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Gaumarjos Georgia

19 September 2023

Words & Photos: Jane Shearer

Q: What do you do when one of the six Georgians who have invited you to a BBQ beside an abandoned hot pool at 2000 m elevation says, “I hate hunting, but we have guns”.

A: You smile and pose for the photos holding guns.

Now, I regret turning down the offer to shoot the guns. When might I get the chance to shoot an AK47, or a Turkish sniper’s rifle, again?

It’s rare to have a situation like the above and feel totally comfortable. We’ve had some odd incidents cycle touring - dancing and drinking Kyrgyz cognac early in the morning at 2400 m, karaoke singing Born Free at 8.30am at a Sumatran party for Electricity Day, having a tea party with Russians in the Tajik highlands - but this is the only one with guns. However, friendly will be my abiding memory of Georgia. People weren’t always smiling and outwardly ‘have a nice day’ sort of friendly, but everywhere we went people were kind and helpful.

As a bikepacking destination Georgia is hard to beat. The scenery ranged from good to fantastic. We largely followed the Caucasus Crossing (Georgia) route on bikepacking.com from east to west, then made our own route back to Tbilisi from Mestia at the end of our trip. You can take bikes on the train between Zugdidi (end/start of the bikepacking.com route) and Tbilisi, but we prefer to cycle loops if possible. The Caucasus Crossing route online is described west to east and says you can go either way. However, having done it east to west I would recommend the opposite. We chose east to west because we were going to start in July and finish by volunteer trail building in the west - in Svaneti. The downside was that the crux of the ride is the 3500 m Atsunta Pass in Tusheti, eastern Georgia, and it’s a good idea to a) be in truly excellent bikepacking shape to cope with two days of pushing your bike and all your gear and b) reach Atsunta Pass when the exceptionally scary Georgian mountain rivers have dropped in mid to late summer. The first hikers of the season crossed Atsunta Pass in the last week of June and the rivers were high up their legs and flowing fast, based on their reports. That’s not a river to carry a bike across! So we had to skip the pass where, if we’d gone west to east the rivers would have been lower.

Chris in Ushguli looking in awe at Shkhara (5193 m) in the Upper Caucasus Mountains.

Of when to go… if you want to go to the mountainous regions, which are the highlight of Georgia, you have to go in the summer months; you can’t get into Tusheti between October and May. The recommended timing for bikepacking is mid-June to early September. We were in Georgia from 22 June to 14 August. If you go too early there is too much snow, but in mid-summer it gets hot in the lowlands. In the mountains temperatures topped out in the mid-twenties Celsius. However, around Tbilisi (the capital of Georgia) and Kutaisi we cycled in oven-like mid-thirties, which has to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Cycling isn’t a common activity in Georgia, we saw almost no local cyclists on the streets and bike shops are very few and far between. There are a small number of bike shops in Tbilisi and a good one in Kutaisi (Zura’s Bike Shop), the third largest city. If you need bike parts, best you take them with you. We got to remember this in earnest as we wore through sets of SRAM brake pads much faster than we would have preferred thanks to highly abrasive mud and dust on the trails and roads - next trip we are taking four sets of pads each.

We were happy with our bikepacking set-ups on this ride, particularly our new innovation of using a 35 litre backpack (made by David Carey of Fiordland Packs) as a front roll. The 450g pack-as-front-roll reduced our load by about 1kg (previously we used an Ortleib dry bag plus an Osprey backpack strapped on top). When we needed to push the bikes, the pack fitted almost all our gear and food, meaning we could push unloaded bikes. I highly recommend this approach, which I haven’t seen anyone else doing yet. I also recommend the Paper Roads Hungry Ranger (bag that hangs in front of your front roll) for carrying a laptop. It carried my MacAir the whole trip without an issue.

Pack as front roll and Hungry Ranger.

We spent about equal amounts of time camping and staying in guest houses. Wild camping is no problem and the majority of Georgia isn’t heavily populated. It was mostly easy to find places to camp near water, and with shade once the temperatures rose. One advantage of guest houses over camping is that they generally provide food as well as a bed - shops in villages have limited offerings (particularly a lack of fresh supplies). Georgian cuisine is great - food was a real highlight of the trip. It includes lots of vegetables, with tomato and cucumber salad being a staple. Chris’s favourite was eggplant rolls with walnut - walnut paste is used in many dishes. Bread is central to every meal, as is cheese. The classic Georgian bread-with-cheese - khachapuri - is something to be experienced multiple times in the many forms specific to different Georgian regions. Khachapuri is good hot or cold and travels well too!

One thing to note about both guesthouses and food is that Georgia is not a cheap country. The cheapest guesthouses were 20 Lari per night per person and 25 Lari per person per meal i.e. 140 Lari for both of us, which is about 90NZD (1NZD = 1.6 Lari currently). In most cases, the guesthouse food was about the same cost as a restaurant. You can travel a lot more cheaply if you buy food in shops or markets, but it is hard to buy anything less than a kilo of e.g. cherries for $5 or potatoes for $2.

Birthday breakfast in Tusheti.

We both ride Bombtrack Beyond +2s with a carbon fork and 2.8 inch tyres (tubeless), which perform really well both uphill and downhill. They worked well on this trip. Note: don’t loan your bicycle to a young Georgian if you want to keep it tubeless because they might ride it carelessly across a stormwater grating, denting the rim. We use Salsa Anything Cages with 3 litre bags on the forks, full frame bags, Porcelain Rocket Mr Fusion frames on the rear with 11 litre dry bags, two Revelate Feedbags on the front and a Magtank and Jerrycan on the top tube. That allows us to carry full camping kit with 3-4 days of not-too-generous food rations. Water wasn’t an issue in Georgia with streams in many places and taps in most villages and it is rare to have more than a day without a small shop for a basic food resupply.

Georgia turned out to be a great bikepacking destination that we didn’t have to share with too many people - we saw two bikepackers while there and a handful of long-distance cycle tourists who kept to the sealed roads. The only area with significant numbers of foreign tourists is Svaneti, particularly Mestia and Ushguli. There are 4WD tracks in many places and lots of potential to branch out from the Caucasus Crossing and discover your own routes. It also has great hiking. You may not have heard about Georgia previously as a destination but I suggest it’s one to put on your list of places to go. Then you too can say Gaumarjos (Hello) Georgia.