Our Caucasus Challenge…when impassable is unacceptable

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 ride through a 50km mud river! Well, apparently it was supposed to be a road but it certainly didn’t feel like one from where I was sitting. Anywho…the very last thing I want to do is think about turning right around and going back.

Right now, all I want to do is enjoy this.

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ushgui georgia 2Ushguli 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; the area is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is indeed splendid beyond belief and the lack of any sort of major infrastructure certainly adds to the appeal. Getting here wasn’t really an issue…our issue seems to be about moving forward.

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. Understandably it’s one of the country’s most sought-after challenges for adventure travellers…and that’s just in summer. What we have managed to do, is get here right after a considerable snowfall at the start of winter. Wasn’t that clever of us? According to all accounts (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.

But let me tell you…if I had a dollar every time someone told me ‘there’s no way you can do that’ I certainly wouldn’t be sleeping in a tent at this altitude and with these freezing winds!

ushguli georgia 3After a stunning sunset walk around Ushguli, a hurriedly cooked pot of soup and a quick dive into our sleeping bags, 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. Plant enough snow on the track and wheels might start spinning, unless you have snow chains of course. Which incidentally we don’t! Goodie! Hmmm….

svaneti georgia 4Our bikes are packed and ready to go, we have enough food for four days (normally two are enough so that should do it), enough petrol to ride 350kms (we only have to manage 50km) and the best asset of all: absolutely impeccable weather. The sun is shining bright and it’s meant to stay that way for the next week; the weather patterns on this mountain range are renowned for their unpredictability but we’re hoping the gods above will have mercy on us.

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. Sounds easy enough ^_^

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 wonder if now may be a good time to mention that I have never actually ridden on snow?!

Within half an hour I manage to alight the bike involuntarily (see what I did there?) a total of three times. This thing is EVIL! Riding on snow is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced on two wheels which, admittedly, isn’t much. I haven’t ridden over an oil spill but I’m going to take a punt and guess it couldn’t possibly be worse than this.

Here I am resting after fall #2. I landed awkwardly with my right thigh on a huge boulder. Bruiseville coming…

svaneti 5Not to make the falls themselves sound trivial, but they really 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. And by us I mean Chris. At just over 2500m altitude, any sort of extra effort leaves one completely pooped. And by that one I mean Chris.

I promise never again to complain that chivalry is a thing of the past 🙂

Advancing at snail 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!

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…and up he goes again!

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 its 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.

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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.

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It should be also worth noting that although the government is busy building a road which will join Mestia to Ushguli (that would be the 50km mud river we slid on yesterday), yet there are absolutely NO plans to build a road joining Ushguli to Lentekhi, our intended destination on our ride.

Rested enough? Right, let’s get back on that bike.

Advancing a few hundred metres we finally take a major curve and are astounded to see that the track is inclining and the snow is amounting. Crap, there isn’t a chance in hell I can do this without sliding off. My lack of confidence is compounded by the fact that since Chris is ahead of me I can see HIM slipping and sliding side to side. He may not be falling but there is no doubting that he’s having a hard time. I park up and stop, quite convinced that this may just be the end of the road for us up here. It’s taken us just over two hours to cover almost 2kms, at this rate we should be in Lentekhi at the end of February 2014 and, apparently, that’s just not good enough.

After a short spell of R&R (will I ever catch my breath again I wonder?) we figure a plan which will increase our productivity and decrease our physical exertions. Inshallah.

Chris delves into his spare parts box and takes out a couple of tow ropes; tightly wrapped around our rear tyres they should sort of act like snow chains and give us more traction. What we need is to move a little faster and get a little less tired. Fewer falls would also not necessarily spoil the fun, if you get my drift.

If my McGyver says that's gonna work...who am I to argue?

If my McGyver says that’s gonna work…who am I to argue?

2 svaneti georgiaOn a stroke of genius Chris also decides that it will actually be better if he rides both bikes on the hardest parts (ie. the 4km stretch of snow cover). He figures that he will use less energy riding Puck  200m, walking back to Pixie and riding her the 200m; rather than ride, run back to me because I’ve fallen off and help me pick up the bike off the ground. I on the other hand, will walk over the pass carrying our riding gear and helmets. The mid-day sun is blasting on us and Chris is sweating under all his gear. The plan sounds reasonable enough and although we both need a 5 minute sit-down break every 3 rounds we are actually making some real progress.

This…we keep up for the next five hours.

We reach Zagari Pass just before 5pm on the first day; I insist on riding the last 500m to the peak just to feel the satisfaction of reaching it alone. I must then walk back and pick up our riding gear as Chris advances with Puck. As the adrenalin of the pass starts to wean I realize I barely have the energy to take another step. Our morning throat tickles have muted into full-blown colds and we’re both feeling utterly exhausted. We had hoped to have time to descend a little before making camp but that does not seem possible now.

