Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Welcome to Georgia 05/10/07
We finally reached Georgia.
We've talked about Georgia so many times, Rami mentioning that he is waiting to reach there, every month or so, even when in China and earlier. Coming to think of it, even back home, Rami was talking about stories of travelers in Georgia.
On the road, every cyclist we passed, coming from the west, had these mythical stories about the Georgian, being the perfect hosts; they take you in to their house, take care of you feed you with scrumptious dishes, get you drunk with young wine and send you on your way the next morning, loaded with stocks of food for the way, with hugs and smiles.
Don't they ask for money? No chance! They won't even hear about it! They are a proud people!But, then, we heard that Georgia is filled with Israeli tourists. Some ridiculous figure of 70% of the countries tourists! "During the season you see them everywhere, filling up the guesthouses, speaking Hebrew". Is that good or bad? And guesthouses – who sleeps in guesthouses? On the road? You sleep for free! But, we'll talk about that on Ramis' best seller among cycle-tourists: "A free meal: a guise for cycle-tourists".
And we haven't yet mentioned the scenery; the lush green mountains, forests almost sub-tropical! And we'll be entering Georgia at autumn, when green slowly shifts to a bright yellow, on its way to becoming a flame of red leaves. Even our simple camera couldn't miss that.
Oh, and the 1,000,000 historic Christian buildings, we almost forgot that.
But, as we have learned scenery is just a bonus while cycle-touring; our true pleasure is the people on the way.
Now, everybody trash-mouthed Azerbaijan, for this or that reason (David didn't, he just mentioned one bad experience after the other, till he finally escaped from there, but blamed it on bad karma). But, we were leaving Azerbaijan with only good experiences & good memories. So, what will be in Georgia, when expectations are so high?


First night
We crossed the border so quickly; we didn't have time to digest it. Less than 2 minutes, no questions, no checking our money or luggage; Just a smile.
After 3 months in Muslim countries, we finally saw women on the streets, with their head uncovered (Christian), sometime even a bit of flesh ;-)
We quickly reached Lagodekhi (the first small town after the border) and bought vegetables at the small market. A taxi unloaded 3 tourists – Israelis (Rami new one of them, the gay fellow, which was mentioned something about his cycling shorts ;-), and from that moment all the myths became true! We stopped at a bakery and the guys gave us 3 traditional Georgian breads, straight out of the clay oven.
It was late afternoon, so we were looking for a place to sleep. We had barely any local money.
At Gurgenian, the next junction village, we stopped at a tiny shop/kiosk. We bought a few eggs and told the lady about our travels. We were glad our Russian works here, and that the locals, though against anything to do with Russia, are happy to communicate with foreigners. The lady offered to cook the eggs for us at the house, just behind the kiosk. We told her we first need to find a place to sleep. She said we can sleep at the house; it was so obvious to her. She took us in, put us around the table, went to the garden and picked some eggplants (Badrijan), chilies, tomatoes, onions and more, and prepared food. It was like at your Jewish grandmothers' house, where she cooks your favorite dishes. After 3 months of mostly lamb, we were served so many vegetarian dishes. And bread. We had bread, but she insisted we keep it for tomorrow, for the road. The fried eggplants (with tons of garlic), parsley and homemade roasted sunflower seed oil (which we bought for the road) was fantastic. And we drank some local spirit. We hoped for wine, but that was good enough.
The atmosphere was great (Gal surrounded by liberated women). The woman told us it's her parents' house, and that she and her 2 sisters came to visit. They gave us a giant double bed (a comfortable one!) on the second floor.
Early in the morning we saw all the 'parents' (the old generation) walking the cows in the street, maybe gossiping about the kids. They all greeted us with a smile.
We departed with smiles and lots of fruit for the way.

