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Being a huge fruit fan, in Batumi I discovered ‘cherry plum apricots’, a local fruit which wasn’t a cherry plum, nor an apricot, but it was so tasty that I couldn’t help but indulge into it like a greedy bee. And you know what they say ‘What a man makes on his own… is as good as it gets’, so evening come I decided to mix the fruit with some Georgian white wine. Well, by morning I was enjoying a fabulous enterocolitis. I wouldn’t have panicked so much, if the following day we hadn’t planned to ride over 300 km all the way to Ushguli. The route was Batumi via Mestia with a stop for the night in Ushguli, but in the meantime we had to pass some demonstrations of skill as the last part of the road would be a rather ‘oh road’ instead of off-road, as we had seen on some YouTube films.
All geared up, with my photo camera dangling around my neck, with my stomach that strained as if I was wearing a teleshopping ‘Vibra Belt’ and surrounded by a wave of heat that melted me at every stop in Batumi’s chaotic traffic, I set off together with my pack towards the peaks of the Caucasus.
The traffic in Georgia was quite friendly… with Georgians. The pedestrians are nothing more than mobile poles that walk on the road avoiding cars, just as cars avoid them… in a sort of silent understanding. The police can make a turn on the centre line just like that and the grazing cows choose to leave their warm milk on the hot asphalt curves of the national roads… without holding a ‘Attention Animals’ sign in their mouths. You really do not have time to get bored! The terrific Turkish asphalt remains a memory, while a ‘sensational navigation’ full of dust, bumps, lack of road holding takes its place.
We arrived in Mestia after some adventures including a couple of stops strongly demanded by my stomach, the huge smoke cloud made by Motokoto’s fall accompanied by a stop near a cliff and all our belongings scattered on the asphalt. Once in Mestia, everyone tried to lick their wounds in their own way. I tried to fix myself with a bowl of soup and boiled rice, promising with fingers crossed that I will no longer touch fruit until we return to Bucharest. The riders inspected the ‘horses’ in an attempt to prepare them for what was about to happen… the ‘oh road’.
We left Mestia around 2 in the afternoon – destination: the long-waited-for Ushguli heaven. Some of us with our bellies full, others with the relief of the 42 km left until our arrival in Ushguli, the desire to get there as soon as possible after a day full of everything, we were again on the road full of enthusiasm. Our brains were set only for those 42 km, which are literally at a stone’s throw when riding a motorcycle.
At first the road looked… troublesome, considerably difficult, but not impossible to ride. The asphalt ended a few metres after we had left Mestia, right around the Ushguli sign. And then… mountain roads, with huge mud ditches, stones mixed with mud, water on the road, holes covered by water and some more mud… the weirdest road. You could barely get used to one part of the road, until another one followed… entirely different from the previous part. It had rained recently.
We rode with difficulty in the first part of the road. The motorcycles were slipping like mad, they leaned on the ground a few times, we had small technical glitches here and there, but we kept on thinking that all of these things will resolve themselves in Ushguli… and Ushguli was near. We were overflowing with survival euphoria, huge oblivion and the great desire and certainty that everything’s gonna be alright once we reached Ushguli. We won’t talk about the mental and physical effort. Not yet!
As we were continuing our weary road, rather puzzled by what was unraveling before our eyes, from the opposite side we see two other motorcycles approaching us. We stop. Two Polish riders, a man and a woman, who wanted to get to Mestia and stop for the night. We talk about the road and they tell us that the road until Ushguli is alright-ish… but from Ushguli to Lentekhi… hell on earth. From heaven all the way to hell! What to do? They tell us that there are some rivers to pass, snow for I don’t know how many kilometres… We were hearing them, but not necessarily listening, because until Lentekhi we had Ushguli… we had heaven. Little did we care for what was coming up next. Lentekhi was included in our plans, because from Ushguli you only had two ways back: one towards Mestia and the one towards Lentekhi that the Polish guys were talking about.
