogs than I care to here in Georgia, but this one is nothing but skin and bones. I stop and lay my bike down on the ground, taking off my backpack so I can feed her. The pooch is so scared that she runs right past me, giving me a wide berth. I quickly cut of a big piece of sausage and throw it in her direction but she doesn’t stop. At first, I give chase on foot, but I quickly realize that it’s a lost cause. I stuff the sausage in my backpack, sprint back to my bike and go after the dog, but making sure to go around her in a big circle and then turn back. This time, I’m ready for her, crouched down, bologna in hand. She stops dead in her tracks when she smells it, but she is still several meters from me. I gently toss her the piece I’m holding. Never ever have I seen a dog eat this fast. I can only imagine when her last meal was. The sausage is an absolute whopper that barely fits in my backpack. It’s usually enough for three dogs, but not this time. I feed her the entire thing, followed by everything else that I can find in my backpack: a bag of chips, some bread and a granola bar. While she is eating, I notice that she is shifting her weight from one paw to the other. When I see why, my heart sinks. The skin between her toes is cracked and dark red like it’s been bleeding. I whip out my phone and look for vets in the vicinity, but I’m hardly surprised when I can’t find any. The closest ones are all the way in Tbilisi, some 20 kilometers away. I also look for a Humane Society or its Georgian equivalent but no dice. The pooch sits with me long after the food is gone and allows me to gently pet her. She closes her eyes and leans up against me, giving in to the love I’m giving her, clearly feeling at ease now. I wish I could put her in my backpack and take her with me. Unfortunately I have no choice but to let her walk off, which is absolutely devastating. I sit there stroking her little head till she is ready to saunter off. I watch her go with sorrow in my heart, telling myself for the umpteenth time this trip that I can’t save them all.
After she is gone from view, I pick up my bike and head towards the lake. The road suddenly stops but I can see some houses in the distance, so I just keep cycling through the grass, until I hit a small water-filled ditch. I make a feeble attempt to jump across it but fail miserably on account of a cumbersome bike. Wet feet, part XXIV. I follow the single track next to the water till I hit the town. “Town” may not be the right word here. Of the first 20 houses that I come across, roughly two thirds are missing one or more walls, others don’t have a roof. At first I think it’s probably just the houses on the edge of town, but it hardly improves as I ride on. There are easily a few hundred houses here and most of them are in ruins, giving this place an eerie appearance. I wonder what happened to this place. We’re only about 20 kilometers from the capital so I doubt that a lack of jobs made people pack up and leave en masse. There must another explanation for the exodus. A natural disaster perhaps? Contamination of the water in the reservoir? I saw a man fishing on its shore earlier, so that seems unlikely. I wish I spoke the language enough to ask one of the three people I see while making my way through this ghost town. You don’t have to be a mind reader to know what they’re thinking. “What on God’s green earth is she doing here? Is she lost?”
I make my way to the other side of town and stop by the lake. Bathing near the shore are two animals I’ve hitherto only seen in a zoo: a couple of water buffaloes. They look absolutely humongous and I keep a safe distance but they seem quite content frolicking in the water and aren’t paying attention to me in the slightest. After taking a few pictures I take off again, heading east. This entire area is very desolate, especially when bearing in mind that we’re not all that far from the capital. I’m still on a dirt road and I’m planning on taking a right at the next intersection, but there’s nothing but dry land between here and the turn-off point. I’m tempted to cut across the field, but the whole area gives off a post-war vibe. All that is missing is a “land mines!” sign, so I stick to the road. I stop in the next town to buy some more food at the first grocery store I see, since I gave all I had to the beagle. The shop doesn’t have any bread or produce, so I settle for some matsoni, a local kind of fermented milk akin to yogurt, and a small bag of chips, eating both by the side of the road. Thankfully there is another shop a few kilometers down the road where I’m able to buy some food for tonight. The sun is setting and I’m started to feel antsy. There aren’t all that many trees or even shrubs here and I want to get away from the road a bit to set up camp. I spot the ruins of what must have been a hangar or small factory. Only the back wall remains upright. Behind it is a small concrete road which, judging by its state, hasn’t seen a car in a couple of decades. I carefully navigate around several coverless manholes. If I fall down one of these, it may be a while before they recover my body. I park my bike and walk around for a bit, deciding on a spot under one of the few trees, about 200 meters from the main road. I’m not exactly hidden from view here but I’m counting on the fact that anyone driving past this area will be focused on the road and not turning their head to scan for lonely travelers. The first tree I’ve settled on is absolutely crawling with ants, so I move to the next one to find that it’s not any better. I vow to keep my tent hermetically closed. For the first time in ages, the sound of cars in the distance is quite prominent. I camped quite close to the road last night too, but here, I am within earshot of the highway. Funny how quickly one gets accustomed to hearing nothing but the wind at night. I spend the rest of the evening reading, eating and writing in my journal and then hit the hay.
To be continued..