Episode XII – Lions and tigers and bears (and crocodiles and hyenas and jaguars and hippos and penguins) oh my! Georgia, 10 June to 2 July 2015

Leaving one country for another is almost always accompanied by excitement and wistfulness in equal measure, and leaving Turkey for Georgia was no different. All across Turkey, as soon as we mentioned Georgia, praise of the country’s wine would inevitably follow – something to look forward to, since Turkish offerings were tolerable at best, and in any case the increasingly anti-alcohol attitude as one travels east of Istanbul encouraged us to be somewhat restrained in our consumption. On the other hand, my plaintive enquiries as to whether you can get ayran (that salty yoghurt drink which always accompanies Turkish meals) north of the border were met with shrugs.

As it turned out, the border town where we planned to grab a final Turkish lunch – hoping for our favourite kind of cheap café that serves homely slow-cooked dishes like tender chicken and potato in gravy or slippery sweet aubergine stuffed with mincemeat and tomatoes – turned out to be a tiny mud-and-dung-encrusted hamlet. The typical all-male gaggle of hangers around taking advantage of the midday shade under the bus stop (presumably while the invisible women of the village got on with all the work) informed us there was no restaurant, café or shop in the village.

So, over the border into Georgia, with no lunch, no Georgian money and about 15km to put behind us before either would be available. But the lush green scenery, elegant (if often crumbling) stone architecture and imaginative filigree of ironwork provided a wonderful distraction from hunger pangs. There was a strong feeling of having returned, if only for a brief holiday, to European lands.

Stone cottage

Stone cottage

Ladas galore

Ladas galore

Nice ironwork

Nice ironwork

Fort near the border

Fort near the border

Compared to the more gradual changes we had experienced on our slow roll across the planet, this was a marked and sudden change. Unlike the muddled Thracian borderlands of Greece and Turkey, where until recently Muslim and Christian communities coexisted if not peacefully then at least side-by-side, it felt like Turkey and Georgia had next to nothing in common.

And for us, despite all the years we’ve both spent in Asia, it also felt like a holiday from the almost imperceptible tension that those who have travelled extensively or lived outside their home culture may recognise, arising from the need to constantly question whether your behaviour, dress, ways of eating/drinking/communicating/gesturing are commensurate with the customs and traditions of the country you’re in. It’s not necessarily that those customs are more restrictive than yours, it’s simply the effort that has to be exerted to behave in ways other than those you’ve grown up with, the need to constantly ask yourself questions like “are my sleeves long enough?”, “should I be wearing shoes in here?”, “can I drink a beer on this park bench without offending anyone?” and “does the thumbs-up gesture mean ‘good’ or ‘let’s have sex’?”. Georgia felt like a country where the answer to all but the last of those questions was “who cares?”. In what felt, on the borders, like an assertive demonstration of difference from its neighbour (but probably wasn’t), women wore short skirts, bare shoulders and high heels – or not – as they pleased, corner shop windows were lined with bottles of local vodka and brandy, and free-range pigs wandered through the villages. The familiar sound of competing muezzin fighting for domination of the auditory space through cheap, overdriven speaker systems in every settlement 5 times a day was notable by its absence; back to the Greek habit of little churches, preferably perched crazily on inaccessible hilltops.

We ain't in Turkey no more!

We ain’t in Turkey no more!

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Beautiful riverside campsite, though passing bullocks (not shown) were a bit scary

Beautiful riverside campsite, though passing bullocks (not shown) were a bit scary

Having been driven further west (oh no, not the dreaded west!) than hoped by the non-existence of the Aktash border crossing, we tried to get back to the mountain route we’d originally planned to take, striking up into the hills from the pleasant, if touristy, spa town of Borjomi. An amiable be-dredded Swiss cyclist called Dario, intent on roaming across as much of every country he visited as his visa would allow, had a map which suggested there would be a viable route back to our original itinerary. Despite the road being consistently yellow on his map (surely implying tarmac to any right-thinking person) we discovered after half a day’s steady but substantial climb that it degraded to a dirt track just around the kind of distance along that makes you really unwilling to turn back. Following a river valley steadily up, it still seemed manageable despite some deep puddles, so we proceeded.

