Don’t Forget To Look Up!

‘Don’t forget to look up!’ cheered Marina as I cycled away from her ancient tumbledown family home nestled among majestic maple trees on a hill above the medieval city of Telavi. I’d arrived in the principal town of Kakheti with the intention of visiting Tusheti and the Caucasus Mountains for a spot of hiking. Meeting Marina on a hot Friday afternoon had changed my mind.

The journey from Tbilisi was a touch shy of 100km. There was a beautiful climb up the Gombori pass culminating at 1,629m with stunning views over the valley. I’d enjoyed the ride but still was having doubts about taking the bike up the dirt track that leads to Tusheti. A young Spanish guy I met on his return leg to Tbilisi had said it was a tough road ‘you’ll struggle with all that luggage’ he said, nodding at the cumbersome front panniers hanging from the forks of my bike. He had a point. So, when I happened upon two old ladies taking tea in a large garden next to Nadikvari Park, I didn’t take much persuading to join them for a bite to eat. ‘Where have you come from?’ enquired Marina. ‘Tbilisi, today. Vietnam in general. I’m from England’ I said between mouthfuls of hot soup. ‘You mean to tell me that you cycled to Georgia from Vietnam?’ quizzed Marina, quite sternly. ‘Yes’ I answered plainly. ‘Well, that’s quite marvellous. Have some more soup’ implored Marina. I was beginning to like Marina. ‘Sunday is Mariamoba, a big celebration in the Orthodox religion. There will be a feast and my family will arrive from Tbilisi. Would you like to join us?’ asked Marina. ‘Thank you, Marina, that’s very kind but I’m planning to visit Tusheti tomorrow…’

I’d successfully crossed the Caspian Sea on board the Heydar Aliyev. This particular crossing can be fraught with difficulty; the challenges include the ship not turning up or sailing late so that days are spent faffing around in Aktau, if the weather turns nasty you can be stranded out to sea for many more days than you planned with a grumpy crew and stomach ache for company or more seriously, the ship could sink; the preferred model of vessel for this voyage is prone to toppling over mid journey due to its narrow, top heavy construction. Luckily our ship had a cargo of trains on board to keep the thing upright and afloat. There is a serene and placeless beauty to the sunset enjoyed from the middle of the Caspian Sea. The entire horizon is endless blue, the sun a blazing orb rising from and falling to nothing each day without interruption. It’s a very special place to observe the everyday phenomena of dusk and dawn.

Setting foot and tyre on dry land again after a swift 30 hour crossing I did the only thing any self-respecting bike traveller could do in a new country – I went for lunch. Azerbaijan had not really captured my imagination at any point on my trip. It was a practical necessity to arrive in Baku and to cross the country to Georgia to continue the onward progress of my journey from Central Asia into the Caucasus. At that time the Turkmen visa was nothing more than a lottery and the Iranian visa mired with complications and thoroughfare dependent on winning the Turkmen visa lottery. Despite Azerbaijan being a low score in the attraction stakes there were a few benefits to being there; the food was good, the tea strong and the women stunning. I visited one of the many man made beach club areas to enjoy a swim before cruising up the coast into Baku proper. After the rugged, rotund, and well wrapped shapes of Central Asia the near naked form of a tall, toned and tanned body of a beautiful Azeri sunbather blew me away. It was a sight that eclipsed even the boundless Caspian sunrise. I’d been in the mountains longer than I thought.

Baku is billed as Paris meets Dubai. Famed for its skyline, abundant oil riches and the world’s biggest KFC. It’s also home to the regions tallest flagpole. An eclectic mix I’m sure you’ll agree. I spent an afternoon enjoying the novelty of being able to buy anything I desired with ridiculous ease before becoming disenchanted with the overbearing crush of rampant consumerism. A stroll around the ruins of Baku old town with its bizarre juxtaposition of medieval castles, skyscrapers and shopping malls and I was done. I didn’t even eat any fried chicken. I longed to move on and be free of all the disappointment of capitalist culture. I was headed for a place of war and revolution. I was going to Georgia. I’d read a book called the Road to Karabakh which mentioned the town of Ganja. The name stood out to me and I determined that I’d spend the night there en route to Tbilisi. The journey was straightforward but scenic. The rolling hills and pastel shades of the varied farmland made for a familiar spectacle. The new danger though was the motorist. The roads were of a much better standard here in the Caucasus and the cars more powerful. It was a recipe for trouble. I kept my head down, eyes fixed on the horizon and the bike tucked hard to the roadside. There was no room for error.

