Yonder Journal: Republic of Georgia

Savaged by tourists or a bikepacker's dream? Yonder Journal get to the heart of the answer on their trip to the Republic of Georgia: Svaneti.

DEAD RECKONING

REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA

"We'll need to get Tasers for the dogs, the dogs can be very bad."
— Tamaz, aka Tazo, aka Tazer

Before traveling to the Republic of Georgia, we had some assumptions. They were the combined result of our own cultural ignorance and a torrent of misguided and incorrect friendly advice. For example, the dogs were going to be aggressive. The food was going to be bland and bad. Getting around would be impossible. Nothing would be in English (what’s more, we expected that everyone who could speak English would do so with a thick Russian accent). The snowcapped mountains, so exquisitely decked out in cascading glaciers and jagged cliffs, would be miserable and cold. And perhaps our most egregious error, the one that we keep making all around the world, was when we thought, “Meh, it's only 15 miles, and the highest point you get to is only 10,000 feet? No problem.” Well, you know what they say about those who assume?

We had spent an enormous amount of time debating where we would go on this ride, because this ride more than any other ride we have ever done—and quite possibly more than any other ride that we'll ever have the chance to do—was wide open. The world was our oyster.

Prima facie you think, “Amazing! There are so many places to go!” But then you start to dig deeper. How much time do you have? What time of year are you traveling? How many people are you traveling with? Is the area in conflict? Do they like, or at the very least tolerate, Americans? Has the area already been done to death by tourism? Is it good for bike riding? Do bikes even work there? Will the pictures look good? Are there vicious apex predators? What is the venom quotient in the region? Et cetera. The list of questions is long and they all must be answered before making a decision. We did our due diligence, we struggled, argued, researched, cajoled, and when the votes were tallied, all signs pointed to the Republic of Georgia.

But unlike the invasive marauders of the past, we come in peace. And while the towers remain, and the geology hasn’t much changed in recent years, Svaneti has become a place for trekkers seeking something out of the ordinary. The ancient herding and transportation routes between villages have become popular trekking routes, and it was here that we planned to take our bikes.

Great? But where in Georgia? What’s the move? How do we turn a country into an adventure? We sent emails, we surfed the web, and we called more than a couple guys. Reason and intuition guided our hand, and our hand guided our mouse, and our cursor sat blinky on the homeland of the Svans, otherwise known as Svaneti. Located in the northwest corner of Georgia, Svaneti is embedded deep within the recesses of the Caucasus Mountains, and according to local lore, has never been conquered. Despite countless invasions by the Moors, the Persians, and the Golden Horde, the Svans have held fast, Svaneti their stronghold. The mountains are a natural fortress; young and shear, they claw at the sky with their jagged peaks, and eons of glacial activity has cut steep canyons into their flanks. Even in late summer, the rivers fall down the canyons in a foaming riot of grey and white, as if the water has been driven mad by the mountains. The ancient Svans didn’t strictly rely on natural deterrents, though, and they dotted the landscape with their Svaneti Towers—singular castle spires that are individual family strongholds, four stories tall with arrowslits at the top from which archers inflict sorrow on invading armies. It was into this prickly and foreboding zone that we were going to ride, push, and drag our bikes.

One thing we need to clarify is that trekking = hiking. If you’re not familiar with the act, hiking is basically climbing stairs in a natural environment. Hikers can be found aggressively ascending or descending extremely steep slopes, sometimes with the aid of their hands. Herein lies the challenge: could we bikepack along these trekking trails? Would bikes be better? Would they be adequate? Would they be a burden? At times we found ourselves hiking our steeds up—and sometimes even down—the vast, verdant alpine meadows and lush overgrown medieval forests. But we found that, for the most part, we were able to ride our bicycles, and with the help of our GPS and some local knowledge, we were able to massage our route so that most of our time was spent riding.

We stayed in trekking motels, slept in local houses, and camped on high mountain ridges. We rode singletrack, doubletrack, and notrack. We asked Tazer, our guide and friend, about the local cuisine and customs? We asked him about the Tur (the regional mountain goat)? But most of all, we asked him about the sheepdogs we might have to tase—especially since he didn’t end up actually packing a Taser®. It wasn’t all wonderful. By the end of the trip, we had endured more than our fill of high speed driving on narrow mountain roads and the ubiquitous cow shit that spackled the roads—but these are petty complaints. The Republic of Georgia is a bikepackers’ paradise. You should go there—trust me. And if you don’t trust me, take a look at our story and decided for yourself—the camera doesn’t lie.