A sudden route change

Taking some time off near a local stream

Taking some time off near a local stream

Mestia was a rather large tourist trap, with none of the perks that go with it, no internet! I would describe the city as something similar to the touristic villages in Yosemite. Prices have soared, but produce and bread remains cheap so I loaded up on pasta, a full tank of petrol for my stove and as much fruits and vegetables as I could carry and head out. The once paved road quickly turned into a rough, muddy trail. In some areas the puddles were so deep that the water level was over my bottom bracket almost submerging my full three-piece crank set! If I hadn’t climbed enough already, the road had few flat sections and I climbed endlessly for the another 45 km. I passed several small villages and on few occasions a group of funny faced tourists gazing out their windows at me in a high clearance vehicles. The once faint snowy mountains drew nearer as I made my way towards Ushguli. Definitely a difficult 45 km, but nothing as tough as riding the top of the world high way from Alaska to Yukon! Arriving soaked in mud, dirt and sweat I was ready to call it a day. But by chance I met a backpacking Latvian couple who revived my spirits by giving me a box of chocolates. We talked for a while about the Baltic night’s festival in Riga and they recommended I pedal to a nearby glacier they were returning from.

Small cobblestone built villages in Svaneti

Small cobblestone built villages in Svaneti

Stream bed trail leading to Glacier

Stream bed trail leading to  Shkara mountain and glacier

“The road passes through several streams and there is a rather large deep crossing, but if you pedaled here from Mestia you can do it”.
“OK, why not” I thought, Ushguri was a beautiful village but rather touristy (again!) with boats loads of Europeans walking around taking pictures of everything with their huge camera lenses. In the 45 minutes that I was there I met; Italians, Poles, Checks, Spaniards, Lats, Russians, Brits and Germans. Definitely your European outdoor getaway!! A general rule of thumb is that if there is a road it will be touristy! As quickly as I arrived I departed and followed another rough road along a glacial stream. It felt good to be out in the wilderness again, and I passed several groups of backpackers camping in the outskirts of Ushgurli. The road hugged the stream through a narrow valley and led straight towards Geogria’s tallest mountain Shkara (5068 m), the land border between Russia.

The road to Shkara continues

The road to Shkara continues

Steep climb to upper glacial road

Steep climb to upper glacial road

After about 10 km of rough riding the road split; going straight would lead me down an extremely narrow trail through thick brush and large rocks, and to the left was a wider trail but had an extremely steep grade that looked too steep even to push! I chose the left route; pushing with all my might as my feet slipped on muddy rocks. I was halfway up the hill when suddenly a high clearance police land rover comes racing up! Honking at me to get out-of-the-way, I quickly push Gaby into a thorn-bush and dodge the speeding police vehicle. A few seconds later and about 5 meters in front of me the land rover stalls and the tires spin, no traction! “Please don’t kill me” I thought! All it would take would be one false move or a brake failure and the range rover would come towering down the hill taking me with it. “Stop, let me pass” I yelled. By this time the 3 police passengers had vacated the car and were yelling at me in Georgian, saying “What the fuck are you doing pushing your bike here”. “Hold the car still while I pass” I yelled. I gathered all my strength, and prayed that I would get past the before tragedy, I pushed Gabriella up, my feet sliding in sandals, just a bit more… I passed the car my lungs burned and my calves felt like they were going to explode but I made, and continued on to the top of the hill and out of harms way.

Rocky glacial trail

Rocky glacial trail

Glacial camp site

Glacial camp site

From the top I could see what all the commotion was about. 100 meters from me was a group of people standing next to a vehicle with its hood up in distress. Ohhh I see, the police were obviously here to rescue them and I had somehow been caught in the middle of it. I continued to push Gabriella toward the vehicle, and stopped to ask if everyone was ok. The stranded group turned out to be an Israeli family, that got stuck with a dead battery. Before I could ask how long they had been there, the Georgian police land rover flies over the hill and races towards us. “Who has dead battery”? the policeman shouts, like it could be me with a dead battery! (“Ahh yeah my iPod is dead can you charge it so I can listen to Black Sabbath while climbing the glacier”). “Looks like it’s all under control, see you later” I said and pushed on. 5 minutes later the same Georgian police officer comes running along after me “Do you have any tools”, he asked? I laughed, “you came all the way down here and forgot to bring tools”? I turned around and pushed Gaby back toward the stalled car. I pulled out all of my tools and soon after a new battery was placed in the stalled car and both the police car and the Israeli family departed. I must say that the park cone wrench DCW-4 is the correct size for removing automobile batteries!

Late afternoon sun

Late afternoon sun

Hiking the glacier

Hiking the glacier

I spent the next two days camping along the stream and hiking around and up on the glacier. The water was too cold to swim, and even too cold to drink! The fast current picked up lots of sand and rocks giving the water a haze and leaving a residue in my water bottles. I was so close to the source however that I decided to neglect using the Purel hand sanitizer and drink straight from the current. From the tent I had a northern view of 5 snowy peaks and a large glacier, a large valley in the south and mountains east and west. This was one of the most beautiful places I had ever camped in, but I soon realized why so few people venture to camp out here. Not only is the journey to the glacier on a rough rocky trail that passes in and out of stream beds but during the 15 hours of day light there was very little protection from the sun. Within a few hours after sunrise the sun became to strong to sleep, and continued in this manner until an hour or two before sunset. The whole valley was completely treeless leaving me with little option but to retreat near the steam to keep cool during the day. Not only was the sun a problem but there were killer biting flies! These guys would feast without rest or mercy on any open flesh during the intense daylight hours, and followed me everywhere I went even all the way up to the glacier. A bite from these guys would draw blood, and I spent hours keeping them at bay.

