top of page


A Faded Rose, a Bikers' Lair, Stuck in Paradise, and the Nicest Damn People on the Planet

We got a slow start leaving Azerbaijan, due to the sheep-ball incident, and meandered north following the mountains to the Georgian border. Once there we went through the usual checkpoints except these were all done through car-friendly drive-up kiosks.


Everything was moving along smoothly until one of the armed guards looked down at my motorcycle and saw the ribbons I had tied to my front turn signals. I had several prayer flags from Mongolia, a flag of Kazakhstan, a ribbon from Russia, and another that was given to me by a Russian but he had said it was a Georgian symbol. He asked me in a stern voice where I had gotten that, and I told him in Russia. He told me to take it off my bike or he would not let me pass into Georgia. He was dead serious, so I took it off and stowed it in my tank bag.


He told me that that was a symbol used after one of the many Russian invasions of Georgia and that if people saw it that it might cause trouble for me while traveling through the country. He was doing me a favor and he alerted to me the deep hatred that Georgians have for Russia. Lesson learned!

The first town we stopped at was Sighnaghi, a picturesque walled city, high on a hill in the heart of Georgia's wine country. We immediately wanted to get out and explore its winding hillside streets and the ancient medieval turrets in the city walls.

Our hotel was at the peak of the hill and my room looked out on the beautiful, red-roofed houses of the city and the peaks of the distant Caucasus Mountains. Each house we passed had gardens full of trellised grapevines and we were told that everyone made their wine.

The next day we saddled up and moved on to the ancient capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. After quite a while lost roaming all over the city looking for our hotel, we found it and as we were checking in the young female receptionist saw our unusual luggage and asked us if we were bikers. We told her yes and that we were traveling around the world. She told us to wait and immediately got on the phone with someone and started talking animatedly. She hung up and asked us what we were doing for dinner that night and said that we must get together with her friends who were also bikers.

We said sure enthusiastically, never wanting to pass up hanging with the locals. She gave us an address and told us to ask for a guy named Nick when we got there. We went to our rooms and unpacked, cleaned up, and then came back down to the bikes and took off, not exactly knowing what we were in for, to meet up with some local bikers.

We followed our NAV to the address but all we found was a bridge over a small stream that cut through the city. We were a bit confused and about to give up when Nick noticed a little side road that paralleled the stream. We found our way down there and discovered that the address was a door that was built right into the base of the bridge abutment.

We figured this must be the place because there were quite a few motorcycles parked out front. We went up and knocked on the door and an obvious biker in the style of Hell’s Angels walked out and asked us in Georgian what we wanted. We asked for Nick and the guy turned without a word and went back in and shut the door. Seconds later a clean-cut guy came out and enthusiastically spoke in broken English, said he was Nick, and motioned for us to come inside.

The innards of the place looked like a cave with purple lights illuminating graffiti-filled walls. In the center was an open space with a band setting up to play, and off to the side was a huge sectional sofa around a big round low table full of food and drinks. Around the table sat a collection of Hollywood central-casting biker dudes with their chicks eating and drinking and laughing loudly. We were deep in the belly of the clubhouse of the Cross Riders, Tbilisi's first and at the time only biker gang.

Not one of the dudes looked up as we came in and were ushered to a back room where the bar was. There was our receptionist and several more of her friends sitting around a table and food and beers were brought out. We were asked about our trip and questions about America. One of Nick's friends wanted me to come outside to look at his bike as the band started playing loud rock and the conversation became hard to hear.

Outside he told me that he and Nick were not part of the club but they let them hang out because they were crazy sport bike riders and would pop wheelies all over Tbilisi. The guys in the club thought they were crazy and enjoyed the nightly show they would put on outside the clubhouse, most likely waiting for one of them to crash for added entertainment value.

We ate some more food and drank a couple of beers and took pictures with all the dudes inside, barely registering a smile, and we took off back to the hotel. Our receptionist friend told us if we weren't doing anything the following night, we should meet her and her friends at their favorite club. She professed to be a twerking champion and wanted to show off her skills. Who was I to deny her an audience?

