Georgia’s Mystical Mountains
By Philippe - January 10, 2020 - Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, lies at the nexus of Europe, Middle East and Asia. Due to its central location, it has lived through a rich and troubled history. Georgians though, are characterized for their strength, tenacity, and genuine openheartedness.
A strong cultural heritage, fed by a delicious cuisine and an ancient-old viticulture, provided the backdrop to an exhilarating adventure, in the country’s mystical mountains and lush valleys.
Biking the Caucasus
The rugged beauty and wilderness of the Caucasus Mountains, drew us to the country. The stunning videography of Trail to Kazbegi so vividly encapsulates this, and the joy of adventuring on a bike. It certainly inspired us to embark on our 500km bike packing trip through ‘Svaneti’, followed by an ambitious plan to climb Mount Kazbek (5047m) in our 10-day trip.
Take a hike
The predominantly Christian country has been ruled by Ottomans, Iranians and Russians, epitomized by the Soviet era of Stalin. Remarkably, the divided ruler, was a Georgian native himself. While the older proletariat in Georgia, many of whom still speak Russian, might look back with fond memories, today’s landscape is still scarred by Stalin’s failed communist dream. Broken down factories, run-down building blocks and rusty old Lada’s.
Georgia gained independence in 1991, but for most of its post-Soviet era, it suffered from civil conflicts, secessionist wars, and economic crisis. In the face of adversity, modern day Georgia is proving resilient and optimistic, not allowing its past to tarnish its future.
One might ask though: why Georgia?
Simply put, it has a bit of everything. While this unforgotten part of the world, might be unfamiliar to many, its sheer natural beauty and tainted history, combined with a vibrant, hip and blossoming youth, provided the novelty our adventure needed.
Through careful planning and some diligent research, we carved out a route that was as much a cultural journey through the country’s highlights, as a physically challenging adventure. With local knowledge, and some previous experience planning similar adventures, we set out to bike, hike and have fun – responsibly.
As in any adventure though, we knew regardless how much we had planned, to be prepared for the unexpected.
Before even setting foot in Georgia, and having met each other half way in Milan, our man from New Zealand and local interpreter, Animal Alex, would suffer his first (of many) mechanicals. Just by looking at his decade old hiking boots, the sole peeled off its rubber base. A practice weekend in Switzerland, where Mikel Mingbo, suffered a similar case of ‘boot explosion’ and repeated warnings to check the quality of our gear, could not stop Alex from his first setback. Unknowingly at the time, it would set the tone for our trip. Nevertheless, with our spirits and enthusiasm still high, we took little notice, and simply cracked on with our travels
Day 1: 100km, 1200m, 30% off-road
In the middle of a warm August night, we landed in Georgia’s second largest city, Kutaisi. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, it proved to be a perfect gateway for our 5-day roundtrip into the western Caucasus.
The following morning, after the obligatory bike admin and last minute faff getting ourselves ready, we only set off late in the afternoon. With temperatures spiralling well into the 30s, we were stoked to finally be moving. Within minutes soaked too, drenched in sweat. We managed to find some respite by an idyllic river crossing, spewing fresh mountain water down into the valley. Clothes off, we dipped in the water to cool down, only to be abruptly interrupted by the sight of a snake. Trudging carefully back to our bikes, we saw two more snakes slithering through the rocks. A clear sign, to get out and hit the road again.
Cooling down, with snakes…
The mostly paved roads on Day 1, proved an ideal start – for those with a suitable bike. Both Mikel, and Alex, opted for an efficient gravel bike, with 32mm tyres and a good speed-to-weight ratio. I, on the other hand, opted for a clunkier mountain bike, with tyres measured in inches, rather than millimetres. Not fast, but comfortable. The most risky and potentially trip-ending aspect of the bike, was the fact … it was locally rented.
Pack light. Go far
However, the mountain bike choice was quickly substantiated when we hit our first 15km stretch of moderately technical, but steep, off-road terrain. Alex’s virginity on a gravel bike shimmered through, and Mikel’s enthusiasm too. So much so, he would pick up too much speed on a rocky descent, and with little control over his bike, could not avoid hitting and flipping over a rock and his handlebars. Our first, physical, set back. And not knowing (yet), our first serious mechanical, too. With a brave face, and a juicy melon at a recovery pit stop, we cracked on to the hotel in Zugdidi. A pretty cool name, for an average town. Arriving late, we crushed some beers and enjoyed dinner on the hotel’s rooftop restaurant before we tucked ourselves into bed for a well-deserved sleep.
