Svaneti really captured us and we have a hard time leaving such a beautiful place. It is well past noon when we finally gather the energy to get going.
While exchanging tips with Johanna and Sven yesterday evening, they both recommended the Kakheti region in the east of Georgia, renowned for it’s good quality wine and its Chacha, a local name for liquor in general and in the Kakheti region it is usually distilled from grapes. Georgia is a small country, so it will not be a big detour on our way to Russia.
A new plan and destination have been decided so we set out back towards Zugdidi. On the way down we manage to dodge what seems to be a major thunderstorm. The skies are almost black around us and the roads are flooded in places, but we stay more or less dry. We surely are very lucky with the weather this time.
Just before reaching Zugdidi, we decide to fuel up before looking for a place to sleep. We run into Johanna again at the service station. She’s planning on riding a bit further south towards the coast so this time we say our final goodbyes. While we are looking at the map for interesting places to aim for, another rider pulls up. Irakli is the nephew of the lady who runs the shop next to the fuel station. He buys us both a Coke and asks where we’re headed. We tell him we are looking for a place to spend the night and before we know it we are offered a room in his aunt’s house. First though, we are taken on a short sightseeing tour to peek across the Abkhasian border. After a bit of discussion with the border guards, they even let us ride our motorbikes to the military post on the bridge. Normally this area is off limits to vehicles. Only pedestrians are allowed to cross the bridge. Yet again a chance encounter leads to a unique experience. I believe the English call it serendipity, which as chance would have it is a term derived from an ancient Persian fairy-tale.
The evening is concluded with an invitation for dinner in the favourite Zugdidi restaurant of former president Saakhashvili. Irakli introduces us to his son Niko, who takes the opportunity to practice his English. Besides English he also fluently speaks Georgian and Russian and he has been picking up some Japanese along the way as well. Irakli is justified to be proud. To top it off, our new friend also arranges a hotel room for us in Kutaisi the following night and leaves us with a couple of route suggestions to get there. Georgian hospitality at its best!
During dinner we also gained some insights into the rather turbulent recent history of the country and its effect on the people. The couple we are staying with used to live in Abkhasia, but fled to Ukraine after their house was burned down. It was only after 15 years on the other side of the Black Sea that they had returned to Georgia and the rest of their family. We imagine that there are plenty of other tragic stories and not just in Abkhasia, but also in South Ossetia. That other disputed part of Georgia that is even harder to enter. At least from within Georgia. All those wars have also left the country and those regions full of unexploded ordnance and land mines which are a big challenge to clear.
That night we sleep rather uneasily. Not just because of the stories we have heard, but mainly because of some very aggressive mosquitoes and the moist heat that lingers until morning.
We are on the road for exactly 3 months today. In our original planning we would have been closing in on lake Baikal by now. But there’s no reason to keep sobbing over what could have been, we intend to enjoy the ride, wherever it may take us. So far our misfortunes have repaid us with unique experiences and meetings we would have otherwise never had.
First up is a visit to the local DHL office we had spotted the evening before. We are still carrying some stuff we don’t use and some gifts for the family. It would be easier to ship it back than to keep carrying it for the rest of our trip. Unfortunately the quote we get is well above what we can afford for such a small package, so we’ll have to figure out something else.
The route we have chosen to Kutaisi, based on the tips from Irakli and Johanna, takes us through some beautiful hilly landscapes with the Caucasus mountains in the background. A bus stop bench with a nice view offers a great opportunity to have some biscuits and pomegranate juice for breakfast. We are making good progress along these roads. Some are in good shape, but others are potholed and some are pretty deteriorated gravel roads. In this part of the country there is very little “pure” nature left. Most of the landscape is either used for agriculture or houses. Still, it is all very pleasant on the eyes and a joy to ride through.
The villagers here don’t see a lot of foreigners. So every time we stop, be it for some Khachapuri or to top up the Georgian SIM card, we attract a lot of attention. Some men we meet are clearly intoxicated, but it all stays very friendly.
It is only a few minutes past 3PM when we arrive in Kutaisi. Before looking for the hotel we decide to go and have a look at the Gelati monastery overlooking the city. Riding up the hairpins we get stuck behind a huge MAN truck converted into a camper van. It clearly had its share of adventure already. Peter and Anja from Germany invite us for a coffee and to share stories about Turkey and Georgia.
After Sofie buys some trinkets at the stalls outside the Monastery walls we enter to explore the monastery proper. Unfortunately some of the buildings are blocked from view by scaffolding for restoration. Still, it is a pretty nice and tranquil place to hang out. We briefly consider asking the priests if we can put up our tent in their garden, but the lure of the hotel in town that Irakli has arranged for us proves too strong.
Another beautiful day greets us the next morning. Perfect weather to visit Katskhi Pillar and the cable cars in Chiatura. The monastery on the column looks nice but the pillar itself is smaller than expected. The roads we are riding on this loop however are great fun. And the cable cars all over the industrial mining town of Chiatura are quite impressive. Most of them are in really bad condition, but some are still functional. They date back from Soviet times and are commonly referred to as Stalin’s cable cars.
