Leaving Trabzon behind us we head out east again. To our right the feet of the mountains keep threatening to kick us into the Black Sea and barely leave enough room for the main road and a few coastal towns. From time to time though the hills make it right to the water so we have to brave the infamous Back Sea tunnels that give this stretch of road a bit of a reputation amongst touring cyclists. They range from 200m to nearly 2km and are not for the faint hearted. As we ride through them the noise of the traffic approaching from behind us builds to a deafening roar and we brace ourselves for what sounds like a juggernaut on a collision course, only to then get passed by a small minibus. In fact all the traffic gives us plenty of room as the tunnels have two lanes and our retina-searingly-bright flashing rear light gives them due warning that we’re there.
Once back in the daylight we begin passing small tea plantations with terraces cut into the steep hillside. There are pulley systems and zip lines for getting the crop down from the top and then off to the many processing plants that we also begin seeing.
Apart from tea and tunnels the most remarkable feature of this part of the journey is the number of green gyms. Here on the Black Sea coast the combined good intentions of the local authority and what must have been a very slick selling pitch from the green gym equipment manufacturer have resulted in dozens of gyms all along the road. We didn’t count them all but there must be one every 2 miles or so. And just like all the others we’ve seen, nobody seems to use them.
The tunnels help iron out the road so we get the easy return to riding that we’d hoped for to test our injured bodies. A few niggles aside we both seem to be coping OK and 110 sunny km pass by quickly.
Just after the appropriately named Çayeli we make a u-turn onto a side road that takes us through a narrow tunnel to a small pebbled beach and a very closed cafe. Once the local goat herder has finished staring at us and ushered his flock away we set ourselves up for the night on the cafe floor. It’s a beach hut with plastic sheeting for walls that should offer enough protection.
Just as we climb under the quilt a van drives right onto the beach and parks within 2m of where we are lying. There’s just the plastic sheeting between us and the vehicle. We both hold our breath expecting to be discovered at any second but the driver and his female companion have other things on their minds. The radio gets turned up and if I could see the bumper I’m sure it would have a sticker that said “If the vans rockin’ don’t come knockin'”.
Two nervous hours pass with the Turkish equivalent of Barry White blaring out of their car stereo and then thankfully they drive away and we’re left alone. Well, nearly alone. It turns out the cafe does already have a resident in the form of a large rat. Kirsty comes nose to whisker with it when it scuttles over to have a look at its new guests and she stifles a scream. I quickly pack away all our food and the rat seems to lose interest. The only thing left out is a large apple that we’d been given in Çayeli and which Kirsty had left in her helmet, suspended from the bars of the bike.
In a Mission Impossible manoeuvre the hungry rat manages to shin up the bike frame, climb into the helmet and nudge the apple out onto the floor where it takes a few bites then leaves it in search of something more tasty. Luckily it’s not able to undo the buckles on our rack bag.
The next day we pedal the last few km of Turkey, enjoying a final complimentary cup of çay on the way, and arrive at our 24th border. We’ve had some of the best of times and the worst of times in Turkey so it’s a country that will leave us with plenty of memories and a few scars but now it’s time to cross into Georgia.
There’s a 1km long queue of trucks waiting to get across but we get waved past them all and have to wheel the bike through what looks like an airport terminal. Apart from an impatient Georgian woman trying to push us out the way to get her passport checked before ours, unsuccessfully, we get through quickly and easily. We also lose 2 hours in the process as Georgia is in a new time zone.
On the other side a friendly tourist information lady issues us with maps and some information about Adjari, the region of Georgia we’re now entering. There are 12 regions in Georgia and each one has its own unique cultural traditions and local delicacies. Some of them have such a strong identity that they function as autonomous states and Adjari is one of those. More controversial are South Ossetia and Abkhaza who are fighting to be entirely independent and as such visiting tourists are strongly dissuaded from going there.
Out on our first Georgian road the change compared to Turkey is immediate. We’re no longer on a smooth dual carriageway and instead have pot holes, Ladas and herds of cattle to negotiate.
Approaching Batumi we get some fantastic views of the lesser Caucasus mountains but the sights in Batumi are even more extraordinary. We pedal along the sea front boulevard where there seems to be a competition to see who can build the most ridiculous looking hotel. The one that looks like half of the Colosseum wins in my mind but it’s a close run thing. Further up the boulevard there’s a tall skyscraper with an enormous TV screen wrapped around it and a small Ferris wheel hanging off the side. Then at the far end we see the Alphabet Tower, an enormous ball perched on top of a twisted structure that shows the unique Georgian alphabet running around it in a spiral.
It reminds us of Las Vegas and like its Nevada big brother, Batumi has lots of casinos to draw in visitors from Turkey, where gambling is illegal, and wealthy Russians. But underneath the glitzy façade the skyscraper is completely empty and the restaurant planned for the top of the Alphabet Tower was never finished. It seems there is still some work to do to bring in the crowds to support the prosperous image that the town is trying to portray.
After a bite to eat we head off to find somewhere to camp and find ourselves alongside a big lake where a huge dancing fountain display is taking place, in time to various classic rock ballads. Another hint at Vegas and it’s almost like standing in front of the Bellagio.
At the end of the lake is a derelict Chinese restaurant on its own island so we set ourselves up amongst the pagodas and watch the end of the fountain display from the tent.
If we’d read the booklet we’d picked up from the tourist information we’d have found out that one of the fountains on the boulevard spouts the local tipple ChaCha at 7 every evening.
After a morning looking round the town we set off up the coast, past bamboo plantations and stalls selling bamboo ladders. It’s hillier than we expected and as we grind up a particularly steep gradient the cars and trucks come a bit too close for comfort. Drivers in Georgia are appalling and every other car has a bumper missing or a cracked windscreen. There’s a Lada with a wheel off or a bonnet open on most street corners and always with a crowd of men in leather jackets gathered round trying to assess the problem.
I’m keen to take my last chance for a dip in the Black Sea so we camp behind some hotels overlooking a long beach in Kobuleti. In the summer the water temperature averages 25 degC but in late March it’s a bit cooler so its a case of splash and dash. Despite being over 30km away across the bay, we can still see the bright lights of the TV screen attached to the skyscraper in Batumi.
Our road turns away from the sea the next day and we ride a roller coaster of small hills through quiet villages, slaloming around various animals in the road. By lunchtime we arrive in Ozurgeti. There are rows of tiny shops most of whom are selling bales of hay and cattle food but in amongst them are a few small windows behind which are bakers and grocers so we stock up for lunch and find a park to have a picnic.
Just as we get everything unpacked a man wanders over and invites us into his café so we chuck our provisions back in the bag and follow him. We thought the offer was just for a coffee but he brings out a number of plates and bowls loaded with bread, cheese, spring onions and a traditional bean hot pot. Our picnic will have to wait until dinner time! We try to pay but he refuses to accept our cash making a gesture to indicate it was his pleasure. This is our first example of the famous and generous Georgian hospitality. Here they have a saying that a guest is a gift from God.
As we ride out of town a police car drives up behind us and sounds its siren. Unless the speed limit is less than 15kph I’m not sure what we’ve done wrong but I pull over anyway. The policeman then tries to tell us we should be riding on the pavement on the other side of the road. Given half the paving slabs are missing and the kerbs are 30cm high at each junction we don’t really think this is such a good idea. I tell the policeman as such so he then suggests we just ride on the other side of the road, against the traffic. Also not good so I smile and try to tell him we’ll just ride carefully on this side thanks and begin to ride off. He then follows us very slowly for at least 3km until we’re beyond the town limits and presumably out of his jurisdiction.
The police presence in Georgia is very visible with American style police cars everywhere and always with their blue lights flashing. There are also very smart looking police stations in even the smallest villages. Kirsty found a statistic that said that 98% of Georgians think their country is 100% safe and given how heavily it’s policed we can see why they might think that. Later that day we see a car pulled over and a handful of cash being offered through the window to the policeman so this security comes at a price.
After a lengthy climb at a comfortable gradient we drop into a steep sided, wooded valley and the village of Chakhatauri. Kirsty spots a picnic table next to a small river which looks like a good camping spot so we roll down to investigate. Before we have time to unload we’re joined by an old man who seems very excited to meet us. After a short conversation where we point and mime to explain what we’re doing he invites us back to his house.
We stroll up a rough track past free roaming pigs and a half dozen geese to his home where he sits us down at a table outside and disappears inside. There are chickens everywhere and they follow the man up the wooden ramp that leads to his front door and some make it into the house. Shortly after the man emerges, shooing chickens out the door again as he brings us bread and a huge round of home made cheese. While we all tuck in, the occasional chicken hops on to the table to try and steal some bread, sometimes successfully.
After a while it’s time to head back and pitch the tent but the man insists we stay with him. He’s very persistent so we thank him and fetch the bike.
Inside the house is very sparse with only two rooms being occupied and the kitchen just having a dirt floor. He lives there alone but he has told us about his daughter and twin grand daughters who now live in Tbilisi but we don’t find out where his wife is. We’re sat down in front of a TV and spend the rest of the evening being made made to watch Georgian game shows, which are probably no less bizarre even if we could understand what they were saying.
There are two single beds pushed together in the room and we realise that is where all three of us will be sleeping. It’s not a comfortable night with Kirsty and me squeezed into one and the man snoring away right next to us but we have to be grateful for his generosity and the wind and rain that lash at the windows overnight mean we probably wouldn’t have got much sleep in the tent either.
When your house is surrounded by chickens there’s no need for an alarm clock so after the first cockerel has crowed we’re all up and get ready to go. There’s no running water in the house so we wash from a kettle filled from an outside tap. After several handshakes we say our goodbyes and roll on down the track. A wonderful display of Georgian hospitality again and given how our host is grinning from ear to eat he’s obviously enjoyed looking after us.
