Georgia is a country of curves – from its meeting with the Black Sea, a bitemark of coast, to the probing tongue that composes the border with Azerbaijan. From its looping script, to the roads that circulate packs of mountains, succeeding in switchbacks like the restive rivers they chaperon. But before my friend Oli and I take on these roads by bicycle, I encounter another sinuosity: that of the Georgian toast.
The toastmaster is Tim, a dark-browed, silver- topped Georgian rugby coach who claims us as friends in a cozy eating house of Tbilisi. He raises his tipple, a mind-bending moonshine known as cha-cha, we do the same as he casts off on yet another tortuous spiel invoking God, romantic love, his homeland and cha-cha itself. He has already made a lengthy toast to world peace and a succession of British prime ministers. ‘To Benjamin Disraeli!’ he’d proclaimed, before adding, dolefully, ‘the very best British prime minister.’ Oli made a ‘why not?’ face and slung the stuff down. I had decided not to drink, as I had a presentation to give to some university students, though I had a feeling this wasn’t an excuse that would sway Tim from cajoling me into his Glug-a-thon. Oli could see my dilemma and tried to help:’Erm… he can’t… He has to drive to his AA meeting.’ ‘No problem!’ cried Tim, of course that excuse would only work if Tim was neither an alcoholic nor a drink driver. He was probably both. It seemed we were destined to return to our hostel in a stumble made of curves.
The Military Highway undulates northward over the Caucasus Mountains, historically the course of traders and invaders moving to and from Georgia’s oft-belligerent neighbour, Russia, and it was our plan to pedal it. It’s a challenge to believe any other month would match the beauty of October here. Every wave of land is forested in an autumnal multicolour, lemon-yellow at the centre of the spectrum, dogged green at one end and trees the colour of fox fur at the other. Colours conflict over swathes of forest, between neighbouring trees and in solitary leaves: green at the stem, beveled to blazing poker tips. In the wash of evening light the colours collaborate, shoulders of forest run to red-gold, warming me somehow, as the wind cools my fingers and toes.
A ‘highway’ it may be, but the lumbering cows don’t care about nomenclature, nor the infrequent floods of sheep, we pedal through them, parting the wooly waters to a jagged chorus of bleats. We’re passed by cars, their bonnets loaded with snow, perhaps Russian snow from deeper in-country, perhaps Georgian snow from nearer the pass. Higher up we’re damped by lacy stirrings of cloud, higher still and our world is annexed by heaven-white banks too thick to see beyond. Small baubles of ice top the grass like strange flowers. We reach the pass, and then: mountains. Big and abrupt, like ghost ships, bearing down on us from every side. Oli whips out his hip flask of soul-thawing cha -cha: ‘I need it.’ He says, going on to qualify ‘On account on my alcoholism’.
Beyond the pass the town of Stepantsminda is splayed in a basin, backed by a curving wall of mountains, bronzed by sere grass over their lower reaches, spruced by snow on top. And that’s not even the town’s best side. About-turn and you’re staring up at the massif of Kazbek, the 3rd loftiest peak in a country of thousands.
Bikes ditched, we set off to hike the trail towards Kazbek. We eschew the switchbacks; the shortcut drives through pine forest in a messy ladder of roots and rocks, emerging onto a ridge. A long view: toy town, brazen peaks, the church of abundant guidebook covers teetering on the hillside. It’s not often you’re treated to such a ravishing display of scale, it’s another curveball, and I’m grateful again.
After a nose around the church where a scattering of pilgrims sing prayers in syrupy Russian, and candles uplight the frescoes, we trudge on up towards the glacier. The path rises audaciously up through a gulley, passing through patches of granite boulders furnished in lichen of day-glow green. We’re not alone: prospective summiteers are here too, bent on Kazbegi itself, all laden, all dashingly attired in Buffs and Gortex, all surly as hell, breaking off into little arguments and fights.
