The border felt like an airport. We were ushered inside a building and through security. A woman analysed my passport for ten minutes before she authorised the all important stamp. I don't know what the issue was; maybe the facial hair or the new British blue book.
Like the crossing from Greece to Turkey, Georgia felt distinctly different from its neighbour. Georgia is majority Orthodox Christian, so it lacks mosques. The beach was covered in women sunbathing, a sight unseen in Turkey. The language and alphabet is incomprehensible. And farm animals rule the road. Cows, especially, do not care about traffic.
The fresh scent of gum trees was a welcomed change. As we rode towards Batumi – the third largest city in Georgia – the trees helped shade us from the sun’s glare – a phenomenon I wasn’t used to.
Batumi’s outskirts were underdeveloped. Run-down high-rise apartment blocks littered the landscape where most cars were without a front or back bumper. As we edged closer to the centre, we left the traffic and opted for the less polluted cycle path along the beach. Luxury hotel chains occupied the seafront; their newly built skyscrapers made a dramatic contradiction to the poverty-stricken outer city ring. After a pleasant 15 minute cycle, we followed the cobbled streets inland until we reached Europe Square – named after its golden arches, KFC and Casinos. Mercedes, Jeeps, and sports cars (with hidden licence plates) were parked in the square – a playground for the beach hungry and cash heavy, Russian, Georgian and Turkish holidaymakers.
Georgia felt Western. Despite its lack of membership, it proudly flies the EU flag on any free mast. The country is also Balkans-esc: underdeveloped with pockets of wealth, an appetite to be European, and a hunger for progression.
As we entered the hostel’s courtyard, I saw the familiar face of Mckenley (McK), my favourite Alabamian bike tourer. He had a beer in hand and a cold one waiting to be opened. I picked up the beer and placed myself opposite. Night sorted.
We wandered the streets, planned our route through Georgia, packed our bags and got sim cards. An uneventful day, but a well earned rest.
Julia made a last minute decision to join us. As a three, we left the bright lights and beach bums of Batumi behind. We followed the coast north, and stayed within touching distance of the sea. The road was small, scattered with livestock, and heavily forested – a nice change from Turkey's empty landscape and endless highways.
After a quick ice cream stop, we searched iOverlander (a user generated app to share information on places to sleep, eat, get WiFi, etc) for camp spots. We found a hot spring 20km south of Kutaisi, so without much hesitation we returned to our saddles and raced to its location.
4km out and the road turned to gravel. With PTSD from five broken spokes and a cracked rim, I took it slow.
I still got a puncture.
I quickly replaced the inner tube with a new one. I’ve never had to fix a puncture with four glaring eyes before – it changed the experience. Clammy hands dried, we cycled the short distance to a dam (the dam was our first obstacle before the hot spring). Two security guards appeared and enquired about our presence. The younger of the two said it was possible to reach the spring, but we had to cross a couple rivers. He would show us how to cross the rivers at their lowest point.
We were led to an empty field. The young guy walked ahead and disappeared. We left our bikes by a tree in a bid to catch him up. Before we knew it, he had returned with a horse. He was sitting on a horse. A wild horse. Who knows where the horse came from.
‘Come, come’, he ushered.
We followed him to the water’s edge. I let Julia take the reins and I followed behind on foot. McK stayed back to watch the bikes.
We trekked across the first river; the water was warm and current strong. A younger horse stayed by my side and we crossed together. It almost felt like the horse knew to stay close in case I didn’t know the way. When I stopped, the horse stopped.
Three more river crossings and we made landfall. The sun had started to set as a herd of wild horses galloped across the sand. I stood for a second to take it in. I couldn’t understand how we ended up here. A series of events which wouldn’t arise if travelled by any other means.
Julia and I found space in the busy hot spring. We soaked our way to relaxation and stayed until the guilt of leaving McK got too much. We waded back through the river with both horses in tow; by the time we arrived at basecamp, McK had made friends with an old local man. The old boy had invited us to his home for dinner – we couldn’t refuse.
After we had set up camp, he showed us how to catch fish. He caught five almost immediately. Back at the house, what we thought would be a chilled evening, turned into a gathering of 15 men from the village.