Day 2: 120km, 2700m, 10% off-road, but all of it… Up, Up, Up!
After a good night’s rest, we started the morning ritual of packing our bags, and getting our bikes and bodies ready. For Alex and myself, that meant finding a pharmacy which sold Vaseline. Once we were lubed up, we were ready to cushion ourselves for an epic day in the saddle.
A relatively flat start to the old Soviet village of Jvari, before the first climb of the day. It was hellish steep though, and in the midday sun proved a struggle, for Mikel. Luckily for him, a helping hand passed in a car and he gladly made use of the ‘sticky bottle’ to the top. The kind man offered us water and some snacks to motor us on.
As soon as we reached the turquoise waters of the Enguri Reservoir, perhaps only 20km further, the next feeding stop was required. Alex was craving some ‘Khachapuri’. We stopped at a road-side restaurant where an old lady happily turned on a wood-fired stove, to make us the traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread.
While stopping, and gauging the skies for potential rain, Mikel kept fiddling with his bike. It was not only his body which took a hit in the crash on day one, it was his bike too. Perhaps this explained his struggles on the bike. The disc brakes were rubbing, and on careful inspection slightly bend. At least enough, for us to enjoy every squeak and whistle his brakes would make, for the next few days. Worse though for him, every time he tapped his brake lever, the brakes would lock, without unlocking. What this meant in practice, was every time we encountered a downhill section, we would need to stop and manually unlock his brakes again, and again, and again…
To add insult to injury, the rains started to unleash. We used to opportunity to shelter at a roadside stall, and do further investigatory work and maintenance on Mikel’s brakes. Even a phone call to Eric the mechanic back home, proved little value. The ordeal was as much a mental as physical drain.
Thankfully the beautiful terrain of rolling hills and quaint little villages, would easily make up for it. It sometimes felt like travelling back in time. Subsistence farming is the dominant way of living. Every household, and thus, every road, had cows, pigs and chicken fluttering around.
Somewhere, deep in Svaneti
We would truly feel this at our destination for the day, the tiny hamlet of Pari. Our host in the guesthouse, would warmly welcome us, with an absolute feast of a dinner. Dozens of plates filled the table with Georgian specialities. An obvious sight for sore eyes for tired cyclists. The mostly vegetarian dishes were locally sourced from the vegetable garden. And absolutely delicious! Likewise for the wine. Sourced from the village, the natural wine still requiring some filtering, was kept in large jerry cans and served in big jugs.
A typical Georgian feast
Post dinner, we kept indulging in the local wine on the covered balcony overlooking the valley. This would prove to be a magical night. As we gauzed into the dark night, thousands of stars would light up the sky, and dozens of shooting stars would add further spark to the evening. With Alex playing the guitar, we would chit chat and chat shit, until we laid ourselves to rest.
Day 3: 77km, 1900m, 40% off-road… Mestia
The following morning, we woke up to the sound of birds chirping and the smell of a fresh breakfast. A perfect remedy to get rid of any cobwebs. Our first goal of the day was to make it 25km down the road to the touristy mountain resort of Mestia. Here we hoped to fix Mikel’s disintegrating disc brakes. It was slow going though. Three inner tubes fell victim during our first flat of the trip, and half a dozen or so stops to unlock Mikel’s brake, again.
In Mestia, we would rely on the only bike shop and mechanic in the region to help us out. It was therefore a big setback realizing they were specialized in e-bikes, and had no spare SRAM parts. However, a creative and extremely patient young mechanic would singlehandedly save Mikel’s trip, through his ingenious use of metal wire and a file, to fix the brake.
With our spirits rejuvenated we were able to properly start the day’s riding, and slowly make our way to Ushguli – Europe’s highest inhabited village at 2,100m. The mountainous region of ‘Svaneti’ is characterized by thick woodlands, soaring peaks, and ancient villages dotting the landscape with medieval watchtowers. However, the natural beauty also correlated directly with worsening road conditions.
