A persistent man called Roma
Sunday 28th August 2022, Adjara, south-western Georgia
Roma was a very persistent character, that was for sure.
His persistence was focussed on getting me to drink vodka.
Or whatever it was he was trying to force me to drink.
I, on the other hand, was resisting those efforts. After all, it was barely 11am on a Sunday morning and I had a full day of riding ahead of me.
Roma’s latest trick was to phone up his English-speaking nephew, who lived in Texas, pass the phone to me to talk to him and whilst the two of us chatted, pour me a glass of dark-coloured liquid from what I noted out of the corner of my eye was a Coca Cola bottle.
I felt slightly relieved that the message had finally got through.
Except the bottle didn’t contain Coca Cola, which, being distracted by the phone call, I didn’t notice until the liquid hit my lips.
Instead, it contained the homemade wine which many households made in this part of the world. In the six weeks I’d spent in Georgia so far, I’d learnt that if there was any reflection of the Georgian love of booze, it was that millennia-old tradition.
Here, people didn’t just have a kitchen garden at home, with cabbages, lettuces, tomatoes or onions, oh no. Instead they had a mini-vineyard out back, producing particularly potent booze that would be shared at family occasions, public holidays, picnics or maybe even just for a lunchtime snifter when at work.
Roma and I sat, somewhat unusually, beneath a bright yellow Lipton Iced Tea parasol, on a picnic table outside his dacha, a smart, rectangular pine log cabin with a steep-sided roof that served as his family’s holiday home.
It was one of a number in the sprawling village of Tsablana in Georgia’s south-western Adjarian region, a landscape divided by the mountains, ravines and steep valleys of the Lesser Caucasus mountains. The Turkish border lay only a few kilometres away to our south.
It was a late August Sunday, but it was also a religious holiday, to mark St Mary’s Day.
With the phone call finished and Roma’s scheming rumbled, we returned to our original conversation.
“We built this dacha six years ago. And in the winter the snow is ten meters high!”, said Roma enthusiastically.
Roma’s dacha and his shiny grey Porsche Cayenne SUV sat at odds with the older homes of Tsablana, which were populated by the original, apparently less well-off villagers who had lived here for generations. He was typical of many Georgians I met last summer; an ambitious, energetic family man who was highly hospitable and extroverted, with family connections that spread well beyond Georgia’s immediate borders.
There was no shop, or any local amenities for that matter, in Tsablana; that wasn’t unusual in even the larger conurbations in the more remote parts of Georgia. Just the collection of houses, the usual hard earth track and a motley collection of farmyard animals wandering around, as other villagers, who presumably had been here far longer than Roma, worked their plots of land in much the same way as they must have done for the last hundred years.
Even though it was a Sunday morning, the background noise of hammering, drilling and sawing went on around us.
“There are no guest houses yet” explained Roma, “the government encourages us, Georgians from other places like me, to build new homes here. But there will be some in two or three years, for sure.”
Out of all of undisputed Georgia, Adjara had a particularly strong regional identity. Its cultural boundaries extended over the mountains into Turkey, where Georgian was widely spoken despite it being the wrong side of the international frontier.
The border was, ultimately, the product of some line, drawn on some map by some empires at the high point of imperialism over a hundred years ago. Islam, not Orthodox Christianity like the rest of Georgia, was the predominant religion. Small mosques made with wood or dark-coloured corrugated aluminium, with polished minarets could be found in every village you went to. But other than that and what type of kebab was being served, you couldn’t distinguish between the Islamic and Christian areas.
Over the Turkish side of the border with Georgia, the biggest impact of the outside world on the remote villages was the huge hydroelectric power scheme based around the Çoruh valley. But here it was a different story, as new houses like Roma’s went up around us on that Sunday morning. Alongside mosques, impressive new Georgian Orthodox churches were sprouting up too.
And with it came people like Roma, a businessman from Batumi, and his family, from outside of what were once quiet, isolated villages, disconnected from the outside world.
A stop on the road to Upper Svaneti
Roma and his dacha came towards the end of a two month stint in Georgia. In mid-July, I had gladly left behind the Policeman From Vayk, and the arcane traffic laws he was responsible for enforcing. I headed for the Tusheti mountains in the north-east of the country, confident that the cold, rain and ice that I had fled from in June, into Armenia, had now passed.
As I plotted a route counter-clockwise from Tusheti, following the mountains as far as the Black Sea to the west and Adjara in the south-west, I reflected on how the modus operandi I’d established in Armenia and Turkey was working well.
