Laura Pattara and her partner Chris, prove that you can cross the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range in northern Georgia in winter. Just.
Sitting atop the highest hill in Ushguli we contemplate our next move. To be completely honest all I want to do right now is enjoy this breathtaking sunset. We’ve worked hard to get here; we’ve suffered a seemingly endless bout of rain, frustration, boredom, more frustration and even more boredom waiting for the perfect riding window of opportunity. Today, we also endured a 50-kilometre ride along a road that was more like a river. The last thing I want to do is turn around and go back.
Ushguli is a remote cluster of villages nestled deep within the bosom of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range in northern Georgia. Its characteristic medieval towers are deemed so culturally unique that the area is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is splendid beyond belief and the lack of any sort of major infrastructure certainly adds to the appeal. But moving on was proving to be a problem.
The high pass track from Ushguli to Lentekhi is considered one of the world’s most stunning and dangerous ‘roads’. Suitable more for livestock movements rather than automotive ones, it passes through dazzling landscapes, winds around vertiginously high 5000m peaks and crosses the little-known Zagari Pass at an altitude of over 2600m. It’s one of the country’s most sought-after challenges for adventure travellers – and that’s in summer. We have arrived at the start of winter, after the first considerable snowfall of the season.
According to the guesthouse lady, corner shop owner, passing military truck and weird guy on horseback, the track is now closed. It’s impassable they say, impossible to cross, we’d never make it with our motorbikes.
Chris and I resolve to not let a few flakes of snow get in our way. Sure the country is full of other stunning mountain passes we could tackle. And granted, we could just turn around and go back. But we’re just not going to. Not yet. If we’re going to give up it will be because WE have tried to ride it (perhaps several times) and WE have deemed it impassable.
You see, the problem with taking someone else’s opinion on the difficulty of achieving something is that they could never, ever, take into account your determination and your desire, or your skill for that matter. If I’ve learnt anything in life so far is that the only person who can decide if something is too hard for me … is me.
Besides, everything is relative: the track is not impassable, it never could be. Horses and cows can cross it and trekkers certainly wouldn’t have a problem covering the distance on their own two legs. OK, there was snow on the track and our wheels might start spinning. But that’s not something a little determination can’ conquer.
Our bikes are packed and ready to go. We have enough food for four days – althought it should only take two. We have enough petrol to ride 350kms – although we only have to cover 50 kms. And the sun is shining bright and it’s meant to stay that way for the next week. Our plan is quite simple: we’ll ride as far as we can and, if we really can’t go on any further then we’ll turn back.
We encounter the first snowy/muddy sludge about 4kms out of Ushguli. In my attempt to simply ride slowly over them like I do mud or pebbles, I go sliding off the bike for the first time in months. I have never ridden on snow before and within half an hour I manage to alight the bike involuntarily a total of three times. Riding on snow is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced on two wheels. It is EVIL. I land awkwardly with my right thigh on a huge boulder but the falls are not the worse part. It’s the lifting of the bike after each one which has us gasping for air and in need of a break.
Advancing at a snail’s pace gifts us an unbelievable opportunity to absorb our surroundings. We’d been hearing about this ride for weeks from other bikers and I’d secretly started to wonder whether it would be so challenging that all of our efforts and attention would be on the road and not on the scenery. At the rate we’re going we can really afford to absorb the scene from all angles!
Georgia’s Svaneti region is one of its most historic parts and brimming with natural and cultural highlights. This southern fringe of the Caucasus is the mountain range’s highest inhabited area and is so remote and hard to reach that it has never been conquered by a foreign army. Ever. It is absolutely littered with 5000m peaks yet it’s the deep-set gorges which sets it apart from anything I’ve ever seen before. Don’t get me wrong, the Alps and Andes are nothing if not impressive, yet the culmination of narrow valleys and head-spinning peaks here is what makes this the most imposing mountain range I’ve ever seen.
Local Svans are deemed to be some of the toughest people on the planet: they’ve endured an almost impossible existence in a harsh environment, survived various natural disasters as well as communism, civil wars and invasions. Since the beginning of time, these mountain herders have been pretty much left to their own devices; no one bothering to even try and suppress them.
This could also explain why the region is not really that well known; its isolation served as a safe haven for bandits and outlaws for many decades. Recently, a government attempt to make it a little more accessible to tourists seems to have done the trick; new roads are being built, villages restored and small but outstanding museums opening up randomly throughout the region.
Mestia, long considered the ‘base’ for all mountain adventures, is a lovely little town and by far the easiest place where you can admire the famed medieval Svaneti towers.
Two days later, after spending a bitterly cold night atop Zagari Pass, we cross a river and enter the Lower Svaneti valleys it almost seems as if we’ve entered a different world. The temperature is higher, colours varied and amazing and we’re finally starting to see some signs of civilization. The walls of snow are behind us but we’re not so happy. Don’t get me wrong, we’re ecstatic actually, but these are the first power lines we’ve seen in four days, the first farm houses we’ve laid eyes on since we left Ushguli.
There is something cathartic about being in the middle of nowhere alone. it fills one’s soul with pure serenity and renders one calm beyond belief. We’re just a tad melancholic that our Caucus adventure is coming to a close. Yet we must be practical and keep going…we’ve just run out of toilet paper!
We reach our paradise oasis an hour later and yes, I am talking about the tarred road. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to see refined bitumen in my whole life!!
We finally reach our destination, and the end of our tank’s capacity, by early afternoon. As luck would have it, Lentekhi is actually void of a service station but we do track down the one man who sells it out of barrels stored in his back yard.
The fact that we end up pushing Puck and Pixie into the driveway of the man’s house is testament to the fact that this little mountain escapade of ours has well and truly drained all of our resources. We may be still a day away from a hot shower, a washing machine and a chewable meal; we may also be sick, hungry, smelly, tired and sunburnt. Yet what we are, more than anything else, is incredibly euphoric.
Impassable my ass…
Sharing my adventures, tales and thoughts has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my travels. It is often said that the best experiences in life are ones shared, and I cannot help but agree. Receiving a long letter from a friend, describing their lives, struggles, work, kids, relationships etc gifts some of the most intense joys when traveling. So here I am, sharing my travels with you in the hope that, somehow, you’ll share your tales with me.