Soaring peaks in Ushguli
The weight of our bags on the bikes, the softening surface below our wheels, and endless potholes, proved to be tough going. We would slog our way up, rationing our water and munching on the few energy gels we stashed with us, to be used in situations, just like this.
With the medieval watchtowers of Ushguli coming into sight, we felt a sense of physical relief, but also an astonishment of how beautiful and primordial the place felt. With our homing instinct on, Mikel and I would leave Alex behind to walk himself and is bike (with a flat) into town. That would be the beginning of the end of his bike trip…
A strange smile from our vegetarian…
Arriving at Angelina’s guesthouse, we cracked open a beer, to watch the sun set behind the snow-capped mountains. A goat and horse kept us company. Not for long though. The old goat would be sacrificed the next day for a local festival. We however, tucked into another mammoth display of Georgian specialities, and washed it down with yet another jug of delicious natural wine.
Day 4: 84km, 1000m, 80% off-road
This was a momentous day. Leaving behind the last remnants of civilization in Ushguli, we ventured into pristine wilderness. Lush grasslands, roving horses and trickling streams carrying glacial meltwater into the valleys. We would follow an old and rugged military track up to 2600m and be rewarded for days of climbing with a 50km descent. Sounds ideal, but we would barely make it to our destination before dark…
The tone for the day was set when Alex’s tyre deflated overnight and lost its life again within the first few kilometres. The terrain would not be of any help. This was well and truly the toughest surface we had ever ridden on. The harsh climate at that altitude, decades of erosion, and crumbling rocks, left little of a proper road behind. It was perfect terrain for a mountain bike with suspension though. I was absolutely relishing the chance to bosh my way down. However, the gravel bikes, struggled. To say the least.
Perfect terrain for the mountain bike
Alex encountered his third, fourth and fifth flat (of the day!) within a space of 10km. We spent hours fannying around, patching the tubes, unpacking and repacking our bags, in the hope we could finally #justride. This proved not to be the case. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Half a day’s riding from any sort of civilization, and hardly any passing help. Only a handful of 4×4 cars dared to cross the same pass we were on. After a couple cars passed, and with no progress fixing Alex’s tube issue, we had to take the demoralizing decision for him to accept a lift. Luckily, a very friendly Polish family helped us out, and Alex hesitantly stepped into the broom wagon.
Unfortunately, a typical sight…
Finally, Mikel and I had the remit to crush our way down, albeit on highly technical terrain. We savoured the spectacular landscape as we descended. Perhaps surprisingly, we were also struck by the equally impressive flora. Colossal wild flowers reached nearly 3 meters high, on either side of the track. We only find out later, they were just as beautiful, as they were poisonous. The joyous descent would not last long though…
3 meter tall poisonous wild flowers
A massive landslide halted our progress. It covered the entire, and only road, out of the mountains. There was no way back, and no way forward. We simply looked at each other and could clock each other saying ‘what the fuck?!’
A local construction team, who coincidentally were working on the road, assessed the damage and quickly determined the only solution was …. to blow it all up … with dynamite. After taking a safe distance, and hearing a thunderous noise, we were the first to cross the rubble caring the bikes on our shoulders.
No way through the rockfall….
… dynamite and bulldozers
Now the race was on for us to make it to Lentkehi before dark. Leaving the high mountains behind us, Mikel set a frantic pace into the valley. The day’s efforts had however taken a toll on my energy levels. I could merely sit and drool in his wheel and beg for a bite off his last energy bar. There was no stopping us though. Each passing village, with its pack of dogs barking at our ankles, brought us closer to the end. As we dug deeper and moved faster, we felt the adrenaline spiking with every turn of the pedal. We were on a cycling high, and absolutely loving it! Radiating endorphins and with beaming smiles, we took little notice of the dingy hotel and mediocre restaurant we were saddled with for the night.
Day 5: 70km, 1300m, 0% off-road
The wear and tear of the previous days had accumulated into a lethargic morning. You know you have come to the end of a trip, when you are resorted to wearing your stinky, used and wet bib shorts inside out. As Alex’s bike was still a write off, Mikel happily substituted himself to give Alex a chance to defeat his bad luck. We rode a relatively uneventful and undulating route through lush forests, clouded hilltops and a fast rainy descent, back to where it all started, in Kutaisi.
