Day 42. Saturday, September 9. Tbilisi to Tsalka. 93km, with 2,443m of climbing
Old Tbilisi – the posh part – was the big surprise of the day for me. I encountered it for the first time after we crossed the Kura River just five minutes after leaving our hotel on the start of today’s ride.
Same hilly, cobbled streets as the hotel’s side of the river. But grander boulevards and buildings, all in good shape. And, of course, fancy shops, hotels and landmarks such as Freedom or Liberty Square, which we rode around, at the end of Rustaveli Avenue.
These streets were also the start of our long climb winding up into the mountains. Buildings quickly thinned out as once again Tbilisi seemed small judging by this side of town.
The mountains this side of town, tho, were lightly populated with small communities, some fancy holiday homes and a few resorts. At 20km, the climb was slightly shorter than yesterday’s main one yet it still took us over three hours to reach the top where the views were grand.
Our lunch spot also had a fine view too. But the wind was strong by then so some of us sheltered in the lunch van while we ate.
We had an exhilarating, long swoopy descent after lunch before we began a long but easier climb up to Tsalka and its huge reservoir. Along the way, Warwick came to a screeching halt as he spotted four black storks perched on high ground to our right. The other six of us in the Dane Train stopped to admire them close up through his binoculars.
Then he noticed a Lesser Spotted Eagle off to the left. As much as this species are great aerialists, they also strut like chickens around in fields, as this one was, looking for bugs to eat, Warwick told us.
The sweeping scenery coming down to the reservoir reminded me a lot of Scotland in its terrain, tho not in its version of sparse vegetation. And the weather was beginning to look rather ominous.
Thankfully, we had a forested campsite above Tsalka so we had good shelter from the wind all night. But given its 1,500m altitude it was cold, already down to 10C or so. We all donned long trousers, jackets, fleeces, gloves, hats etc for the first time on the tour. After dinner we sat around the campfire as we celebrated the biggest climbing day of the tour.
Our reverie was soon interrupted by the arrival of a big, boisterous wedding party at the national park function centre some 150m from our campsite. The light sleepers among us said the party music went on until 5.30am. But I was very cosy in the heavy-duty sleeping bag I bought for this trip. That and earplugs meant I woke only a few times during the night, mainly because of the very strong wind, noted the music but went quickly back to sleep.
I also slept untroubled by one bit of history I learnt when we first arrived in Georgia. We were camping last night just 50km over the mountains south of Gori, the small town where Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili was born in 1878.
In the early stages of his career as a revolutionary he robbed banks, extorted people, was exiled often to Siberia but always found his way back to Georgia quite quickly, fought fiercely for his faction and argued forcefully for its ideology. This brought him to the attention of Lenin and Trotsky, who welcomed his considerable energy and ruthlessness in their Bolshevik cause.
They also played up his dedication to Bolshevism even though he wasn’t a Russian. He in turn sold it to other nationalities in the Russian empire on the grounds that each would have an autonomous future in the utopian socialist society they were fighting for.
This young man from Gori rose rapidly through the ranks and by 1924 had become the supreme leader of the USSR. Of course, he gave not a scrap of autonomy to the nations within the USSR. Instead, he ruthlessly gathered power to himself through the likes of causing the death through starvation, war, execution, purges and the like of between six and nine million people – right up until his own death in 1953.
Indeed, Ioseb Jughashvili was Joseph Stalin, who took that name in 1912. He chose it because stal in Russian means steel.