“How did you know it was me?” I laughed when the man-mountain approached me at the airport in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. “Your helmet,” he said in a heavy accent without a trace of a smile.
I’d just got off a long series of flights, coupled with long layovers, from Sydney to Tbilisi via Singapore and Istanbul. I was expecting to be met by someone from the motorcycle tour company, but obviously missed the paper sign with my name on it amongst hundreds of other greeters. No worry, I thought, there won’t be too many people carrying a crash helmet off an international flight. And I was right.
He took me to his car, a plush Lexus saloon, and started driving me to my hotel. “Do you work for Mototraveltbilisi?” I asked.. “No,” he replied. “I work for the American embassy.” “Oh! You’re a spy, then,” I joked. He looked levelly back. “No,” he said. ‘I’m a driver”, and gave me a look that said, don’t say anything else…ever again. I shut up.
After about 20 minutes of silence, he told me that he had picked up some of my friends who were doing the trip with me at 4am that morning. “I am so tired; I work for 24 hours without break,” he told me as he accelerated to 120kph into the oncoming traffic to overtake a car going marginally slower than he was. “Drivers here are very bad,” he said. “And pedestrians are even worse.” Not really what I wanted to hear at the start of an 18-day motorcycle tour around Georgia.
Four years ago, I completed a tour of Kyrgyzstan with Melbourne-based motorcycle tour company Compass Expeditions. A stunning country, I had a great time and met some wonderful locals as well as fellow riders from US, Canada, UK and Australia.
One pair, a Canadian father and daughter, stayed in touch with the core of the group and every couple of years sent a message, “If I arrange a trip to xxx …. Who’s in?”
I missed out on a Colombia trip due to work commitments but, when the call came for Georgia, I immediately agreed. I didn’t know much about the country but, then again, I hadn’t heard of Kyrgyzstan either, but had a blast.
Georgia turned out to be an astounding country. It’s similar in size to Tasmania, yet has 12 distinct climate zones. The Greater Caucasus mountains to the north, forming the border with Russia, boasts three mountains over 5,000 metres tall and over 2,500 peaks.
To the south, the Lesser Caucasus mountains create borders with Turkey and Armenia. To the far east is Azerbaijan, also with a mountainous border. In between the mountains are fertile valleys, plains and even a semi-arid desert region.
The nation, which has endured periods under both Russian and Persian rule in its history, is also an archaeological treasure, with a 6th Century monastery, many 12th Century fortifications and churches including the cave city of Vardzia, which looks like a set out of Star Wars.
Recently, a student found a 1.8-million-year-old human tooth, the oldest human remains outside Africa, a discovery which has set the archaeological world alight, providing new insights into human evolution and migration patterns.
The Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts features heavily in Svaneti, a remote region in the north west of the country, where the Svans used to pan for alluvial gold using holed wooden troughs lined with a sheep’s fleece. That trapped the pieces of gold but let the water drain through – hence the Golden Fleece that Jason was searching for.
But while all that was interesting, I was here to ride an adventure bike, and I was raring to go.
I met up with my fellow travellers at the Mototraveltbilisi garage, and we all made adjustments to our bikes before heading out into the Tbilisi traffic for the first time.
One of our guides led the group on a motorbike, and the other followed behind in a ute, providing support and also carrying our luggage. Our 18-day tour was the longest the company had ever done – the usual being 7-10 days, although they also accommodate 3- or 5-day tours.
Each day, we rode on a wide variety of roads and tracks, from the near perfect tarred mountain pass to Oni in the Greater Caucasus, to the dreadful gravel and mud goat tracks of the Truso valley. Ironically, some of the most challenging surfaces were the roadworks. Georgia has a very ambitious road building programme, which appears to entail tearing up 30-50kms of road, then resurfacing them 100 metres at a time.
Meantime, all road users drive through the roadworks, dodging excavators and road rollers who keep working irrespective of traffic. No work for traffic controllers in Georgia!
And I can’t forget the ‘Driveway to hell’. After probably the most arduous day of riding we finally reached our guest house, only to find it was at the top of a driveway that rose about a kilometre straight up a mountain, on wet and loose gravel and boulders with switchbacks every 50 metres.
We all slipped and slid our way up, with a few dropped bikes among us (although all at very low speed, if not stationary, trying to turn around the switchbacks) and finally made it, but then spent a restless night thinking about how we were going to get down again in the morning.