We bid farewell and went about our way. The road became more and more challenging, kilometres went by slower than ever, Ramona’s stomach did not seem to calm down at all, her face was revealing a pain which could not improve under the given circumstances, we had some falls from the bikes, we got stuck in mud pretty bad and on top of that the gear changer from one of the motorbikes gave in. It had been broken in the attempt of riding only in first gear, but luckily enough the guys found the broken piece and said ‘we will just have to drill a hole through it and reattach it with a screw’. Pure mechanics in the middle of nowhere, but we were still looking for solutions.
The time was passing, the road kept on getting worse by the kilometre and Ramona’s health did not get any better. There were some suggestions we camp for the night somewhere in the mountains (I honestly do not even know whether we could have done that because the road was extremely narrow, on the left side you had the mountain and on the right side the pit), we started feeling the mental and physical exhaustion and thus some of us had little close to none optimism and will to continue… At around 7:30 in the evening, when there was still light, we had come to realise that we rode only 20 something kilometres, being on the road since 2:00 in the afternoon. Halfway there and the night was coming. Then we thought of a solution. Because Ramona was not getting any better (in the sense that she was actually getting worse) and the rider still had his optimism on and the capacity of getting to Ushguli safely activated, together we decided for them to ride along, find a place where we could camp for the night and then find a car for us the girls and the other bike.
In the meantine we, the other two motorbikes, tried to move forward slowly on foot, on the mountain road lit by the moon, away from the pit, talking about everything and nothing – just to make the time pass. My husband rode alternatively the two bikes and we all tried to make the best of the situation. I honestly do not know where all the energy and strength to keep calm and embrace everything as it comes came from. I think it’s related to how you hold yourself as a person and also to your history of limit situations… I don’t know… I’m not a psychologist. What’s certain is that at no point did we think that there is no way out, or that the rider who headed for the village to seek help, will not return for us with a car.
Around 10 o’clock when we had left about… some kilometres, we see some car headlights in front of us and hear Romanian. What we had expected for was finally happening! The rider had found a place to stay where he left Ramo (with some total strangers, in the middle of nowhere, with no knowledge of their ‘elf language’ as we jokingly called it), found the host’s son who had a van and convinced him after detailed explanations in all the languages known to man to help us. His mother have him permission to help realising that the situation was critical. Later did we discover that for them was also dangerous to leave the house after nightfall.
And… we made it to Ushguli, straight in the house of Maruska, Zauri and Giogi Nijaradze. These people had a simplicity that I had rarely seen before, a personal warmth similar to the one of grandparents who would put all the little they had on the table to share with you; with no social activities, they used to play different instruments and dance in a traditional Ushgulian style as I had never seen before. They did not speak any known language to us (not even Georgian), but we connected from the very first moment and communicated through gestures and like-minded-ness. Special people, who were in peace with their own existence, generous at heart, people who managed to communicate from their souls to ours. We were extremely lucky to be reminded that it takes so little for one to be peaceful, happy and fulfilled. Just like Ramo said: ‘Do you know what I keep in my heart from Ushguli? That I sweated through all my pores to get there, that Svans live in this land and that flying predators make wheelies on the Caucasus sky. The fact that this land is situated at the highest altitude in Europe (2410 m) is less important than the fact that I had the privilege to know Zauri, Maruska and Giorgi Nijaradze. To get to know such pure souls, your road must be as challenging as the one to Meka!’.
We stayed for two nights and three days in Ushguli, we admired on foot the lovely village located where the Caucasus meets the clouds, we fixed our motorcycles in a ‘motorbike garage known in the area’ – in a ranger’s house and we met and drank beers with some other Romanian riders from pemotoare.ro who were in the neighbourhood in a journey of their own. We talked to one of the locals that the following day – on the day of our departure – he would take one of our motorcycles with a van to Mestia, so that we can rejoin in Lentekhi. We also met with a group of Israelis who were in the middle of a highschool reunion and it was a great surprise for us when their guide started speaking in perfect Romanian. From their group two other guys had studied in Iasi and one of them, the only motorcycle pilot, was married to a Romanian. The world is so small, don’t you think?
