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Georgia, Green Lane Paradise

Georgia, Green Lane Paradise

Georgia, the South Caucasus nation, is hardly on the radar of western mass tourism and isn’t really part of the beaten backpacker track either. In fact, the country’s very existence and location is regrettably ignored by too many people.  For sure Georgia’s past as a somewhat obscure republic of the Soviet Union still feeds suspicion to the minds of those who remember the Cold War and know who Joseph Stalin was (born in Georgia). Also, Georgia’s 2008 conflict with Russia, hasn’t done much to promote the country as a tourist destination as well.

So, it was with a bit of apprehension that I reached Georgia on a Black Sea ferry from Ukraine, not sure what to expect and admittedly ignorant about what I might find. However, my doubts disappeared quickly. Within a couple of days of my arrival my doubts were replaced by surprise and keen curiosity. 

Georgia has it all. There are stunning mountains on its northern border soaring above 5000m, sunny beaches and resorts on its Black Sea coast, green valleys and plains where vines grow and good wine is made. People are generally friendly, proud and hospitable and there is a wealth of history in this geographical crossroads between Christianity and Islam. Of course there’s also good cuisine to try and buzzing night life especially in Batumi and Tbilisi. Most of all though the country feels safe, genuine and is unspoiled by masses of tourists. 

Khinkali, the Gerogian dumplings are not to be missed
Khinkali, the Gerogian dumplings are not to be missed

Riding through Georgia from East to West gave me the opportunity to also acknowledge some of the paradoxes this nation faces. Two frozen conflicts within its borders (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) is the price the country pays for antagonising the interests of Russia, its dominant neighbour. Equally, aid from the West is evident. The police for example wear American style uniforms and roam the roads in Ford patrol vehicles that would not look out of place in New York or Los Angeles. The people I met in Tibilisi, in the guest houses and bars included journalists from known media organisations, NGO employees, teachers and even British aristocracy. Un unusual mix for sure and a welcome difference to the back packer youth filled hostels I am used to elsewhere in the world.

Riding the offload trails in Georgia
Riding the offload trails in Georgia

Georgia is also an amazing place for some great motorcycle adventure.  There’s an abundance of white top (un tarred) roads that carve their way for hundreds of kilometres through stunning mountain scenery and lead to remote border hamlets reachable only during the summer months. The routes can take days to ride and are a real thrill to explore on a capable, dual sport motorbike. Riding the caucasus trails for me was refreshing especially coming from Europe where any off road fun in the wilderness is severely restricted and frowned upon. I enjoyed the green lanes in Georgia so much that I can confidently say they offered some of the best fun on two wheels I have ever enjoyed. 

But where to go to get at least a taste of the Georgian trails? One route in particular will not fail to satisfy. It’s the road that leads through the Stori valley to the village of Omalo in the Tusheti region north west of Tbilisi. It’ll take the better part of a day to complete a one way ride to Omalo from Tbilisi and three days for a return trip is plenty.

Pack light, leave heavy excess items at your guest house in Tbilisi before heading off for the hills. There’s no need to carry camping gear or spare tyres. Make an early start to avoid the rush hour traffic and then head east, away from the city centre along the Kakheti Highway. Pass the intersection to the airport and continue along S5 all the way to the junction with Route 38. Make a turn north and follow the signs for Telavi.

The ride to Telavi is initially a bit bland but once you reach the village of Sasadilo there’s plenty of rural farmland to admire. Animals are free to roam here at their leisure and it’s not unusual to find cattle, dogs and the occasional pig in the middle of road. Beware!

A view of Omalo
Omalo, butrried in the Caucasus

Respect the speed limits as well and do not cross the solid line divides the the carriageway. Georgian police are unforgiving and the fines are steep as I painfully discovered at my own expense.

Telavi is a small town with plenty of affordable accommodation, a good spot to spend a night on the return route from Omalo if necessary.

Just north of Telavi the route turns west and follows the Alazani river valley. Fields and arable land surround the road here all the way to Pshaveli where the Stori Valley commences and the fields give way to wooded forest. Make sure to fill your tank in Pshaveli as there are no other fuel stops from here onwards. The hard surface road disappears soon after the village and now the real fun starts. Jagged twists in loose gravel accompany you on the cliff edges and give way to tricky mud on the more exposed stretches of of the trail. You need momentum ad some careful negotiating skills especially where the mud gets over ankle depth . There are waterfalls, water spills and fords that feed into the Stori river to cross not to mention roaming cattle and the occasional 4×4 and truck to overtake while looking out for the drops at the side of the road.

Approaching the Torha Pass
Approaching the Torha Pass

Knobbly tyres are an advantage and hard suspension is a plus as well. Some off road skills are required but there is nothing too extreme about the road to Omalo and calling it one of the most dangerous roads in the world (as some do) is an outrageous exaggeration. Do it all at your own pace and you’ll be fine.

The maximum elevation is around 2850m so temperatures can drop noticeably especially at the Torha Pass where snow can be found even during the warmer months of the year. Take extra care here when crossing the fords swollen by melting snow. Probe the depth of the running water with a stick if necessary and do not underestimate the force of a gushing stream. I was caught out at one point and risked drowning my bike.

Almost a ruinous fall
Almost a ruinous fall

It takes the better part of four hours to ride the 80 or so km from Pshaveli to Omalo. Every second of it will have your pulse racing in exhilaration. Once you reach the Omalo the Tsasne guest house has warm, clean dorm style rooms and typical local food. I spent a couple of nights there with other guests and safe parking was surprisingly also provided.

The Tsasne Hotel in Omalo
The Tsasne Hotel in Omalo
Secure parking in Omalo
Secure parking in Omalo

The village of Keselo is just a short ride from Omalo and there are some recently restored tower fortresses there that are worth a visit. The stone fortified dwellings were used by the local villagers as a safe refuge when visiting Daghestani tribes ransacked and pillaged the area throughout the Middle Ages.

Keselo and its fortress towers
Keselo and its fortress towers

The road to Omalo is sure to impress and will create a lasting memory for whoever ventures up its muddy path. There is stunning scenery, hospitality good food, history and plenty of photo opportunities. The ride is simply enormous fun both to and from Omalo. Don’t miss out on this ride if you’re ever in Georgia, with an enduro machine between the months of May and October which is when the rout is open and maintained. Enjoy!

The road to Omalo, possibly the best ride ever!

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