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A collection of tales from the road #21 - Georgia

I will need another visit to Georgia to understand what it is. For the week or so that I was there I noticed that it was a melting-pot of cultures; Russian, Turkik and yet also very European.

Cycling through the country was challenging due to road conditions as there were no shoulders on the roads I travelled, and there is no such thing as passing space. I felt wing-mirrors many times during this part of the summer tour from Baku, Azerbaijan to Kas in south-western Turkey. The speeds were crazy here too, and judging by the number of car graveyards I saw, many of the decades old cars can't handle the abuse. The prostitute-lined road into the higgledy-piggledy centre of Tblisi from the east, and the undulating road south towards Armenia, were some of the hairiest moments i've had on tour.

Aggressive dogs were also a bane. Georgia is right up there for me with Greece and Mongolia as a scary place to ride. I was chased along the road a dozen times by packs of stray dogs, often hanging out in landfill sites. I know that dogs love a chase and that I should always stopped, but my 'flight' reflex was too strong. Once or twice though I couldn't out-run them, so my tactic was to slam on my brakes once at top-speed, turn, and in my best British accent, assertively tell them to go away. This worked best on gravel roads on which I had more traction they they did, so they would often skid passed me, legs flailing like in a cartoon. Except these were very real beasts. Many of them were large Kangal dogs and they really affected the ride, everyday. I would be fearful coming up to any settlements and became jumpy throughout. I have no problem with dogs in general and totally respect their ability and willingness to protect property, but many roamed freely around towns and fields, so I would spend much of the ride paranoid, scanning hedges for movement.

One day i'd had enough, so I found a shop selling Dazer devices. Before I made the purchase, I asked fellow cyclists how to handle dogs via online forums. I wanted good Juju, so I didn't want to cause dogs any harm, I just wanted to know what I could do. I was not surprised that many people had been bitten by dogs in this region, which convinced me that there was a need to be 'armed'. I was surprised however by the number of people who accused me of being an animal hater. I couldn't believe it. People were stating that dogs have more rights to be there than me, and should be respected. I get the respect bit, but they need not invade my space, or legs. These Dazer devices are pretty simple and do not hurt when deployed, they simply emit a high-pitched noise which at least made dogs think twice. It wasn't very effective, at best they would just look over their shoulder and wonder what that annoying noise was, but it had a positive affect on my mental state. Armed with this, a can of compressed air and a strong stick strapped to my bike, I pedalled out of the city a few days after the Brexit Vote, 23% poorer (on paper) than I was when I entered.

Almost balancing this out is the beauty and calm of the landscape to the north of Tblisi where steep sided valleys play host to adrenalin fuelled activities such as mountain-biking and and white-water rafting. We enjoyed both of these a lot in the warm summer air, and were snug in a wooden cabin for the night. The hillside town of Signagi in the east of the country with is terracota roofs, cobbled streets and monasteries precariously perched on ledges around the valley, was a real highlight. Not least of all due to the welcome I received in a guest house, the good food they offered me and the wonderful homemade wine I sipped, frequently. Getting there was a real challenge and remains one of the toughest climbs i've managed on a loaded bike. Well worth the effort for the place itself and the descent down towards the capital.

Vardzia, in the south west of the country is a must see. A mainly 12th century settlement of 50,000 people at it's peak is a series of cave-cum homes with stores, places of worship, and entertainment halls all carved out of the mountainside high above the Kura river. It is at the end of a dead-end road, as the mountain range to the south is a natural border with Turkey, but it is truly spectacular and has managed to avoid the modern day travesty of over-doing 'refurbishment'. I found the cheapest guest house in the area, but since it had no road access, I spent an hour walking to and fro across a tight-rope style bridge with parts of my bike and load. The isolation was wonderful, and the host family provided me with fresh warm milk and schnapps for the night. A special place.

#bicycletouring #biketour #georgia

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