Thursday, August 6, 2015

Magic moments in Georgia

Waking up to the sounds of the birds is one of the virtues of free camping. No rattly diesels called camper vans being fired up right next to your tent nor the screaming of pesky kids running riot to contend with. Absolute bliss. In the far distance I could just hear a single cylinder tractor chuffing along, no doubt having served its owner already for many years, and probably many more to come too. Around us wasn't a camper, or any other person for that matter, in sight. We had chosen our spot well.

We had stayed behind farm land, with the approval of the farmer of course, and had pitched our tents well out of sight. Later that morning we witnessed traditional farming first hand. The farmer and his wife were raking hay and stacking it on humps. We had a sort of hand signal conversation whereby each told their life story. As far as I could work out he had 4 kids, some of which showed up later to help. The friendliness was amazing, these people had to work everything by hand and yet were as friendly as can be. Being able to camp here and witness this is one of the many great experiences which makes traveling what it is. For the coming months we won't find many campgrounds, let's hope for many more moments like these! 

The man at the petrol station spoke a little English, which was handy, and he filled our bikes meticulously. Not a drop was spilled and they were properly full too. He wanted to know if we were German... understandably as the only other motorcyclists we had seen, apart from one local couple with a Russian sidecar, were Germans. When I told him we were Australians and showed him the Australia sticker on our bikes he made sure all his colleagues knew where we were from too! He was a little short on change and therefore gave us two bottles of drinking water! They had free wifi too, which we used to check our e-mail and post a new page on the blog.

Simple things like getting the most basic groceries can be a problem when in a country where not only the language differs from any of the languages I can sort of understand, but also the characters used are different. We found a big square ugly concrete complex which housed various shops and had a market in front of it. Nothing we saw resembled even remotely a supermarket though. The market was limited to fruit, and the fruit was limited to watermelons and tomatoes. Why anyone would need 20 different stalls all selling watermelons is beyond me. All the buildings around us were grey, nothing looked familiar and we couldn't look inside as all the shop windows were blocked with boxes. Some didn't even have windows. No advertising on the outside either. You simply had to know which shop sold what, which is fine if you live there and speak the language but different when you're a visitor. 

When we did find the supermarket, I found cans which all looked the same... no pictures on the labels and the ingredients in 4 languages: Georgian, Azerbaijan, Armenian and Russian... no help there then. I couldn't find bread, veggies, yoghurt or tuna. But did find something which looked like canned meat, a package which looked like noodles, water and chocolate paste. Hardly healthy food but sometimes needs must. I tried to find bread but didn't find any, not in the supermarket or the market outside. 

We rode a bit further on and found a bakery! A simple building housed a large wooden table in the middle and a huge black oven behind it. No desk, no counter, no cash register... just one big open space. The wood fired oven made sure it was hot inside the building. Again amazing people working to, by western standards, impossible conditions. The bread was beautiful and as we had a couple of days ahead of us we bought 4. At moments like this I don't even care what they charge for their bread but it was cheap, very cheap. Less than US$ 1,20 for 4 big loaves... I walked back outside, told Mike what I had found and said 'I should ask them if I can take a photo, nobody at home will believe this'. I walked back with my camera and asked if it was ok to take a photo, half expecting them to say no. Not only was it ok, they posed and gave us 3 more breads, for which I was not allowed to pay!

The Georgia we found here is so different from the seaside and along the main road. We rode close to the Turkish border, basically on the road we had wanted to take in the first place. Yes it was in bad shape in places but so much better than the traffic madness we had seen before. At least the many potholes slowed the idiots down... it even kept most of them away altogether. Here the common vehicles are still the trusty old Ladas and Volgas. To me they are better cars than the modern import I saw in Georgia too. We have yet to see any Lada smoke as badly as the much more modern Mercedes cars. The same goes for the vans. Quite a few Russian vans in Georgia, and non of them smoke yet they were made decades ago. Also quite a few much newer Ford Transits, and all of them do smoke! 

Talking of cars. The old trucks still being used here don't smoke either... because they have petrol engines! Big block V8s with music coming out of the exhaust! They are slow and no doubt quite thirsty but what a sound! We love the old trucks chugging along, carrying heavy loads and still earning a living many decades after they were built.