We quickly drop out of the hills and onto a wide plain that sits with the huge Upper Caucasus mountains to the north and Lesser Caucasus to the south. The two mountain ranges create a natural funnel for a strong wind that blows across the plain, which builds throughout the day and of course blows right into our faces.
By late afternoon we’re through Kutaisi, the 2nd biggest city in Georgia and also through with battling the wind so find a sheltered clearing in a wood and hope it’s calmed down by morning.
It hasn’t. In fact it’s so strong the next day that holding the handlebars is like wrestling a particularly disgruntled goat. After being blown off the road two or three times the decision is made that it’s too dangerous to ride so we begin walking. After 13km, where we occasionally have to stop as the wind is even too strong to be able to stand up, we find shelter in a well stocked cafe. A staple Georgian speciality is Katchapuri. This is a baked cheesy bread with plenty of butter that is perfect fuel for hungry cyclists (and walkers). Each region has it’s own version and all of them are deliciously filling.
By the time we’ve washed the Katchapuri down with a coffee the wind has dropped enough for us to actually ride. On the other side of Zestafoni we meet German (prn. Herman) who has ridden from Barcelona and following a similar route to us so we agree to camp together. He’s had a rough time in Georgia having had his pans stolen in Batumi by a policeman who he’d asked to look after his kit (a higher bribe may have been required), and then having knee trouble meaning he’s been forced to rest in an abandoned house for the last two days. He’s glad of some company but needs more rest so the next day we leave him to his morning siesta and hope to see him again later in the trip (www.monkeyonthebike.com).
We have drizzle and a lengthy climb during the morning that culminates in a long tunnel that takes us through the top of the hill then we drop down into Khashuri. On the way we pick up some sweet bread from one of the many road side bakers and it tastes so good we stop to buy another a couple of hundred metres further on.
The banks of a small river on the other side of Khashuri provides the perfect setting for the evening but just as we begin preparing dinner a man arrives and he doesn’t look happy. He motions for us to pack up and follow him. We’re reluctant having just got everything ready but he won’t back down. The fact that he has a shotgun on his shoulder and a large knife in his belt make him very persuasive so we eventually concede and dismantle the tent.
Our armed escort takes to the rear of the bike as we push it up the road into the nearby village, not really knowing what will happen next. But this is Georgian hospitality by force and after parking the bike in his his garage Jimali and his wife Nora treat us to an evening of food, home made wine and much miming and gesticulating in place of conversation before providing a bed for the night.
Breakfast consists largely of cognac and homemade cha cha with ever more animated toasts with each of his neighbours who come round to have a look at us. We then pay a visit to the local church and meet an English teacher who is able to explain to us that no self respecting Georgian would allow a visitor to their country to sleep in a tent if they had a bed available. If we’d managed to decline the offer then Jimali would have been very offended. Using a gun to round up guests still seems a bit strong though.
We’re sent on our way with a huge bottle of Jimali’s wine strapped to the panniers and some high strength cha cha and don’t have the heart to tell him they’ll be more of a hindrance than a help.
Next stop is Gori that holds the dubious claim to fame of being the birthplace of one Joseph Stalin. The museum dedicated to one of history’s most ruthless leaders seems to treat him as something of a local hero. Although there is very little in English there seems to be some major omissions concerning some of his most brutal acts, with more emphasis on his role in creating the mighty Soviet Union and defending it from the Nazis. History can be interpreted in many different ways.
The next day we arrive in Tbilisi under the cover of a large rain cloud and make our way to our host, Zak’s flat to make apologies for dragging soggy kit through his living room. Zak is from Dubai and his flatmate Danidu from Sri Lanka, both are studying medicine as the university in Tbilisi offers a very good course for a fraction of the cost of studying in other countries.
Our main task in Tbilisi is to apply for our Azerbaijani visas. Once we find the embassy we hand over our passports, completed application and a confirmation of a hotel booking for our first night’s stay. Despite what we read online, this isn’t good enough and the official tells us we need a hotel confirmation for every night of our stay which is difficult when we plan to stay in our tent. To remedy this I walk up the road and use a travel agents computer to change our hotel booking to 28 nights, print 2 copies of the confirmation and head back to the embassy. This time the official smiles and says that will be perfect, but we now need to pay the fee of $118 each (nearly three times as much as other EU citizens). To do this we must catch a taxi to the Azerbaijani national bank 10 minutes up the road, handover the fee in Georgian Lari and then take the receipt back to the embassy. We arrive back 10 minutes after they are supposed to have closed but thankfully we’re allowed back in and hand everything over. Within three working days our visas should be ready for collection so we have time to kill.
Luckily this coincides with a special guest who we will be meeting at the airport the next day to join us for a week of riding in the Georgian countryside so we don’t mind waiting. My brother, Justin is joining us for his first ever cycle tour and he’s been invited over on the pretext that we want to see him but in reality he’s being used as a useful kit mule for various bits and pieces that we need from the UK. Hopefully he and his bike will make it into the country safely given he only has a 25 minute transfer in Riga on the way over.