The kilometres roll along, but few with joy.
I slept badly last night, awake through the dawn. Caught a few hours in the early hours.
Legs feel weary. I’m disappointed. I want to do more. We haven’t been able to up our mileage since Istanbul.
My body aches. We had to move the saddle due to a broken rail, and my body hasn’t adjusted yet.
Sunburnt shoulders. Stupid.
Tired. Aches. Making lazy riding decisions. Too weary to ride properly which just makes me wearier.
And the big climbs start tomorrow.
We’d come over the border to Georgia a few days earlier and continued along the coast for as long as possible. We were now heading north and in to the Greater Caucasus towards Mestia and Ushguli. These are small mountain villages in the Svaneti region of Georgia, so remote that apparently they were never tamed by any ruler. The people took part in murderous blood fueds up to the seventies, and, so it is said, wore chain mail until recently.
Ushguli is a complex of four villages, UNESCO listed. There are claims that it is Europe’s highest permanently inhabited village.
The landscape of Svaneti is dominated by mountains, separated by deep gorges. The lower slopes are covered by forests – spruce, fir, beech, oak, and hornbeam. Above this rise alpine meadows and grasslands. Eternal snows and glaciers take over in areas that are over 3,000 meters above sea level.
This area mostly attracts hikers and mountaineers, but recently more and more cycle tourists have been exploring the area. More often mountain bikes rather than fully laden touring bikes. We were soon to find out why.
Day 1: Enter Karl and the Chacha.
At the bottom of the climb there’s a little town called Jvari (280m altitude) where we decide to stop for lunch before attempting the climb. We’d set off from Zugdidi later than we’d hoped and the morning ride hadn’t been great. Nothing really wrong, it was just hard and like yesterday I couldn’t find the joy.
Is joy a choice?
As we circle the centre of town we spot a bike tourist, who cycles over to point out the best place to eat.
Karl, an American who lives in Poland, is heading up to Mestia too. Hugely enthusiastic and friendly, Karl is instantly likeable. He is riding semi-bike-packing style, mountain bike with back panniers and various bits and pieces wrapped in plastic bags and strapped on with bungee cords
Eager to get going he takes off up the hill, promising to keep an eye out for us later on.
We eat the best shwarma ever which puts me in a much better mood. I’m truly chipper as we start the climb.
But the day is hot hot hot and our tardy start to the day had meant we’re climbing in the middle of the day.
I deal with the heat better than I used to. During this trip I’ve got better at managing my temperature. But whether nature or nuture I am not made for the hotter climates.
And it is steep. There is no shade on the road and very quickly things get sweaty fast.
Shivering from the heat is not a good sign right?
Our water is empty and we spy a spring. It’s not running but there’s a couple of guys – maybe father and son sitting eating nearby. They ask us something, we indicate that we’re after some water. They leap up and fill a glass and hand it to Jamie. He’s just about to down it when something in my memory kicks in
I warn him just in time.
He sniffs. Ah.
Our first, but not last encounter with the chacha.
We make an escape quickly, possibly rudely in retrospect and carry on up.
At last the lake which marks the end of this part of the climb comes in to view.We turn a corner and see a waterfall a little off the road. It calls to us.
We peer into the shadows on the other side of the river and see a group of people smiling and wanting. We then notice the touring bike propped up on some rocks. It’s Karl and a bunch of Georgian men. Mostly topless.
We plunge through the river, delighting in the freezing water, to join them. Karl smiles wildly – I thought I’d wait for you here, he explains. This was, apparently the second group to arrive since Karl stopped. The first group had broken up unhappily when they discovered all the Chacha was gone. He was happy to leave as soon as we were, he hinted.
Someone thrusts a plastic cup in to Jamie’s hand. It’s chacha.
Chacha is the local moonshine. Distilled from grapes or plums or whatever comes to hand, at home, and decanted in to plastic coke bottles. Gentlemen gather with a number of bottles, a loaf of bread, tomatoes and cucumber and while away an afternoon toasting the world.
You toast, you drink (in one go, though I was encouraged to take it slow), you cheer, then eat a little bread with tomato.
As you’d expect the taste and quality varies from chacha to chacha.
