A date specific visa for Uzbekistan, the perceived high cost of living in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, and the fact we want to spend Christmas in Georgia’s famous Kakheti wine region has meant we have slowed our progress to virtually a crawl. At first the thought of spending a month in Georgia was a daunting one; the grey, drabness of the place got us down and we longed for our comfort-zone of Turkey. This all changed when we arrived in Kutaisi, where we spent three excellent nights in a wonderful guesthouse, getting to know a little bit about Georgia and sampling more than our fair share of Georgian food. It is safe to say that we both think Georgian food is the best we have had on the journey so far (and by a very long way). It was hard to leave Kutaisi, but even at the slow crawl we are embracing across Georgia, four nights there would have been taking the piss, so we reluctantly loaded our bikes and headed for the hills.
The Rikoti pass out of Kutaisi was some of the most memorable cycling we have had so far, the scenery was certainly the most stunning; helped in no small way by the glorious sun that was beating down on us. What you can’t see in any photos that we have taken of this glorious day is the strength of the wind swirling around and attacking us from all angles. In all my years of cycling here-and-there I have never once been blown off the road. I lost count how many times we were blown off of the road on the way to the Rikoti pass. It is a very odd sensation to be cycling along happily to then be hit out of nowhere by a gust of wind that has the power to redirect you so quickly and so brutally. The gusts are even more soul destroying than the head winds, which you eventually just accept and get used to. At one point, with the wind causing havoc, I had subconsciously moved my head position so that it was at 45 degrees to the direction of travel, probably to allow me to hear approaching traffic and take action if required. This had a very strange effect on my face; with the temperatures below freezing and the wind biting at any exposed skin I found that one of my nostrils (the windward nostril) had completely frozen but the leeward nostril was streaming freely; the contents of it becoming entangled in my beard. Unfortunately, for my dignity, I had not realised in time and it was my lovely wife that pointed it out with much glee and laughter.
Note to self: remember to cover up your face whilst cycling in anything below freezing… It is important to learn these lessons and move on, even if you leave some dignity behind!
We pushed on (face cleaned and covered), and as the gradients became more aggressive and our breathing laboured we knew we must be on the approach run for the dreaded Rikoti tunnel. We had been waiting all day for this, and it had been playing on our minds. Do we risk the mad dash through the tunnel (dash is used in the loosest sense here, it would take at least 5 minutes of uncontrolled, head-down, arse-up aggression to negotiate it), or do we take the one hour detour over the top of the mountain?! With my mother’s words ringing in my ears “if you have to think twice about it, don’t do it!!!” the decision was made to take the high road. The decision was undoubtedly the correct one as we were spent our time enjoying snow ball fights, breathtakingly beautiful scenery, testing our newly purchased pogies, and having sign-language discussions with Georgian road workers. This certainly beat potential death from exhaust fume asphyxiation (or Georgian driving) in the tunnel!
One of the great advantages to having a significant amount of time in Georgia is our ability to leave the direct path and head off in search of more adventure and beautiful scenery. This is exactly what we did when reaching the large town of Khashuri; instead of veering left towards Gori, Tbilisi, and Azerbaijan; we turned right and headed for Akhaltsikhe and the cave monastery of Vardzia. As with everything in life, every action has a reaction and this freedom to gallivant around is no different. Cycling out to Akhaltsikhe was mentally tough; knowing every kilometre there was one that we had to repeat on the way back. Thankfully it was slightly uphill meaning we knew the return journey would be much easier (and it was).
Looking back from the comfort of Tbilisi (and our apartment directly above a fine wine shop), the journey out to Akhaltsikhe was one that we are very glad we made. The cycling was great (the traffic was relatively non-existent), the scenery was majestic (the equal of what we have seen in other corners of the world), and the town itself offered us some truly wonderful travel highlights. On arrival into the town we were beyond ravenous and stopped at the first bakery to add fuel to the fire, which is where we first met Zoro, a local taxi driver with a reasonable level of English. We negotiated a price for a round trip the following day to take in both Vardzia and the Sapara Monastery and then headed off to explore the town by ourselves. There is a not a lot to see in the actual town, except for the absolutely outstanding Rabati Castle, which has been painstakingly and lovingly restored. The restoration although obvious is in no way shape or form a cringe restoration project (as you unfortunately see in many other projects of this kind) and adds to the castle. The castle now hosts concerts in the main square, has a museum, a hotel (probably out of cycle touring budgets), and a wine shop where you can do a tasting; which we of course embraced! On reflection, it sits just below Krak des Chevaliers as my favourite castle I have visited. It does not have the majestic position of Edinburgh or Salzburg, the beauty of Leeds, or the regal side of Windsor; but there was something about it that made it wonderful for exploring (it probably helped that we were two of only ten tourists in the whole place).
