Georgia On My Mind (I)

Aug
25th
2010

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Okay, so I lied. To get across Georgia, you don’t necessarily have to conquer three-mile-high mountain passes, or subject your suspension to miserable, rock-strewn roads. There’s a main east-west route that’s completely paved, with only one mountain pass that doesn’t quite reach 8,000 feet. Christian and Miriam texted me to say the more southerly east-west road I’d had my eye on was only negotiable by offroading bikes, and even with one of those it would be tricky. And so, I wimped out. I stuck to the coast and headed north towards Poti, then swung east. The road meandered through a wide valley with foothills ringing the horizon, and seedcorn and sunflower fields spread into the distance. It wasn’t at all the Caucausus that I’d imagined; this looked a lot like central Serbia. Soon enough, though, dramatic, faraway mountain ranges started appearing through the late summer haze.

I decided to call it a day at Kutaisi, population 180,000, and Georgia’s second city. It’s been continuously inhabited for four millenia, and it has a striking natural setting so common to very ancient cities that had first dibs on location. The Lonely Planet mentioned a place called the Beka Hotel, “More homestay than hotel” in a mansion on the hill, and that sounded right up my alley. I rattled my way up the hill over toaster-sized cobblestones, and eventually found the villa. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. Here’s what appeared on my balcony about 10 minutes after I mentioned that I might be hungry and thirsty:

I wolfed that down and counted my blessings for finding a place that’d feed, water, and house me like that for twenty-five bucks. I then sauntered out to grab some things from my bike’s top box before going to bed early — I’d had a long day — but then I walked past a table of Georgian locals who were having a session at a table out in the courtyard. Uh oh, here we go, I thought. I’d heard a lot about this Georgian hospitality: it’s like a black hole from which nothing can escape.

“COME! SIT!” said one of them, and waved me over. I said thanks, but I was going to bed. “COME! SIT!” he said, a little more emphatically this time. Protesting the whole way, I shuffled over and sat down. He immediately filled a chipped mug with beer from a 2-litre plastic bottle.

“DRINK,” he said, and I obliged.

There were about six of them at the table, and as I introduced myself I discovered that two of them were Hungarians. Ákos and Szabolcs were two brothers from Budapest, and they’d been taking part in the Caucasian Challenge from Budapest to Yerevan when their Pajero’s radiator had called it quits. This Caucasian Challenge was run by a coterie of Budapest-based overland adventurers who’d made their name with the semi-regular Budapest-Bamako run, a sort of poor man’s Dakar rally that tried to revive the original spirit of the Paris-Dakar run from the early 20th centruy. (In fact, my friend Jon had taken part in the ride to Mali back in 2007.) Anyway, the rest of the Caucasian challengers were all about 75 kilometres north in the mountains in a town called Ambrolauri, and Ákos and Szabolcs, like me, had stuck to the easy road and found themselves in the Beka Hotel. And now the three of us had to contend with some Georgian hospitality. Another Georgian ordered us to quickly finish our beers, then promptly refilled our glasses. “DRINK,” he said. This was getting to be a trend.

Some Georgians, and two terrified Hungarians

Our Georgian hosts then regaled us with traditional Georgian songs typically only sung by men, and elaborate toasting rituals to such things as peace, women, and long-gone relatives. Finally, there was homemade chacha. Every European country has its own subtle variation on the fruit brandy, and my experience with Hungarian pálinka and Serbian rakija had given me a tolerance for the stuff. This Georgian booze was made from leftover grape skins, like a grappa or a szőlő pálinka, but it left all that girly European firewater behind in a cloud of Caucasian dust: this chacha was over 80 percent alcohol. One of the Georgians poured some on the table and set it alight to demonstrate, then filled several shot glasses and raised a toast. Szabolcs and Ákos both had trouble with theirs, and I could feel my Georgian interlocutor staring at me as I contemplated my huge shot glass. Knowing that my manhood was at stake, I slowly drained it all at once, and sat there doing my all to appear unmoved while my throat and guts convulsed. The Georgians raised their eyebrows, impressed, but after a few moments I involuntarily made it clear that yes, indeed, that was harsh. They all found that pretty funny.