Having established a rough direction of travel, I would focus on one area at a time, using dirt tracks and backcountry routes to explore its valleys and villages as much as possible, enjoying riding off the tarmac and staying as far away as I could from the better known routes and thoroughfares. When I had explored all I could or wanted to in an area, I would move onto the adjoining one.
Before leaving home, I’d given a lot of thought to how I wanted to approach future trips. The epic scale of riding from London to Sydney six years earlier stood by itself, but in the years since I had come to realise that I wanted to focus more on getting to know a smaller number of places, better.
I was pleased that the approach I had adopted this time was a far more rewarding one than simply moving in a continuous, linear direction, as I spent the summer criss-crossing the Caucasus mountains.
The route took me to the distinctive, medieval stone towers of the ancient, remote mountain communities of Tusheti, Khevsureti and Svaneti, with their ancient animist rituals and mythologies, and to the Pankisi Gorge, a beautiful valley populated by Chechans from across the border with Russia, which was once infamous as an al-Qaeda training ground but today is populated with cheese-making shepherds. There were the baking hot vineyards of Kaheti, and the apple orchards, maize fields and remote mountain tracks of Racha that thrust towards Georgia’s disputed South Ossetian border.
If there was one consistent theme, it was that change was in the air for Georgia this summer.
Dirt tracks were being paved to link together far-flung villages like Roma’s at Tsablana, Chinese-built tunnels were being bored through mountain ranges to create new motorways, ground was being broken everywhere on new homes like Roma’s or older buildings being renovated and rebuilt.
When I arrived in Tbilisi at the start of the summer, I’d marvelled at how everything seemed shinier, newer than when I’d first visited in 2015; the bars, shops and restaurants, apartment blocks, the cars. Even the petrol stations looked cleaner.
Small Suzuki trucks and battered Lada saloons buzzed around towns, overladen with building materials hanging out of windows and perilously clinging on to roof-racks. Every other shop seemed to be a hardware store, a builders yard or a workshop of some kind.
The Georgian Church was in on the act too; new monasteries and churches being built up in remote mountain locations, with chapels of clean fresh stone, brightly coloured frescos, rooms for pilgrims to stay overnight, manicured gardens and, if you were lucky, a brace of long-bearded monks who generously gave out free bottles of honey, produced on-site.
Everyone seemed to have some kind of side-hustle going on, albeit with varying degrees of quality of service, availability and reliability. There was a kind of energy in the country that was missing in its comparatively sleepy neighbour Armenia. And it was easier to play tourist here too, there were more guesthouses and homestays, as well as shops, mini-markets and restaurants.
It wasn’t just a young person’s game. For the older generations, Georgia’s double-digit economic growth was creating opportunities.
“These scars here are from where they had to cut open his throat after he ate some poisonous wild mushrooms”, said Guiliana, pointing to the marks at the base of her husband’s throat where he’d had a tracheostomy some time ago. “Two of his friends died”, she added.
“And this is where he was attacked by bears,” she said, pointing to other deep, ugly scars on his calf.
We were sitting talking in the dining area of Guiliana’s guesthouse in Lentekhi on a Saturday evening. Lentakhi was a small town on the main route to Upper Svaneti, the epicentre of Georgia’s booming hiking and outdoor tourism industry.
The next day, I would break away from the main road to cross the 3,000m Latpuri Pass, an unsigned dirt track that was marked on only the most detailed of maps with a dotted line, that would take me over the mountains into Upper Svaneti in a less roundabout route north.
Guiliana’s husband had certainly led an eventful life. Forty years earlier he had joined the Soviet Army and had been a gulag prison guard near Vladivostok, in Russia’s Far East. Then, twenty years later after Georgian independence, they had returned home to Georgia where he was now a Colonel in the local police.
Today, he and Guiliana lived a quieter life, renting out rooms in their house to passing tourists using Booking.com, with a dog and a cat for company. Guiliana ran the roost and kept a small, beautiful garden with light blue ‘Batumi roses’ (hydrangeas); he, aside from being a policeman, proudly looked after the black and white cat and was the handyman around the house, wearing an old army smock and black wellington boots. Between them, she spoke a bit of English, he more German (like many former Soviet soldiers), but that was no problem, thanks to the use of a smartphone and Google Translate.
