Georgian river running

An already leisurely departure from Batumi was further delayed firstly by meeting a friendly South African cycle tourist who was bird watching his way from Europe to Cambodia. After sharing route tips and discussing the Georgian raptor migration the sun had drifted past the yard arm so I decided to have a hearty lunch before setting off.

Eventually I rolled out of the hostels door, went all of five feet before pausing to add some little extra air to my front tyre. This provided all the opening Georgian hospitality required. A head popped out of a shop doorway and beckoned me in. Slightly dubious I followed slowly and found a butchers where he and his coworker were sitting down to a hearty meal of sausages and chilli to which I was clearly invited. Fit to burst already I simply couldn't bring myself to look this gift pig in the eye and so forced down some excellent fare before being offered (and accepting) some rather fine cognac.

Despite his minuscule amount of English and my absolute lack of Georgian we talked freely using bits of French, German and universal hand gestures and I think discussed at some length the unfairness of Georgia letting everyone visit easily while Georgian's finding it impossible to holiday in Europe and elsewhere. I could only agree and was heartily embarrassed once again by the UK governments visa policies.

Thus It was mid afternoon by the time I wobbled out on my bicycle (more due to overeating than the cognac) and set about a pleasant roll along the sea front cycle route before, eschewing the flatter main route north east towards Tibilsi, I struck due east towards the inviting mountains on what had turned into a delightful sunny day.

Looking up the Chorokhi valley's broad and verdant lower course 

Stopping occasionally to enjoy the medieval bridges with their elegant swooping arches higher than they have any right to be and looking like a rustic version of the bridge in Mostar.

A short day ended early when after exploring unfruitfully a few steep valleyside tracks I spotted a restaurant with a wood at it's rear and after being ushered in I found a perfect place to camp and settled in.

The next morning began with an early morning visit to a pretty orthodox church presided over by an excellently archetypal Orthodox priest.

You can see him and his unbeatable white beard between the two trees.

The interior contained the now familiar orthodox forms enlivened with a slightly unnerving crucifix.

An odd six pack if ever I saw one.

A more typical piece of Soviet road side interest.

The medieval bridges continued.

Providing an excellent spot to stop for some elevenses

Which was quickly interrupted by overly curious cows one of which I noticed treating my panniers like a nose bag.

But that is one of the most charming things about Georgia. The roads are by no means the exclusive domain of the motor vehicle. Meeting a burly gang of cows stood serenely in the middle of the road taking exactly zero notice of you or the large truck coming the other way is common place.

During my trip my mind often turned to where I would head after I reached Iran. Would I head north into the wintery stands or head south to Africa. But Georgia was providing it's own safari.

I had soon completed my sightings of the big 5.

The valley continued to provide an idyllic ride and I was more than taking my time and with a minimal distance covered I began looking for a spot to pitch up.

 Finding a likely looking path at the end of a bend I left the bike and finding a little gazebo next to a stream I blessed my lucky stars and headed back to get my stuff and discretely retreat to my hoped for home for the night.  

Spotting an old guy in the vicinity I crossed my hands behind my backs and proceeded to stroll aimlessley while whistling inconspicuously. He didn't bugger off in five minutes and continuing to whistle seemed likely to be counter productive so I wandered over and introduced myself.

The utter lack of shared language made things tough but it is remarkable to what degree tone of voice combined with some pointing can serve and we nattered happily for 45 minutes me sharing some biscuits and he rather more lavishly brought some freshly found wild walnuts, grapes and of course some home made grape vodka. (surprisingly nice)

10 of those minutes were spent with me trying to decipher the meaning of the below and the tattoo which accompanied them.

The tattoo said DDR 1958-1970 with a torch beneath. I couldn't think of any particular relevance of the time period in relation to a state or war so I presume it was his service period. Not knowing any Cyrillic the ID provided little clarification beyond that he was relatively senior (controller? commissar?) in something soviet seemingly in Russia and had a most magnificent mustache.

Anyone who can read Cyrillic and can clarify please do in the comments.

Some of his friends arrived bringing more home made spirit and we chatted happily as they brought a smattering of english and, tongue loosened after five shots in an hour, I explained that I planned to camp a little way up the creek. 

Upon hearing this we decamped to the gazebos where I found half the village had descended. Any hope of discretion well behind me I was introduced around and at each table and amiably forced to do more shots leaving me, frankly, inebriated to the point of pissed. With the setting of the sun my comrades headed home while I erected the tent cooked some dinner and worked on stopping the world from spinning.

