Cycling in Georgia: Winter's coming

Frontiers are a fascinating place. These physical borders between countries often feel like imaginary lines dreamt up by middle age men in far away places. When travelling between countries in much of Europe or Asia, you can watch as the culture, the food and the language slowly blend together and change over hundreds of kilometres. Cultures that are centuries old can straddle borders between 2 or 3 countries, whose lines were carved on maps through the spoils of war in the 20th century.


Cycling in to Georgia was different. Crossing this imaginary line was like stepping between two worlds, like cycling back in time to a place where the tentacles of modernisation haven't quite reached. Mosques were replaced by churches and monasteries in the space of hundreds of meters. Buzzing urban centres dotted with universities and cafes were replaced by crumbling stone buildings in tiny agriculture towns, which seemed as if they had just woken from a long, long winter. 


Two things didn't change though. 1. Our failure to plan and 2. The kindness of strangers. Both came to the fore on our first day, as we pedalled into town starving and moneyless, with not an ATM in sight, and not a word of Georgian on our mind. Luckily our arrival on bikes spiked the curiosity of the local market man, who happily plied us full of bread, chocolate and coffee, before sending us on our way. 


Cycling down the main road we ran into this traffic jam. Sheep running away from winter

Cycling down the main road we ran into this traffic jam. Sheep running away from winter

I've been dreading the onset of winter from the moment we decided to cycle across continents. Nothing scares an Australian more than a long, dark winter, and the thought of cycling through snow certainly doesn't bring joy to my mind. So you can imagine the look on my face our first morning in Georgia, when I step outside to find 2 meters of fresh snow, with flakes still falling on our faces. And in case you're wondering, cycling through snow is great fun, for about 30 minutes. Then it becomes cold, bloody cold. It didn't take long for us to seek refuge in the nearest restaurant for some warm food, and some serious thinking. Am I really prepared to camp and cycle through this for the next 4 months?


Luckily Manon's endless optimism convinced me all was good, and it wasn't long before we were back on the road. We were even brave enough to take the small dirt road leading to our next destination. Not such a smart idea though, as snow turns dirt to mud of course. So there we were, 200m down the road, covered in mud up to our knees, with the wheels on our bikes hardly turning, when Lucy laughs and waves us over. "What the hell are you crazy kids doing, get inside and get by the fire!" We're never one to turn down a fire, so off we rushed for our first experience in Georgian hospitality. 


First lesson of Georgian hospitality: thou shall not drink tea. Second lesson of Georgian hospitality: though shall drink alcohol, preferably homemade, and lots of it! Thus ensued our first experience of Georgian drinking culture, where Ben was dragged off with the men to work their way through 5L of homeade chacha (60-70%). At every Georgian drinking occasion there's a head honcho, who pours the glasses, before rising to his feet to announce a toast. Now these toasts aren't to be taken lightly, and can last from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, while everyone looks on seriously and nods approvingly, before downing your glass on completion. 


Unfortunately they don't take no for an answer in Georgia, so it was with a foggy mind and sore head that I arose that next morning, only to find our bikes completely frozen solid. It turns out the mud on our wheels and in our brakes had frozen over night, so our bikes were in need of some serious cleaning. Lucky Lucy had warm water on hand, and it wasn't too long before we were back on the road again.


We headed for lower land, where the snow melted away, and we cycled through mountains and valleys covered with the beautiful oranges, reds and yellows of Autumn. It seemed we weren't the only ones running away from the cold, as the highway was often blocked up with flocks of thousands of sheep heading down to their winter home. 


Our first few days in Georgia proved some of the most challenging so far. But it's through the challenging times that we learn the most, and this Australian learnt cycling through the snow ain't that bad after all.