After perhaps another 12 tough but doable kilometers, it began to climb more intensely, and deteriorate further in quality. And then the skies began to darken. Since it was only about 6 o-clock, and only a few days off midsummer, this had us pondering whether we’d reset the clocks in the right direction when we crossed the border. Having established that we did, the fact that it still seemed like we might need our head torches provided some warning as to what was to come. Ping-pong ball-sized hail stones started to fall, but we were stuck on a very long, steep unsheltered section of path with nowhere flat enough to lean the bikes up. We laboured on, pushing our bikes, since the road had become a slippery, rubble-filled stream, and finally came to a halt, already drenched, under a fairly useless tree, and huddled under the pathetic protection of a small pocket umbrella.

Eventually the storm eased and the sky lightened a little. We pushed on up to the top of the hill and found a gorgeous plateau of long grass and wildflowers dotted with grand old deciduous trees. What looked like a perfect campsite had, however, been turned into an enormous bog by the storm; nevertheless, we camped, exhausted, in the sodden grass. (Apologies for the lack of photos here: the steep climb meant it wasn’t possible to charge the phone from my hub dynamo, and we needed what little charge we had for maps.)

The next day, we found the road impassable. “Rutted” doesn’t do it justice – mountains of mud and oceans of water lay across our path – impossible even to push the bikes, as the space between the wheels and the mudguards instantly became clogged solid with mud. After watching a Land Rover Discovery struggle past us on the “flat” section and then listening to it wheel-spinning out of sight as it attempted the climb around the corner, we decided to admit defeat and return the way we came – a first on our journey thus far.

Walking our bikes several kilometers to the bottom of the steep section (we were amazed how far we’d made it in the storm the evening before) we began the long and disheartening ride back down to Borjomi. Back on the road, spirits were soon lifted by encountering Nick, an amiable English chap also heading to Tbilisi. A fan of an easier life with fewer mountains to climb, Nick had opted for the main route to the capital, on which we now joined him, cruising together down a wide river valley all the way to the city.

Injured eagle owl spotted near our camp site (a local came along to deal with it, though I'm not sure in what way)

Injured eagle owl spotted near our camp site (a local came along to deal with it, though I’m not sure in what way)

En route we took in Gori, home to Georgia’s most famous export, Josef Dzhugashvili, better-known as Stalin. The Stalin museum was, of course, a must-see. I was interested to discover how a country that has had such troubled recent relationships with Russia and seems keen to make a clean break with its Soviet past would deal with the legacy of a man who is nevertheless celebrated as one of the greatest ever Georgians. Predictably, it was heavy on pictures of Stalin shaking hands with important people and light on history; the tour guide (a necessity, since none of the displays have English information) was keen to emphasise that it wasn’t actually Stalin but various other Soviet officials who ordered all those massacres and other unpleasantnesses. In other words, Stalin was careful about whose name ended up on the orders. The clearest insight into Stalin’s psyche perhaps was to be found in his beloved tank-clock-ashtray-lamp, which is surely not the ornament of a completely sane man, or at least not one with a sense of proportion.

John and Nick outside Stalin's house (rebuilt outside the museum)

John and Nick outside Stalin’s house (rebuilt in front of the museum)

Stalin museum

Stalin museum

Stalin rug

Stalin rug

Stalin's death mask

Stalin’s death mask

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Would you trust a man who owes one of these to run an empire?

Would you trust a man who owes one of these to run a country?

From our final campsite before the city, on an abandoned communal farm, we enjoyed a long and spectacular light-show of pink and blue lightning over Tbilisi, though happily escaped a drenching ourselves.

Camping with Nick

Camping with Nick

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Beautiful decay

Beautiful decay

The full impact of what we had witnessed from afar only became apparent gradually as we rode through the city the next day. First came a great boon – one of the major roads along the river was closed to traffic, though the police let us ride along it. Musing on whether there was some political motor cavalcade coming through, we took full advantage and occupied one lane each, rolling in style into the heart of Tbilisi, joking that they’d forgotten to lay out the red carpet for us.

Things got more difficult after we split from Nick to go to our separate lodgings. Roads became more emphatically closed, and we were directed up a big hill in the wrong direction. All attempts to cross to where we wanted to be seemed blocked. TV crews were thronging around, and only those with press passes were being allowed past the police tape, though it was still unclear to us exactly what the problem was. Eventually, we found a footbridge intact across the heart of the problem: a roaring torrent that was clearly usually little more than a puddle with a sense of direction. Tide marks up to the second storey of nearby buildings told of the deluge that had preceded us. We edged under the police tape, following the lead of local pedestrians, and managed to pick our way around the emergency vehicles and clean-up crews to get to the side we needed to be on.