Before bed, off to make my customary ablutions, I bumped into this lovely creature. Unsure at the time whether it was a newt or a salamander subsequent googling failed to clear up the matter to my satisfaction as I found it looked rather like the Anatolian Newt but is outside it's range, could perhaps be a Kurdistan Newt but looks lighter or even a skinny Caucasian Salamander. Any clever animal lovers out there who can shed some light will be rewarded with, wait for it, ... high praise.

Whatever his lineage he seemed a very fine little fellow and sent me off to bed feeling ever so happy. (Again could have been the excessive drinking)

Continuing up the valley through the small town of Khulo where I bestowed my front reflector on a smiley kid who followed me for a good mile trying out his English and generally being good company. After this point the road quality deteriorated significantly which only added to the feeling of adventure as I left the beaten track behind. 

The people of Georgia continued to be unfailingly wonderful and this happy family invited me into their van for a pet of there oh so sweet baby chicks and some very good bread and cheese.

Much heartened I pushed on confident of reaching the summit but as the afternoon wore on the wind began to rise and ominous clouds drew close and it was clear a storm was on it's way.

Any feeling of being a pioneer was undermined as I saw not 1, not two, not even three but 14 cycle tourists coming the other way that day. A Russian/Swedish couple were followed by a group of ten who I guessed to be Russian but whom didn't stop to chat. Finally as I sought shelter from the first of the inclement weather's effluence, an English and an Aussie arrived to make up for the previous taciturn lot with lots of good chat as they joined me in a spacious bus shelter for cigarettes and some map swapping.

More home made vodka was added to the mix as Georgian hospitality arrived soon after.

The Ausie had arrived from Kazakhstan while the Englishmen was conducting a rather more circuitous route on his Brompton switching between hitchiking, cycling and public transport. Inclined to make the better road I had described starting from Khulo they pushed off after an hour into the gathering murk leaving me to decide whether to continue up to the summit or save it for the morning. 

Heavy fog and the first flakes of snow made my decision rather easy and I settled into the bus shelter.

But what a bus shelter! More log cabin than the plastic patheticness you might expect to find in London.

As seen just after dawn the next morning

Waking to find the skies clear I smuggly headed skywards up the muddy rutted track.

Hitting the 2000m pass nice and early.

Before lingering for to soak up the broad vistas and winking hint of far off snow capped peaks of the Lesser Caucuses.

The descent on the other side was tricky with the road remaining a muddy, rocky, jarring track with an occasional impromptu stream to ford. But as I dropped and the pines turned to deciduous forests and the autumnal colours shone it all seemed very fine.

Here is a good example of a very typical tour lunch with bread courtesy of the smiley chick family, tomatoes found growing on the verge, an onion bought in Khulo and some soft cheese from Batumi.

My timing meant that I could also suppliment my larder with apples, blueberries, blackberries and other harvest goodies.

From Adgeni the road became tarmac and I began to make good distance as I fairly flew along the river towards Alkhastikhe.

Studying the map on my barbag as I went it struck me that Alkhastikhe is an excellently situated city at the confluence of three valleys and four rivers in a small plain and I thought to myself "it's sure to have a grand medieval castle." Almost immediately I rounded a bend to be confronted by just that. 

Dominating the area and with the Georgian flag flying high it was a stirring sight and confirmed the inextricable links between geography and history.

Heading up to explore I found a perfectly renovated compound and whiled away an hour nosing around.

While the views were excellent it was hard not to feel like this was an overly sanitized modern reimagining of the castle rather than real history. 

Plug sockets sitting incongrously in otherwise medieval settings may be convenient but they are also a bloody eyesore. 

I soon pushed on feeling something like unsatisfied.

As I did I noticed that I was far from the only cyclist visiting with this mass of mountain bikes making my own solo mount seem rather lonely by comparison.

Now heading north though hazy sunshine and showers I began to keep an eye out for a spot to spend the night. In these wider valleys I was utterly spoiled for choice and became overly picky - turning down idyllic riverside property because it lacked somewhere to sit etc.

Still I'm glad I did as I suddenly caught a glimpse of an ever so Tolkein-esque ruin standing on the far bank like some necromancer's evil abode.

Without hesitation I found the next bridge and made all haste to it's foot hoping to find a way to camp in the castle ruins a la some of the spots I had found in Greece.

