Georgia: Tbilisi and Caucasus

In a phone call last summer: “Would you like to visit us in Georgia”. “Sure, I’ve always wanted to visit the US”, I replied. A short pause, a long “erm…”, a sudden peal of laughter and it became clear that my knowledge of geography had some gaps in it. Nevertheless, we managed to not let this adventure on Russia’s southern border escape us.

With butterflies in the stomach and full of excited expectation, we fly to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, population 1.2 million. In 1991, before the upheavals of perestroika and glasnost, Georgia has been claiming its independence. Nowadays, only the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not under Georgian control; a strong Russian military presence remains there.

Those areas are still out of bounds for tourists. So our trip took us further east to the Tusheti national park, on the border with the Russian regions of Dagestan and Chechnya. The national park’s 83,000 hectares are characterised by vast emptiness, occasionally interrupted by small villages. And this emptiness, the endless trails, thousands of sheep and an almost overwhelming degree of hospitality will combine to create a spectacular mix way beyond what we might have expected.

A few tales to tell

Even the journey via Istanbul is eventful. A lady’s polite request for help carrying her heavy suitcase at the airport: we had to say yes. But we only stop Klaus, the charmer of our group, just in time as he is about to cheerfully stroll through the security checks with a stranger’s luggage. When we ask him whether it was perhaps unwise to take someone else’s suitcase into a foreign country, the colour drains from his face. The nice lady’s countenance also shows that she recognises the faux pas and she is thoroughly embarrassed. We have a vision of Klaus on the floor, the knees of Turkish security personnel on his back… But those security guards, watching from a short distance away, are also smiling to themselves.

Shortly afterwards, as we are boarding our onward flight to Tbilisi, I too have the chance to spend some time with the security team. This time a couple of storeys down into the basement. Four of them are waiting for me there, identically clad and each with a Kalashnikov machinegun in their right hand, a coffee cup in their left.

My bag has triggered the metal detector at the checkin area. I’ve got no idea why, so the friendly guys behind the desk show me the Xray image: a spare chain for my bike, neatly coiled in its package, doesn’t look quite right to them. And I must admit, from this perspective, I can’t immediately identify this apparent snake either. Down in the basement, after I carefully and under suspicious gazes dig it out of my bag, the previously grim security guys start to laugh, at first just a little, then roaring with mirth. On parting, I’m given a slap on the shoulder and a taste of the local brandy, leaving me with a nice memory and ensuring that I’m fast asleep as soon as I’m in my seat on the aeroplane.

Manic moments in Tbilisi

After a long day, we, our luggage and our bikes finally arrive in Georgia. The reasons for the Interior Ministry’s recommendation not to rent a car on a selfdrive basis but instead to hire a car plus driver for a day become clear within minutes. The “southernstyle” approach to driving – flexibility with regard to traffic rules, attitude towards use of the horn – means that we very quickly lose any desire to have our own vehicle. Fortunately, that’s not a problem: James, the owner of a local travel company, picks us up and takes us to the hotel. It’s past midnight and we’re very much looking forward to a few hours of sleep and recovery time.

The Abano Pass: an adventurous drive

Early the next day we climb into an impressivelooking Mitsubishi Delica 4×4 and head off in the direction of the Abano Pass. A fivehour journey along one of the world’s most dangerous mountain routes awaits us. Although from the very first bend we are in fear for our lives, it only takes an hour or so before we’re cheering James on at every deathdefying manoeuvre; like little children we look forward to the next challenging section. It’s very like riding a harsh singletrack, but this time with four wheel drive and balloon tyres. After fording multiple streams, negotiating steep inclines and surviving numerous potholes that back home would constitute gross and actionable negligence on the part of the municipal authorities, we reach the top of the Abano Pass at 2950 m above sea level. And we’re already exhausted.

Our heads are buzzing from the rapid ascent to altitude, our legs are twitching after having been in the Delica for so long, but at last we’ve arrived. Onto the bikes, saddles down, and off we go. Two hours of singletracks and mountain roads through the rough Caucasian terrain down to Dartlo. The mountain panorama around us is impressive and immense; the >4000 m peaks on the border with Russia fill us with wild anticipation – our playground for the next five days. But first of all we drop in at a park rangers base, and here we have our first encounter with Georgian hospitality. You can make yourself understood with gestures all over the world, and we quickly find a common denominator: Kaiser beer. We only have a glass each, but it certainly makes itself known during the (not previously mentioned) 200 m climb up to our accommodation.