We stopped early that day when we found a picture perfect camp: a near level grassy spot along a wild flowing river, in the shade of a small group of trees. The wind kept the mosquitos at bay and the view was even better than the day before! A big herd of cattle, a stray dog, some frogs and quite a few birds where the only other 'campers'. Later in the evening local fishermen tried their luck in the river under a beautiful sunset. 

The spot we found was so perfect that we decided to stay a day. We needed a wash, our clothes needed a wash and the bikes needed more that just a wash! With a wild flowing river in front of us we had the perfect spot to do it. Mike made himself a sort of rocky bathtub by moving the rocks around in the river. With the washing done and the clothes drying in the sun, we saw a snake going through the same river we just had our bath in... only a metre away from where I entered it! 

Lack of money visualised... the barn is still in use
On the face of it, it seems the land here belongs to everyone. There are after all no fences and we found at least 5 different farmers/herders using the land. Some had cattle, others sheep. As it turned out it does belong to someone and we think we actually asked the wrong farmer if we could camp there. Not that it mattered much as the man who came to have a look at what we were doing was ok with it too. From what we gathered he owned both sides of the river and right up to the mountain tops around us. He was very interested in the bikes and, for some reason, our tents(!). I was attempting to sharpen my pocket knife with a stone, which he noticed and produced a sharpening stone out of his pocket. As he no doubt knew better how to sharpen it, I gave him my knife. Barely 30 seconds later it was sharp! He stayed for at least two more hours, never said a word, just sat there and looked at everything we did... We made a sigh of relief when he finally went. But... in the afternoon he came back again... again for hours, again without saying anything... and then fell asleep right next to our tents! The only sound he made, in all the time he was right next to us, was HWRG when he saw someone in the distance on a horse. When he left, we cooked noodles and fled into the tent as another storm was brewing.

Georgia has quite changeable weather. Beautiful sunny days turned quickly into huge thunderstorms here. We had quite a bit of rain virtually every evening. As we were to find out, they had even more upstream... The river started rising, and quickly too. We had the tents and bikes in the highest spot but could see that there had been times when this patch had been flooded as well. We kept an eye on the river, and our escape route, at 30 minute intervals. It wasn't until midnight though before we could see the level started to drop. The next day all was fine again and we decided to continue on.

While riding through a beautiful gorge we suddenly found this railway carriage hanging over the river... it turned out to be the bridge...! Looking at it I wondered why? I mean it must have been quite a job getting the thing up there and putting it in place. Surely building a new bridge would have been simpler and cheaper? It wasn't in good shape either, as you can see in the photo, the sheet metal was falling apart already. I guess in a couple of years people are wondering why there is a railway carriage in the river... :-)

Looking at the houses dotted along the landscape, which are very basic and simple. They must be impossible to keep warm in winter and Georgian winters are seriously cold I think. They seem devoid of any form of luxury. Water is carried from the river in buckets for instance. Yet some of them have a satellite dish attached to the roof... what will they think when they see the houses in the US sitcoms, I wonder.

The road deteriorated to a stage which can best be described as blanket bombed. We zigzagged for hours around potholes and despite riding at crawling speed, had the suspension bottom out quite a few times too. These poor people, I thought, look at the houses, look at the roads... it's like they have been forgotten. At the same time we found the people here much friendlier than the ones with money. I find this amazing. If only we could speak the language... why are there so many different languages anyway! With all the technology that we have, we still can't seem the close that language gap.

We parked the bikes on top of a hill, pitched the tents and enjoyed another beautiful sunset. We were tired but at the same time enjoyed the ride very much. Nature though had more in store for us. At 3 am it started raining. Barely 15 minutes later we found ourselves in a huge downpour. Another 15 minutes later we had the luxury of running water inside our tents... The old adage 'they don't make 'em like they used to' is very much true for Hilleberg tents. The tent once known for being a reliable shelter now resembled a bathroom, although without the luxury of being able to turn the taps off and lacking a drain hole in the ground sheet. Lightning struck within 100 metres several times and had the ground shaking. If we could have somehow stored the amount of electricity coming down, we could have ridden home on electric bikes :-) Two hours later the show was over and the quietness we had experienced before returned. It was eerie quiet at first, like an extreme version of quiet before the storm, especially after two hours of deafening raining belting down on the tents.