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 existence and location is regrettably ignored by most 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, a very prominent Georgian, was. Also, Georgia’s recent ruinous 2008 conflict with Russia has done nothing to promote the country as a tourist destination.
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 totally ignorant about what I might find. However, my doubts disappeared pretty quickly. Infact, 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 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 that it’s mysteriously puzzling. 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.
Riding through Georgia from East to West gave me the opportunity to notice 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 obvious. The police for example wear American style uniforms and roam the roads in Ford patrol vehicles that would not look out of place in a cop movie based in New York or Los Angeles. Furthermore, The people I came across in Tibilisi, in the guest houses and bars, included journalists from known media organisations, NGO workers and even British aristocracy. Un unusual mix and a certainly different to the back packer hostels you generally get in any major city in the world.
Georgia is also a stunning place for some motorcycle adventure. There’s an abundance of white top (un tarred) roads that carve their way for hundreds of kilometres through amazing mountain scenery in the Caucasus and lead to remote border hamlets reachable only during the summer months. The routes can take days to ride and are a thrill to explore on a capable, machine. I enjoyed the green lanes in Georgia so much that I can confidently say they offered some of the most satisfying off road experiences I have ever enjoyed.
But where to go to get at a taste of the trails in Georgia? 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. This route is fairly recent, opened up in the late seventies and maintained every year with bulldozers and gravel. It takes 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. This road has been featured as one of the most dangerous roads in the world in a BBC television series from 2012.
You need to pack light for the track, so leave heavy excess items at whatever guest house you’re leaving from in Tbilisi before heading off for the hills. Camping gear is not required. Make an early start to avoid the rush hour traffic and then head east, away from the capital city’s 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 the town of Telavi.
The ride to Telavi starts off a bit bland but once you reach the village of Sasadilo there’s plenty of rural farmland to stare at. Animals are free to roam here and it’s not unusual to find cattle, dogs and the occasional pig in the middle of road. Beware!
Respect the speed limits and do not cross the solid lines that divide the the carriageways. Georgian police are unforgiving and the fines are steep as I painfully discovered at my own cost.
Telavi is a small town with plenty of affordable guest houses. It’s a good place to spend a night especially on the return route from Tusheti and 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 with wooded forest all around. Make sure to fill your tank in Pshaveli as there are no other fuel stops from here onwards. The hard tar surfaced road disappears soon after the village and now the real fun begins. Jagged twists and loose gravel along cliff edges, tricky mud, knee deep fords, slippery rock and snow are the hurdles ahead on the trail. You need momentum and a minimum of off road negotiating skills especially where the mud gets over ankle deep. There are roadside waterfalls, roaming cattle and the occasional 4×4 truck to overtake while keeping an eye out for the drops at the side of the road. It’s fun and the adrenaline pump, constant.
Knobbly tyres are an advantage and hard suspension is a plus as well but there is nothing too extreme about the road to Omalo and calling it one of the most dangerous roads in the world is an outrageous exaggeration. Do it all at your own pace and it’s 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.
It can take the better part of four hours to ride the 80 km circa from Pshaveli to Omalo and every second will have your pulse racing. Once you reach Omalo the Tsasne guest house is the place to stay. It has warm, clean dorm style rooms and typical local food. I spent a couple of nights there with other guests. Safe parking was provided too!
The village of Keselo is just a short ride from Omalo and there are some recently restored iconic stone dwellings here worth a visit. The fortified houses were used by local villagers as a refuge when hoarding Daghestani tribes from across the border ransacked the area repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages.
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 there and back to Tbilisi. Don’t miss out if you’re ever in Georgia, on an enduro machine between May and October. Enjoy!
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