Going up is comparatively easy; you simply back off on the throttle and you stop. But coming down is usually much harder as you have to manage your speed, and braking is fraught with danger on such a surface. But happily we all came down without problems.
Food and wine
In fact, Georgia is the birthplace of wine, with archaeological finds dating wine-making back 8000 years to 6000BC. They still use the traditional technique today of burying large earthenware pots (Qvevri) in the ground and filling them with grapes, along with leaves and small branches, sealing them and leaving them for between 30 days and 10 years to ferment.
Each night of our ride, we stayed in local guest houses, which were fairly basic but perfectly adequate and also gave us a great insight into local life. Every patch of garden was given over to growing fruit and vegetables, including grapes trained over any spare passageway or drive, as everyone produces their own wine.
Once opened, the wine is siphoned out, and the detritus is used to make chacha, a deadly clear form of grappa that can be up to 85% proof.
Meals were generally provided by our hosts also, using their own produce. Every region has its own unique versions of dishes, and most (but not all) are wonderful. We ate many variants of Khachapuri (a sort of cheese filled flatbread) and gorged on Khinkali, a meat and soup filled dumpling, that was addictive.
And the fruit! I’m not a fruit eater, as I rarely graze and don’t eat dessert so fruit just doesn’t fit in to my diet, but all the fruit was so tasty, I would gladly forgo dinner for more.
Every night, while we ate and drank, our tour guides diligently checked the bikes, adjusted cables and oiled chains. We started the tour with Willem and Evert as guides, two likeable Dutch nationals who have settled in Georgia and started the Moto Travel Tbilisi business.
As the tour was so long, and Willem’s Georgian wife was due to have their baby any day, they switched halfway through with Nika and Tato, both proud Georgians. This gave us further insight into Georgian life and culture.
As an added bonus, Tato was an experienced mountaineer and guide so, on a rare non-riding day, he took us on a hike to the Chalodi glacier, and actually showed us where the glacier face was in both 1975 and 2000, demonstrating just how much global warming is affecting the natural environment.
He also pointed out the avalanche zone and precarious boulders that a small group of hikers was walking under to get up close and personal with the glacier, further highlighting the benefits of travelling with knowledgeable guides.
So, in 16 days (with two rest days) we did around 3000 kilometres, on the most amazing roads, seeing incredible scenery and historical sites. We rode from Batumi in the far south-west and just 8kms from the Turkish border, to several spots a few kms from the Russian border in the far north, including our guest house in Ardoti (with the ‘Driveway to hell’).
We waved at the border guards on the Azerbaijani side of the north east border and fortunately, they waved back and didn’t shoot, although they did initially raise their rifles as we approached. We were also taken on several wine tours of traditional wineries in the fertile Kakeheti region.
The only injury of significance was when one of the group, Chicago Steve, cracked a crown on an unexpected bone in his Chashushuli (Beef stew with tomatoes). Even then, despite being in a remote mountain village, Nika and Tato managed to track down a dentist on a public holiday (St Miriam’s day), who glued it together and reset it the following morning for the princely sum of $17!
Our group’s ages ranged from 30 to 72 and, while we are all competent riders, we are by no means off-road guns (except maybe one or two) and although the conditions were challenging, they were never really too scary.
In fact, the hairiest moment of the whole trip was climbing up ramshackle ladders in a 12th century watchtower in Mestia, a ski region overlooked by Mount Ushba in Svaneti, to see the conditions that the locals lived in whilst under siege by marauding neighbours desperate for their precious salt.
Independent travellers can get around in Georgia, but the language does make it a little tricky. English is spoken in the cities and by the younger generation, but out in the regions, there’s little English spoken or understood.
Yet Georgia is an astounding country that’s just getting noticed internationally for tourism, and I strongly recommend considering visiting soon, before too many others discover it.
- If you wish to tour on motorcycles, contact Willem or Evert at https://mototraveltbilisi.com. They also have cars and land cruisers for rent, and can provide expert advice for itineraries.
- Our trip cost around $5000 for 18 days, and included everything except flights. Bike hire, fuel, food and drink and accommodation was all covered within that cost – they even covered the cost of two traffic fines! The food provided was plentiful and the drink was free-flowing. In fact, we never took out our wallets once during the whole trip.
Here’s a promotional video from the Mototravelbilisi website, where you will find several more, if you’re interested.