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The Chacha Chronicle

Stefan and Ad spend three weeks discovering the hidden roads, passes, huts, and drinks of Georgia...

After riding about 5,000 kilometres around rural Romania in 2015, the idea to tour Georgia by bike was a bigger dream turned reality. For my Romania trips, Google’s Street View function helped me find some ace non-tarmac roads, but this isn’t possible in Georgia – no Google car has been there. Soon I discovered the spectacular mountain road I had seen in pictures was the Abano Pass – 2,960m high, with 2,400m elevation gained over 40 kilometres of riding. I showed my friend Ad some pictures too, to get him inspired and enthusiastic for a trip to Georgia. He joined me for two weeks of my three-and-a-half in the country…

When we arrived at the foot of the Abano Pass we were pleased to find a refuge, usually used by road maintenance crews, to rest our heads. The door was closed with a simple metal latch, so we let ourselves in to find seven beds and a makeshift kitchen. From the moment we started climbing the pass, we had seen no at land on which to pitch a tent, so we quickly decided to spend the night in this little stone house. We would cook our dinner and sleep on the door. We would be no trouble. Nobody would even know we had been here. And that’s how we met Leon. He opened the door of the hut and looked in, clearly very surprised to find a couple of dirty cyclists just finishing up their evening meal. We did our best to explain with gestures what we were doing, that we couldn’t find a place to put our tents and we just wanted to sleep on the floor. Either because he understood what we were miming, or because he realised that we were no trouble, Leon smiled and reached into his bag. He brought out some cheese, bread and a bottle of ‘chacha’ -a strong spirit made with the grape residue leftover in the winemaking process. All too soon the chacha was flowing freely and after a little bit too much, Ad had to run outside to ‘visit the garden’.

We slept very well that night. In the morning, with chacha connoisseur Ad looking a little peaky, we left the refuge. The day before I had said, “I am going to stop the next 4×4 we see going to Omalo and ask them to take our panniers up to the top for us.” As we left the stone hut, a 4×4 appeared as if by magic. We stopped him and explained what we wanted him to do – take the bags up ahead and leave them somewhere we would find them. “Da, da. Got it,” he said. He would leave the panniers at the Ranger Park Office. We tipped him and off he went. Extremely pleased with our scheme, the world’s first ‘pannier taxi’, we climbed the rest of the pass – having to get off and push at some points. The green valleys, the rivers, the mountain peaks were as spectacularly beautiful as the road was spectacularly steep. The view got more and more impressive; breathtakingly so. Late in the afternoon we arrived at Omalo and even without panniers it took us five hours to cycle the 42 kilometres – the last six we averaged 3.5kph.

The next two days we did a couple of wonderful short trips, without any luggage, from Dartlo–Girevi and Bochorma–Dochu, over high peaks and green valleys beside rivers…

Although riding the Georgian Military Road means car and truck traffic, after days of gravel we wanted tarmac too badly to find an alternative. The Military Road is about 212 kilometres long and runs between Tbilisi (Georgia) and Vladikavkaz (Russia). It follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders throughout the ages – hence the name. From Vladikavkaz, the road stretches southwards up the Terek valley, before passing through the Darial Gorge (which marks the border between Russia and Georgia). It then passes Mount Kazbek and Gergeti Trinity Church, before heading south-west through the Georgian region of Khevi to the Jvari Pass, where it reaches its maximum altitude of 2,379m. From Akhmeta it took us one day to ride to the beautiful Zhinvali Reservoir on the Military Road, surrounded by high mountain peaks. We spent half a day cycling between big trucks, huge excavators and other massive road-building machines. Epic dust clouds, lots of climbing again and high heat. At the end of the ride, cold beers and freshly-made delicious Khachapuria traditional Georgian dish of cheese-filled bread – were both very welcome! Ad and I then cycled over the Jvari Pass, up to Stepantsminda, all along the Aragvi and Tergi rivers, the last 30-40km beside an impressive line of static trucks, all waiting to get into Russia…

The arrival at the border brought an end to this particular adventure in Georgia; a truly exotic place and yet remarkably close to us here in Europe. Go, but don’t overindulge on the chacha…


Words & Photos

Stefan Rohner