Anticlockwise from Tusheti

A persistent man called Roma

Roma’s wife looks out of the window of their dacha in Tsablana, Adjara.

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 wine.

Or cha-cha.

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.

Tsablana, on the morning of St Mary’s Day.

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.”

Night-time village life in Taco, south-east Adjara.

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, 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

Ruined buildings on the Georgian border with Turkey.

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. 

Anti-Russian graffiti, Ghebi, Racha.

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. 

Bivvng in the Becho Valley, Upper Svaneti.

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.

Pianist at a cafe at the Dry Bridge Market, Tbilisi, August 2022.

The unpronounceable town of Yeghegnadzor

Thursday 30th June.

Vayots Dzor region, central Armenia.

The Policeman From Vayk

Somewhere along the line, I decided that the Policeman From Vayk looked a lot like Britain’s Prime Ministerial hopeful, Rishi Sunek.

The difference was, however, that I had never met Rishi Sunek. Let alone been sat in a car with him.

And Rishi Sunek had certainly not shouted at me before….while driving a silver Toyota police car down a rocky dirt road in heat-blasted central Armenia, mobile phone in one hand, cigarette in another, as I sat in the passenger seat giving him directions.

“How much further?!”, the Policeman From Vayk was yelling at me (in Armenian), for the third time in a row in less than a minute.

He certainly seemed to be getting rather animated.

He was pissed off at me.

Policeman at Vahanavank Monastery, west of Kapan, southern Armenia.

It was clear from the moment we’d met back in the hospital a couple of hours earlier that he was pissed off with me. From the outset he’d seemed serious, but less in a professional way and more in a “oh I’ve got to deal with this shit” kind of way.

But now he was REALLY pissed off at me.

Pissed off at me for screwing up his afternoon, pissed off at me for causing a fuss about not having a proper translator, pissed off at me for refusing to take up his suggestion that we fake photos for his accident report, and pissed off at me for insisting that we drive down this crappy road.

It was, by now, late afternoon, almost evening.

Earlier that day, I had been riding down a track off the Old Jemuk Highway, a rough, broken-up dirt road that followed the bottom of a beautiful canyon, which the Arpa river flowed through from neighbouring Azerbaijan.

At the eastern head of the canyon, on the edge of a huge reservoir, lay the sprawling Soviet-era resort town of Jemuk, once a premier holiday destination due to its proximity to some hot springs, but today a dusty collection of crumbling old buildings and shops selling cheap clothing, set apart by wide boulevards.

A week before, passing through here on the way south, I’d tried to find the springs, but all I’d come across was a British guy and his daughter in a broken down rental car, an Armenian Army veteran who’d been wounded in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War and was now spending his days fishing, and a series of signs warning me of bears.

This time, now headed north towards the capital, Yerevan, from the Iranian border, I’d happened upon a hilltop fortified monastery on the banks of the Arpa, its ancient battlements restored, set amongst well-watered, manicured lawns.

On leaving, I had carried a bit too much speed downhill coming round a corner on the dirt road; in a lapse of concentration, I had momentarily knocked the bike into neutral and lost any engine braking and the back end of the bike in the process, leaving me on the ground, wrestling with the bike on top of me. I hadn’t, at that point, realised how much grip my worn rear tyre wasn’t giving me.

I wasn’t wearing protective clothing and picked up some nasty road rash as a result. After I’d wriggled free, I’d ridden to a pharmacy in Jemuk to sort myself out, but still feared that I had dirt in the wounds. So I headed to the nearest hospital to get myself cleaned up.

The nurses fussed over me, using Google Translate to ask the usual questions that doctors and nurses ask, including whether I had had my tetanus jab. I said yes but they told me to drop my trousers, gave me another one in my right bum cheek anyway and packed me off with an escort to wait for the Policeman From Vayk.

And this was how I discovered that in Armenia if you seek hospital treatment for any accident involving a motor vehicle, then the police are required, by law, to investigate and then clear the release of your vehicle, which can take up to 3 weeks, during which period your vehicle is impounded.

‘Investigate’ in the loosest sense of the word was most appropriate here. Because when it came down to it, the Policeman From Vayk, Vayk being a town some 15km away near where I’d come off, really couldn’t be bothered.

Instead, he proposed that we just go to the nearest track we could find, take some photos there with my pointing at the ground where I supposedly fell, so he could file his report and I could get on with waiting for the paperwork to clear, the most lengthy part of the process.

Except, somehow, that didn’t seem right. And the fact that the cop’s mate, who acted as the ‘translator’ for writing the accident report, also happened to own a hotel, close to the crash site, where he insisted that I stayed whilst I waited for my bike to be released, made me uncomfortable. It felt like there was at least the mild possibility that I was being played.

So, I decided to play things by the book, refusing to stay at the hotel despite the owner’s protests and insisting that the Policeman and I went to the actual spot where I’d taken a tumble to take the photos.

Which is how, on a warm early July afternoon I found myself sat in the silver Toyota Camry saloon, being shouted at by Policeman From Vayk as we drove down the Old Jemuk Highway, on the edge of the Arpa river.

The Three Roads of Vayots Dzor
Camping on the eastern shore of Lake Sevan, heading south towards the Vardenis Mountains & Yeghegnadzor beyond.

The hospital was in the regional capital, a large, hot town with the tongue-twisting name, Yeghegnadzor.

I’d first visited the town 10 days earlier on a warm Sunday evening, descending from the pass through the Vardenis Mountain range immediately to the north. The digital temperature gauge mounted on the bike’s handlebars clicked up to high twenties, as I left Lake Sevan and Armenia’s muddy, rainy northern provinces behind. The weather was undoubtedly far more agreeable than it had been the week before, the third week in June.

Yeghegnadzor lay pretty much in the middle of Armenia, on the confluence of three major roads which meet at the centre of Vayots Dzor, Armenia’s most central region. One road led to the north-east of the country, one to the north-west of the country and one straight south to the to the border with Iran.

I’d spent my first week in Armenia exploring the tracks, ruts and puddles of the deeply forested mountains of its northern provinces, Tavush and Lori, hoping, and failing spectacularly, to avoid the kind of cold mountain rains that had left me shivering in north Georgia the week before.

My first impression of the country was that it was a quieter, more relaxed place than Georgia to the north, and a few steps behind it in embracing a full-on, western-style market economy. The driving certainly seemed a lot better, for sure. The food was good, though not quite as diverse. The cars were a bit older too, with Soviet-era Lada saloons remaining the stalwart of the roads, along with 1950s style ex-army Gaz four-wheel drives.

I’d quickly found that Armenia was, if nothing else, a land of monasteries, ruins and mountains. It was an explorers’ delight, where, outside of the main attractions, tourist-friendly infrastructure was minimal, English was spoken by some but Russian remained the lingua franca, 30 years after the country became independent from the USSR.

It also laid claim to being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a religion, at the start of the 4th century. Ruined ancient churches and monasteries, in various states of both dilapidation and restoration, littered every corner of the countryside.

Despite the weather of that first week, I had set about a new hobby – ‘monastery bagging’ – using the backcountry routes to link together as many of these monasteries as possible, slipping and sliding about on muddy, grey-puddled tracks that delved deep into countryside, gradually becoming aware of just how useless my deteriorating rear tyre had become.

Some 50km to the east from the pass to Yeghegnadzor lay the enticingly named Vardenis Ridge, deep in the heart of the eponymous mountain range that stretched across the country from the Turkish border to the west to the Azeri border to the east.

The afternoon that I descended from the pass, I’d already ridden up high, to around 2,500m and across rolling green, alpine pastures peppered with shepherds’ camps and deep river crossings flowing with the last of the spring’s melting ice. I was trying to find a way through to Yeghegnadzor via the Ridge using old shepherds’ mountain trails. But with the light fading, the shepherds telling me that there was no route through and in-need to fulfil a promise to check-in with home that evening, I’d turned back to the main road.

I arrived at my guesthouse to find an old Honda Africa Twin parked in the courtyard with a German licence plate. Martin, the owner, was a friendly, easy going bloke, riding home from India via Pakistan and Iran, where he’d been living for four years and had picked up a curious Indian twang to his German accent and a head shake to match. Even more unusually, he was travelling with his cat, Mogli, sat in front of him with his tank bag.

