You shall not pass

Georgia | Tbilisi - Tsalka - Tbilisi - Gori - Akhaltsikhe | 7th to 18th January 2016 | 17488km

You shall go fishing instead.

Having had our sights set on Christmas in Tbilisi for ages, we missed it by three days after our extended stay in a Turkmen waiting room. Happily, Georgia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on the 7th of January and ‘Old New Year’ on the 14th so the city stays festive for ages. We celebrated by doing absolutely nothing for the best part of a week, both feeling knackered. We did manage a trip to the city's famous sulphur baths where a man theatrically slapped us with a rough glove and scrubbed off several months worth of grime.

Finally dragged the bikes back into action and began climbing directly up out the back of the old town, above where the cable car ships tourists to the Mother of Georgia statue. She stands watching over the city holding a sword in one hand, for enemies, and wine in the other, for friends. Locals mostly greeted us with the waving of an upturned hand, no words and a quizzical expression, which generally means, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ It’s a fair question, as it is arguably the least practical time of year to cycle through Georgia. Trying to head west over the lower caucasus range we found ourselves riding into strong icy headwinds, which drive you insane and make you very very cold. At times the wind was enough to stop us dead. Paddies were had. In a couple of days we limped into Tsalka, Flora reduced to tears from the pain of thawing out her frozen fingers.

The local police chief insisted that the road ahead was impassable, snowed over for the rest of winter. He invited us over for a traditional Georgian supra, meal, and he as tamadah, the toast maker, spent the evening making toasts to Georgia, to guests, to women, to Manchester United. Toasts are acknowledged by the downing of ones glass, which in this case was filled with his fairly rough homemade wine or even rougher chacha (moonshine made from grapes). With the language barrier we’re not sure what we’d said we planned to do whilst we waited on news of the road ahead, but it must have sounded like ‘go fishing on a freezing cold windy lake’, as in the morning we were escorted to a freezing cold windy lake nearby and pushed out onto the ice with three grouchy fisherman. Opening up the ice with a few deft axe blows they then pulled in each net extremely slowly, cigarettes shrinking between there lips, saying very little.

We really, really hate going backwards, even 500m back to a missed turn. As such, even a tailwind assisted 100km return to Tbilisi was hard to swallow. Attempt number two lead out past the city’s outdoor velodrome, along a hairy four lane highway and eventually back into the headwind, but this time with gentler gradients. It was now the rain that ensured we arrived shivering into Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. An english speaking guy, Tornike, ushered us into the warmth of his car and fed us lobiani, spicy kidney bean filled bread. We followed a bigger road into the mountains this time, lined with snow laden pine trees but clear. Castles and churches adorned the hill tops, the spaces between them interrupted by satellite dishes, a sign of what people worship nowadays. We took a day off and hitched 60km in three different cars to the village of Vardzia. In the 12th century there was a penchant for living in caves and this is one, hewn from the soft rock, comprises over 13 floors, hundreds of rooms, churches, wine cellars and a water system. An earthquake caused the face of the mountain to slip away revealing the once hidden city.

Turkey is 20 km away and looks snowy.