Where Pigs Roam Free

A Lada, ages old and so worn out that rust free flows over its bonnet. Three trucks with Istanbul number plates, overloaded with merchandise. A moped – the seat covered in what used to be a sheep’s skin, the handlebars embellished with trinkets –  a Chinese vehicle that was made for the countryside. A 4×4, white of course, with the shiny rims that suggest a recent prosperity of someone barely out of the communist doom. The eclectic gathering of vehicles and people queues in front of the Turkish police, while left and right pedestrians try to pass through with the familiar border swagger. Many don’t have any identification documents, some have corn and rags falling out of their scruffy bags, all have a smirk in the corner of the mouth. It smells of boiled corn – the gipsy ladies tempt us with their steaming pots. But we need to hurry up a bit. The turks stamp us quickly out of the former empire.

We don’t need a visa for Georgia. Blinded by the scorching sun, we pull the clutch and slide over to the other side of the geo-political line. Now, this is proper mess: hoards of customs people, money changers, commuters and random dudes out to make a buck in this godless hangout. Only the two Romanians with their scarlet sunburnt faces were missing from this picture!

Ana jumps from one foot-peg to the other, hoping that she’ll make to the nearest toilet before it’s too late. What documents do we need for the bikes? I ask the lady officer who grabs my passport with a neatly manicured hand. The woman snaps me, then she starts staring at our biometric passports like they’d come out of Jason Bourne’s bag. Yeah, thiese Romanians and their fake passports… Do you have a driving license? she says. Of course I do. I mean, do you have it here, with you? she asks again. Have you lost your marbles woman, like I’d drive all this way without it, here it is. Right, that’s all I need from you, she says. What colour is your motorbike? I tell her what’s in the documents, even if there’s little left of the KTM’s orange and the DRZ’s yellow. The bigger tanks and our bags do a good job at confusing anybody about what’s what.

And we pass. While I’m squeezing a smile for the bouquet of mobile phones out to snap me, Ana sorts out her emergency. You wouldn’t believe how futuristic the Georgian customs building is, perhaps Zaha Hadid herself has gotten involved. Neah… And the building is not the only startling detail. At the first gas station we can still pay with our VISA, everything is neat and organized, and there’s even a passer by who speaks some English and who teaches us the first words in Georgian… This is gonna be too easy, I tell Ana, we’ll get bored.

But the road leads us to the border of the sea, and I have to bite my tongue for what I’ve just said. This Black Sea is again another: it may be grey on our side of the pond, quite blue in Turkey, but here is turquoise – I can hardly believe my eyes! Poor Ana struggles to catch a glimpse of this beauty, as she is being assaulted by the Georgian drivers.

You might have heard of them – the worst of this side of the world. It don’t matter who they are in real life, when they are behind the wheel, they behave like they own the road. They take over on whichever side they please and any place they can shove their vehicle through. They pass the yellow light, the red light and zig-zag beyond the two bikers with alien number plates. They wave the left arm thru the window and keep the right firmly on the horn. I don’t know what they use to actually stir the car, but I can tell where their foot is: on the throttle. When we least expect it, one of these crazy drivers zooms across, cuts in line, only to abruptly pull over a couple of meters down the road. The another follows suit. then another… Puah, Istanbul was a child’s play compared to these guys. I feel like I did on my first day, in Bulgaria, says Ana in the headset. I have little to console here. Keep calm and your eyes open, I say ,and I stay behind her to try to have her back covered as much as I can.

As we are getting adjusted to the Georgian traffic, we roll into a dusty provincial town where we feel it’s time to grab a bite. The place reminds us of Romania – socialist shops now bearing the colours of international brands, stuffed toys laid out to dry… and the most surprising fact of them all is that our waiter is gay :) He brings us our first sample of the famed local cuisine:  khatchapuri – a cheese pie that has become a national obsession. Quite tasty by the way.

