Squinting through one eye to counteract the effects of the moonshine, it didn’t appear real, cars washed down the streets, men herding a hippo past modern shopfronts and tigers loose in the city. Looking at Nicolas he pointed at the tiny TV nestled on a shelf in the corner of the wooden rangers hut ‘Tbilisi’. Well tomorrow’s going to be interesting I thought, because that’s exactly where I was heading. But first there was just the small task of escaping the rangers hut into the darkness, making it back to the bike and seeing if the police were really out to find me. Not how I envisaged seeing in my 33rd year on the planet or ending an already exciting day.
Taking the road from Batumi to Borjomi over the Goderdzi pass had given the first real and unexpected test to mine and the perils off roading capabilities, everything up to this point had been happy little side tracks into the dirt. This was winding, climbing, muddy, washed out and rocky. The Peril made light work of it, my riding on the other hand left a lot to be desired.
Dropping down the pass and cutting up a wooded side valley to find what appeared to be a deserted camp, the intention was to hang around till dusk and set up the tent. Checking the oil to kill time, Gadedski appeared from out of of the woods carrying behind him the smell of booze. After some broken English and much sign language it appeared there wasn’t much hope of sleeping the night in what was actually a kids summer camp where he was caretaker. But with a quick turn of fate, Gadedski led the way and showed me a bed and shower to be used and invited me further up the valley to his ramshackle hut for coffee. With coffee quickly dispatched Ruslan (well that’s what it sounded like) the park ranger and another weathered faced compatriot appeared brandishing old plastic bottles filled with Georgian wine.
Georgians love to drink and fortunately for them whole country seems to be adorned with vines, engulfing trees, draped across streets and up onto the terraces of Soviet blocks. It’s said wine making originated there. But it certainly wasn’t mastered. Moonshine. In the first of many rounds, I was shown the correct way to drink Georgian style, a small glass in the right hand, a toast and then all together down in one. With the passing of each round the toasts got progressively longer, to mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, grandchildren, still to be born children, the Queen of England, the hills, Georgia and Yorkshire, then kisses cheek to cheek were added. Conversation flowed even if the jolly good misfits nor I really understood a word and with that the wine was gone and good night’s were exchanged.
Staggering back from the shower a rather anxious looking Gadedski reappear and waving his arms gave me the message to leave, the police were coming to get the trespasser, me. Well there wasn’t a cat in hells chance of navigating the dark valley with a moonshined mind and I made this quite clear. Looking back at it now, I think poor old Gadedski might of had a bout of delirium tremens from excessive claret consumption. Ruslan came to the rescue, ‘no problem’ made the international symbol of let’s drink more booze and lead the way to the rangers cabin further into the national park. Once there he grabbed a torch and darted off into the dark forest to source more wine and left me in the company of Nicolas another ranger and the TV in the corner of the room. After an hour of not really knowing what was happening; were the police really coming, was Ruslan coming back, was the plan to stay here and would it even be possible to enter Tbilisi tomorrow, I tried to leave, wanting to get back to the bike and a bed. Nicolas had other ideas and produced another 2 liters of wine from his bag, he was pretty adamant that until the bottle was empty we weren’t going anywhere, just being a good host but not really what was needed to help the situation. With all the wine gone for the second time that night and giving up all hope of Ruslans return from the forest, Nicolas lead the way back to the camp. Finally chance to sleep but not before being quite sick.
Entering Tbilisi it was apparent the city had been hit hard. The deluge flooding a tributary of the Mtkvari river which flows from the mountains and into the heart of the city. Washing away houses, cars and trees upsteam, once the water and its debris reached the city and became blocked it burst the banks engulfing the Mziuri park, the city’s main intersection and the zoo; releasing hippos, bears, crocodiles, lions and tigers into the city. With animals reportedly still loose and the intersection closed the streets were gridlock, going nowhere under the mid day sun when the fuel in the tank began to boil there was only one option, cautiously push the bike to the hostel.
The next day I joined up with several others from the hostel who’d been volunteering to help with the cleanup operation. Our job mainly involved removing trees which had been dumped when the waters receded but in among this were reminders of the true and human cost of the flood; cars, an ambulance, parts of homes, shoes, books, other personal items and sadly more victims both animal and human were discovered over the next few days. This was the second day and joining in with the thousands of locals who had teamed together to help in the face of an apparent lack of official organisation, there was a real sense of communal spirit. Everyone had a part to play, teams of men cheering as they released tree trunks from the knotted piles of wood, human chains moving the smaller pieces and endless supplies of food and water carried in to keep the operation fueled. Playing the part of international rescue I put my usual smooth style on the operation, picking up only the second or third log of the day, RIIIPPPP!, knowing my boxers were already more hole than fabric I continued on regardless. It was only a couple of hours later I discovered the tear in the back of my shorts, and realised that for anyone working behind me I’d made an already difficult situation much much more horrendous.
Waiting the rest of the week for my Azerbaijani visa gave chance to explore the winding streets and crooked, tumbling buildings which give the old city so much charm. It also meant hearing about a summer solstice party taking place that weekend in Udabno up on the steppe, 80km by road from the city or 50km off road. Heading out towards the steppe and taking the most direct route the maps didn’t show any thing in the way of a track from where I’d been told to leave the highway, people I’d asked assured me heading into the hills and in the general direction of Udabno it would all become clear. Mounting the first hill from the road it did, laid out for miles in front were rolling arid grasslands crisscrossed with tracks, knowing which one to take was a case of following my nose and directions from any startled cattle herders which I managed to stumble across.
Udabno was a strange little village, apparently purpose built in the 70’s to populate the disputed land between Georgia and Azerbaijan, intended for a few thousand, now only housing a few hundred farmers and their families, who were busy harvesting the grasses before the summer sun turns it all to sand. Most of the concrete prefab houses stood empty, it was in one of these houses converted into hostel come bar, fueled by local cha cha the celebration to the shortest night took place.
Next stop Azerbaijan and the mythical ship across the Caspian, but not before a loop into Armenia.