In Istanbul, we’d heard a lot about Georgia from other travellers but despite its reported charms we didn’t think we’d have time to visit. Land border crossings to Russia are complicated for non-nationals and to get to Moscow, a ferry from Trabzon in Turkey over to Sochi in Russia was still our best bet.
Finding the ferry from Trabzon only ran once a week, and seeing a forecast for late April snow in Moscow made up our minds. We’d give the bicycles a holiday with our accommodating Warmshowers hosts in Trabzon, and jump on a bus to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi in time for Easter.
We woke early as our bus climbed through lush green hills, with snow still thinly laced across them. Later heavy rain started and watching fields flood around us we wondered if the weather would be any better than that we had left behind in Turkey.
When we reached the plains around Tbilisi, the sun finally came out and trees turned vivid green among houses which sat low to the ground. As our bus drove through the city we had glimpses of wide boulevards, monumental statues and solid block churches perched daintily on sheer cliffs. After three weeks cycling under grey skies next to the sea, our eyes drank in the contrasts.
We were lucky to find accommodation through Couchsurfing, staying with Eveline a Swiss national who had just moved to the city. At her apartment we met Paul, a Scot who was in Tbilisi to get a new Iranian visa. On our first afternoon he initiated us into the ways of Georgian snack shops as well as introducing us to a nice spot to drink 60p pints of local beer and guided us around the old town.
In preparation for Russia we brought tickets to a local puppet show called the Battle of Leningrad. The full house gave a standing ovation, so we suspect that we were the only ones who came out of the 90 minute show scratching our heads about the plot – perhaps there were a few too many metaphors for our New Zealand history education, or perhaps we are just cultural philistines.
Easter preparations were in full swing, with open doors to churches showing robed attendants frantically cleaning and polishing before Easter Sunday. Despite the initial disappointment that there would be no chocolate Easter eggs again this year, I was charmed by the regular chicken eggs dyed for the holiday and the plastic plates of sprouted grass seed which were sold by street vendors for hiding the decorated eggs in.
During a sunny afternoon we met with Alena, a Russian friend of one of Justin’s workmates, who took us on a walk up a hill on the edge of the city with her young niece. We enjoyed her company and learnt a lot about her life in the city during Russian and contemporary times.
On Easter Sunday we took a drive out of the city with a friend of Eveline’s who showed us Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta and the Zhinvali dam before taking us to a countryside barbeque restaurant for a huge meal. We were grateful to even have a glimpse of the country and wondered if one day we might have a chance to explore by bicycle.