Cycling the Silk Road

Breakfast Beers in a Georgian Jail
Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 13 2007 7:21 AM

Cycling the Silk Road

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There's nothing like a night in a Georgian jail to refresh the mind and body of a beleaguered tourist. Especially when the jailor—the chief of the Oni police—buys his guests Kazbegi beers for breakfast.

Leaving Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city, Cam and I cycled up beautifully forested slopes and into the mountains of the Racha region of Northern Georgia. Greg had gotten on a bus and headed back eastward in pursuit of our Turkmenistan visas, which are notoriously difficult to get.

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The sight of vibrantly green springtime foliage mixed with the scent of spruce in the air invited us onward. Raising our eyes from a badly potholed road, we occasionally spotted crumbling medieval fortresses perched on precarious spurs or dramatic 10th-century Georgian Orthodox churches poking out of the valley floor.

Our plan was to buy some supplies in Oni, Racha's largest town—though it's really nothing more than a dusty mountain village—and then go find a camping spot before dark. By chance, a police officer came upon us and asked us to come with him. We reluctantly complied. But as the light faded, he became engrossed in a conversation with another man over a fence, and we gave him the slip, making our way out of town.

While we stopped at a dacha—a Russian-style country house—for water, a Soviet-era police jeep came roaring down the road. As it ground to a halt, a tough-looking guy in a stocking cap and camouflage jacket opened the door. He announced that he was the chief of police, and he requested our documents. Being generally wary of rendering our passports to strangers, we delayed by pretending not to understand him. This was hard to keep up for very long, since he spoke nearly perfect English. Eventually, we handed over photocopies of our passports.

"Would this be possible in America? When police ask for document, you give photocopy?" the chief asked. I thought to myself, No, but in America you don't have to worry about the police holding your passport for a bribe.

"Where are you going?" asked the chief.

"Uhh ... Tschinvalli," Cam mumbled, massacring the pronunciation of the capital of South Ossetia.

"Do you know?"

"Uhh ... Do I know? I don't know if I know. What?"

The chief explained that Tschinvalli was not a safe place to be, as South Ossetia had now effectively seceded from Georgia, and no one in Georgia could ensure our safety. Over our months of bike touring, we'd heard a lot of people claim that places were "unsafe," "filled with bad people," and so on. Every single time thus far, it had been a case of cops not wanting to be responsible for dumb Americans on bikes in their district, or xenophobia of the neighboring ethnic group. Our outdated guidebook claimed that South Ossetia was safe, and we assumed we would have heard if that had changed.

We were annoyed by the delay, but the guy seemed legit, and we decided to hand over our passports. Not that we had a lot of choice. Reaching into his bag, Cam blurted out, "Wait a minute, dude! We don't even have our passports!" In a terror-filled moment, I clutched at my chest, where I normally keep my passport. It dawned on me that at that moment our passports were with Greg, somewhere in Turkey.

"Look at this, boys!" the policeman exclaimed. "You are about to head off on bicycles into a dangerous and remote region of a foreign country where you don't speak the language! South Ossetia is occupied by Ossetian and Russian troops. All of them are going to be very suspicious of some random Americans snooping around, claiming to be tourists in a region that no one in their right mind would visit! At the very least, you will not be allowed back into Georgia without passports!"

With the flip of a coin, we decided that we would take the chief up on his offer to lodge us for the evening. It was a satisfying conclusion for both parties: The chief could keep a close eye on the troublesome foreigners, and we got to stay out of the snow.

Late that night, the chief detoured from his patrol to unlock the Oni government office, a drafty Soviet-era monstrosity. Although the cracked windowpanes didn't do much to keep out the cold, it had a good Internet connection. A quick Google search confirmed the chief's concerns.

In 1991, violence broke out when Ossetians seeking greater autonomy were faced with growing nationalistic sentiment in the newly independent Georgian state. During the following months of fighting, many Georgian and Ossetian villages and schools were attacked and burned. Approximately 1,000 people died, and 60,000 to 100,000 refugees fled the region. Most crossed the border into North Ossetia. South Ossetia has been a de factoseparatist state since 1992, propped up by a Russian military presence (ostensibly there as a peacekeeping force), which prevents Georgian intrusion into the region. The Russian ruble is the only accepted currency, and anyone caught speaking Georgian had better start explaining fast. South Ossetians' ultimate aim is to be united with their brothers across the Russian border in North Ossetia as part of Russia. Or so says Google.

That sealed it. The following morning, over breakfast beers and coffee, we announced to the relieved chief our intention of returning the way we had come. On his morning rounds, he escorted us out of town. We followed sheepishly, simultaneously feeling like idiots for not going to Ossetia and like fools for even considering going there. Twenty miles down the road, another police escort was waiting for us, just to make sure we didn't try any funny business. Ah, but we gave them some funny business: We stopped right in front of them and put on a calisthenics show in our skimpy spandex bike shorts.

A few days later, in Tbilisi, during a game of ultimate Frisbee, we met a foreign aid worker. "You might have escaped from Ossetia alive, but without your possessions," he told us. It was lucky for us that we turned back. Not because we're so attached to our possessions but because Russia had just refused to accept Georgia's wine and water. Instead of getting glum about the economic ramifications, the Georgians partied all week in the streets of Tbilisi. Do your worst, Russia.

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