Georgia’s Caucasus Crossing
794 Mi.(1,278 KM)
% Rideable (time)
While Out Riding
Diminutive, post-Soviet Georgia is a fascinating land, considerably more dense in heritage and culture than its size would suggest. It’s also a country with an important present-day geopolitical role, being the buffer that it is between Russia and the West. Putting an element of this in context, the route wends its way between the Upper and Lower Caucasus, as a way of bypassing South Ossetia, the partially recognised state that encompasses the Tskhinvali region, for which travel isn’t permitted since a series of conflicts a decade ago.
This said, Georgia is an incredibly safe place to travel, populated by a people only to eager to engage with travellers. For the most part, the route keeps to dirt roads and tertiary paved roads for its 800 mile/1300km length, enlivened by a beautiful ribbons of high altitude singletrack, as well as few hike-a-bikes thrown in for good measure, offering a beguiling overview of the country’s Higher and Lower Caucasus.
Bookending the ride are two of most popular hiking destinations – Svaneti and Tusheti – long popular amongst those who live in countries that form part of the former Soviet block, like Poland and the Ukraine. Of these, Mestia and Omalo are the main bases for those interested in hiking and exploratory mountain biking. The latter is far less developed and only open to the outside world by public transportation for six months of the year. Outside of this, the small population of locals who stay in the valley year-round have to rely on army helicopters, that keep the sensitive border with Chechnya under guard. Given that Mestia is also home to a ski station, the paved roads are kept clear in the winter too, with a more developed infrastructure as a result.
As the cradle of winemaking, Georgians take their drinking seriously. A recycled plastic bottle of chacha, a potent, homebrew grape brandy is never far at hand – Georgian’s like nothing more than to toast life, friendship, peace, family, even sheepdogs…
Oh, the sheepdogs! Tushetian sheepdogs are legendary; more often than not, shepherds will help steer them away, but if they’re too drunk or lazy, you’ll have to negotiate them yourself. Svaneti is largely clear of sheep (and thus sheepdogs too) but you’ll encounter them on the rolling plains that border Turkey too. Be prepared to run the gauntlet!
Thanks are due to Joey Schusler (see the awesome Trail to Kasbegi for inspiration) and Kyle von Hoetzendorff of Yonder Journal (see their brilliantly observant Sweaty in Svaneti series) for their generous input with piecing together singletrack/hike-a-bikes links in Tusheti and Svaneti. If you ride this route and have any improvements, please let me know so they can be worked in. Thanks too to Ben Paige for joining me when I re-rode the Svanetian portion of the ride, having been thrwated by foul weather and snow the first time round.
Along the way, the ride crosses the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, heading towards the lesser travelled border with Turkey, passing the 12th-century monastery complex of Vardzia, a labyrinth of two hundred cave dwellings excavated into a hillside. Within, the Church of the Dormition houses a remarkable set of 12th Century wall paintings and frescos, closed off to the world by a monk’s keys and a set of heavy wooden doors. Later, it loops around tranquil Lake Parani, speckled with grass-roofed dwellings, before hurdling a series of rugged mountain folds to Gori, infamous as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, his childhood home now entombed within a mausoleum that stands alone in the city’s central square. Returning to the high mountains, other intrigue includes Khevsureti’s Crypts of Anatori, an eery, medieval communal tomb piled high with human skulls and bones. And of course, the beautiful stone watchtowers, in various states of repair, that stand sentinel across much of the Upper Caucasus. From there, the route’s hardest hike-a-bike, the gruelling Atsunta Pass, lies like a gateway to Tusheti, a tight parcel of ragtag mountains enclosed by the Russian Republics of Chechnya to one side and Dagestan to the other. In stark contrast to this time bubble, beautiful Tbilisi, in the midst of being reconstructed and renovated, reflects Georgia’s headfirst dive into capitalism and free enterprise.
For thoughts and advice on which direction is best to ride this route and ways shorten the ride, see Trail Notes. I’ve also suggested a couple of possible sections that could be incorporated into the route, that I wasn’t able to investigate fully.