“You want marijuana?”, one man asked.
What had we got ourselves into?, I thought. And without hesitation, I took a large drag on the spliff.
I jest. I didn’t.
We were shown how to gut the fish before they were thrown on the gas stove to cook. The group created a spread of bread, cheese, salad, salted and unsalted fish, and homemade beer. Luckily, Julia was fluent in Russian – an absolute trooper, she translated during the entire evening. We toasted everything and anything – but mostly against Russian aggression and to Ukraine.
The evening came to an end just before midnight – I think they got the message that we were exhausted by the repetitive yawning. We thanked them for their hospitality and retired to our tents.
I went to sleep reliving the day’s ride. It’s the genuine, unplanned, and pure spontaneous experiences that make bike touring unique.
We left early and made slow progress to Kutaisi – Georgia’s second largest city. Kutaisi was the first example of real Soviet architecture I’d come across. Small countryside lanes gave way to desolate oversized roads. Identical apartment blocks act as a distasteful reminder of the country’s communist past. And, grand statues mark the city’s centre.
A quick, steep climb led us to Kutaisi’s old town; like a small European city it was rich in heritage, yet situated in the heart of a 70’s time-hop. We found a trendy, hipster coffee shop and drank over-priced Americanos on a cobbled street in the sun. McK had planned to spend two days in the north to follow his love for kayaking, whilst Julia and I were headed to a canyon in Martvili. However, after McK left, we changed our minds. Kutaisi seemed like a nice spot to wander aimlessly. We dropped the bikes off at a guesthouse and we walked. We had no aim, but to enjoy what the city had on offer.
After a few hours, we grabbed dinner and returned to the guesthouse to watch the sunset on the balcony. The guesthouse produced its own red wine, so we dabbled. Cheeky.
We left the bags at the guesthouse and made a beeline for a monastery 10km east of the city. The climb was steep and, of course, cobbled. Overlooking a deep, forested valley, the monastery was nestled in a stunning setting. I wrapped a drape around my waist to cover my naked knees – Julia did the same. We took time to wander the empty Orthodox alleyways – it was a nice way to slow down and experience another way to live.
With a strong tailwind and smooth roads, the Garmin hit a 24 mph average as we raced towards Martvili. The only thing that lay between us and the Martvili canyon was a few inquisitive cows and a quiet road. It was perfect.
Simply put, Martvili canyon was an anti-climax. We were greeted by Georgia’s equivalent of a water ride at Disneyland. Cappadocia was the last time I’d seen a tourist tsunami – but, at least the tourists were dispersed across a national park. Here, there was an entrance fee to walk around the canyon and an even bigger fee to kayak down it. We’d cycled the distance, so reluctantly parted with our cash and joined the herd.
The canyon was beautiful, but stale. To pay for natural beauty is like paying to urinate; I understand it's for the facility’s upkeep, but it’s nature. After a disappointing start, I had high hopes for the kayak. I thought Julia and I would paddle down rapids alone, in our own kayak. I was mistaken. The kayak was a raft, the river was rapid-less, and we were joined by six others, including a screaming toddler. The toddler cried for the ride’s entirety. I internalised my loathing for the kid, however, Julia being German-Russian, scowled at the child. This didn’t work, so we endured the whaling, as it echoed down the canyon, for a full 20 minutes.
Back on dry-land; drained of any energy, enthusiasm and cash, we cycled to the start of a hiking trail. We left the main road and followed a river upstream until the single lane track inclined. It was late in the day, and we couldn’t find any flat ground to camp on. We came across a monastery, so we let ourselves in. We walked around the garden with trepidation. After shouting ‘hello’ a few times, a monk appeared from a building. Julia spoke to him in Russian.
It was forbidden for us to sleep in the grounds of the monastery. But, they suggested a quiet, flat patch of grass which overlooked the valley we had just cycled through.
After setting up camp, I made dinner – a tuna, mayonnaise and sweetcorn special – and we watched the sunset. The camp was quickly engulfed in fireflies – an impressive, immersive encounter, and a first for me.
