The night before leaving Mestia, we decided to try and get to Kutaisi via Ushguli, along the old road. Through stilted conversations with a few local drivers, Oli managed to ascertain that the road to Ushguli was bad, but mainly gravel and should be possible on our bike. As the weather was good the next day, we decided to go for it.
Confidently, we followed the road signs, and ended up riding behind a Dutch car along a narrow and twisty road. Said road ended abruptly at a ski lift, which we were pretty sure was not going to take us and our bike to Ushguli. After quickly conferring with the Dutch couple, we turned back the way we had come, and tried a main looking road with a rocky surface. Imagine our disappointment when this also ended, this time at a field. Our little convoy U-turned again, and met a taxi driver who said he would show us the correct road. However, when Oli mentioned we planned to continue from Ushguli to Kutaisi, he shook his head and said no, it was not possible. As even the locals are not happy to drive on this road, we decided to give it a miss, and get to Kutaisi via the good road. Although Oli would like to come back one day unloaded and give it a go.
On our descent we came to a short queue of vehicles, waiting behind a bit of tape closing the road. Nobody seemed quite sure what was going on, what the reason for the delay was, or when the road would be opened again. Oli took advantage of the pause to do a little maintenance, accompanied by a very excited dog that was enjoying chewing at his motorbike boots.
The drive to Kutaisi was as exciting as ever. Georgian driving is the worst I have ever seen, in any country I have visited. There are very few dual-carriageway roads in the country, and the mix of vehicles seems to be lorries, some trundling old Soviet lorries, battered Ladas, and a healthy number of idiots in fast powerful cars. Predictably, everyone wants to overtake the lorries and other slow vehicles, but are not too fussy as to what constitutes and appropriate spot to do this. One slow car creates a crazy melee as everyone tries to get past it and each other, despite the oncoming traffic in the other lane. It kind of works. I say kind of, as we passed the aftermath of a few accidents, and most cars over a certain age are covered in scratches or have missing front bumpers.
We arrived into Kutaisi in the afternoon, and thought we would give tourist info another shot, as if we were lucky it might be as good as the Borjomi office. After getting slightly lost, we eventually found the office tucked away in the town hall. The four women working there seemed genuinely surprised to have some actual tourists, and looked flustered as they hurriedly cleared some chairs for us. After ushering us to sit down, they then smiled and looked expectantly at us. We explained we were looking for a place to stay, and although they didn't give us any names, they helpfully marked a couple of streets on the map where we should find hotels. I asked whether any would have wi-fi, and they looked at me as if I had asked if the guest-houses would provide a shuttle service to the moon, rather than Internet in Georgia's second city.
Thanking them for the maps, we headed out to find a place to stay. After walking up and down the first suggested street and finding bugger all, we frustratedly decided to bike over to the other, hoping to see hotels on the way. Still finding nothing, we arrived on the road confidently marked with hotel symbols on the map, to find a largely derelict street with no places to stay apparent whatsoever. We double checked the street name against the map, and were definitely on the correct one. Slowly losing the will to live, we accidentally took a wrong turn, and I spotted a hotel down a side street. They had no rooms, but pointed us in the direction of an alternative.
Well, this hotel was in the nicest part of town, and definitely over what we had planned to pay. By this point however, we were hot, tired and didn't care. It would have had to be hideously expensive for me not to want to stay there. In the event, it was actually very nice, and great to have a little comfort. We were even lucky enough to have wi-fi, which felt like a treat.
We finished our evening off with a meal in a French themed restaurant, the only place we could find open in the oddly quiet city centre. Oli ate an obscene amount of beef, and we drank some very well deserved beers. We left the restaurant to discover it was pelting it down with rain, and had great fun running home, hiding under awnings and dashing between gaps.
The rain un-cooperatively continued all night, and all morning. We packed the bike with the aid of borrowed umbrellas and carried on in the direction of Tbilisi. Around lunch time we drove through the small town of Surami, which appears to be famous for its particular type of bread. We had sampled some of this hot, delicious, sweet flat bread on the way to Mestia, so were all too pleased to taste it again.
We had planned to get to Tbilisi via the town of Gori, which is best known as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. We had read that there was a museum dedicated to him, and thought it might provide an interesting perspective. Although we were not quite sure what to expect, it certainly wasn't what we encountered. Rather than a nuanced, informative exhibition it was instead a vast collection of photographs and gifts received from various nations. Many of the explanations were only in Georgian or Russian, but it did seem like they were slowly working on providing translations.
The experience was pretty bizarre, most notably the area which had been made almost into a mourning chamber, with a death mask of Stalin taking centre stage whilst his portrait looked on. Also in the room was a large painting of the man on his deathbed, surrounded by flowers. In the entire museum there was not one reference to any controversy or suffering that he caused. I can't even describe it as a whitewash, as that implies there was at least an allusion to a darker side. This fact had evidently not escaped the notice of some other visitors, who had made their feelings clear in the guest-book. We added our own note as well.
Our purchased tickets also covered Stalin's personal railway carriage, but when we approached it we found it locked up. We walked back to the ticket office and asked if they could open it for us, to which the woman replied in one word that it was closed. I pointed out that she had sold us tickets for it, to which she yelled up the stairs to a colleague, who came down looking none too pleased about it. Anyway, the carriage itself was interesting, and in keeping with the rest of the museum, a little odd. We finished our tour with a look at the outside of the house in which the man was born, which is bizarrely enshrined in a covered area. At first we thought they must have brought the house to the museum, but it appears that the museum has been built around the house.
Gori seems to be strangely proud of its most infamous son. Whilst the initial content of the museum can be explained as being built during Soviet rule, the town has actually resisted any plans to change it. Apparently following the South-Ossettia war in 2008, the Minister of Culture added a banner (later removed) to the front of the museum, explaining that it was a piece of Soviet propaganda, a “falsification of history”, and an attempt to legitimise a bloody regime. They also planned to reorganise the museum to show the oppression and darker side of Russian rule, but the Gori municipal assembly voted to leave the museum as is in 2012. Interestingly, they have also voted to reinstate the statue of Stalin that stood outside the town hall as recently as 2010.
Leaving the oddness of the museum behind, we continued on the road to Tbilisi. The road itself almost grazes the breakaway region of South Ossettia, and we were mindful of the FCO advice that particular care should be taken on this part of the route. As it was, we had no problems whatsoever, and despite absolutely mental traffic, arrived in Tbilisi centre without issue.
Once in the city, the usual nightmare of trying to find where we were going to stay ensued. After being given totally wrong directions to the old town by a taxi driver we eventually found our way there. We asked around at several hotels that looked far too nice for us (confirmed by the expensive prices), and eventually found a lovely hostel for a bargain price. We relaxed and had much needed showers before heading out for some food.
Near our hostel, there is a bar and restaurant area which has been beautifully renovated. We ended up finding a small cafe (Citron Cafe) attached to an art gallery that served excellent food and Georgian wine. Everything we ate was to die for, and we were pleasantly surprised with the cheap bill at the end of the meal. We wandered slowly back to our room, and slept very well indeed.