We reach a rim of land, before us a stretching depression leads up to Kazbegi and the glacier draped beneath. Behind us the town is now a pie slice of homes, detached by angular mountainsides. Three English guys appear who we’d passed before. ‘It’s OK I guess’ one of them mumbles, sipping up the view, ‘but it’s just mountains.’ I feel a sudden urge to kick him from the mountain, so does Oli. ‘Its just my size eleven in your solar plexus’ mutters Oli.’It’s just gravity’ I chip in. ‘It’s just your body being dashed onto the rocks’.
On we go, scrambling until we hit upon the glacier and begin to trudge the ice, marveling helplessly as we go. As the sun dinks behind the massif we forge a retreat to the odd croaks of taut-winged crows and the glacial creaks of pressurized ice beneath my ten dollar trainers.
Its dark when we get back, my legs have become so painful they provoke me into a dark mood. We go out for food but we’re so tired I almost end up wearing my Kachapuri as a face-mask. It has, of course, been worth it. And Georgia’s taught me a lesson: curves are more stirring than straight lines.
I found Oli in a hostel in Tbilisi called ‘Why Not?’ As it turned out, there were a number of good answers to that question, king among them the tendency of the springs in any of the 18 mattresses parked on the floor to leave whirl shaped scars over your spine and other pressure points, leaving you looking like a tortured hostage. Every guest was spluttering and hacking up amounts of phlegm that in my medical opinion was wholly unnatural, even in emphysema. Oli, who I should say likes to embellish at times, had declared the place to be ‘Tubercular slums. Full of pestilence and wraiths’. ‘It’s not that bad’ I told him, thinking of the many worse places I’d laid my head, and how Oli probably hadn’t spent much time in hostels since his early twenties, like most people. ‘I’m on holiday!’ he declared ‘I don’t work for an NGO. That place is a humanitarian catastrophe’.
I know Oli will be reading this, and balking at the inference he’s prone to embellishment, so here are some further examples:
A bright light in the hostel room: ‘An aggressive overlord’
A wobbly table: ‘The plinth of doom’
The contents of a hip-flask: ‘Liquid insight’
My laundry bag: ‘The gaping sack of woe’
I rest my case. (there is some truth in the last one).
The wonder of such a loop as we had planned around Georgia was that I could leave the lion’s share of my gear in Tbilisi and with two panniers apiece, we made for the exit. The sky bulged with grey clouds busy draining their bulk on the city, filling the sky with tangled sheets of rain. Cars growled through puddles, spreading mucky blankets of the deluge. A man crouched under a bridge clutching a string hung with small fish for sale. Oli was getting used to the somewhat satanic rituals of Georgian driving culture.
‘I think this is a one-way road’ I told him, as we took a turn.
‘Nah, I just saw two cars drive like crazy this way. Unless they’d completely taken leave of their senses…’ he trailed off as a one-way and no-entry sign loomed above us. ‘Christ’ I heard him mutter. The profanities grew in colour and volume as cars wearing the dents and glued bumpers and slap-dash chassis-work of countless collisions did their best to include the imprint of a cyclist.
We climbed at first, choosing to surmount the forested hills of the Tbilisi national park composed of trees sun-red and sunflower-yellow, clouds snagged in their masses. Snatches of A frame houses could be seen through the trees, hidden and half-forgotten like the fairy tales they invoked.
At one point a car pulled up, a knot of men bundled out to the road and shouted thunderous invitations to drink, vigorously flicking their necks with their index finger, which in Georgia is the invitation in mime. One was the colour of wine himself, a face bloated and scarred and florid from a lifetime of grog. Alcoholism is endemic on a scale hard to quantify here, though Georgia may lounge at a half-respectable rank on the world’s alcohol consumption league tables, that takes into account only alcohol sold, and in Georgia everyone makes their own, meaning the country probably vies for the unsavory title of most frequently pissed with the likes of Estonia and Ireland.
