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We had not considered travelling to Georgia until two weeks before we arrived. This need for consideration arose due to a number of reasons; the main being a simple mistake in our trip planning – resulting in a whole extra month for adventuring was now available. We decided to split this newfound time between two countries almost unknown to us: Georgia and Azerbaijan.
We started researching Georgia and found it was famous for producing wine, Stalin and from accounts of other tourists, crazy drivers. We were in Trabzon at the time of realisation and decision and heard from our Couch Surfing host that her Australian friend had travelled to Georgia, but had arrived two days later back at her doorstep because he preferred the way the Turkish treated him.
But none of this bothered us. We always hear that the next country is dangerous, or the next country is unfriendly. We always travel with an open mind, salivating-at-the-mouth-excited to be experiencing new places!
A Different Welcome
The coastline between Turkey and Georgia is postcard-beautiful. Large craggy cliffs hug the Black Sea, leaving only a few metres of space for a tight and windy coastal road.
The water splashes next to you on both sides – waterfalls come out of nowhere from the top of the sheer rock faces on one side and today, the sea was wild on account of 60km/h+ winds.
Tunnels were common along this road as the mountains' expansive lower bodies often took a dive straight into the sea. Every tunnel in Turkey was lit, but coming up the border with only a couple of tunnels left we experienced our first unlit tunnel. We had no lights because of a problem with our lamp; we weren't too afraid as we could see a vague light at the end. We headed into the tunnel at speed and were feeling good about getting to the end. Unfortunately we had drastically underestimated how long it was, but a bigger problem was the large semi-trailer truck rumbling up behind. We used its headlights to align ourselves to the far right of our lane and it passed us with no trouble. The truck was now ahead and speeding off into the distance, our eyes struggling to pick up any of the remaining light. Once its vaguely incandescent glow exited the tunnel, all we could see now was a teeny tiny light at the end of the tunnel. The darkness was disorienting our brains; our balance was in a bad way. We had NO IDEA whether we were about to ride into the side of the tunnel – we were just riding faster and faster trying to get to the light. It was the strangest feeling – like riding a bike with closed eyes! After 2km underground we were relieved to see the border gates.
As usual, the officers were confused as to whether Tan-nay-nay was better off with the cars or with the foot traffic. After going between both sections a number of times, we got our exit stamp from Turkey in the car queue. Georgia were quicker to decide, and put us through the pedestrian section, where the pedestrians gave us a clue what cueing involved in Georgia (heel-standing and neck-breathing due to the extreme proximity!). We were expecting to pay for a visa, but walked through the gates without passing over a cent.
As usual, we were waving to everybody who noticed us, but we immediately felt a different vibe from the Georgians – we were getting laughed at instead of being welcomed! Alex went into some kind of culture shock and didn't trust anybody; the difference between the people on both sides of this fence was greater than anything we had felt before and it wasn't a great feeling at all.
We battled one of the strongest winds of our trip coming into Batumi. After turning a corner we went from travelling at 25km/h to about 6km/h within a second and were lucky to still be on the bike. The weight of the traffic and ability of the drivers didn't seem so different from Turkey, however the road quality was dramatically worse.
We had organised a Couch Surfing host for the weekend, but after borrowing a phone from a local, we were unable to get in contact. Our backup plan was to meet at 'sunset' behind the Batumi Mall, however as the sky darkened it seemed that our host was definitely not coming to rescue us. While we were waiting, there were all kinds of characters lurking around, one particular guy looking at Alex in the eyes, pointing at Kat and then licking his lips. We were feeling SO uncomfortable and struggled to trust anybody. Finally a young student in Batumi came to our aid and she directed us kindly and deftly towards a mid-priced hotel for the night.
We wandered into the city centre to discover incredible architecture – a mixture of old, modern and brand spanking new marble replicas from a number of architectural periods. The city was lit up well and looked great, but there was no one about. It's really strange, the city is being built and expanded as though they're expecting a million new citizens and a couple of hundred thousand visitors for next summer – but there may as well have been tumble weeds blowing around everywhere.
