Dniepr Blues

7

Early last August, Beso and I put a borrowed plate on my bike, loaded the sidecar with gasoline, chacha (Georgian moonshine), our sleeping bags, half a dozen cans of sardines, and at Beso’s suggestion, 5 kilos of potatoes.

“Why the potatoes, Beso?”

“We might get hungry,” he replied.

Beso walks like a cowboy for a reason. His beat to hell Dniepr is not just his means of transportation but an extension of his body, which he knows inside and out. Live to ride, ride to live is what Beso is all about, but here in Georgia on a 400 lari (240$) a month salary, the closest he’ll ever get to a Harley Davidson is in his dreams. Between these dreams, Beso rides an old Soviet-made motorcycle.
5
Beso
This road trip was a long time coming. I bought my ’91 Dniepr for 350$ in 2003 from a guy who had a few stashed away in his cellar. He had been the director of a collective farm back in the day, and when that day collapsed, he suddenly found himself with around 10 brand new Dnieprs on his hands. I got one of his last ones.

The Dnepr is a Ukrainian version of the Russian Ural, which is a copy of the pre-WWII German BMW that Russia licensed in 1940. It is a rugged bike, well-suited for Georgian roads and has lots of guts for a 650 cc motor.

I took my Soviet era documents to police HQ to register my bike but nobody knew what to do with them. I offered to grease a palm or two, but no one seemed to want my money – particularly strange for that period in Georgian history. I was sent from office to office until finally, one cop tore my Soviet owner’s slip into pieces.

“This is illegal. You could be fined!” he shouted.

“How much do you want?” I asked.

And he sent me out of his office.

But it was still 2003 and possible to ride around without documents with minimum risk. Most cops were satisfied with a 5 lari bribe, although I was once stopped by two motorcycle cops, who threatened to confiscate my ride.

“But I know Gela, your mechanic!” I said.

“Who is Gela?”

“Your mechanic. My friend.”

“But who is he?”

One cop got on my bike and took it for a spin. He did a couple tricks. I tried not to look pissed off.

“Can you do that trick?” the other copper asked as his partner rode with with the sidecar up at a 45 degree angle.

“No, I’m an amateur, but he is a real expert!”

They let me go with a warning, reminding me that I was a guest in their country.

“But next time we’ll take your motorcycle.”

After that I only rode on Sundays with the Camelot Biker Club, which provided good camouflage until the club’s leader humiliated himself by breaking a leg doing a stupid motorcycle stunt. He disappeared after that and the club disintegrated. While I’ve been passively figuring out how to get proper documents, my bike has been sitting in my neighbor’s garage, collecting dust.

img005
Gergeti Trinity Church in Kazbegi, 2170 meters
 
We left for Kazbegi up near the Russian border on August 4th 2008. It’s a fine ride. There is a stretch of road up on the Kazbegi plateau, long and smooth, until you get to the potholes in town. We opened up our bikes, which for a Dniepr hauling a loaded sidecar at that altitude, means 90 km an hour, but it still gets the adrenaline flowing since you never know when that front wheel may come flying off or when the motor might seize, as the bike is, first and foremost, a “made in Soviet Ukraine” machine, assembled at the end of the communist era by a vodka swilling proletariat class.

Late the next morning we headed to Shatili, via a Beso shortcut that abruptly ended where the side of the mountain had fallen. The detour had taken a few hours off our schedule and my fork stabilizer had broken.

“You don’t need these anyway,” Beso said as he pulled it out and flung it in the bushes. “I don’t have one either.”

With the exception of a dozen kilometers of unexpected pavement, the road through Khevsureti is as smooth as a river bed. Hours of riding and maneuvering over a dirt road, through puddles, creeks, waterfalls and up hairpin turns, takes a toll on a guy. My hands were cramped and forearms and shoulders on fire when we rolled into Shatili at about 10 PM.

Throughout Georgia, there are many villages that welcome strangers with open arms. A simple enquiry at a market as to where one might find a bed for the night will typically produce an unforgettable experience of Georgian hospitality. Shatili is not one of these villages. For one thing, there is no market. A single bed costs 50 lari a night and may not include a gratis cup of tea.

A kind man from east Georgia offered his ambulance for shelter. Beso declined, preferring to sleep under the stars. When I awoke, Beso was snuggling with a man-eating Caucasian sheep dog that had joined him in the middle of the night.

6
Made in the USSR
After exploring ancient Shatili, we checked our oil and topped off our tanks with the gasoline we had brought. I discovered the two front bolts holding my sidecar to the frame had fallen off. The sidecar rattled madly over the bumpy road and I had to continually kick it aside to prevent it from squashing my leg. Then my transmission began to whine. Somehow, the oil had vanished. I scrounged about a shotglass worth out of an empty bottle. We had about 180 kilometers to go.

jiguli
A Jiguli

I rode slowly and shifted carefully. Beso passed an old Jiguli that was crawling along the road. I made my move when all of a sudden my bike didn’t respond. I revved and slowed down. My throttle cable had snapped. Beso took a look.

“Ooh. Not good. Problem. Big problem. Ukrainian machine, ha-ha!”

Beso scratched his chin and noticed a key ring hanging from my pack.

“Do you need this?”

He slipped one end through the hole in the cable, crimped it, and wrapped the other end around the throttle. If I managed to hold it down and keep it from unraveling, I’d get home.

10
MacGyvershvili

I made it to Heroes’ Square in Tbilisi before the key ring began to slip. It discombobulated just as I pulled into my neighbor’s garage. Home! We began to unpack the sidecar.

“Ha! The potatoes! I forgot all about them,” I said, pulling the sack out. Just then the sidecar flipped up in the air. The spuds had been ballast that kept the sidecar from flying off as the two rear bolts had fallen off as well.

The ride was a giant kick in the pants. I was more determined than ever to solve the registration problem, once I managed to put the bike back together. My plans, however, were postponed indeterminately, for later that night I got a call informing me Georgian troops were firing on Tskhinvali. War had begun.

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