Their house was typical of many of the guesthouses which peppered towns and villages across the country; a large, well-kept two story place with creaking floorboards and a covered balcony that ran around the side and front of it, with ornate Imperial-era ironwork that was decorated with climbing plants. There was no air conditioning for the baking Georgian summers nor central heating for the winter – but a collection of colourful, thick comfy looking blankets to keep the mountain cold out at night. Despite all of this simplicity, there was still a speedy wifi connection for a clientele used to being permanently in touch with the wider world.
Breakfast and dinner in these guesthouses almost invariably was a generous spread of homemade honey and yoghurt, freshly baked bread, salty cheese made from sheep or goat milk, salads, soups, and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. It was almost impossible to make a serious dent whatever was laid up for you. And it was not unusual to pay for breakfast and dinner separately, but for the same meal to be wheeled out twice.
I went to bed that night with a full stomach, well prepared for an early start to get over the Latpuri Pass and the mountains of Upper Svaneti the next day.
The little green hut beneath Mount Didvake
There were, of course, some limitations to this approach.
Several kilometres and a day before I met Roma, I had come across a border guard who was leaning over the bannister of the covered porch of his small green hut, enjoying a mid-afternoon cigarette while looking into the fog.
He was a dark-haired chap in his forties, with tanned skin and a black beard, dressed in camouflage trousers and an olive drab polo neck t-shirt with “Border Police” written on it in English. He looked a little bit like the film star Osaac Isaac, I thought, thinking back to Dune, which I’d watched on my iPad only a couple of weeks before.
The hut was set amongst the high-grazing pastures beneath Mt. Didvake, by the farmer’s track that I was following. I was a mile or so from Georgia’s southern border with Turkey.
I’d noticed the hut when I’d hopped off the bike a few minutes earlier to take photos of some ruins which looked particularly atmospheric in the afternoon mist that tended to arrive in this part of the world just after lunchtime and disappear a few hours later.
I didn’t think too much of the hut when I first passed it. It was unmarked, typical of a thousand and one other huts I’d seen that day so far and there weren’t any signs – either of life (at that point) or of the hut’s purpose. “It’s probably just another shepherd’s hut” I’d thought to myself as I went about my business, more interested in working out what buildings the ruins had once been.
So I paused as soon as I spotted the guard, who appeared as I started to head back to the bike. He didn’t notice me at first, looking deeply into the fog back towards where my bike was, concealed by it.
“Gamarjoba!” I said, waving as I walked towards him.
He was startled, did a double take and then quickly said something in Georgian to someone back in the hut before standing bolt upright, motioning me to come closer.
“Saidan mokhvedi?!” he asked, without returning my greeting and with a hint of aggression in his voice;. “Where have you come from?!”.
“Uh oh”, I thought.
“Oktomberi” I replied, the last town I’d left behind in the valley below an hour or two before. “Ingliseli turisti”, I explained. And then, “mototsikli” pointing into the fog, back towards the bike.
He wasn’t convinced. He eyed me suspiciously.
“Passport!” he demanded.
“Mototsikli” I repeated, pointing back towards the bike.
He spoke to someone back in the hut and then repeated, more loudly this time ““Passport!”.
“Passport – mototsikli!” I repeated, jabbing back at the bike this time whilst also trying to maintain a smile.
He muttered something, before kicking off his flip-flops and pulling on his boots. He reached inside the doorway of the hut for an assault rifle and body armour, pulling it over his head and clipping on a small black walkie talkie too. He certainly seemed like the cautious type; at least he didn’t put on a helmet.
We set off together back towards my bike, the now clearly unfit guard huffing and puffing in my ear as we strode across the grass into the mist. “Maybe I should have just done a runner after all” I thought.
The passport obtained from the bike and my entrance stamp to Georgia located, I had been ordered to sit down on a chair in the hut. As he radioed to his HQ to check my details, I peered into the darkness of the next room where a set of bunk beds stood with crumpled sheets. A black wifi router perched perilously on the windowsill, the only sign of modernity in the hut, its lights blinking away.
When the all clear came back, the guard relaxed instantly, his demeanour suddenly became far more friendly.
“Coffee?” I was asked as I was getting ready to leave, passport in hand.
We sat with two of his colleagues in the small picnic shelter that was next to the hut, listening to the rain hitting the roof above and making some kind of conversation using a mixture of Georgian, English, hand signals and, of course, Google Translate.
A black and white cat peered down at us from the rafters. I was warned not to go any further, as we chatted; the farm track that I was following on my map didn’t cross the border, but ran too close to it for their liking.
