“It’s a different culture down there,” Cüneyd said as he pointed down the mountain towards the border. He was a police officer in the village at the bottom of the mountain pass who provided the final night of that outstanding Turkish hospitality. A keen cycle traveller himself, he accompanied me to the top of the mountain pass on his own bike before we parted ways and I crossed into my 12th country: Georgia. And what a difference a border makes. When you travel slowly overland, the changes in scenery, people, and culture change very gradually. But Cüneyd was right: there were stark differences between the Turkish the Georgian side of the fence. With its ubiquitous churches, medieval looking castles, it’s distinct language and alphabet, and the abundance of wine it produces, Georgia feels like a cultural anomaly in a predominantly Turkic region. Although I was continuing to cycle east, its distinct culture made me feel like I had returned to the European side of the Black Sea rather than into the Caucuses.
On my first day I bumped into two Brits on bikes, who had given up taking the scenic route to Tbilisi on the count of an impassable road. After a cyclist-sized lunch we agreed to take the main road together. John and Ginevra were cycling from York to Indonesia. They had just completed PHDs in music and were subsequently carrying half an orchestra between them on the back of their bikes. Riding as a group was great, not only because we could we take it in turns at being first into a headwind while the others hid behind, but also due to the perks of having company when setting up camp in the evening. After travelling alone for 4 months, my standards in food had plummeted: my meals were chosen for their dietary requirements (and portion size), rather than for taste; but when travelling with a couple, it seems this doesn’t tend to happen. John and Gin, as a case in point, were carrying a whole tupperware box full of spices. The curries we cooked together those evenings over a few bottles of sweet Georgian red wine were a welcome change to my spaghetti and a tin of some kind of meat with no wine.
On our final night of camping we enjoyed the spectacular light show from a storm that was raging to the east. We escaped the worst of it overnight and it wasn’t until the following day, as we rode into Tbilisi on a ominously empty 4 lane road, that we realised the full extent of the damage. During the storm a mudslide blocked one of the tributaries feeding to the main river which burst its banks, resulting in the damage that blocked our path any further into the city. Whole neighbourhoods, including the city zoo, were covered in a few meters of mud and debris.
But, as we got farther into Tbilisi, we saw its population had already mobilised to sort it out, which we joined the following day. Our job mainly involved removing trees that was washed up with the flood water, but nestled amongst this were man-made objects that made a grim reminder of the cost of the flood to many locals. The occasional shoe, parts of buildings, furniture, whole cars, and, sadly, zoo residents were dug out over the next couple of days.
Consisting mostly of young people, every volunteer had a job to do that best suited their ability. Many manly men worked together to lift huge tree trunks (I wasn’t one of them); I joined the human chain to help get more pieces of debris that were more manageable for individuals out of there; and others somehow managed to source endless supplies of food and water to ensure every volunteer kept well fed and hydrated. These first days of this operation was a real demonstration of spontaneous communal spirit that overcame what seemed like a complete lack of official organisation. Apparently there were protests criticising the government’s slow reaction to assist the worst hit areas. Nevertheless, the quick grassroots-level response by Tblisi’s people was inspiring to witness.
The rest of my time in Tbilisi has been spent waiting for my Azerbaijani visas, but, given where I was, I didn’t mind. While there are not so many sights, I easily passed the time by wandering around the small side streets of the old town. In this part of town, you find wonky balconies that precariously hang over the streets; below in dingy basements are countless traditional bakeries that waft out the delicious smell of fresh Khachapuri (flatbread stuffed with an unhealthy amount of cheese and butter); and through long, dark alleyways you come across homely courtyards covered in grapevines. Tbilisi really feels like it escaped the Soviet concrete grimness that many towns elsewhere in the former USSR fallen to and instead has a kind of tumbledown exoticism, much like the many South East Asia towns and their crumbling French colonial buildings.
I ended my first day out of Tbilisi in a town called Sighnaghi, a walled town of terracotta tiled grooves that is perched on top of a steep hill. I rewarded myself for the climb with a few glasses of local wine on the veranda of my guesthouse that overlooked the vineyards 300 meters below and it was image that I would think stereotypical to a country elsewhere on the map; certainly not one that you could have somewhere between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
It’s a different place, Georgia.
Next Chapter: Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea