Our morning started with a chat to a perplexed landowner, who was very curious about how we’d managed to get our bikes and all the gear that was strewn about onto his seemingly isolated little scrap of land, perched above a raging river. Simple really, we just rode across that rickety wooden bridge, skidded along that dirt track, and pitched our tent behind this boulder. We’re adventurers, you see.
We were about seventy miles south of Ushguli, but it was going to take us all day to get there; only partially because there would be so many amazing photo opportunities. The view was stunning though. The river we’d camped beside kept churning its way alongside the road, which cut through tunnels in the cliff and curved off into the distance at the foot of huge glaciers and snow-capped mountains.
We overtook the workers paving the road, which turned into dusty gravel. Trucks rumbled uphill in front of us, kicking up so much dust that we had to overtake them blind, and hope that no-one coming the other was having the same idea. Oh well, good practice for Kazakhstan.
All the first and second gear riding eventually caused Maria’s engine to overheat, and she was forced to pull up on the side of the road. My eyes were on the boulders I was whizzing around, so I hadn’t noticed, ’till I pulled over myself a mile or so further on. I was re-zipping after a piss when a 4×4 full of smiling Georgians stopped on their way down the hill to ask where I was heading. “Ushguli? I thought so. You’ve missed a turn back there.” Fair enough, I didn’t see any turn, but I guess I was concentrating on the bad road. Hopefully it will improve a bit, since the clouds are getting darker and thunder is starting to rumble in the distance.
When we reached the turn I could hardly believe it. I had seen it on the way up, but thought it was a dry river bed. We bumped our way slowly down as the rain started to pour, turning the road into a gushing river. We passed a few kitted out jeeps, so at least it looked like we were heading in the right direction now. Thankfully the rain didn’t last long, but when we stopped for a breather an hour later, we’d only covered four miles. It was going to be a long day, but the road was challenging and fun.
It wasn’t the kind of out-of-the-saddle greenlaning challenge I like though; the rain and the passing Russian trucks had churned up the path, leaving us with hundreds of meters at a time of deep, slippery mud that my near-bald back tyre couldn’t handle. The only way to get through it was slowly, most of the time with both feet on the ground to reign in the bike’s fishtailing. The knobblies we’d bought in Izmir bounced uncomfortably at my back, and I wondered why the fuck the were on my seat instead of my wheels. The looks I got from passing drivers seemed to ask the same question.
A few miles outside the village, the road finally evolved into bumpy, sandy bliss and we could rediscover third gear – which was handy for outrunning the vicious dogs that had started chasing us. We parked up and headed for the warmth of the bar, just as the thunderstorm finally started in earnest, and rendered the roads unrideable for the rest of the day. It had taken us almost eight hours to cover the seventy miles from our campsite.
The pub was bustling with backpackers and locals, and as we propped up the bar with a beer, we shared knowing nods. Everyone understood the difficulty involved in getting here, and that lent an air of camaraderie to the place. There were no free chairs, so we were invited over to a table groaning under the weight of khatchapuri, meat, salad and some very pissed locals. We chatted about the trip while I tried to juggle the beer, cigarettes, cha-cha and food that were all being simultaneously handed to me. Eventually the table emptied as our hosts stumbled outside and, unbelievably, climbed into a van to try and head back down the road! After a few false starts as the van bogged itself down in the soggy car park, they were eventually pushed off and started their descent. I’m relatively certain they would have ended up sleeping in the van a mile or two down the road, but good luck to them.
Maria and I headed out into the rain, equally fuzzy-headed, and started looking around for a guesthouse. After settling on a price we ran back to the bikes and since I was overflowing with dutch courage, I decided I’d jump on, slide the bike down the soaked cobblestones and skid to a stop outside the guesthouse. Somehow I managed that twice, and with both bikes in view of our window we passed out exhausted on our bed.