In search of Civilization

Our only plan for today was to get back to civilisation. We’d been told that our route out of Ushguli via Lentekhi was even more difficult than the road in had been. We were unlikely to meet any other vehicles at any point on the thirty-six mile journey either, since there were no Marshutkas or tourist trails this way, so we were on our own.

After a coffee we moved our bikes down onto the road and loaded up, planning to meet some of the locals outside the bar to say goodbye and pinch a few litres of petrol. I climbed on, hit the ignition… and nothing happened. Seems like my battery’d run out of water again. It’s nice to have a diagnosis (and some spare distilled water), but not so nice that fixing the problem means unloading both bikes again before topping off the battery and digging out the jump leads. Datom organised the petrol in the meantime and wanted to have a go at sitting on Maria’s bike. Surprised at the weight, he almost dropped it.

Attempt number two saw us on our way. The road was tricky but manageable. We had to work hard to swerve around huge boulders, but everything was dry and the road tyres that we hadn’t bothered changing were gripping well.The scenery was pretty stunning too, but it didn’t get more than a passing glance; today was all about the road.

A few miles in I was starting to get comfortable with the conditions and as I rounded a corner I saw a cyclist down on one knee and pointing a camera at me. I got up on my pegs and opened the throttle a little, cruising over a ridge of boulders and swerving round and past him. Nice bit of film there, I reckon. I pulled over to stop and say hello, flicked my sidestand down, and watched as it buried itself in the sand and took me and the bike down with it. I climbed out from underneath Pip and glanced back. Yup, the bastard was still filming me. That’s what I get for trying to be cool.

After I’d dusted myself off we chatted for a bit. He was on his way home after two years of travelling, and he’d been to most of the places on my wish list; Kazakhstan, Malaysia….. Apparently he’d liked the look of that bend in the road so he’d been crouching there with his camera for a half hour waiting for someone to come along. I really like that kind of attitude and with his patience I bet he’s captured some amazing footage over the years.

A few miles later we’d topped out at 8500 feet and started our descent. The road was getting more difficult too. Maria misjudged the climb over a large boulder and slid backwards, dropping the bike. By the time I’d got back to help her up, Seven was lying in a huge puddle of petrol; lost from the overflow pipe. So much for the extra litres we’d siphoned. The lost petrol meant we couldn’t afford to fire up the stove for a coffee break, so we made do with biscuits an and carried on, interrupted by the odd river flowing on the road.

A hand-painted sign advertised a hotel hidden behind a grove of trees, so we left the bikes on the side of the road and wandered towards the ramshackle building in search of coffee. Despite the isolated location the place seemed to be bustling. Two van-loads of youngsters were sprawled out on the grass and a couple of soldiers stood by the entrance chatting to the owners. We shook various hands and were led inside for a coffee. The place was not so much a hotel as a house with an open door policy and as I sat with one of the hosts, Maria disappeared into the kitchen to make a coffee. We couldn’t really communicate, but luckily there was a big map of Georgia on the wall, so we could pass the time pointing out our route and discussing what we knew of the country’s geography.

A few other locals wandered in to check out the foreigners and as usual the five litre bottle of homebrew was placed triumphantly on the table. I had a nip, just to be polite, and luckily it wasn’t too strong – more like wine than spirit. We made our escape amongst protests that we should drink more, and headed back to the bikes. The front garden was deserted now, as the two vans had loaded up and headed back onto the road. It turns out that the crowd were all together; four Israeli families had been on a hiking holiday and were on their way back down to civilisation, and the two soldiers seemed to be chaperoning them, when they weren’t busy posing for pictures with Maria and Seven.

The vans were blocking the road and the occupants were playing some kind of human tetris, shuffling children between the two vehicles, then back again, trying to decide on some esoteric seating plan, and it was getting annoying. After a good hour of waiting, they finally decided on a combination they were happy with, and the convoy started crawling down the hill. It had started raining, so the road was getting more slippery by the minute and to make matters worse a few young girls had decided rather than staying with their families in the van, to go down the hill on foot. They were having great fun running alongside, behind, and in front of the bikes while I tried to balance keeping the bike upright, avoiding boulders and not losing sight of them. Typical; we’ve come to one of the most isolated roads in the world and I’m trying not to run over fucking pedestrians. Eventually we found a wide point in the road and could skirt passed the others and put some space between us and them.

Finally I had a chance to look at our surroundings. Our road was narrow and now mostly submerged, with a slate-grey cliff rising up on my right side and falling away on my left, so that I was looking down on the canopy of a lush green valley. The rain was coming down in sheets, making everything smell like spring, and ahead of us the road disappeared between two mountain peaks, where rays of sun shone through the black clouds and marked the end of the storm. It was gorgeous. As we levelled out at the bottom of the valley the rain cleared and we stopped next to a farmhouse ruin for lunch of left-over Kubdari and the ubiquitous two litre beer bottle in the shadow of another enormous glacier. Then it was time for some fun…

The road was mostly dry now and I was out of the saddle, skipping over boulders and through the occasional puddle. I covered the last miles with a grin on my face and a trail of dust in my mirrors. We were ten miles outside Lentekhi and the road had levelled out into relatively flat, compacted dirt, and was fairly easy-going. A few villages dotted along the road provided the first glimpses of civilisation and, for some reason, the most challenging bits of riding. In the middle of each village was a stretch of about two hundred metres of deep, shit-filled mire, covering the entire road and completely ignored by the locals. Inexplicable. After inching our way through, we could pick up speed again, until the next village-centre confronted us with the same obstacle.

Shortly before dusk we hit tarmac. It had been eighty miles and three days since we’d last seen any, and it took a bit of practice before we could lean into corners again! We arrived in Lentekhi and had a hunt for petrol. No stations in sight but we asked around and were pointed to a house with an unusual number of cars parked outside. We were asked how many litres we needed, and the owner disappeared into his garden, coming back with a funnel and a full bucket. Hey, it’s a step up from siphoning out of your mate’s van, so we’ll take it.

We’d already sussed out a decent spot to camp next to a river a few miles outside town, so we headed back there and pitched the tent. The only food we had left was a few tins I’d bought in Ushguli after a vodka drinking session and thrown into the panniers, so I was a bit worried about what I was about to find, but luckily it vaguely resembled a meal. Sardines, tomato paste (that I’d presumably mistaken for sauce) and Svanish salt; a sort of mixture of salt and mountain herbs that’s amazing on any pasta dish. We ate, finished our bottle of beer, and passed out, exhausted.

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