I really don’t care if I got lost. Each turn of the valley comes with a view equal in wonder to the last: a wall of trees, a rocky rapid, a waterfall, a rugged cliff, a tomb-like castle on top of a hill dead like the kingdom it represents. Never a disappointment. Even the few places without thick woodland are covered in lush grass, like it snowed from heaven and blanketed all but the most vertical of rock faces. If there wasn’t a road or a sky you would be forgiven for thinking green was the only colour in Georgia. But even if I wanted to, it’s hard to get lost here; I’ve crossed half the country without a map and will continue doing so to Armenia. There are just so few roads.
The cows shading in the roadside shelters, which are built for exposed humans to hide from the occasional heavy rain, suggest that there are more cows than people in Georgia, and that’s probably about right. Hopefully it doesn’t rain too much, as I don’t fancy drying off amongst a heard of smelly cows. But it’s the rainiest month here. And where many nations see their rivers evaporate into a piddly dribble, Georgia boasts some of the largest, fastest flowing monsters I’ve ever seen. Since I left Batumi at the coast, not a day has gone by where the skies haven’t morphed into an upper hell before my eyes and turned roads into rivers.
I’m chased by butterflies as I try to find that optimum speed where the wind is strong enough to cool me down but I’m pedalling slow enough not to generate too much heat. It gets hot sometimes. But it’s nothing like Morocco or even Turkey and it can easily drop 20°C in the space of an hour if a storm comes by or the opposite if I descend a big hill, of which there are many. Pleasant but also annoying as my bags become a mess due to an endless rotation of sweaty t-shirt off, jumper on, jacket on, gloves off, trousers on etc. It’s hard to keep track of what I’ve worn and what’s clean (smell checks only go so far) and so I’m probably spending my time in southern Georgia a little smellier than usual.
The only other travellers I saw were a friendly Portuguese hitchhiker and a cyclist heading the other way. Normally it’s customary to stop and talk to a fellow touring cyclist especially when you meet in the middle of nowhere, but this guy was so self-absorbed that he never stopped and only mustered a “Where are you from?” Followed by an “I am Russia” and continued cycling. There are quite a lot of Russians holidaying here. One I met in Batumi pulled a face of such morbid disgust when I refused to drink vodka with him that it suggested I had been infected by an outbreak of deadly T-total virus. The only travelling spirit in some people’s blood is vodka.
There’s no respite from the reckless driving, and cyclists are no doubt a burden to drivers trying to beat their PB to the next village shop. Everything is a rally race, everyone is Schumacher on cocaine and all the usual safety precautions like using mirrors or eyes are obviously unnecessary chores. That is if the car has mirrors. An incessant beeping of horns and shouts out the window eggs me on for a while but soon descends into utter madness as the traffic increases. It also feels like it’s the only time people say hello, when in their cars. That and when drunk, which may coincide with driving more often than I care to know. On the weathered faces of the villagers it’s actually pretty hard to tell if they’re drunk or just like that. In a hostel in Batumi I read on an advertisement for a tour, “Come and find out why Georgians are the happiest people on Earth,” which I can only assume is nothing more than a blaring lie or some kind of backward Georgian humour. So many people in the countryside I’ve seen lodged on a chair, or as a fixed accessory to the doorstep outside their homes, in idleness, eyes that look so empty and disinterested that I might as well be a fly, a leaf blowing in the wind or mistaken for a boulder at the side of the road. Do they not realise the beauty they live in? They must be forgiven, however. Having lived most of my life in Scotland and not realising what a precious place of the world it is.
I voluntarily bought two packets of super noodles today, despite the store being full of fresh fruit and veg. Perhaps this is a sign I’ve been cycling too long. Why are they even called super noodles? It could be the most ironic title of all time because there’s absolutely nothing super about them, except that they’ll probably still be edible for the next 10,000 years. Incidentally, noodles also seem to be the sole inspiration for the written Georgian language.
The brief lack of interaction with the locals ended as I climbed up to the grassy pasture of southern Georgia to 2000m and the village of Ninotsminda, where some guys in a gas station (methane gas for cars) flagged me down and invited me in. Turns out they weren’t even Georgian, but Armenian. Before I could eat, a beer was thrust in my hand and next thing I know I’m getting several requests for Scottish songs on my ukulele, which is probably breaking some kind of traditional Scots law. After the conversation dried up the World Cup provided welcome entertainment on a 20th century TV with the aerial sellotaped to the window. They offered me the spare room to sleep but a little whiff from the toilet now and then was enough to nudge me to camp it out on the field nearby.
And then it was across the high plains to Armenia in hope of better roads and drivers. But thankfully still never lacking in beauty.