Hitchhiking around Georgia, 16-23rd October, 2012
“On the Georgian border there are no cars…”, sings Emée with her small guitar. It’s true, since we got out of the car that took us to the border and began walking, we’ve seen very few vehicles at all. Those that sidle past are generally taxis, the men grunting at us when we say we don’t want to pay.
We hang out with the service station staff and wait. The service station is a large white building with nothing whatsoever inside. An urn of tea sits outside the front door. We sit and drink tea with the staff.
After hours waiting by the roadside, an Iranian coach pulls into the station. Somehow we convince them to take us, with the help of our impromptu translator Zahra, a young political Iranian with bleached blonde hair and caked make-up. She tells us that in Iran, people are lovely but the government is bad. I nod – “I understand”, I tell her. It’s not the first time I’ve heard such things from an Iranian. She tells us she wants to continue her studies in America or Israel. “You can go to Israel!?” I ask, flabbergasted. “Yes. It is difficult, but I can go – but if I go, I can never go back to Iran.”
We ask the coach to stop when we see the first town. We have no idea where we are. A group of cycle-tourists appear as we’re trying to thumb our way out again. They stop – “Helloooo, where are you from?” “Where are we now?” is what we want to know. The round of introductions begins. This is the kind of tourist trail where everyone stops to say hi – other travellers are just rare enough to be a novelty.
Our cycling friends gave us their second map and told us we’re in Akhaltsikhe, which means ‘New Castle’ in Georgian. No chance to go further today with the remaining minutes of light. We climb the grassy bank by the road into some woods and camp on the hill with a view of the castle.
Georgia is hard work when it comes to hitching. After half an hour of fending off taxis and nobody else stopping, we decide to split. Alfie lollops further up the road and me and Emée broaden our smiles. Two Iranian trucks pull in together. One takes Emée and myself, the other Alfie. These guys are Azeri Turks, from the East Azerbaijan region of Iran. I speak Turkish with our driver Rahman, one of the most enlightened truck drivers I’ve met. When we arrive in Borjomi, it’s time for that good old famous Turkish-Iranian-Azeri hospitality – we’re treated to a feast!
“So far I’m really enjoying Iran”, Alfie says as the trucks drive off, “too bad we’re in Georgia!”
The man in the Tourist Information office stands up to shake my hand when I walk in. He asks me to wait and continues speaking in Russian with two women. They hug him as they leave the door. “And how can I help you?” he asks. I ask for a map and he gives me a photocopied page of A4 paper, drawing some extra lines to show me how to get to the famous Borjomi springs. He wants to know how long I’m staying, who I’m with, from which countries. I answer all of his questions politely. “I can arrange a very cheap place for you”, he tells me, giving a price which is indeed very good. “It’s ok, I think we can find somewhere…” I try backing towards the door. “Is it not good for you? I don’t think you can find cheaper. What is your price?” “Err… nothing?” “Nothing?!” “Well, we have a tent…” “Ahh, a tent”, he sighs, “in that case you can pitch your tent by the thermal pool.”
We gape at the woman in the cafe. She makes the sound again and smiles at our confusion. The sound we’re asking her to explain to us is known as an ‘unvoiced p’ – one of the letters in the Georgian alphabet, a sound unknown to English and French throats. This will be a tricky language to learn.
Irakli and Giorgi break an emerging pattern by becoming our first Georgian drivers in Georgia. Every successive lift will have at least one man named Giorgi in the car and I will come to wonder if this is why the country is called Georgia.
Not much to do in Kutaisi. I exhaust the City Museum in five minutes, go up and down on the cable-car with a small tour of the funfair at the top, where the ferris wheel operator stares at his hands and a woman sleeps with her head on the popcorn counter. The Tourist Information Office consists of three large cubes plonked in a small square by a market: one orange, one blue, one green. Inside is the friendliest tourist information-giver I have ever met. She gives us each a free map, keeps our bags for us while we explore and writes notes for us in Georgian: “I am fasting” for Alfie, since fasting here equates basically to veganism, and “I am looking for a place to practice my trumpet” for Emée to take to the music school.
I want to start heading up to Ushguli now, but Emée and Alfie are keen to visit Sataplia, which turns out to be a shitty dinosaur theme park, based on the fact that they found dinosaur footprints there. The footprints are lit up by coloured lights, presumably to make them more interesting for kids. There are big plastic dinosaurs, some cool caves and a glass platform look-out with a nice view. We walk around the whole park with our hitching lift, a nice if rather shy couple, who take us back to the main road before going on their way.
People in Georgia aren’t familiar with hitchhiking. Even the Russian ‘aftostop’ draws blank expressions. People call friends and family members and hold the phone to my ear. “How can I help you?” asks a woman on the other end. “I have no idea, are you driving to Ushguli?”
We send Alfie ahead with a small brown Lada, already packed full with a family. After a wait,
Emée and I also get a lift with some boy-racers, who drop us by an abandoned Soviet spaceship. The girl at the bus stop stares as the first car grinds to a halt and whisks us off up the road, leaving her still sitting there.
Two lifts with single guys with no English, silence but for the music. The lush green mountain smells fill the car. The good road peters out. We swerve and grind over holes, occasionally exclaim “LAMAZI!” – the Georgian word we learned for ‘beautiful’.
We stop in front of Alfie just inside the small town of Tsageri, sitting on the curb with his backpack. He already made friends with the cops, who say we can camp in the small park by the police station, but we want to continue with the daylight hours. We wander further down the road, but a police pick-up truck follows us. The cops get out and begin arguing with us in Georgian and Russian, neither of which we understand. They call a boy over to translate, but his English isn’t good: “You. Leave. No. Here. Sleep. Tomorrow. Go.” We protest, but it’s futile. “Let’s just see what happens”, I suggest: our magic words. We put our bags in the back of the pick-up and climb in. They drive us 2km out of town to an abandoned… something. They show us the place with a proud flourish: we can camp here. But what about food? “Food?” we tell the cops, miming eating. “Ah! Pa yest!” They put us back in the pick-up and drive us back the way we came, stopping outside a small cabin: the town’s only shop. We buy tins of beans, dark chocolate, bread and a beer for me – “Ooooohhh!” say the cops, when they see me take the beer.
Back at the… place, one of the cops struts off into the woods, returns minutes later dragging half a tree, clutching some small sticks. The other is amusing himself pretending to be Elvis with Emée’s small guitar. They heap a load of wood and of course it won’t catch light, being one of the most poorly constructed fires I’ve ever seen. They douse it with gasoline and stand back proudly as the flames flicker up.
The cop that Emée has christened ‘The Fat One’ is insistently trying to help me erect my tent. “No problem – professional!” I tell him, pointing at myself. He laughs. Whenever I get a peg into the hard ground he looks surprised – “Oh! Professional!”
They return again with more wood an hour later, looking suspiciously like they confiscated somebody’s fence. They lob it on the fire.
The cops linger close by us when we return to the road in the morning. They must get terribly bored. A car stops and they convince them to take us, though they’re very full. We squeeze in and head up to the next town, Lentekhi, where we’re again dropped off at the police station.
After Lentekhi, the road ceases to be a road.