Often, I hear about cyclists crisscrossing Europe and then exploring Turkey but missing Georgia, and the Caucasus off their list. It’s no lie the Caucasus are an imposing mountainous region likely to strike fear into a heavily-loaded cyclists’ heart. But, sometimes you’ve got to hurt a little to get the rewards.
- Why Cycle Georgia
- Cycle Routes
- Food and Water
- General Safety
- Definitely Do Cycle Georgia
Why Cycle Georgia
Georgia, locally known as Sakartvelo, is sandwiched in between the High Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus. A melting pot of religion, culture, and passion, with Russia to the north, Armenia to the South, and Azerbaijan to the east. Seeing Georgia should be on everyone’s travel bucket-list, but cycling it, even more so.
Travelling by bike enables you to fully see and immerse yourself in the culture and environments you pass through. Georgians are almost excessively hospitable, and will insist on drinking a toast of chacha, a potently strong homemade spirit, for all occasions. You won’t be concerned trying to fuel your bike trip because typical Georgian cuisine is heavy in cheese and bread-based dishes. Then once you’re done toasting to new friends, and stuffing yourself with khachapuri, there’s the nature.
The mountain regions of Georgia are famous for their remoteness, striking beauty, and age-old villages. These mountain roads are notoriously rough, like the road to Tusheti, and as such are completely cut off by road in the winter months. But, if like me, you enjoy getting off-the-beaten-path you’ll love the opportunities in Georgia.
If you’re passing through Georgia overland there are a variety of land borders you may enter through. Most commonly people cycle in from Turkey, and comparatively fewer arriving overland from Armenia and Azerbaijan.
It’s worth noting that since Covid-19 Azerbaijan has not allowed entry via the land border. Georgia will accept entry via the land border with Azerbaijan, however. For how much longer this land border with Azerbaijan will remain closed is anyone’s guess.
The most logical route across Georgia is straight through the centre, where you avoid the majority of the more formidable mountains. However, there are some downsides to this — the horrible highway. Sure there’s a nice wide shoulder in some parts, but it’s fast, noisy, and anything but a pleasant ride.
Highways in Turkey I found generally quite ok, but not in Georgia. If you plan to cycle through the middle of Georgia, take the longer way and use side roads meandering through sleepy towns. I highly recommend taking the old road through Kharagauli rather than via the Rikoti Tunnel.
All of Georgia’s road traffic passes through the Rikoti Tunnel and due to major highway upgrades the road is horrible, and full of trucks. The back road through Kharagauli now has improved bitumen about half of the way with the remained gravel. But, it’s quiet and a really beautiful valley to cycle.
Through Mountainous Adjara
Braver souls opt for crossing Goderdzi Pass. This will take you through the spectacular green mountains of Adjara. The road is sealed up until about the town of Khulo, when you’ll hit dirt. Recently the Georgian government has commenced a major redevelopment of the road over Goderdzi Pass, so it’s a bit of a roadworks nightmare, but only for a short distance (if you can hitchhike past it, even better).
Through Little Visited Samtskhe-Javakheti
When I arrived in Georgia by bike, I entered at the newer and lesser-known border crossing at Kartsakh Lake. At the time this was the most convenient border for me to get to Tbilisi before the cold weather really set in. Ironically, this region of Georgia, Samtskhe-Javakheti, is notorious for its biting wind chill, even in summer. Tourism is least developed in this region, and a part of Georgia I’m still very curious about (more on that another time).
Exploring Around Georgia
If you intend to specifically explore Georgia by bike, I have some favourite locations and advice. Firstly, train travel is a little limited and only covers Tbilisi to the western parts of Georgia, but they do allow bicycles onboard. Georgian Railways have become increasingly relaxed about bicycles in the space of time I’ve been in Georgia. They will almost always insist you remove the front wheel and any baggage, but it’s possible. By utilizing the train, it means you can see the best bits, or race back to Tbilisi to catch your flight because you spent too long enjoying the mountains.
I also hike a lot, and while I haven’t cycled every corner of Georgia, I have seen a fair chunk of it on foot, by bike, or by hitchhiking. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but here are some of my favourite cycling regions and routes in Georgia.
For a nice mix of off-road and reasonably quiet bitumen — I absolutely loved cycling Zekari Pass. Now, when I did it I was limited by time, so I got the train to Rioni (near Kutaisi) and cycled up to Sairme from there. It’s some seriously tough climbing and after Sairme you’ll hit gravel, but it’s 100% worth it. Don’t forget to stop and explore Abastumani. Abastumani is undergoing a bit of revival, but the public sulfur baths are really nice, and there’s the observatory to check out.
I had planned to get the train back to Tbilisi from Borjomi, but the Borjomi train is running on a bit of a haphazard schedule. I ended up cycling a little further on to Khashuri and getting transport from there (it’s a long story). Sadly, you will say goodbye to the peaceful, quiet roads once you hit the Akhaltsikhe-Borjomi-Khashuri road.
Sleepy Villages of Samegrelo and Imereti
Cycling in Samegrelo and Imereti could quite possibly be heaven. You can stick to the lowland areas and cycle on quiet village roads, or push up into the mountain roads if you choose. There are many beautiful streams to camp beside or have a dip in, and plenty of guesthouses if you want some additional comfort.
