Midnight Train to Georgia

The Mongol Rally is a sampler pack of Eurasia, you get a little flavor of everything. Some things that should impress don’t, and some things that weren’t expected to impress do.

Georgia is probably the best example.

Before going to Georgia, I knew precisely two things about the country.

First, that it and Russia had a war in 2008.

Secondly, that the Bond girl from Goldeneye was Georgian. A fact that stuck with me, since I thought Bond was using wry British humor when he said the girl had a Georgian accent. She didn’t sound southern at all.

I also had a preconceived notion that the Russian-Georgian border was closed. This supposed fact was backed up by Shane, in his Mongol Rally research, by previous ralliers, and in general on the Internet. Only one person, Marina, a coworker at Amazon, said it was probably open, and that she had crossed via train a couple years back.

Most ralliers going south around the Black sea do one of three things. Take a ferry to Sochi, Russia; take a ferry across the Caspian; or drive through Iran.

We had planned the former. However, due to construction at one of the port cities, no ferries were running this route. Multiple teams confirmed this. And so, we started looking to Georgia. Back tracking around he Black Sea would add a distance equal to the rough distance between US coasts.

Before the rally, this was one of the only borders I was scared of. It was a border I did not want to touch. At all.

Looking back, I am delighted the ferry was out of commission. Georgia is a gem and a delight. It is worth a trip to Europe to see only Georgia. The Black Sea is pretty along Georgia, although dilapidated. The Caucasus are properly stunning, on par with the Alps and the Rockies.

Our route wound us north into the mountains. The roads were stunning, full of sweeping switchbacks. We stayed at a chalet high on the mountains for our night in Georgia. An Englishman and Greek were chilling there, on a weekend vacation from their jobs in Tbilisi, the capital, where they are working on an EU commission to help out Georgia and Eastern Europe. They helped cement our interest on Georgia, discussing some of their adventures and the opportunities for hiking and skiing there.

We also split bottles of Georgian red. A delightful dry red that makes for easy drinking.

The next morning, we left at what I have been calling an “Alpine start”, by which I mean around ten or so in the am.

The road dissolved after the city we were staying in, turning to gravel and dirt with huge rocks. We bottomed out a couple times, and I nearly drove a rather large rock through our sump guard. But eventually, we got the hang of the sort of careful driving that will help ensure our car stays intact through Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

Could be worse. Could be raining.

Wait. It did rain. Hard, heavy drops that came down in torrents and bucketfuls. FIAT had designed the wipers on the Panda for London rain. It was all they could do to maintain our vision on the Georgian roads as we dropped down towards the border.

Georgian passport control was a beautiful and large building. However, it was still under construction. So passport control was a small booth. In the rain. With no overhang. After standoff outside for only a minute or two to get our passport stamped, we looked like drowned rats. But we were happy, because we spotted another rally car two cars back.

The car was that of The Battlers. A team that had started the rally within a few meters of our car back at Bodium Castle. Way back in England. They nearly got caught in a rockslide at the Georgian border. The terrifying sound of rocks could be heard throughout the valley, and the border guards were even telling people to watch out.

After clearing Georgia, we drove on through some massive tunnels to the Russian border. And then we waited. It took four hours from when we started queueing to when we drove onto Russian soil.

In the interim, we were taken into a small room with a rather friendly border guard who inquired into our lives, education, and trip plan. The car was briefly searched. Shane filled out a form four times, doing it in black ink instead of the required blue, and making several mistakes. His mistakes were likely do to trying to fill out a form all in Russian based on a slightly different form in English.

Oh the red tape. Douglas Adams must have modeled Vogons on Russian border control.

But we did it. We crossed a supposedly closed border. In future years, hopefully more teams consider this route. Georgia is a delight, and the drive brought the Caucasus beats twelve to eighteen hours on a ferry.

The trip in the Georgian mountains also marks the end of our cozy European roadtrip and the beginning to our rally adventure.