Our crossing from Ramazan-reserved Turkey to gregarious Georgia was marked by the unnerving sight of a young woman in a bikini collecting water from a roadside waterfall and two old men sitting in the shade selling home-made booze. Water oozed from the green mountains and the whole backdrop had taken on a sub-tropical feel, as if we’ve somehow skipped a continent and cycled into Thailand. Huge Eucalyptus trees provided delicious shade as we weaved our way between cows towards Batumi. Drivers speeded past in expensive cars, many dented and missing front bumpers. The graveyards are full of young folk here mostly down to Georgia having the highest road death rates in Europe; a fact we try not to dwell on as we peddle past, admiring the artistic interpretations of the once living.
We arrived in Batumi in time for a late lunch and ate delicious local fare whilst drinking beer. Memories of scouring towns for food in Turkey during fasting hours faded as we melted into summer holiday mood. Batumi was an easy place to spend a day or two; dodging torrential downpours, marvelling at the juxtaposition of old Soviet blocks, belle epoch villas and modern follies, eating deliciousness off indecipherable menus, skimming stones into the grey waters and watching dancing fountains and fairies as the sunsets.
From Batumi we headed north along the flat coast line in search of a beach where we could swim, even out our cyclist tans and generally relax. In the afternoon we stopped at a couple of places, even managing to finally have a swim, but we failed to find a place we felt comfortable to camp. I know that security guards protecting recently completed stadiums with pretty parklands aren’t going to understand our need to pitch on their lovely flat grasslands, so why we insist on asking I’m not sure. It’s a challenge of sorts, to the corporate take over of our land, the exclusion of humans from the earth. So turned away we cycle on, in the dark, searching. The road is quiet and the grasslands hum with humidity. We are heading to a beach place called Ureki and we laugh as we roll into town, its one street is throbbing with sound and light. We weave between happy Georgian holiday makers and shake our heads about how this place has sprung up from sleepy nowhere. We escape the sound and head out of town to try and find a quieter place, tired and grouchy we finally pitch the tent about midnight under pine trees, the sound of crashing waves our lullaby.
The next morning we are awoken by the saliva soaked wisps of punched air from a group of boys training to box. The sea is before us and above the pines sway in the 6am breeze. We found a pretty good pitch in the dark. Although, when 30 children and their holiday camp guardians come marching and singing past, it becomes clear that we are in the middle of the forest path. Later in the day we move our pitch (not after a 25km round trip to find a potentially ‘better place’ – sorry Ioan, I am learning to be satisfied, I promise!) to a more secluded spot closer to the beach. We put up our hammocks, a sure sign we are staying, and spend 3 happy days splashing in the waves and burying ourselves in the healing, magnetic sand. It is a wild beach and it is plagued with the modern curse – plastic. A group of beach cleaning locals came down one day and we chipped in, clearing a bin bag or two, but there was something so utterly disheartening about trying to clear polystyrene balls from a black sand beach. Just ban the stuff, it is that simple!
Salt soaked we spent a couple of nights at a guesthouse to shower and wash our clothes. Here we met proper our first good-hearted Georgians, an older couple laughing merrily between themselves as they go about preparing their pretty guesthouse for the season. The Russians are on their way, this is a popular resort and more people are expected once the only road connecting Georgia to Russia is rebuilt following more devastating flooding washed it away a few weeks earlier.
Fully rested and recharged we head north to Poti, the scene of less benign Russian relations back in August 2008. It felt like an overlooked place following the investment evident in Batumi and we stayed only long enough to stock up on supplies before our foray into the mountains. We made our way out of town and as we looked for somewhere to camp a white car pulled us over. Now we don’t speak Georgian but I think the general gist of what they were trying to say was ‘what the hell are you doing? We are the police and you can’t do whatever it is you think you are doing.’ At the time we decided that we needed some further clarification of their ‘police’ status and so cycled on. The car crawled behind us for a couple of kms before we saw an official police car. Ioan flagged it down and informed the occupants that we were being followed by these men who claimed to be the police. I hid behind some trees, figuring I would probably only make things worse if I got involved.
The identity of the undercover cops was confirmed and we were firmly instructed that we couldn’t cycle down that road, it was dangerous and that we immediately had to get in the back of the police Toyota Pick Up. We would be taken 70km to Zugdidi the nearest ‘safe’ town. We complied without much questioning, I think the fact it was 8pm made this seem the most sensible option. And so began one of the most bizarre car journeys of my life. The first car raced at 110km in the fading light, dodging the ubiquitous cows that, Indian style – sit, stand, shit and saunter – in the middle of the road in these parts. We held on for dear life, looked into our laps and tried not to imagine our bikes and panniers flying out the back. It was all very confusing and slightly worrying as we still hadn’t ascertained why this road was so dangerous. At a petrol station at the police boundary line we were switched to another car, which took us at a more moderate but moody speed to yet another transaction point. We were strange cargo, speeding past the striking Georgian houses with their iron verandas and verdant gardens, where homeowners collected their pigs for the evening. (The snout run!) There was some mirth from our second escort when the police from Zugdidi arrived in a car that wasn’t big enough to take our bikes. I suggested it was okay, we could cycle from here but no, we would wait. And so a third pick up came and delivered us to police station where we spent the night camped in the beautifully kept garden next to a fountain with plastic swans, looked over by a plastic cheetah and deer and an armed police man keeping night watch, all bathed in pink neon light. Kitsch is an understatement.
We still don’t entirely know why we were given this treatment but we have since learnt we are not alone. It seems the standard welcome for cycling tourists on the road from Poti to Zugdidi. Most comply like us, but others like Frenchman Jean Mark held his nerve and was followed the whole length of the road. Despite my theories of this treatment being because we were near the border with the break away state of Abkhazia, I think more likely it is to do with a paternalistic protection of tourists. God knows what our grave portraits would be like!