Take whichever route you want, but definitely check out Martvili Canyon and Kaghu Waterfall, near Balda. Nokalakhevi hot springs (caution: they are seriously hot) are well-placed in another great cycling location, and the hot spring near Vani is, random, but a nice ride from Kutaisi.
Ancient Villages in Khevsureti
I was lucky enough to join a group ride to Shatili and Mutso in Khevsureti. I say lucky, because we had transport organised so we only commenced cycling from Barisakho and not all the way from Tbilisi.
Khevsureti really sucks me in with its remoteness and spectacular traditional architecture. Cycling to Shatili is via the one dirt road available. You will gradually climb to over 2,600m to the DatvisJvari Pass and then down into Shatili. From there you can then cycle a little further (13km) to Mutso to check out the abandoned village.
There are guesthouses and restaurants in Shatili, but you can also camp by the river. Traffic is slow moving and infrequent, but you might come across a few shepherd dogs as the valley opens up and closer to Shatili.
Camping in Georgia is super easy. As with Turkey you can almost camp anywhere. The only problem you’ll have is with friendly locals coming over to toast over your newfound friendship (beware, unless you’re particularly adept at cycling with a hangover). It’s best to find a reasonably discreet camping location unless you want visitors.
Guesthouses are reasonably easy to find, more so in places with high visitor rates like Upper Svaneti, and less so Samtskhe-Javakheti for example. Applications like booking.com are well used, but also you can just ask a local for an ‘ojakhi sastumro’ which translates as family hotel. They may end up just directing you back to their house, however.
Food and Water
You’ll find the basic range of food you need at supermarkets like Spar, for anything imported you need to find a Carrefour or Fresco in the major cities. The good thing is there’s a Spar on just about every corner, and it’s also very easy to find local fruit and vegetable markets.
Do make sure you try out the local cuisine — it’s cheap and hearty — both music to a cyclists ears. A fresh khachapuri is great cycling fuel, and a plate full of homemade khinkali will go down a treat at the end of a long day. If you’re vegetarian, fear not. Georgian cuisine is actually quite favourable to vegetarians. ‘Lobio’ is a popular bean stew often served with a fried cornbread called ‘mchadi’. Khinkali is typically made with meat, but you can find potato, cheese, and mushroom khinkali as well.
In terms of drinking water, in many small towns in Western Georgia and Kakheti you’ll find a kind of communal tap. In the mountains you’ll even find springs marked on maps. This natural spring water is ice cold and absolutely heaven.
I personally have never had any problems drinking tap water or water from natural springs in Georgia, but if in doubt filter it.
Locals may talk about wildlife like bears and wolves, but in reality it’s the dogs you have to worry about. Caucasian shepherds to be specific. As with other regions large dogs have been used for centuries to protect livestock. These dogs have been intentionally bred to be large, intensely loyal, and aggressive. They don’t distinguish between different threats, everyone is a perceived threat, and bicycles are their favorite appetizer.
I won’t go into too much detail about managing dogs here, but you can read my previous post about avoiding dog attack in Georgia and other regions where free-roaming dogs are a risk. Essentially the best thing to do is slow down and dismount, keeping the bike between you and the dog, or dogs. Yelling, throwing rocks, or waving a big stick are also very effective. Better still, is to attract the attention of an owner, shepherd, or local person with some influence over the dog.
As I mentioned above before, the risk from wildlife is often quite overstated. Yes, bears and wolves are present but you’re highly unlikely to encounter them, let alone face a problem. In the lowland areas it’s not uncommon to hear golden jackals calling on dusk. They live in family groups, but don’t be alarmed because they’re not considered a threat to humans.
One thing to be wary for in the desert regions of Georgia (Kakheti), are poisonous snakes and scorpions. So, be careful where you relax.
Overall, Georgia is a very safe country to travel. Crime is low, people are very kind and trustworthy, but, it is a deeply patriarchal society. In some cases, men can come off a little ‘too-friendly’ and overbearing, and as a solo-female traveller this is uncomfortable. As always, general travel safety rules apply. Be cautious of those that appear a little too friendly, and if invited to someone’s home it may be better to consider homes with other women present.
As much as I love Georgia, I remain wary of attention from men, however my years of experience traveling solo as a woman have honed this kind of a 6th sense. I’ve had minimal success with pretending to have a husband or boyfriend, but perhaps I’m just a bad liar.
General crime is low, and people are very trustworthy. Petty crime and pickpocketing are virtually unheard of. Alcohol fueled violence and aggression is a little more common, however.
In terms of the security of your bike, you don’t have too much to worry about, it’s not London where thieves will whip out an angle grinder in broad daylight to steal a bike with the highest-grade D lock. But, bicycles do opportunistically get stolen, so a simple lock is recommended. Unless a drunk neighbor ‘borrowed’ your bike, you’re unlikely to find it again.
Definitely Do Cycle Georgia
I can’t say it enough, don’t miss Georgia off your cycling touring destination list. Whether you incorporate it into a long-distance trip or do the Caucasus in a single trip, it will be memorable for sure. While it’s one of the smallest countries I’ve traveled or lived in, the diversity is mind-blowing. Locals boast big hearts, the food will fill your soul, and the nature will revive you — what more can I say, the mountains of Georgia are calling.
If you’d like to check out the route I took, visit my maps page. You can also follow me on Instagram and check out what I’m up to these days.
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