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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Roads That Cross XIV

Check out part XIII here.

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Val and I had quite a few topics to cover while on the road and he was not shy tell anything. We talked about Armenia, people, their relationship towards the neighbouring countries, and their best (political) friends. Strangely enough, and from what I got from the conversation, Armenia did not really have close allies. I mean, the people or country that they can call their best buddy. It felt like they were, may be even deliberately, completely on their own, with a heavy burden of their past on the shoulders. But yet they did not want to isolate themselves. It was more of being unable to find someone who would really understand their struggle and look in the face of their old ghost, and say: “This looks familiar to me too”. Nevertheless, Armenians came across as a friendly folk and unlike in Azerbaijan, we were being treated like friends that time around. I simply told Val that Ben and I were looking forward to having fun and exploring the country and he said that he would be happy to make our time memorable. He sure did.
Our next stop was Areni and the nearby cave, where the wine was born. We dropped by a small shop, which had dozens of wines and home-made spirits for tourists to try. First four wine bottles were free of charge for anyone to try but for 1 Euro, one could taste a dozen of them, as well as cognac and other spirits. Before Ben and I were told anything else about the small exhibition, I put the money on the table and we proceeded to try our first wine, accompanied with some snacks, like lavash and cheese. As the drinks were being poured, the girls were telling us how each wine was made and what it was made from. It was pure joy! We both tried about a dozen of different wines, two kinds of cognac and vodka. All made in Armenia. After the tour, we had complementary tea and coffee.
I asked Val if it would be possible to do horse riding around the winery and he told me that it would be a bit of a challenge to find one around. Luckily though, Val spotted a passer-by and asked them for a contact number of a person, who would be able to help out. He called him, and said that there would be two people who would be interested in horse riding in Areni. The stranger gladly agreed and said that there would only be one horse. It would cost us about 15-20 Euros for the two of us for one hour. It was quite pricy, agree, but I had never ridden a horse, so I persuaded Ben to go for it. We waited for the guy to show up with a mighty horse and I was already envisioning myself sitting atop its muscular, strong back and riding against the wind in the wilderness of a small village of Armenia.

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By the time we had to meet the guy, I had built so much excitement that I was ready to pay him anything he’d ask for. After all, it would have been my first time riding the horse! We walked up one of the hills and stood there waiting for him. After a few or so minutes, two figures emerged from the distance and they were walking our direction. As they were approaching closer, I could see it was a middle-aged man with a huge belly, which was bigger than the horse itself. The man approached us and I could clearly see that it was not a horse…

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A f***ing pony! Come on! Well, it was too late to back down, so I told Ben to get on first. So he did. After cruising for about ten or so minutes, I approached him and got on the pony. I was still excited to ride a…pony, but unfortunately, it was too young, too slow. It felt like riding on an elephant. So yeah, lesson learnt – ask for a horse and say it if would be anything but the horse, there would not be a deal.
After that disappointing ride, we drove towards one of the caves. It was sadly going to close shortly but Val spoke to the staff and told that we’d be quick. One of the staff members reluctantly let us go up with him but after a few minutes, he brightened up and was giving us a small tour inside the cave. Yes, Ben and I are nice and friendly folk!
Our guide showed us the pots, where the wine was kept under the ground and sand for years and also the remains of people who were sacrificed (to the god of wine, of course). Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, the wine was treated as the holy drink and not everyone was allowed to drink it – only those from wealthy, or known families. And one would not drink the whole litre bottle in a few hours (like I tend to do on Fridays) – it was one or few sips only.

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It was time for us to head back to our hostel. Ben and I found another one, close to the city centre. It was a Thai hostel, which was interesting. We picked it up because it was the cheapest that we could find, so we were looking forward to checking in.
I asked Val if he could take us down to Tsaghkadzor for a ropeway tour (the place that was closed on our first day) and even though Val did not have to do it, as our agreement was only for a two-day trip, he agreed nonetheless. We also wanted to visit Hankavan, a small village where one could go on a summer resort to but we decided to spend more time in the city instead. So our plan for the third day was to visit Tsaghkadzor, genocide memorial and see the city. On the fourth day, Ben would travel to Belarus for a few days before heading back home and I would head back to Georgia for a few days to go to Kazbegi and catch a flight back.
Val drove us back and just like with any cheap hostels, it took us about 10 minutes to find the door…or rather manage to call the owner and ask him to find us because we could not find the door. He was quite friendly and relaxed – he took us into a big hall and there we saw our room. The rooms were separated by, what looked like, plywood and the boards were about 2.5 meters tall, so they did not even touch the ceiling. Naturally, this was a recipe for a disastrous night sleep and boy was I right. I could easily hear someone whispering a few meters away from us, let alone snoring (that was loud and clear). Ben and I went grocery shopping and drank some peach vodka that we got on our first day. It still tasted amazing.
We were offered a Thai massage by an employee in the hostel and we politely rejected the offer. Mainly because it would cost about 15 Euros for an hour. I found it a bit too much in my books. After some more reasonable drinking we both went to sleep. Well, that’s Ben and I would wake up every few hours because of someone snoring. And I would wake up very early in the morning because our neighbours decided to have a chat in the hall.

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Val met us by the hostel and we drove towards Tsaghkadzor, which was not that far off the city. There were plenty of people there too, who wanted to go on a ropeway tour. We got in line and waited for our turn.
The tour was amazing. In about ten minutes we got on top of the hill and spent some time walking around. Naturally, we were approached by locals, who asked us if we wanted to get a ride on a barbie jeep. We learnt our lesson (the hard way) from Azerbaijan and asked how much it would cost. We were told that it would be around 40 Euros, which was the same as renting the car from Val for a day. Clearly, were being ripped off, so I told him to get lost. We resumed the walk and spent about an hour or so walking around, enjoying the view.

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And here is what the saw while going down on the ropeway.

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It looked stellar! Val was kind enough to also take us to the genocide memorial, where we spent a considerable amount of time in the museum. Val said that it would take us quite a while to see everything there, so we asked him what the average taxi fare was and went our merry way.
We spent about two hours in the museum and I am sure that one could spend there way more time if they read everything there was to read there. Ben and I took a taxi back to the city and went to a small restaurant, which served amazing falafel sandwiches for just 1.50 Euros. Once we’d filled our stomachs up with amazing lunch, we went to explore the city. We took a ride on the metro and went to the centre. I unfortunately did not take names of places we visited, as we were just simply walking where the road would lead us, but I did take some photos.

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And there was our trip to Armenia. Ben and I went back to hostel to get a good night sleep and look back at the fun we had had, and the places that we got to see.

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(red – 1st day, green – 2nd day)

We covered quite a few places in Armenia within three days and I would say that it was a good amount of time to spend in the country and more would have been an “overstay”, in my opinion.
The next day, as agreed, Val met to pick us up at the hostel. While we were driving towards the airport, I asked Val what on earth “jan” stood for and why Arthur called me “Timjan”, and not just Tim. Apparently, “jan” meant “sweet” in Armenian. It was a friendly way of adding that at the end of one’s name. How nice!
Ben got on the airplane, and I got on a minibus at the bus station and headed towards Tblisi for a few days. Ben was heading to Belarus, Minsk via Moscow and he texted me after a few hours to say that he was stuck in the airport. Apparently, he needed some sort of a transit visa for Russia, which was news to both of us. Neither of us would even think of such a thing and I don’t think that Ben was even given a proper explanation at the airport as to what kind of visa he actually needed. So Ben had to buy the flight tickets directly to his home instead, and cancel a short trip to Belarus. Sad that he did not decide to join me in Georgia. I was very much looking forward to coming back to Tblisi to meet Manuel and visit Khazbegi, before heading home. Once again I would see the mighty, tall mountains, before the trip would come to a conclusion.

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – One More To Go Part XIII

Check out chapter XII here

 

One more country to go – that’s right! I could not believe how fast the time flew. A few more days and Ben and I had to leave hack home. All the great food, fun people and beautiful nature surrounded my hills and mountains – poof. Gone. Wicked!
Our next destination was Garni – one of the oldest temples in the country. It was used to worship the god of sun/fire back in the day. The views surrounding the temple were as interesting to look at.

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And that’s about it – we did not have anything else to explore there, so we came back to Val and proceeded to Geghard, a medieval monastery.
While on the road, Val asked Ben and me if we wanted to try out some local, home-made vodka and before I could say “yes”, I saw a few stands a few hundred metres away from us, which were surrounded by the baskets of fruits and vegetables. We stopped by one of the stands and Val asked for a few shots to taste. It was vodka made from peaches and it tasted great! We grabbed the bottle and went our way.
Geghard was most famous for housing ancient relics, such as the spear that pierced Jesus on the cross. I very much liked how raw and dark the churches and monasteries of Armenia were – a sight to behold!

