04 Sep Into thin air: from Georgia to Mt Elbrus
As we crossed into Georgia, we began to keep a mental count of the number of cycling days left. It was down to signal digits- if all went to plan we would be in Terskol village at the base of mount Elbrus in 7 days.
The knowledge that we had nearly completed the cycle was the context through which we made our decisions in Georgia; we didn’t want to take any risks that might have meant falling at the final hurdle. So we were a bit more conservative with our distances than we had been across Turkey. And whenever we felt like the road was getting dangerous we would either get off and walk until it improved or find another route: having come this far, Elbrus was within touching distance. We didn’t want to anything to happen that might stop us getting there.
Batumi is a city with roads of pot holes. We literally dodged and dived our way out of the inner city traffic, before finding a local bike repair shop to pump our tyres before we set off across the country. The road out of Batumi took us North along the coast. Single lane traffic, and crazy Georgian drivers meant that it wasn’t the safest. We had gotten used to the flat Turkish coast, so when the road veered right up a steep winding hill, in the humid weather, we did struggle, but it also meant we were able to see views like this…
After the best part of 5000km, the bikes had had more than their fair share of wear and tear. They were still in great shape- nothing significant was in danger of going wrong. But all of the small replaceable parts were beginning to go. Punctures were becoming more frequent, the break pads were wearing out and Erin’s chain snapped at one point when we were cycling across a particularly pot-hole-ridden road. In an act of god, there was a mechanic only 100m further down the road. We wheeled the bike in and they had the chain fixed in no time.
We arrived in Samtredia just be before sunset.
A small town, we settled down for an early night. But not for long. Food poisoning struck again, and Ben and was up all night. After some help from the hotel owner and our Austrian cycle touring neighbours who where making their way to Australia, we were forced to stay put for a day so that we could recover.
A day later, with Ben having now vowed to avoid all meat for the rest of the trip, we tentatively continued down the highway. We wanted to keep going as one of our friends from university, who’s family is from a small village just outside of Sachkhere, had invited us to stay. A definite treat was a home-cooked meal and welcoming hosts, for a brilliant stay in local Georgia.
We would have loved to have stayed in Sackhere, but we knew if we were to make it to Elbrus on time we had to push on. The road was tough, uphill, with a very strong headwind. Progress was slow, and our target distance for the day was looking far off. Every km was slow and by this point were both pretty exhausted.
Fortunately, once we hit back on the motorway a tailwind and some flat roads meant that we flew into Mshtreta- a gorgeous traditional town just North of Tbilisi. It has a stunning monastery in the central square, and we managed to have breakfast on top of a restaurant overlooking it.
Georgia is located between two very powerful neighbours; Turkey and Russia. Relations with Russia are still tainted by the conflict in 2008, and the Foreign Office advises against all travel to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This was the first point at which we had to make decisions about the route solely based upon on security concerns and where our insurance company would allow us to go on bikes, so we made a large detour around South Ossetia and stopped directly south of the Kazbegi border crossing.
The next morning we set off directly north, along the military highway. We knew it was going to be a tough few days as we would be climbing up to a mountain pass at 2,300m to reach the border. We planned to cover only 70km on the first day and make it halfway up the ascent. The morning was a gradual climb and we reached our lunchtime stop of Asanauri for spectacular views across a reservoir and a bite to eat!
The afternoon ride got steeper and steeper along winding valley roads. We reached Pasanauri in good time, and took an early night as we knew the real climb would be the following day up to Kazbegi.
Excited for our ascent, we woke early. The cold in the mountain morning was bitter. With our soft shell jackets on, we raced down the road to warm our body temperatures up. The scenery was breathtaking as we made our way up the valley road.
Then, as the signs for 12% inclines increased, we knew we were starting the serious climb. Hair pin bends took us higher and higher up into the mountains, and soon we were level with the clouds. With all of our touring gear on the bikes, you had to work for every push of the pedal. Our average speed must have been around 5/6kph on the steepest bits!
After a long morning of climbing, we reached our lunch time stop of Gudauri, a ski resort at around 2100m. When you have cycled to a ski resort, you know you must be up high!
Exhausted, we refuelled at a local restaurant. When some German tourists on a road trip found out what we were doing, they bought us lunch. Thank you 🙂
Feeling warmed up, we put our jackets back on and jumped back on the bike. We still had around 10km of ascent until we reached the top. This time we really were cycling in the clouds, as the visibility and temperature dropped. It was a proud moment when we reached the top at 2375m.
After a quick photo, we jumped back on the bikes and zoomed down the other side of the pass, We descended 20km all the way down into Kazbegi.
Kazbegi is the last major town before the Russian border and it famous for being the centre of the Georgian outdoors industry. It sits below Mt Kazbegi- the third highest peak in Europe at 5000m+ and along with climbing there is also hiking and mountain-biking.
We had mixed emotions on our final day in Georgia, we were sad to be leaving the country behind but also intrigued, and slightly nervous, to cross into Russia. But we were in for one last treat, the road from Kazbegi to the border took us further down through the valley of mountains and we glided for 20km down to the border.
Being on the bike is always a joy at border crossings, we weaved our way through the line of cars (many who had been waiting for hours and hours) and with our Visa’s checked we were through. The russian border guard tried to question us but it was a bit pointless as he spoke no English and we spoke no Russian, so he soon gave up and waved us through. We were amazed, we had actually cycled to Russia!
Again, the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to the Caucus region of Russia. Because of its proximity to Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan where there are ongoing Russian military operations against rebels, our insurance company did not like the idea of us cycling through the Caucus region to Elbrus, so we met Vitaly from Russian Mountain Holidays in Vladikavkaz.
Safety has to come first, and with the knowledge that we had cycled as far as we could without taking what we deemed an excessive security risk, we put the bikes into a van and drove to Terskol village.
The militarisation of the area was apparent, we crossed a number of fortified checkpoints, some with armoured vehicles present. After the short drive we made it to Terskol and we had our first view of Mt Elbrus!
The Adventure continues… final stop Mt Elbrus, the highest point in Europe!!
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