The next day we took a walking tour of downtown Tbilisi. Towering over the city was an ancient fortification called Narikala. Nick and I hiked to the top while Mike chilled in a café at the foot of the hill.


From up top we could see all of Tbilisi with its ancient 5th-century-AD center curving around the Kura River, punctuated with the occasional avant-garde modernist building. At street level it had a beautiful faded rose patina and many of the buildings were dilapidated through neglect. You could see that it had once had grandeur on the scale of other European capitals, but that it had faded under the poverty and neglect of Soviet occupation.


It was beautiful, nonetheless.

That night we met up with our receptionist friend again and ended up eating some pizza and sitting in a hookah joint while they all took languid drags off the hookah pipe. We were in the heart of where all the young people go to party. The sound of dance music was everywhere. They were just getting warmed up for the club, but we were winding down from a long day of sightseeing, so we said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel to prepare for an early morning departure. Twenty years younger and I would have made a go of it, but life on the road and touring places took their toll. Missing the twerking competition was our only regret.

Our next destination was Vardzia, a 12th-century monastery dug into the walls of a cliff. After a nice hike up, we were treated to a labyrinth of tunnels and rock rooms, some with ancient medieval paintings. The site was largely abandoned after the 16th century but to this day, five monks still live there and ring the bell in the tower at 7 am each day.

On the road out of Vardzia on our way to Kutaisi, we were suddenly flagged down by a woman in the middle of the road. She was frantically pointing to the side of the road, which follows the river Kura.


We stopped and got off our bikes and saw that there had been a car accident. One of the vehicles was upside-down and perched precariously on the steep embankment of the river. The anguished screams of someone trapped under the vehicle could be chillingly heard above the shouts and orders of a rapidly increasing group of would-be rescuers.


Mike didn't hesitate and immediately jumped down the embankment and helped one of the passengers up to safety. The accident victim was bleeding from some cuts, so I ran back to the bike and pulled out the first-aid kit we carried, and handed it to Mike. The others gathered around the upended van and motioned with desperate hand signals if we had a rope that could be used to lift the vehicle off the trapped victim.


Mike and I again ran back to the bike and dug out some tie-down straps and a length of battery cable and rushed them to Nick who was hand-in-hand with a group of guys trying to lift the vehicle. Nick quickly tied the two straps together and they attached it to the vehicle, and everyone pulled. They were able to lift the vehicle just enough for the rescuers on the bank to slip the injured victim from under the car.


Just after they had pulled the guy to safety, an ambulance and emergency crew showed up and quickly loaded the guy on a stretcher. He was alive and we were told that he would survive. High fives and hugs were shared by all at the scene.

As our hearts were still pumping fast, we hopped on our bikes and continued towards Kutaisi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, but unfortunately just a stopover for us on our way to Ushguli.

We had been told by Fritz Musser in Sheki that this was a must-do side trip, so we decided to forego sightseeing in Kutaisi and ride mostly off-road to one of the highest continually inhabited villages in Europe. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

On our way up we met a British gal named Lindsey who was traveling the Caucasus and Georgia solo on a mountain bike. We were amazed by her grit and spent an hour or so swapping tales and eating lunch in the backyard of a tiny mountain B&B run by another British gal and her Georgian husband.

On another leg of the journey higher up in the mountains I had paced myself quite ahead of Nick and Mike, and I rounded a corner of the dirt track and was stopped by a young guy. He motioned up the hill towards his house and made the motion of sipping a cup, asking us if we wanted to stop for some tea. The guys caught up and we decided that it was a fine time to take a break.

As we got off the bikes one of the family's large shepherding dogs came up to the bikes, hiked up his leg, and pissed on Mike's engine. Several pigs came onto the scene and found Nick's bike tire irresistible and started rutting and rubbing against it in a lewd and hilarious display.

We followed the young gent up to his family’s run-down farmhouse. His mom, grandmother, and younger brother motioned for us to take a seat on the porch, and she poured us all cups of tea. Not one of them could speak English but we learned the names of everyone and that the father had gone down the mountain to tend to the cattle. We showed them a map on our phone of where we had traveled so far, and we finished up our tea and left after many handshakes and hugs.