Our first wine 06/10/07
It was late afternoon. We reached Gremi, a small village with an old church (all villages here have old churches, but this one was marked on our map).
We asked some locals where can we sleep. The first ones told us to continue, so we continued. The second and the third told us to continue, so we continued. 200m later (sometimes the locals point “there”, meaning 20km over there) we saw this incredible old church (Gremi church and fort), small but elegant, situated on a cliff, just above the road. Just then we understood that tourists are being sent to camp the church.
We climbed up the hill and were shown where we can open a tent. It was just before sunset, and a prayer was being held. People were coming and going.
Rami walked back to the village, to buy more food. He hitched and the driver offered him a bottle of wine and sent his son to bring us fruit and vegetables.
So, we were camping just under the church wall, enjoying the fire we built, our delicious meal and a very tasty 2-year old wine (in a used Coca-Cola bottle).
This was our first real wine in 9 months!!! (On Passover, we had wine with the Jewish Habad community, but you can’t really call that wine).

The following morning, while we were packing our camp, a small group, in there early 20’s, of the church visitors, came and talked to us. One of their first questions was if we had local wine. We showed them the empty bottle of last night. One of them quickly ran down to their car and returned with a full bottle similar to the last one, dark red, very tasty! They told us the wines of this region, Kaheti, are some of the best of Georgia.
We connected the wine bottle on Gal trailer and cycled off, with a small supply of wine. Days ahead, the supply will grow to 4.5 litres!

Our camp cite.

Lunch 07/10/07
Cycling was calm. The road was OK, scenery green, rolling hills, many villages on the way with small shops for supplies; no need to detour for a shop, no need to carry stocks of food.
At lunch time we stopped at a small shop. We bought some vegetables, cheese, bread and some kind of meatballs. We asked if we can eat on a small table at the corner. Without any thought, the woman invited us inside, to the garden, to eat. Obviously, she insisted we keep our food for later, and stuffed us with all sort of delicacies, and the fantastic Georgian bread, right out of the clay oven. Luckily, the shop doubled as the local bakery, so she gave us some loafs for the way (after we bought one!). We couldn’t carry more than 2. the woman and her friend offered us some Vodka but we politely refused – we still wanted to cycle that day! But, we took out our 1.5 litre wine bottle (actually, a Coca-Cola bottle, filled with home made wine), which was happily accepted.
We set off, full and smiling, thinking of the people and their hospitality – unbelievable!

Another church.

Toast master 07/10/07
It was after sunset as we reached the center of the small town of Akhmeta. There were a few old communist apartment blocks, crumbling away.
We asked a few guys, waiting in the junction, about sleeping. We were quickly invited to the home of one of them, hoping it will not be an apartment, but a farm-house. Since Baku we didn’t really see ‘buildings’, only village farm houses with small (or large) gardens with all sort of fruits and vegetables, chickens, pigs and a cow or two.
His house was a few kilometer out of the center, obviously a farm house. Actually, he was from Tbilisi, it was his family’s home.
We’ll be short. So, we were made to feel at home. We unpacked our stuff to a big room with a gigantic bed and changed to ‘civilian’ clothes while dinner was prepared.
Once again, a shower was not included. We thought about this many times, but didn’t find an answer to this mystery. So, another day, one of many, without a shower. No one minds, so no problems, just a wet tissue on a few intimate parts ;-)
We took out our wine bottle and offered. Our host said the will wait with the wine for the food, and at their house we’ll drink their wine!
During dinner we naively drank the wine. Our host stopped us and his niece, Nino (16 year old, speaks some English), explained that you drink only with toasts, and the “Toast Master” of the evening is in charge of the toasts – a very serious position!
Toasts were thrown to all direction followed by wine, all in a serious manner. “A toast for the guests”, “…for the children”, “…for the parents”, “…for the grand parents” and so on.
Ramis’ favorite was “…for sweet memories”.

Rami went to sleep, drunk. Gal was told that Ninos’ father is busy making new wine and Gal is invited to participate. The procedure is very simple: you throw grapes to a conical container, rotate a pedal which squishes the grapes into a huge wooden barrel and you let it sit for two months. So simple, even a drunk Gal can do it!

Making wine.