Together, we tried to reach the Vardenis Ridge from the south, this time via the beautiful Yeghegis valley – finding a rough, stony track through but at the last moment also finding that the 3,000m high pass was still blocked with a short but deep field of snow.

We returned to Yeghegnadzor that evening, disappointed and wishing we’d carried shovels, to the warmth of the valley below in the late afternoon sun, waving at the shepherds who had fed us coffee and sugary sweets only a short time before, playing chicken with the aggressive dogs guarding their livestock and past a destroyed artillery gun where we’d posed for photos.

We went our separate ways the next day, but not after another unsuccessful attempt to breakthrough the Vardenis range to the east, wading through meadows thick with all manner of wild flowers and through rocky water crossings, before we reached a dead end of steep mountain sides that went right to edge of a fast-flowing river.

We parted company with a brace of memories captured on our iPhones, and that night, headed south, I stayed just outside Jemuk for the first time, sheltering from a storm in my bivvy bag on the edge of the town’s reservoir after riding down to the canyon below.

I had better success in finding tracks through the mountains in Armenia’s deep south in the days that followed, reaching the Iranian border before turning around to make the trek back to the north of the country.

And so a week after I’d first left it, I once again reached a secluded camp spot by the Old Jemuk Highway on the banks of the Arpa river, blissfully ignorant of the enforced stay in Yeghegnadzor that would follow.

The Seamstress of Yeghegnadzor
The cultural & arts school, Yeghegnadzor.

We found the Seamstress working in a large, open downstairs room of an old communist-era tower block, with white walls and tables around the perimeter. Like so many buildings in the former USSR, the crumbling exterior belied the neatly kept, clean nature of the interior. A battered, bright yellow 1990s BMW 3-Series hatchback sat outside, with tinted windows and huge alloy wheels that barely fitted under the wheel arches. Inside, the Seamstress stood to the right-hand side of room, on a phone call, with tears streaming down her face.

After finishing off the accident report paperwork at the hotel near where I’d come off the bike, the Policeman From Vayk had dropped me back in Yeghegnadzor. The bike now sat somewhat forlornly in the police compound there, impounded amongst an automotive menagerie of smugglers’ trucks from Iran, mangled car wrecks and twisted, smashed-up Chinese-made 125cc motorbikes.

The wait for its release had begun. I grabbed some essentials from the panniers, jammed them in my black Ortleib holdall and set off to find the guesthouse I’d booked online.

I stood on a street corner on the high street trying to flag down a taxi when Marie, a local tourism student who had spotted a somewhat lost and obvious tourist (me), offered the services of ‘her driver’ to take me to the guesthouse, a couple of kilometres away. As we waited for him to arrive, we drank ice coffees from a local store, which she insisted on buying, sat in the centre of a playground as the kids played noisily around us, from time to time ducking in to practice a few English phrases.

Drinking coffee whilst children play, central Yeghegnadzor.

Armenian hospitality was unlike anything I’d experienced before. If you needed anything, directions or help, people generally bent over backwards to assist. I’d grown used to being approached by people in the street. ‘Ot kuda ti?’ (Russian for ‘Where are you from?’) was usually the first question, the ‘UK’ on my number plate often being confused as being from UKraine, despite the Union flag.

This was not a surprise – both the Armenian and the Russian alphabet use non-Latin letters after all. The almost hourly questioning was often followed up by an invite for coffee. Riding through the countryside, it was the norm for groups of locals to shout and wave at you frantically to stop from the ubiquitous picnic stops that dotted the countywide, just so they could chat. On one occasion I’d met the leader of a kids’ hiking expedition. On hearing that I was headed the mountains in the south where the odd wolf and bear still roamed, insisted in giving me £50 of repellent spray as personal protection; £50 was a lot of money in a country where incomes were on average only a quarter of those back home in the UK.

Part of the reason why the situation with the Policeman From Vayk was tricky to navigate was not so much due to the accident, nor was it just due to his offer to fake the photographs for his report. It was due to the offer of hospitality and of assistance in helping release my bike from the hotel owner, who was clearly good friends with the Policeman, which blurred the lines between hospitality and the official legal process. And whilst my gut told me that I didn’t like the situation, I knew there was argument to say that it was just yet another representation of how hospitable Armenia was.

Food stop, just outside of Goris, eastern Armenia, on the main road to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Marie was yet another example of that willingness to help. ‘Her driver’ turned out to be her dad and his mate in a battered old blue, Opel people carrier who, after some arguments between the three of them about where to go, finally dropped me tired, dirty and hungry at my guesthouse that evening.

She insisted on coming with me to the hospital the next morning to help translate, as the nurses needed to rebandage my road rash. She also insisted on paying the ‘fee’ to the nurses to do so and on finding a seamstress to sew my favourite riding shirt back together, where it had been ripped when I fell off. I later flat out insisted, against her objections, that I bought the next round of ice coffees and my own lunch. We went from place to place trying to find someone to do the sewing.

In the rising heat of the late Friday morning, Yeghegnadzor was a bustling, energetic place where, judging from Marie’s conversations, everyone seemed to know each other.

The old Soviet-era Lada saloons and Gaz jeeps were matched by 1990’and early 2000’s Opels, Mercedes and BMWs, hand-me-downs from Europe’s used car market. Food, clothing, electronics and hardware stores lined the dusty streets, framed by a network of rusting overhead gas pipes and deep gutters. At the centre of the town lay a large green park with a concrete amphitheatre with seats in the blue, red and yellow colours of the Armenian flag, lined with leafy trees that provided much needed protection from the sun. Just down from police station, the main high street led directly to the main north/south road, which ran all the way to Armenia’s southern border with Iran. Away from the whizzing traffic of the town centre large, well-kept houses with big courtyards and gardens were connected by a maze of higgledy-piggledy roads.

The amphitheater at the the cultural & arts school, Yeghegnadzor.

Eventually we found the Seamstress, crying after her phone call.

“She is still upset – her son was killed in the War”, Marie explained as we walked out of the building and across the car park, back to the town centre.

‘The War’ was the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which took place in the autumn of 2020. The Nagorno-Karabakh region lies to the east in neighbouring Azerbaijan, just over the border. Its population is predominately Armenian. The separatist Government there is closely allied with Armenia and de-facto controlled the southern-western corner of Azerbaijan for much of the 1990s and 2000s. That was until Azerbaijan decided to take most of it back in a surprise attack in 2020, with the help of Turkey, leading to Armenia’s defeat and a redrawing of the maps.

The human consequences of the War were plain to see as I travelled around Armenia. In many of the towns and villages I had ridden through, cemeteries had small, walled-off sections with new gravestones made of highly polished dark gray stone, where the Armenian flag was flown proudly next to that of the Republic of Artsakh, as Nagorno-Karabakh was also known. “Everyone in this town either knows someone who was killed or was wounded”, Gemma, the daughter of the owner of my guesthouse later explained.

Nagorno-Karabakh War memorial.

Armenia’s population is just under 3 million. Nearly 4,000 soldiers were killed and another 11,000 wounded in the short, six week conflict. Assuming the population was 50/50 female/male, that meant around one in every hundred men in the country had been either killed or wounded.

In Armenia’s deep south the week before, I’d seen the ongoing political consequences too. Russian Army peacekeepers were deployed along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as in the south along the Iranian border where the two main parts of Azerbaijan were separated by Armenia-proper, whilst the two sides hammered out an agreement on the new borders following the war and land access rights for Azerbaijan through Armenia. The border areas up to the Armenia-Azeri border were generally safe to travel through but from time to time, news outlets reported tit for tat shellings and sniper fire between the two sides in the areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, beyond.

In the backcountry tracks around Goris, in the east and the last city before reaching the Azerbaijani border and the main road to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian Army tents were pitched amongst deep fields of pretty coloured wild flowers. Normal civilian life went on as low-loader army truck transporters rumbled back and forth in convoy through the twisting mountain roads.

The main road south of Goris tracked the border closely. Russian armoured personnel carriers were parked under camouflage netting with the Russian tricolour flying high above them with rock music being blasted out by the soldiers inside. A matter of yards away, just beyond the verge of the road, sat Azeri checkpoints on their side of the border.

Discount for soldiers, food stop just outside of Goris, on the main road to Nagorno-Karbakh.

In Kapan, the main city in the south of Armenia, white International Red Cross 4x4s drove around with huge Red Cross flags flying from their antennae. And when I’d made finally made it to Meghri on the Iranian border, through the Zangezur Mountains and Arevik National Park, Russian Army soldiers manned the checkpoints guarding the main east-west route that tracked the southern frontier. They checked my passport, phoned their superiors and, politely in broken English, refused to let me through.

Armenia’s trade with Iran to the south was also clearly key; the more you headed in that direction, the more the roads were jammed with convoys of huge old Iranian-driven but American-made Mack trucks belching dirty diesel fumes as they crawled through the mountains, relics of the country’s pre-Revolution trade with the USA.

Iranian truck on the main road headed north, just outside of the Tatev Monastery, southern Armenia.

Armenia certainly seemed to be boxed in by a kind of geopolitical fix – arguably as much so as Georgia to the north, where a fifth of its area was occupied by Russia. It did not have normal diplomatic relations or open borders with Turkey to the west, due to that country’s failure to recognise the Armenian Genocide a hundred years before. For 30 years, it has technically been at war with Azerbaijan to the east, which is also in a political, military and cultural alliance with Turkey, which is keen to expand its influence in what was traditionally Russia’s backyard through that alliance.

A desperate and insecure Armenia seemed to me to suit all other parties – Russia and Iran, because it increased its reliance on them and Azerbaijan and Turkey, because it allowed them to expand their influence in the region, to Armenia and Russia’s loss.

Russian influence could be seen everywhere, aside from the more obvious legacies of the old USSR – from the food in the supermarkets to the gangs of tourists visiting the monasteries of Tatav or Norovank. This year was seeing uptick in Russian tourists because they had chosen to visit Armenia than before because of anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia, I was told. In Armenia’s affluent and attractive second city, Gyumri, where the Russian Army still retained a huge base right on the Turkish border in the north-west of the country, every other car seemed to have a Russian numberplate.

But not all Russians were on holiday. “I am from Russia” said the only other guest in one guesthouse I stayed in in Yeghegnadzor, a youngish guy with dark hair. “I am staying here because I want to avoid being drafted into the army and being made to fight in Ukraine” he added. “They will not give me a passport, but I can travel to Armenia without one.”

Perhaps because of this, the younger people I had met were looking towards the west – and the European Union – for the future. “The revolution in 2018 has been good for sure” I was told by Arno, an English-speaking Armenian doctor who I met high up in a campsite in the mountains just outside of Kapan. That revolution had led to a shake up of Armenia’s political system, the post-communist governing elites and propelled the new Civil Contract Party into government.

“It has reduced corruption but it also means we have politicians who are looking to the future too, like joining the EU. How else can one political party lose a war but then still win an election not long after?”, he added, referring to last year’s Parliamentary election where the Civil Contract Party retained power despite Armenia’s defeat in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The First Class Advisor to the Investigator of the Vayots Dzor Regional Investigative Committee
The statement to the traffic police requesting an early release of the motorbike.

“I have come to collect my motorcycle”, Google Translate read in Armenian on my phone screen.

The following Monday, wearing my newly repaired shirt, I turned up at the front desk of Yeghegnadzor police station. I had decided it was better to turn up with a clear expectation that my bike would be released rather than to ask for permission for just that.

Four or five policeman sat inside the spacious front office in smartly pressed blue-grey-green uniforms, some chatting, some on their mobile phones. The atmosphere was relaxed but helpful. A height ruler was painted on the white wall for taking mugshots. A sole AK47 assault rifle was leant casually against a chair.

As usual, one policeman read the message and a brief conversation ensued as who was best placed to respond in turn. “Come back on Wednesday, maybe then” said Google Translate, this time on the phone of the officer chosen to reply.

This raised my hopes. I had been told by the Policeman From Vayk that it would be at least a week or two before my bike was released, maybe as long as three weeks. I did not fancy sitting around waiting.

But later that evening, I spoke to some lawyers in the capital, Yerevan, that had been recommended to me by the British Foreign Office. They were eager to help, speaking to the police on my behalf, but the news was not positive.

“The problem is they have changed the procedure last week, so it is more in line with those in countries like the EU”, Lucy, their translator, explained on a call. “So that means you must wait until a new investigator contacts you later this week and then your paperwork will need to be resubmitted. It will take maybe ten more days.”

Being caught up in bureaucratic reforms that were presumably designed to make the system less bureaucratic seemed more than a little ironic.

I decided to ignore the lawyers and not to wait.

On Wednesday morning I went down to the police station again, phone and Google Translate in my hand. This time the policemen at the front desk pointed me to another building around the corner.

After a thirty minute wait in reception, I was shown up to an office at the top of the building. A late middle-aged officer with a moustache sat behind the dark brown desk in a starched white shirt with stars on his epaulettes. Neatly organised piles of paper, some in thick ring-binders, others loose, were placed all around the room.

This, it would turn out, was The First Class Advisor to the Investigator of the Vayots Dzor Regional Investigative Committee.

The Committee was responsible for reviewing all accident reports in the region and for signing-off whether they required further investigation or needed to be progressed to prosecution or not. Only after that meeting, could my bike be cleared to be released.

All for seeking some minor hospital treatment for some road rash. It seemed a somewhat heavy-handed approach.

The system had echos of Soviet-era bureaucracy about it, but this, according to the lawyers, was progress; previously there had been two committees reviewing the reports, in parallel with one another.

As I was shown into the Advisor’s office, my hopes were raised. At least I was getting some kind of progress.

He dialled a number on his mobile phone. A lady answered on the speaker phone. After a brief conversation in Armenian which seemed to consist a lot of him saying “can you just shut up, stop complaining and help me out here”, she spoke in halting English: “This man. He has your file. It will normally take maybe one week to process but he will look at it.”

My heart sank. The lady hung up.

After a minute or two of silence as the Adviser tapped away at his keyboard and said nothing further, I guessed it was time to leave, but as I got up he motioned me to sit down.

Police compound at Yeghegnadzor.

Time passed as he made a series of phone calls and various people came in and out of his office. A while later the lady was back on the phone again.

“This man can get your bike out more quickly, maybe today, maybe tomorrow. But you must sign an extra statement and you will need a translator there with you.”

“Can you give me one hour to find one?” I asked.

This time, I managed to find a taxi quickly to take me back to the guesthouse. I crossed my fingers that Gemma, the daughter of the owner who spoke good English, was there.

It perhaps not surprising that Gemma knew the Advisor, when we both returned to the station some time later. It was that kind of town.

Over the next few hours we painstakingly went through all my details with his assistant (“This name in your address ‘Leominster’ – what does it mean?”), who then typed a page and a half statement in Armenian stating that I was alone at the time of the accident and had no objection to the police ruling that there was no need to pursue the matter any further. I had to then hand write the same letter into English, with Gemma and Google Translate’s assistance and sign it.

By 3pm we were done. I couldn’t get my bike just yet, however. “There is no problem with the paperwork” Gemma explained, “but they must get it approved by the Chief of Police maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. They will ring when it is done.”

I knew that ‘maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow’ could well mean Friday – but my patience held a little longer. We left the police station for the day.

The next morning, I decided not to wait and to work on the basis that if I was there in person, the paperwork was more likely to get signed off more quickly. For the third time in four days I planted myself in the reception at the police station, saying that I was here to collect my bike.

This time it finally worked. And by lunchtime I was headed north once again, crossing back into Georgia four days later.

Final repairs to the bike before departing Yeghegnadzor.

The road to Stepantsminda

The Highway

The Georgian Military Highway in its northern reaches, some 5km short of the border with Russia, looking back to Stepantsminda. The River Terek is to the left, with the road itself cutting through the mountainside to the right of the picture.

The Georgian Military Highway. For 200km north of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, it carves its way through the Greater Caucasus mountain range to the border with Russia.

The Russians built the Highway around 200 years ago, but a track of some kind existed along its route for centuries before that. And when Imperial Russia wanted to expand southwards to include what is today Georgia as a protectorate, they built a road to allow them to do that.

Its relationship with geopolitics continues to this day, the route flirting with the borders of South Ossetia, the breakaway region of Georgian that is currently occupied by Russia.

But the Highway has long been known for its spectacular scenery, as it winds up and down, left and right through one of the the world’s great mountain ranges. As far back as 1914, before motor cars were commonplace, let alone the modern idea of a road trip, Baedecker’s guidebook described it as ‘one of the most beautiful mountain roads in the world’ noting that there was even a bus service for would be tourists to spend 10 hours travelling from Vladikavkaz, the last city on the Russian side, to the Georgian capital.

And the jewel of the crown in any trip up the Highway is the famous Gergeti Trinity Church near, overlooking the small town of Stepantsminda, just shy of the Russian border.

But I wasn’t interested in any of that.

Reproduction of 1939 tourist poster in Yerevan, Armenia, designed for InTourist, the USSR’s tourism agency.

Back in 2015, when I first rode the Highway, I got a taste that there was more to the Highway and the areas immediately around it, then just picture postcards of churches on hills.

So in the second week of June, dodging late spring downpours, I set out with my camera in hand to see what that was.

The Truckers

A driver speaking with Georgian police as a long queue of trucks waits to move up closer to the border crossing with Russia, just outside the village of Kanobi.

“It’s never the people who make war; it’s always the governments” read the text on my phone screen. We were using Google Translate.

The ‘we’ in the instance was myself and a Turkish trucker, a rather chubby fella in his early fifties with grey hair, glasses and a beard, who had been driving trucks for thirty years, from Portugal to Russia, from Iran to Finland. 

The first part of our conversation had been somewhat confused – mainly because I kept trying to converse with him using Google Translate’s Georgian setting, when he was in fact Turkish.

He was a friendly chap, who had been waiting to cross the border for a couple of weeks. I’d pulled up to take a photo, and he invited me to join him for coffee, boiling the water using a stove from the neat but admittedly rather grubby kitchen set-up that folded out from the side of his truck’s chassis, next to the diesel tank, fiddling on his mobile phone as we waited.

He’d been waiting in a long queue of trucks that began at the outskirts of Tbilsi and stretched the length of the Highway to the border. They parked up on the right hand side of the road and I’d quickly found that the drivers had an alarming tendency to jump out of their cabs or emerge from behind their trailers without looking as I zipped by, either oblivious or past caring of the oncoming traffic.

Horses led by shepherds down the Highway just outside of Kanobi, as trucks wait in line.

Queues in this part of the world were normal, due to customs constraints at the Russian end. Police cars zipped up and down, stacking lorries in groups before releasing them to move up the road. But the war in Ukraine meant that an already log-jammed trade route was now totally saturated, which is how me and the Turkish got on to the subject of internationalism. Other truck drivers had been waiting over a month already.

Most of the vehicles, with the obvious exception of the Turkish ones, were from ex-Soviet countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and of course Georgia. Armenia, to the south and boxed in by closed borders with Azerbaijan to the east and Turkey to the west, is particularly reliant on trade through the Highway due to its resultant economic dependence on Russia.

Russian and Armenian trucks formed the biggest proportion of trucks here by far. There was everything from ancient, olive drab ex-army trucks, towing trailers and belching huge clouds of thick black diesel smoke as they crawled at a snail’s pace up hills and mountain passes, to the modern Chinese manufactured ones, which looked infinitely more appealing given the amount of time one would have to spend in them. 

“We wait, we drink vodka, we party, we drink coffee, we wait” said another Russian trucker some time later, who spoke some English, temporarily freeing me from the embarrassment of Google Translate’s ever-dodgy transliteration.  “It has been 21 days”. There was a group of six gathered around, five Russians and an Armenian, asking the usual questions about where I was from and where I was going . Not surprisingly, the Armenian one disagreed with the Turk from earlier about where the best coffee came from. They were a lively bunch, trying to persuade me to stay for vodka despite the fact that it was only 10 in the morning. 

Part of me wondered how the Russians, most likely ex-army conscripts themselves perhaps with relatives currently conscripted in the army, might react to meeting someone from the UK, given the war in Eastern Europe. I needn’t have. We didn’t talk about Ukraine of course, why risk ruining the moment? But as I left and we shook hands all round, the English-speaking one paused before letting go, looked me square in the eye and said “We want peace. Not this other bullshit.”

The Shepherds

Shepherd driving his sheep in the rain, Bakurkhev Valley.

The shepherd wore bright yellow Wellington boots with a long, matching overcoat, with similarly bright blue and orange overalls beneath.

It certainly made him stand out from the crowd. Having successfully persuaded the goats on the clifftop above him to reverse their course, he set-to striding onward down the track below, neck bent forward, his baseball-capped head craning, long stick in hand. He soon joined another man, this time dressed in more conventional dress of black wellies, blue jeans and a faded camouflage jacket. 

Around 5km south of where I left the truckers, in the village of Kobi, a wide, pot-holed track cratered with muddy puddles leads west, off the main Highway. The road narrows into a dirt-track, before reaching a small hamlet with a bridge, where I met the man with the yellow wellies.

A few minutes later, and the goats had joined a flock of what looked like a thousand sheep stretching into the distance down the track, as they crossed over a bridge and down a huge gorge. Donkeys and horses followed, along with two or three other shepherds cracking whips and shouting to chivvy them along, some on foot, others on horseback.

This was the Truso Gorge and the shepherds spent the next hour or so driving the flock down its length, until landscape opened out into a wide, flat plain with the mountains gazing down on them. Ruined fortresses and villages peppered the bright green grass, as drizzle began to descend from the cloudy skies above.

The start of June and the end of spring in the valleys the areas adjoining the Highway marks the shepherds bringing in their sheep, cattle and goats from the lowland areas into the higher pastures, now fresh with fodder and liberated from the icy grip of the Caucasian winter.

Its wasn’t just the livestock who were here for the long haul. 

Across the surrounding valleys makeshift shelters were going up, with bamboo frames with plastic tarpaulins wrapped tightly around them. Old fallen-down houses and fortifications had a new lease of life, as they were adapted into seasonal shelters too. Solar panels are hoisted on to the roofs, to charge mobile phones and a few other basic mod-cons. A combination of pick-up trucks, old Ford Transits and donkeys hauled supplies, while the shepherds themselves get about on horseback.

The Highway creates a commercial opportunity for these farmers. At the Jvari Pass, its highest point, a makeshift camp with a series of shelters and BBQs is right by the roadside, with the sheep held in pens, ready for slaughter to be served to the passing truckers, with signs advertising halal meat, hoping to attract the trade of the passing truckers, many of who are from Islamic Central Asian countries or the Muslim areas of southern Russia.

The Tourists

A dog stands guard by a white water rafting centre on the banks of the River Terek.

Of course, the shepherds weren’t the only ones wanting a piece of the action, as far as local trade was concerned; the Highway’s tourism industry doesn’t just stop and start at Stepantsminda, in the shadow of nearby Mt. Kazbegi. 

High up in the Truso Valley, the shepherds had plenty of marshrutka to keep them company transporting tourists from Stepantsminda for day hikes; these shared taxis can be found for hire in any town along the Highway, taking you pretty much anywhere for a fee.

Marshrutka are a common feature of life anywhere in the former USSR. Their communal nature isn’t something that has been resigned to the dustbin as more people have been able to afford their own cars since the end of communism – if anything their use is thriving, in the case of Georgia, fuelled by fast growing, highly entrepreneurial tourism industry.

A Polish tourist looks down on the Terek Valley from a viewpoint just outside of Tsdo.

Around the Highway, many of these small minibuses look like something out of a Mad Max film; second-hand four wheel drive Toyotas, Mitsubishis and Nissans with their suspension dropped to soften the ride across the potholed tarmac and dirt roads, and big, chunky all terrain tyres fitted to deal with road conditions whatever the season. The most extreme examples have, whether by accident or design, their front bumpers and radiator grills totally removed, leaving the large cooling fans than normally sit behind exposed. In many guesthouses along the Highway, the wife of the family is responsible for looking after the guests while the husband ferries them and whoever else will pay to the surrounding areas.

Hiking in the nearby valleys around Stepantsminda, and in the Truso and Sno Valleys in particular, is still the main tourist trade here. But for the braver travellers, Georgians are finding new opportunities for tourists too, like whitewater rafting in the upper reaches of the fast-flowing River Terek. Bright yellow rafts sit inflated by the roadside, advertising rafting centres, often with a small collection of goats and sheep ready for an after-rafting BBQ.

The Villages

Two villagers drink tea in Sno.