Obviously we are no longer in a Muslim country. The younger women wear short skirts and their hair is waving freely in the wind. The older women are another reminder of life the eastern block: plenty are in mourning attire and wear the red hair and cheap shoes of a bolshevik wife who after doing her duty to the society (kids, 25 years in the line of some repetitive and fruitless job), has let herself go. While these ladies gossip at the junction, some men regroup around our bikes, to grope and debate. The food is certainly not bad, the people are super friendly – I think we are going to have a good time in Georgia! Do I need to mention that the petrol has again a reasonable price?

Soon the subtropical Georgian seaside and the stalls with citrus fruits are behind us. We ride thru the handsome villages of the western central plains: cute houses, clean alleys, people at work, children at play…a peaceful vibe that feeds our good mood.

Out in the distance looms what we’ve come here for: the Caucasus. The snow capped mountain is like a smile on a beautiful face.

Along the road we pass by a few monuments that make us suspect that these people have a quirky taste for the grandiose. But the bus stations are where the georgian artistic spirit really shines. I’m sorry that we were too lazy to execute the plan to shoot a set of pics of these bus stations: cubist or avant-garde, covered in mosaic or in stainless steel, they must have been designed with the passengers in mind. Cause  they’ll wait for their buses for a loooong time, so they’d better have some interesting building to look at.

Watch out for the cows, I tell Ana in the headset. And watch out for the geese. And for the… but I never get to finish my sentence because  I’m too surprised to identify the next animal. It’s man’s friend and his supplier of sausages, good times and coronary stroke: the pig.

But the Georgian pigs are like no others. Small, big, black or spotted, with a full head of hair or bald as a Chihuahua, these pigs are free. To roam, to chill in muddy trenches, to enjoy life. Does this make their meat more tender and juicy? Only someone from around here could enlighten us on the matter. From a house across the road comes Vera.

Let’s ask her what’s what. How does your pig find its way back home? But our Russian is so rubbish that we barely manage to exchange some greetings. Vera insists we should come stay at her place. Frankly, we’re tempted, but the day is young and we have a long way ahead of us. So we’ll postpone deciphering the mystery of the pig for another time. I promise that in Mestia I’ll do my best to settle this issue. I’ll use for evidence the Georgian minced meat dumplings, the famous khinkhali.

For now we keep our focus on the road. We do about 80 km of Georgian Transfagarasan. We pass along a water dam and an artificial lake which reminds us of Vidraru in Romania’s Fagaras mountains. There’s plenty of options for wild-camping. And tonight we settle for a daffodil infested spot with a view of Abkhazia.

The neighbour’s dogs keep barking all night around our tent. Our presence has stirred their curiosity. But we find more unsettling the military convoy that drives by, arriving from the poor separatist republic. In the morning my Shorai battery is discharged (perhaps because of the GoPro that was charging in my tank bag?). I fix the problem with what I have around:

The winding Georgian Transfagarasan that I mentioned earlier offers Ana a good chance to practice and acquire new riding skills. Hour by hour she leans lower and her track gets smoother. Her progress is evident, she can now manoeuvre the DRZ thru the boulders that have fallen of the mountain without getting distracted by the sharp abyss on the left side of the road. We’re both enjoying our sunny day in the mountains.

Just as in Romania, one will often encounter in Georgia the many skeletons of the socialist collectivisation. From diminutive bus stations to immense production warehouses and former factories. Some have become a shelter for cows, and offer a surrealist impression of how nature claims back what man has abandoned.

Fascinated by the weird vibe of the place, we lose track of time and end up spending a lot of time with the cows. Damn! we were supposed to be far by now…

Soon the road changes. It’s still tar, but the surface is made of precast concrete slabs, not so neatly weaved, so we need to pay attention or our wheels will slide into the cracks. At one time Ana doesn’t, and she takes a tumble. Not a problem for this Rukka gear, which so far has been fail proof. And I gotta say that Ana has plenty of reasons to lose her focus. The many 4000-5000 m high peaks of the Caucasus offer a breathtaking and luring horizon to aim at.

You do realise we’re heading that way, don’t you? we both say to each other in our headsets, giggling with joy. Man, we’re lucky to be here, Georgia is such a stunning country, and we had no idea! Our destination is Upper Svaneti, the more remote and mountainous region of the country. This is just one of the distinct ethnographic parts of Georgia, a country that is not a melting pot, but rather a mosaic of four cultures that have each their own language and traditions. Svaneti is the land of the most stubborn of the whole bunch, the ones who did not negotiate with the traders, nor did they kneel in front of the foreign invaders, or let themsleves deceived by the missionaries. They managed to stand by their beliefs and lifestyle until late in the 18th century, when they got eventually engulfed into the Russian empire. To keep on eye on the unwanted visitors, the Svan people built atop their homestead not just oven furnaces, but veritable fortified watch-towers. These towers have become the trademark of this small nation of warriors and herders, and soon they start popping out, dominating still with their decrepit but svelte bodies this rural backcountry.

As we’re in the highlands, spring water is widely available. It’s also a good reason to stop and flex our limbs. I need to fiddle with Ana’s handlebar, which is a bit askew. The story of this is that because Ana is so short, sometimes it happens that she stops in a spot where the surface is not so smooth. So if she misses that extra centimetre to put both tip-toes on the ground, she may need to put the bike down as gently as she can. So yeah…that happens less often these days, and in time, with more practice, she’ll learn to balance herself out on one side and avoid such incidents.

This is a good example of what I’m talking about:

We arrive in Mestia tired and hungry. The town has a boring vibe: dusty, a bit overdeveloped, a bit socialist. It’s not the case of the police station, in stark contrast withe rest of the settlement – I believe some architects in this country have their subscriptions for El Croquis in order ;) In the shops we find chocolate, flavoured yoghurt and other globally acclaimed fluff, and little local produce – sulguni, a Georgian cheese with a texture similar to mozzarella, matsoni – the local yoghurt, similar to sour milk, dried fish and bread.

But I have a duty to the pig – I am to find out what freedom does to his meat, or else. I need to find a local food joint to investigate. Some passer-byes guide us to a restaurant that reminds me of the new year parties of the 80s. Monumental furniture, house of Dracula kind of atmosphere, a handful of guests and bored staff. Funny though: on the wall there’s a sign that the place has been built with funding from USAID Georgia. Anyway, we order a gargantuesque dinner, in the style of Anthony Bourdain. We ask for anything that is available on the menu and that has a strange sounding name. To our pleasing, what arrives at the table smells and tastes of yumminess. Georgia cuisine is quite famous, and we sample a different variety of smoked sulguni, maizebread with cheese, kubdari – the carnivore’s take on khatchapuri. Of course we try the pig dumplings, the khinkhali. The ex-comunist waitress/ chef teaches us how to eat them: we must hold them by the place on top where the dough has been sealed, bite a small piece off, then slurp the hot soup before eating the minced meat filling. Mmmmm… it’s so good! Spicy, flavoured with coriander. When we think we’re done with the meal, our chef brings a beef stew, the ostri. What we cannot finish we’ll take in a doggy bag. The bill is not cheap, but not expensive either – 8-10 dollars. You must bear with us, after Africa we got used to eating an entire day on this budget!

The thing is that after Mestia the next 44 km to the village of Ushguli are 100% off-road. It’ll be interesting to see how will Ana cope. She clutches on, gives it a bit of gas, and follows me, vibrating in the beat of her mono-cylinder. A first hairpin, a bouldery slope… and off we go. True must be told – before the first real river crossing Ana loses it for a moment, so I jump at her help and carry her and her bike across. I guess she’s not ready, and frankly I can see why these white waters aren’t an easy feat for a rookie.

We cross path with a jolly group: 4 Polish tourists in a 4×4, a rental. They’re coming back from where we’re heading to. They are in awe of the place and of our story, especially as they learn that Ana is in her early riding days. But I’d better let her share what it feels like:

Ana: If up to here I might have learnt a minimum about motorcycle riding, tonight I have to start all over again. Granted the previous runs to our bushcamping spots informed me about what’s to come. The dirt road is an awakening; a friendly, but firm slap on the cheek. Enough with the dull safety of the tarmac, enough with the oblivion of the highway, it says. You’re gonna have to get down and dirty if you’re to ride me. Well, cheers, I hope I can make it.

Since we left I’ve been complaining a lot about wrist pain: my hands are too small or the diameter of the handlebar is too big. This time it’s not the case: as I vibrate and doodle my way on the rocks, I can feel my whole body on call. I hold the tank tight between my thighs. I try to believe that this Suzuki will get me out of this trouble I’ve found myself into. It is an interesting experience, more intimate than I’ve suspected. In city traffic and on tar there are rules to obey. If I do, I know that I’ll be fine. I can hide – like everyone – behind these rules, I can pretend to be someone I might not be. No longer does this dirt trail afford such luxury. As the bike reveals the true character of the road, it certainly doesn’t spare me. Whats happening between us is not dissimilar to the early stages of a relationship: it’s a lot about trust, about fear, about opening myself up and being permeable to lessons and surely prone to failure. I don’t know about others, but for me it’s not easy.  I must suddenly own my gestures, my mistakes, my unavoidable cowardice, my shameful mistrust in this machine and tool that I am lucky to handle. This road will not allow a frustrated rider, clenched in a permanent rictus. Relief from stress means trust: confiding in the bike the power to pull me over, to command the brutal geometry of a road like this one. Which is not a true hardcore trail, not by a mile, but it’s a proper introduction to what I should learn if I am to ride in Mongolia. I keep thinking that the road is about to swell into something more familiar, as many 4x4s pass us by on their way up. But it doesn’t. It remains as compact, unnerving and volatile as a hand grenade. This journey Into The World is no longer for me about cultural immersion and shit like that. I gotta say, riding has become equally obsessive and self-consuming. Getting down to the simple elements of making it alive thru my day is both liberating, and an  opportunity to reframe what is really important. And I keep trying to give it my best.

I’m not going to break any records. I’m doing it for the thrill of being on the open road, the wind in my hair, the rain dribbling down my waterproof suit, the tires dancing on unpredictable gravel. I might be bragging about this on our blog, or at backpackers hangouts – it may be difficult for me to help it, as it’s such an empowering experience. So if if you meet me on the road, avoid me, I’m slow, clumsy and unconfident. For now.

This kind of driving does not allow a lot of soul searching or daydreaming as being a pillion did. Lucky for me the landscape is stunning enough to compensate for the mental exhaustion. Nature unfolds an almost unnatural arrangement of  composition and colour. To what, you might ask, should one cling: the riding experience or the views?

Anyway, tonight I’m too tired to be brave, so I stay in the first gear. John is in front, guiding me. I focus on his back wheel and try to follow his track. Mountain springs murmur in my ear. In a split of a split of a second I allow a quick peak. In all four winds the mountains offer stunning vistas of melting glaciers and bare rock. The sky is blue, embellished with fluffy clouds like a Windows wallpaper. Beautiful.

It’ll get dark soon. We need to stop and look for a camping spot, says John. Okay, perhaps I’ll afford a half an hour of jogging. You may think it’s a ridiculous idea. Or you may know how good it feels to move other parts of your body when the rest has been decimated by exhaustion, and you understand.

Since we left Bucharest every bushcamp has been more beautiful than the previous one. For example, when John stumbled upon that abandoned camping on the border of the Black Sea, we were so desperate that we all we cared for was a flat surface to lay our heads on, yet we could take showers and do laundry and so on. I guess John has acquired a nose for these spots. Here it’s already gorgeous, so I don’t care if we sleep on rocks. My John pulls another good one though: let’s ride a bit more, he says, I sense we can do better. And we do: a clearing blanketed in soft grasses. Flowers match the colours of our tent, isn’t that cute? While John pitches the tent I can do some trail running – awesome!

Upon return in camp I receive a small bouquet :)

So I hang it inside our tent…

… and the next day on the fairing of my DRZ, for good luck. This is the view from our tent:

Just meters from our doorstep is the fresh mountain water, for washing and brewing a nice cuppa.

We eat, pack up and get back to the grind…

For me, the crash-course of motorcycling is yet to begin!

Vizualizaţi 2013 – Georgia pe o hartă mai mare


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