This guest post is an excerpt from Christopher Many’s book, Right Beyond the Horizon – A Motorcycle Odyssey.
I confess to almost complete ignorance of Georgia; a fact I’m very embarrassed about. Fair enough, I know a little more than some people. During the 2008 South Ossetia crisis, when CNN released a broadcast headlined “Russia invades Georgia”, several concerned citizens of Atlanta (in the American state of Georgia) panicked. Calling the police, they asked about approaching communist tanks – a double whammy, since Soviet communism had ended in 1991. Wal-Mart stores noted a brief but discernible rise in grocery and ammunition purchases, a typical reaction born out of hysteria.
Yes, I’m somewhat more informed than that, but not by much. Georgia simply never featured on my list of places to visit. It may have remained indefinitely in my slush pile were it not for its convenient location as a winter layover on our motorcycle journey from Europe to Central Asia and Australia. The “Stans”, as all the nations between the Caspian Sea and China are collectively called (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan), can be bitterly cold between November and February. The temperatures drop to double-digit negatives in most areas. By contrast, Georgia promises to be mild. Though we won’t be swinging in hammocks between palm trees, we needn’t worry about our fingers freezing to our handlebars. Besides, one titbit of information I do possess is quite reassuring. Georgia is not only the birthplace of Stalin, but also of wine, where it’s been produced for the past 8,000 years. Since the grape harvest is next month, we should be able to secure ourselves a decent amount of antifreeze. And we will both need plenty of antifreeze, as we soon find out …
It’s now our second month in Georgia, and we have decided to explore the northern regions in the Caucasus Mountains. The weather has not been very favorable. Fortunately, my partner Laura and I have unlimited time on our hands … but waiting out the rain inside our tent tests our patience. The first days are fine. The drops falling on our canvas sound like music. We drift asleep by counting the beats per minute, but after a week the non-stop pattering becomes painful.
“What are you staring at so intensely?” I ask her on the 14th day of bad weather. For the past hour she’s been looking out through the flap.
“Betsy the cow is making crap-circles around our tent. What are you up to?”
“You know how some people read fortunes from coffee grains in a cup? I was just wondering if it’s possible to tell the future from my discarded cigarette butts.” An interesting, soggy pile is accumulating outside my vestibule.
“If it works, tell me when it will stop raining, yes?”
Finally, our ordeal comes to an end. The sun has reappeared, but now we face a new problem. Beyond our camp in the town of Mestia, our planned route continues to Ushguli, then towards Lentekhi over the Zagari Pass. Ushguli is said to be Europe’s highest village at 2,120 meters (7,000 feet), and the pass climbs higher still. What fell as rain in Mestia for weeks will be snow at those altitudes.
“The pass is closed!” everybody in town informs us. “It’s impossible to cross. You’ll never make it with your motorcycles!”
Regardless whom we ask – the shopkeepers, police, horse-trekking agencies and even the military – according to everybody, the route to Lentekhi is now shut for the winter season. It might reopen in May, so we are told. It’s now the beginning of November.
“What do you think? Shall we take a look and ride as far as we can? We can still turn back if the snow is too deep,” I ask Laura. She agrees; we haven’t come this far to give up so easily. “I’m not going to allow a few snowflakes to stop me! ‘Mission Impassable’ commences tomorrow at sunrise!”
We both deeply resent people telling us something is “impossible”. If I’d listened to everybody who told me that something couldn’t be done, I wouldn’t be on my third trip around the world today. If we’re going to give up, it will be because WE have failed in the attempt, perhaps several times. The only person who can determine my limitations … is me.
The history of mankind proves me right. The majority of the world once upheld the opinion that humans would never fly, walk on the moon, run a four-minute mile or climb Mount Everest. Nothing is impossible for everybody; it all depends upon individual or collective determination, experience and, in many cases, pure luck. Remember these famous quotes?
“Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia” (Dr. Dionysius Lardner, 1830).
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” (Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977).
“The Beatles have no future in show business” (Decca Records to the Beatles, 1962). So next time somebody tells you that your plans and dreams are unattainable, give them a big broad smile and walk away.
