I’m sitting in the shade of the border canopy with my bike between my legs next to a booth which houses a single official who processes everything; bike, passport and visa. It’s done in minutes and as for insurance, well if they don’t mention it I’m not going to. Having left the booth with a year’s stay stamped in my passport and three months for my bike, I spy the first and most welcome piece of architecture any overland border-crosser wants to see – a concrete block on the side of the pavement which houses a cash machine. Now I can buy a tankful of their wonderfully inexpensive petrol. After Turkey and its world record-holding fuel costs, this is like getting wine from a water fountain. Somehow the service attendant manages to get 25 litres into my 24 litre tank, I know I was getting low but I wasn’t over drawn. Still it’s so cheap it’s not worth arguing about.
My first impression as I cross the border is a clear distinction in dress between the Georgians and the Turks, and the Georgians are definitely shorter. Flaunted Eastern feminine beauty is back, modesty and discretion are left south of the border. The driving standards have not improved with the aesthetics however, only the distractions.
Driving habits like this in the West would have my road-rage reaching levels beyond restraint, but here it’s not a deliberate bloody-mindedness that has them passing me so close they scrape off my stickers. It’s just a complete lack of awareness and road bike related education. I feel as vulnerable as a Greenpeace ship entering a whaling cull or possibly even the whale.
Having a firm appreciation of good wine and unspoilt beauty in the form of mountains, architecture and women, I think I’ve just found my new favourite country. This place has the lot, in abundance. That capital city, Tbilisi has enough variety and appeal to last an entire holiday but being a resident of the Essex plains I’m drawn to the mountains in the north of the country, an area of glaciers, all 299 of them.
I come to a road that looks promising and it seems to correspond with the one on my map. It’s going OK until I come to concrete bunkers and armed soldiers, but they don’t react so I keep going. Then there are more military and closed gates across the road, the road that would take me through the republic of South Ossetia. Except it won’t because I can’t go that way, it’s a volatile area and less than five years ago there was full-on war between Russia and Georgia over this area. The war was centred around the town of Tskhinvali the place directly between where I am now and where I want to be.
I turn back to the motorway and try another northerly route, but I’m on the wrong side of the river, the valley is wide and there is nowhere to cross. The skies either side of me are blue but the cloud is trapped between the hills and hangs over me. When the sun does shine, it can’t shine bright enough to take the gloom out of the next town. Tall oppressive soviet housing blocks each side of the road create a valley of their own and I ride in the shadow of their depressing design. They really are structures of condensed misery.
The road turns to dirt.
I know it will come to an end eventually, as Russia looms over Georgia’s northern boundaries and there are few through roads. I follow and then cross a river, the kind of river that may, with a storm in the mountains, quadruple in size. The high water-mark indicates what it’s capable of and that’s far greater than my river crossing abilities. But then there’s the luxury of a low wooden bridge where the river has nearly dammed itself with the pine trees it has swept downstream and which have jammed under the supports.
The track is getting narrower and finally takes me into a village, the village at the end of the road. It’s a bit scary, quite exhilarating, old women dressed in black sit on wooden benches worn shiny from the bums of time. The houses are made of stone and tradition; the paths between them are only barrow wide. Electric cables have been strung from anything of height and my exhaust is much too loud for such a remote and unvisited place.
On the other side of this settlement, the track takes me down to a dry rocky riverbed, used only to retrieve more building materials brought down from the mountains when the waters are high and powerful. The Russian border must be very close to here, if it is defined at all. I turn round and mange to get lost in the tiny village, the landmark benches of wrinkled women are many, the faces all look the same – possibly the same parents? In a Hansel and Gretel style I look in the mud for my tyre tracks but I’ve already done a lap and they are misleading me again. Eventually having attracted the unwanted attention of just about every resident, a hard-faced youth assists in my exit strategy and I’m back on a single line of my friendly Mefo tyre-tracks, the ones I left on entry. Once more the KLR does what it does best, taking me to the isolated and inaccessible, and best of all taking me back again.