Despite the late start (7.30am), I forced Julia to enjoy an aeropress coffee. We decided to do a 14km hike, even though we both had plans for the day. I was headed back to Kutaisi to meet McK whilst Julia had planned to meet another German tourer in the mountains.
Back at the monastery, we dropped our camping gear off and had breakfast with the monks. I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, but it was a nice way to start the day nonetheless.
After two river crossings, one waterfall and a steep incline through deep forest, I was not convinced that the trail existed. However, I had full confidence in Julia, who had researched the hike. That was until she dropped into conversation: “I’ve been lost in the mountains twice. Once I had to be rescued by the mountain rescue team – it was when I was in Romania. It even made the local news”.
“You had to be rescued?!”, I exclaimed. “I’ve not once been close to calling a rescue team... Can I have a look at the map?”
“Oh yeah, if you weren’t here, I would have turned back at the first river crossing” she replied, casually.
We had a look at the route, and from the GPS, I could see we were slightly off. We tailed back on ourselves and scrambled to the edge of the river. We found a slight path, so risked continuing on.
We trekked through heavy forest, brambles and stinging nettles. A machete would have been helpful, but we weren’t so lucky. After 2.5 hours of hiking, and with legs covered in bites and scratches, we made it to a waterfall – the halfway point.
The roar of the overflowing water crash onto the rocks was therapeutically deafening. Full of glacial water, rock pools dotted the base of the waterfall. Julia, being Julia, had trained her body to cope with ice cold water, so she jumped straight in. I was envious. I had tried to take cold showers in January, as I also wanted to train my body to enjoy ice cold water, but I succumbed to my lack of willpower and gave up after a few weeks. As Julia acted like she was bathing in a hot tub, I paddled like a toddler taking his first dip.
On a path more travelled, we powered to the next waterfall. The navigational red marks painted onto the trees didn’t ease stress levels, however. We hadn’t expected the hike to take as long. We also had no food and only one litre of water. And, the temperature had hit the mid-30s – a rookie, rookie error.
But, five hours after we had started, we emerged from the wilderness. We snuck through the gates of the monastery and quietly packed our bags. The last thing we wanted was to get into a conversation with the monks. It was nice the first time, but we desperately needed calories. We found a small family-run restaurant by the river. Over a freshly caught fish, we debriefed the hike and hugged out the stress. We concluded that we’d tried to fit too much into the last two days.
I was back in Kutaisi at 7.30pm, after a short 30-ish mile cycle. It was good to see McK. He had cooked dinner and I arrived with beers. A necessity. McK had an interesting couple days, which made for light entertainment.
We left Kutaisi late – at almost 12pm. We started the two day cycle towards Gori – a small city halfway between Kutaisi and Tbilisi. The road was perfect and progress was steady. We stopped once, so I could eat 1kg of Shawarma – a Georgian kebab. It was delicious.
The heat was close to unbearable as we charged up a climb, the first I had done in a while. The hard work paid off when a stranger stopped his car and handed us ice cream. We were melting, so this was a welcomed treat.
We followed a river upstream for some distance before we found a hidden camp spot by the water’s edge. We cooked dinner whilst in deep discussion about the Soviet Union. Day well spent.
As is the case when a short day is on the horizon, something unexpected happens. Our destination was Gori, the birthplace of the USSR leader, Stalin. We had planned to arrive in the afternoon, visit the Stalin museum, and camp on the outskirts of town. The distance was short, so our plans were achievable. Ten minutes into the ride, however, we were met with gravel, a headwind and a lot of elevation. The idea of an afternoon off had gone with the wind.
I could feel the frustration building after we had cycled less than 10km in one hour. McK suggested I put music on or turn the Garmin off. I did both. The route was through an incredibly scenic valley, yet I was unable to appreciate it. I was entirely focused on my hatred for gravel. Stupid.
Eventually, we made it to the main road and tarmac. I was elated, McK wasn’t (he eats gravel). The road led us to the Gori, but the headwind was some of the strongest I had experienced. We had suffered, so agreed to stay in a hostel that evening and visit Stalin in the morning.