It’s our last night of camping at Manoni Guest House, and a few friends of the owner have gathered to throw us a farewell chacha-party. I have my reservations – chacha is a potent local brew, and I’m not much of a drinker. A bottle of wine, stored in my motorcycle case, might last a week. But the villagers insist.
“Tonight you must drink! The Zagari Pass will be cold!”
Our glasses are filled, then the eldest in the group rises from his chair and proposes a toast. It’s lengthy, and nobody sips or utters a word until he’s finished. I have a slight inkling where this is heading. Every country has a drinking culture. In Turkey we learned of the “100 Sacred Rules of Rakı”. Georgia, in contrast, has something called a supra, or feast, which is directed by a tamada, or toastmaster.
“I would like to dedicate this toast to the importance of friendship…” he begins. What follows is deeply moving. A five-minute sonnet to chance encounters between souls, the warmth of camaraderie, and the sadness felt upon parting. The dedication ends with: “…so with that, I would like to say once again, cheers to our friendship. Gaumarjos!”
Everybody at the table nods their approval: the tamada had spoken well. If socializing with a drink is like this I might even change my attitude towards alcohol! There’s only one slight hitch. Following each toast, glasses must be emptied in a single gulp, to be immediately refilled for the next round of speechmaking. The tamada honor rotates in an anticlockwise direction, until it’s my turn to be toastmaster. Laura was passed over – lucky girl; women very rarely propose toasts in Georgia.
Next morning I notice a severe degradation of my cranial faculties. Nonetheless, we pack our bags with enough edibles for a week-long siege of the pass, fill our petrol tanks to the brim and head out of town. The first stretch to Ushguli, a hamlet of 200 people with the most amazing collection of koshkebi-towers, is conquered by nightfall. The worst we encountered were mud baths the size of small swimming pools. I managed to get my motorcycle “Puck” stuck in the muck up to the engine block on one occasion – but this is where the benefits of travelling in pairs come in handy. Laura pulls me out with a towrope tied to “Pixie’s” luggage rack. Left to my own devices, freeing my bike would have been back-breaking.
Past Ushguli we reach the snowline, and Laura goes sliding off her bike for the first time in months. After her third fall, she throws herself onto a pile of white and shouts, “This is like riding over an oil spill! Maybe I should drink and drive like the locals? If I get so tipsy that I fall to the right when Pixie slides to the left I’d stay upright! And look ahead; it’s only getting worse!”
She’s right. The trail, which even in summer is more suitable for livestock movements than vehicles, is getting steeper and the snow already reaches our ankles. As no one has attempted a crossing for weeks we don’t have tracks to follow. The route to the top of Zagari is barely discernible.
“We can’t continue like this,” I agree. “We’re going at 500 meters an hour: it’ll be springtime before we reach the other side.”
I plop down next to Laura and think. We could tie our bikes parallel to each other with a few strong branches, thereby turning our one-wheel drive vehicles into a two-wheel-drive quad. Sounds silly, but it might actually work. Then I have a better idea.
“Pass me our towropes. Let’s try something.” A long time ago, on my very first outing with Puck in 1996, I rode up to northern Norway in the middle of winter. Back then I had snow chains specially made for motorcycles. Some bikers in Scandinavia use them for winter camping trips; others prefer spikes. I don’t have a box of nails to thrust through my tires, but we do have our 11-millimetre rope. Wrapped tightly around our rear wheel and woven between the spokes, it should act like chains, if my theory is correct.
It is. I have traction! But for Laura, with her shorter legs, the ride will not be easy.
“It might be better if I ferry both motorcycles over the pass, while you carry some of the gear. What do you think?”
Laura is delighted, as it also gives her the opportunity to take a few stunning photos with her camera for posterity. The scenery is some of the most beautiful in Georgia, further enhanced by the late autumn colors in valleys far below and dazzling white peaks above.
