Birthday visa woes
I turned 29 years of age that morning in Batumi, Georgia. It didn’t feel any different, nor did I want to. Very happy to be floating along like I was, I was in good place. The evening before, Tomek (hostel Manager) had taken me out for a good birthday dinner of chicken cooked in a mayo sauce and a beef ostrya (like a spicy beef casserole). I was stuffed, and the whole meal cost $11 AU. Pretty happy with that.
My day of birth was spent staring at my tablet screen, trying to work out the best alternative route if my turkmenistan visa didn’t come through. There were so many ifs and buts. Afghanistan looked like the quickest way around, but I was getting dangerous reports of Taliban action between Herat, Kunduz and Kabul.
Then there was the obvious go through the south of Pakistan – again all I had were negative reports of that part of the world. Too dangerous. Too unpredictable. Everyone with their negativity was starting to drive me mental. Trying to strain positivity out of someone who has inspiring views on this part of the world was harder then squeezing blood out of rock.
The other options were to backtrack to Baku, Azerbaijan and 1 – get a ferry to Kazakhstan or 2 – get a russian transit visa and go into Kazahkstan via Russia. Or ship the bike from Iran to India, None of which sounded even the remotest bit tempting. Well – at least I had options…
Batumi, Georgia, was a relatively boring place. That afternoon I went for a wander down the stony beach with Myles, a fellow compatriot at the hostel. With a huge storm encroaching, the wind was still and humidity hung heavy. There were many people at the stony beach without a worry in the world, tanning in the tiniest of sun rays. The orange surf huts reminded me of the TV show Baywatch, but they were rather picturesque, mixed in with the darkening skies.
The buildings along the beach were quite peculiar, old beaten up apartment blocks were mixed in with new age architectural feats. One peculiar building had a ferris wheel hanging out the side of it. Work that out. Lots of interesting statues scattered around the place and they have public parks downpat – the only place I’ve seen table tennis and pool tables just flung out in the open air for anyone to use.
Just as we sat down to eat, the storm entered town and within minutes, all the power went out. The weirdest thing was it didn’t seem to bother anyone, Myles and I included. Everyone put their smartphone torches on inside the Georgian restaurant, continued the eating process and drank beer. The food still came out piping hot too, so figure that one out. 15 minutes later, the storm passed, power came back and we all switched our smart torches off like it was the most normal thing in the world.
I had planned on riding the offroad to Ushguli, up near Svaneti (claimed by locals to be the most beautiful place in Georgia) but the heavy rain that morning stopped me point blank. Riding trails were one thing, but in the pouring rain on already muddy trails… instead I spent the morning hoping to the gods of overlanders that I would get my Turkmenistan visa.
After all, my official planned route was riding on that turkmenistan visa. It was the only country that was being a… well it was being a right pain. Whether it was the spate of Taliban closing in on their borders, or that they thought tourists were going to rob them I’ll never know. All I had heard was a major amount of negativity – although I had friends that had passed both ways via a transit visa. Without Turkmenistan, it was a 5000km ride back around the caspian sea into Russia. My fingers are still crossed.
On route to Borjomi
With the galelike weather stopped, I left the next morning for Borjomi – the untouched Georgian national park on route to the city of Kutaisi. Road quality gradually broke down the further east I got, potholes and rutty gravel runs appearing out of the blue, not to mention the mudpits going through the tiny villages. However, this was a fun prelude to seeing some beautiful scenery. And lots of cows. Cows on the left, cows on the right, cows sunbathing in the middle of the road, cows rooting at the roadside. Lots of cows. Moooo!
Gradually the road just became a 4×4 trail. Time to put my crap offroad skills to the test. Let’s do this Georgia. The first pass I zipped through was Goderzi pass which is the first, and easiest to access of the two main passes towards Kutaisi. At the pass, there was a cute little wooden house serving food (with a much less cuter outdoor toilet). I asked for coffee and mushrooms (no, not the magic kind), and got coffee… and a huge tub of organic yoghurt and a massive frypan full of fried organic cheese. All the cows began to make sense now.
Feeling fatter then santa claus, I heaved myself back onto Trumpet and disappeared down the gravel/mud road, avoiding deep holes like the plague. Soon enough, I found tarmac again and zoomed off. Before long, the entrance of the national park in Borjomi popped up. Really, I probably shouldn’t have entered considering the thickening fog and rain. But if I took heed of the ‘probably shouldn’ts’ I wouldn’t have been in Georgia in the first place.
