Off-Road To Shatili In The Caucasus Mountains Of Georgia

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Last week I travelled to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to meet Andy for a few days of mountain-biking in the Caucasus mountains to the north of the city.

Andy told me that many people outside the country still think it must be a ‘warzone’. This is probably due to the monumental fuss made by the international media over an incident last year which has become known as the 2008 South Ossetia war. The reality of this war was a few days of localised conflict on the borders of a region which has been fighting for independence for nearly twenty years, but this didn’t stop it being portrayed as the closest thing to World War III (with a good deal of anti-Russian spin for good measure).

Today, a tentative peace prevails. Ethnic groups arbitrarily united and divided by newly-drawn borders still struggle to accept their neighbours and find justice for past wrongs done against them, but it seems that most people would rather harbour their resentments and get on with the business of eating, drinking, working and having families.

We headed out of Tbilisi — me, Andy and his Georgian mountain-biking friend Dato — towards Zhinvali and the small mountain villages of Georgia; square, tin-roofed, wide-terraced houses of bleached wood and crumbling concrete. Vines pulsed with ripe grapes, chickens, calves and sows roamed the little pot-holed tracks, and the trees were just beginning to dust the ground with the oranges and browns of autumn. It was our last chance to go and explore these high, remote valleys before the onset of the harsh Caucasian winter that Andy and I knew all too well.

A quick break by the lake

Leaving Dato’s village home early in the morning, we followed crumbling asphalt up to a stunning turquoise lake. The asphalt soon petered out entirely and we were left with only a bulldozed dirt track, suitable only for walkers, jeeps and mountain-bikes. This road would end at the border with the Russian province of Chechnya and the tiny village of Shatili. It is the only point of access for the dozen or so families who live there, and in winter the valley remains inaccessible for months due to snow.

Glimpsing a little fresh snow

We camped and the following day climbed the track from 1,300m to the pass at nearly 2,700 metres altitude. Having been for only three significant bike rides in the previous four months, and suffering from the tail end of a cold and fever, I was shattered by the climb — I was reminded how quickly the body adapts to both activity and inactivity! We arrived at the pass rather late in the day and decided to head back to the previous night’s camping spot rather than venture into an unknown valley after sunset. This resulted in the rather ludicrous act of descending 1,400 vertical metres down a dirt track in the dark, with a yawning chasm on one side and only a pitiful headtorch by which to see the trail ahead.

We rode in silence, single-file, through the growing blackness. Deprived of almost all sensory input other than the movement of the bike and a few split-seconds’ notice of any obstacles in our path, we seemed to fall into a state of communal meditation, the world invisibly passing by in a breath of cool air. I felt that I could have been riding on the moon, or in a mine-shaft, and be none the wiser.

We’d planned to go all the way to Shatili, but Dato wasn’t sure that the weather would hold and none of us fancied spending a few weeks stranded in a remote valley! We’d be better off returning next spring, better-prepared and (in my case) more fit to tackle such indomitable climbs.

It was a short, simple, tough and rewarding adventure into some dramatic and remote landscapes. But rather than vainly try to do justice to the gorgeous landscapes we rode through in words, I’ll let these pictures do the talking:

Endless uphills

Dirt tracks and switchbacks

Grinding up the last few switchbacks

Looking down the valley

Sunset over the Greater Caucasus

More photos are in my Flickr album for the trip. Thanks to Andy for the additional shots.

Stunning natural beauty surrounds us wherever we live — all we need to to is take a short trip from our front door to find it!