The World Bank organized a regional retreat in Georgia at Lake Bazaleti some 50 km from Tbilisi. The location was just off the ‘Georgian Military Road’, which was constructed by Russian engineers starting in 1799, helping cement Russia’s annexation of Georgia in 1801. It was an incredible feat as they had to traverse the Caucasus mountains from Vladikavkaz in Russia to Tbilisi, and in doing so built a road which was better than most roads that existed in Russia. Since I had my bicycle with me, I took the chance for a short visit to this historic area.
Lake Bazeleti is a beautiful and quiet spot. We were staying in a new hotel which was right at the lake’s edge. Unfortunately because of my recent accident I was unable to test the waters since the wound was still healing. In any event, it was an idyllic spot for a retreat, even if we did spend most of our time indoors discussing South Caucasus issues.
Since my accident three weeks ago, I had done very little cycling. In fact, I had only managed four sessions on my trainer in the hotel room. I decided to go for a short ride on Sunday evening to see how things felt in the real world.
It was a beautiful evening with the golden sun casting long shadows over the road. I headed away from the main road and enjoyed the quiet road and the farms along the way. As I reached a long straight I saw what looked to be a crowd of people at the end. Must be a mistake but as I closed I saw that indeed there were a lot of people – as well as two cars facing me.
With a cloud of smoke as their tires spun, the drag race begun and I decided that it was time to exit to the shoulder and let them pass. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. The fellow in my lane was the slow one and he gave up only part way to the finish line. I continued on to the crowd who were just like you’d find in the west – 95% males between 15 and 30. As I watched the next race several came over and spoke to me but none spoke English. After one vehicle gave a show of burning doughnuts I decided to head back again, since the road from here on was unpaved and not good for cycling. I quickly headed down the road past the finish line just to be safe, which was a good thing as the next race began shortly afterwards. I was told by my Georgian colleagues that there is a long history of ‘motorheads’ in Georgia. In the old days they used to soup up their Ladas, but have now graduated to faster western models. I went back to the hotel happy that my knee seemed up to a longer ride – which I planned for the next day.
I made two trips up the Military Highway on successive days, both in the early evening after we had finished our meetings. The lake is located on a plateau area so the first part of the ride was a fun downhill run. This late in the day the work was over so I passed women sitting by the side of the road having a chat, children playing football, and even a puppy standing with its legs over the edge of a fence watching the world go by. Except for two old Ladas overloaded with people, I had the road all to myself which was a real pleasure. There was one enthusiastic dog, but with me travelling at over 50 km/h he didn’t have a hope of catching me.
Upon reaching the Military Highway I turned left towards Russia. I was very pleased to find that the road was lightly trafficked with a good surface – I wondered if we had financed the resealing on one of our projects. One advantage to riding a bicycle is that one quickly finds the defects in any pavement! I was now riding up into the mountains so there was a bit of a grade, but nothing too serious.
The Georgian countryside is lovely with lots of farms. In fact, some 50% of Georgians work in agriculture. There are also a lot of sheep and cattle, and at this time of day the farmers were moving their stock. So I had the pleasure of several times passing through the different herds as they made their way along the highway. So much for my nice clean bike … In one location I was fortunate to follow a large truck which scattered a herd of cows into the adjacent hills. I’d rather be well clear of larger animals than cycling through packs of them. I’m always worried they will do something dumb – like when I was trekking to Everest with my friend David who was almost gored by a yak.
In the middle of nowhere I came across two large apartment buildings. They must have somehow been related to a nearby dam project. Further up there was a large industrial city which looked like an abandoned object. In fact, heading up into the mountain I came across a real large abandoned object – some form of tunnel which was now disused. It looked to have been a railway tunnel but I could not find the exit, nor any evidence of any infrastructure besides this one overgrown tunnel.
The Caucasus mountains are magnificent and as I cycled further into them I was rewarded with views that made the efforts well worth it. I have a real thing for mountains, even if in my current relatively unfit state they are extra hard work.
An interesting aspect to travelling in Georgia is that you come across art in the most unlikely places. For example, the walls leading up the road to an irrigation system control gate were festooned with carvings of workers. At the dam which created the headwaters in the photos above they had this dramatic object d’art. Ugly in the extreme, it’s angular shape with rusted steel ‘spikes’ at the top was impossible for a simple engineer like me to understand.
On my first ride I turned around at the statue, on the second I sent further into the mountains where I came across a ‘hunting lodge’. I recalled that my colleague Ning Jiangbo from China had told me that Chinese were coming to Georgia on holidays in part to go hunting: everything huntable in India has since been killed and eaten.
Unfortunately even though the road enticed me further into the mountains I had to head back to the hotel as there was not that much sunlight left in the day. I enjoyed the rewards for my upward efforts, by descending the mountains at over 35 mph in places. I passed a convoy of vehicles from the OSCE driving in the opposite direction who must have been shocked to see a fellow in a Canadian cycling shirt zooming down the hill with a huge smile on his face. We were quite close to South Ossetia and the Russian army so I wondered if that was their destination.
As I began the climb up the hotel there were a lot more animals on the road enjoying the evening sun. I managed to easily scare the pig in the photo below off the road. What was more disconcerting was the number of dogs about, some of whom were quite aggressive. I used a skill I mastered in Malaysia of waiting until they were close to my ankles before spraying them with water in the face from my water bottle. It was very effective but after four dogs I was getting worried. Fortunately, the last – and by far biggest – dog’s owner called it off the road so my luck didn’t run out.
It was great to see all the Georgian families out eating meals at picnic tables, playing football or volleyball, or just socializing. A sense of family and community which we seem to have lost in the west.
Arriving at the hotel after my long ride, I had a very fast shower and then headed over to dinner. Unfortunately, there was not much left for a ravenous cyclist but I made do. In my absence the Bank staff had been playing different games and I was castigated by my team members for my absence as one of them involved pedalling a boat on the lake. I apologized but told them that I’ll take a ride in the mountains any day over a pedal on the lake.
They were busy setting up for the evening’s entertainment which the banner to the right gives away: karaoke. It’s interesting how it is so popular in the east whereas in North America we don’t tend to do it at all. The evening opened with some great Armenian dancing and then the talent show started with some great singing and music. Even the songs in Russian were fun as they were sung with such gusto. It’s impressive the range of talent – and non-talent – that we have. I was roped into joining the headquarters staff to sing the Beatle’s song “Can’t buy me love” which we belted out with more enthusiasm than skill. Others were great, such as my colleague Martha who sings in a group in DC, Orlin – a former Bulgarian rock band member – and a woman from Baku. We will leave out those who murdered rather than sang songs 🙂
I left about 23:30 to disassemble and pack my bike, but it went on until all hours. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to see some more of this beautiful country. Must do this again some time and push deeper into the Caucasus.