Entering Borjomi National Park
The trail was easy rollling at the start, just hard packed dirt on rock. Rain hadn’t reached this part of the trail yet. As I headed up the trail, I passed two or three rustbuckety 50 year old cars. They really looked like leftover cars from the soviet era. While I watched them rumble past, Trumpet got talking and made friends with two cows while I donned my rain gear. It was about to get messy!
And messy it got. Within minutes of reaching the higher mountain flats, there was a lovely, slippery mess waiting for us. With dead falls either side of the road this was going to prove fun! At a measly 30km/h we dribbled along, wobbling worse then a priest who has drunk too much holy wine. We were making good progress until the top of the mountain, where I couldn’t find any traction, and ended up crashing in the thick slop.
Within minutes of the crash, six Georgians appeared from nowhere and wandered over to help me out and have a good stare. ‘Welcome to Georgia!’ one gent said in broken english. Twenty minutes and two emergency repairs later, Trumpet was back in good condition, even if covered in mud. I managed to tear a pannier off the luggage rack and bend all the locking mechanisms. Spare andy straps to the rescue!
After our little outdoor mechanical education session, I gave everyone a cigarette for coming to help me out, and they invited me inside their humble home for a brewed coffe, out of the cold, miserable, mountain weather. While I sipped my coffee, a random pig wandered over and started rubbing itself on Trumpet, to much rauceous laughter. She’s popular with everyone, my girl is.
The views of Georgia were absolutley glorious, from the front of the house. Gorgeous greens half covered in white mist lay on the steep mountain sides, while in the distance, bigger mountains soared out of the mist and reached for the moody grey sky. You could see for miles, and the mud tracks seemed to just melt into the mist mysteriously. Forget Starbucks, this is the best place I’ve ever had a coffee.
Borjomi keep on surprising me. I rode headfirst into the thickening mist rising up and resting on the mountaintops. With only a few metres of vision, I soon realised that I was riding a mountain ridge, on a slippery mud road, with a metre either side of me. This was by far, one of the coolest experiences to date. By the time I exited the mist, the sun was glazing over the lush scenery in soft golden tones.
If this isn’t love at first sight, I don’t know what is. Land untouched, excluding the occasional mooing cow and snorting pig. The grey clouds overhead cast an atmosphere like something out of the lord of the rings. Georgia really was a beautiful place. Golden sun rays pierced through the clouds like no one’s business. Maybe the gods really do poop gold after all.
On the down slope was much easier – there was little mud and more hard packed earth. Occasial streams of water dug small ridges out of the rocky brown trail, creating pools at the tightest of turns. The rain had stopped and the sticky lower altidude air was making me sweat in all my rain gear.
Close to the exit at Saerne, I passed by a few fellas having a coal barbecue in the forest. They yelled out to me, so I pulled over and went to have a looksee. Before long they were shoving salty, fatty delicious pork in my hands fresh off the coals, and pouring me a glass of wine. Well wine… it’s sort of wine. More like… a lesser equivalent that achieves the desired effect. The georgian barbecue however, was welcomed and delicious.
They wouldn’t let me leave until I drank a glass and toasted with them (toasting seems to be big thing in Georgia), so we toasted and sank the cup in one. Thanking them profusely, they looked a little sad I had to go, but I wasn’t wishing to ride georgian roads at night, not when every driver loves to drive on the opposite side of the road. Waving animatedly they disappeared as I wandered back to the bike.
The most boring city in the world
That same afternoon, I made plans with Teo, a friend and local from Tbilisi to ride up to Juta. Juta is a northern town near the border of Russia/Georgia, absolutely covered in blissful high caucasus mountains.
Riding the Caucasus
So off we went, albeit late the next afternoon, my maps were telling me it was a 2.5 hour drive, but I knew better then to believe everything it told me. On the way up, we found a bloke who had fallen over at the side of the road, so I pulled over and picked him up. Turns out he was just very drunk. Then he asked for a ride (in Georgian) and tried to get on my motorcycle, which I quickly put a stop to. Sorry buddy, only one man gets to feel Trumpets good vibrations, and that man is me!