There was then more Georgian singing, which got Ákos and Szabolcs going with renditions of their own Hungarian folk standards. The Georgians screwed up their faces in wonderment at these strange songs the Magyars were singing. Shortly after, the three of us foreigners managed to get out of there while still in reasonably decent shape. We had to drive the next day, and we couldn’t afford to be hurting from the night before.

In the morning, the Hungarians loaded up their underperforming Pajero, and I my Vespa, and we headed east to the town of Zestaponi. The rest of the Caucasian Challenge convoy would be coming down out of the mountains there, at which point Ákos and Szabolcs would park their truck and hitch a ride with them to Tbilisi, and finally, Yerevan. We hung around in a parking lot for a while, and there was no sign of anybody coming, so I said I’d go on ahead with my decidedly not-as-fast machine and we’d probably cross paths up in the mountains.

I headed off eastwards into the hills, and enjoyed the most dramatic scenery I’d seen since the start of my trip. The road surface was decent and the traffic minimal, and just as I noticed I was running out of fuel, a gas station appeared. When it occured to me that I was hungry, a roadside cafe serving khinkali appeared. Things were coming up aces. I made my way through the pass, and ran into the Hungarians a short while thereafter. There were now only two vehicles in this advance convoy; the rest of them were still stuck a ways back, after one of their group had been sideswiped by a truck and had an entire axle shifted laterally by half a foot. We made plans to try and cross paths later that night in Tbilisi.

Jó napot kívánok, Hungos!

They sped off ahead of me, and I hunkered down for the last hundred clicks of the day’s ride. I’d entered a different landscape now, one that was arid and hardscrabble and more starkly dramatic. Rock formations in reds and yellows and browns sprouted here and there across the valley, with semi-ruined castles and monasteries perched atop the most strategic and picturesque summits. I got the impression of having entered someplace indescribably old. The two-lane road became a 4-lane highway for the last bit before Tbilisi, and I took a picture for posterity.

I'm definitely no longer in Europe now

The closer I got to Tbilisi, the hairier the traffic became, and some of the peculiarities of Georgian big-city driving became apparent. One puzzling thing was how roughly half the traffic would observe the lane markers the proper way, while the other half would ride the dashed lines like a monorail. As hideous postwar apartment blocks gave way to older Stalinist, neoclassical stone blocks, I reached the 6-lane avenue hugging the river that bisects the city. I kept up with the fast-moving traffic, scanning the road in front of me, when something entirely unexpected happened: a car headed in the opposite direction and missing several body panels abruptly pulled a U-turn directly in front of me, wheels squealing. I hit the front brakes hard, blared the horn, released the brakes, and swerved to the right as hard as I could. The entire interaction must’ve taken less than two seconds, but it played out before me in slow motion, and I distinctly remember being able to register a complex thought as the car’s hood closed in on the front of my bike: Sheeeit, this is it, the trip’s over, here we go!

It seemed like a done deal, but somehow he didn’t hit me. I pulled over three lanes to the curb, stopped the engine, and tried to breathe. I think a little pee had come out. Moments later, the abject moron had pulled up beside me, and I stared at him and his passenger as he animatedly delivered what I think was an apology. He was then subjected to what he probably correctly interpreted as some unparliamentary language. I’ve seen some pretty hair-raising stunts pulled in various cities renowned for their bad driving, but I’d never seen somebody do something quite so stupid while going so unbelievably fast.

I waited until the shakes subsided and trundled up the hill to find Jon. He had a friend working for USAID, an Egyptian named Ashraf, who was letting us stay in his apartment for a few days. Ashraf had worked for the same organization in Budapest for roughly the same period I’d lived there, and had only been relocated to Tbilisi a few weeks earlier. I found the building, in the leafy upmarket neighbourhood of Vere, and parked my bike. The apartment was palatial, and I’m grateful for the hospitality. (Thanks, Ashraf!) Later that night, Jon and I met up with Ashraf and his USAID gang for a delicious Georgian feast. Over dinner, Ashraf, a native Cairene, opined that the driving in Tbilisi was actually worse than in his hometown. I’d never been to Cairo, but I couldn’t help but agree.

Continued in Part II


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