The temperature plummeted to zero degrees overnight and the rain swept in. We moved to a hostel in order to meet some fellow travellers as we were feeling pretty lonely in Georgia. We quite luckily met a friendly group of Germans (Christoph, Anna, Anna and Mina) who came in late one night and proceeded to cook dinner, have lengthy conversations and play cards from 11pm well into the morning. We spent the next night getting shown some of the best food Georgia has to offer, such as katchapuri azeruli (a large open pide-like bread filled with cheese, butter and egg), khinkali (Georgian steamed dumplings), eggplant with walnut and garlic sauce and cheesy mushrooms. Christoph had been working here for six months, and it showed; he ordered with panache.
We did not, however, enjoy the restaurant quality wine – if it was the best they had to offer we decided to give restaurant wine a miss from then on!
Our next mission was to obtain an Azeri visa. We had heard that this visa was hard to obtain in all embassies except the one in Batumi – perfect! We grabbed some forms in the morning and came back later in the afternoon with them filled in. Apart from waiting an hour outside in the freezing temperatures, our visa was made on the spot by a very friendly, laissez faire official who didn't even seem to check our paperwork.
We rode east into the countryside to discover that cows cover almost all roads, that drivers overtake at any time (despite cars coming from the other direction), that Georgians struggle to wave and say hello to us (despite us being super keen and friendly) and that the region we were cycling was BEAUTIFUL!
By day's end we pulled into a village and asked to put up a tent in somebodies yard. “Sure, do you like wine?” one of the locals asked. We nodded, assuming that local Georgian wine has to be good if wine was (as is claimed by the Georgians) invented in these lands. But we were wrong – the wine was horrible. The Georgians don't sit and enjoy wine like many wine drinkers worldwide, instead wine is a cheap tool to get drunk. Every drink you consume is dedicated to someone or something, be it god, or the guy across the table, or your pregnant sheep in the yard or the broken down tractor in the field – any excuse to drink. Other than requiring that you drink a lot, it is equally important that you skull every glass of wine that you are given, for if you don't you are simply weak.
We didn't really see the harm in having a few drinks if it meant that we got to meet some true Georgian locals. What we weren't aware of was the behind the scenes ploy to physically assault Kat later that night. Without going into too much detail, all women were removed from our situation, we were taken to a far away house and the guys all worked really hard to get us drunk and separate us so that they could try a few things on with Kat. We had never been in this kind of situation before and really didn't know how to react. We were struck at a time when we were most vulnerable, relying on their food and shelter, and didn't see leaving this house after midnight as a choice.
The next morning we packed up in record time and escaped, feeling completely violated and disgusting. What we couldn't believe was how easy it was for them to make what they did ok, telling Alex he is a great man and telling god that they are sorry for what they had just done. It is really unfortunate that after feeling so uncomfortable around men in Batumi, that the rural men turned our vibes into reality.
We breakfasted in an abandoned house, reflecting on the situation and devising ways in which to prevent it in the future; this was the only positive we could find in our situation. While we were eating breakfast a man came over and offered us shots of vodka. He was very insistent that we take these shots, but there was no way that we were going to take them. It was 8am.
We joined up with the main highway after riding some stunning valleys of western Georgia. We witnessed many dangerous overtaking manouvers – we watched aghast as one car was forced off the road into a quagmire and massive potholes, losing control and was so lucky not to roll.
Caves and Dinosaurs
Kutaisi was a mid-sized city and a place wheee we really just wanted to have a break after what had happened recently. We also experienced our first true 't-shirt' weather in months, a sign that spring had finally sprung. We found a nice, if expensive, guesthouse to stay in and decided on our “rest day” to ride up a mountain to some local caves. In true Georgian fashion, Sataplia National Park also happened to house stunning architecture and cheesy gimmicks, this time in the form of large plastic dinosaurs that roared. We accidentally acquired a guide, a beautiful heel-wearing-despite-walking-along-rocky-trails-and-caves woman named Helene, who seemed to speak English very well, but it turned out she only knew the script to say in English at various points during the tour and unfortunately couldn't answer our questions about her or her country. Again, the natural beauty of Georgia delivered with a lush forest and cave complex.
