Batumi-Tbilisi: Cha Cha in the Mountains

Batumi was an abrupt change from Turkey. Quite seedy and much more alcohol. After being plied with the local 70% grape liquor at 10am when I was trying to leave the hostel, I was ready for a refreshing break. So I took the mountain road to Tbilisi rather than the highway, following the Chorokli river valley and climbing over the 2000m+ Gozerdzi pass.

 

 

Georgia is different to Turkey and has a booming industry of bespoke car wash signs. Never the same. Always very similar.

You can see a super speedy overview of the timelapse images from my gopro below. Not very awe inspiring yet but working on it…

I only managed about 25k the first day but it was enough to get me to a great spot to camp in the river valley just next to the road. I promptly fell over when trying to walk down a hill, with 50kg of bike involved. First tumble of the trip and clearly need to work on my stamina after Turkey and before the rest of Central Asia. As darkness fell small camping fires illuminated several distant spots in the hills and mountains surrounding the valley, and everyone passed a peaceful night for free.

Camping just outside Batumi.

70k of climbing the next day and I arrived in Khulo, and tried to persuade the concerned-looking operator to let me and my bike on this old Soviet cable car, so I could stay in a guesthouse in a tiny village, unfortunately to no avail.

Nearly got in with my bike but denied in the end..

The substitute option was a small hotel/bar with a family in Khulo. Amazing hospitality combined with serious alcoholism, and well into a very long dinner lengthy toasts had given way to short, staccato slurs. I made a very wobbly exit upstairs.

Leaving Khulo, which was at about 1000m, the road led down ominously, before rising back up to 2000m or so. You know you are not cheating when you start from the sea, and this was a tough day on gravel and rock roads in really searing heat. Slow going.

It was my first experience on such bad roads and ironically the mental effort required to stay upright proved to be a good distraction from climbing up a steep mountain for hours on end. You don’t care how fast you are going (5k an hour, slower than walking) or how long it is going to take (ages). It is just a stupid showdown with each obstacle in your ridiculous outfit weighed down with ridiculous amounts of gear. On a ridiculous mission to avoid taking the bus. I felt most stupid when an Armenian mountain biker came over the hill pulling a wheelie. But I absolutely loved it – endorphins + a good view, very simple.

The road out of Khulo
Starting to climb back up
State of the road
Near the top
The top. 630pm after setting off at 930am. Slow.

My mental image of a mountain descent was formed in Italy, where the roads are infinitely smooth, as if the workers sand down any imperfections with a nail file. This was different. Kidneys judder as you edge down rock after rock, picking up too much speed and braking into potholes, the clips of my panniers (bags) snapping under the strain, my bike starting to rely equally on string and steel to stay together. Faster than going up though and by sundown I made it to the foot of the mountain, together with hundreds of hungry cows on their daily march, and camped just outside Zarzma.

Nearly invaded by cows but great spot.

Some joyful flat bits followed and 40k on I found a small town with a bar and again used instagram as an excuse to drink three beers. Productive. But the mountains had taken their toll. On leaving the town to find a place to camp in the valley, my gear cable snapped. I cycled 15km back to the town stuck in the wrong gear, to check out a shop I had seen with a mountain bike outside. The sun was going down and the thunder and lightning was getting closer.

Of course, the clothes shop had a secret cabinet maintained by the owner’s husband, with loads of bike spares. I asked for 3 spare cables and she demanded I take them for free. They even had an internet connection I used to try and learn how to index my gears for the first time. They kind of work… Back out to the valley and I made it to a camp spot next to the river just before an epic storm.

The next day I set off to catch up with friends I had met in Turkey, also on bikes, in the ancient cave city of Vardzia. An easy 50k day along stunning valleys ended in a camp site just under the 12th century cave complex and monastery, which apparently proved impregnable even for the Mongol invaders in 1290. There were 5 or 6 groups camping, some with epic vans fitted out with kitchens and coal fires, which made me question my mode of transport for a moment or two.

The valley to Vardzia
Need a wide angle lens..
View from the top
Monks still live in the monastery and these bells get good usage at night

My Polish friends, Ewelina and Pawel, and I decided to cycle together and embarked on what turned out to be an epic three-day adventure to Tbilisi. Day one was brought to a funny end by too much cha cha, after meeting some gentle gents in a fruit market with a vat of alcohol and a lot of time on their hands. I tried to escape but they chased me down shouting “London.. London” and stipulated each leg needed a large shot. Weighed down with a coke bottle of their 70% home brew and far too many provisions we slowly edged our way out of the town. Our cha cha energy boost was just enough to get us through a wind-swept landscape of abandoned industrial facilities and vast stone quarries, and we eventually settled on commandeering a small unfinished house to shelter from the wind.

Back along the valley from Vardzia
Leaving the house

After the rocky, craggy mountains of the Goderdzi pass, the landscape here was barren and plain. The key issue was whether Tbilisi was going to take two days of suffering or three days at a more leisurely pace. Our group dynamic settled on two days of suffering even if apart we would probably have all settled for much longer, and after two 90k days over unrelenting mountains we made it to Tbilisi just as the sun went down.

We followed the development of a new railway over the 2200m mountain pass, linking China and Europe via Azerbaijan and Turkey, accompanied by “Silknet” electricity pylons.

Long day
The 2200m summit was the end of a long and gradual ascent
Pretty barren, and the fields were full of people gathering the excess hay with scythes and rakes after the tractors had left
Camping spot at the end of day two

Day three was even tougher than day two after we chose the mountain road with a set of mischievous smiles. Up and down 7% and 8% slopes for 50km before a last minute 1000m descent to Tbilisi.

The satisfaction of looking down 1500m you went up..
Mistakenly thinking there were no more mountains to climb..
Descending into Tbilisi with broken spokes and broken panniers and crazy drivers as the sun went down
After haircuts and celebratory beers at Mother Georgia statue. Took cable car up.

And finally we made it! Phenomenal trip from Batumi to Tbilisi. Can’t recommend Georgia enough for the scenery, the food, the drink, and the people, and really good to travel through it with such lovely people. Will finish with a bad photo of the cyclist’s staple, Adjarian Khachapuri, fluffy, leavened boat-shaped bread chock full of gooey cheese and pristine egg yolk ready to run, topped off with a thick wedge of salty butter ready to aid the emergence of a holy triumvirate of cheese, egg, and butter on bread. With beer.

Yes.

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4 thoughts on “Batumi-Tbilisi: Cha Cha in the Mountains

  1. Call your friend next time you have a mechanical! 😉 What a great ride and awesome snack!

  2. Nice post, London! London!
    Jia you and keep up the good work! Following intently from Singapore 🙂

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