After a week of relentless and sometimes masochistic cycling covering almost 500km, we arrived in the snowy Georgian capital of Tbilisi on New Year’s Eve. At 2 a.m.
This wasn’t the way we would usually have gone about our journey. I prefer to take it slow, to explore a little more off the beaten track, and to get off my bike from time to time when the opportunity arises to meet locals or enjoy the landscape – as it generally does very often. But we’d found a temporary cycling partner from Poland, whose travels by bike took a very different form to ours. For those few days, we lived his lifestyle.
It was Christmas Day – for us at least – in the coastal town of Batumi, just north of the Turkish land border we’d crossed the day before. I was attempting to fathom out the Georgian public phone system in order to speak to my family, to wish them a Merry Christmas, and to tell them that it was another 12 days until the Orthodox Georgians celebrated it (on our Epiphany) and that would they please put my Christmas dinner at the bottom of the freezer until I returned?
Sylvester had spotted our bikes and luggage and came over to find out who these other cycle tourers were who had also decided that crossing the Caucasus in deep winter would be a good idea. We ate a traditional Georgian meal of spicy, fatty meat soup and khachapuri (imagine a deep pan pizza base stuffed with cheese), promising ourselves a traditional roast dinner as soon as we could find somewhere with a kitchen.
Today – the 12th of January – I plan to realise that promise. After I leave this internet cafe, I’ll be jumping on the Metro (costing about 15 of our English pennies) to the huge market district, where it is quite common to literally get lost for hours amongst vast grids of identical stalls that stretch up to the rafters and destroy any sense of direction within seconds. I hope to find at least a chicken and some vegetables.
Tonight I’ll hopefully cook at the flat of one of the many French ex-patriots amongst whom we’ve unexpectedly found friends and hospitality for the time we’ve been in Tbilisi. As two Georgian men told us across the cafeteria over a lunch-time toast, it’s a positive thing that people of two nations historically at war with each other can sit and enjoy the food, drink and company of one another. Cheers, or gaumarjos as they say here!
Our ride through Georgia was direct and fast. The Polish chap, Sylvester, usually a lone cyclist, was very self-driven, and this together with his ability to speak Russian meant that Andy and I took a back seat in most social situations, and indeed for most of the usual daily decisions, such as when and where to stop, the route to take, and where to sleep. This was something of a relief for a while, but quickly it became apparent that the ideas of teamwork and group decision-making that we’d had to learn so quickly at the start of the trip were still lost on the solo traveller we accompanied. I was reminded of the high tensions between myself, Andy and Mark during the first weeks of the journey. We had quickly learnt that compromise, patience and tolerance were all necessary if we were to all enjoy the shared experience, and that the support and companionship gained were worth the trade.
I found myself wanting to stop, to slow down, to get off the main road, and I wasn’t particularly bothered about the idea of getting to Tbilisi for New Year’s Eve. However, I allowed myself to be swept along. We covered over 100km a day on mixed gradients – an unheard of distance for us, usually – and it showed that at least if we needed to cover great distances quickly, that this kind of distance had come within our range. On the final day, I was fairly astonished to find that we had travelled 128km, but the point of tiredness had long passed.
We didn’t miss out completely, though. The night after we left Batumi, we found hospitality with a Georgian family, who fed us some delicious home-made food. We also participated in the very traditional act of toasting. This is no half-hearted shout of ‘cheers’ as a precursor to a lawless period of excessive imbibation. No, in Georgia, the role of toastmaster (or tamada) is a honoured position to hold at any occasion, small or large. Toasting can (and did) continue for hours. We sank litres of fresh and fruity home-made wine, listening to the eloquent toasts which were raised to friends, family, travellers, nationality, the deceased, girls, chance meetings… you hopefully get the idea (and understand why I can’t remember the specifics in more detail).
We heard plenty of gunshots echoing throughout the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus, but we didn’t see any civil unrest or military presence. All was explained when we found a small market on the side of the road, selling what appeared to be a lot of freshly-shot ducks and game birds. We had also seen skins, pelts and other hunting trophies in people’s homes in the area, as well as in the adjoining region of Turkey – including wolf and bear. Clearly, hunting for sport and for food was a normal part of life in the region.
A couple of days ago, we asked the Conservation Director for the WWF Caucasus, who established their office in Tbilisi 1992 after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., whether this hunting activity is sustainable. The short answer – no, it isn’t. Hunting for sport, especially, as well as illegal poaching, has had an impact on wildlife numbers all over the Caucasus. The best example is that of the now highly-endangered European leopard, of which poaching has reduced the population to an estimated 50 individuals.
He spoke of this not from a conservation-for-the-sake-of-it standpoint, but because this species has deep roots in the folklore of the area, being found in the songs, rhymes and poems that constitute cultural tradition over the 6 countries that make up the Caucasus bio-region as a whole. So it is clearly not just the species itself that is under threat, but an important part of the rural way of life and tradition, which still exists throughout the Caucasus. Luckily the WWF in this region has successfully brought the species under protection.
I’m a little sad that I didn’t go and seek out rural culture in the further-flung regions of Georgia. Since starting the expedition, I have found the richest jewels at the end of the smallest roads. Spending a night and enjoying a meal with rural-dwelling people who have perhaps never seen a traveller in their area has produced some of my strongest memories, looking back over the 7 months of travelling. Memories of encounters had in gypsy villages in the mountains of Romania, with old couples living in the depths of the Hungarian Great Plains, in the hilly countryside of Turkey – these memories still shine with the clarity they had had the following morning as we continued on our bicycle journey.
Our intended route from here will take us south through Armenia. This is a country that promises a great physical challenge, with the majority of its mountainous terrain at an altitude of between 1000-2500 metres above sea level, as well as a rich heritage spanning over 3 millennia. I’m not a history buff, and I don’t have an overwhelming interest in visiting ancient ruins and the like, but I am intrigued by the way that history and tradition have shaped the culture that can be observed in today’s world.
Maybe that reflects the philosophy that this kind of travelling has developed for me – to take what I can from today and not to live too far into the future. Conversely, it’s also important to remember that my actions today will decide the course that the future takes. As with many things, there’s a balance to strike, and it’s not always easy to get it right.
It was -15 degrees Celsius last night in Tbilisi. In Armenia, I hear that temperatures at night are around the -20 mark. That’s why we’ve both invested in ‘puffa’ jackets, knock-off brands at knock-down prices. Mine cost a touch over 20 British pounds from the sprawling market district, after a protracted, hilarious and predictable haggling session. The temperature here is unusually cold – we are told that this amount of snow only falls once in every five years.
The increase in extremes of weather is commonly acknowledged to be one of the most obvious symptoms of widespread climate change. I’ve experienced very unusual weather throughout the last 12 months, from my dismal ski season in the French Alps last winter, through the record heat felt in April, the record rainfall as we began our journey through Europe in the summer, and now this, here in the Caucasus.
We’re still waiting to hear from our sponsors about getting some better sleeping bags delivered ahead of us to Yerevan. Fingers crossed!