We continued up the rough dirt and rocky road to the top of the mountain, stopping for amazing views of snow-capped peaks. Just as we were pulling into the village of Ushguli with its mountain-top medieval watchtowers, a farmer by the name of Gennady stopped us and asked us if we needed a place to stay for the night. We had been told by Fritz that this was the custom and that there were no commercial hotels in the village, so we said why not and followed him a short way down the trail to his farm.

Gennady showed us to the house and his son came out speaking a little English, saying we could pitch our tents in the sideyard between the cow barn and the main house. Gennady then asked if we wanted a little cha cha, a homemade honey vodka.


For some reason, Gannady took a shine to me, maybe because we were close to the same age, and he became my buddy for the rest of the evening. Somehow through a combination of facial expressions and hand gestures, I found out that he was in the active military and that his daughter was making it out of village life and farming and was going to college in Tbilisi next year.

We were bushed from the ride and hit the hay right at sunset but had a horrible night’s sleep due to the dog pacing around our tents and howling occasionally at some unseen predators in the mountains. He was a sweetheart of a dog, he just never seemed to quite settle down. Neither did I.

The next morning, we woke with the sound of a rooster crowing and trudged up to the house where there was a full breakfast waiting for us. Gennady waved goodbye as he hiked off in his full military uniform to his side job as a watchman in one of the many ancient military towers sprinkled through Ushguli, still used to keep a lookout for a possible Russian invasion.

On our way back down the mountain we stopped for a break at what looked like a roadside stand and an old church. We asked the shopkeeper if he had water and he motioned for us to fill our water bottles from a pipe that was being fed from a nearby babbling brook.


We learned that he was a beekeeper named Davit and that the only people there were himself and a Georgian monk who took care of the ancient chapel. He invited us up to a table where he had been sitting with the long-bearded monk and offered us some cha-cha. We couldn't say no, and he brought out some cheese and bread and we ate and drank.


Getting a little drunk and not being able to communicate, Mike got into a hilarious staring contest with the beekeeper. Davit didn't speak a word of English. We started drinking cha-cha together and after one of our shots, Mike realized he didn't take his eyes off him. So, Mike started staring back at him and realized that neither of them was blinking. Without taking his eyes off him, Mike said to Nick and me, "I think we are having a staring competition!" Nick (who is never far from his camera) grabbed it and said, "I think you are having a staring competition!"


Neither one was going to give up, but Davit faltered and blinked, sending up a gale of laughter from myself, Nick, and the monk. USA-1, Georgia-0.


The monk then took us on a little tour of the chapel, showing us some of the artifacts stored there, and then took us on a little hike up the stream to show us where he prays and contemplates God and Christ. It was all very earnest and touching. We left feeling a little drunk but also touched by the hospitality and earthy authenticity of the encounter. We all agreed that Georgians took the award for the nicest people in the world.

The next day we left Kutaisi and headed for Batumi, a Black Sea resort town near the border of Turkey. We planned to just stay a night and head to Turkey the following day.

We stayed in a very nice hotel and took a dip in the pool and went into the main square and had a nice meal. The next morning, we got up to leave and the front desk person asked where we were heading. When we said to the Turkish border, his face darkened, and he said that crossing the border would not be possible. We asked why and he told us that there had been a coup attempt on Erdoğan, the president of Turkey and that Georgia had closed their side of the border until more was known about the situation.


We asked him how long it was going to be closed and he said he did not know, but that it was an important border for commerce so he didn't think the government would close it for long. He told us to relax and enjoy Batumi for a couple of days at most. So, we did, we didn't have a choice.


We spent the next day walking around, sightseeing, and checking the news on CNN to see what was happening in Turkey. Erdoğan seemed to have quickly put down the insurrection and taken control, and there were reports that he was rounding up and jailing his opposition.


The next morning, we checked again with the front desk and they said that the border should be opening up by early afternoon. We readied our bikes. Nick did a last-minute adjustment on my increasingly balky chain, and we took off for the border, not quite sure what we were heading into.

bottom of page