Getting to Tbilisi was a breeze, logistically speaking. I had a flight there via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, arriving mid-afternoon ready to settle into a hostel and get cycling a couple of days later.
It was tougher soul-side. Of course parents are worried, but that worry makes me anxious as it is in my power to alleviate it. However, the flights were booked and so were Cyril’s as he would be joining to check up on me & see his daughter in camping mode (something I’m not sure he yet fully believes I do!), so off I set off, rather heavy-hearted.
I slept most of the first flight (having gotten up at 4am, thankfully with Cyril to drive me to the airport) & finished PG Wodehouse’s Jill the Reckless on the second – what an utter hero that Pelham Grenville is.
Tbilisi Airport’s taxi drivers wait slightly desperately for customers. Poor them, I turn up without any intent of hiring them. First I’m asked whether my mammoth cardboard box is a television. No. Then they see it’s a bicycle – a bit more despair as it means I don’t need a lift into town. But undaunted they are – two or three walk up, standing around. A couple trickle in. Finally I have around 10 men standing around me, slightly hurt that I refuse their help but insistent to the point that they start helping me take the bike out of the box and removing the wrapping. Half an hour later, I’m ready to go. I hope I can repay them somehow for the tightening of the bolts, cutting of the tape and zip ties, throwing away of the rubbish. “Do you have any business cards? I’ll leave them at the hostel!” I’m delighted with my idea of providing some advertising. Useless though, turns out they’re the only taxi company in Tbilisi. Monopolists don’t need ads. Oh well, I make do with learning to say “madluba”, which means “thank you”, and repeat it a hundred times as I pedal towards the main road out.
Before / after shot of Ella
Sorry, did I say getting to Tbilisi was easy logistically-speaking? Head-wind. Really strong one. Hulk wind, really. And suddenly it’s impossible to pedal. Try as I may to balance my bike, it’s either push off-road or into oncoming traffic. And I suddenly realise I’ve got a motorway to join onto. Not the easiest in the end.
I see a bus and try to hail it, I think it snubs my pannier-laden bike. The driver’s eyes did pop out of their sockets a bit. I’m also too hesitant to fully wave at it, I hope my windswept look and telepathic “might you by any chance please be able to stop?” isn’t forceful enough. One of the taxi drivers reverses back towards me, his passenger kindly asking if I need help but plainly impossible for them to fit me and Ella onto the bike… they say a bus is my best bet…
Finally an adventurous bus driver stops and picks me up, the bus controller is a lovely lady who helps me on and lets me off on an hour later at the correct stop.
And that’s when I see Fabrika, hipster heaven. What a hostel, perhaps I haven’t left Switzerland, it feels like an Kunsthalle. There I meet Amund, and Rhys the next day, cyclists also going the same way. Family is slightly soothed by the cool, safe surroundings and the sight of me eating a chicken steak sandwich in the evening, and a delicious omelette at breakfast.
The next couple of days in Tbilisi are spent visiting the town. I feel restless as I want to get going to see how it feels to be travelling on a bike again. Last time I was cycle touring was in 2015 for 2-3 weeks and otherwise for my bigger trip back in 2014. Some doubts creep in and it would help to test it all out on the saddle.
I visit the Georgian National Museum and learn about the Russian occupation and crash an art opening on famous sculptors, then later on the Georgian National Gallery (there’s a Chinese contemporary art exhibition and a special exhibition on Iakob Nikoladze, a sculptor assistant to Rodin) and the Fine Art Museum (strangest museum ever, a one room mishmash of iconography, Renaissance painting and modernist installation – I think they’re rebuilding the rest of the museum, though there was a funny little exhibition of caricatures and sketches by Zygmunt Waliszewski). There’s wifi throughout Tbilisi so I even manage to FaceTime my dad. He then sends me an anguished message asking whether I’m going to Kabul… no, it’s Baku. Jokes played by patchy wifi…
I also visit the fort and cathedral with Amund and Rhys, with lovely views of the city and its odd sprinkling of post Soviet contemporary glass structures, and the Dry Bridge market, chock full of the most varied collection of things: gramophones, plugs, a Nazi dagger, antiques, Sunday painter art, cassettes, and many many books.
Evenings in Tbilisi are spent around Georgian wine and beers with the many other cyclists. We even organise a dinner to celebrate – nine of us going East, some via Iran, and one going West.
Next stop, next post, the northern road to Baku.