From our glamorous campsite nestled amongst some abandoned Soviet-era factories, we watched the storm rage to the East. It looked like Tbilisi was getting hit bad and, when we found ourselves hiding from an escaped tiger and its heavily armed police pursuers the following evening, it turned out that it had.
Illness-induced breaks and bus rides alongside a frustratingly long wait for my Azerbaijan visa mean that I have had surprisingly few days on the bike since leaving Cappadocia. I managed to ride out of Erzurum on the quieter roads of North-Eastern Turkey, enjoying my last few days of Turkish hospitality before crossing the highest mountain pass of the trip so far and descending back down into Georgia. I also had company for the final days on the road to Tbilisi after bumping into two other cyclists, John and Ginevre, who are on their way from York to Indonesia. It was the first time I had ridden with company and it was a welcome change. Not only could we take it in turns at the front of our 3 person peloton to face the worst of the relentless headwind, but I was also treated to their particularly good cooking skills accompanied by extensive box of spices that guaranteed a tasty meal when we stopped to camp each evening. Yes, in spite of previous good intentions, my standards for what consists of a good meal remains particularly basic.
As soon as we reached Tbilisi we were made aware of what happened the previous evening. At first we had a 4 lane highway to ourselves – a rare treat for most cycle tourists entering any big city – until the road, and much of the surrounding neighbourhood (including the city zoo) was completely engulfed by several meters of mud and debris. During the storm we watched from a safe distance that previous night, one of the tributaries feeding to the main river had been blocked and burst its banks, resulting in the damage that blocked my path any further into town.
The next day several of us from the hostel volunteered to help with the initial cleanup operation. Our job mainly involved removing countless trees that was washed up with the flood water but nestled in amongst this wood were man-made objects that made a grim reminder of the cost of the flood to many locals. The occasional shoe, parts of buildings, furniture, whole cars, and, sadly, more victims – both animal and human – were dug out over the next couple of days.
Consisting mostly of young people, every volunteer had a job to do that best suited their ability. Many manly men worked together to lift huge tree trunks (obviously I wasn’t one of them); some formed a human chain to help get the smaller pieces of debris out of there; and others somehow managed to source endless supplies of food and water to ensure every volunteer kept well fed and hydrated. These first days of this operation was a real demonstration of spontaneous communal spirit that overcame what seemed like a complete lack of official organisation. Apparently there were protests criticising the government’s slow reaction to assist the worst hit areas. Nevertheless, it was very inspiring to witness. Seeing foreigners volunteering also proved to be inspirational for many locals: two rather Aryan-looking volunteers from the Netherlands staying in our hostel naturally stood out and became minor celebrities over the next couple of days, much to their modest embarrassment.
The rest of my time in Tbilisi has been spent waiting for my Azerbaijani visa, but it’s not a bad place to have to wait. While there are not so many sights, wandering around the small side streets of the old town easily passes the time. Wonky balconies precariously hang over the streets overhead; below in dingy basements are countless traditional bakeries that waft out the delicious smell of fresh bread and Khachapuri; and through long, dark alleyways you come across homely courtyards covered in grape vines. Tbilisi really feels like it escaped the Soviet concrete grimness that many towns elsewhere in the former USSR have fallen to and instead has a kind of tumbledown exoticism, much like the many South East Asia towns and their crumbling French colonial buildings.
In spite of this niceness, the road ahead into Central Asia is ominously lurking in the back of my mind. There are many factors, mostly visa-related that I’ll spare you the details, that will determine how and when I’ll be able to continue this trip. All will be revealed when (and indeed when) I reach Baku. All I know is that getting back on the saddle, somehow getting over the Caspian Sea while negotiating the ever-changing visa regimes, only to then have miles of desert to cross makes running from escaped zoo animals seem like a lot more fun.