After the floods at Tbilisi Zoo

Tbilisi zoo after the floods

Then we noticed the texts from our warm showers host, Taylor, cheerfully wishing us luck getting across the city and warning us to be on the lookout for bears and hippos. Ha, ha. As we soon discovered, he was serious – the zoo had flooded and many animals had escaped and were, apparently, roaming the city.

Bear on the loose (image from BBC)

Bear on the loose (image from BBC)

We eventually made it up to Taylor’s flat, which fortunately was on high ground, but perhaps worryingly at the bottom of a big nature park on the peak above his house – a perfect hangout, I thought, for escaped wolves. Taylor – a medical student on exchange from the other Georgia, in the US – was a lovely and very hospitable guy, who seems to have thrown his tiny apartment permanently open to cycle tourists and friends in need of a place to stay, such as Alyona (hope I spelled her name right!), a Ukrainian architect who was between apartments.

Curry with Alyona and Taylor

Curry with Alyona and Taylor

Outside Taylor's pad

Outside Taylor’s pad

The zoo drama rolled on for some days, culminating in the tragic death of a cleaner, who was attacked by a tiger when he went in to check a flooded warehouse. Since the zoo had previously said all the tigers were accounted for (how hard can it be to count tigers? Surely you just add up the dead ones, subtract from the total number of tigers you once had and bob’s your uncle…?) this triggered a city-wide panic.

Even I wasn’t immune – when the first vague reports that a man had been killed by a tiger in Hero’s Square came in, John was out in that part of town meeting a friend. Not too seriously, I attempted to calculate the odds that he could be the victim, and wondering whether a tiger was more likely to attack a pedestrian or a cyclist (the latter – like most cats, they love the chase). It’s an odd sensation to realise you’re having a day where there’s a considerably greater chance of your boyfriend being killed by a tiger than of winning the National Lottery.  Later that day, the library I was working in was evacuated following reports of a tiger roaming the park outside (an odd decision to throw us out WITH the tiger instead of letting us stay safely locked up indoors!). I got home to find John, Taylor and Alonya holed up in the flat with the iron gate over the door safely locked, contemplating whether, if I came haring down the road chased by a tiger, they’d be able to unlock it in time to let me in..

I had some paid work to do whilst we waited for our Azerbaijan visas, which was just as well, since (perhaps thanks to the start of Ramadan) they took two weeks to come, much to the irritation of pretty much every Silk Road traveller in the city, all of whom seemed to be in the same situation. The embassy were lethargically issuing visas one day before the requested start date, which was frustrating given it would take us 3 days to travel to the border from Tbilisi. The loss of these three days from our month in Azerbaijan only added to our anxiety over the anticipated chaos in Baku, where we could potentially be stuck for two weeks waiting for visas for Uzbekistan, followed by a further wait of up to a week for the elusive and irregular boat across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan.

Tbilisi itself is a beautiful city in places, if you go in for the ramshackle faded Soviet grandeur aesthetic, though in its modern incarnation it seems more shaped around cars than people, with 6-lane highways running through it and unfathomable multi-directional junctions marked only with pollution-blackened paint, which lowly pedestrians are condemned to traverse via poorly-lit, piss-stinking tunnels – kind of like Elephant-and-Castle (an evil mega-junction in south London) but without the roundabouts to make it clear where you’re supposed to go. Car drivers are unpredictable, completely lacking in empathy and, we eventually concluded, probably permanently drunk, given that beer and chacha (distilled grape must) seem to be acceptable accompaniments to a Georgian breakfast. The only roads which aren’t massive and dangerous are violently cobbled. Probably the least bike-friendly city we’ve encountered, even after Istanbul, where permanent irritation and total disregard for human life seemed to be the norm.

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Crumbling grandeur

The shabbier end of shabby-chic

Tiring of the city, with daily visits to the Azeri embassy producing no visa, and still no clear answers about how many tigers were on the loose, we headed off to escape the heat, striking out for the mountains which the storms had previously barred us from.

Hilltop campsite with Georgian cross

Hilltop campsite with Georgian cross

Camping by a lake in the Trialeti National Park

Camping by a lake in the Trialeti National Park – enjoying a last taste of lush greenery before the desert

On Monday we went back to the Embassy, where finally our visas were ready, and headed straight out of town for the border.

We'll be missing kinkali (giant dumplings with meat inside)

We’ll be missing kinkali (giant dumplings with meat inside)

Roadside vendor of strange but tasty fruit jelly-encased nuts on a string

Roadside vendor of strange but tasty fruit jelly-encased nuts on a string

I know how he feels

I know how he feels

What Georgians think of Azerbaijan...?

What Georgians think of Azerbaijan…?

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