Inside Ushguli church

Inside Ushguli church

Leaving my camp I headed back to Ushgurli, and visited a “historic relic” church. Georgia is one of the oldest Christian countries and it is reflected in their churches, old stone towers filled with beautiful frescoes. Having paid my respects to one of Georgia’s oldest churches I then hit the road and climbed to an elevation of 8,000 ft. I looked around for the snow-capped mountains but they were all hidden beneath a blanket of clouds, and the sky had become a dark grey. Lightning flashed and seconds later I heard the report. “Fuck, I had better get out of here” I thought. The smell of ozone permeated my nostrils as I descended down into a valley. The rain was small at first but quickly turned into large blocks of ice, I was soon pedaling through the worst weather I had encountered on the entire pilgrimage! The temperature, like the hail, dropped significantly and soon I was shaking with little feeling in my fingers as I pulled harder and harder on the wet brakes during the steep descent.  With little protection from the storm and after watching the narrow mountain trail give way from a newly formed river I moved as quickly as possible to get to safety. I was scared! I was almost at the point where my rational thinking stopped and all I wanted to do was stop pedaling a freak-out. I continued on and barely made it passed a washed out section of the road, at one low point in the road I pushed Gaby through water close to waist-high. I still wanted to freak-out, caught up in some sore of obsessive compulsive dilemma, but I knew that I had to keep going or risk being stranded. I hadn’t seen any cars since departing Ushgurli and I knew that I was on my own out here. It continued to pour all day but I kept on the trail and made it to an asphalt road by evening. Everything was soaked so I picked up a small bottle of vodka and crept into the protection of my sleeping bag, soon passing out.

Highest pass on Svaneti road 8,000 ft

Highest pass on Svaneti road 8,000 ft

The storm begins

The storm begins

The next day I continued east, hoping to make it to Tbilisi, the capital, in a few days. After about 100 km of hard riding I suddenly camp to a patrolled border. Military personnel, fully armed in camouflage, stranding in front of tanks. “What the Fuck?” Did I somehow pedal into Ukraine? Who gave me this map? After a few broken Russian sentences I was told to retrace my path or suffer the consequences, as I had somehow pedaled into Russian occupied Georgia, Osseti. I didn’t have to question the order, and abruptly turned around. It was getting dark so I stopped at the nearest town of Oni and asked the Policia if I could camp the town park. Not only was I not allowed to camp in the park but I was also forced to leave the town, at night and was escorted to the city limits by a fat police chief driving a jeep. I climbed two steep hills with highlights guiding the way, and finally the tailing jeep turned around and left.

Russians laying pipes near the occupied territory of Osseti

Russians laying pipes near the occupied territory of Osseti

I pulled off the road and camped near the river, what a fucking hard last two days!! The next morning I pedaled a long steep 120 km to Georgia’s second largest city Kutaisi. I am here now planning my fall and winter cycling schedule. Due to the extremely slow Azerbaijan visa processing time I will have little chance of crossing the Pamir mountains into China before the onset of winter. Of course I could do what many other cyclist I have encountered are doing, ride as fast as you can all the way through, but that doesn’t work for me, especially in such an exotic location as central Asia. So not being able to completely traverse into China I have decided to fly from the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent to Japan in October, and cycle south crossing into Korea and slowly making my way down to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, returning to Uzbekistan by early Spring. Once again another adventurous trip underway, but everyday since hitting the road has something to offer.

DCIM105GOPRO

I am now headed south to visit some of Georgia’s famous caves and on to Armenia for a few weeks. I hope to write again soon I apologize for the delay in posts but internet is somewhat rare out here. Strangely enough everyone knows the song “American Boy” and as soon I they find out where I am from they can’t help themselves from singing the tune!

Pedaling through Georgia

Water fountain in town square of Batumi

Water fountain in town square of Batumi

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.

Greek columns decorate the town promenade

Greek columns decorate the town promenade

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.

Some friendly Georgians showing off a freshly made acharuli

Some friendly Georgians showing off a freshly made acharuli

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.

close-up

close-up salty cheese, a fried egg, butter all tucked into a homemade loaf of bread. The Georgian equivalent to the Hawaiian loco moko.

Handmade Pilmeni (these are a Russian dish though)

Handmade Pilmeni (these are a Russian dish though)

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).

Getting the scoop from the locals!! Juseph hooks up and hand drawn map at one of the largest bicycle shops in Georgia

Getting the scoop from the locals!! Juseph hooks up and hand drawn map at one of the largest bicycle shops in Georgia

Local Georgian bicycle shop

Local Georgian bicycle shop

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!!

Cheery locals sipping strong drinks in the shade of the afternoon sun

Cheery locals sipping strong drinks in the shade of the afternoon sun

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!

Cows raid my camping spot, nothing like waking up to a cow peeing a few feet from your tent

Cows raid my camping spot, nothing like waking up to a cow peeing a few feet from your tent

Cooking dinner in the early evening

Cooking dinner in the early evening

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).

Glacial lake view after super steep climb, Georgian interior

Glacial lake view after super steep climb, Georgian interior

The only local supermarket, closed for the afternoon festivities

The only local supermarket, closed for the afternoon festivities

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!

A Czech couple on a Black sea cycle tour! These guys had pedaled over 6,000 km and were in their early 60's! Grand parents, they were slow on the hills though

A Czech couple on a Black sea cycle tour! These guys had pedaled over 6,000 km and were in their early 60’s! Grand parents, they were slow on the hills though

 

A super chill local water fall,  but super treacherous, slick rocks and no guard rails

A super chill local water fall, but super treacherous, slick rocks and no guard rails