On this occasion the chacha was good. Restorative even.
Karl speaks Polish so can make himself understood* to most Georgians who know Russian.
*better when there’s chacha.
With another toast or two we depart together, and marvell at how much better we feel. Legs stronger, spirits higher.
We cruise along the reservoir and river gorge. The landscape is much flatter now and we’re able to enjoy to scenery a little more.
A couple of hours later we bump into another Dutch tourist coming the other way. We discuss routes a bit and he looks sceptical that we’ll make it to Ushguli on our loaded touring bikes. I can’t help thinking it might be influenced by my gender, but I bite my tongue.
We camp at a sawmill further up the road. It’s empty when we arrive but various locals pop by during the evening. We’re not sure who we should ask about camping, but everyone waves away our enquiries with a “no problem”. We stay up later than usual, as there’s an electric light and we bought beer as a treat. We spend the evening sharing stories and experiences with Karl*, enjoying the companionship of another person who understands what we’re doing and why.
*if you ever meet Karl ask him about the time he fixed his bike with a banana.
Day 2: up to Mestia
There’s nothing like the early morning call of a chainsaw to ease you out of sleep. A little groggy, it takes a moment to remember where we are and why there’s chainsaws and why that’s ok.
I pretend for a while that I’m not awake, but there’s no point really. Time to face the day.
I make us a few rounds of coffee and fried eggs, knowing there’s a big climb immanently. We dither a bit getting packed up, but I’m aware that Jamie and I are at a serious advantage now. There’s two of us and we’re practiced at this dance.
Finally we’re all ready to roll away, but moments after we set off I hear Karl exclaim. He has a puncture.
I let him and Jamie sort it out. Jamie goes in to teaching mode, helping find and mend the hole which is not an easy one to locate. I’m the process Karl discovers his bag of spares – inner tubes, cleats, brake pads – were left in a fridge in a guest house somewhere.
We try again to leave and this time are successful.
The morning is pretty good, we average about 10km/hour which feels about right. No-one is racing. We’re pretty quiet most of the way, which is how Jamie and I ride most of the time. We stop to exclaim over a view – snow capped mountains, a village riddled with defensive towers, a waterfall, the surging river, a church in the distance. We mostly stick in formation, Jamie, me, then Karl.
Our tummies start to growl and we decide to aim for guesthouse which claims to have food, but turns out to be a very hard kilometre off route. I’m swearing before we’re half way up.
The view is great though, and the food fantastic. Dumplings and chicken soup. While we’re sitting the heat eases off which is a blessing.
There are a group of young christian missionaries staying at the guesthouse. Accidentally interrupting two of them engaged in earnest conversation, we talk a little and they explain that they have come from many nations, first to a bible school in the Netherlands and then on to Georgia to volunteer with the local children and spread the word.
I refrain from asking why the Georgians need help understanding or interpreting the bible given that they’ve been Christian for longer than most. They were the second country to adopt Christianity.
Instead we tactfully steer the conversation into safer/blander territory and they soon excuse themselves. I’m left feeling icky and disappointed.
It’s a long climb up to Mestia and I’m counting every one of the 60km. I reassure myself that we’re a sixth of the way there, we’re a quarter of the way. Just three more of those. Half way now. Keep on grinding the kilometres out.
A rainstorm hits while we’re about 3km away from Mestia. We shelter under a tree while we work out what to do. We abandon the plan to camp when the road becomes a river. Karl books us a hostel, and we use a brief break in the rain to get on our bikes again and cycle the last few km to the town.
And then a few more kilometres cycling round and round looking for the hostel. We’re absurdly wet by now.
After a phonecall to the hostel A little girl in a raincoat appears and runs down the hill to show us the way. Modi, aged 12, appears to run the guesthouse. She speaks excellent English and interprets everything for us, sometimes with an exasperated look at her father. The hostel is brand new, plastic sheeting still on some of the bedclothes. More worrying is the lack of window in one of the rooms, but it is dry in our room and we’re not worried about much else.