Whether it be guarding a white water rafting camp on the banks of the Terek or a flock of sheep high up in the Truso Valley, the tenaciousness and aggression of the Georgian dogs that roam the countryside is legendary. With their thick coats and docked ears, it’s often unclear which are genuine sheep or ‘cattle’ dogs, free to roam wherever the flock or herd they’re protecting happens to be, or which are pets or strays.

Either way, enter any village on two wheels and you’re almost certain to be greeted by at least one of them diving towards you at a kamikaze pace, barking, yapping and snarling. They are one of the less pleasant features of life around the Highway but, more often of not, their bark poses for more of a threat than their bark; a quieter, slower approach with the motorbike engine switch off and friendly whistles will often turn a reaction of beared teeth into wagging tails instead.

Dog in a derelict cable car station, Kanobi.

In contrast to the dogs, the villages in the valleys off the Highway are quiet, to say the least. Away from the larger settlements on the Highway itself, there are no shops, bars, cafes or a village centre or anything resembling a high street that sells food and drink, let alone provides a focus for socialising. Instead, they are typically a collection of homes clinging to the hillside, knitted together by tracks and wonky power lines. Infrastructure is limited, and as you head deeper into the valleys, adjoining gravel tracks turn to dirt and then finally footpaths, and water supplies come from memorial springs and river water.

The dramatic landscape is of course picturesque but the existence of many of the villagers is still a largely agrarian, subsistence-based one. Small numbers of cattle, hens and other livestock often roam at will or are kept behind gates and fences made of sticks, lashed together. These aren’t animals owned by the shepherds or farmers for profit, but rather for villagers for their own consumption, alongside vegetables and crops produced from kitchen gardens and smallholdings, in neat, parallel rows.

The rusting shells of old Soviet-era trucks and buses can often be found abandoned, having been cannibalised for parts to keep other vehicles running, often matched by the shells of derelict buildings of indeterminate age. 

There’s the feeling of faded grandeur of buildings which, perhaps before the arrival of communism one hundred years ago, once stood with pride – but now stand with decaying broken glass, window frames and rusting corrugated metal, patched together with plastic sheeting.

If it weren’t for rusting satellite dishes or the five bars of 4G mobile phone signal, it would be hard to tell whether life has changed here at all for a hundred years.

But given the pace of change taking place on the Georgian Military Highway today, then perhaps it’s only a matter of time before that changes too.

View north towards the Highway from the viewpoint at Tsdo.

Through Turkey

Monday 23rd May

Sinop, Turkey, 670km from the Georgian border

Around 60km from Burgas, on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, I pulled into a garage to refuel the bike.

Dusk was fast approaching, the sky was a kind of purple-blue-grey hue and, with the temperature starting to drop, the only memory of the hot daytime sun was the smell of the heated earth in the flat fields around me.

The bike refuelled, I pulled on my favourite thick, blue riding sweater. I sat down on the kerb by the fuel pumps to eat the ice cream I’d just bought, only for the solitary garage attendant to motion to me over to a set of red plastic table and chairs on the edge of the forecourt, next to the entrance to the shop.

He looked like he was in his mid-fifties, skinny in a way that suggested that he’d always worked with his hands or on his feet, with dark hair. We managed to some kind of brief conversation around the usual questions, with a mixture of guesswork and hand signals.

Seemingly oblivious to the thousands of litres of petrol beneath of us and the multitude of No Smoking signs, the attendant pulled out a cigarette from his top pocket and lit it. As I munched away at my ice cream, bemused, I wondered whether an explosion might be picked up from space.

Arch of Liberty, Beklemento, Balkan Mountains, Bulgaria

My thoughts were focussed on two things. First, about the journey ahead, hoping that an annoyingly intermittent electrical fault that occurred a few times the week before, didn’t rear its head again and, secondly but arguably more importantly, about the fact that I had discovered that Milka now sold ice creams – yet we didn’t have them on sale back in the UK as far as I knew.

Just over 72 hours later, with the bike running just fine and some ‘get out of trouble’ spare parts from the UK in my pannier bags, I was in Turkey.


The Turkish Black Sea coast is not necessary famed for its good motorbike riding. In fact, I didn’t want to ride it on this trip. In 2015, I’d ridden the 500km long dual carriageway section from Samsun to the Georgian border en route to Sydney. It was hot, dusty and dull. And at this point I had yet to develop my love of riding alongside huge articulated trucks. So I planned to get the ferry service from Bulgaria to Georgia direct instead.

The problem was, however, that by the time I reached the Bulgarian Black Sea coast that evening, and despite that day’s journey, I was frustrated that I seemed to have spent more of the last week sitting around waiting for parts than riding. And I wanted to see if the electrical fault reappeared in circumstances I could control, rather than waiting until I got up some mountain in Georgia. I also didn’t fancy sitting around twiddling my thumbs on a boat for three days, whilst paying almost £500 for the privilege.

So instead I decided to ride there, doing as much as possible on back roads and dirt trails, following the line of the coast. Reaching Georgia by the end of the week was still my priority but it was time to make things a little bit more interesting.

Crossing the border, green rolling hills were shrouded in thick forest, with dusty dirt tracks winding their way through remote villages with old wooden houses.

Purple Rhododendrons littered bushes edged the route, which dipped in and out from the neatly kept coastal resorts on the coast east of Istanbul, with their well kept beaches. Cloudless skies met a deep-blue sea and sandy beaches, with razor sharp lines that could cut glass.

And Turkish breakfasts with their fried pastries, white cheeses, omelettes, bread, honey, cucumbers and tomatoes kept me fuelled, as well as the odd spicy sujuk sausage sandwich and endless amounts of çaj thickly laced with honey and sugar. The latter was liberally fed to me for both payment and hospitality at cafes, petrol stations and, on one occasion, even a butcher’s shop, along the way.

And lamb shish and köfte, of course. ALL the lamb shish and köfte that you could ever eat.

All of this continued until 45km west of Cide, maybe 500km east of Istanbul. Then it was an hour or two so of twisty, windy paved road, ducking and diving up and down, keeping you permanently entertained as it hugged the coastline, up there with the best of them, maybe even the likes of the Pacific Coast Highway in California or the Great Ocean Road in Oz.

For those two hours alone, all the efforts to get there had been worth it.

Then the road became straighter and flatter. The landscape more industrial. The international smorgasbord of homicidal trucks had returned. And the dual carriageway leading all the way to the Georgian border began. The rain clouds had been threatening for the previous day or two, but only now the heavens opened.

As I sat taking shelter in a cafe on the waters’ edge, I ate a rather sweaty looking gozleme pancake, with some rather suspect looking pale lamb mince filling. The cold, wet weather meant that other than an old man sat opposite me, the place was deserted.

I decided that I’d had a good run of it. It was now time to jump on the highway to make it to Sinop for the night, and the mountains on the Georgian border beyond.

Capturing Sofia

Sunday May 15th

Sofia, Bulgaria

After the long haul down to Bulgaria from the UK, I decided to delay my Black Sea crossing to Georgia by a week to wait for some spare parts for the bike in Sofia, the capital.

Sofia may have ancient roots from Roman times, but it feels like a city in its adolescence. There’s a buzz and a energy about the place, from the noisy traffic ploughing up and down six-lane highways, the pizza and kebab joints serving street food on each corner, through to the construction sites that seem to be on every block, with snazzy new apartments going up alongside battered old, crumbling communist era buildings.

That gave me the opportunity to explore the city over a few days with my camera in hand, booking into a small hotel on Boulevard Todor Alexandrov, where the room was big and the rates were good, capturing what I found in to three groups of photos: People, buildings & streets.




On trucks & cows

Wednesday 11th May

Borovets, Rila Mountains, 70km south of Sofia, Bulgaria

After three long days and some 1,500 miles in the saddle from London, I concluded that the convoys of trucks ploughing the motorways, autoroutes and autobahns of Central Europe behave in a very similar way to cows.

My plan for this trip was quite simple – kick off with some big miles to get to south-east Europe, to then get a boat from Burgas on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast to Batumi in Georgia for a three month loop around the Caucasus republics, and then back home, spending time in eastern Turkey and the Balkans en route. And I wasn’t expecting things to get too interesting until getting there to be honest.