There was no path up to the towering monolith and so instead I pushed/carried the bike up onto a higher shoulder of land behind the castle where I imagine the castle village may once have nestled.

Here I abandoned the bike, content that it was well out of sight, and completed a circuit of the castle looking for the way up only to find myself back where I had started having not seen no way for me alone to reach it let alone with the bike.

Discouraged by this but pleased to find the that even my modest elevation provided wonderfully commanding views of the valley I decided I would content myself with making camp in the castles lee better to shelter from the increasingly brisk wind.

Receiving a sign from the heavens that my sleeping arrangements were well omened in the process.

As I made camp I continued to eye the castle and muse on means to scale it's walls. 

Note: the path leading up to the 'door way' only took me so far as the castle proper's foot and the doorway lead only to a metal grate followed by an inaccessible vertical shaft. 

I was forced to take shelter in the tent from 8pm but not before enjoying the sun setting down the valley.

I awoke early at 05:30 to find that dawn in the valley was still a long way off and so I ate an eerie breakfast apple in the pitch black. As the first tendrils of dawn came I returned to the problem of the castle walls and resolved to try and climb up.

You can see in this picture the scale of the problem. at the bottom left you can see my bicycle utterly dwarfed.

Suffice to say after a few sketchy moments I made it and my oh my it was worth it.

Here was a castle worthy of the name!

The toy proportions of my bicycle far below nicely reveal the sheer heights.

The well worn steps and walls provided an excellent morning scramble and was for me a vast improvement on yesterdays perfectly restored version.

With a final look out from the highest point I made a terrifying descent slipping, sliding and generally looking, I imagine, like the least competent mountain goat in history.

Georgia doesn't lack for such wonderful ruins and I passed many as I began working may way along the valley that day.

Slowly descending along the twisty course towards the lower levels of the Kartli plain and the capital Tibilsi.

Providing lots of long steep descents broken only by an occasional stop to eat including one for Katchipurri - Something between a Margarita, baked Camembert and a cheese toasty.

The road sides continued to provide interesting diversions including this hay barn cum petrol station where I took a brief siesta while I avoided a brief shower.

The scenery had changed from lush to rather more bleak on these lower hills and before too long I was gazing out across the modest city of Gori. Birthplace of Stalin.

Still proud of there famous sun Gori I had heard was covered in imposing statues of the man but either they have been taken down in the last few years or a few western visitors had got rather carried away with the idea rather than the reality. i.e. they were talking bollocks.

There is a modest statue outside the Stalin Museum.

Rather more interestingly there is the very house in which he was born in.

That night I found lodgings 20k east of Gori next to the railway lines underneath what I guess in my ignorant urbanity might be grain silos.

My chosen silo prooved dry but the wind whipped in underneath and inevitably changed directions in the night to ensure my previously sheltered crannie became a wind tunnel.

The next morning I struck out early for the Cave city of Uplistsikhe. This was as close I got as unfortunatley it didn't open until 11 and I was there at 07:30. There were however 4 gruff security guards ensuring I couldn't sneak in which did make me think they might be better served by losing a security guard and employing a tour guide to do the early shift but there you go.

Fortunately I'd had a fair fill of cave cities in Turkey and so I wasn't too devastated as I huffed off choosing a white path towards Tibilsi as a change from the long tarmac run of the previous day.

Before too long I was closing in on the capital feeling tired and a bit stressed by the busy city highways.

Fun sights provided a diversion including a lonely Lada show room which was suitably uninhabited.

Before I caught sight of David the Builder the King who forged the idea of modern Georgia and seems to inhabit something between King Arthur, Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill in the Georgian psyche. 

An undoubtedly interesting figure but his inheritor the warrior Queen Tamara is even more remarkable should you fancy a wikipedia.


  1. Georgia and the Georgans look and sound amazing - photographs and descriptions fanbloodytastic Tom! Juliet xxx

  2. Research with my Russian student suggests that the guy was proudly showing you his credentials: he had been a deputy of the Supreme Council in Georgia (quite a high ranking government official) and that the travel card gives him all manner of perks in travel - he doesn't need to queue, he has access to special carriages and can bring 34 kilos worth of luggage for nothing! We're not sure about the tattoo though. Hope this helps! Mum xxxxxxxxxx

  3. What amazing experiences you're having!! Words fail me when it comes to expressing my respect and admiration for the way you are dealing with the challenges you meetI. Most people would have abandoned the journey long ago.You should be very proud .My thoughts are with you.
    Maureen xxxxx