Tusheti MTB tour 2016 part 1 - Trails, Fails and Torrential rain The Republic of Georgia!

8 June 2016 Biking

Tusheti MTB tour 2016 part 1- Trails, Fails and Torrential rain The Republic of Georgia! Planning this tour with our guests and knowing they were very experienced, highly skilled and in great shape we had decided to take in a few adventurous trails up in the mountains that would challenge even the pro mountain bikers visiting The Republic of Georgia. On one of our days in tusheti we would be riding along a mountain ridge at 3000 meters for around 40 kms and finishing with a switchback descent of rocky loose single track used by the locals, usually on horseback, to travel between villages and move livestock. A total of 2000 meters of ascent and 2500metres of descent! The day after we’d be riding smooth single track, high up along the side of a valley at between 1500 meters and 2000metres, with little room for error to prevent a long slide down the side of the valley to the river below. Either side of this we would be treating ourselves to over 60kms of descent on fast rolling, undulating rocky, and river- punctuated descents full of adrenaline. Arriving at Tbilisi international airport after a 12 hour journey the guys were eager to taste the nightlife on offer, 5 minutes from the hotel, in Old Tbilisi. So after dropping the bags at the hotel and freshening up at 1 am we headed for the bars.

Shardeni Street in old Tbilisi is one of the central points for nightlife and is buzzing with activity most nights of the week. You can find various cafés and restaurants serving anything from Georgian cuisine to French, Italian, Asian or Moroccan along with a myriad of lounge bars and pubs for all tastes. The prices in comparison to say Europe are very cheap, as I write this the Euro/ GEL rate is 2.5 gel to the euro and with drinks costing around 4-5 gel it’s easy to get carried away, as we did. The following morning, surprisingly after such a late night, even with a few hangovers everybody was ready for the warm up ride in the mountains around Tbilisi. Kojori is one of the highest villages just outside Tbilisi at 1600 meters and having been dropped off there by our vehicles we had a short climb to Udzo monastery where our first full on descent of the tour started. The views from our start point are superb, looking down on the city from so high up affords a panoramic view of the whole city, past Tbilisi National park, Tbilisi sea and all the way across to the high Caucasus mountain range.

As we prepared for our descent we could see a storm blowing in from the west and decided to try and beat it the whole way down. We set off down a steep single track shoot that twists between trees into a forest at a seriously steep angle which is best to ride hanging off the back of the bike, sliding the back end around corners as the dirt is soft and loose. We followed this through the woods before been thrown out into the open along undulating tracks and then straight onto steep, loose, rock gardens with drop after drop to test our skills and banked corners to keep our speed. The leading edge of the storm had caught us by now making the descent all the more challenging. Fortunately everyone in the group was skilled enough to handle trails like this in the wet. In fact the only time we left the trail, for a couple seconds, was when I overshot a corner at speed with the guys following me thinking it was part of the route! We were instantly back on track however, with a few laughs (me with a bruised ego) and continued the sprint downhill.

Half way down the ride there is a water station which is manned by a small crew of locals who have always been very welcoming to us, offering to top up our water supply and often offering food or drink. We decided to wait out the storm here as the rain had really caught us now. We were lucky to arrive when we did, as soon as everyone arrived at the station the heavens opened on us. The guys let us shelter in the pump station while the storm passed. We set off again down a loose dirt trail with lots of off camber rock gardens, which in the wet can be seriously tricky. After some time we entered the trees again for what is perhaps the best part of the trail a twisting single track through low hanging tree’s leading into a steep technical decent down the side of the mountain with a series of tight switchbacks all the way down to Vake, where we ended the ride with a flight of 10 stairs into the center of Tbilisi. The following day spirits were high as we set off for Tusheti, it’s a long drive to the top of the Abano pass but there’s plenty of interesting villages and beautiful scenery along the way. We reached the start of the pass in good time and started the precarious and steady drive up, according to the BBC, one of the most dangerous roads in the world. What you can’t get a sense of from the TV program is how severe the road actually is. Many times I’ve been up and down this only entrance to Tusheti and every time I feel nervous once the increment starts to increase. It’s impossible to describe this “road”. Safe to say I feel much better riding up or down it on a bike than in a vehicle, but needs must.

The views from the higher parts of the road and from the Abano Pass itself are stunning, and with the onset of our first ‘fail’ we had time to take them in. One of our vehicles had developed an oil leak and with the climb up being so strenuous on a vehicle it eventually gave up 4 kms from the top. Leaving it behind and after organizing a back-up vehicle for the rest of the tour, we set off to climb the rest of the way. It’s an impressive climb and with the clouds coming in we tried to make short work of it. By the time we reached the top of the pass it was shrouded in mist and we had constantly being held up by cattle herders and their dogs, which once the herders knew we were there had been quite reserved.

Not wanting to let the cattle herders catch us up, we re-grouped at the top and began the spectacular descent into tusheti, dropping quickly in altitude beneath the mist and clouds and surrounded by the beauty of the mountains, we were soon blasting down the rough track hitting switch backs at full tilt and splashing through the river crossings on a seemingly endless downhill through the valley that eventually leads us into tusheti itself. I was out front with Irakli out back ensuring everyone got down safely. We were flying down in parts, sliding the corners, launching off ramp like rocks and jumping over drop after drop.

By the time we reached the bottom of the ride everyone was exhausted but smiling from ear to ear. We still had a climb ahead before reaching our final resting place for the night in Omalo. Omalo is the main village in Tusheti that most tourists want to visitor as it has a fortification “Keselo” above the main village on a prominent cliff where long ago the villages would seek to protect themselves and their belongings in the event of an attack by rival tribes. It was first built in the 1230’s during the Mongal invasions of Georgia. It’s an impressive fortification and many parts have been restored to their former glory. These types of fortifications can only be found in Tusheti and the mountainous parts of Dagestan and Chechnya.

The following morning after a Georgian feast, plenty of wine and a good night’s rest, some of the group took a walk up to the ancient fortifications before we set off to our next start point. This is where we’d planned to follow a route along a ridge at 3000 meters before dropping into the next valley. We had woken that morning to heavy rain and low clouds, taking a look at the ridge which should have been visible from Omalo we could see it was completely covered in cloud and mist, it didn’t look promising. Nevertheless we set off in the hope that the cloud would lift and the rain might slow by the time we reached the start point. This was to be the most challenging day of the tour yet the most rewarding. It’s featured in the first half of the short film “The trail to Kazbegi” which follows a team of professional mtb riders, adventurers and film makers as they attempt to cross the Atsunta pass by bike from Tusheti to Shatili, the mountains on that occasion got the better of them and they had to turn back. Would the same happen to us?