In the more civilized town of Oni I find a family-run guesthouse where they speak German; it adds variety to the daily custom of incomprehension. I’m led to an annex at the end of the garden, up uneven stairs to the terrace of a wooden building and into a dark musty room. The inadequate light from a single netted window only illuminates the gloom. Where the dusty bookshelves stop, the walls are adorned with paintings conceived by a disturbed mind. The veranda faces north to the mountains and has a threadbare couch to sit on. There is memorabilia on every surface, from farm and torture implements to crockery and vases of dried flowers. The tales this accommodation could tell would creep through the night, although tonight is the shortest one of the year.
There is magic in the air on solstice evening, I feel it, sitting on the veranda watching the rain fall and I can smell the smoke from wood burning stoves drifting past on damp air. I clear all the cushions and blankets off the couch and get in my sleeping bag, listening to the rain patter on the wooden roof and trickle off my bike cover. It’s so peaceful, tranquil, there are cloud-obscured views from my antique balcony, the mountains come and go and the rain calms the evening to a trance. There are smells of enchanting times gone by; I’m surrounded by several generations’ accumulation of treasures. There are spirits here. While I’m immersed in the elements but just sheltered enough, my mind drifts through memories of past solstices as the unseen sun finishes it longest performance of the year. There is nowhere else I would rather be tonight, than here, on my own, surrounded by this small but wondrous world on the apex of summertime.
Today I’m heading for Ushguli the highest permanently inhabited place in Europe. At a junction the road quality deteriorates and the scenery excels itself. The dirt road squeezes through a tight gorge and fights for dominance over the river, it doesn’t always win.
I pass through tiny villages; lots of local folk are out on benches watching me go by. I wave and they wave back, this is a through route, I can feel the difference in the reactions my passing generates.
The track is bad, I suppose it will only get worse, I don’t expect to see tarmac today. The bike is getting washed by rivers then covered by mud again as the road deteriorates with elevation. There is no one out here now but me, unless the hills have eyes, but best not to think about that. Alone into the unknown, I’m not even at the pass yet. Ahead of me a mountain appears, it’s so close, so big a glacier creeps down towards the base. Against the blue sky it towers so steeply I can’t lift my head far enough to take it all in before my helmet digs into the back of my neck. It’s absolutely stunning. I can’t look around as I ride but when I stop I see waterfalls and natural beauty all around me. The mud track is replaced with rocks and boulders, I weave between the spoke-snapping obstacles. It’s the perfect time of year to be here, there are meadows of buttercups and daises and everything is green and alive. The road increases in elevation and as the scenery becomes even more breath-taking, I have none left.
There is the occasional house sprouting from the side of a hill. Most are abandoned, dilapidated, a formation of crumbling stone and rusty iron. The buildings that are occupied seem to be populated by those who scrape an existence from the surrounding land. It looks like a hard life rather than a good one.
I’m wet with sweat now; it’s a road of constant challenges, no time to rejoice in achievement. I come to washed-out bridges and white-water rapids that have to be crossed. It’s so steep and rocky now, there is nowhere to stop, momentum has to be maintained.
Standing on the pegs, I keep my visor up because the sweat is making it mist up but the air is thick with mozzies. They are sticking to my wet cheeks, sucked into my mouth as I gasp for breath through gritted teeth, then a fat one flies into my eye and I have to screw it shut. I lose perception and a twig pokes my face, I’m glad I had my eye shut now. Still I can’t stop; I’m just riding into more abuse. A boulder-strewn and submerged track, I’m basically riding up a river bed against fast running water. This track continues steeply, zig-zagging up a hillside and finally the river and road separate and I can stop and put my feet down. Man that was some demanding and relentless riding. It’s the best kind of exhaustion there is with your clothes on.
A massive glacier appears ahead of me – this road is spectacular. I round hairpin bends which climb up mountain sides, I can’t stand it any longer. I need to stop and take a breath; I need to get the tripod out. I’m at 7,000 feet now so stop for a sandwich and to finish the last of my water. The sun dries my sweaty body, but when it goes behind a cloud the temperature drops like a clumsy mountain goat. Putting my arms back into the wet sleeves of my jacket does nothing to warm me up.