The sweet, black coffee appeared a short time later with a plate of colourful, wrapped sweets. A serving of surprisingly delicious pale white corn-on-the-cob followed, with a bucket of salt to add flavour to it.
Georgia’s border trevails are well known, and particularly the fact that a fifth of the country, in the central region of South Ossetia and the western region of Abkhazia, is occupied by Russian troops following the conflict with Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia. It was the larger country’s way of trying to keep Georgia firmly under its influence, by giving it the ability to stoke the fires of internal conflict should the latter dare to move too far from its orbit.
On the approaches to the occupied areas, Georgian police had built a ring of shiny new, modern looking police stations guarding the main roads, far more obvious than the little green hut near the Turkish border.
It wasn’t exactly an impenetrable ring of steel. But there was a need for caution and to stay away from built up areas. If you managed to make your way past them then the road would just stop at the border of the disputed areas, with police stations replaced with ugly green concrete fortifications blocking the road, covered with camouflage netting.
Elsewhere, rusting railway lines led-off to the distance, with level-crossing barriers left permanently up and stations abandoned and overgrown with vegetation.
Slightly incongruously, life in those areas adjacent to the border (on the Georgian side at least) continued as normal. The villages might have been quieter, food shops smaller and less frequent, and the bars and restaurants non-existent, but in Shida Kartli to the south and Racha to the south-west, shepherds roamed the rolling hills with their sheep unfussed, resting in the shade of trees for lunch, drinking cha-cha and munching salty, hard white cheese made from goats and sheep’s milk.
Only a few hundred metres down the road from the fortifications and road blocks, farmers spread crops out on the road to dry them. Old red tractors put-putted down farm tracks through undisturbed fields of maize and apple orchards, ignoring the grander geo-politics playing out around them. Every so often a dark green jeep from the European Monitoring Mission could be seen, still responsible for monitoring the ceasefire, some 14 years after it was agreed.
The situation with South Ossetia and Abkhazia had taken on new meaning since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, nonetheless.
“We fucking warned you guys back in 2008 that this would happen. But you didn’t listen. You should have armed us then like you are arming Ukraine now”, said Micha, a tour guide escorting a group of Germans who I met at a campsite on the edge of the Aragvi river, not far from the Georgian Military Highway.
From the yellow and blue billboards that lined the boulevards of Tbilisi, to the national network of ATMs that flashed up the Ukrainian flag each time you used them, signs of support for Ukraine were everywhere. Pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian graffiti decorated walls and footpaths. Entire buildings were painted in Ukrainian colours. Georgians killed fighting the Russians were memorialised by photos tied to lamposts, with Ukrainian flags hanging next to them. In Mestia in the north, Georgia’s hiking capital and the epicentre of its fast growing tourist industry, restaurants didn’t just stop at flying the Ukrainian flag; waiting staff all wore matching t-shirts lamenting the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the menus were entitled ‘Stand With Ukraine’.
Every so often, the support for Ukraine spilled over into something darker. “Are you Nazis?” I asked a group of three young men with shaved heads and wearing black hoodies. We were in Ghebi, an ancient village deep in the mountains in the far north of the country near where the Russian, South Ossetian and Georgian borders all met. They had wandered outside when they heard the bike and I stopped to look at the graffiti that they had daubed on the walls of their house. That the graffiti read “fuck Russia, Putin” wasn’t surprising. That was common enough. It was the white spray-painted swastika that had caught my eye. “Yes”, one replied, laughing, throwing his right arm into the air to give a Nazi salute. He may have been joking but there was certainly a brooding, sinister air about the group. I made my excuses and quickly rode away.
All around Georgia, Ukrainians and Russians were spilling into the country, more often than not in shiny Japanese SUVs and expensive German saloons.
Vasily, a Ukrainian in his early thirties, was not driving one of those expensive cars, instead opting for a more modest Ford 4×4.
“We came here just after the war started” he said, as we sat camping by a lake in Adjara, on my penultimate night in the country. We were by the Green Lake, 2000m up in the mountains in the east of the province, where we were both camping for the night. Behind us, his wife was sitting in their tent tending to their 6 month old baby. We sipped brandy in the fading light, sitting in folding chairs, looking down at the lake. A group of dressed-up Georgian teenagers took selfies on the edge of the water, as their father cooked on a barbeque.