For the next five hours, I first ride Puck a distance of 200 meters (650 feet), then park my bike, walk back to fetch Pixie and repeat the procedure. I’m effectively doing the Zagari Pass three times: twice by motorcycle and once on foot. But at least we’re finally making some real progress and manage to ride ten kilometers (six miles) on our second day out of Mestia.
“The pass, look! From here onward it’s all downhill!” Laura cries. We make a small clearing in the snow, pitch our tent and hurriedly cook a pot of instant soup before diving into our sleeping bags. It’ll be cold up here at 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) – my thermometer is already showing -8°C (17°F) – but we’re so tired I doubt we’ll notice.
From the comfort of our tent we watch the sun set behind the mountains and the stars emerge.
At dawn I am back in the saddles – plural. Laura has already begun the descent on foot. I need her assistance whenever we come across a snowdrift: sometimes waist high walls block our path. Kicking and punching with hands and feet, we make channels just wide enough for our bikes to squeeze through. Our teamwork is perfect, and by the end of the third day, we’re again below the snowline. The remaining stretch to Lentekhi won’t be easy. Glacier-fed rivers are pouring off the mountain slopes, slicing through the road, and the ubiquitous mud-puddles have returned. Tackling these hurdles will require time and effort. Yet we’re no longer in a hurry; the worst is over. Odd as it may sound, I regret this a bit.
By rationing our foodstuffs we hold out another four days. Alas, we’re running low not only on food, but also fuel. Riding in this terrain has quadrupled our bikes’ consumption. To conserve petrol we roll downhill with our engines switched off whenever possible, and reach Lentekhi with only a few drops in our tanks. Puck needs to be pushed the final meters to the makeshift petrol station: a private house with a shed full of steel barrels in the yard. A tarmac road marks the end of our little adventure, but there will be more, I have no doubt about that. The Zagari Pass we will treasure in our memories as one of the world’s most stunning rides. Impassable? Hogwash.
About the Author – Christopher Many
Christopher Many, born in New York City in 1970 to an American father and German mother, has always had an unnerving knack of breaking conventional norms and following his own dreams. More than anything else, he wanted to find out what lies “beyond the horizon”. After completing an apprenticeship as a boat builder in Bavaria, Christopher hitchhiked a ride with a sailing boat over the Atlantic. He lived modestly at various locations around the world, alternatively working and backpacking through the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and Australia.
In 1997 Christopher set off on his first motorbike world trip with Puck, his Yamaha XTZ660 Ténéré, and rode from Germany to New Zealand via India. Three years later he returned to Europe, found a job in Scotland, and began to save up funds for his next venture: a round-the-world voyage with an ailing Land Rover he purchased from a Highland farmer for £ 700 (US$ 1000). He named the Landy Matilda and, between 2002 and 2010, traveled through 100 countries. His book about this journey is called “Left Beyond the Horizon – A Land Rover Odyssey”.
In 2012, Christopher decided to reunite with Puck, and together with his partner Laura Pattara, left on a four year ride from Europe to Australia. They were possibly the first overlanders who obtained legal permission to self-ride independently, without a guide, through China. His book “Right Beyond the Horizon – A Motorcycle Odyssey” tells the story of his most recent adventures.
Christopher spent 24 months in Australia, during which he rode once around the continent and crisscrossed the Outback on numerous sandy trails. Then, after six years absence, he briefly visited Germany in 2018 … but only to buy an old, decommissioned Mercedes 308D post-office truck, and to immediately set off again. Currently, Christopher and Laura are vagabonding though Europe with their bright yellow van. The future? Well, that’s anybody’s guess. Only one thing seems certain: even after 22 years on the road, Christopher has no intentions of settling down with still so much to explore on our wonderfully surreal planet.
For further information about Christopher Many’s voyages and books, please visit the author directly on his book’s Facebook Page or webpage. Foreign language book translations can be purchased in German and Portuguese, and for the visually impaired, a copy in Braille can be ordered through BLISTA and the Library for the Blind. The author strongly believes that everybody should be allowed to travel the world through literature.
LEFT BEYOND THE HORIZON: Get here on Amazon.
RIGHT BEYOND THE HORIZON: Get here on Amazon.