Managed to leave the guesthouse after an extended breakfast at 12pm and went to Guram’s place to say good bye. Well, I was force-fed with more bred, egg, cheese, melon … Took a fare-well picture of the family and myself and finally left their place at 2.15pm(!).
The first 10km were a pleasant down-hill ride into the Alazani valley. Then the road turned east and I followed the Alazani river, which flows towards Azerbaijan.
In the village of Akhalsopeli I stopped because it is going to be my jumping-off point to the confluence of 42°N and 46°E. That point hasn’t been visited so far.
I asked for a hotel (ok, that question was fake, I knew there wouldn’t be any in Akhalsopeli). The first guy I asked, owner of a car repair shop, offered me a bed at his place. I tried to explain from the start that I was going to hike to the mountains tomorrow, and that I’d like to stay another night after my return, and he partially understood, I think.
In town I met Heather from New Zealand and Stu from Scotland, a cycling couple on their way to Baku. Chatted with them briefly and exchanged phone numbers before Sura, my host, took me to his father’s place were a supra was held for/with me and I was drunk before I could resist. No further comments other than this: Georgia is awesome (to some degree ;) !
Last night I lay awake for hours due to my still-upset metabolism before I finally fell asleep. Woke up late and decided to stay here in Telavi one more night. Spent most of the day sleeping.
In the afternoon I walked down to Guram’s house, the guy who’d saved me yesterday. I met his family and his kids and their friends and was invited to dinner at a restaurant with them. His kids and their friends are in their early teens or younger and are a lively bunch. Many of them speak good English, some German, and/or French and they interviewed me about myself and my travels. Had a khinkali eating contest with Nino, one of Guram’s daughters, which I won (by one piece). :)
At night Guram was invited to a supra by friends and I joined him, though as his driver. I have no idea if my driver’s license is valid here… but it was fun to drive his SUV through the night and on Telavi’s horrible backroads anyway.
At the supra they had so much food on the table that I didn’t manage to finish it, even though I tried hard!
It was a hot day today. That, and the fellow cyclists I chatted with for hours, made me leave the hostel only at 12:45pm.
I left Tbilisi to the east, then turned northeastish. Unfortunately, that road to Telavi cuts through, ziggzaggs, and winds its way across the Gombori Mountains, located between the valleys of the Mtkvari and Alazani rivers. Temperures peaked at 48°C (in the sun).
The road crosses a pass at an altitude of approx. 1600m – but I didn’t get there, not by bike anyway. I’d brought only small amounts of food and there were only few villages and even less opportunities to buy some. No food, no good. I didn’t feel well at all and after 62km, just when the climb towards the pass started, I couldn’t go much further. I must have been in a pityful state, because a guy with a big SUV stopped and asked if he could be of any help. We managed to squeeze bike and luggage into his car and he dropped me off at a homestay in Telavi. The lady there revived me with a simple but good dinner.
You may be confused about this post’s title, and rightly so. It’s easily explained: I have to do some work in Bremen and consequently had to take a break from the trip for a few days. I’ll be back in Tbilisi on Friday, July 22.
Shared a taxi to David Gareja today with Nena from Slovenia and a Polish couple whose names I have forgotten.
David Gareja was a monk who lived in the 6th Century AD and wandered to present-day Georgia from Jerusalem to found a monastery here and spread Christianity. The monastery is located about 60km south-east of Tbilisi, directly at the border to Azerbaijan, and was later named after its founder.
The countryside is almost steppe-like with no surface water nearby, which is very unusual for Georgia. There used to be water here, and maybe there still is at some time during the year, as the deep-cut valleys and river beds prove.
The present-day monastery, still – or rather, again, since 1991 – inhabited by monks, is partly hewn into the rock, partly built over the rock chambers on the eastern slope of a ridge. The border runs along the western slope, only few hundred meters away. Apparently, the monastic complex comprises of many more cells and churches spread across the neighbouring hills than are obviously visible to the casual tourist, and there is an on-going conflict with Azerbaijan about the exact border line. Based on uncertain grounds, Azerbaijan claims the David Gareja area as part of the historical Caucasian Albania (not related to Albania in the Balkans)
It is possible to climb up and wander along the David Gareja ridge, which extends for a couple of kilometers. Up there one has a splendid view over the adjacant Azerbaijani plains. There are also a number of unused artificial monastic caves to discover. In some of them frescoes can still be found on walls and ceilings. Additionally, there is a Georgian border post stationed there in the shade of a little church(!!!). That is, these guys have to hang out up there without much shelter from the weather. They didn’t want to be photographed by us. :)
We spent some time up there, drank some wine, got a little sun-burned, enjoyed the tranquility and peacefulness of the place, and wandered around between the caves looking at the frescoes and watching out for snakes.