The loop we are riding runs along part of the border with South Ossetia. The views across are alluring, but unfortunately it is not possible to enter the region from the Georgian side. We end up in Gori, the birth town of Joseph Stalin. Despite his morbid legacy many of the locals still seem to hold a strange affection for the man. His birth house is now kept as a sort of shrine in the city centre.
From Gori the back roads take us once more into Tbilisi. Not for the purpose of visiting the city again, but there’s supposedly a UPS office that might be a bit cheaper than DHL in Zugdidi. The office turns out to be on the second floor of an old building east of the city centre. It is not a full-flegded UPS office, to ship a package home to Belgium we need an airway bill number for the pick-up. That’s just too much of a time waste for us, so we decide to continue towards Sighnaghi, a traditional tourist destination in the middle of the Kakheti wine region. We’ll try our luck again later at a regular post office.
The main road from Tbilisi to Kakheti is rather boring, but Sighnaghi itself looks very nice. It also holds another surprise for us. When we arrive at Nato and Lado’s guest house in the centre we spot a familiar looking Chinese motorcycle. It appears Sven has also come here instead of going to Armenia or Turkey as he was planning when we said goodbye to him in Mestia. The owners of the guest house kindly allow us to pitch our tent on the roof. This must be one of the most beautiful camping spots we’ve had so far.
In the morning, after a long and tasty breakfast we head for the Georgian Post office. Let’s see if third time is lucky for our little package. The three postal clerks do look a bit puzzled when we make our request. After some discussions they conclude that it can be done and the price will be less than 3 times cheaper than we were quoted by DHL a few days ago. A whole process of paperwork, phone calls and looking for appropriate packaging is set into motion. All three participate while we are told to just wait in the sofa that sits between the rather improvised looking tables and equipment. There’s even an old matrix printer sitting next to the only computer in the office. We’re rather amused and curious. It seems this is the very first time they have ever had a request like this and they look very determined to get the job done. It takes them most of the morning, but in the end we sign the paperwork, pay the fee and are assured the package will arrive safely. They even give us a tracking number.
Since it is almost noon we take the opportunity to buy some provisions on the local market before we ride back towards the Georgian Military Highway. Sven had recommended we take the southern route through the valley because it has better views of the mountains. Turns out it is also completely built up and very busy. The views of the mountains are nice, on the few occasions we can get a glimpse of them between the almost continuous row of houses and trees. After a while though the southern and northern road converge and we continue into the mountains on a decent gravel road. There’s roadworks going on in a few places, making for some extra challenge, but in the end we reach the military road about 25km north of Mtskheta. There’s just Kazbegi now between us and Russia.
On our way north through the mountains we take a few more opportunities to snap some shots of this beautiful region. By the time we reach Stepantsminda it is already getting late, so we find a guest house. Our clothes are due a wash and fortunately our hosts have a washing machine we can use. We’ll have to stay an extra day for everything to dry though.
Over dinner in town we get to meet some more interesting people. We share a table with an Israeli couple who are originally from Latvia and Ukraine and at the table behind us is an Iranian family and a bit later we are joined by 4 Russian colleagues that are taking a holiday together. It is a very pleasant evening.
The next day is spent drying our clothes, doing some maintenance and checks on the motorbikes, uploading pictures and updating the blog. When we are getting ready to go out for some dinner again our host invites us over for a glass of Chacha. As could be expected one turns into two and then three, … All accompanied by an assortment of snacks and food. By the time the bottle is empty we’re not really hungry anymore.
After exchanging our last Georgian Laris for Russian Rubles we make our way to the border the next morning. Again the queue of trucks waiting to get across is massive. Not quite as long as we saw when entering Georgia from Turkey, but still we don’t feel like waiting in line and start making our way to the front. In a few places the road is too narrow for 2 way traffic and soldiers are regulating the flow of traffic to make sure no-one blocks the road. We get waved through. There’s repairs going on in the section that suffered a major land slide only weeks before. The road has been cleared, and with this being the only road between Georgia and Russia a lot of effort is being spent on making the necessary repairs.
The Georgian side of the border processes us very quickly and efficiently. On the Russian side it takes a lot longer. There’s a lot of paperwork and we get continuous questions about our business visas. After a few experienced guards they even send in a young newbie to have a go. We keep giving the same answers about our purpose and intentions. In the end they give up and let us continue to customs. After filling out the motorcycle import paperwork (in Cyrillic) Sofie is given the green light, but the customs officer sends me back. He thinks the M I wrote in the license plate field looks too much like a Cyrillic П and makes me fill out the paperwork again (in duplicate). He is rather stern and unfriendly, but when I come back and make a joke that my new papers deserve an отлично (Russian highest score in school), he melts. With a broad smile he stamps the paperwork and wishes me a good trip after telling me were to get insurance. We’re in Russia!