It was 5 o'clock in the afternoon when we entered Georgia. I was freezing and it was rapidly getting darker - I wasn't up for much cycling. The first town after crossing the border is Lagodekhi. We pulled in to the first guesthouse we saw and were greeted by a young English-speaking man. Along with a nice and cozy room we were invited to try the self made house wine. We would soon find out that basically every Georgian makes wine at home and while in Muslim countries we were invited for tea, here we would frequently get invited to a glass of wine.
The village is located at the foot of the Lagodekhi national park, where we had an appointment to meet with the park director, staff and hopefully some rangers. It was a Sunday, but as we entered the visitors center everyone was working as on a normal weekday. We sat down with the park director, Giorgi, the head of administration, Thea, and the head of ecotourism, Sandro. Their stories captured us right from the beginning as they talked about the park, the wildlife, the tourism possibilities and the history. The hair on my neck stood up as Giorgi explained his fight against poachers, often villagers, and how he found a bomb in his car. A warning which didn't stop him in his commitment though.
Thea showed us a wonderful children's book, made by three volunteers in the previous year. Every year a group of young volunteers from around the world help out in the park. And every year local and foreign tourists visit the area. Well signalized walking trails lead visitors through the park, without bringing too much disturbance to the animals. Sandro showed us the three day hiking trail up into the mountains, past the Russian border and down again through a wild deciduous forest. The trail is covered by snow right now, but it's a place I would love to come back to and hopefully see some the great wildlife like the East Caucasian Tur.
The weather is chilly and wet, but Sera and I are eager to see at least a bit of the park. With camera and binoculars in hand we walk into the forest. We hear the sound of chainsaws and follow the tracks of a truck. We spot three men cutting down a tree, not what we expected in a National Park. But a ranger is with the men. He even speaks German! And explains to us that we are in the buffer zone of the park. In order to prevent villagers of illegally logging, the rangers mark trees within this area which can be cut down. It's a careful selection done by a forester and has stopped uncontrolled logging.
We walk along small paths, cross a river and listen for birds. It would be great to spot a mammal, but we know it's unlikely this close to the village. However, we do spot a small mouse who seems to be oblivious to our presence. Great for taking a close up photograph.
A national park can only be effective and poaching can only be eradicated if the villagers understand the value of the park. Giorgi has successfully involved the village of Lagodekhi by making them profit from ecotourism. Two dozen guesthouses are within the vicinity of the park and new restaurants and stores have opened in the town. The park also offers the possibility of sleeping in a tent close to the visitors center. We love sleeping in the tent, especially if its inside a national park. So even though the temperatures are bound to drop below 0ºC this night, we pitch the tent and cook some spaghetti. It's theoretically possible to make a campfire, but the wood is too wet and wont burn.
The Park is a wonderful place and great example for good practice conservation. If you want to read more about the park and what we found out on our visit there, just go to the ranger section on this website or click here.
Even though we are impressed by the parks beauty, it's committed staff and the friendliness of everyone, we only spend one night there. Winter is rapidly approaching and we plan to cycle through Georgia fairly quickly to avoid getting stuck in the snow. We cycle off in sunshine with the impressive Caucasian mountains behind us.
The GPS is set on Tbilisi and leads us from the main road onto a small, unpaved and very steep road.
The sun is already setting, but we are having difficulties finding a place to pitch the tent. We pass through a small village, but as it's dark, we see nobody outside whom we could speak too. Cycling in the dark is something we try to avoid, but as the days are short now we don't have many hours in the day for cycling. Fortunately there's almost no traffic and the light on my bicycle is quite bright. As so many times on this trip I ask myself: “where will be sleep tonight?” After almost a year of travelling this question doesn't make me anxious anymore as we have always found a place to sleep. This night we ended up setting the tent in a communal park.
In Georgia we are once again illiterate, as they have a spaghetti like alphabet resembling a bit the letters of Myanmar. Many people speak Russian, even in small villages, so we can communicate a bit and order food. Khachapuri, a typical Georgian bread stuffed with cheese, is found on every street corner and will become one of our staple foods throughout the country. There's a few more vegetarian options too, so my meat consumption is drastically reduced here. Maybe not a bad decision, looking at the way they sell meat openly and directly next to the busy street.
As in Azerbaijan, many stray dogs live in the villages and along the road, but we see people sharing their food with them. In general the animals look healthy and regularly receive food. We spotted these two sleeping on a pile of leaves right next to a restaurant. Would have loved to take them along with us...
On our second day of cycling in Georgia we have the goal to reach Tbilisi. It's 120km away, but it shouldn't be too hilly and we are keen to arrive. The day is gray and even though the temperature is OK for cycling, it's hard to take breaks outside without feeling cold. For this reason we want to eat lunch in a restaurant next to a warm stove, but all the restaurants we pass by are closed. We end up eating khachapuri on the street, making it a fast lunch. The road is in good condition and we make fairly fast progress. 40 km before the Tbilisi we have cycled over the last hill and have turned onto the highway. The geography is in our favor, the road slightly loses altitude and we race towards Tbilisi with an average of 30km/h. As night falls we reach the city center and look for a place to eat and use the wifi. We have found a warmshowers host and need to connect in order to contact him.
We spend three days in Tbilisi. I'm very happy to have found a host this time, it's just not the same to stay in a hostel or at somebodies house. Beka is a great host, a bicycle tourer and a nature enthusiast. He tells us about his favorite national parks in Georgia and gives us suggestions for the route ahead of us. On one evening we go out to a nice restaurant and try more Georgian specialties, such as roasted eggplants with a rich walnut paste and kingali, a type of dumpling.
During the day we explore the city and search for some more winter clothing. The old city is very beautiful and there's churches everywhere. People are still quite religious and we often see them stop in front of the church they pass by to pay their respect. The street art catches our eye and we play around taking photos. Beside the river we stroll across the flea market and pass by the zoo. There's still many street dogs, but they all have plastic pugs in their ears. These animals have been castrated and vaccinated. As we are not on the bicycle, they are very friendly to us and Sera looks at me disapprovingly as I pet them all.
Tbilisi is a fairly wealthy city and stands in stark contrast to the way of life on the countryside. Seemingly every person owns a car and the traffic is more than chaotic. It's clear who is the master of the road - cars are everywhere. Not the best place for cycling or even walking sometimes as cars block the whole sidewalk. Buses exist but they are usually very crammed so we ended up walking everywhere. Tbilisi is yet another city with a booming population and economy where a people friendly and ecological transportation system is missing. On the fourth day we leave Tbilisi, cycling once again on a mutli-lane highway, well for about 30 km. Fortunately theres an alternative route to the main road and we soon find ourselves on a small country road with little traffic. Batumi, here we come.
Thank you for reading the post. On our journey we meet with rangers and conservationists and tell their stories. We raise awareness about conservation issues and the ranger job and raise money for the Thin Green Line Foundation to support rangers worldwide. If you can, please make a small donation by clicking here. Thank you!