First bad experience 08/10/07
We took the mountain road. Nino said that the road is in very bad condition. It didn’t intimidate us and we head off.
Very quickly we were climbing and the road became a very bad dirt road. But, the scenery was superb (autumn leaves) and the weather was good, so we enjoyed it.
We stopped for lunch at a pass. Hoping it will be down hill from now, we finished one of our red wine bottles. A car stopped near us and the driver asked if anything is OK. He immediately spotted and opened the back of his car, reviling a huge plastic wine barrel. While filling our bottle, he spilled a lot of wine and was laughing about it. We asked about the route – “you continue straight with the road and you have a few more climbs…”
After an hour of climbing we saw 3 men in their 20’s with horses, herding sheep. We asked them for directions, and surprisingly, they pointed to the opposite direction. We were confused, the road had no turns. We turned around, descending the hill we were climbing with one of the kids escorting us, on his horse. Luckily, after 15 minutes we met the same guy who gave us the wine earlier. He was surprised to see us go the opposite direction. After a short discussion, we understood the kids have been playing with us. Upset, we turned around and climbed again. Our kind escort took off on his horse. When we cycles near them again, he started teasing us, taking our trailer flag. This kept on for 15 minutes, till he finally left us alone. We were furious. For the first time on this trip, we thought on the possibility of encountering bad people, who may want to harm us, for some reason. We couldn’t let that feeling go for a long time. We passed a small town, but just wanted to go further away.

Automn colors.

My guests! 08/10/07
It was getting dark. We were climbing an unpaved road through the mountains, progressing too slow, with no house around.
We finally reached a farm house. Nothing else. We looked for people – nothing. We called, but still, nothing. Rami thought of continuing, but Gal insisted on staying, confident they’ll take us in.
Few minutes of more calling and a woman arrived, carrying a bucket of fresh milk. We asked if we can camp for the night. She smiled and shortly replied: “My guests!”
It was a night to remember. Everything, to the small details was perfect. The scenery was stunning: mountainous countryside and all sorts of plantations and crops in their small farm. The husband, who arrived, lit a fire in the old hand made boiler so we can shower (after too many days). It was the best (and most charming) shower we had in a long time. The food was fantastic, all home grown and made: the bean stew, the cheese, the confiture and the wine. High above the fire they were drying plums for the winter. We took out our wine, but after tasting it they brought two bottles of their own – red, sweet and sparkling – excellent! While opening the first bottle, the husband spritzed all over himself and we were all laughing. With the second one he was more careful.
They put us in their beautiful bedroom, with a window towards the valley, the white sheets ready. We talked about lots of stuff (bad social problems, low pension and unemployment) their children leaving in the big city (1.5 hours by car).
In the morning we had breakfast, Rami was taken to gather a million walnuts, we were loaded with cheese and fruit – more than we could carry, but, in 10 km we’ll be meeting Ramis’ parents and all our stuff will be carried by car.
Hope Ramis’ rim will hold…


Our fantastic shower.

Parents to the rescue II 09/10/07
We were very excited! Ramis’ parents will pick us up at around 13:00 on the “military highway”, around where our road connects to it, we’ve been thinking more an more about home lately, what will be the first 5 things we’ll do, first 5 things we’ll eat, all that stuff. After the last 10.5 months, meeting Ramis’ parents was a bit like a visit back home, or at least a small vacation from our travels. Let’s not forget, we missed them as well.
But, what about the bikes? Where will we store them? We felt quite relaxed, we manage…
So we reached the junction. Just in front of us was a house. One house and an old gas station. We went to the house and called. An old lady arrived and with our broken Russian, we asked if we can leave our bikes for a few days. She said: “no problems” and pointed to a place in the garden, under a thick grape vine, filled with heavy grapes. So we unpacked, organized our stuff, locked what’s need to be locked and waited.
After 3 hours and 1.5 liter of wine (part of our cellar) Rachel & Ralph (with their guide and driver) arrived.
Hugs-kisses-pictures-hugs-kisses-pictures and we were off. Oh, we first checked that the new wheel fits and we thanked the family for storing the bikes and for fruit they gave us.
That’s how it is in Georgia. That’s how the Georgians are. We felt totally secure!
Ramis’ parents were on a 9-day trip in Georgia, and we joined them on the last 3 days. We drove up the famous “Military Highway”, which crosses the Grater Caucasus to Russia, stopped at a few beautiful churches and impressive valleys on the way. Then we went to Tbilisi for another day, walked around the old town. Obviously, it was not about touring, but spending the time with Ramis’ parents.
One event to mention: while driving in the extreme remote and cold part of the Military Highway, near the pass, we passed an elder, waiting for a ride. Gal surprised us all by asking why didn’t we stop and take here. It never occurred to us, tourists, guide and driver, sitting in the warm van. We quickly reversed and took her, dropping her at her village, 20 km further, on our route. She was grateful, Gal and Rami knew how much.