There were two things about the trucks that reminded me of the cattle – first, and the most obvious one, is their huge, lumbering nature, which their drivers all too often either didn’t know or didn’t care about, like the proverbial bull in a China shop, their size placing them high-up in the Darwinistic pecking order of motorway travel. That much is the same as back home.

But there was something else too. The closer you get to Central Europe, then so their number on the road grows in proportion to other vehicles, causing them to congregate in long convoys in the slow lane, nose to tail – just like a herd of cattle sauntering down the road, sometimes content with driving in line astern, other times jostling for position with one another, like some kind of heavyweight, real-world version of Mario Kart.

Passau, Germany

There’s the thrill of seeing an evolving, vehicular smorgasbord of different numberplates and trailer markings, which grow in diversity the closer you get to Europe’s main east-west motorways in south Germany, Austria and Hungary, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Hungarian, Slovakian, Ukrainian, Bosnian, Czech – you name it, it’ll be there.

It gives you the feeling that you’re on your way, with whatever opportunities might lie on the road ahead – one of the great joys of travelling by motorbike. Riding motorways can be (and usually is) dull but spending days riding in the thick of Europe’s trade arteries fires the imagination and fuels wanderlust.

Chemical tankers from the Rhineland, washing machines going to Serbia, Bulgarian car transporters packed with second-hand cars – and of course, the ubiquitous courier trucks going to and from any place you can think of.

Then there’s the assault on the senses.

Approaching these convoys to overtake, the wind buffeting starts about a hundred yards out or so, with the airflow from them reverberating around the helmet, like leaving the car window open when driving quickly.

The buffeting steadily increases as you close the distance, going from the one side of your head to the other, eventually beating at your upper body, grabbing at any loose clothing, causing the unfastened collar strap on your jacket to snap with a whip-like crack against the side of your helmet.

As you pull alongside, things move up a notch; the roar of the trailer wheels on the road, along with thrill of being almost close enough to touch them. You can smell the diesel, oil and exhaust fumes in your face. You’re deafened by the roaring wind and slipstream, the monotonous drone of engines and endless clattering.

When you reach the front half of these behemoths, forty tonnes of flat-faced truck at fifty miles per hour doesn’t so much carve through the air as bludgeon its way through, forcing it out from the front to the sides in an invisible v-shape. Ride too close and at too similar-a-speed and you can feel yourself being pulled into the side of the wagon. A nudge to the left to give you a bit more space, and a few extra revs up to 4,000 rpm, and you’re through.

Finally, there’s the sense of place. Despite the ever changing landscape surrounding it, whether it be winding its way through the wind farms of Flanders or crossing the oil seed rape fields in the plains of northern Serbia, the motorway is a constant, with a personality of its own.

A fairly boring one, admittedly, but enough to provide the kind of insight that I hadn’t really appreciated before. Motorway life is a destination in itself.

Passau, Germany

The truckers at rest stops living on the road, the families in cars, the caravans, other motorbikes, the flash cars, the old cars, the boring cars. The number plates, makes and models might change, along with the language on the road signs, the currencies used or the food served, but formula behind the paraphernalia is a constant that acts as a platform from which you can observe these changes as they happen, rather than a boring bit of the trip that is to be written off.

This part of the trip was meant to be more of a liaison, a means to an end which was the ferry terminal at Batumi in Georgia. Maybe it’s just the relief finally getting away on a big trip for the first time in 6 years, but even writing as someone who has many motorway miles under my belt from previous trips, it’s already been a bit of an adventure.

Next stop, Burgas.

Rita Mountains, Bulgaria

Thru or around?

This Christmas, with my planned trip Morocco and then Spain trips canned due to omicron-induced border closures, I pushed my 1992 black XT600e into the back of the van and headed to north Wales for four days and then the Yorkshire Dales for a week.

One of the great things about trail riding nowadays is that’s it’s so easy to get started; all you need is a motorbike, a smartphone with a handlebar mount and a good old fashioned dollop of ‘get up and go’. A myriad of different routes in countries around the world have been shared online through apps like Viewranger/OutdoorActive and WikiLoc, which have made byways that were once only known to local trail riding groups accessible to people anywhere in the world. The Trans Euro Trail has also been a great force for opening up the hobby too, providing an easy and valuable reference for even more experienced riders to dip in and out of.

This is pretty much how I learnt to ride off-road after coming back from riding London to Sydney five years ago. But whilst it was convenient for easily finding places to do to practice riding, I quickly grew bored of simply following others’ routes. I’d often find that I’d get to the end of a ride with an unsatisfactory feeling, like something was missing. This, of course, is why a lot of people caution against simply using a GPS or Google Maps to navigate on long-distance bike trips, whether they are on or off-road. 

As my skills and confidence in riding off-road have improved, then so has my ability to engage with my surroundings. I’ve found that planning and taking my own routes on a map is a good way of tackling that lack of satisfaction that comes from just following others’. Taking the time to to do so means you’re automatically far more invested in the ground you are going to cover, as the contours and symbols you consider on a map beforehand then come to life in the real world as you ride through them. At the same time, more confidence and skills on the bike doesn’t mean you’re spending all your time staring straight ahead or wrestling with the ground conditions. You have a greater capability to engage.

There has been a further iteration of this that I have wanted to try for some time. Almost all of my riding has tended to be ‘thru routes’ that have some final destination in mind, but this Christmas, I decided to take a different approach; instead of a route where I stopped and stayed at different places each night, I decided to stay in one location, establish a base and do a series of trips around the local area to and from there.

The purpose of this idea was simple – to spend more time focussed in one particular area to explore it via trails by bike to its fullest extent, to get a better sense of all that is in that area in terms of both physical and human geography. And of course to enjoy riding those trails and to get some good photos too.

This worked a treat, particularly in the Yorkshire Dales, where I had a full week based out of a cottage in Low Row, in Swaledale, though the preamble of a couple of days’ riding in Wales also came up trumps too.

Using OS Maps on OutdoorActive, I plotted a series of loops each night for the following day, concentrating on one area at a time. Whilst I’ve ridden the trails in the Dales before, including the Trans Euro Trail section, if you asked me to place them on a map I couldn’t have done so. I couldn’t tell you where the Roman road out of Bainbridge was, where that route I did a few summers ago with a big chimney was, which ended in village with a castle. And I certainly didn’t know where Swaledale, Wharfedale, Ribbledale or Widdale were. Which is a shame, because I must have ridden in the Dales at least three or four times in the last five years.

This was the rationale behind the change of tack. And to my surprise, after seven days I’d done maybe only two-thirds of the byways and unclassified roads that are in the national park; I thought there’d only be a few days riding at most. I left knowing I could have quite happily done another few days’ good riding but also having felt like I’d properly explored the areas I’d been to.

So, what did I take away from all of this?

  1. Tension between the journey and the destination. This way of doing things obviously eliminates the inherent tension that exists with any ‘thru-route’ between focussing on a final destination and ensuring your seeing/appreciating everything you can see in a given area; you’re not simply leaving behind one area and moving on, never to return, but knitting them all together over a number of days. You have more discretion about how much time you can spend in places as well, both in terms of not having that pressure of a final destination and in terms of knowing that you’re concentrating your efforts in a smaller area.
  2. Greater involvement in the geography. Both through the route planning process and the actual of practice of riding the bike, you’re obviously much more involved in the geography on the ground because you’re going back and forth, exploring the same area. Plotting your own routes beforehand, rather than just winging it entirely, allows you to get a feel for that ahead of time but then when out riding you’ve got the freedom and the time to take in the landscape you come across and what it has to offer because you don’t feel like you’ve got be somewhere in the same way as with a ‘thru-route’. See point 1 above. That also extends to how different routes and loops link together in the grander scheme of things, giving you a deeper understanding of the area.
  3. It allows you to establish a base. This is useful from both a practical and comfort perspective, particularly in winter. In the most basic, practical sense, I had my van with me with a load of tools and spares which was useful in Wales after damaging the bike on the infamous ‘Bastard Lane’ just north of Machynlleth. Having a roof over my head allowed me to plan better for the next day, both from a comfort perspective and from a growing familiarity of the local area perspective (see point 2). Having this base provides a consistent, central focus for where you plan your routes.