An economist by training, Vasily was just happy to get his family somewhere safe. He was looking to the future, keen to find a way to be settled in Georgia and was considering setting up a bar in Batumi. The trip to the lake was the chance to have some well-deserved time out relaxing for his family. When the drums of war had first started sounding in late 2021, he and his then heavily-pregnant wife had gone to live with her parents in Russian-occupied Crimea, where they hoped it was less likely there would be fighting. After the Russian invasion had begun, they had fled by driving through Russia and to the Georgian border in a day, a journey of 1,800km.
“What is it like when you meet Russians here? Are there any problems, any fights?” I asked another Ukrainian, a cruise ship steward in his twenties who I bumped into in a motorbike garage on the outskirts of Tbilisi, as I waited for a mechanic to do some welding on the bike. He and his father were now based in the capital, with his brother living in Ireland and other members of his family living in the Isle of Man. “Not really”, he said “The Russians who come here know the situation and they are on holiday. They don’t want trouble. We just accept that they are here and that we are here. Sometimes we might speak to one another, it is polite, but mostly people just keep to themselves.”
You couldn’t help but see how Russia’s occupation of a fifth of Georgia was pushing the country away from the orbit of its larger neighbour – rather than towards it. There was a clear and palpable sense that the country’s future lay to the west, not the north. Putin’s geopolitical strategy of using ‘frozen conflicts’, fermenting internal conflicts in the former Soviet republics to ensure they don’t stray from Russia’s sphere of influence, might have prevented Georgia from joining NATO or the EU, but you couldn’t help but feel he was fighting a losing battle. Even if the current Georgian government was deemed by many as being too sympathetic to Moscow, the fundamentals of society and culture outside of the halls of power were determining the long-term direction of travel.
And it was in the other direction to that of the Russian capital.
Sometime in mid-August, I sat on the floor in the shade outside a convenience store in Ozurgeti, in the far west, munching through what must have been my third or fourth ice cream of the day. A tall man wearing sunglasses paced around in circles, shouting in Georgian down his mobile phone. He wore a bright blue football shirt. From a distance, you might have thought he was a Chelsea fan. But his shirt looked just like a Chelsea team shirt except for one key difference; on the front were the 12 gold stars of the EU flag and the phrase “I am European” written in English capital letters.
Even more so than the Armenians I had met the month before, Georgians viewed themselves as proud Europeans, with the EU flag flown everywhere at public buildings alongside the national flag. Graffiti on motorway passes proclaimed a European unity that included Georgia. Russian was still widely spoken, particularly in the more remote areas and amongst the older people, but English was now the language of choice for most under the age of 30, a product of a decision to make it the second language on the school curriculum after the 2008 war.
Despite this, Russian cars and trucks still streamed down the Georgian Military Highway from the main border crossing to the north. In Tbilisi’s Old Town, the capital’s tourist and night time hotspot, it seemed like every other car had a Russian number plate.
Many, like those the cruise ship steward had described, were simply continuing the centuries-old tradition of holidaying in Georgia, particularly on the Black Sea coast. But others were IT workers who could still do their work remotely, away from Putin and the potential to be drafted into the Russian Army.
Vasily, at the lake, had agreed. “A lot are here not because they are on holiday, but because they are like me; they just want to get on with their lives.” Unlike in other parts of the former Soviet Union, there were no Russian cars proudly displaying the now infamous ‘Z’ symbol. Others pontificated that many weren’t actually Russians at all, but they were Georgians who had fled the country to Russia in the early ‘90s when it seemed like it might implode into civil war, and were now returning.
The truth was, ultimately, a mixture of all of these things; some were on holiday, some were wanting to escape Putin’s Russia. Whatever it was, it was having an economic impact: Georgia’s historically low cost of living was being pushed up by the influx, with rents for apartments in Tbilisi reaching levels not far off those back home in London.
A few weeks before I met Vasily, I bivvied down for the night in a clearing in the Becho Valley, in the north. A few hundred metres away two boys played in the fading light, as the father and mother sat next to an impressive looking campfire. Just before dark, the two boys came up to me offering a plate of cheese and biscuits.
The next morning, I walked towards the father to say thank you for the food, noting the Georgian-plated purple SUV.
He was a slightly nervous but kind looking bloke in his late thirties, with sad eyes.
Despite the car, he wasn’t Georgian, but Russian, he explained in a few words of English. He had moved with his family to Batumi in April, to start a new life, he explained.
“Because of the…” he said, the sentence trailing off. We both nodded, knowing what he meant.
Just as Vasily, from Ukraine, had done too.