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It looked somewhat gothic to me, in the form and share that the insides of the monastery were preserved. We explored the monastery, walked a bit more around the premises and got back to the car. The next destination was another monastery, Haghartsin Monastery.
We were lucky enough to witness a wedding there. Val told us that weddings in Armenia stretch for days, where family members and friends of both bride and groom bring tons of meat and alcohol and go wild. At that point I was thinking how amazing it would be to marry an Armenian woman!
We also saw old Armenian scripts and asked Val if he was still able to understand them but he unfortunately could not, as the writing of the language had changed so much over time. So we left that mystery, and happy young couple behind us for Dilijan, a small neat-looking town in the north of Armenia.
And next on our list was the Sevan lake – we were excited! Also, we met Arthur by the lake, who was taking care of his group of tourists. One guy got so hammered on the trip that he went swimming naked – his wife, to say the least, was embarrassed and had to calm him down (he would get a bit shouty every now and then). Ben and I found a few small boats by the coast and we approached the guy, who threw the rope over to park the boat. We asked him if he could get us onboard and for the mere 10-15 or so Euros for all three of us, he agreed to take us around. It was quite windy but the scenery was great!

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The only thing that was missing on board was alcohol but luckily, the boat trip was short so we did not feel too bad for too long. We got back to the shore and went up the hill to get another view over the land and the lake. It was beautiful.

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There were a few small churches up the hill – the country is plentiful of them. Similarly to Georgia, Armenia was also deeply religious and you would not want to joke about that over there either (unfortunately for Ben).
We descended the hill and told Val that we would not mind snacking some local food. He drove us to the restaurant nearby, called Collette It was quite popular and Val said that we would love it and we certainly did. They even had crayfish kebab on the menu! Wow – I really wanted to try it out.

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But unfortunately it was out of season so they could not serve it to us. Good to know they did not cook frozen food. We ordered some kebab, bread and local cognac, Ararat, which tasted wonderful. Since Ararat was, literally, everything to Armenians, they named a lot of thing after the great mountain. Man’s name, cigarette, food & alcohol brand and many more were things were called and branded as Ararat.
Val, in the meantime, grabbed a cup of coffee and waited for us in the car. The food and drinks were so great that we wanted to stay for longer, have some more and go party but we had one more place to visit for the day, which was Tsaghkadzor.
And we were too late! We arrived there at about 5.00 p.m. and the ropeway tours were unfortunately closed. I asked Val to take us there the next day and he politely nodded and said that if we had time, we would certainly go there.
He dropped us off at our hostel, where we did manage to keep the room for ourselves, so we stayed there another night. Ben and I armed ourselves with some cognac and spent the rest of the evening chatting and relaxing.

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The next day, it was finally time to visit the great mountain Ararat or rather, look at it from a distance, since it was on the Turkish border. The place that we started heading towards was Khor Virap, where a monastery lay with an outstanding view on the tall mountain.
When we arrived, Val nodded and said that he would wait us by the car as we proceeded to towards the stairs up the hill. As we were walking, a couple of locals approached Ben and me with four pigeons in their hands. They both literally shuffled pigeons into our hands and told us to hold them tight. “There, make a wish and then let them go!” they said. Ok, Ben and I wished of something irrelevant and let the birds go. Before we could make another move, the guys told us that it would cost us 10 Euros each.

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Naturally, we broke into an argument. “But oh well, you know, we raised the pigeons, fed them and now they will never come back!” was their argument and they would not let us go. Val stepped in and they started speaking Armenian. Ben and I exchanged angry stares. “Ok, Tim, Ben, just give those charlatans 6 Euros each and let’s go.” And we did. At least I felt good about the pigeons being released from those scammers for good, so it was worth paying in the end. Val interrupted my thought by saying that those guys trained pigeons to come back to them when released, so the poor birds could not escape their fate.

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We got to top of the hill to admire the scenery and take some great photos.

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We walked around some more and went back to Val to drive to one of the oldest wineries in the world and drink some in the village of Areni. Exciting!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Seat Belts Are Optional Part XII

For chapter XI click here

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We made it back to Tbilisi in one peace. Crossing and leaving Azerbaijani was a peace of cake – we were asked a few friendly questions and went our merry way back to the rocking beds of the train. As you can imagine, I did not get to sleep that much on the train, so I was looking forward to getting on a minibus, reaching Yerevan and burying myself in a bed. Luckily, our friend Manuel did help us with booking two seats on the minibus – our only other choice to get to Yerevan was on a train but it was much more expensive. Since Tblisi was far from being “digital”, Manuel made a few calls and reserved two places for us. If you do visit Georgia, you either need to call people to book bus tickets or go directly to where they sell them, and buy them on the spot. Yeah, I really missed Europe then and how easy it was to buy pretty much anything online.

