Location as of 11th Oct:
As we descended from our first ‘proper’ peak of the expedition, we joined up with the valley route towards Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. I thought these were some of the best couple of days’ riding of the trip so far, zooming down newly tarmacked roads with mountains on either side and gifted with blue skies and sun. We were following a variation on the old Silk Route which connects the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea 900km away, along the Cyrus river which runs straight through Tbilisi. As we twisted and turned with the river, sharing the road with the occasional trucker, old castles began appearing to the left and right. It was only then that I realised we were following pretty much exactly the same route that hundreds of years of caravans had followed to trade with the East – a route which we would be following until China. Only the road surface had changed since those days: the position of the ruined fortresses overlooking this road was proof enough that the route had remained the same. Roughly speaking we were nearly always in view of a turret somewhere in the hills, all the way until the opening up of the valley. They were impressive enough as ruins and must have been very daunting to those travelling along the Silk Route back then. Now Turkish truckers retracing those steps towards Baku barely gave them a second glance, and judging by the amount of honking and waving seemed much more excited to see us on the road than to see the stone piles around it!
The road did open out however and we suddenly lost the truckers. In fact we lost pretty much everyone, entering a wide corridor between the mountains which was mainly home to herds of cattle grazing. There were no cars nor people for kilometres on end. The few towns we passed looked like sets for a Wild West film, complete with rocking chairs, donkeys, tumbleweed and rickety rusted petrol tanks being hauled by train to the capital. The locals we saw were either stunned into silence at seeing two laden bikes cross their turf, or hugely overenthusiastic – which made me think that visitors might be quite few and far between here! One woman basically catapulted herself into the road with apple basket in one hand and sickle in the other. Luckily Lobby was quick enough to swerve dramatically out of the way, avoiding squashing both her and her apples, and leaving me behind him to confront our kamikaze Snow White. Thankfully she brandished the apples and not the sickle, and handing them over with a toothless grin (I’m not making this up), she waved us off.
The inconvenience of a wide open space between mountains is that it channels wind incredibly effectively. Perfect if they are motoring you along from behind (I’m told this happens), less so when they are beating you in the face. On this occasion we were in for some face beating, perhaps a taste of some fiercer winds we will undoubtedly come across in the wintry Pamir Mountains. I never really appreciated the power of the wind until we had to cycle directly into it, and I can now confirm that it is very, very powerful. Even for these relatively light gusts, it halved our speed and sometimes thirded it. Our plod was now a strenuous crawl at 7kmh (on a tarmacked road downhill, that is incredibly slow), and made the prospect of reaching Tbilisi before nightfall impossible. But instead of worrying we decided to take it slowly, and to stop at any opportunity to get out of the buffeting wind corridor.
The opportunity presented itself in the form of a cowherder on the side of the road. He had a herd of about 100 cattle and was chilling out by a big tree while his ten year old son was on horseback looking after the cows. Lobby deals with the wind much better than I do, inching away ahead of me with his whole body seeming to shrink and disappear behind the handlebars – so he was actually quite a distance ahead of me when this bloke got up excitedly and motioned that I should sit down under his tree too and drink with him. He made the universal drinking sign (a thumbs up stuck down an open gullet) which we had learned could only mean good news in Georgia. One minute into what might at a stretch be called conversation it became clear that we had no shared language whatsoever: all I had gathered was that he was called Giorgi. I shouted ahead to the speck on the horizon that was Lobby, and mimed a helpless British shrug. Not to worry, Giorgi mimed back. Stay here. Then he leapt onto his horse, urged it out into the middle of the empty road and galloped off into the distance to fetch Lobby. Wow, I thought, this man must really be keen for a drink! Lobby told me later that the sound of thundering hooves closing in on him and the man’s agitated shouts to turn around were not particularly comforting – it seemed Giorgi did not use the universal drinking sign with Lobby but a more excited hand flapping variation, suggesting I’d come off my bike in some horrible way! But soon enough, with the team back together, we sat underneath the windy tree and drank.
One characteristic of the Georgians is their huge fondness for toasts and speeches, which are taken extremely seriously and seem to last for an unreasonable amount of time. We were actually warned about this by the Turkish on the border, since you can easily find yourself downing your shot of homemade methanol awkwardly early – the pause you think is at the end of the speech is only the end of paragraph one! Our cowherder must have realised that we didn’t understand a word but still he battled on, while for our part we toasted “friendship”, “happiness” and even “sunshine” rather meekly with the help of a dictionary. Several toasts on we felt we needed to match Giorgi’s style so Lobby stood up and produced a rousing few words about the strength of the Anglo-Georgian relationship (in English), which was met with enthusiastic nods by our host who hadn’t understood a word either. Instead he unwrapped a bundle of food, and the empty litre bottle of plum wine was chucked into the stream.
But one bottle would not do, Giorgi gestured, instructing his son to fetch another one from back home. Where was home, we asked. He pointed behind the hill, and between us we deciphered that it was about two kilometres away. Would we like to stay, he asked, as his son disappeared behind the hill in a galloping streak. We figured that at this point it would be rude not to! So Giorgi made a few phone calls home to instruct his wife to cook up a feast, then more drinking under the tree, and at dusk we headed over the hill. You can check out some of the videos I took here.
I had assumed that as a bloke who sits under a tree most days with a bottle of plum wine, Giorgi’s alcohol tolerance would be through the roof. But here I can say that the two are definitely not linked. By the time it came to herding the cows back home, he could barely walk let alone herd! All giggly and red in the face, he mounted his horse and performed long loops around his herd, while his son threw rocks around the stragglers to channel them homewards. The kid seemed much more effective than his dad at this point!
Giorgi lived in a small village just below the Caucasus mountains, and had invited all his mates round for a dinner which consisted of more booze than solids. The fact that we were there was both a huge source of pride for him but also of interest for his neighbours, who each came round and had a good look. Luckily some of the older men could speak Russian so we strung a few sentences together and conversation flowed as easily as the plum wine, which was now coming out of recycled two litre Coke bottles. Even as the room started spinning, I still noticed that only men were at the table, and that Giorgi’s wife was called only to produce more food or take plates (and bottles) away.
An evening with this much booze drunk so quickly was bound to spiral out of control, and indeed it took a sharp nosedive shortly after 8pm as our host passed out on the table. The final photo below was taken just before! This was actually a huge relief for both Lobby and me, as we had been diplomatically matching Giorgi all evening and well on the way to being tucked up in bed ourselves. It was Lobby who ended up dealing the final blow, toasting the whole table which spelt the end for poor Giorgi; he was carried out by his wife and a mate, the room where we were going to sleep vacated just as Lobby decided that the table might be a comfy pillow too. Unsurprising perhaps as he had been sat next to Giorgi and had borne the brunt of the plum wine and lengthy speeches!
Giorgi’s wife was clearly used to her husband’s parties and had prepared a big jug of water beside each of our beds. So the next morning we were back on our saddles again without too much trouble! The incredible thing about this episode was not only that our host was up and about the next day, but that a breakfast party was promptly organised for 8. His friends came over once again, and a new Coke bottle of plum wine was finished by 8.30 in the morning! Unbelievable. We had to decline on this occasion, to the scoffs of these hardened mountain men. I couldn’t really bear the sight of it! Thankfully the wind had subsided and it was then straightforward riding into the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Loving all the support from back home – please do keep it coming! Here’s the link. Cheers! X