In Georgian restaurants they entertain their customers with live music – karaoke-style. In theory, this is a nice idea, but the reality is somewhat different. We ate dinner whilst listening to a 14 year old girl sing Adele covers in Georgian. We were unable to speak, think or even yell due to the volume of her microphone.
What a day.
The museum was a shrine to Stalin. A museum with no information, but a collection of photographs that depict his rise to power. We walked through with Wiki open, for context.
Another day, another heat trap. The cycle took us through golden farmland where large red peaks skyscraped the landscape. McK said it reminded him of home, I thought it was similar to Cappadocia.
The ride was smooth, we had great pace and the scenery all but made up for the heat. A short while in, we noticed three bike tourers sheltered under a tree, just off the road. We called them over. They were a French couple and a German guy, Tobias. We spoke briefly before deciding to ride as a group to Tbilisi. It was great to meet other tourers; we rode in twos whilst we got to know each other. Tobias was 18 and lives off £3 per day. His plan was to cycle to Mongolia during his summer holiday. So far, he had ridden the distance from Munich in two months – a huge achievement. What a legend. Also, his longest time without a shower was 25 days.
On a steep downhill, Tobias’ bike broke mid ride. Luckily, it happened outside a house. We got invited into the house for coffee and vodka shots. A welcomed, yet counter productive, stop.
Bike fixed, the cycle continued its enjoyable trajectory until I hit a large rock front on. This caused an instant flat tyre in the front wheel. I pulled off the dual carriageway and changed the inner tube. Knowing I had four people waiting on me was almost unbearable. However, it helped. I changed the tyre in record time, I was impressed.
A mile or two from the city centre, we said goodbye to the French couple, who were off to stay at a Warmshowers host. We rode the last few miles not knowing where we would stay. We also had little internet. This made for stressful work. But, at 10pm, we found a hostel with space for the bikes. It just happened to be one of the most expensive hostels in the city.
The hunt was on to find a bike box and to make sure the bikes were fit for the desert. We cycled around the city all day. Tbilisi is built on hills, which I wish I’d known before I chose to wear sliders.
No success came from our hard work, the city was dry of bike boxes. Due to the closed Azerbaijan land border, all bike tourers were flying to Kazakhstan. McK is a great talker, so his new mates at the bike shops agreed to let us know if any became available. We had one week until our flight, so we weren’t desperate yet.
We said goodbye to Tobias, who left the city to camp at 9pm. Mad man. Myself and McK sat in the lobby all evening and planned the following weeks.
Day 100 – 105
The next week was a mixture of blog writing, Central Asia prep (I had to change my bike setup to hold more water), and bike box hunting.
I celebrated my birthday with a walking tour – led by a guy who randomly burst into song whilst he explained Georgian independence. I wasn’t impressed. If I wanted a musical, I’d go to a theatre.
Myself and McK ate an Indian before we joined nine bike tourers for beers. We spent the evening discussing routes, kit, and plans. Tbilisi is a cyclist hotspot, I met more tourers in Georgia than anywhere else. It was nice to feel part of a community of other like-minded people. We also reunited with Julia a couple days later – she was in Tbilisi preparing for Mt Kazbek.
Kazakhstan was our next stop. We had arranged to cycle the desert with Harriet, who I met in Cappadocia. During Turkey, Harriet had cycled with a fellow Brit, Robin, who was a last minute addition to the group. On our last day in Georgia, we met another tourer in the hostel. Coincidentally, Connor was on the same flight as us, so he also joined the Kazak crew.
The desert was an exciting prospect – I wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone. Up until now, the trip had been comfortable and I couldn’t wait for a challenge. McK was less enthusiastic. He’s a desert veteran, so knew exactly what to expect.
We met Harriet at the airport. She was joined by Ted, who had cycled with her and Robin in Turkey – he was also on the same flight as us. A group of six tourers crossing the desert – what could go wrong.
As we stood in line to board the flight, Harriet turned to me and whispered: “My brother has just messaged to say he tested positive for Covid”.
Myself, Robin, and McK had spent time with her brother in Tbilisi. Robin had been ill all week – and I had started to feel run-down.
‘Well, isn’t this going to be fun,’ I thought to myself.