When we arrived at the bus station, we still had around one hour to wander about. We got to a shop to buy some snacks and a giant shoti bread (I could not get enough of it in Mestia) and found a small, cozy restaurant close to the bus station. The prices, however, were not as welcoming but we decided to eat something anyway. When we were approached by the waiter, she immediately proceeded by telling me to take my hat off (it was rude) and I barked back at her to serve us something that could be prepared quickly. We waited…and waited…and were finally presented with some food, at long last. The longer I had to wait, the angrier I was growing – I did not want to miss the minibus. I picked up my hat and we rushed to get on the minibus.

Fortunately, getting to Yerevan was quick – about four-five hours, including the border check. Ben was most nervous about it as Turkey did not get along with Armenia and vice versa. We reached the border and Ben asked me if he could go in front of me in the queue. So he did and he crossed it sooner than I could take a third breath. I passed the passport control soon after him.
We still had no plan for Armenia and what places we wanted to see. We figured that since we would arrive to Yerevan later in the evening, we would sit down and explore at the map.
As we were driving towards the capital, I was admiring the country: it had heaps of hills, forests, some lakes and neat-looking villages. I liked it – much more than I did Azerbaijan. Yes, it was not as green and pristine (to an extent) as Georgia but it was good. Here, I managed to take a few photos while we were on the road.

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The city was…ok. Although, there was no interesting architecture – it looked kind of dull…It felt like it was one of the uninteresting districts of Berlin that you have to go through to get to some club to have fun, only that there were no clubs around for miles. Alright, it was not bad but it was certainly quite (even during other days when we stayed in the city).
Ben was particularly reluctant to rent a car in Armenia, even though he was getting better at driving in Azerbaijan.

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OK, just kidding. But he was indeed improving. Last thing that Ben wanted for him to happen was to sign a car rental contract and be pulled over by the police. Considering the political complications between the two countries, it was a wise decision to use 60 km/h guidance of the local buss network. However, if I had the driver’s license, I would have signed the car rental document. We kept on strolling around the city and it was actually looking much nicer in Northern Avenue and around the area. While we were casually looking around and taking photos, we noticed quite a few cars parked around and saw that some of them had banners or photos of the local sights attached to them. We walked closer to take a look at what it was and we were approached by a friendly-looking, elderly chap. He asked if we were tourists and wanted to have him drive us around the country. It looked, firstly, suspicious but then he gave us a neat price and Ben went with the flow of the conversation, so I knew it was a good sign. Basically, the offer was that he would take us around about 6-8 places during the next two days and on the third day, he would give us both a free lift to the airport and/or bus station. The price was around 45 Euros for the two of us and we would leave in the early morning and come back by the sunset, and spend as much time as we wanted at the sights. I took his phone number (let’s call him, Andy) and he bade me farewell. “Hope to hear back from you, Timjan!” Timjan? I just told him a few minutes ago I was Tim – why the “jan” (pronounced as “John”) at the end of my name? Weird.

I talked to Ben and we immediately checked the prices of renting a car in Yerevan and the cheapest that we could find was around 30 or so Euros. Considering that we also had to pay for the gas, put the deposit down, etc., it was a no-brainer that we would call Andy back to agree on the car trip. Still, we walked around and asked how much others charged for the comfort of being driven around. Unfortunately, there were only minibuses that would normally take about four-six people, so it made no sense to pay the price of the six while we were two, even though the drivers told us that they would be happy to take us.

Ben and I started heading back to the hostel and bought some wine and cheese on the way. We were rejoiced, to say the least, and once we had come back to the hostel (where the lights were back on!), we called Andy and said that we were down for the trip for two days and I tried to negotiate on the discount. “Timjan, unfortunately no, this is the lowest that we can ask for. We will take you to the bus station or airport after the trip, so that will save you quite a bit on the taxi!” Where on bloody earth was that “jan” coming from and why, I still could not get my head around. “Fine”, I said. “Let’s do it! Looking forward to our trip tomorrow”. “And also, Timjan, there will be one of my friends who will pick you up, as I sadly won’t be able to be there for two days with you. His name is Val – he is a really kind and friendly lad. You’ll have a blast with him!”

