Georgia – first impressions

Already on the Turkish coast, as we’d read, the dry heat of inland Turkey was replaced by the steamy heat of the subtropical forest. As we progressed up Georgia’s coast it got more so: greenery abounded, the sun baked.  But sweating didn’t work because of the high humidity; naturally, we sweated more as a result. So must the locals, as even before getting to the holiday resort, it was abundantly clear that Georgians don’t follow the dress codes of their Islamic neighbours.  Gid could hardly keep his eyes on the road.
The Georgian side of the crossing was a sort of informally busy hub of transports and retail. It also revived memories of Budapest. Gone were all the Turks’ small practical Fiats,  Fords and Hyundais and their archaic Renault 12s and 70s Fiats. Instead, it seemed every expiring 80s German big saloon had made its way to Georgia to die. The quintessential Georgian motor seems to be a blackish ’85 Mercedes E class, with the front bumper missing, some very dodgy paint repairs, and a really rough engine.
With more dough, an X5 or M class SUV is chosen, although again, bumpers are optional. The reason soon became clear. Traffic is fairly dense, but there are few dual carriageways and rarely are there Turkey’s generous hard shoulders.  So Georgians put their foot down and overtake up the middle of the busy road. Thus it pays to have something big looking, fierce looking, heavy, fastish, with a loud horn and disposable. It also helps that gas is about €0.50 a litre.
That’s the cars. Georgia’s numerous minibuses, buses and commercial vehicles look rather like Turkey’s old ones; everything is a generation older than next door. That’s in the towns and on main roads. In the sticks we see the same, plus a lot more battered Ladas, Volgas, and other Soviet era transport, often ex military in appearance. Of course, Georgia was not only behind the iron curtain, it was one of the Soviet Union’s Socialist Republics. On a bike it  has mostly manifest as being a bit more noise together with a lot more smoke and unburnt petrol fumes. Yuk.
Once we’d got over the initial scare of the overtaking, actually the traffic isn’t too bonkers. In town, Georgians are no less considerate than most Euro drivers, just a little less inhibited with right foot, horn, and what might count as parking. But the English-like traffic density on pretty narrow roads, and fume laden air, were very unwelcome after rural Turkey.  In Batumi bikes were quite common around the seafront, including rental stands. Less common in the towns, and so far, we’ve seen just one on the open road.
We’re also struggling a bit with shopping. The little shops we pass aren’t as poorly stocked as Bulgaria’s, but we sometimes struggle to find variety for lunch, and especially, the “iced tea” that Clare has become very attached to. Plus of course, packs are marked in Georgia’s unique alphabet, often Cyrillic as well; in Batumi often Turkish or English too, but that is less so inland.  Milk = რძე in Georgian and Молоко in Russian. Gideon OTOH now has the option of drinking beer again, though it took a week for this to take effect. We’ll probably get better at shopping, it may well be us, not the shops.
Our first stop was a 5 day collapse in Batumi, Georgia’s premier Black Sea Resort. We’d sussed out a few possible hostels beforehand, but ended up in a guesthouse next door: cheaper and more comfortable. We hadn’t realised how tiredness had built up: This was the first rest stop where we really did very little, over 4 days we achieved:
  • 2 swims in the (warm) sea, one accompanied by a couple of surprises – eurrgh!
  • 2 ambles round sights in the town.
  • 2 or 3 thrillers read.
  • Extra laundry washed.
  • 2 new chains, Gideon’s bar tape and bus-damaged brake cable replaced.
  • Slept lots.
  • Cooked evening meals with potatoes.
  • Failed to significantly improve our Georgian or Russian.
Batumi has clearly been building attractions over recent years, and is very clearly a holiday resort. It was pleasant enough wandering around gawping and failing to find any decent maps.
After Batumi we had initially planned to swing south before heading East. However advice in the hostel was this was a lumpy dirt road and very steep, so we rerouted north, up the main coast road, which was unpleasant, before turning East on more minor roads, which were nice again, except for interludes where topology forces us back to the main road, or the map deceived us into thinking a main road would be, well, a road. There are some hills, but it’s mostly river valleys. We can see steep, densely wooded hills in all directions, but most roads are well graded. The steamy heat makes them harder than they ought to be. On the third day from Batumi we did encounter some short hills of up to 19%, this was in an area flagged with brown signs for a vineyard tour. However locals regard us with bemusement, so we don’t think tourism is a great industry here.
As we progressed east, the climate gradually got drier. No less hot, but once we got to Gori we were definitely back to hot and dry again.
The bigger of the little towns have so far always managed perfectly serviceable hotels or guesthouses. Except once (Kaspi – Nothing!), so we continued 30km to Mtskheta, which turned out to be “not to be missed”, the historic cathedral of the Georgian Orthodox Church. We could rough camp, but showers are sooooo nice in this heat. Accomodation isn’t well signed, but asking around in the centre has worked so far. A rather smart, new, but underused (totally unsigned) hotel for 60GEL (€23) with aircon and an huge breakfast; then a rather stuffy double room in Bagdati’s hostel for 30GEL; then 40GEL in Kharagauli  for a nice double, which also was stuffy, until the manager tapped on the door with a fan (really, really appreciated). In Bagdati there was a storm late evening and the town’s water supply was cut off, but this was foreseen by the staff who came to warn us so we’d already showered by then. In Gori, which has some tourist attractions including a (the?) Josef Stalin museum, a nice smart central hotel for 60GEL. In Mtskheta, which looked a real tourist trap, Lali’s guesthouse (unsigned but in the Garmin OSM) was very comfy with our own kitchen for 50GEL. The only mis-hit so far was near Surami, where, in gathering dark, exhausted by our hike and 40Km of really rough hilly road, we emerged onto the main road by a shop, and on asking folk where there might be a cheap hotel (iap’i sastumro), were directed above it. The owners (two or three middle aged ladies) seemed flummoxed by the idea, but eventually we were let in. It was only 30GEL, the room was basic and tatty, the washing facilities, without running water, primitive, and the toilet, well, Clare wasn’t impressed. But we slept well enough and nothing unexpected seemed to live in the beds.
In Kharagauli, we were, as often, trawling along the street looking for the hotel the locals indicated, and Gideon observed, 2 doors before, “National Park Office”. We’d not anticipated that from the maps (which, strictly, are of Turkey, except for the little tourist leaflet). Gideon did the shopping, and Clare went to the office to see what we might observe next day: She came back with a plan, which had better have its own post*.
*It does have its own post, blogged immediately before this one.

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