All good things come to an end and so it is with this part of the trip. At about 4.30pm yesterday, and 2513km after leaving Istanbul, we cycled into Tblisi old town and so ended this part of the tour.
We started with a wonderful breakfast prepared by Lea in the Nitsi Guest House in Gori. Omelette, home made cheese and wonderful scones set us for the delay ahead. Lea divides her time between her village, which is just in South Ossetia, and the town house in Gori. She has 2 daughters at university in Tbilisi (one in international school and the other in medical school) and her son is still at school in Gori. She hosts a wide range of international visitors including Russians, but the Russian army bombed Gori as recently as 2008 and many locals in that city lost their lives in the conflict over South Ossetia. Her village, where she lives with her husband and father is now in land de facto controlled by Moscow. Politics intervenes in the lives of lots of people we have met in Turkey and Georgia. The one thing that ordinary people cannot understand is why on earth Britain would want to leave the EU. A striking common theme is that people see EU membership as a set of guarantees for ordinary people against the excesses of government and to avoid conflicts.
We ambled out of Gori and back onto the same minor road heading eastwards. We have been heading broadly eastwards since Venice and so I suspect our bikes could find their own way onto any road heading in that direction. The morning was overcast but the promised rain mostly held off. This was well functioning, rural Georgia – neither poor nor well off. Here and there we saw relics of larger buildings from the soviet era, mostly now abandoned and rotting away. But life is thriving here amongst the relics of the past. We cycled across the valley floor and moderate hills towards Mtskheta, which was the ancient capital of Georgia. We arrived at lunchtime and had the most brilliant cappuccino coffee (albeit at tourist prices) outside the cathedral.
The ancient town is now little more than a village with a cathedral for visitors, but it would be wrong to characterise it as only for international tourists. The vast majority of visitors are Georgians who come to pray at the cathedral church. The Chritian Religion in Georgia is less obvious than Islam in Turkey (where headscarves symbolise religious affiliation for many women). But 83% of Georgians affirm their adherence to the Orthodox Church, it has a special place in the constitution (which nonetheless separates church and state) and its work has a 95% approval rating across the country. What would the Anglican or Catholic Churches give for those statistics!
The 11th century cathedral was fantastic. Enormous with a simple beauty.It was built around an original 4th C church which is still within one of the chapels. Being a Sunday the piety and faith of adherents was on show in the cathedral – with multiple kissing of icons, repeated crossings and the touch of the priest was clearly a sign of acknowledged subservience by the laity. This was not religion on show but religion being practised. However people chatted during the service and there were priests on mobile phones inside the church.
There were also elderly women seeking alms outside the church in a manner which must have been replicated for hundreds of years. The individuals may have changed but the role is identical.
We left thinking that we had glimpsed an almost mediaeval mindset with a common faith and an acknowledged spiritual hierarchy but in a world where sophisticated modern citizens were choosing to adopt these practices. Lots to think about and ponder.
Then it was back to the road and the last 30km into Tbilisi – which was inevitably on main roads. Getting into capital cities is the worst cycling and this was no exception. However it was all gently down hill as it followed the river valley and so we sped along the 4 lane highway (which for us is better than 2 lanes as we largely had the inner lane to ourselves). It was also Sunday and so maybe not quite as busy as a weekday.
Georgia is the spiritual home to generations of Mercedes Benz cars. About half of the cars on the road seem to be Mercs, in various stages of repair having been built over the last 40 years. There are a few new ones but no Mercedes in Georgia can ever be allowed to die, however old. They are repaired and repaired and then repaired again. It’s a tribute to the original engineering and to the ingenuity of mechanics here, but I suspect having a Mercedes is also a symbol of having made it as a Georgian man.
We found the apartment with little problem and then went out to the old town for a lovely meal, with a bottle of wine. We felt satisfied rather than ecstatic at having made our goal. The whole journey just felt like a huge privilege.
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