Sightseeing in Central Georgia

We scheduled two days of rest in Akhaltsikhe to recover from our climb over the mountains from Batumi, but also because we wanted to visit some of Georgia's tourist attractions in the area. We didn't end up getting much rest in Akhaltsikhe because as usual we packed our schedule with activities.

Our first excursion was to the thousand-year-old Sapara Monastery, sitting in the mountains above Akhaltsikhe about 12km away. Rather than finding a taxi we decided that it wouldn't be too difficult to ride up to the monastery without our saddle bags. We set out in the late afternoon estimating a two-hour ride. After twenty minutes of climbing on a road that could barely be qualified as a road (averaging 4km/hr), with storm clouds filling the sky, we agreed to a ride from a group of young men heading up towards the monastery for a picnic (a drinking picnic).   Storm clouds appeared right as we set out from Akhaltsikhe to Sapara Monastery

They dropped us off about halfway to the monastery, but they brought us past the worst part of the road and the remaining climb was easy. The skies cleared right as we arrived at the monastery and we had a perfect weather for visiting and for our ride back down into Akhaltsikhe.   Late afternoon at Sapara Monastery

  Riding down to Akhaltsikhe from Sapara Monastery

On our second day visited Vardzia, a 12th century cave monastery, carved out of a mountainside along the Mtkvari River (Georgia's longest river). Vardzia is 60km from Akhaltsikhe and is the area's most well-known tourist attraction. In the morning we made our way to the bus station to find the daily mini-bus to Vardzia. In the parking lot of the bus station, we were approached by a driver who offered to take us there and back. The price we were quoted for the private car was about twice that of public transportation. I was feeling unenthusiastic about having to endure motion sickness (I had packed a few plastic bags for the road) and the idea of taxi was very appealing. Yann was really not into the idea of a taxi but he went along with it.

Right before setting off, a few taxi drivers approached our driver and began yelling at him. From what we understood, he was undercutting the others and they weren't very happy. He may not have been part of the official Vardzia taxi cartel. It wasn't clear to us what was going on, but in the end it appeared that another driver was next in line for the overpriced tourist drive to Vardzia. Our original driver did not put up much resistance when we were escorted to another taxi, so we assumed that by going with a new driver we were respecting the laws of the parking lot. We were charged more of course.

Our driver drove like an ass. When I told him to slow down he pointed at his chest and said “me good driver, no problem”. Yann was really pissed about our new arrangement and didn't trust our driver (who had been pretty aggressive in wrestling us away from the other driver). When we got back to Akhaltsikhe he annoyingly tried to get even more money from us (we refused). But on a positive note, we had visited Vardzia and the Khertvisi Castle in about half the time it would have taken by bus. And our driver had at least been friendly while he toured us around.   Approaching Vardzia

  Vardzia cave monastery

  Khertvisi Fortress

In the late afternoon, we visited Rabati, a newly restored castle complex overlooking Akhaltsikhe. While Georgia hopes it will be a huge draw for tourists, for us, it wasn't as interesting as original sights and didn't feel very authentic. There were more security guards than there were visitors.   The newly restored Rabati Castle complex

From Akhaltsikhe we got back on our bikes for a short 50km ride to Borjomi, a town famous as the source of Georgia's carbonated mineral water of the same name. As we weren't visiting the nearby national park, there wasn't a tremendous amount of things to do, other than drink water from the source: a warm, fizzy, salty, eggy gag-inducing delight. The water is thought to have healing properties which is why Yann and I drank a full mouthful each.
  Borjomi mineral water, straight from the source

After Borjomi, we had about 30km of riding on a secondary highway before reaching the country's largest highway (Ⴑ-1) , which up until then we had managed to avoid. The highway is two lanes and undivided for most of the fifty kilometres from the turn-off to the Borjomi road until Gori, our next destination. Most of the country's traffic is concentrated on this road, so you can imagine how pleasant it is for cycling. We tried a few detours, but none lasted very long so we pushed on, often riding in the gravel shoulder.   The busy Ⴑ-1 highway between Khashuri and Gori

Gori is most famous as the birthplace of Iosef Jughashvili, later known as Joseph Stalin. Stalin continues to hold national hero status in his hometown whose largest thoroughfare is known as Stalin avenue. Gori's affection for Stalin seems to be one of the reasons that the city is such a draw for foreign tourists. The city is home to the Stalin Museum, mainly a collection of photos of the former leader. In front of the museum is the house where Stalin is said to have been born and raised. We didn't take a rest day in Gori, so we visited all the “Stalin sights” soon after arriving in the city. 
  Stalin Avenue, Gori

After a short afternoon nap we got back on our bikes and cycled to Uplistsikhe, a cave complex, similar to Vardzia but far more ancient. Our ride to and from Uplistsikhe brought us to over 100kms of riding for the day. We left Borjomi at 6am and we weren't back at our guesthouse until 8pm. But we knew that from Gori we were heading to Tbilisi for at least a week of rest and visa applications so we decided not to miss out on any of the area's sights.   Uplistsikhe cave complex, about 13km from Gori

Our 90km ride from Gori to Tbilisi was pretty crap. We continued on the busy Ⴑ-1 highway and the traffic increased the closer we got to the city. Bicycles, tractors and other slow-moving vehicles are technically prohibited from using the highway, but police passed us regularly, continuing to not enforce the rules of the road. There was a wide shoulder until about the last 20km into Tbilisi when it disappeared to give way to five lanes of traffic into the city. The cars slowed down at this point, so in some ways it was less scary than when we were being passed by huge speeding trucks. We managed to ride all the way to our hostel, right in the centre of the city where we had an air-conditioned room waiting for us. Bicycles are prohibited from riding on Ⴑ-1 highway (this rule appears to be unenforced)

Stats for Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi:

Days of cycling: 3
Days of  rest: 2
Kilometres cycled: 246
Metres climbed: 1403
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 5

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop  Expedition Support

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