Khachapuri, and other saturated fats

Whoever travels to Georgia is welladvised to bring a strong stomach with them. The local food is stunning, but it has to be said that it is extremely rich and basically neverending. Khachapuri, the traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread, is something the locals usually eat as a light snack – but we, on the other had, find that even after a 2000 m climb and concomitant intense calorie deficit, and despite it actually being presented as a starter, we’re totally full up. After such a solid meal comes the duty to partake in the consumption of chacha, the local pomace brandy. We’re Austrians, we know all about schnapps, it’s part of our culture, what could possibly go wrong? Except that it’s 40-70% alcohol …

Sheeps, as far as the eye can see

The summits visited on the rides we’ve got planned can mostly only be reached by pushing or carrying our bikes. The local tracks and paths and associated infrastructure are very good – if you’re a hiker. Forestry roads like we have in Europe, i.e. unpaved roads for 4×4 forestry vehicles, are almost unknown and the few that do exist are used by motorpowered off-road adventurers and far too steep for MTB riders.

On the mountain roads and the wellmaintained roads around Tbilisi you soon end up a master of car and cow slalom, but on the singletracks you get to share your route with sheep. And also with their waste products. Sheeprearing and tourism are the two main sources of income in the Tusheti national park. After a pretty fierce 2600 m climb, we reach what is basically a shed up on the ridge. A distant aroma of sheep reaches us. Exsheep, to be precise: the remoteness of the location is magically countered by the homely smell of cooked meat carried to us by the breeze. Our guide Irakli, whose speed of ascent has demonstrated that he is more accustomed to the altitude than we are, emerges happily chewing: “Come in, come in … it’s delicious” And then his newlyacquired catchphrase: “Bist du deppat?” (Literally “Are you daft?”, we Germanspeakers use this as a way of expressing excitement and wonder; it was a phrase we were going to hear said back to us quite a few times over the course of the coming days…)

But he’s absolutely right – the shepherds have just slaughtered a sheep and are cooking the meat in small chunks on skewers over an open fire. We eat it with bread, and soon our hunger is quietened. Slightly distracted by the two border guards in military uniform, flanked by their Kalashnikovs (around 75 million of these have been made over the years, and we seem to be meeting most of them), we enjoy the hospitality, including the obligatory glass of chacha brandy.

While we are enthusing over the delicious meat and homemade bread, the shepherds and border guards can’t stop looking at our bikes. The sparkle in their eyes when we let them take turns to sit on them and test out the suspension reminds us of what Christmas was like when we were kids.

A paradise for the producers of the next Lord of the Rings film

Each day, our rides take us through ancient mountain hamlets scattered across the national park. The old stone houses, made of neatly stacked granite slabs, and the ruined forts and signal towers from times long gone remind us of the landscapes seen in Lord of the Rings. And not without some accuracy, for in previous eras fires would be lit to warn of enemies across great distances. Many of them are currently being restored, in order to open them up for visitors to explore.

A spectacular route takes us along a chain of these towers; as we ride we encounter astonished looks from the locals as we pass by. The hostels, efficiently run and lovingly cared for, are mostly very simple edifices. Rustic in design and similar to Alpine chalets, they generally contain just a few simple old beds made of planks and equipped with thin mattresses. But we sleep extremely well each night – the demanding, high altitude rides mean that any bed is a comfortable bed.

Some years ago, the Georgian government subsidised the installation of solarpowered water heaters and electricity generators. Many of the buildings now have electricity and hot showers. A major advance for tourism in the area – and you can see the financial consequences in the investment people are making in their properties. Everywhere you turn, an extension is appearing, a new veranda is being added, a roof is being repaired… In short, life in the mountains.

Enduro Action around Tbilisi

Having finally got used to the altitude, it’s now time to head back down to Tbilisi. Dropping in on the park rangers again (chacha anybody?), up over the Abano Pass, and more than 20 km down into the valley. And while a week ago we would have wondered whether James was actually being serious about riding back down, we’re now totally looking forward to tackling the mountain road on two wheels rather than four. A big change from the boring forestry roads we have back home. Steep slopes, large rocks, deep holes to jump and streams to ford – almost like riding in a downhill park.

Around Tbilisi, constructed routes with jumps and banked corners alternate with natural singletracks. And after a perfect day on the trail, the lively city centre awaits, with its historical character and numerous bars and restaurants. The nightlife is incredibly vibrant – young and old, multiple nationalities, all partying together. An Irish pub next to a Moroccan shisha bar, an American steak-house opposite a traditional Georgian restaurant. And there’s also plenty to see during the day, in this ancient city. The ruins of the 3rd century fort of Narikala, and the imposing 20 metre high Kartlis Deda statue standing high on Sololaki hill are just a couple of examples of what this diverse metropolis has to offer.

For us it’s clear: we’ll be coming back. The trails that crisscross the national park are mindblowing, and the heartfelt hospitality found in the villages mean that we’re already very much looking forward to our next adventure there. We’ve rarely felt so welcome, as we have here in Georgia.