Arriving back in civilization, and our sights set on our next adventure, we switched our mental and physical gears, from riding to climbing. We packed our bikes and stuffed our bags into a brand-new Toyota 4Runner for a half-day drive from Kutaisi to Kazbegi – a well-established mountain resort and base for countless climbers, hikers and other outdoor thrill seekers.
Hot tub chill
For the night, we decided to reward ourselves and checked in the most luxurious and expensive hotel, not of the town, but of the country. The upmarket hotel, strangely called ‘Rooms’, was super swanky and a fitting playground for rich Russians, the elite from Tblisi and three tired bike riders. We happily indulged in the spa and wellness offerings. Quickly after checking in, we jumped into the heated indoor pool and relaxed in the outdoor hot tube. Walking around in our white bathrobes and slippers, it felt equally strange as good, to order a full body massage for the following day.
After pampering ourselves, we met each other in the hotel bar, for another memorable evening. We kicked it off with a celebratory bottle of Georgian sparkling wine. The traditions of wine are considered entwined with, and inseparable from the national identity. Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world, home to grapevine cultivation for at least 8000 years. Over the course of several bottles of local wine, and numerous plates of delicious Georgian specialties, we again chit chatted, and chat shit all night. Content with ourselves, we simply enjoyed the moment, each other’s company, and sometime after midnight, peacefully hit the deck.
It was a real pleasure, to enjoy our first long lie in for a week. As we walked down to the lobby for breakfast, we were welcomed by a spectacular view of Mount Kazbek. Shimmering through the morning haze and upcoming sun, its sheer size (5047m) was awe-inspiring and menacing. We indulged in one of the largest and most delicious breakfast buffets we have ever had, and just marvelled at the view outside. The goal of the day was simple: rest.
Mnt. Kazbek (5047m)
Taking things at a leisurely pace, we eventually made our way into town. After a gentle stroll and a coffee, we proceeded to a shabby looking shop, which would provide our life saving climbing gear. This included a smelly sleeping bag, a paper thin ‘matrass’, a stove and pot to cook water, and a pair of crampons, harness and rope to traverse the glacier. Oh, and for Alex, there were a pair of worn-down boots he could rent. All of the gear, of mediocre quality, had seen better days, but they did the trick! Now it was simply down to our skills, to make best use of them. Unfortunately, our skills were mediocre too, and had never really seen any good days in the past.
A weathered looking lady in the rental shop with vast experience of the mountain, kindly offered us climbing advice, emergency contacts and most valuably, reassurance we would be just fine. Mikel provided further comfort that it was ‘just a walk up’ commonly done by fat Russians…
We spent the rest of the day prepping and testing our gear, while we checked the weather forecast every hour. Unfortunately, the expected rains materialized, and we had to postpone the start of the ascent. Fortunately, we had built in some contingency for a second rest day. This gave us plenty of time to twiddle our thumbs and read up on our books. For me that meant tucking into the true story of George Mallory, the first British mountaineer to attempt the summit of Everest in the 1920’s. The irony is that he did not come back alive to tell the story himself.
A word of advice: don’t read such a story before climbing.
Technically, the ascent up Mount Kazbek (5047m) is not very difficult. Although crevasses in the glacier and steep icy slopes, at altitude, make it tricky and require technical gear. The difficulty of the mountain though, lies in its physicality. The trek up was 12km long with an elevation difference of 3000m. The bulk of time was spent around 4000m. For us, the time pressure and resulting speed up, meant we could not properly acclimatize, and cut the recommended rest time at base camp by half. We unknowingly embarked on one of our most gruelling physical endeavours, ever.
Carrying 25kg rucksacks, the ‘Sherpa slog’ up was tough, but especially for Mikel. He only found out once back home, he had cracked a rib. Without the knowledge at the time, we used very primative techniques and duct tape to relief pressure on his torso. Considering the visible distress, he simply ploughed through and persevered like a true champ.
Withstanding the physicality, we were once again astonished by and blessed with outstanding natural beauty. Snow-capped mountains and glistening glaciers dominated our view. We felt dwarfed by the monstrous mountains. Feeling so small and vulnerable, really puts life in perspective.