Our taxi driver had suggested a visit to the town of Sighnaghi for a minor surcharge. Sighnaghi is located above the Alazani valley (where that awesome wine came from). Georgia’s current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, took a liking in the place and ordered the renovation of its buildings. It is now very touristy (as touristy as a Georgian town can be) and I prefer more authentic places. However, it was good to have been there because I can now cross it off the list of places to visit in Georgia (which is still quite long).
Six days in Tbilisi, holy crap! I’m getting tired of counting the days here, it’s been too many already. My passport is at the travel agency/embassy and my bike’s rear tyre is still waiting for it’s replacement – my options for this week are kinda limited.
Managed to find a new camera today. Same model as before, pretty much the same price as in Germany half a year ago. I hope this one lasts longer.
Had a look at the former Hotel London not far from the hostel.
One of the nice stories of today: We were on the way to a restaurant to have dinner with a few people. We got lost wandering around the old town, searching for a specific place. A courtyard struck us a exceptionally full of character and we took some pictures, then decided to sneak up some stairs to have a look at the place from a different perspective. We came to a balcony spanning along three sides of the building we were in. There were people around, of course, and we asked if it was OK to have a quick look. The guy we asked had no objections and even told us to go around the next corner where we met a lady who happily told us all about the history of the beautiful house. Erlend, being fluent in Russian, interpreted for the rest of us. The house was about 150 years old and used to be an accountants school, or something similar. The entire building was owned by a single gentleman back then. During Soviet times the large rooms were split up into individual flats, with shared kitchen and bathroom across the balcony in an adjacent building. So, the point of the story? Instead of being suspicious or annoyed about our showing up on their doorstep, or even kicking us out, these people were happy to see some folks being interested in their house/city/country and took the time off from whatever they were doing to talk to us and answer all our questions. That’s just another tiny example of the amazing Georgian hospitality.
Went to a sulphur bath and sauna with Erlend and Helmut from the hostel. Had a Georgian full body massage and peeling. Lovely.
Noticed that my camera doesn’t work anymore. Dunno what’s wrong. Need to investigate tomorrow.
After lunch/tea we strolled around the old town and the flea market again.
All in all a(n almost) relaxed day.
Allegedly, the building below is featured in ‘5 Days of War’. Like many other houses in this part of Old Tbilisi, it will be torn down soon (and replaced by something “new but looking like old”) in an attempt to make Tbilisi nicer (read: more tourist-friendly).
Arrived at the Azerbaijani embassy around 11am. The Georgian police(!) officer at the gate handed me an application form to fill in (but had no pens). Some locals lent me one and let me fill in the form on their car’s hood. I had to produce two passport fotos at the gate and was let through – to a barred door through which I had to hand my application form and one photo. They wouldn’t let applicants enter the actual embassy building. I was then asked for a ‘Letter of Invitation’ – which I didn’t have – and sent to a travel agency that would take care of that for me. To make a long story short, I’ll hopefully have my visa one week from now, on Friday, July 15. Crap. When asked why this would take so long they replied that the embassy had run out of visa stickers. What?!
Met Ben from Texas who also applied for a visa. Went with him to meet two other Americans, Alex and Roy, who are teaching English in villages here in Georgia. Turned out they had been to Batumi after I was there and knew the big American guy I’d met in Batumi hostel back then, who’d annoyed some people there, and they also know Lasha, one of the owners of Batumi hostel. Lasha, who’d invited me to his parents place when I come through, lives not far from where Roy teaches. Small world!
Ben used to play Lacrosse in high school and college back in the states.
Went to the National Museum with Ben. It doesn’t have much on display; the little that is there is mostly pretty cool, though. They have the Georgian Treasury, archeological gold and silver findings mostly from excavated burial sites with old but magnificently fine and detailed works. There’s an exhibition about the Russian communist/Soviet occupational period, and they show an excerpt of pictures from around Georgia from the early times of photography, i.e. from the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Bought a map of the whole Caucasus region and learned that it is well possible to go into Abkhazia. South Ossetia is strictly off-limits. It is also possible to go through Abkhazia to Russia. New possibilities!
I know now that there are no bike shops selling spare parts. That means I’ll have to have a new tyre shipped from Germany.
Took no pictures today so there is nothing to post. ;) And the rotation issue is still not fixed. :(
Interestingly, in early June a Hollywood movie was released that covers the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I had the chance of watching this tonight.
