World By Bike 27: 18,000 Miles in Georgia
Another backhand currency exchange and an extended climb over a hill later, we were on the outskirts of Tbilisi in country number twenty-two. The city is situated on the banks of a river that runs down a valley between two twisted lines of mountains, and immediately the place felt like a European skiing town. The temptation at this point is relax and not be as vigilant on the roads as all the visual cues are telling you that you've arrived in familiar territory and you know what's going on here. However, swerving around a pot hole big enough to fall into, and the subsequent close encounter with a taxi driver speeding past me on his phone reminded me that I was still in Asia. I could be forgiven with the widespread use of the European flag, the copious coffee houses, towering gothic cathedrals and cobbled streets - it certainly looked like I was back in the western world.
I was glad to make it to Tbilisi, where I hoped I could get some much needed rest and long overdue bike repairs done. I was so tired and decision making so compromised that it took me the best part of two hours to find somewhere to stay the night on various accommodation apps whilst sitting outside of McDonald's, closely watching my bike.
Whilst dropping off my bike at the only store in town that had a brand name I recognised, I got talking to an English couple who'd been touring in Turkey for the last three months and were on their way to China. Red flags should have gone up about the reputability of the store as the bike mechanic set to work taking apart my rear brake calliper over my shoulder as I was chatting. Confused as to the methods the mechanic was employing I let him continue assuming he knew more than me about bike maintenance (which isn't hard). He quickly diagnosed some significant issues with the brakes, and I didn't have the knowledge to strongly protest his prognosis. I left him with the bike with hopes that'd be able to source me a new chain and replace the gear cables for me - relatively simple jobs, I thought.
After exploring the city, and witnessing a confrontation in the village square between Russian tourists and Georgian locals whilst I sat at an Irish pub ran by an American (a very multi-cultural city), I returned to the bike store to find it had closed several hours early, delaying my hopes of leaving Tbilisi the next day. I came back again in the morning to find that whilst replacing the cables the 'mechanic' had managed to make the front brake completely ineffective and not managed to source me a new chain. This meant that not only had I wasted two days waiting for repairs, and my departure from Tbilisi delayed, it meant I couldn't even ride the bike to another store. Once I did eventually track down a cheap cab that would let me put my bike in the back, I found another bike shop who found it rather comical that my issues weren't the first time they'd had to fix issues caused by the other shop. Fortunately, however, they were able to get the bike up and running within the hour, and fixed the braking issues, despite not being able to find a new chain either. I was pleased as a bike that had limped into the Georgian capital had become completely unrideable but was no rolling again. Not all the issues had been fixed, but I knew I could make it a little further to the next city before I found new parts. It's always worth getting someone who knows what they're talking about. Although they second shop were a little more expensive, when accounting for the cost of two extra days in the city waiting for the first shop, they were much more cost-effective. In hindsight, I should have research the shops more thoroughly and taken my bike from that first shop as soon as I saw the mechanics methods.
The benefit of waiting around in Tbilisi was that I was able to spend time with a fellow round the world tourer who arrived in the capital the night before I was due to leave. I'd been following his journey and his battle with mental health for a few years since he set off for his first attempt at cycling around the world several years ago. Hearing his struggles and the reasons he'd struggled to make it out of Europe on previous attempts was fascinating. It really showed me how powerful an experience, and how much mental leverage a large-scale adventure has, and how motivating these trips can have for those following along at home - the dude has 32,000 followers on LinkedIn of all places. Additionally, however, over the discussion I was reminded of how careful you have to be with such life-shaping experiences can be - if you're not careful they can be damaging.
Many people who do epic adventures get home and suffer from post-trip blues. You can get so caught up in your own world, and your own goals that you don’t think beyond your immediate life. When you get home, so I'm told, you quickly get a call from Copernicus and are reminded that you are not the centre of the universe. I think it can be particularly hard if you've been sharing the trip on social media and been receiving a lot of attention from the trip that way. If you're not careful, a large trip like a world bicycle tour can become your whole identity - you become 'the guy who cycled around the world'. I'm not saying that having such an adventure shouldn't affect who you are, because it inevitably will, but I'm not sure it should become everything you are - and that can be hard to avoid when you invest so much time and effort into a single goal or an adventure. One of the blessings for me cycling 'the wrong way' around the world (east to west), is that I've met so many tourers coming towards me travelling in the typical west-east direction, particularly at narrow pinch points like in South East Asia or in New Zealand. If the entire identity you carry off in front of everyone back home, and the identity you portray on social media is that you are the unique epic adventurer person, then you'll quickly crumble when you see all the other tourers doing similarly epic trips, or on trips longer, harder or more adventurous than yours. At that point I think you can quickly resort to discrediting other's trips, and putting them down to elevate your own - they're not going to this country, or they didn’t go to this continent, or they have more sponsorship so can afford better snacks and places to stay.
Meeting Josh in Tbilisi reminded me that you need to have something bigger than the adventure, something beyond the trip, otherwise once you have the high of getting home (should you be fortunate enough to get there), your world can quickly crumble and you're left with an emptiness so often reported by tourers and adventurers. As I get into more familiar territory, I'm trying to prep myself for the what happens next. For me, I hope that the fact that I've always seen this trip as an opportunity to learn, and gain perspective and not just an opportunity to evade responsibilities back home or just an opportunity to flex in front of my friends, that I'll be somewhat protected from the post-trip blues. I guess you don't know until you’re in that situation that how you'll react, but I'm also hoping that my faith will help, and this trip has never been about my entire identity. It's something that I wanted to do to help myself grow so I can contribute more to others when I get home, I hope. It's about adding to the stable platform, or life foundation I believe I've already got through faith, and not about discovering myself and deciding what my platform and foundation is.
Rambling aside, I just think that the pause in Tbilisi reminded me of the dangers of making a trip like this your entire life and purpose. There are so many things on this trip that have been out of my control, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been able to get this far. Every day you're relying on a bike you barely understand, winds and weather you can't control, and putting your life in the hands of incompetent driver's you've never met. That number of unknowns creates an incredibly shaky and uneven platform for your to base your entire identity around. I understand committing to a goal, but when it gets to the point that the goal is driving you, rather than you driving towards the goal, you've probably got to ask yourself some questions, I think.
Anyway, after that aside, I did eventually leave Tbilisi with a semi-functional bike, and managed to avoid losing flesh to Georgian sheepdogs as I followed the river valley all the way to the town of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin. He's fondly remember by people of the town, with streets and parks named in his honour, as well as having his statue outside his old house, which they've turned into a museum. He's viewed as the war hero who defeated the Nazi's, not as the occupying forces' leader who murdered millions of people in gulags. It's interesting how vastly differently he's viewed compared with many places in the world, yet we're all humans that largely have a similar moral compass. It does make you think.
As I pushed further west, I crossed the all-important 18,000 mile mark, the minimum distance required for a circumnavigation of the world by bicycle. Having already hit the two anti-podal points (point located on directly opposite sides of the world) in Madrid in Spain and Wellington, New Zealand, all I have to do now is get home for the official circumnavigation to be complete. As I eluded to earlier, people have their own criteria for what satisfies them as an 'around-the-world' cycle, but the only official criteria is the Guinness World Records criteria for the a circumnavigation of the globe, so I'm broadly following that.
Now on the shores of the Black Sea in the party town of Batumi, Georgia, I'm awaiting spare bike parts being shipped from the team at Spokes of Bagshot, my local bike store back in England. I gave up trying to find parts in Georgia, and thought it may be quicker to just send them from home. However, after five nights, I'm starting to think that may not have been the case. I am enjoying the rest though.