The route has been awarded an 8. For the most part, it’s a fairly challenging though straightforward ride. However, the two-day hike-a-bike between Shatili and Tusheti (the only way into the region aside from Abano Pass) is extremely gruelling, which bumps up its overall score. See Trail Notes for ways to make this easier by mixing directions. More manageable are the smaller hike-a-bikes in Svaneti. Other than this, road conditions are mostly good, ranging from packed dirt to grassy two track, tufty singletrack, and broken paved roads; they’re almost completely rideable, bar muddy or steep stretches. The connector between Gori and Tedjisi stands out as being a demanding (but wonderful) section. Communication in Georgia can also be a challenge, as few speak English outside of the capital. Thankfully, inherent generosity and friendliness transcend linguistic differences. I’ll repeat my canine warning here: sheepdogs are a formidable opponent, especially if travelling solo in Tusheti. I only met one who liked a tummy rub!
- Hurdling Abano Pass, gateway to rugged Tusheti, and said to be the division between Europe and Asia.
- Testing your hike-a-bike tenacity during the crossing from Tusheti to Shatili.
- Visiting Vardzia, a 12th Century monastery that tunnels deep into the rockface.
- Riding around Lake Paravani… home to semi-nomadic Turkish shepherds, displaced Armenian communities, and grass-roofed traditional dwellings.
- Ripping along sweet Svanetian singletrack.
- Ogling medieval watchtowers that stand sentinel around the Upper Caucasus.
- Experiencing warm (and often drunken) Georgian hospitality, washed down with homebrew wine.
- Summer is the only time to be in Georgia’s Higher Caucasus; mid-June to early September is ideal. Mid summer can be extremely hot. Venture into October and you’ll risk increased rain and snow, as I experienced. Be aware that travelling at the beginning or tail end of the seasons may mean snow/challenging conditions/closed passes/river crossings.
- Keep an eye on the weather. If there’s heavy snowfall, Atsunta Pass is likely to be closed. I used the YR weather app, finding it to be accurate for much of the region. On the whole, the west side of the country tends to be wetter than the east.
- In the height of summer, expect T-shirt weather in the mountains tempered by cool evenings. The lowlands can be muggy. A sleeping bag that’s comfortable to temperatures a little below freezing should be fine, supplemented with extra clothes as needed. In late summer/early autumn, the weather is fresher and the views clearer.
- At the time of writing, there are no visa issues to contend with for most nationalities. Always check for updates though.
- Communication can be an issue, especially given the complexities of Georgian script. Google Translate can come in handy!
- Georgia is an extremely safe country to travel across. The caveats are the death-defying driving (this route avoids main roads where possible) and the impossibly fierce Tushetian sheepdogs.
- The best tactic for appeasing sheepdogs is to give them as wide a birth as possible. Try and remember that they are just doing their job… one they take especially seriously.
- In terms of maps, the TerraQuest series is recommended. I used Georgia Caucasus Mountains Adventure Map (1:400,000), but for a more detailed investigation of Tusheti, the Georgian Caucasus (1:75,000) is best. I also managed to pick up an excellent 1:55,000 Trekking Map at the tourist information centre outside Omalo, complete with excellent topo and details. But I don’t believe they always have it in stock. Other than that, I relied on my iPhone and Gaia app for navigating.
- To cross Atsunta Pass between Shatili and Omalo, be sure to stop in at the army checkpoint and procure the necessary paperwork, as this popular trekking route runs close to the border with Chechnya. This is a quick process during the summer, but can take more persuasion during the shoulder seasons if the weather is mixed. Note that this is a very challenging, multi-day hike-a-bike… take your time and enjoy the scenery (-; It’s a considerably gentler climb coming from the east, but features more satisfying singletrack if traveling from the west.
- To complete this route in its entirety, a mountain bike is required. If you’re on a gravel/adventure bike and want to avoid singletrack, it’s easy enough to ride through Svaneti without hopping onto trails. However, there’s no way of avoiding Atsunta Pass if you want to make a linear journey rather than a loop into Tusheti. Aside from this, all the route should be rideable, though there’s some extremely steep sections on the crossing between Gori and Lake Paravani, with muddy conditions possible.
- For background reading and practical info on the more travelled areas of the country, the Lonely Planet’s Georgia guidebook can be downloaded to your phone.