Waiting, drunk, for parents.

The Military Highway.

A pig, resting.

The synagogue, find the non 'Shvili'.

Back on the road 13/10/07
We took a bus back to o9ur bikes, everything was untouched and we were quickly on our way. We found out that our odometer, which was getting ‘sick’ lately, had died :-(
We reached the main/only east-west highway. We were told by other cyclists that it was insane to cycle there, but Rami was a bit optimistic. He quickly admitted his mistake. The road diminished to 1 lane in each direction, while the drivers were driving as if it was 3 lanes to each direction. We hitched a van. Rami sat in the back, holding the bikes and luggage. Gal sat in front. The driver was going 140 km/h, but slowed to 120 km/h at Gals request, for a few minutes. During 1 hour on the road, we saw 3 deadly accidents. Our driver laughed about the stupid drivers and his friend tried to calm Gal by saying “our driver is good”.
The driver stopped at a town for cigarettes and we told him we had enough. He took us to the outskirts of town explaining that the people near the shop were hooligans. As we disembarked, we saw that Rami had a huge hole in his cycling pants, in the middle of his ass, damage from the rough ride, so he changed. It was getting dark, so we found a family which took us in for the night. Again, typical Georgian hospitality. This time the 3 women of the house were drinking wine with us, what gave us a good feeling. One of them, divorced told us her ex-husband was a heroine addict, so she left him. There is a big drug problem in Georgia!

The dilemma 14/10/07
We planned on cycling to Svaneti, a remote district in the north-west of the country. We heard many good things about the area, the scenery and the people. We also knew the road is unpaved, it’s very cold over there and winter is coming to Turkey. If we wanted to cross to Turkey through the mountains, to the Katchcar, we haven’t much time.
Our hitch dropped us, by luck, exactly on the junction towards the mountain crossing to Turkey. Rami said it’s a sign from above. Gal wasn’t sure, but we took it anyway.
Quickly we were climbing, the scenery became more and more beautiful and the traffic very scarce. We were invited to lunch by a group on a road side restaurant: traditional food and fantastic pork. We tried to cut on the wine – we had yet some cycling to do.

Last night in Georgia 15/10/07
We mention this night for two reasons:
  1. Our last night in this incredible country!
  2. Chauvinism: the wife gave birth 10 days ago but was already doing all the house chores. During dinner, the guys and us were eating and drinking lots of wine (again) while the wife took care of us and the baby. In the tradition of drinking in Georgia, toasts were thrown to all directions. One specific toast made us laugh: “a drink to the wife!”.

Border crossing 16/10/07
We left our hosts taking wine for the way. As they said: in Turkey there is no wine, they’re Muslims!
We quickly reached the border.
Rami went to the small bank to get rid of all the Georgian money we had. The teller didn’t have the exact change so he gave Rami a bit more and told us, with a wink, to pay him back the next time we cycle through.

Goodbye Georgia
After writing so much we will make it short: our favorite country by far!
We haven’t spent even one night in a hotel, while cycling, and only once in our tent, under the church. And of coarse - the wine!
All the mythical stories were true!!!