Sleep at altitude: 1500m
Day 3: Mestia to Ushgoli
There is a great feast awaiting us when we drag ourselves out of bed. Chatchipuri, omelette, yoghurt and homemade blackberry jam, sausages, boiled eggs, cheese, tomatoes and cucumber.
We stuff ourselves.
Rush as we’re told the next guests are arriving in half an hour, and then as we’ve decanted all our belongings on to the road we’re told we could stay if we want. However we need to get going so we load the bikes and finally get on our way.
We say goodbye to Karl as he wants to attempt some single track.
We amble out of town, somehow time had crept on and it’s nearly midday. But not too hot, thank goodness.
The first section is paved, sometimes steep but nothing too bad. There’s a fun section where a river – glacier melt – crashes over the road and down off a ledge to the main river below, bouncing rocks down with it. We both manage it fine, but there is a serious pull sideways.
We continue up, up, up.
Then a brief but fast descent. We make a happy discovery that the switchbacks we’d noticed on the map are part of a descent and not the climb I’d expected. But the climb starts in earnest soon after.
The road surface deteriorates, though we meet a number of road crews surfacing sections, apparently disconnected from one another.
There’s a landslide. The road is completely awash with gravel and rocks. Some work has gone on to clear it, bit its very hard to ride. We hear a sound and notice a digger above us, clearing rock I guess. Nothing feels very safe but we have no choice but to push on though.
Then comes the sticky mud. Remnants from the rains the night before the mud is thick and sweltchy. It sucks at the tyres as we roll across it. My mudguards fill up with mud, which I stop to scrape out again and again.
On one of these stops a scruffy, mangey dog joints us. Usually we leave the dogs behind on the descents , but on this section there are none and the dogs just trots along behind us for the next 10km. We start to worry about what to do with him – we don’t want to turn up at a guesthouse with him in tow – but then he’s gone.
We roll in to the villages of Ushguli around 6. The villages are the highest permanently inhabited villages of Europe. They are a mishmash of the Sven towers, farmyards, houses and guesthouses. Roads are shale and mud, mostly little more than tracks. Cows and pigs roam free (as they do in much of Georgia).
The daily rain starts again, and we decide again to go for a guesthouse instead of a camp.
The guesthouse is not a fancy affair. The lights dim a little as it rains. The internal walls feel a bit rickety and haphazard. But food is included in the price, and we’re glad of the company of three Hungarians who ask us about our trip and entertain us in their turn. They’ve ended up with a taxi driver in tow, who worked out to be cheaper than hiring a car.
The food is great and plentiful, and comes with a large jug of red wine.
We get in to our rickety beds glad for an early night, which have been alluding us for a while.
Sleep at altitude: 2166m
Day 4: who knew it was cold by a glacier?
We decide to have at least a morning off the bikes to give our legs some recovery time.
There is a retreating glacier nearby so we put on our shoes and waterproof jackets and head outside. The first part of the walk is easy, following the river upstream. Soon we come to a section where another river gushes over the road. We scramble up the side and follow the river upstream until we can cross. From then on the route involves hopping across streams and soggy landscape. My feet are sodden pretty quickly.
The mountains at the end of the valley disappear in to a bank of cloud.
A short way off from the glacier the rain starts in earnest. We realise that we’ll be soaked whether we carry on or turn back, so decide to carry on.
The glacier, when we get there is fairly underwhelming. They look so pristine from afar, but up close they are grimy and the floor around them difficult to traverse.
We head back as quickly as possible.
But the time we get back to our guesthouse we are completely soaked and chilled to the bone. I pull off all my wet clothes, pull on all my warmest things and climb in to bed. I’m shivering so much Jamie gets out our down sleeping bag and puts that on top of me too.
We get up for another lovely dinner prepared by the guesthouse owner and then sink back in to bed again.
Day 5: dreaming of asphalt
Breakfast arrives earlier than anticipated, but makes up for it in quality. Eggs, bread, cheesy potato cakes, yogurt with homemade lemon/lime jam and a lovely fruit cake. We eat more than we need then pocket the rest for snacks.
Before heading off we tramp down through the muddy lanes to find a shop and Wi-Fi. A quick update on email etc and we wander back round to our guesthouse. Walking past another ‘hotel’ we hear a yell and look up to see Karl waving.
