While crossing the Turkish/Georgian I looked to the locals and tried to get an idea as to what to expect of the new country I would soon by cycling. The local Georgians pushed and rushed to cut in the immigration line, but in Georgia, regardless of nationality all citizens wait in the same line. With a stamp on my passport good for a full year of visa free travel I pedaled on excited to see what the next few weeks of traveling would be like. Georgia marks the first country traveled to that I have zero background knowledge. I have never known a Georgian, heard their language and other than the fact that an US state shares the same name, I really had no idea what to expect. The border patrol guards smiled as I pushed Gaby through the crowds waiting to get their passport stamped and the first thing that caught my attention, after crossing the border was a huge Orthodox Church. Islam is now a minority religion so the days of dealing with grumpy, fasting Muslims are over. I pedaled along a rainy coast. What a different feeling the coast in Georgia has compared to Turkey. Beach shacks, huts and even small guest houses tastefully built out of bamboo and other native products. Georgians seem to adapt better to their coastal environment rather than the classic huge concrete monstrosities so often found in Turkey.
I spent two days drying clothes and bonding with locals in the coastal city of Batumi. English once again is rarely found, and with little secondary options I conversed in Turkish. I found the city quite odd, large miss shaped buildings from the days of the Soviet Union and an endless boardwalk of 18 km. The city is split into two districts, urban and industrial, with churches marking the barrier between the two. A few facts learned from several of the overly zealous locals; Georgia is the homeland of the legendary “Golden Fleece” sought after by many as Georgia was one of the earliest countries to possess the secrets of gold production. Georgia is also one of the oldest Christian countries, adopted in the first century AD, and home to Joseph Stalin.
At first my sights were set on learning the Georgian language, but quickly I found that most if not all Georgians, (as in all ex-USSR countries). Meaning that with a little practice I should be able to get around in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, etc. To my surprise, after learning a few of the basics, Russian is very similar to Serbo-Croatian. Back in my days at Santa Monica I remember listening to friends converse in Russian and being completely lost the language, but now with some background in other Slavic languages the learning process is much easier.
My Azerbaijan visa application finally went through two weeks later than expected, leaving me with three weeks of down time before I can legitimately enter the country. My plan is to explore the depths of Georgia and if there is still time cycle into Armenia.
While in Batumi stopped at the local bike shop and met a Georgian tour guide, (he was trying to patch a flat tire). He spoke English well and we talked about cycle touring. He had never traveled by bicycle before but knew many of the beautiful routes in the country. After twenty minutes I had a map outlined with 4 different remote routes throughout the country. (I told him I preferred desolate dirt roads in the wilderness and he seemed to know many).
With dry clothes and a rather large Russian vocabulary I set off for the northern Georgian Alps, where the pavement official ends near the Russian border. I heard that even in the summer months one can still find glaciers and snow-capped mountains. These are the perfect ingredients for a great cycle tour! Pedaling through the remote suburb villages I got a great taste of local Georgian culture. During the hot afternoon hours men relax in the shade and drink vodka and beer. (Local beers have a minimum a minimum alc of 12% and the vodka is usually close to 120 proof). Bakeries exist everywhere and Georgians even have a pastry similar to Burek, called Haja Puri. Prices are close half of those in Turkey, with a liter of beer costing about a $1 and fruit/vegetables so cheap that they are almost free. Also being so close to Russia frozen dumplings can be found in every supermarket!! Yum!!
The countryside is so green, and shoulders sometimes are covered by the overflowing jungles. Cows, pigs and goats wander the busy roads, eating tall grass from the cracks in the pavement and sleeping the shade. Pigs can often be found bathing in muddy puddles and it is not uncommon to see cows wandering around in any city or town in Georgia! Seriously I was in front of city hall in Batumi and was a cow cross the street on to the sidewalk, none of the locals seemed to notice!
With all the wilderness I am often accosted by wild animals while camping at night. The screeching of a lynx is nothing new to me and barely makes me stir in my tent, but the foxes here are unruly! One morning I awoke to a fox pawing its way through the zipper of my tent trying get at my bread. Three days after leaving Batumi the climbing began as I slowly made my way north to the village of Mestia bordering Russia. Drinking water became scarce and to avoid gastrointestinal issues I sanitized stream water with Purel hand sanitizer. (The water tasted terrible but I am still going strong).
The route through the northern Svaneti mountains will lead me to a remote churches in Ushgurli, and has some of the best scenery in Georgia. So far I have cycled passed waterfalls, huge green meadows, snow-capped mountains and endless streams, there are even glaciers high up in the mountains and their turquoise water fills the local streams and lakes. I occasionally check in with other cyclists I have met along the road and several of them pedaled straight through Georgia and are now waiting in a hotel in Tbilisi (the capital) for their Azerbaijan visas. To me this is an absolute waste and makes cycle touring similar to that of urban travel (going from city to city), the a cycling journey is far from being about the destination. Today I met some hikers who asked me if I wanted to crash in their guest house, I told them I would love to use their shower but I would rather sleep in the wild. Check in again soon!