Our final cycle day into Tbilisi got off to an inauspicious start when we witnessed our first fatal accident of the trip. A dog was hit by one of the many marshrutkas that veer crazily across the roads; their drivers usually busy smoking, talking on the mobile, beeping their horns, doing anything but concentrating on where they are driving. As it lay shuddering in the middle of the tarmac, a man trudged out, grabbed it by the tail and dragged it to the side of the road, its limbs flailing wildly. It was dumped unceremoniously on the verge and the man returned to his very important tasks of smoking and gossiping with other men. We have seen many dead dogs on the side of the road since Bulgaria (and even one huge wild boar!) but observing one actually dying was pretty horrible and left us a little shaken.
It was a freezing morning and as usual I experienced about half an hour of numbness, tingling and pain in my fingers when we first started cycling before the warmth of my body radiates out into my extremities. We’ve been trialling our homemade vapour barrier liners (VBLs) inside our warm gloves (a.k.a. dishwashing gloves). This stops the warm gloves getting wet with sweat and thus reducing their warmth. This makes an incredible difference and we just have to get used to having wet (but warm) hands.
As we reached the brow of one hill and headed down into the next valley, we both noticed, and exclaimed simultaneously, that we had been hit by a warm cross breeze. There was no frost or ice in this valley, contrary to where we had come from, and we immediately had to shed a layer of clothing and our warm gloves. It felt bizarre to have such an extreme temperature change.
This area felt a bit strange for another reason. There wasn’t much in the way of habitation, lots of tumbledown buildings and a general air of abandonment. The road we were on actually passes along the edge of South Ossetia, a breakaway autonomous region whose quest for independence caused Georgia and Russia to go to war back in 2008 and is still the source of much disagreement between the two countries now.
It wasn’t long before we hit the capital city – Tbilisi. With a population of only 1.5 million people, it is quite a small city and you might think negotiating its roads would be a walk in the park compared to London or Istanbul for example. Think again. In our first couple of weeks in Georgia we had discovered that the driving really is insane. We had become quite used to cycling round a blind corner to be faced with not just two, but three cars careering abreast along the narrow pot-holed roads towards us (yes, the double overtake is a very common manoeuvre here). Drivers would often overtake us at high speed just to slam on their brakes and pull over to the side of the road just in front of us. I could go on. All this is accompanied by much incessant beeping of horns, screeching of brakes and revving of engines. Georgia, and particularly Tbilisi, is not a place for the nervous cyclist. As we got closer to the centre, the road widened to about a six-car lane width but without any lanes. Cars weaved and darted around each other as we inched our way along the edge of the road, trying to avoid the drainage holes with missing covers, pedestrians who think that they own the metre of road closest to the edge and marshrutkas that pull in and out without warning. We were mightily relieved when we finally arrived at the little apartment that was to be our home for the next week.
We had decided that Tbilisi would be a good place to hole up for a while to wait for the date that our visas would allow us to enter Azerbaijan. We spent the time doing lots of reading, watching films, eating, drinking and generally just relaxing. Speaking of eating, we were really impressed by the Georgian cuisine. Our favourites were the ubiquitous khachapuri (cheese bread), which comes in various formats depending on which region it is from. The most interesting of these is the Adjarian khachapuri – a boat-shaped dough base filled with melted cheese and a fried egg on the top, usually served with a large slab of butter floating and melting into the cheese. Enough to give you a heart attack just by looking at it! BBQ-ed pork on a skewer is another favourite and it was almost impossible for Steven to cycle on past if the smell of this wafted into our path. Slow cooked beans in clay pots, tomato and cucumber salad with mashed up walnuts, khinkali (large dumplings filled with meat or cheese and a broth), churchkhela (a string of walnuts wrapped in hardened grape juice) everything we tried was just delicious.
Tbilisi does not have a wealth of “must-see” sights, but it does have a beautiful old town area, nestled between the river and the sheer rock walls of the ravine. It is full of crumbling old buildings with wrought iron balconies, some of which are in the process of being heavily restored; others are left, forgotten beneath the twisting vines that are slowly strangling them. This area is also home to the sulphur baths for which Tbilisi is famous. These are still used by some locals as the place where they go to wash themselves and catch up on the daily gossip. We spent an hour in one of the private baths but after about ten minutes we had both had enough of the heat and I think I spent more time under the cold shower than in the hot pool.
Steven had been keen to see some rugby whilst in Georgia so he contacted the Georgian Rugby Union who pointed us in the direction of a premiership game in Tbilisi. As we travelled out to a distant suburb on the metro, I was looking at the other passengers, trying to work out who else was going to the game, as I would do back in London. When we arrived at the stadium, it was clear that none of them had been. There were a grand total of 23 spectators, including us! The standard of rugby was low and we weren’t compelled to stay more than 40 minutes. It didn’t come as a surprise to us to find out that almost all of the Georgian national team play in France.
After a week of being lazy and stockpiling our fat reserves (for our assault on the Kyzyl Kum desert), we were more than eager to get on the road again. Sneaking out of the city at dawn, before most of the lunatics were up and about, meant we had an easier ride out than in. It was great to escape the heavy traffic pollution and noise of the city as we headed out on the Kakheti Highway towards the wine region. That night we slept in our tent for the first time in ages, and loved it. We were a little disappointed that this was our final night camping in Georgia, as it is a great country to find beautiful wild camping spots.
Our next objective was Signaghi; a beautiful hilltop town in the wine area with a stunning view across the plain towards the snow capped High Caucasus mountains. We spent a few days here over Christmas. For Georgians, Christmas is celebrated on the 7th January so the 25th December is just a normal day for them. The mother of the family who owned our guesthouse did her best to make it special for us by making some delicious rice pudding and eggy bread to supplement the already enormous breakfast, and later on, plying us with the delicious homemade family wine.
From Signaghi, it was just a half-day cycle to the Azerbaijan border, and this marked the end of our month in Georgia. We both have mixed feelings about the place. Undoubtedly, there is natural beauty in abundance. We didn’t even visit the places that are said to be the most beautiful, Kazbegi and Svaneti, due to heavy snow in these hard to reach mountainous regions. But there is also much ugliness; grey, drab, muddy towns where life for many must be very bleak, especially in the winter months. Perhaps partly as a consequence of the tough life and partly due to cultural differences, people in general have not seemed nearly as friendly and welcoming as in Turkey. Stopping in small towns, we would usually be ignored altogether. However, when we ended up getting to know people a little, we found there was plenty of warmth and kindness there, we just had to dig a little deeper to find it.