Rain pattered onto the trees all night as we camped on a bed of leaf litter that overlaid an old farming trail no longer in use. The next morning the road was glassy with rain, the forest thinly misted with cloud, but at times we broke through the murk into an assault of wet colour: ocre, crimson, saffron leaves. At other times we passed pines blackened at their bases by an old fire, a blaze that no doubt wiped out the deciduous trees unable to tolerate the flames, and left hardy seedlings and those with fire-resistant bark.
In Tianeti we hopped into the inviting oven-like confines of a café to take a break from the rain. ‘My house, my house!’ said the café owner, a lady faintly amused by our drowned-rat air. ‘She must mean ‘on the house’’ I decided aloud as she poured us vodka shots so gratuitous that if provided by a bartender at home they would have been fired on the spot. To wash down the vodka, we gorged on a tasty landscape of cheese, known as Khachapuri. Food dominates my life, in an uncompromisable way, it muscles its way into my time, plans, budget and dreams.
In Akhmeta, a vaguely run-down sort of place tainted by a tide of graffiti-clad soviet-era apartment blocks, we spent a night in a hotel and rose early for breakfast in a nearby café. Not yet au fait with the names of Georgian cuisine, we eagerly agreed to trying whatever ‘Khashi’ meant.
Breakfast was served.
The two bowls placed in front of us were brimming with something of an environmental-catastrophe-yellow, something more luminously jaundiced than anything alive, dead or dying has any right to be. Beneath the gloop, where some tubular fleshy things bobbed, others lurked in the depths. ‘Oh God, it’s the full tripe-attack’ said Oli. A scum had developed on top, and on top of the scum was more scum, a pale violet froth, which formed glistening life-rafts for the floating intestines. Gingerly I stirred and unleashed more of the flotsam, as an acrid miasma corkscrewed off into the room. Oli moaned. ‘Maybe we should try the sauce? Perhaps it’s not as bad as it looks. Or smells.’ I suggested, but Oli was fixed on the gore in front of him ‘Wallowing stomach flaps’ he said in a dark voice, turning a colour remarkably similar to the soup. Probably it was simply the morning sunlight reflecting off our breakfast, but at the time I wondered if the smell alone had caused Oli to go into end-stage cirrhosis. We each took a spoon full. My theory died on my tongue: a rancid attack of salt, butter, oil and unrecognizable fleshiness made my eyes gush.
Oli was mumbling and in some distress: ‘I can’t. Not this early. Not ever.’
The chef returned ‘what’s the matter? This is Georgian specialty’
‘Perhaps we could get a doggy bag?’ Oli enquired.
The thing is that Georgian food is fantastic, really, it’s one the very tastiest cuisines. We’d been snared by this sense of security. Being served Khashi was the equivalent of strolling unmolested through Peckham, only to get mugged in Kensington. And the kicker is that Khashi is traditionally a hangover cure in Georgia, which must be like trying to extinguish a fire using napalm.
The next day the rain finally ceased, sun broke through tears in the cloud making florid little spots of forest. As we approached the Pankisi valley the mountains shot up into a full blown wall of peaks with a border of snow on top, but as we neared they gained a dimension and the swells of foothills came into view.
For two hundred years Chechen refugees have journeyed over these mountains, on a route unmarked on the maps, in surges when they went to war with Russia in the nineties. Now the Pankisi is a pocket of peoples called the Kist spread through 17 villages. The Kist are Islamic and with the sense of hospitality inherent to their religion. We were invited to the Roddy Scott Foundation to speak with the students, an enquiring, happy bunch of kids who learn English at the school we visited. Unfortunately there’s not enough space in this blog post to do the visit justice, so you’ll just have to wait for the book!
To Dzevri and beyond
Getting to the west of Georgia would mean retracing our tyre tracks. Since the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia in which Russia invaded Georgia, the entire region has been out of bounds to both tourists and Georgians. Russia now control the border with barbed fences and regularly detain shepherds who come too close. At times the border is moved in the night, a village once Georgian rises at dawn to find itself Russian.
