Bojormi was our next destination, a popular Georgian holiday spot due to the healing mineral water found there. We checked out the accommodation and found a hotel in at the right price. One morning we were brought wine for breakfast as apparently it was cold outside (it wasn’t), after a couple of sips the plants were given a good watering! We explored abandoned buildings and a theatre, tried the salty mineral water and rested for two nights. As we were planning to leave town (after the first night at the hotel) we stumbled across the tourist information and decided to pop in hoping to find a map. They strongly recommended a trip on the narrow gauge railway up the mountain…. there was a train leaving in 10 minutes and we could just make it if we set off immediately. The fare was less than £1 each and it took 2 hours to weave our way up the mountain. The bikes were still fully loaded with panniers but there was just enough room to jam them on top of each other in front of the carriage! The railway was electrified in 1963 but looked like it had not seen any investment since. After a picnic at the top it was downhill all the way back to Bojormi. It had just started to spit with rain and another nightly thunderstorm loomed so we headed back to the hotel where they were very surprised to see us again! Next time we take a day trip we’ll take the luggage off!
The uninterrupted ride downhill continued over the next day and a half that it took us to within reach of Tbilisi. The added bonus of a tailwind meant we cycled our biggest distance yet – 125km. We stopped early to camp in the countryside rather than enter the suburbs at night. After setting up camp in an abandoned orchard – the owner (we assume) of the neighbouring orchard came over and gave us a whole bag full of freshly picked apricots, delicious!
We made it into Tbilisi with fresh legs meaning that we could keep up a reasonable pace rather than being “slow and vulnerable” in the morning traffic. Although it was a busy road, the inside lane was more of a hard shoulder and so provided some safety for our ride into the capital. The temperatures were typically 35degC and it didn’t feel much cooler at night. Just lying on top of the bed you could feel the sweat running down your sides whilst you patiently waited to drop off to sleep. Our hostel was the clean but basic – our favourite combination for preserving the budget! It had no-air conditioning and the lift had to have a specific thud in the right place to get it to move, but the bikes were allowed in our room and the staff were extremely friendly! We knew we would stop for over a week in Tbilisi so that we could apply for our Azerbaijan visas and wait for them to be issued. This meant that there was plenty of time to relax and enjoyed the sights. The main part of the city has been beautifully restored with perfectly clean buildings and streets, but around the corner a shanty town is found, with the mainly wooden houses falling down around it’s inhabitants, and then round the next corner a massive Soviet concrete tower block, often in a worse state than the traditional housing that surrounds it!
Also on our list of things to do was to replace a vital part of our camping equipment; one of our stools had broken! After much searching, a replacement camping chair was found at the Saturday Flea Market but Tim’s bad habit of not buying anything on the spot meant that we still are a stool short. Despite returning to the market twice the guy was never there again!
We also explored the metro system, went to the biggest Orthodox church in the world, went up the funicular, had a naked scrub by a very large Georgian lady in the sulphur baths (Rebecca only) and tried to take a cable car to a swimming lake, only to find that it has not been working since soviet times, Tbilisi … update your tourist maps!!!
We also came across two wooden Velodromes, one of which has been abandoned for quite some time and was rotting away, with nails sticking out and a family of dogs living underneath it! As they barked from the underside one wondered if they were about to break through and attack! However, none of this put us off from having a little spin – a complete lap was impossible due to the trees that had grown along the inside of the banking and would have taken your head off – even if you did avoid all the holes! The banked sides are surprisingly steep in real life, making it difficult to even stand let along try and ride along, but it had given us a taste for speed. We had seen a second velodrome on the map, and despite it being way out of town, we decided to take a look. This track had only recently been constructed and was also open air. The wooden surface with its curving timbers was a beautiful sight! Cheekily, Tim asked if we could have a go, “what, on those bikes?” (pointing at our tourers), they pondered. “do you have helmets?” – “yes” – and with that we were on! Wearing saddles/flip-flops rather than cleated shoes and on overly heavy un-aerodynamic bikes with wide under-inflated tyres, two laps at full speed was all Tim could manage! Rebecca also had a go, but got too scared to pedal all the way around the banked corners and enjoyed costing down the steep sides instead! Footnote – we later found out that the old ‘concrete’ velodrome that we’d actually been looking for was demolished a few days earlier.
On the way back into town Tim spotted what looked like a Brewery on the other side of the river, this needed to be investigated further. When we arrived we found that it was quite a favourite watering hole for the locals. You went to the window got your 2 or 5 litre plastic bottle filled with beer, brought a smoked fish (optional) and sat on the river bank enjoying the atmosphere and listening to the local accordion player. A lovely way to spend an evening, even if some of the local lads did get a bit too tipsy. Our Georgian time has definitely been quite beer fuelled as our last day in Tbilisi coincided with the Annual Beer festival, how lucky!! [Brief report: good fun, live music, 5 types of lager, all tasted pretty similar, zero barrels of bitter or cider]
After collecting the Azerbaijan visa we took the Sunday night sleeper train to Baku. The slowest bumpiest thing you have ever ridden in – the rail tracks are in such poor condition! Luckily the carriages were newly refurbished and had excellent air-conditioning, however, it remained on at full power during the whole night meaning it got seriously chilly! Not a particularly good nights sleep but fun to wake up in a different country. What will await us in Azerbaijan?