The movie is called ‘5 Days of War’ internationally, and ‘5 Days of August’ in Georgia. It is a bad movie. It is simple and dumb pro-Georgian and anti-Russian propaganda with lots of special effects and no brains and even less insight into the conflict. Vital facts are omitted and Russia and especially the South Ossetians are displayed as raw evil. Apparently, war crimes happened on both sides, but not so in the movie. On top of all that, all the lead characters are played by Americans. Not a single Georgian or Russian actor.
First order of the day: apply for an Azerbaijani visa. First disappointment of the day: the visa department of the Azerbaijani embassy only accepts applications Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Of course you only learn that when you’re being turned away at their door; this info is not on their website.
Strolled around the old part of the city several times today. Successfully getting lost (intended) and getting a feel for the place. And finding a barber shop. There’s lots of ‘Beauty Salons’, but not a single one of the small, dodgy, run-by-an-old-guy, cheap barber shops located in a single room in the basement of an old house that I was looking for. Got a hair and beard-do anyway. It was done with a machine built in the GDR(!), so it’s at least 20 years old. At times it felt like the guy was trying to tattoo me.
Tbilisi is cool (not in terms of temperatures!). Lots of little shops in the streets, all selling basically the same items: bottled drinks, ice cream, cigarettes. Many small bakeries selling freshly baked … not bread. All kinds of Georgian baked things which I don’t know the names of, some filled, some plain. Older women selling sunflower seeds, single cigarettes or paper tissues in the streets from mini stalls (just an upside-down cardboard box); live music (guitar and a full drum kit) in the subway. Flea market on the Saarbruken bridge, with Soviet memorabilia, medals, money, knives, daggers, sabres, porcelain, glass ware, tools, books. Allmost all of which are really second-hand, unlike on ‘flea markets’ back home.
Traffic is massive.
Zoltán cooked a great gulyás for dinner – it took ages and was ready right for the midnight meal.
I’m working on getting pictures ready to upload here. You’ll find today’s samples below. :)
For the interested, some interim statistics about this trip:
6 countries cycled,
2540km on the bike + ~1200km on the ferry + ~50km hiking,
First port of call today was Uplistsikhe, 10km from Gori but not exactly en route to Tbilisi. I made the detour anyway. Why? Uplistsikhe is a cave city inhabited since the 6th(?) century BC, but now abandoned. The visit was quite interesting.
Otherwise the cycling today wasn’t very pleasant. More than 41°C (in the sun) again and hilly landscape. The bike had made funny noises two days ago. Yesterday I didn’t hear anything. Today the noise was back. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to identify the source yet.
I also noticed that the rear tyre will give up soon. The reason, probably, is that the air pressure was not high enough for the amount of luggage.
Need to cure/fix both issues over the next days.
So, I cycled into Tbilisi, aka Tiflis, Georgia’s capital, in the late afternoon. Coming in on the southern bank of the Mtkvari river, there is only a motorway. Not willing to make the long detour to avoid it, I just cycled onto it and – nobody cared, not even the police.
Bori, who I’d met in Batumi and who’s long back in Budapest by now, responded promptly to my desperate help request and recommended a hostel which I quickly found.
And guess who was sitting there at a table when I checked in? Zoltán, the guy I’d shared a cabin with on the boat from Varna to Batumi! Small world!
Went out to dinner with him. One(?) beer and I’m ready for bed. Good night.
Almost forgot: I cycled 90km today.
PS: It is HOT here in Tbilisi, even at night. It’s 30°C at half past 11pm in the room I’m sleeping in. I’m sooo looking forward to going back to the mountains soon!
PPS: I’ll stay here for a couple of days. Most importantly, I need to organize a visa for Azerbaijan. Last I heard is that visa application handling is a bit chaotic since new visa procedures were introduced in June. I’ll see how it goes.
Arrived in Gori at 1pm. The ride was easy and uneventful.
Gori is the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. There is Stalin Avenue, Stalin Square, Stalin Park, and Stalin Museum. The Stalin statue, apparently huge and still mentioned in my Lonely Planet, has been taken down not so long ago.
Walked around town and visited Stalin Museum. It feels a bit dull, mostly showing photographs of him from various occasions. There’s presents he’s gotten from other heads of states, and his death mask, a strange exhibit, I find. The museum focuses on his achievements, there’s no mention of his ‘dark side’. My group’s guide admitted this but added that by now this is intentional. The museum hasn’t been changed since 1977 or so. Kinda like a museum in a museum. The souvenier shop features a lady wearing some old military uniform but doesn’t even have Stalin postcards!
Walked up to Gori Tsikhe (Gori Castle), centrally located and overlooking the city. Unfortunately, there’s not much up there other than a grassy plain, good views, and a police post(!). From below the walls look more promising.