I came away with a far more satisfying experience than I have had on similar trips, despite the seemingly non-stop Pennine rain over the Christmas period, feeling like I’d taken an approach that struck a far better balance between having a sense of direction and getting the most out of your immediate surroundings. I felt like I’d properly explored the Dales in particular, getting more out of the trip than the others I’d done there.

The next question, as I think towards when cross-border international motorbike travel will become easier once again, is how does this translate when planning longer, multi-day or even multi-week trips? Will I simply continue this approach, perhaps moving on every few days with no final, grand destination in mind but just decide on an area to explore? Or do I strike a balance between this way of travelling and the way I’ve been used to, and set that destination with an ambition that’s more limited than it might have otherwise been, to give me more time to spend en route?

Green-laning the Maritime Alps

Last summer, I spent two weeks checking out the trails in south-east France and north-west Italy in the Maritime Alps, before heading on to the Slovenian section of the Trans Euro Trail.

Everyone in the UK seems to go to the Pyrenees to ride trails. You hear very little about people doing the same in the Alps, possibly because it is more restricted and because it lacks the convenience of an overnight ferry to get there.

Nonetheless there’s loads to do – I left after 13 days happy with how much I’d done but if I’d wanted to I could have found more. The majority of riding is on tracks that vary from fast and easy (light gravel) to not so fast and tougher (big rocks/boulders/broken up ground & ruts). Only about 10% of the trails I rode were slower, more technical single-track.

The nav action

The Alps section was great – there are some fantastic trails in this part of the world and they’re not that too hard to find. My highlights were:

  1. Col du Parpaillon – and site of the world’s scariest tunnel
  2. Via del Sale – 50 miles of non-stop track heaven
  3. The long ascent up to 2800m to the iconic Forte Jafferau.

The Slovenian Trans Euro Trail (TET) was good fun too – but it lacked any stand-out character. There are some very technical bits, which are similar to the trails you get here back in the UK, and a lot of gravel through woods, which I’d got bored of towards the end of it.

For planning/navigation, I used a mixture of paper cycling maps (1:250K at least), the WikiLoc smart phone app and the TET Italy Slovenia routes on the app to navigate, using an old iPhone 5 that was hooked up to the bike. was a really useful if slightly melodramatic sounding resource for finding out where to go, which you can then plot on paper maps.

For France, the 1:250k IGN paper maps are good. For Italy, the Michelin one I had lacked the same level of detail at that scale but I saw some great 1:50k scale walking ones for sale in the Gran Bosco area that did the trick. The shiny map for Slovenia that I bought at a petrol station was a waste of time. Next time, I’d invest more in smaller scale maps.

It’s worth looking at the detail of the WikiLoc routes and double-checking that the route does go off the tarmac and creating a short-list the day before. I tried to link as many of them up as as possible. Via del Sale was one of the highlights of the trip – the actual route isn’t that easy to find on the ground, perhaps due to a lack of detail on my paper maps – but thanks to WikiLoc I was able to simply follow a route that already been shared. This was the same with the long ride down to the Italian border from France, which ended with a good few hours of fast dirt tracks into some very remote areas, going over the final hills to the border and into Italy at Olivetta.

The old iPhone worked OK 60% of the time but did prove to be unpowered and unreliable in the end – being so reliant on it for navigating, it’s not worth scrimping on this sort of thing. On one occasion it left me in the lurch, by freezing whilst high up riding one route – I took a wrong turn or two and ended up in a slightly unpalatable situation on some very steep single track, high up in a remote section where I certainly didn’t want to be solo with a loaded up motorbike. Since the trip, I’ve ditched the iPhone and bought a £70 Motorola from eBay and set it up with all my apps – it does the job perfectly but does tend to run out of steam after recording your route for more than 5 or 6 hours.

Pushing an old-timer – the bike

The third day in, I found myself wondering which would be more knackered first – me or the bike. My XT600Z Tenere is real mongrel – most of it is a 34L model, the original first-edition 1983 version of the Tenere that appears in the iconic early ‘80s photos of the Dakar Rally. But the engine is from the final model XT600E (i.e. a 4PT model). The wiring loom is from sometime between 1988 and 2000. The carbs and front forks are from 1984.

Having ridden the newer 2009 version of the Tenere from London to Sydney on some pretty tricky territory before greenlaning it back in the UK, I’m under no illusions; the older version is a far better bike. It’s 40kg lighter to start off with. What’s more, on the newer bike that 40kg is high up, making her prone to toppling over.

The older XT was a great choice for this trip – a true all-rounder that was fun to ride on any terrain. It hoovered up most of the trails put in front of it, with the exception of a few bits of the Slovenian TET. For 10 of the 13 days I rode trails, typically for more than five hours off asphalt with liaisons between. The route covered everything from the technical mountainous trails in the foothills of the Julian Alps in Slovenia, to the heavy ruts and big boulders of the Col de Sommeiller and the fast, light gravel forest tracks of north Croatia. The other three days were sat for 9 hours+ on motorways with the throttle pinned in top gear at 80mph.

There were only two negatives. Towards the end of the trip, the float needle valve went in the carb to the point that the bike was leaking fuel even with the engine running. Second, the lack of a fairing and an off-roading gearing meant the 500 mile schlep down the autoroute from Calais to Briancon was particularly onerous.

The gear

Silvermans have some cheap heavy duty army canvas panniers, which I used on a Hepco & Becker rack. For £30, they’re a bargain – they’ve got lots of straps and loads of room. But they do need strengthening around where they attached to each other as they became worn – less of an issue if you are just riding tarmac, but if you’re throwing the bike about on the rough stuff, then the bags bouncing up and down put extra strain on them. I’m not sure what to do about that for the future TBH – or indeed if anything can be done. It seems a shame to write them off, because otherwise they’re a great bit of kit.

The tank panniers I got from Wolfman were good, and I was happy enough using them in lieu of a tank bag. You do have to ride somewhat with legs akimbo but that doesn’t take much getting used to. One advantage of having a tank bag though might be the ability to read maps whilst on the move, but I plan to try out simply putting a normal map case under a cargo net on top of the tank instead.

I ran TKC80s front and back for the hoops, and by the end of the first week I’d pretty much burnt through the rear one. I’ve been using them for the last couple of years and whilst they’re good, for a trip this length or longer I’d probably go with K60s (non-Scout) or perhaps some longer-lasting Karoo 3’s instead.

All in all…

…a really fun trip, and I’d suggest spending a week or two riding trails in the Maritime Alps to anyone. Having to fly home whilst the carb got repaired (or not) in Morzine was disappointing but given that the bike had been barely used since it was restored by the previous owner it’s not a surprise that something like might happen. This was my first ‘proper’ trip since landing back from Sydney two years earlier, and it left me looking forward to the next.

Solo overlanding skills

This blog post originally appeared as an article in the November/December 2018 edition of Adventure Bike Rider

We often talk about adventure riding in a pretty generic way. But long distance overland solo riding is one area that perhaps merits some special attention.The attractions of going solo are obvious – the freedom to ride when, where and wherever you want; you’re arguably more approachable and there’s a greater degree of personal challenge involved that can be hard to find when travelling with a group.

It’s all about the skillz

Clearly there are also additional risks involved. Riding solo from London to Sydney in 2015/6, I learnt almost all of my lessons about long-distance solo overland travel in the hard way – by trial and error on the road after very little (i.e. no) pre-departure preparation, with the help of others I met along the way and with a big dollop of good luck. But it’s since learning those skills that I realised how much more I could get from riding solo as a result of having them.

So here’s the top things I think are worth focussing on in the run up to doing a big trip on your own:

1. Go green laning. The UK might not have horizon busting blue skies with long tracks going off into the distance, but we do have shorter, more aggressive and technical lanes which are great for developing the kind of off-road skills to give you the confidence to get off the beaten track.

Continued practice, not just attending a one off training session, is key. Riding in a group will encourage you to move out of your comfort zone, expanding your skills which you can then use solo. It can also be an invaluable source of advice not just on riding but also on getting your bike set up right.

However, group riding in this way shouldn’t be viewed as the same as solo riding. That particularly tempting BOAT that goes down into a leafy, green abyss might be worth a punt when there’s others around, but on your own you should think more than twice. The Number 1 rule always being to ask yourself – how would I get out of there if I needed to?

Finally, once you’ve done all that – practice with luggage. Take the time to re-learn those skills and understand your limits with the bike as it will be when you travel, loaded up.

