October 17th to 21st. 290km
After a glimmer of hope that the weather might improve, the rain returned while we were in Seki. We managed to get out for a wander around the town to look at the old palace and a church on the hill but by mid afternoon we were forced back to the Caravanserai by the rain. From our room we could hear it pouring down outside in the courtyard through the night. We waited around in the morning hoping it would ease off, but after our third coffee at 10:30 it was clear we’d need to get the waterproofs on and hit the road.
After the long climb to get us in to Seki two days previous, we were owed a long downhill, and we got it. We didn’t need to pedal at all for the first 10km and then the rest of the morning was either flat or downhill so we got a decent distance done quite quickly. Even if we did get soaked. There was the option of a short cut to get to Zaqatala, but it looked like the road was unpaved. With the amount of rain we’d had, we figured the surface would be very muddy so we opted to stay on the sealed road even if it meant a longer day. We didn’t really have much to look at as the clouds were so low, so we just got on with it. We were chased by quite a few dogs along this stretch. Mostly they were just chasing us for fun, but one or two looked a lot more viscious. A loud shout and chucking a rock or two usually gets them to back off though. (I’ve been carrying stones in my pocket recently so I can launch one from the saddle without having to pull over and stop to pick one up.) On one occasion a particularly persistent dog was hot on Clare’s tail, then a van very kindly pulled over forcing the dog off the road. The guy driving beeped and gave us the thumbs up as he drove off.
We stopped for lunch and chai after 55km and as the rain didn’t look like stopping, we decided we’d look for another hotel for the evening. We would’ve liked to have camped more in Azerbaijan, but when it’s pouring with rain and the ground is so waterlogged and muddy, spending a bit of cash on a dry, warm room is definitely worth it. The cold is no problem but getting all our kit wet and muddy really sucks. We continued for another 30km, on a long gradual uphill which took us into Zaqatala where we pulled into a motel attached to a petrol station. No doubt they took pity on us looking absolutely drenched, as they gave us a really cheap price for a bigger room.
The next day it was still grey, but at least it was dry. We could see fresh snow on the hills to our right, covering the trees down to quite a low altitude. Autumn is definitely here. It turns out Azerbaijan is a small country – we only had another 35km to go from here to get to the Georgian border. It’s a shame we’ve had such crap weather as unfortunately that’ll probably be our lasting memory of the country. It’s no doubt a beautiful place, we just didn’t see much of it! Balatan is the last town before the border so we stopped for a kebab for lunch and to spend the last of our Azeri Manat in a supermarket. We were chased again by some cheeky dogs on the way out of town, then soon found ourselves at the checkpoint. It didn’t take too long crossing the border, they X-rayed one pannier each leaving Azerbaijan and then had a quick check of our first aid kit and medication when we entered Georgia. No visa required for up to a year, thank you very much. Country number 14.
The first town we reached was Lagodeki where we stopped at an ATM to withdraw some Georgian Lari and then found our way to the Kiwi Guesthouse. No link to New Zealand, but named for the kiwi fruit they have growing in the garden. Everyone who we’ve spoken to about Georgia has told us about the food and how good it is, so we’ve really been looking forward to getting here. Dinner and then breakfast in the guesthouse definitely lived up to expectations. Nothing fancy, just hearty homemade food, seasonal veggies, fresh bread and good cheese.
We had a chilly night, the small heater struggled to warm the room. We’d have been warmer in our tent with our sleeping bags! More snow on the hills the following morning as we set off towards Sighnaghi, a town in the hills on the other side of the valley. Initially it was a mellow downhill into the bottom of the valley before we started to climb out the other side. The dogs in Georgia turned out to be equally annoying as their Azeri counterparts, but none got too close to us. As we reached the hills the road really started climbing for the last 10km. Halfway up the steep zig zaggy road my speedo ticked over 1,000km. With the 14,000km that we logged before I changed the battery to reset the counter, that makes 15,000km total for our trip. Big milestone! Worthy of a small celebration, I reckon. Lucky we’re in wine country!
Arriving in Sighnaghi we passed through a big archway in the wall and were into an old town with cobbled streets and beautiful stone buildings. We found a guesthouse perched on the mountainside where the owner welcomed us with a carafe of his homemade wine. On a clear day, no doubt the view from the terrace would have been unbelievable, but we were surrounded by clouds. The wine went down very nicely though, then we went out to look around the town and get some food. Later in the afternoon we got a lucky break in the clouds giving us brief views down into the valley and across to the Caucasus Mountains, covered in snow.
We hung around and had a late breakfast the next day, hoping for another break in the clouds which never came. The brekkie was good though, complete with homemade ‘Cha-cha’, a local spirit made from grapes, similar to grappa. About 55% abv, so just the one shot, thanks! Back on the bikes, we continued uphill on the cobbled streets to a ridgeline where we stopped to take a few photos of the picturesque town below. Even with less than perfect weather, first impressions of Georgia are very good!
We rode through the hills for most of the morning, surrounded by vineyards and earthy autumn colours. We joined the main road to Tbilisi where the traffic got heavier. The vehicles were moving fast and overtaking pretty recklessly so we were concentrating on riding, not chatting or looking at the surroundings too much from then on. We passed a couple of old castles beside the road, but other than that, there wasn’t too much to see. With the cloudy skies, it started to get dark quite early so we were looking around for a place to camp. Soon after passing through Sagarejo we left the road and passed through some trees to pitch our tent on some open ground on the hillside above.
The next morning the sky was a bit lighter and we had a nice view of the morning mist hanging over the low ground below us. I had just taken care of some morning business behind a bush when I was caught, almost literally, with my pants down by a couple of sheepdogs that appeared from nowhere. Luckily the shepherd wasn’t far behind and called them back. He came to say hello and we had the usual chat with a few Russian words but mostly gestures. He wandered off, but the dogs sat watching us for a while as we made coffee and packed up our camp.
From here we had 50km to get in to Tbilisi, the capital. We were in rolling hills for the first hour or so before we had a nice long downhill into the outskirts of the city. We stopped mid morning at a bakery for a khachapuri, the iconic Georgian cheesy pastry. They’re absolutely delicious and come in a number of different varieties, available fresh almost everywhere. Full of fat and cholesterol, but perfect cycling snacks!
The road was really busy getting into the city but once we got closer to the centre it widened to three lanes, giving us a bit more space on our bikes. We saw signs for a big shopping mall and pulled over to stop at the giant Carrefour supermarket. Returning to the bikes stocked up with cheese, snacks and coffee, I found my rear tyre flat. What!? I made it all the way on dirt roads through Kyrgyzstan, and then rode the whole Pamir Highway without a single puncture, only to get one in a supermarket carpark? Ridiculous.
After changing the tube quickly, we rode the final few kilometres to downtown Tbilisi. We negotiated the busy central junction at Liberty Square to find our way down into the narrow streets of the Old Town to an Air BnB that we’d booked. By reputation and our first impressions, Tbilisi is a great city. We’ll stay here for a few days to check it out before we continue east towards the Black Sea coast. Here’s our route from Seki to Tbilisi: