Video & Photo Story: Crossing Tusheti - A Bikepacking Adventure Through Northern Georgia

Feb 15, 2024 at 7:26
by Moritz Ablinger  


Team Khinkali.
42° 39' 28'' N | 44° 38' 26'' E


The contrast between the bustling streets of Tbilisi and the simple mountain villages hidden in the green Georgian mountains is best described by the cars in sight. In the mountains, the shiny Teslas and Porsches of Tbilisi are replaced by the rugged Lada Nivas and Mitsubishi Delicas. Cyclists are a rare sight in both. Admittedly, that’s what made us nervous ahead of our trip. Our route took us through the Tusheti National Park in Northern Georgia on a trail that was better known among hikers with trekking poles as their ultimate companion. Our choice of companion was full-suspension mountain bikes, loaded heavily with camping gear and dried food.

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"We" included a mountain bike and ski guide Sabine and me, Henna, an all-round adventurer who was used to bikepacking with a gravel bike, as well as filmmaker Fabian and photographer Moritz. Sabine had been to Georgia for ski trips before, and even under the meters of snow, the incredibly vast landscape had hinted at its summer beauty. After a bit of research, we came up with an idea of linking together 160 kilometers of famous hiking tracks in the Caucasus mountains, starting from Stepantsminda and finishing in Omalo.

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Into thin Air.
42° 33' 20'' N | 44° 49' 1'' E


We rode out of Stepantsminda, following an easy gravel road till Juta, where we turned into a small track that shot straight up. There was no doubt that this track was made for hikers, not for bikers. "I guess this is a little taste of what's to come," Sabine said, and we all glanced at each other. Nervousness about what lay ahead crept in as we pushed our bikes all the way to our first camp spot as the thunder rolled over the mountains next to us. Maybe this should have remained just an idea.

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Chacha & Kerosene.
42° 32' 38'' N | 44° 53' 47'' E


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The long and heavy hike-a-bike to the 3,338 meters high Chaukhi pass, the crisp wind over the glacier, a high alpine descent with sketchy loose rocks followed by unrideable switchbacks, heavy rain, missing a turn, bushwhacking to get back on the trail, doing a sketchy river crossing, and Henna crashing on the last bit when her handlebar bag locked her front wheel made us all more than exhausted, but now a day after, this all started to feel like a good idea again. Even though a group of hikers had reached the top way faster than us, it still made us question our choice of equipment.

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Sowjet Trucks & Sheepdogs.
42° 31' 26'' N | 45° 03' 23'' E


Curiosity is something that turns questionable ideas into real plans. Trying something new without full certainty if it is truly possible, getting out of your comfort zone to discover new parts of the world and meeting kindhearted people is why we ride our bikes. This proved to be the case also in the Georgian mountains. As we were riding up to Datvisjvari Pass on a gravel road on our third day, we heard a roaring engine behind us, turned around and saw an old Soviet truck. “Would hitching a ride up be okay for our gravel rider?” the rest of the team asked Henna. “Heck yes, this is why we don’t race,” Henna grinned. We quickly lifted our thumbs up, and the truck stopped. A driver with a wide smile and a few golden teeth welcomed us happily on board. The front seat was already taken, so we hopped on the back of the truck together with our bikes and exchanged excited smiles with the two locals taking a ride up to the next village.

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The engine roared and black smoke clouds puffed out of the exhausting pipe as the truck reached the top of the pass. The brand new electric cars, buzzing streets, and shiny office buildings of Tbilisi seemed like a distant memory when we immersed ourselves in the present and took a break at the top of the pass, admiring the vast views over the mighty Georgian mountains. In the distance, we also saw the Chaukhi pass that we had crossed the day before.


19.351 Steps.
42° 31' 42'' N | 45° 16' 25'' E


"Freshly baked Khachapuri and Khinkalis or dry food?” Henna asked as we approached Shatili, the next small village and decided whether we should camp outside of the town or on the lawn of the guesthouse. The answer was instant: “Khachapuri and Khinkali." Khachapuri is a kind of bread filled with cheese in the center, while Khinkali are traditional, extremely tasty dumplings filled with cheese, vegetables, or meat. Warned by the lack of services along the route, we had filled our bike bags with dry food just to find out that there are guesthouses at every village offering the most delicious Georgian food.

By the time we started the big push up to Atsunto pass, our bodies had started to get into the rhythm of knowing when to push the bike, when to carry it, and when to have a break. As we were sitting down having a break, two passing hikers shared the best news of the day: “They sell Coca-cola and Fanta next to the border station.” However, none of us was in a hurry to move; we all just sat there, taking in the panorama and grinning from ear to ear. "I believe I'd rather be nowhere else right now, in my sweaty clothes," Sabine said, smiling. The others nodded in agreement. We all seemed to share a similar idea of "fun," even if it might seem absurd to other people.


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We signed all the paperwork, left the border station behind us, debated how far we could still make it before the sun set and decided we could make it all the way to the next stream. As the sun was already touching the mountain tops, we could see our camp spot, but the trail just kept on going. “We've just pushed our bikes uphill for a good 2,000 meters, without riding basically a single meter,” Sabine mumbled as we zoned out and focused only on covering ground. As we finally got closer to the camp spot at 3,000 meters, the sun laid the last warm rays on the mountains and colored the sky in pastel colors. Tiredness was replaced by gratitude and disbelief. We had actually managed to get all the way here with our bikes and had only 500 more elevation meters to go tomorrow to get over the last big mountain pass on our route. We had actually made our unsure plan work.

As we carried our bikes up towards the top of the Atsunta pass, the nervousness rose - would the trail be rideable this time, or do we need to carry our bikes down as well? “We don’t have any switchbacks in the Finnish forest trails,” Henna had shouted on the second day of the trip after she had cleared her first ever high alpine trail with loose rocks and saw the 50 switchback turns laid in front of her. Nervous from the experience four days ago, she hoped the trail down from Atsunta Pass would actually be rideable this time.

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The watch read 3,539 meters once we reached the top of the Atsunta Pass, and the panoramic view was hard to beat in any direction. The snow-covered peak of Mt. Kazbek glistened in the distance, and after a long search, we even found the Chaukhi Pass. “No switchbacks,” Henna sighed in relief. We finally got a prize we had been working toward for so long - a trail that wound through a vast rock field in wide curves at first, tricky in places but always rideable. We stopped after the first part, everyone smiling from ear to ear. “ This trail is actually fun to ride,” Sabine said, clearly relieved. We let the heavily loaded horse convoy pass us before continuing. ”I would be terrified to sit on a horse here," Moritz said, and we nodded in agreement, the first time being truly happy with our choice of equipment.


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All Downhill from here.
42° 31' 19'' N | 45° 26' 16'' E


Vegetation took over again, and we zigzagged down to the valley floor in wide arcs. "It feels so surreal to ride for so long without needing to walk the bike," Henna yelled. It was almost as if the hard-earned descent felt so good now precisely because of the effort of the past days, like reaching a goal after a long run. Just with more adrenaline. The wide grass slopes glistened in the afternoon sun, and there was still snow on the mountaintops. Henna's bike lay on the trail, and Henna? She was somewhere, a few meters below, laughing in the grass while Fabi and Moritz threw their bikes aside with a touch of panic. “Working on the bruise collection,” she grinned, her eyes full of tears from laughter. The perfect trail turned into a deeply dug-in trail so narrow in places that you inevitably caught your pedals sooner or later. And so, Moritz and Fabi also faced the inevitable and took an unplanned but soft fall over their handlebars. Despite the partly deep dug-in trail, we had the best time on our bikes so far.

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Back to paved roads.
42° 22' 30'' N | 45° 37' 56'' E



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After an otherworldly food experience, we rolled out of the guesthouse table, reluctant to keep on riding quite yet. We found a few garden chairs and enjoyed the last look over the valley leading to Atsunta Pass. We had actually made it in one piece, a few bruises but many unforgettable memories richer. As the food settled in our bellies, we finally got ourselves up and started the ride towards Omalo, accompanied by 10 horses galloping free on the gravel road. It’s not every day you get to ride among the horses. It’s also not every day you get to ride in the Caucasus mountains, but when you do, you will remember it forever.

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The Gear.
41° 41' 36'' N | 44° 48' 5'' E


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Knowing that most of the ascends would be unrideable, Henna decided to take the slightly lighter setup. A Scott Spark with 130/120mm of travel and 2.4" tires was her tool of choice. Her bike was equipped with Restrap bags attached to the handlebar, seatpost, downtube and toptube to store all the gear. In the uphills, Henna was hard to beat. The suspension was set up firmer than usual, to prevent the seatpost- and handlebar bag from touching the tires.
As an experienced Enduro rider and bike guide, Sabine packed her Scott Genius with 160/150mm of travel and 2.4" tires. Riding it with slightly more pressure than usual, the slack front end kept the bike super stable in the downhills. She stored all her gear in Syncros bikepacking bags mounted to the handlebar, seatpost and top tube as well as a 20l backpack. The 1x12 Shimano drivetrain did a good job, but as rideable ascends were rare, going single speed would have also been an option.





Riders // Sabine Schipflinger // Henna Palosaari

Words // Henna Palosaari
Photos & Layout // Moritz Ablinger
Video & Cut // Fabian Spindler


Thanks for the Support
@SCOTT SPORTS
@SHIMANO

Special thanks to
Barbara & Martha // Scott Sports
Emmi // Shimano
David // MPlus Sport Tbilisi
Peter, Joey // for all the information
Pancho Wheels // for the last minute spare parts





Author Info:
mauricephoto avatar

Member since Jun 15, 2015
2 articles

20 Comments
  • 10 0
 Oh that Georgia
  • 2 0
 You wouldn't be the first one booking flights to the wrong one, haha
  • 5 0
 I did a bike packing trip there a few years ago. Absolutely amazing. Georgians are fantastic. As one Georgian said to me "We Georgians love God and Wine, but not necessarily that order". I camped mostly but did stay in one guest house and each meal came with as much wine as I wanted. They would open a bottle of wine and give it to you with the meal and expect you to drink all of it and more. The Chacha was vicious. I really want to go do a whole crossing of the Caucuses
.
  • 1 0
 That sounds like a great trip! And yeah ... we woke up more than once with a massive Chacha headache, haha
  • 3 0
 I went to Georgia last summer and I concur. The food is exceptional, as they have a mix of asian, caucasian and turkish style (at least), people are very friendly and helpful, although not many of them speak english (the young ones do). The country (at least the areas I visited) is extremely safe, I once saw the whole day's money collection of a gas station in coins on a gasoline pump (some few hundred $) with no one watching nor caring about it, being the station packed with people... this is how relaxed and confident you can go around. BTW, some say that Georgians invented wine, at least they have one of the most ancient historicall records about "gvino" being produced. Cannot recomend it enough
  • 1 0
 @kirat: Totally agree!
  • 3 0
 @kirat: this is the way the world should be
  • 5 0
 Nicely executed video, lots of good ideas. And probably also a memorable trip for the riders.
  • 4 0
 Thanks! It was a pretty nice adventure. And Atsunta was pbly the longest decent we ever had!
  • 1 0
 Beautiful work on the videography…really enjoyed it. Couple of years ago did the great divide mountain bike trip in the North American rockies from Banff, Canada to Bigfork, MT, USA. Ready to do again. Come over and give it a run…you will not be disappointed!
  • 3 0
 Wow! country of Georgia look beautiful. Though I’ll have to admit my initial thought when I was the title was “they misspelled Tallulah”
  • 5 0
 That was inspiring.
  • 3 0
 This is some of the best content I have ever seen.
  • 1 0
 Thanks!
  • 1 0
 Agreed. Super well done! The production, editing, photography (stunning drone shots) and down to earth riders really made me want to check out this area. Kudos to the whole team involved in this one!
  • 3 0
 What an incredible adventure.
  • 2 0
 Now that sounds like you spent a lot of time carrying bikes
  • 4 0
 aaaaahm. Yess. But that made the descents even more rewarding!
  • 3 0
 Beautiful scenery
  • 1 0
 10/10.







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