Base camp (3600m) cook & chill
As the temperatures dropped with increased elevation, we finally reached the tongue of the Gergeti Glacier. With our crampons on we traversed the ice for the final hour, before reaching base camp at a deserted weather station at 3600m. The sight of fellow climbers and the temporary rest was much welcomed, even though darkness was upon us. Alex and I hastily pitched up the tent, and patiently boiled water pot-by-pot for our drinking water and the evening’s calorie replenishing meal. A ‘delicious’ freeze dried pack of pasta Bolognese. As we snuggled into the tent, Mikel was the lucky one nestled in the middle. Considering we were fully clothed and wearing hats in our sleeping bag, any additional warmth through bodily heat was very much appreciated. For Alex, who cherishes his privacy, it was a nightmare scenario and he barely closed an eye.
Double spoon for Mikel
With the alarm buzzing at 01:00 AM, rest was limited. Zipping the tent open, we were hit by a wall of icy midnight air. Temperatures had plummeted to -5C. However, we were also blessed by thousands of stars, and a brightly shining moon. This form of natural light provided perfect conditions for our summit attempt. Without a guide, and no knowledge of the route, we simply followed the headlights used by the dozens of groups making their way up. It seemed almost everyone at basecamp, was summitting that day.
It felt surreal, exciting and slightly daunting to be hiking in the dark. Every step took us higher, and into unknown territory, both technically and physically. We climbed up in silence, only hearing ourselves breath and the crushing sound of our boots on the ice. The first 3 hours were spent on relatively straightforward but rocky and icy terrain. At around 05:00 AM we reached the glacier at 4200m. Here it became time to properly rope up, for the next leg of the climb. With little roping practice, we fiddled about for a while, but eventually got ourselves ready. From now on, we were tied together, with Mikel leading the way, and myself anchoring at the back.
Sun rising in Russia
As we made our way up the glacier, the moon and stars made way for the rising sun. Climbing high above the clouds, it was another surreal and jaw-dropping moment. For added novelty, we were unknowingly crossing into Russian territory. The relative, or at least perceived, warmth of the sun was welcomed. However, as Kazbek is a lone standing extinct volcano, it is exposed to the elements. For us that meant a howling wind. As every step above 4500m required full focus, there was little time to properly enjoy the views.
Progress started to seriously slow down above 4700m. This was partly self-inflicted, but mostly due to the human traffic. Similar to the images that went viral of Everest, we found ourselves unable to move forward on a single track of steep snow and ice. When not moving, at that elevation, in those winds, it gets very cold, very quickly. Having seen a fellow climber lose a glove (which you really do not want to happen), I had to resist not grabbing an energy bar from my bag. With my legs starting to tremble and unable to feel my toes, I began to think and contemplate the risks we were exposed to. Overthinking does not necessarily serve well on a mountain. But maybe it did have a purpose.
Things getting icy…
The haphazard progress seriously impacted our momentum. Our dwindling energy and lack of acclimatization was also starting to blur our focus. After checking a couple of times, we eventually made a collective decision, to turn around. This difficult decision was not only demoralizing, but a real anti-climax. Our only condolence was the reassurance of ‘safety-first’. Thinking of our families, and the faith of George Mallory, it felt like we were being really responsible dads. But fair to say, with babies and pregnant wives back home, safety was truly paramount.
Walking down the mountain in defeat, we knew we missed to reach the pinnacle of our trip. However, the climb was still exhilarating and rewarding. We grew on that mountain, as friends and as men. We learned not to overestimate ourselves, undermine others, and at all costs, to always respect a mountain.
A smiling Hulk Hogan
In the drive back to Tbilisi, we cracked open some tinnies and cranked up the tunes. Arriving tipsy into Tbilisi, we went for our last dinner and an evening of drinks in town. We looked back at another exceptional bike-packing trip, but also started to look ahead at our next adventure. After last year’s exploits in Lebanon (read Humus Hezbollah and the Pursuit of Happiness), we are excited and curious to see what next year brings.
In that vein, live the life you love and fill it with experiences. Not things. Have stories to tell, not stuff to show. Ask, what makes you come alive? And go do it.