We find a clearing just 200m after the pass; we may be up at 2600m but we’re so exposed that we’re bound to enjoy sunshine at first light. This is the only thing which will warm us up. I decide to engage my Bear Grylls skills and spend ten minutes clearing a two-square-metre plot so we don’t need to lie our tent directly on the snow. I then reach for my Ultimate Survival Knife (yes, the original Bear Grylls one!) and take to cutting off some hay growing wild on the side of the mountain…it can act as insulation!

Except it’s all bullshit. Listen, if you’ve just spent 8 hours trudging through a desolate part of the world, the last thing you need to do is waste your precious remaining energies on setting up a camp you’d be happy to live in for a whole month. After 10 minutes’ hard work I barely have enough hay to isolate my left butt cheek and I am really, really ready to collapse. At Chris’ insistence I pack my knife away, unpack my sleeping bag and settle in.

We make a pot of instant soup from the comfort of our tent and watch the sun set over the high peaks in front of us. It is eerily quiet and brutal up here and if it wasn’t for the fact that I am almost delirious with sleep I’d stay up to watch the stars emerge, but that just ain’t gonna happen. An indecent dose of paracetamol acts as dessert as we sink into a deep slumber.

9 svaneti georgia 10 svaneti georgiaIt’s quite amazing the kind of deep sleep you can enjoy when you are exhausted beyond words; it’s not so much a sleep then a total body shutdown which occurs.

Perhaps it’s just the knowledge that we have a whole day of snow riding ahead of us which sees us spring out of our bags and onto our saddles at 8am. From here on, it’ll be all downhill!

According to our calculations we have about two more kilometres of snow before we descend below the white line. We continue our previous day’s plan and this sees us reach snow-free dirt track after about an hour. Getting back on Pixie feels splendid and we actually manage to cover the next 2kms without hassle.

We tackle a mammoth river crossing the way we know will work best: Chris takes both bikes across whilst I take plenty of pics for posterity!!

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On the other side of the river we have our lunch break, happy in the knowledge that the hard part is over. We’re quite aware of the fact that the downhill track coming up is also quite challenging, but never imagine it could be worse than what we’ve already done.

Oh how wrong we were.

First there were the snow walls which seemed to appear out of nowhere…

5 svaneti georgiaThis was now my time to shine. I catch sight of Chris’ deflated expression when we come up to the first wall and realize his energy levels are sinking fast. It’s now my turn to be ferocious. Thanks to my splendid new gumboots I am able to plough through the wall, kicking and punching my way through with all my remaining energy.

If I knew there were three more coming up I would have maybe paced myself…

4 svaneti georgiaTHEN, if that wasn’t enough, there were the mud baths. Normally, one would call them puddles, but there was nothing puddly about these crevices let me tell you. I am very proud to inform you that it was Pixie which pulled Puck out of a particularly nasty mud sea!! That was fun! Although it was really only fun the first time.

Descending further into the valley we decide that we should probably call it quits for the day. Our colds are not getting any better and the road’s surface is making it impossible to proceed at anything above 5km/hr. My arms are crampy, my shoulders sore and my head ready to explode. There’s not a limb that is bruise-free and, not to be over-sharing or anything, but I really think I’m getting my monthlies to top it all off.

We find a nook beside a river at about 3pm and rest our weary bones. We take our beloved overdose of paracetamol and sink into a fitful overnight sleep.

Day three is a disastrous non-starter. We wake up foggy headed and weary, yet persevere onwards. After about a five minute ride I slide off over a completely innocent stretch of mud. It’s only when Chris does the same (his first and only fall) that I really worry we are too sick to continue. We start to shiver cold as soon as we stop even though the sun is out and it’s nowhere near freezing temps. We look for a camping spot nearby and attempt a river shower. It’s incredibly cooling and deliciously comforting to get out of our smelly and sick clothes and into a fresh change. We spend the whole day lazing in the sun like lizards and spend an hour taking stock of our supplies. It seems like a little rationing may not go astray.

Next morning we also discover the unthinkable: we’re actually running low on petrol. Riding on these terrains one could certainly double consumption, perhaps even triple it, but it really seems that riding the 50kms from Mestia to Ushguli and the 20kms we’ve done in the last three days has just about quadrupled our consumption.

In an attempt to conserve fuel we take to rolling downhill on day 4 and leave our engines off. I find this quite the challenge; the bike all of a sudden seems to weigh three tons instead of one.

Oh look…off I go again, what a bloody surprise!

6 svaneti georgiaBy the time we reach the Lower Svaneti valleys it almost seems as if we’ve entered a different world. The temps are high, colours varied and amazing and we’re finally starting to see some signs of civilization. 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.

7 svaneti georgiaThere 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!!

8 svaneti georgiaWe 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…


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