On first meeting Georgian men are a far cry from the grinning Azeris next-door, instead they glower murderously, gargoyled, clad in camouflage gear, but this only lasts until you choose your response which they are apt to rebound: glare too and they glare back, understate with a dignified nod and you will receive the same, smile and wave and you get a whole gang cheerfully waving back. It just takes some getting used to: the simmering glummess betrays real warmth.
We backtracked, camping the next night on a grassy hilltop surrounded by forest that had rusted even more in our brief absence. With the stars in full gleam, under a sickle-moon, we chatted of friends and happenings in my six year absence. When we woke it was in the clouds to a soft prickle of rain on the tents. The road was thrashed into a quagmire, paradoxically by a band of roadbuilders, and we were chased at times by burly farm dogs which we attempted to keep at bay using the Dog Dazer, a small machine of Oli’s which emits a high frequency blast of repellent sound. Unfortunately Georgian dogs are wholly invulnerable to it, through either deafness or plain ferocity, and soon it would become defunct as our screams rose to become more piercing and high-pitched than the machine was capable of.
Moving west from the tidy cathedral town of Mtksheta towards Gori, the light was extraordinary. It fell in pale and soapy extravagance over the fenceless spreads of farmland, misted hills leered from beyond. A few hawks lingered over the fields, wings quivering in patient speculation of quarry. Carried by a tailwind which crafted a whistling tune from our spokes, we made it to the rather grizzled and dilapidated town of Gori by lunchtime, a place occupied briefly by the Russians in 2008 leaving strings of hastily put up houses for refugees, and also the town of Stalin’s birthplace, so we ventured to the museum. Unfortunately our guide was a Russian ice-queen who, curiously, considered her flock of tourists a hindrance to her profession. Roughly the tour went like this: ‘This picture Stalin. This stuff of Stalin. This presents for Stalin. Next room. More stuff. OK finish.’ And then ‘Questions!’ at point blank range and in a manner that suggested asking one might precede our forced exile to a gulag. The purges, banishments, or deal with Hitler were not included in the tour, we found a small corridor on the ground floor which eluded to them, treating them more or less as a footnote.*
(* he wasn’t all good)
Finally we pedaled a big day, 140 km of wind-assistance took us to Dzevri where Cathy from the Mclain Foundation kindly hosted us and we drank and gorged at a supra (traditional Georgian feast) and were guests at the village fete. Once again, I’m afraid I can’t do the experience justice in so few words, so I’ll save it.
Svaneti: The gentle art of Beasting
We pedaled upwards from Dzevri, through the faded Soviet vision of Tkibuli and up again, a 600 metre ascent in switchbacks. At the pass rain arrived in spatters as we looked down to the now spidery town, and across at the grey overlapping silhouttes of hills which appeared as a vision of a troubled sea.
Autumn was at its full punching weight around the Sharoi reservoir, and the desolating tone of the season was mirrored in the villages: fantastically tumbledown composites of ragged planks, sheet metal, overgrown orchards and raging dogs. Clouds drifted through the valley with smooth acceleration, like trains leaving stations. Georgia passed in a gold-pocked tent of forest. Once a drunkard ran into the road, shouted irefully into my face, clutched my hand and refused to let go. I was only calmed by the fact that a priest was stood next to him, laughing, and eventually coming to my assistance.
We slept in Lentekhi and rose early. It was an atmospheric dawn. Evergreens crowded amid clumps of coppery deciduous trees, like evening sun-dappled moss. We wended our way on the back road towards Ushguli, which was steep and wet, in a gilded and quietly smoking amphitheater. The sky was turbid, the river cloudy. Vapourous clouds snagged in the treetops. Great clefts in the mountains revealed crashing waterfalls.
I found Oli gorping in the road ’Look. There!’
I looked, all was gold.
‘There!’ he said again, and higher up, in the furthest V of valley, I saw a snow-thick triangle of mountain.