- Cell phone access is surprisingly good. Pick up a local SIM card (Magti is the recommended carrier) for incredibly cheap, and relatively fast, data access.
- There are plenty of good bike shops in Tbilisi, though they’re several kilometres from the old city.
- Tblisi has some great local singletrack trails too, most of which start near Vake Park, if you have a day or two spare. There’s plenty of rides to be found on Strava and Wikiloc. The trail to Udzo Monastery is a classic and well worth riding – you could even incorporate it into this route.
- For local guide hire, check out Geo Riders – their site has some suggested day rides with links to gpx files.
- For gear rental, contact expat mountain biker James Dean, who has a shop in Tbilisi.
- If you need to skip a section of the ride, it’s generally easy enough to hop in a marshutka, the minibuses that ply the Georgian roads a death-defying speed. Countryside versions tend to have roof racks but more modern, intercity marshutkas have little or no room for more than one bike – and even that can be a squeeze/take some persuasion. Marshutkas tend to congregate on street corners, depending on the destination – just ask a local for details. Buses ply some of the country roads. Their timetables are more limited but they will have more room for bikes than marshutkas. There are various transportation hubs around Tbilisi that serve different areas of the country; just ask a local for where to go.
- A far more relaxing, though slower option is to take the train. There’s a daily train to Zugdidi (and a night one too). Bikes cost an extra 5 Lari (whatever the distance ), paid to the conductor, who will give you a receipt. For train times and routes, see the Georgia Railway site.
- Tblisi is the main airport in the country (taxis cost 20l into town – there’s a very helpful Tourist Info desk). I flew with Turkish Airlines, as it had the best bike policy. Bear in mind that Kutaisi offers much cheaper flights from Europe, as this is where the budget airlines operate.
- At the time of writing, 1 Lari is worth $0.4 USD.
- Camping in Georgia is safe and generally very easy.
- Tourist enclaves offer hotels and hostels (with cheap dorms). Otherwise, there are many homes that offer extremely affordable, B&B style accommodation. On some occasions, I camped in gardens and ate in homes. Just ask around if you can’t find anywhere. Many businesses are signed up with booking.com
- The areas of Svaneti and Tusheti are well served by mountain huts/lodges/homes, as both areas are very popular with East European hikers. In fact, you could explore both these regions without a tent/stove, though you’d be missing out on some wonderful morning vistas.
- There are too many hostels to recommend. But here’s few that I stayed at ate in and liked. Omalo: Hostel Tishe (Eteri Markhvaidze), great lunch, has a good shop too. Tusheti: Guesthouse Giveri, near the army checkpoint for Atsunta Pass. Etseri (Svaneti): Hanmer GH, I camped in the garden and ate great food, UK/Georgian owners. Shatili: Nina Chincharauli (995 591 11 64 24, 595 34 74 76), I camped in her garden and she cooked me up a big meal. Roshka: Guesthouse Roshka. More expensive than most, but fantastic food, camping available. For the most part, my MO was to camp wild, using guesthouses to enjoy a good lunch. But I often camped at guesthouses too, eating dinner, breakfast, and using the facilities.
- Hostels/Guesthouses in Kutaisi and Tbilisi can get busy at weekends; you may need to book in advance through booking.com
- Georgia is abundant with clean water spigots in villages and natural springs in the mountains. I rarely needed to carry more than two bottles at any one time and never used my filter.
- Small, simple grocery stores can be found in almost every settlement, offering vegetables, cheese, and an impressive assortment of cookies. Large cities have big supermarkets.
- In Lower Omalo, Hostel Tishe (run by Eteri Markhvaidze) has a good shop and delicious food.
- Local honey, walnuts, cheese, and kefir abound.
- Georgia’s traditional bread (shotis puri) is made in clay ovens; when it’s fresh and piping hot, nothing beats it. It’s cheap and huge!
- Georgian cuisine is heavy on cheese, Khachapuri (molten cheese stuffed in a pizza-like dough) being a firm favourite.
- Chacha is the tipple of choice. This grape-based vodka is brandished at any excuse for a toast, often complimented with homemade wine. Ironically, drivers stop and drink it when they’re passing roadside memorials, of which there are plenty on the road over Abano Pass, said to be amongst the most dangerous in the world.