After a week of sleeping in ditches at the side of the road I arrived in Tbilisi. Hot, tired and filthy with the usual sun cream, sweat and exhaust fume grime associated long term bike travel I was keen to check in to a hostel for a few days relaxation. On the way I’d met a young guy heading to China. He’d made swift progress across Europe, Turkey and much of the Caucasus. He’d cycled to Azerbaijan in about six weeks. His name was Josh. “How long did it take you to get here, Josh?” I asked. “About six weeks. I’m heading to China. I want to be there by October. That’s all the time I have.” He said. “I see. Are you planning to cross the Pamirs?” I asked. “Oh yes.” He said. “Hmmm. Right.” I said. “Are there many places to get water in the Uzbek desert?” Josh asked. “I think so. I met a couple that said they were 100 – 150km apart. I took a train, so I couldn’t say for certain.” I said. “How long have you been on the road?” He said. “Nearly 16 months. I’ve been taking it slow.” I said. “I’m not sure 8 weeks will be enough to get you to China, Josh. It’s three weeks to Dushanbe. And that’s just the flat bit. You’ve got the Pamirs after that, and it’s going to get cold up there.” I said. “It’s just the same distance as I’ve already done. I’m basically half way.” He said. “Oh. I see. Yes, half way. Silly me.” I said. “Make sure you see the churches in Tbilisi. Spend some time there, it’s beautiful.” He said.

I checked into the ‘Why Not? Hostel’ in the early afternoon. It was mid-August. The sun was high up in the Georgian sky and I was horny. I mean hungry. I was hungry. I made eyes at the receptionist that said, ‘I’ve just cycled 18,476 km to see you so let’s get at it.’ Sorry, I’m getting flustered. I asked where the showers were and if there was a supermarket nearby. Olga showed me to the dorm and gave me a bundle of fresh linen. After a hot shower I changed into my evening casual wear (white cotton shirt from Kolkota, 150 rupees and my beige slacks, $6 from Siem Reap) and overheard Olga chatting with Julia about dinner. “Do you mind if I join you?” I said. “Yes, of course. That would be great.” Julia said. So, the three of us walked over the road to Sophie Melnikovs, the newest restaurant on the block, for a light supper and a bottle of crisp Georgian rose wine. “How about we go for a drink at Warsaw?” Olga said. “I have to go to the hostel” Julia said. “Meet us there” Olga said. Olga and I walked across town to the bar, as we walked Olga told me all about the city, the recent revolutions and the reasons why she chose to come to Georgia. It was a fascinating evening. I spent the next week doing as Josh had advised; taking it easy, visiting churches and pondering my next move.

Over breakfast on Tuesday morning I made a plan to visit Tusheti. It was the ‘undiscovered’ hot spot for trekking in the Caucasus Mountains. I spent the next day stocking up on goodies for the trip and on Thursday evening I set out for Telavi, the principal town of Kakheti. I slept at an abandoned fuel station at the side of the main highway, the ancient pumps rusting with years of inactivity. Next day I pedalled furiously in the heat. I’d missed being on the bike and wanted to push myself and the bike along as fast as I could. I was in the zone. I pushed hard, lifting the bike effortlessly over the Gombori Pass. I stopped little but did take a brief lunch with a friendly bee keeper. We broke bread together and dipped it into a large jar of his bees work, drenching the bread with divine honey. At the head of the pass there was a natural spring and I drank deeply. I stuck my head under the icy flow and soaked my shirt for the cooling effect on the way down the other side. As I arrived into the town, I met a young Austrian couple, also on their way to Tusheti. We walked together a while, searching for a place to stay. I broke off to go ahead with the bike towards a sign post for a guest house next to Nadikvari Park. That’s when I met Marina.

“Hey George” I said. “Come in, please. What have you been doing all day? You should have come here sooner.” George said. I’d stayed the night with a local family at Marina’s recommendation and things were typically Georgian. More food than even a ravenous cyclist could finish, more booze than is wise and a lot of loud, raucous roistering. The next day I pottered around the park, read my book, before presenting myself at Marina’s house for the Mariamoba celebrations. I was a day early but that wasn’t going to be a problem. “I decided to join you for the party” I said. “I’m very glad that you did. Come, will you eat something?” Marina asked. “I wouldn’t say no. Would you like a hand with anything?” I said. “Oh no, there’s no cooker here since we’re renovating, we’ll go to the restaurant in the park. Let’s go now. George! We’re leaving for dinner.” Marina said. Over dinner we shared stories and happily the conversation was led by Marina. “I was an English teacher for many years. I have read so many books but my spoken English is a little rusty. George is better.” Marina said. “I think your English is very good. And George’s too. It’s a rare thing for Georgians to speak English in my brief experience here.” I said. “Well, yes. That is true. My brother was a very famous poet in Georgia. He died when he was still quite young. This house was given to him by the King. I’m writing a book about him. What would you like for dessert?” Marina said. Tusheti would have to wait.