2. Get mechanical. Mechanical self-reliance to do even the most basic things will allow you to deal with problems preventatively rather than reactively. The latter tends to be more expensive than the former, both in terms of time and in terms of labour and parts. All three cost money.

In less visited places, trusting others to repair your bike by default, even when they have the best will in the world, is not the best idea. Few mechanics understand the difference between repairing a bike for a customer who can pop back into a garage if a problem occurs again, and repairing a bike for customer who is going to ride thousands of miles where the distance between workshops for modern bikes is measured in countries rather than streets – and whose life may well depend on the bike functioning right. So pick carefully who you let work on your bike. Ideally watch them do any repairs. Find out what they actually do to your bike, because often that might be related to the next problem which appears.

Learning to deal with one mechanical problem will give you the confidence to deal with a dozen others. There’s a logic to most bike mechanics, it’s just a case of finding out what that is. Even if it’s not your natural forte (it certainly isn’t mine), persisting with it with your Haynes manual as a bible is well worthwhile.

3. Getting back to nature. Being self-sufficient on the bike is key to wild camping – ensuring as a matter of course that you ride with enough food, water, petrol and cash for a couple of days will give you the peace of mind not to pass up that killer camping spot with an amazing view. If you don’t, then dropping a pin on Google Maps or to mark the spot to return to is always an option.

Wild camping takes a bit of practice – there’s the old adage about taking 2 or 3 turns off a main road to ensure you’re not disturbed that’s true. Knowing your sunrises and sunsets are important, – starting to scout for options at least an hour before sunset is a good rule of thumb. Sod’s law dictates that often you’ll camp one place and find an even better spot 5 minutes around the corner the next morning when you’re leaving – scouting minimises the chance of this.

Apps are also helpful – iOverlander and WikiCamps in particular are a really good resource for spots that other overlanders have used.

4. Maptastic. Following your turn-based GPS isn’t going to get you the best of the experience. It has its place – in towns for example. But looking at a map and learning how to read the landscape is important – what route is going to give you the best twisties, the best trails and the best views? What are the physical features of the land which point towards the likelihood of finding something unexpected? There’s a bit of a knack to it.

Paper maps are best, a 1:150,000 cycling map is often ideal but larger scale maps up to 1:500,000 can do the trick. However carrying around a whole library of paper often isn’t practical or, if the mapping data is sketchy, worthwhile. Buying maps can also be expensive too. Two good alternatives for your smart phone are Google Maps, which has a terrain mode, and

Before you hit the road…

All of these things can make a big difference and really allow you to reap the benefits of solo overlanding. Of course, part of the adventure is to learn many of these things yourself but once you do learn them, you do realise how much more you can do in future.

This is particularly the case as since adventure riding has grown more popular in recent years, so has the multitude of kit available to us. Having the right set of skills is arguably more important than having all the ‘right’ kit – and will give you just the same, if not more, opportunities.

Ed Gill rode solo from Buenos Aires to Lima on a Triumph Bonneville in 2015 and then from London to Sydney on a Yamaha Tenere XT660Z in 2015/6. You can find out more about Ed’s trips, including photos from his trips, at

3 lessons from London to Sydney

November 2017. London, UK.

It’s always tempting to be more than a bit cynical about the raft quotes about the transformational nature of travel that you can find within about five seconds of scrolling through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

But here’s the thing. For many who decide to pack up their bags and yomp off to lands far away, there’s no denying that there’s often a strong thread of romanticism mixed with a desire to disconnect in the hope of returning to see things in a different way. 

Almost a year ago I decided to write a few blogs as I slowly digested the lessons I learnt from riding solo from London to Sydney. One of the ones I decided to write about was the lessons that the trip taught me about the world around us, particularly given that a big part of the reason I wanted to do the trip in the first place was to experience that.

40,000 miles, 26 countries and a year on the road solo is a lot to digest, I can tell you now. As in 50kg t-bone steak with a mountain of chunky chips level of digestion. 

Once home how you feel, behave and react to things changes. Things that once seemed solid, seemed surefire – you’re not so sure about anymore. Spending so much time on your own means you know yourself far better than before – and that level of awareness can be hard to handle at first when you’re thrust back into ‘normal’ life. Overall there’s a sense that your world view and sense of what you stand for has been deconstructed and that you’re going through a process of putting it back together again. 

The good news is that when you do so, it’s far more robust then it was before – the balance is well in the positive.

18 months on I reckon I can boil those lessons down to three things which seem to be the most lasting impressions I took away from the trip:

1. The depth of our diversity and it’s contradictions. If you find yourself having lunch at a bamboo shack of a school in the middle of nowhere in the Burmese countryside that’s run by a bunch of Buddhist monks for orphans from some nearby mountains, there’s a good chance that at least half of them will want a selfie with you and that within 5 minutes they will have taken advantage of the 5-bars of 3G signal (that’s infinitely better then that in Central London BTW) to befriend you on Facebook and upload said selfie.

From smartphone the wielding, selfie-obsessed teenagers of Pakistan and India to the Italian, American, Indian and even German restaurants that pepper the streets of Bishkek, and from the most smartly dressed policemen arguably being the most corrupt (thanks Thailand & Cambodia) to the simple reality that the countries that we’re told are the most dangerous are often the most welcoming, the trip gave me above anything else a real sense of the richness of the diversity of the world we live in – and the contradictions that seem to result from that.

Except they aren’t really contradictions are they? They’re only that if you judge them by the pre-conceptions you had beforehand – which says something in itself about the value of keeping a genuinely open mind.

2. Our expectations frame our experiences of people. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how if you travel then you’ll suddenly discover that everyone you ever meet is nice and fluffy and that they will not want to take advantage of you. But the reality is far more nuanced than that. Humans are complex beasts and your natural expectations shape the experiences you have.

So if your default mindset is to be negative about the motivations of others then you’ll find that when you’re on the road then on balance the majority of the time people are pretty cool, friendly and helpful. Given that, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised – which is nice.

However if your default mindset is to be positive about people, then you’re less likely to be surprised by that. The danger is that if you drink the cool-aid of others too much, then there’s a chance you’ll come away disappointed when, as inevitably happens, you find not everyone shares that positivity. 

Either way the world around us is pretty balanced – there are dickheads and there are nice people. But there are dickheads who can behave like nice people and there are nice people who can behave like dickheads. Sometimes you’ll get it right, sometimes you’ll get it wrong in terms of how you handle these people (I did) – but the trick of the trade is to go about the people you meet in a way that doesn’t close down the opportunity of a good thing whilst not leaving yourself open to be taken advantage of.

3. It’s not just about the size of difference in opportunity but it’s also about the nature of it. In the West we’re brought up to recognise and think about opportunity typically in economic terms (i.e. our ability to get an education to earn money and the opportunities that provides).

Obviously that’s the one of biggest parts of opportunity  but it’s only one part – culturally in more socially conservative countries the opportunity to break the mould and not focus on the responsibilities of work and family and do something different, like travel, is equally a huge thing.

Social norms can limit opportunity in the sense that not only do they not support people to do things that break the mould but they often actively discourage it. Emotion and the pressure to conform can be just as disempowering as lack of economic opportunity.

What’s more, for many people from non-Western countries getting a visa for a specific country is simply not an option – we in the West like to whinge about the bureaucracy of applications for China or Central Asia but those requirements tend to be just paperwork. We don’t have to demonstrate that we have a certain amount of money in our bank account which might be simply impossible to achieve. We don’t have to prove our ability to speak a foreign language. And if we chose to migrate to another country, we generally don’t face the same difficulties of finding some way of getting our family to join us. 

The very few people I met doing some kind of road trip themselves – at whatever scale – who had had to overcome those hurdles have far more in common with adventure travel pioneers yesteryear than people like myself, who have had a whole basket of opportunities presented to them basically through an accident (literally, if you speak to my mum) of birth .

And the one overriding thing, above all else? Luck. How much just having the chance to hit the road and experience all of the above in the first place is down to the luck of the draw and the opportunities you get from that. Not just recognising that but really appreciating is probably the most important lasting thing without a doubt.

“It was about finding something new, something outside of our comfort zone and it’s funny that a simple machine like a motorcycle can really take you away from your comfort zones and really help you focus on what’s really important.”

— “It’s Better In The Wind”, Scott Toepfer