(David) Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go astray – and today was one of them. The day started well with the rain easing off and us having breakfast with the “Dragoman” team. They were mostly Australians who were travelling the world in an extraordinary truck, doing a mixture of camping and staying in pre-arranged hotels. The tour started at Istanbul and ended somewhere in the Far East, possibly Thailand. They drop people and pick people up along the way, visiting interesting places as they go. They whetted our appetite for places to the East but that will have to wait for next year.
We go off about 8.30 and whizzed downhill out of town, back along the way we had come for 15km. Just as we were crossing the Rioni river my back tyre went down in an instant. We found the culpable nail – massively indenting itself into tyre and inner tube! New inner tube needed as this one is a goner!
20 minutes later we were back on the road, not before being offered help and spiritual assistance by some well dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses who stopped to help (and possibly convert us). We declined both and proceeded by seeking to respect all religions but ascribing to none, as before. They were charming about it mind you!
The road took us through a forest and then into open farmland, and finally along the “Winers route”. Georgian wine is famous throughout the world and this was one of the prime grape growing areas. However there is a catch. Vines grow best on steep slopes where the water drains quickly away – and there were plenty of steep slopes on this part of the route. The road signs helpfully (or dispiritingly depending on your perspective) gave the percentage for every slope. We had signs for 7%, 10%, 14% and even one lung busting hill was described as “19%” up (and was 19% up).
Eventually we surmounted the last hill and flew down to the valley and across to meet the main Batumi to Tiblisi road. Hills or trucks – take your pick!
We soon got to Zestaponi – a forgettable place where the sun never shines (well not on the day we were there), the buildings are drab and cafes advertise coffee but have none (and no tea either). We soon left and rejoined the trucks for 10km.
Our plan was to divert off the main road onto the S56, which is a secondary road. Tertiary level roads in Georgia can be unpaved but, to date, “S” roads are almost all paved. The Guidebook warned that this road used to be terrible but had recently been upgraded and was now much better. Me thinks the guidebook author has not cycled this road recently! The first 3km were totally unpaved – but then a secondary road joined and it’s got a bit better. It followed a river and 80% paving to the town of Khargauli seemed bearable. The valle was lush with foliage and had little traffic. So all in all it seemed a good bet.
We stopped after 60km for a late lunch, lolled around by the river and watched the trains pass on the railway that follows the same valley. After 11km we got to the town of Khargauli, stocked up with food and then met Pierre and Anna, from Bordeaux, who were cycling through Georgia as part of their 5 year trip around interesting places. They were delightful and gentle. They had a single tandem with a recliner seat on the front and various bags strapped to it (including a plastic balloon with a world map on it). We exchanged stories, perspectives and laughed about the idiocy of what we were both committed to doing. They are heading to Armenia, Iran and hopefully Pakistan. Tough route and I hope they make it.
We said our goodbye’s and continued on the road up the valley. There was only one “road” but it was clearly in a terrible state of repair. The recent rain left the surface a sea of mud and watery potholes. It was very slow going and required vast levels of concentration. It would have been a fairly tough mountain bike trail but was near impossible for road bikes with trailers.
1 hour in we had covered under 8km and it was, if anything, getting worse. Then a Dutch couple in a 4WD vehicle coming the other ways stopped Andy told us that we had taken leave of our senses if we intended to go on – as it got much muddier, steeper and was nearly impassible in paces. Not being Nigel Farage we were happy to take advice from those in the EU who know more than us, and so turned around and retraced our route.
It took nearly as long to go back down the road and, on the way, we met Anna and Pierre. They were determined to go on so we passed on the warnings and left them to their decision. Just after Khargauli we found a camping spot and collapsed. Tomorrow we will retrace our steps and face the trucks on the main road instead.
Just as we had our tent up, Anna and Pierre appeared again as they were also beaten by the road. It may be a “secondary” road in Georgian terms but there is a huge gap between first and second on this occasion!