He’s been riding off-road for a couple of days, in the terrible weather. He seems fairly unscathed. Buoyant as ever. He’s now running a little short on time though, as he has to get a flight in a couple of days. We decide to at least start the descent today together.
I was very happy to find this shelter during the night. It only had half a roof but it was enough to keep me dry. Also it wasn’t half bad firing up the old stove that was inside to dry out some clothes. The previous night’s storm did claim the life of my cell phone #RIP but thats why you always carry backup means of navigation. #shelterfromthestorm #travelbybike #worldtour #humanpower #ponypower #slowtravel #travelbybike #cycling #adventurecycling #cyclist #ontheroad #outdoorlife #adventure #touringbike #bicycletouring #bike #cyclist #biking #bikecamping #adventurebybike #salsabikes #bikepacking #georgia
203 Likes, 3 Comments – Karl Kroll (@where_is_karl) on Instagram: “I was very happy to find this shelter during the night. It only had half a roof but it was enough…”
Before that though we have to get over the top of the pass, (2623m altitude) which is a steep, unpaved 10km.
We’re informed by a local that there’s nowhere to buy food for another 40km,which is also the next time we’ll see asphalt.
We start the ascent, 10km of bumpy, muddy, sometimes flowing road. Ridiculously steep in places, negotiating potholes, streams, rivers, cows and their shit.
The views spectacular, the wildflowers stunning.
The mud is sticky and fills my mudguards causing more friction. I have to stop repeatedly to empty them. Blessed relief to move again with relative ease before my legs and the mud tire me out again. I struggle up.
A 4×4 comes the other way and the driver leans out and solemnly wishes us good luck. He’s serious.
Apparently only 10 cars a day make it over the pass.
We finally reach the summit and are rewarded with a cloud topped, snow capped peak on the horizon.
Beside us I spot snake head fruitillery, several months later than we have them at home. They are joyous to see.
We start the descent.
The first 10km is steep and brutal. With panniers rattling all the way down, and brakes clenched tight we thunder down the road. It’s downhill for the next 150km but we barely make 10km/hour the road is so rough. The gradient softens off a little as we meet the river in the valley floor, but we’re still negotiating rocks, potholes, floods, scree, and treacherous mud that steals the back wheel from under you.
It’s exhilarating, frightening and pretty crazy. In a good way. Mostly.
We make it down without mishap and I’m proud not to have had a tumble. Sections of the road were more technical than anything I’ve managed on a mountain bike.
Karl, on his mountain bike, is much more in his element. Our rigid, fully laden touring bikes, with semi-slick road tyres handle pretty well all things considered.
The rain starts.
We finally make the 40km mark which promises food and tarmac. We find food in a guesthouse, welcome though a little overpriced perhaps. They know their market I suppose.
We decide to carry on, looking forward to the promised asphalt.
“Once we hit the asphalt we’ll fly down” we repeat.
A little out of town we hit it, with a cheer from all of us.
It lasts for less than a kilometre. Then back to rutted, muddy track.
The rain continues as we wind our way down. Sometimes on dirt track and sometimes on beautiful smooth asphalt. We let rip on the asphalt loving the speed and the quiet of the bikes.
We stop briefly when hailed by a group of guys by a bonfire. They feed us kebab, bread and chacha to lift our spirits then wave us on our way.
We spy a campspot around 7, the rain has eased off. We dither for a while, shall we continue… eventually I call time and decide to stop, and as we set up camp the rain starts in earnest again. We forgo supper and crawl into our tent, happy to be warm and listen to the rain drumming on the tent, the thunder booming through the mountains.
Night 5: uh-oh
I awake from protosleep a little while later. I hear voices outside. Karl comes over to announce that there are some friendly Georgians bearing chacha if we’d like to join. Jamie’s fast asleep but I, regretfully, decide to join.
A few toasts and multiple shots of chacha. A bonfire is lit, songs are sung. Georgia, a America and Scotland have been declared friends for a lifetime.
One of the guys starts ripping off his shirt, his friends help him. He douses it in cha cha and throws it on the fire.
He’s crazy, we yell.