Given the mixed weather that I experienced (I had to time my crossing of Atsunta Pass between snow storms), I actually researched and rode this route from Zugdidi to Tblisi, and then from Telavi to Tblisi.
As you can see, the eventual Caucasus Crossing route includes two out and back spurs, plus a circuitous ride through Tusheti – all of which I’d highly recommend!
The advantage to riding this route west to east is that it’s an easy, paved climb from Zugdidi, and a dirt road/singletrack descent out of the mountains. In terms of Tusheti, the hike-a-bike out of Shatili towards is considerably shorter but a lot sharper than coming from the Tusheti direction. The descent down from Atsunta Pass is long and almost completely rideable – this would be a highlight.
It’s a gargantuan climb over Abano Pass to Omalo to kick off the ride, but a stunning one nonetheless. The hike-a-bike over Atsunta Pass, towards Shatili, is more gradual and largely rideable with an appropriate bike and setup, until the last few kilometres before the pass itself. The steep descent should be predominantly rideable unless there’s ice/snow. Locals mountain bikers are divided as to which direction is best when tackling Atsunta, as they both have pros and cons.
I’d consider riding Svaneti better in an easterly direction (as we did it) – particularly if you’re riding the trails – but I expect riding it towards Zugdidi would be fun too.
Mix and Match Directions:
Given that the route runs through Tblisi, which you may well be flying into, consider riding from Zugdidi to Tblisi, then busing to Telavi and riding back to Tblisi over Abano Pass, making for an easier hurdle over Atsunta Pass.
If you’re short on time, consider creating a loop out to Tusheti and back – this is where Georgia’s wilder, more remote riding is to be found. The mountain scenery is arguably more impressive in Svaneti, but I preferred Tusheti as a complete travel experience, as it has less developed tourist infrastructure. If you’re not adverse to hike-a-bikes, consider taking a bus to touristy Stepantsminda (Kasbegi), riding to the trailhead, and hiking from Juta to Roshka, via the Chaukhi pass (the trail becomes rideable again from the three Abudelauri lakes). Then, rejoin the route from there. The first place to find food after Roshka (guesthouse) is Shatili. After that, Giveri has guesthouses, on the other side of the pass in Tusheti.
The Lower Caucasus is often overlooked. The ride between Gori and Akhaltsike was actually a highlight for me, as much of this region sees extremely little tourist traffic, bar the monastery complex of Vardzia. The Lower Caucasus is less dramatic but offers wonderful, distant views of snowy peaks and beautiful, high altitude rolling steppe. There’s a convenient train between Gori and Tbilisi, and there are regular Marshutkas between Kutaisi/Tbilisi and Akhaltsike.
Other areas worthy of exploration for lightweight bikepacking include the Borjormi-Kharagauli National Park, served by two excellent park offices at the northern and eastern entrances. There, you can find maps and local information for a few well established treks. I would have attempted such a traverse but unusually heavy rain forced me to reconsider.
Algeti/Trialeti National Parks are also recommended bikepacking destination – Ben and I tried valiantly to complete the route we’d planned but snow turned us back, given the onset of winter. If you’d like to incorporate my original route, gleaned after talking to local mountain bikers, try this Tbilisi to Gori segment. Please let me know how it goes! An alternative to entering/exiting Tbilisi is to follow the singletrack/jeep track to Udzo Monastery, a classic local ride.
There’s more potential singletrack in Svaneti, but most involve a very high percentage of hike-a-biking. Eg: Guli Pass, between Mestia and Mazeri, for views of North and South Ushba. It’s worth climbing up to the Koruldi Lakes (a dirt road out of Mestia) for some great, up close views of the Upper Caucasus and prime camping potential. We also rode out to Zaargashi and hiked to the tongue of the Chalaati glacier. Hike-a-bikers may also ‘enjoy’ crossing from Adishi to Iprali, via the Chkhutnieri Pass. We weren’t able to attempt it due to snow.
If you’re on a gravel/adventure bike and want to avoid singletrack, it’s easy enough to ride through Svaneti without hopping onto trails. However, there’s no way to avoid the tough carry across Atsunta Pass. Aside from this, all the route should be rideable, as long as you don’t mind some rough sections.