Travel: Georgia by motorbike

Graham Field and his trusty bike. Picture: Contributed
Graham Field and his trusty bike. Picture: Contributed
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NEITHER of us broke on our 15,000 mile trip through Mongolia to South Korea, not me nor my Kawasaki KLR650 which I got off eBay for £700. Just as well really as my only contingency plan was walking. So I thought I’d do another trip, east again.

I like going east, the temperature stays moderate and prices go down. My understanding of Cyrillic is not good but neither is my French, so the incomprehension starts as soon as I’ve crossed the Channel. When I got to the end of Turkey I headed north to Georgia; it was only meant to be a country of transit but plans are written in dirt roads not concrete motorways.

The traffic is brutal, the driving standards have been steadily deteriorating since I left Germany 5,000 miles ago, but now it’s blatantly unforgiving. I feel like a ball bearing in a pinball machine. However, when I stop to take a photo, drivers hoot and wave, so this barging past and cutting up can’t be personal, just cultural.

Georgia is only the size of Ireland yet the terrain is so diverse. I ride from the Black Sea coast inland to hilly wine country, through historic cities to the glacier encrusted Caucasus mountains.

There is an idealistic romance about the long overland motorcycle journey – an air of adventure, mystique, freedom. When I’m pushing my bike in blazing sun, one cars’ length at a time toward the shade of an international border canopy, sweat-soaked, over-clothed, with no common language, no currency and no idea what the immigration procedure is, it doesn’t feel like the kind of dream I want to be living.

However, those hardships bring tonight’s reward, which is camping by a raging river as the last of the solstice sunshine glows on snow-capped peaks while it ends its longest performance of the year. A fire illuminates my face and my oh so sexy bike as it casually leans on its stand by the tent. These are the times when I know without any doubt this is what I should be doing with my life. These moments are as rare as rainbows and have to be fully appreciated while they last. No point in staring at a phone to post an enviable Facebook status. When the embers die away the shadows are cast by a moon bright enough to write my diary by.

Next day is another day with no real destination. I just want to ride. I don’t expect to see tarmac for a few days but a petrol station would be handy. The bike is getting washed by river crossings then covered with mud again on a road that deteriorates with elevation. I stink of fire smoke, have a flapping sole on my boot and my bike trousers are frayed and soaked. It doesn’t matter because there’s no-one out here now but me, unless the hills have eyes. Best not think about that.

Ahead of me a mountain appears. It’s so close, so big. A glacier creeps down towards the base and against the dark blue high-altitude sky. It towers so steeply I can’t lift my head far enough to take it all in before my helmet digs into the back of my neck. It’s stunning. I can’t look around as I ride but when I stop I see waterfalls and natural beauty all around me. There are meadows of buttercups and daisies and everything is green and alive. The road increases in elevation and the scenery becomes even more breathtaking. I have no breath left.

The occasional house sprouts out of the side of a hill. Most are abandoned, dilapidated, a formation of crumbling stone and rusty iron. The buildings that are occupied seem to scrape an existence from the surrounding land, a hard life rather than a good one. The road is so steep and rocky now, there is nowhere to stop and I have to maintain momentum to stay upright. This exertion makes my visor mist up and the air is thick with mozzies. They are sticking to my wet cheeks, sucked into my mouth as I gasp for breath; I have to grit my teeth. I’m basically riding up a river bed against fast running water. The track continues steeply, zigzagging up a hillside and finally the river and road separate and I can stop and put my feet down. Man, that was some demanding and relentless riding. It’s the best kind of exhaustion there is with your clothes on.

I’m at 7,000 feet now so stop for a sandwich. The sun goes behind a cloud and the temperature drops like a clumsy mountain goat. When the descent starts, like the post-solstice dawn, I feel a little sad the best is over. Then the village of Ushguli, Europe’s highest inhabited village, comes into view and I chug down into it. There are tall stone towers all around, the road is still dirt, there are some Russian trucks parked up and there is a small restaurant. A few plastic tables placed in the yard outside are the most unnatural thing I’ve seen for days.

The motherly landlady comes out and tells me in English she has soup and a room, which sounds ideal. I order a coke while I wait for the soup. I instantly feel myself relax; there is a good vibe here so I cancel my coke and order a beer. This place has staying power. After my trickle shower I put on my fleece and wander round this foreboding village lost somewhere in time. Built 1,000 years ago, every family had their own stone tower next to their house, a sanctuary from village blood feuds and invaders from across the mountains; the Russian border is five miles away. If I hadn’t stopped for a drink I might have missed this timeless place.

After a few days I hit the road and continue my ascent. It’s a busy stretch of road; I’ve seen six vehicles in the past hour. A minivan stops ahead and a tourist jumps out with his camera in time to take a photo of me as I pass. Because I’m so cool, wild and free? At least compared with his companions in the confines of the minivan I am. Yeah, I’ve liked being me this week.

• Ureka, Graham Field, Shuvvy Press, £12.99 (