The road continues to wind up and then into a valley of vivid green. Above the timber line now, there are sporadic pockets of snow, which look like white sand bunkers on a vertical golf course. The contrast in colours is so defined, dark blue sky, bright green grassy hills and a layer of resilient snow between the two. It’s all so untouched, unchanged, no human contact, nothing but nature and seasons.
The descent starts, like the post-solstice dawn, and I feel a little sad the best is over. It was the highlight of the journey so far. A village comes into view and I chug down into it. There are tall stone towers all around, the road is still dirt, some decaying Russian trucks are parked up, but it’s hard to tell if they are abandoned or resting. There is a small restaurant with a few red plastic tables placed in the yard outside, the most unnatural thing I’ve seen all day. I sit and the motherly owner comes out and tells me in English she has soup. Sounds ideal, I order a coke while I wait. I instantly feel myself relax; there is a good vibe here. I’m told this restaurant has a few rooms for rent; I think I want to stop here. I cancel my coke and order a beer. This place has staying power.
It’s only a little village but there is a lot to take in, best done from above, so I walk up the hill to an old church. A big grey hairy wolf-like dog joins me; he seems to just want someone to walk with. Big Dog, as I call him, seems to know there will be a point when I will just stop and sit down; he therefore finds the best place and stops there. He sits with his back to me looking at the mountains as I gaze down at the towers in Ushguli, the village of stone.
There must be 40 stone towers in view from up here; some are over 1,000 years old, built to protect the families from nomadic mountain invaders as well as from village infighting. Some are still inhabited. They are striking in appearance and unique to this area, in fact the whole village seems to be lost somewhere in time.
I wander round the narrow dirt alleys; I’ve just walked into the middle Ages, not in a Disney way but a genuine working way of life. I wander well-trodden paths between stone walls and irrigation streams diverted from the river. There are small half wild pigs that have coarse hairy mohicans along their backs. Horses too wander free along with cows, goats and chickens, so there is a real need to look where I am treading as well as just the scenery around me.
After a few days I leave what little civilization there is behind, back to the track that now runs alongside a river under a canopy of trees. There had always been a military presence in Ushguli, not large but constant, usually sitting around the restaurant. It may not be the volatile area it once was but it’s only five miles from the Russian border and there are warnings of illegal activities, muggings and the robberies of lone tourists are not unheard of. A solider standing at the side of the road, flags me down, it’s the perfect place for an ambush. He doesn’t look threatening but then the best decoys don’t. He wants some wire to fix his broken bicycle, and shows me the problem. He is only a young lad and clearly not in the engineering division. I fix it for him, he’s happy to be mobile again and indicates he will meet me for chai. I wave him off, it will take me a while to get my tools packed up again.
I see his skinny tire marks in the mud as I continue along the track, the sweat is cold on me now and it starts to rain. Further on there is a gate across the road, I don’t see how I could have gone wrong, there is only one road, I turn back to a minor track I saw but it just dead ends. I return to the gate, in this unstable area I’m not sure what to do, so I tentatively open it and close it behind me. It appears to be there just to keep the livestock from wandering off.
On a corner by a bridge is a tiny chai shack, Mr. Military is waiting there for me with his bicycle and a cup of thick black coffee. He shows me photos of his children on his phone which seems almost standard practice nowadays. I don’t know how much this coffee cost but he doesn’t have a drink for himself. He leaves me to it, waving his thanks and taking a steep goat track up into the hills. I ride to another gate and leave this captive little experience behind.
With the ascent comes smooth concrete, it’s a little sad to be leaving such a unique area, of architecture, culture and scenery, but that’s the road for you, it’s what happens.
Melted snow streams down the mountains to join the river which winds down the valley next to me, and the mountains change in profile as I pass round them. Mountains are such good value, not only do they change depending on your view point but through the course of the day as well, with shadows and low light. You just don’t get that diversity with the sea, I feel I’m meant to live around mountains, not in Essex.
As the land becomes less hostile, farming communities start to appear, the river gets greyer, wider and more aggressive, it takes away anything in its path as it rushes down to a lake of turquoise contrast. If you have to leave mountains behind this is about as scenic and dramatic an exit as you can hope for.
This article first appeared in Issue 7 of Overland Magazine.