Later that day we walked to the local 'fun park' and as we were leaving we smelled a strong animal smell; a wet dog perhaps? No, it was a brown bear housed in a filthy, dirt floored, barred cage with much less than three metres space to stretch out. We didn't know what to do or how to feel. We were numbed.
We departed Kutaisi in the sunshine but were smashed in the face by headwinds all day. Not just a light breeze, it must have been 70km/h or more! During lunch we were offered more vodka, but as we politely refused we were forced to watch every man, woman and child in the area do a shot in front of us to again prove that the round-the-world cyclists are pretty damn weak.
According to the weatherman, the next three days were meant to snow, so we decided to bunker away in a little log cabin in Borjomi National Park. The only issue was that the road to the national park was notoriously bad (read: worst road many had ridden) noted by bicycle tourers' experiences on CrazyGuyOnABike. We figured it couldn't be all that bad and amicably parted ways with the highway onto a potholed dirt road where it took all of Alex's concentration to avoid the holes and maintain balance! There were fun muddy bits and little steep climbs all the way on the 25kms to Marelisi.
Our Little Log Cabin
We arrived in Marelisi and found the National Park cabin with ease because we had sneakily researched what the building looked like. Unfortunately we couldn't find anyone around, so we wandered this quaint pig-and-cow populated town for someone who knew something about the hut. We were shown by a woman and her pig where to locate the caretakers; we guess not many people stay in the hut over winter.
We stayed for three blissful nights here and were cooked a few very delicious meals by the family, including the most all-encompassing spread of condiments anyone has ever seen. We had round-the-clock helpers with the open fireplace – these guys were pros! The weatherman was right, it rained and snowed for three days straight, leaving us wondering if we'd be bogged in with mud.
The road out was a challenge. We had to climb about 800m in altitude over this track with hub-deep pot holes filled with water. The poor weather during the previous days really hadn't done us a favour. We were warned by local goat herders to turn around, but we figured, 'how hard can it be'?
Well, hard. The mud got so thick that we really couldn't turn or stop with our slick Schwalbe Marathon Mondial tyres; we had to walk through sections that were covered in puddles because we didn't know the puddles' depth; and, we had to ride really extra carefully in the snow and ice as we breached the top of the climb. In the end we averaged 7km/h for the day – wow! We arrived absolutely frozen, diving head-first into the first hotel we could find.
The hotel room was made warm in about 30 seconds with a few coals, some dried corn husks and an incredibly dangerous and dodgy wood fire heater. While we were resting we thought about the amazing teamwork that was required to ride a fully loaded tandem along that road. It was a pivotal moment in our tandem cycling experience where we felt we were now equipped with the skills and experience to ride any road in the world.
Riding Past Stalin's Home Town
We decided to gun it to Tbilisi the next day – a distance of about 150km. We're no longer aware why we set ourselves this challenge, but it sounded like a good idea at the time. We were fortunate to have a tail wind with us for most of the day, which took us to our first rest stop in record time. This rest stop was heaven, it was warm (and we were cold! It had “warmed up” to two degrees outside!), it had real coffee, a great supermarket and SUPER AWESOME INTERNET! We spent over an hour luxuriating with food, coffee and soup in this petrol station-come-super fancy roadhouse. While Alex was on the internet we got a message from Christoph who we met in Batumi, asking if we wanted to say with his flat mate in Tbilisi. We were given a contact number to call as soon as we arrived at her address – perfect.
We pedalled our little legs off past Stalin's old house in Gore, various refugee camps and through the farming region of Georgia. By the halfway mark, Kat's knee had carked it, so she did what every good cyclist does and swallowed some pain killers and sucked it up to get through to the end of the day. Approaching Tbilisi and the highway was good quality for the first time, complete with emergency lanes: a shoulder! Tbilisi itself was not daunting at all as it was just slow moving, heavy traffic. Within five minutes we had met our contact, Anna who had whisked us to her beautiful top floor apartment in the old city. We finally felt a bit more at home in Georgia!