At home Oli keeps fit and he machined up the mountain on his slimmer tyres and slightly lighter bike, so I tried surreptitiously to slow him down by asking him open questions as he pedaled ‘So how was your holiday in Norway?’ forcing him into choosing whether to be silently rude, or pant out the answers. Thus, I stayed in touch.
We camped near a long-deserted village of ghostly shacks and the remains of some industry. That evening the head of the valley was a creamy blur of mountains and cloud, but the next day the scene had resolved into seering white extremes of land, the clouds retreating into darker pockets of smaller valleys. Sunlight strained through the cloud, casting a robust white glow.
Up again, and in an annoying double whammy the steepest bits were also the rockiest, so steep my pannierless front wheel threatened to leave the ground in an involuntary wheelie, like the rearing of a stubborn horse. Our breath billowed. Gruelling altitude accumulated, snow appeared, Oli was singing the tune on his iPod ‘Easy like a Sunday morning’. The bastard. At the top we embarked on some Top Gun style whooping and high fives, and drank copiously from my Thermos (‘The Mega-Tea’).
Down to Ushguli, perhaps the highest permanently inhabited town in Europe (define town, define Europe) backdropped by Georgia’s highest mountain and pricked with medieval-looking inviolate square-shaped stone towers, doorless at ground level, which served as protection from invaders and avalanches, it’s thanks to these that much of Svaneti was never captured by invading forces of yore. Oli managed to attract every dog in town, from big bruisers to toy darlings, many of which leapt up youthfully on him as he wailed ‘Stop! I’m not a plaything!’
Headphones in, we plummeted, past smoky horses pondering the hillsides, past a forest undressed for winter, past its autumn wilt. But of course there’s always one more pass injurious to morale, but so conquered we finally cruised into Mestia for a day off and much eating.
We left Mestia as a level of grey cloud flagged over everything, decapitating mountains and cleaving rises of pine. Wood smoke fogged the air about the towers. At once a gap in the cloud opened showing the pink glow of a sun-basted mountainside, like a hatch into another world. The sun slowly burnt away the rest of the cloud, leaving just slivers gripping to pine forest.
A day later Batumi arrived over a pebble-thick beach and placid sheet of Black Sea: an arc of land stuck with post-modern looking towers. We spent one very bizarre night on the town, and then headed east again.
Batumi to Vardzia
We left Batumi in rain as heavy as it had been the day we left Tbilisi, the sky as dead-bellied and stone-grey. Everyone in Georgia drinks when the weather chooses to do this, and we were inundated by invitations to come out of the rain and hit the cha-cha. One invitation stemmed, alarmingly, from the driver of a public bus, who expected us to agree so he could briefly abandon his bus route, disappear into the nearby woods with us and get smashed.
The rain brought with it a sparkle. Wet persimmons bejeweled the trees, a rainbow rose out of some sun-spotlighted forest, a flock of birds winged through the spectrum. We passed a man holding a chainsaw in one hand and a five-litre bottle of homemade wine in the soon-to-be fingerless other one. There was one more ascent to a hair over two thousand metres and a snow speckled ski resort. Oli got ahead, a yellowy mote moving through a gathering play of snow and frosted pines. The resort arrived, in quick succession we appropriated the heater, created a vast drying rack, smelt, ate like dogs, demanded beer, broke a glass and covered the floor in mud. In return the lady smiled at us.
Down again, the forest was mostly pine now, but there were a few elm and ash shedding coppery leaves, a few standing naked and aloof, like streakers in a crowd. After passing through Akhaltsikhe we found ourselves moving through a rocky ravine that conjured ideas of ambush. Campfire-sized flashes of autumn bushels scattered the rock. The river was yellow and inching until it worked up a boil over shallower stones and eventually met the Khertvisi fortress where we entered another valley and climbed steadily to the ancient cave city of Vardzia, our final stop.
I can now announce an (extremely likely) homecoming date for Friday February 19th at 1pm at St Thomas Hospital in London. The following weekend I’ll have a coming-home party/ rave.
Hope to see you there.
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