Heading West through Georgia
I must admit, cycling isn't always fun and some days are mentally and physically very challenging. Waking up to cold and rainy weather I would rather spend a day inside under the covers and read a book than face another day of cycling. Bumpy roads with tons of traffic or long straight highway stretches with cars and trucks speeding past are not always inspiring, to say the least. Leaving Tbilisi, the comfort of a cozy apartment and the warmth of cafes on every corner, on a five lane highway was another one of those mental challenges. Sera just finished reading the book Being Happy in Alaska, a motivational book that teaches you to accept situations in order to be happy, so he was giving his best to lighten up my mood. Stopping at a little cafe beside the highway and eat khachapuri helped a little too. With 1,5 hours of busy traffic behind us, we finally left the highway behind us and turned onto a small country road. The sun was slowly making its appearance and the landscape looked stunning. The road wound up a hill and suddenly I found myself cycling in a t-shirt. Perfect conditions in which I found the joy in cycling again.
This night we slept in an abandoned house again, as the fields were quite saturated with water and unsuitable for camping. In these houses or ruins we are protected from sight, rain and wind. Sometimes the graffiti tells us a bit about the history. In this place we found a lot of graffiti dated to the early nineties, just after the fall of the soviet union. Maybe the soviets had build this house for workers from other cities or even countries, who then returned to their homes after the big collapse?
The sunshine and calm roads continued the next day. We made our way through small villages, past stone churches and castles towards the city of Gori.
Gori is Stalin's birthplace, a fact that many Georgians are very proud about. A whole museum is dedicated to him and his original house sits in front of the museum. I was partly curious to visit this place to see how this man was portrayed, but simultaneously didn't want to spend money on his remembrance. Taking pictures in front of the museum and of his house would suffice, we agreed upon.
In the evening we entered the town of Chaschuri. Shortly before the town, our small country road joined the main transit road. Traffic drastically increased and large trucks threateningly rumbled past us. This night we expected temperatures well below 0º, so we stopped to look at the GPS for a hotel. A man was watching us from across the street while smoking and drinking beer. He approached us, speaking a few words in english. He gestured us into his house to warm up and drink a tea. At the doorstep his wife appeared, who spoke no english but fortunately russian. The house was warm, the couch very comfortable and the tea soothing. “I hope we can stay here!” I whispered to Sera. But the couple was on the phone making calls to hotels and guesthouses, trying to find a good deal for us. We hesitated a bit to leave so Vera said: “You should stay for dinner before you go.” Ilhan concurred and added: “Yes! Vera is a great cook and you have to try some Georgian dishes.”
Vera prepared a feast with the dessert being an offering to sleep in their house. Moreover they insisted we sleep in their bed as the guestroom is not heated and very cold. Such a lovely couple.
The road between Chaschuri and Sestaponi winds over a mountain pass and climatically seperates the East from central Georgia. The day was gray and snow lay beside the road. Our host in Tbilisi, Beka, warned us that we could encounter some chaotic snow conditions here. To bypass the tunnel at the top we followed a small mountain road – quiet and very beautiful, just look out for the ice! As soon as we reached the cusp the weather changed from a gray sky to a gray sky with large wet drops falling out of it. For the rest of the day we cycled in the rain. I guess it's better than in a snowstorm?
Of course we didn't really need to cycle in the rain, We could have stopped at a restaurant and ask to spend the night, but we wanted to reach the Black Sea in order to take a ferry and escape the cold winter temperatures of the Caucasus region. With this goal in mind we pushed on and were delighted to cycle in the sun again the next day.
Shortly after Sestaponi we left the main road again and continued towards Vani and eventually Poti. Steep ups and downs were rewarded with gorgeous mountain views and friendly smiles from the villagers.
We stopped to buy a loaf of bread and instead were invited for Lopburi (bread filled with a bean paste) and home-made wine. In the late afternoon we reached Vani, a small town, where we wanted to sleep. A man helped us to find the hotel and after some haggling we agreed on paying 10 Euro for the night.
There's an archealogical museum in Vani and visiting this place was an experience I can recommend – it's nothing like a normal visit to the museum. Actually the place also doesn't look like a museum at all, more like a warehouse with lots of ancient artifacts. There's no explanations about the artifacts, but the director came with us and explained everything. If only our Russian was a bit better... Anyway. He was lifting up all these ancient amphoras, bronze figures and gold artefacts. Then he would give them to us and make us take a picture. A real hands one museum!
Arriving in Poti, a small and unappealing town with a large harbour, the goal was to find a ferry to the other side of the Black Sea. Our reasoning was something like this: everyone tells us its very cold in Turkey and we will be cycling in the snow, we need to get to Izmir though for our climbing material, so we take a ferry to Odessa and then Istanbul and cycle along the coast to Izmir. First task, find the ticket office. The ferries are normally for cargo and trucks, so the office is a bit hidden. The schedule is not fix, and not all ferries take foot or bicycle passengers. And there's a second port in Batumi, 70km away, which is a bit bigger and many ferries go to as well. After visiting two different ferry operators and some confusing answers, they recommended us to go to Batumi.
Next to Poti is a big wetland national park. After our great experience in Lagodekhi, we went there to talk to the staff and see if we could visit the park and talk to some rangers. A young woman responsible for tourists greeted us and explained we could set our tent next to the park's visitor center, Great! She further explained it's only possible to enter the park on a motorboat with park staff who don't speak english. It would cost around 30 Euro per person and we would spend two hours in the wetland. But at the moment there's not many birds, so we wouldn't really see much, she added. I was very skeptical and a bit disappointed. National parks are supposed to be places where people can come and learn something about nature. This park was right next to a town, but there's no way of how the locals can visit the area or watch birds without going on an expensive boat trip, which is not even accompanied by a biologist. Needless to say we didn't go on this trip.
The next day we cycled along the coast, direction Batumi. The weather was very warm and it was nice and sunny. Thousands of gulls flew around the big trawlers, just visible from the shore. And the coastline, unfortunately, was covered with plastic. Yet the coast is very popular for summer beach tourism. Humans are weird.
The road joined the main road and traffic increased. Georgians seem to be in a greate hurry all the time, since they constantly pass other vehicles. It was very stressful cycling and shortly before reaching the city I almost had a frontal collision with a vehicle in my lane. What a relief to finally arrive in the city and get off the bike.
Batumi is a surreal place. Modern and architectually unique buildings are next to old and poor neighborhoods. Behind every corner we found something new to discover.
We also found the ticket office and were informed a boat will probably leave in three days. But we were unsure if it really made sense to take this boat. Furthermore we had the goal to arrive in Spain cycling the whole way. Taking this ferry felt a bit like cheating. The cherry on top was the good and warm weather we experienced in these days. After a lot of back and forth, googling and discussing, we aggreed on cycling to Izmir directly, no ferries and no busses! Turkey, here we come.
On our bicycle journey we are raising funds for the Thin Green Line Foundation, a foundation that supports rangers. If you can, please make a small donation towards this great cause by pressing on the donate button in the menu. Thank you!