Anna and her housemate Yana made our experience in Tbilisi magical. They told us where to go and what to see, especially for good food, including delicious ice cream served by a surly young lady. The city has a real cosmopolitan feel to it with lots of cafes, bars and restaurants squeezed in and around the practically collapsing old city. Modern architecture littered about makes a stark contrast to the ragged charm of the old city.
The men in Tbilisi were much less confronting about Kat's female-ness than other areas of Georgia which allowed us to cruise around the city at ease, much like we would in any other city of the world.
We took a steep funicular railway to a fun park located at the top of a mountain behind Tbilisi for a view of the city and to try out the old soviet roller coaster – at our own risk. It turned out to be fun however they devastatingly only took us around once despite us begging them for another go. We were the only people in this theme park after all!
Anna showed us her favourite places to hang out and convinced us to see a Russian puppet show later that night for a love story about a steam train named Ramona. We also got Anna to take us to her friends wine bar where we wanted to leave thinking that Georgian wine can be good – but after 10 samples we were left unimpressed. We couldn't even finish some of our 5mL samples by way of explanation! The wine shop employees told us we were spoilt with Australian wine and that this affected our perception. We disagreed; Georgia simply has bad wine.
The president of Georgia is also the wealthiest person in the country and he makes sure you know this by having the biggest house in the country (worth over $60 million) overlooking Tbilisi.
On our last night in Tbilisi we went to a bar to drink 'cha cha' (stiff alcohol) and talk to expats. We were out until 3:30am before leaving the girls to party on elsewhere, catching a taxi back to the apartment, and sleeping like logs. At 9am we woke to fierce knocking at the door and angry tapping at the windows – we had inadvertently locked everyone out of the house for the night! Shit! They had found less-than-adequate bed space at a nearby dorm and were not all that impressed by our accidental key-in-the-back-of-the-door actions. While the girls slept we purchased them some of the best wine we had tried (one the girls did in fact quite like) to smooth the situation over before we left, tails between our legs.
Tbilisi to Azerbaijan
Leaving at midday we pedalled east for five hours until the sun threatened to make us ride in the dark. An orchard to our left was a great spot to rest for the night. Mistakenly thinking we were perfectly hidden, we were actually on the 'flight path' for herders and their cattle, but they were all smiles and left us to relax.
We got a full 12-hours sleep, catching up on missing rest from the boozy night beforehand and pedalled our legs towards the border town Lagodekhi. A bit over half way was a mountain top heritage village called Sighnaghi which proved to be a complete maze of roads with no signage to help us get through. After going the wrong way (and having to hike back up the hill) three times we finally got to roll down one of the nicest descents in Georgia. Looking out over the hazy valley we noticed what we thought were clouds, but were actually the snow caps of the 4000m+ high Caucasus mountains floating high in the sky! It was an incredible sight to see – the lower parts of the mountains were near impossible to make out.
On our last night we wanted to have a final Khachpuri Azeruli (realistically our last in a very long time) but due to the lack of menu (and our lack of Georgian) at the restaurant we visited, a regular stodgy, salty Khachpuri came out instead. Sad face.
The next morning we woke up to a flat tyre and didn't manage to locate a bank with a fair exchange rate. On the road up to the border there were loads of Turkish trucks and truckies, and with these general good vibes floating around we found a good exchange rate and enjoyed a smooth transition into Az.
Read all of our Central Asian Series!
⇒ Track 1: Western Turkey
⇒ Track 2: Turkey
⇒ Track 3: Black Sea Turkey
⇒ Track 4: Georgia
⇒ Track 5: Azerbaijan
⇒ Track 6: Caspian Iran
⇒ Track 7: Ancient Iran
⇒ Track 8: Iran’s Other Side
⇒ Track 9: Turkmenistan
⇒ Track 10: Uzbekistan
⇒ Track 11: Kyrgyzstan
⇒ Check out our European series HERE
⇒ Try out our Asian series HERE