I’ve been home a few months now, busy applying for jobs to fund my next adventure, either the Americas or central Asia… perhaps even a RTW trip. Looking back there’s a few places that I want to tell you about,one of those is my time in the beautiful Georgia.
Having ridden my Bridgestone Battlewing tyres across Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean into Asia, I was planning to change them somewhere in Russia. However, having read that the roads in Georgia are terrible I decided to carry a set of Heidenau K60s with me and change them when I arrived. It turned out that the roads were pretty good and as I still had plenty of rubber remaining I decided to push on. My last night in Turkey I folded my Caucasus map, got my compass out and was mentally prepared to stow away my GPS, it was gonna be old school navigation for here on in. I was wrong, my routing was done entirely on the GPS and I had no need for the paper map and compass. The free OSM maps that I had downloaded and installed on my Garmin Zumo 660 prior to leaving performed just fine.
The crossing from Turkey into Georgia was simple and straight forward, I even got away with my Turkish speeding ticket that I’d got the day before. I was really happy to be getting into a new country and especially excited about the prospect of being somewhere a bit more edgy, this was certainly the furthest I had been from home and I was buzzing with anticipation. I made my way north up the Black Sea coast through several quaint little seaside towns that reminded me of home. I was heading toward Poti, a major port city and home of the Georgian Navy.
From here I was going to be heading east along the well maintained federal highway to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi then north up the Georgian Military Highway to Kazbegi into Russia and the infamous Caucasus Mountains. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to many of the eastern provinces of the Caucasus’, particularly Chechnya, as well as all but essential travel to many of the surrounding regions. My route would skirt between these areas, and would leave me on my own without British consular support should anything untoward happen to me. However, like all travel advice, the FCO should be taken with a pinch of salt, so I decided to take my chances.
Everything was going well, the sun was shining and the roads were good, apart from the crazy Georgian drivers but I was making good steady progress so I decided to I stopped in Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city and apparently twinned with Newport. For a change it was really easy to find my hostel, situated right on the main square in the centre of town, not far from the train station. But for such an epicentre it was oddly quiet and quite ghostly. I was chuffed to bits to find that the hostel had a garage, so I parked up and settled into my usual routine. It was a fairly large house, albeit basic and in dire need of renovation, with several sets of bunks in one big drawing room. Other than one couple, that had a private double room, I had the entire house to myself. Once I’d showered I took a nice walk into town to get some cash and supplies. It was a good job I had a back up credit card because my ‘special’ travel credit card didn’t work in the machines here.
Once I’d got supplies I headed back but stopped briefly in the main square to chat with some local taxi drivers who were mingling about drinking beers at a small bakery. I ordered a beer and a pastry and made the usual small talk; where I was from and where I was going, but they didn’t seem very interested so I went back to my room for a lush meal of bread and sausage, washed down with an ice cold ‘shandy’.
As the dawn broke, the following day I packed up and initiated ‘Operation don’t get kidnapped or murdered’. I wanted to get to Kazbegi in the north of Georgia as soon as I could, it would be much more scenic and interesting with mountains and makeshift roads. I had no interest in visiting the capital, cities are not my thing; too many cars, too many dodgy people and, usually, the worst of all, too many damn tourists. There is a real distinction between a tourist and a traveler, I considered myself part of the latter. I was headed for the Georgian Military Highway, the historic name for the major route through the Caucasus into Russia from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz. It’s the traditional route used by invaders and traders alike throughout the ages. It stretches 200+km through valleys, ridges, gorges and canyons past rivers, mountain-top fortress’ and dams. My destination was a small northern town in the Kazbegi municipality called Stepantsminda.
The further north I rode the more picturesque it became with beautiful cathedral like green covered mountains and good quality twisty roads with switchbacks that slowly ascended clinging to the rocky foothills. I didn’t look into accommodation as I’d heard stories of travelers just arriving in town and within minutes being offered a homestay. I was keen to try this out so I pulled into the town square in Stepantsminda and within thirty seconds of switching off the bike and removing my helmet I was approached about a hotel. I bartered the gentlemen down to a very good price for a bed and two meals: dinner and breakfast. I followed him to his home just outside of town, parked up in his garage, unloaded the bike, mindful of the chained up dog that was determined to get a piece of me, and got settled into my very comfy 4 bed dorm room. My host returned to into town.
Forty-five minutes later my host returns to tell me that he has a group of Italians coming to stay and that he wants me to leave as he plans to put them in ‘my’ room. “I can share”, I tell him but he informs me that it’s a large group and that there won’t be enough room. He reassures me, however, that he’s found me another homestay, for the same price. So I pack up and follow his friend to my new digs, it’s basic, as before, but it’s clean and friendly and it’s all I want or need. As we’re driving through town I see what looks like an internet café called the Google Market, it’s livery stylised like the search engine, but it turns out to be a small supermarket. The matriarch of the house prepares me some dinner and shows me to my bed. It’s not long before I’m in it fast asleep and dreaming of what’s to come.
The following day I reach the last stretch of the Military Highway where it suddenly turns into a complete mess of boulders & memorials, pot holes and loose gravel tracks that winds it’s way through the valley. This section of the highway is closed to the public in the winter. A cooler chill is in the air so I decide to stop near a memorial to put on my boots and Jacket just in case I have a tumble. If it’s going to happen it’ll be along this mostly downhill stretch. The weather had been so nice and the roads so good up to this point that I had largely been riding in my trainers and a T-shirt.
Dotted along the way are these long concrete tunnels, which I later learn are avalanche tunnels for drivers to take refuge in the event of an avalanche. I don’t stop much on this stretch to take pictures as I’m so focused on the road, a couple of the pictures I’ve included here are from a Google image search, I’ve tried to credit the original source as much as possible.
Eventually the road improves and I arrive at the Verchni Lars border, which has not seen much use in recent years, mainly because of the delays in crossing but often because of complete closures, due to regional tensions. Moreover, its use has often been limited to the locals only. However, having done my research I’d learnt that it had recently been re-opened to stimulate economic recovery in the border areas and facilitate the Armenian-Russian trade. Moreover, it opened up to all nationalities and had been used, with great success, by some fellow British overlanders like myself. Using this crossing not only allowed me to explore some of Georgia but enabled me to cross into Russia via a land border instead of using the Trabzon – Sochi ferry, saving me untold time and money. As I sat at the first checkpoint, I couldn’t believe my eyes, there was a British car in front of me. The guards tell me that the occupants are American, so at the next opportunity I introduce myself to Matt and Ingrid who are doing the Mongol Rally. We hit it off and decide to travel together for bit until we eventually part ways, a few days later at Elista, with me continuing north to Volgograd and them east into Kazakhstan.
With me being bit of a cheeky rebel anarchist, I start chatting away with the border guards, a combination of army and police officials. It’s easy to do because they love the bike and I hand round the ciggies. I know that taking pictures in a border zone is forbidden, the signs prohibiting it are a constant reminder, but I’m getting on so well with a couple of them that I gesture to them if they want their pictures taking with the bike, they oblige and I snap away. Five minutes later comrade commissar comes over and reminds me in a stearn voice “NO PICTURES”. Welcome to Russia.