Not crazy, Chacha! They reply.
I slope off back to bed, knowing I’ve overdone it.
Sleep at altitude: 1082m
Day 6: Downward
Jamie is an angel. When I can manage to focus I find he’s picked some fresh mint and is brewing some sweet mint tea. He treats both Karl and me so kindly and thoughtfully I want to cry.
I’m horrifically ill, as is Karl who stayed up for several more rounds of chacha. Apparently the men even went home to restock.
While we lie around being pathetic Jamie gets on with mending and fixing.
Finally we deem it is time to head out, none of us happy about it but we have no food. Karl should also be in katisi today, 100+km down the mountain as he has a flight and needs to pack up his bike.
It’s a beautiful road down through the mountains which I fail to appreciate fully. We find a place selling bready treats and eat our fill of chachipuri and lubia. With full stomachs again we make better progress.
There’s an interesting moment when a cow decides to take fright at the very last moment as Karl and Jamie approach. Everyone comes off unscathed but a little on edge.
As we come further down the mountain we happen upon more signs of ‘civilisation’. More cars, more atrocious driving. We meet more cycle tourists when we stop at a town for food. One Pole and two older Italians. We chat for a while and it’s hard to steel ourselves to get back on the bike. We’ve still many miles to cover.
Around 7 we run out of motivation, there’s a hill looming and we know we’re y unlikely to find a camp spot til the top, the valley is steep. We start exploring tracks off the main road and finally settle on a bit of river beach a little way down from the main road. Its a lovely spot with a stone sand black sand beach and complete privacy.
We share a meal and then head to bed calling out as we go “say no to chacha!”, the mantra of the day.
Day 7: Sun is shining, and life is better with a clear head.
After breaking camp by the river, we tackle the last 40km to kutaisi. There are a few decent sized hills, made harder by the heat. The temperature has risen significantly the further we’ve come down the mountain.
We take some respite from the heat by visiting the Prometheus caves. Initially crammed in with a load of Russian tourists we’re herded though a few sections. We make a break for it though, and enjoy the second half on our own which is much more enjoyable. Spectacular 1.4km cave system, with some slightly odd lighting to
set off the stalictites and stalagmites .
We grab some food – more of the wonderful Arjudana Khatupuri, which are boat shaped breads filled with cheese and egg and butter. Then rouse ourselves from the inevitable food coma and follow the road in to Kaisiti.
We spend the last few hours of the day helping or hindering Karl get himself together to head off to the airport for a early early morning flight. We finally wave him off with a giant roll of cardboard strapped to the back of his bike, covered – in case of rain and to help with nighttime viability – with his fluoro jacket. Somehow when he reaches the airport he has to dismantle his bike, pack it up alongside all his kit plus the last minute treats he picked up in the market, including – I was disappointed to find – a bottle of chacha.
Just say no.
Weary, we slink off to our king sized sleigh bed in the oddly grand hostel, and avoid the overtures of the hostel chap who is enjoying some herbal cigarettes on the balcony.
Kutaisi altitude: 200m
Two of my favorite people @mariamazyoung and Jamie, a wonderful couple from Scotland and England. We met near Zugduli and rode together for two days up to Mestia after they “rescued” me from some chacha wielding locals. We then split up while I rode some ill advised high alpine single track and by chance joined up as we were all getting ready to go in Ushguli (highest continuously inhabited town in Europe). Then we rode downhill for 3 days, had more chacha encounters and enjoyed the scenery. Absolutely wonderful people they never made me feel like a third wheel. I definitely picked up some touring wisdom from them as well. They are also touring most of the way around the world so check them out! #justSayNoToChacha #worldbiking #travelbybike #worldtour #humanpower #ponypower #slowtravel travelbybike #cycling #adventurecycling #cyclist #ontheroad #outdoorlife #adventure #travel #instatraveling #touringbike #bicycletouring #bike #cyclist #biking #bikecamping #adventurebybike #salsabikes #bikepacking #georgia
178 Likes, 5 Comments – Karl Kroll (@where_is_karl) on Instagram: “Two of my favorite people @mariamazyoung and Jamie, a wonderful couple from Scotland and England….”