The Zekari pass lies ahead of us, somewhere hidden in Borjomi National Park. It’s an easy ride out of Kutaisi to the small village of Bagdati before the climb through the valley along the river actually starts.
Grades vary between 6 and 11 %, but as the road is paved, our speed is pretty good. We mostly ride in the shade of the trees and since today is quite hot, we settle for less views. In the afternoon we reach New Sairme, which is nothing more than a luxurious spa resort with swimming pools and a large restaurant. Tempting, but we keep climbing to Old Sairme. Suddenly out of nowhere a large bakery pops up next to the road and they serve freshly baked goods, right when we need it!
Old Sairme has quite a few hotels and waterpumps where you can tap mineral water directly from the source.
The taste is salty, it bubbles and it leaves a yellow residue at the bottom of our drinking bottles… hmmm… but looking at the locals who are gathering trunks full of this water, it must be good!
It’s 3.30 in the afternoon, we are at an elevation of 850 meters and we pass the many (probably expensive) hotels in Old Sairme to follow an unpaved track. Looks like not a lot of people continue their travels after Sairme, so it’s just us again.
With the rocks on one side of the road and the river down below on the other side, we have trouble finding a decent spot to pitch our tent. We keep climbing looking for a place that we eventually find on a small hill surrounded by trees, at an elevation of 1250 meters.
The next morning the climb continues on the unpaved track and again we are surrounded by trees. It rains little spiders! Blowing in the wind, they find their way to our bikes, no more than a centimeter tall, I think I can handle them… 😉
Good for us we found that camp spot yesterday, for the next 600 vertical meters there is nowhere to pitch your tent.
But then the landscape opens up, with pine trees, open spaces and great views over Borjomi National Park. Today we are accompanied by a fierce headwind, that slows us down quite a bit. After climbing 800 meters we have a break, looking at the top of the pass just right above us, at least we think we have reached the pass!
Energized we hit the road again, confident we will reach the pass in the next 15 minutes. But, we are so wrong! It’s a fake pass… the actual pass is another 100 vertical meters and eventually at almost 2300 meters we can enjoy some stunning views of the area and a long downhill is our reward.
It’s a bumpy reward! And after a couple of hairpins in the open, we are riding through a sweet-smelling pine tree forest.
Abastumani is a strange village with large Russian apartment buildings, it’s faded glory… we continue our ride after quenching our thirst with a cool drink we buy in one of the shops. We end the day in Akhaltsikhe and there we have to decide how we would like to continue; follow the bikepacking route to Vardzia and miss out on the Chaukhi pass, or head back North to the Caucasus again? Unfortunately we can’t ride both, so we decide to opt for the white peaks of the Caucasus Mountains.
Old Militairy Road to Kazbegi
We are on the ‘Old Militairy Road’ from Mtscheta to Stepantsminda and it’s a horrible road… It’s incredibly busy with large trucks to and from Russia. The exhaust fumes are indescribable and by the end of the day both our throats are hurting… We would never recommend anyone to ride this route. It’s only because we want to do a bikepacking route over the Chaukhi pass…
We pass the Ski town of Gudauri that probably looks a lot more appealing when it’s covered in snow, now it’s far from a charming place. A couple of hairpins later we reach the summit of the Jvari Pass (2395m), where the views are quite nice and the temperature drops like crazy; from 20 to 3 degrees Celsius.
We dug deep into our panniers to find our gloves, but with the fierce and cold headwind it’s a hellish downhill. We are so glad there’s a bit of a climb halfway, so we can warm up a bit. Cold and tired, we finally reach Stepantsminda, which is covered in a blanket of dark clouds. Later that night, it starts to snow…
The next morning we go to up to Gergeti Church. With a clear blue sky we have an amazing view over Mount Kazbek (5047m), right at the border with Russia. Makes us completely forget the terrible Old Militairy Road… wouldn’t you agree?