Feeling quite pleased with ourselves, we started to make our way back to the hotel, which is when we had our second random encounter with Zoro. This time he suggested that we might want to join him (and about 1,000 other locals) at the town’s main theatre, where his cousin had choreographed the dance school production. This is exactly the sort of encounter that makes independent travel so rewarding and we jumped at the opportunity. Thankfully we had Zoro as our guide (read heroic side-kick), because I am not too sure we would have been able to work out how to get a ticket, or where to sit. It was a free-for-all inside; no one sat where they were allocated; people blocked all available passageways at all times and talked loudly (throughout). At one stage I had a rather burly man (probably a prop forward) sitting in the seat next to me, he was also half in my seat and was most perturbed when the lady on his other side dumped one of her children on his knee (the burly man and woman did not know each other; I confirmed this with her after the show). Ignoring the bedlam, the show was amazing, as in really AMAZING! I am not too sure there would be too many towns of 20,000 people around the world with so many unbelievable talented children. The dancing was brilliant, the timing (to the untrained eye) looked professional, and the crowd absolutely lapped it up (whoop whoop cheering, whistling, fist pumping awesomeness). We tried (in vain) to take photos, but it was one of those experiences where you have to put the camera down, sit back, and just enjoy the ride. If you ever get the chance to watch a Georgian traditional dance performance, don’t think about it, just do it, truly fantastic stuff.
Days like the first in Akhaltsikhe are not the norm of cycle touring and you have to embrace them when they come around. The downside is that the day that follows can almost never live up to the high standard set; this was not the case here though. At 0900 the ever-reliable Zoro was outside the hotel to take us off to the Vardzia cave monastery. The cave monastery is akin to the tunnel complexes of Cappadocia (without the phallic looking structures), and was fantastic for testing the limits of my claustrophobia, as well as my Star Wars imagination. The monastery appeared to be straight out of Tatooine, suffice to say I loved every minute of it, and like the Rabati Castle the place was basically devoid of tourists. We spent the best part of two hours exploring and met only one other person, an orthodox monk who kindly turned the lights on in one of the rabbit warrens that we explored.
Vardzia was a genuine travel highlight and is just one of the many wonderful sights to see in Georgia, as is the Sapara monastery. Sapara is located about 10km from Akhaltsikhe, with 80% of the journey negotiated on a mere track; covered in ice, snow, and mud; and accompanied by sheer drops to the valley floor (many hundreds of metres below). The monastery, again, like virtually every other place we visit in Georgia had no tourists, so walking around and exploring was wonderful. Katie and I both have a ridiculous fascination with orthodox monasteries, possibly because they are relatively new to us. The inside of this particular monastery was simply beautiful; frescoes, candles, and paintings adorned it, but it was the location, perched high on cliff edge that made it truly spectacular. I think it is fair to say that we absolutely loved our time in Akhaltsikhe, but we had to move on and head back the way we came… all the way to Gori.
Gori is essentially famous for one thing (two things if you count the Russian bombing of the city in 2008 as part of the South Ossetian war), it is the birthplace of Stalin. There is Stalin Avenue, Stalin Park, Stalin Square, Stalin Museum and until relatively recently there was a large statue presiding over the square (it was removed under cover of darkness with a police escort a few years ago). The museum was excellent, as was Stalin’s train carriage that he took to the Yalta Conference. The only downside to the whole thing was the fact it only (predictably I guess) showed one, very triumphant, side of Stalin; it would have been interesting to learn more about the darker side of his time in power. This however was made up for by the complete strangeness of the place. First, we must have been the only tourists interested in the museum as they had to unlock the rooms as we entered (forgetting to turn of the burglar alarms which was quite exciting); second, we were followed around by a very odd lady who found it necessary to play some sort of awful music on her phone at full volume whilst we tried to decipher the Cyrillic and Georgian scripts, and lastly, it was colder than cold as there was clearly no form of heating whatsoever. We ended up walking around in our down jackets, gloves, and beanies trying not to freeze, whilst at the same time covertly attempting to take photos when the odd lady wasn’t right on our tail and the security hadn’t been summoned due to another alarm. An all round brilliant experience and one well worth the effort!