The moment of our departure from Ushguli had arrived. The entire Nijaradze family accompanied us until the gate; tears started falling on everyone’s faces. It was a feeling of inner void that I had rarely experienced before…
Our means of transport was still at the ‘motorbike garage known in the area’. We stopped there for coffee and met again with the Israeli group organised in four Jeeps. And so, the operation ‘get the motorbike in the van’ started, but the bloody motorbike just would not get in. While joking around, we asked the Israeli rider if he would fancy descending with us on the motorbike. And to our surprise, he said yes… In a matter of minutes everyone was reorganised: the Israeli rider took our friend’s gear and helmet (which were as tight as they could be), we put our cobs in their Jeeps (which was a relief for all of us) and set a meeting place and an ETA for Lentekhi. From everyone’s calculations it was hard to predict which group would arrive first… the Jeeps or us, but as we were the first to leave, we knew that there was little chance for them to overpass us. There was literally no space on the road for that!
And here we were on the road again: two motorcycles with passengers and the third bike ridden by the Israeli biker. It was the seventh day of journey. From Ushguli to Lentekhi we had 77 km of ‘hell’ and from there to our final destination for the day, Kutaisi, another 90 km.
The 77 km between Ushguli and Lentekhi were the hardest, greatest, most terrible and sensational kilometres I have ridden until now, and I would do it all over again if I had the chance. In a heartbeat. We had snow on the road, large rivers to cross, very narrow roads, a pit too close to the mountain limit, deep holes filled with water, mud which would keep the motorcycle straight in it, but with no chance of moving forward, steep roads upwards, steep roads downwards. We drank water from the river, because we had forgotten our water in the cobs which were now in the Jeeps, we got wet, we got muddy, we got scratched, we got scared of the ‘bear dog’, we walked, we danced, we yelled and whistled, we swore… but all in all we are accompanied by our never-ending optimism. We were serene! We experienced 7 hours of ‘joint passion for crazy life’ on a road of 77 km. Tired (I for one, for sure) but with immense personal satisfactions!
It was a life lesson… with people… and limits… and limitations… and self-limitations… and when this feelings, even the thought of what once was, brings a smile of your face and shivers down your spine, it’s hard not to want to relive it all again… Anytime! In any way! It’s hard to forget the face of the Israeli rider, who, when we arrived in Lentekhi, on asphalt, at the place where we met with the rest of the people, with a red face and terrible headache from the helmet that was too tight, exclaimed: What a wonderful life! Thank you! Thank you people, for not letting me get bored in the car! What else can you say to that?
We rode from Lentekhi to Kutaisi in the initial group. It was a common 90 km rainy road… but, nonetheless common! The Israeli guide found an accommodation for us as well in Kutaisi, so we spend a few more hours of beers and stories in Kutaisi… reliving, everyone for themselves, the unique day that was about to end…
The sensations of the trip Mestia – Ushguli – Lentekhi – Kutaisi can be depicted, just like Ramona did: ‘AdrenalineSuzi proved one more time that she knows how to feed my addiction to long adventurous journeys. In Ushguli we were motivated by our thirst for adventure and huge oblivion, and now in full consciousness I can say that Ushguli will remain in my heart forever. The road from Mestia to Ushguli and then to Lentekhi was orgasmic for any rider who sticks the tires of his precious motorcycle in slippery mud, deep water holes or on snowy parts of the road. When you look at the GoPro footage of this part, you get a bit scared at the sight of ‘fatal pits’ and rapid rivers descending from the Caucasus. On this Meka of motorcycling there is no rider who ever stuck his nose in a puddle of mud, who decided to seek this adventure, knows for sure that ‘Give it gas!’ is most of the times the only way out… Yes, here you are on the verge of a combination between adventure, oblivion and fatality, and in any moment you can be on the other side of the road… meaning nowhere. On a road like this the pilot rides standing; for the ones who know what I’m talking about… this is the way you tame the ‘wild horses’ from inside the bike. When you ride 70 km in 7 hours, when you have your friends close, when you lift the ‘wild horses’ from the rivers, when you draw them from the mix of snow and mud you realise this… we should be more preoccupied with our being than with our well-being…’