And so Ben and I opened a bottle of a fine local pomegranate wine and a box of cheese, pieces of which were individually wrapped in and sealed like a small money pouch bag. It was delightful. We were happy that we had to spend no time in organising the bus to drive us places, and think of what places to see during the next three days that we would spend in the country. Brilliant. We still looked up the sights that we would see in the next few days with Val and were excited about the trip.

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We woke up quite early the next day. We went down to the reception and asked if we could stay in the same room for another day. The lady told us that there could be reservation coming in soon, so she told us to wait a bit longer and give her a call back. Strange.
Val was waiting for us outside, sitting in a shiny sedan. We greeted him and put our rucksacks in the trunk. Val was a calm, middle-aged man (and quite friendly indeed), so right from the start I could feel that the trip would be fun and we would not get sick of him. He told us that the first place we would go to would be Garni, a small village with an ancient temple (as I am writing this, I am looking up pictures of the temple taken during a rainy autumn day and does it look gorgeous!). I put the seat belt on and Val said that I did not have to. “Timjan, just sit back and relax. Feel like you’re in the couch – the car has a lot of space”. He did not put his seat belt on either and we started driving through early morning’s traffic jam and onwards to our first sightseeing of Armenia. I could sense that it would be an awesome trip!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Like a Ticket to a Museum Part XI

Click here for part X

Fortunately, both Ben and I were well-mannered lads, so well in fact that our consciousness would oftentimes be way too heavy on our shoulders. So we agreed that we would get the car clean and tell that we had no idea how the car was dented. I was still hoping that Ben and I were having a nightmare. Well, worst case scenario, we would lose our deposit and move on with our lives. The sum was not that significant anyway.
When we were about 50 or so km away from Baku, we found a gas station and a car wash. How convenient! Obviously, we did not add any gas because we were given the car with very little of it (how nice), so we straight moved to wash the car. We asked the guys to do a good job and make it look like new. While I was nervously chain smoking, thinking about losing the money in an hour or so and going through all possible and potential scenarios of how we could have made a dent in the car, an idea stroke me. “Hey Ben,” I said, “could you ask the chaps how much it would cost to fix that dent?” I wanted to be sure that we would not get screwed over our wallets (yet again) and have an idea of what to expect. The car was and must have been insured anyway, so the owner would not pay for it, so we would only compensate for the inconvenience.
The employees at the car wash said that the damage was peanuts and that it could be easily fixed with a heat gun. Huh. Ben and I suddenly got a jolt of positivity. One of the workers also said that someone must have hit us and driven away. That lad also added that his friend’s car was standing right nearby us and he was a mechanic.

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It felt like little angels descended upon us with a holy gift. We talked to the mechanic and asked him how much time it would take and what he wanted for it. He asked 40 Manat (roughly 20 Euros) and said that it would take about 30 minutes. Ben, who was the prime negotiator, immediately shared the news with me and asked if we wanted to take the deal. “Well, as long as it would look like new, let’s do it – I am in”, I said. He agreed with the mechanic to proceed and both of us walked into a garage to admire the magic. I was inside too, happily smoking with the mechanic and the car washer, watching them work. However, I was shortly told to smoke outside, which did not make sense to me because the mechanic was smoking inside too.

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Whatever. After about 20 or so minutes, we could see the seeds turn into nice, juicy plumps. Luckily, I took a photo of the car before the journey – we compared and could not tell the difference. We were overjoyed, to say the least. The guys went on polishing the car, while Ben and I were celebrating outside.
Our plan for the evening and the next day was to spend time in Baku and walk around. I was going to meet a friend of a friend, Mike, who would pick both of us up and show local beauties. Unfortunately, Mike lived too far away from the city centre, about 10-20 km, and said that he would be busy the whole next day, so he only had the time for us that night when we were supposed to arrive. Ben and I were fine with getting a hostel (even though Mike said that he would be happy to host us) as it was more convenient for us that way.
We messaged the inspector Gadget and told him that we would arrive at his car rental shop soon. Ben and I were thinking of what to say in case the conversation would go sour. After all, we were not sure how it happened to the car. Thanks to the mechanic, we were more certain that someone may have hit us, and considering that around 80% of the people we had met, tried to screw us over, I did not feel bad for the guy at all. The front bumper was already replaced in the past (according to the mechanic) and the car was scuffed a bit anyway, so it was not new. Plus, we broke it, we fixed it and we did not do the job badly – the car did look like new, so I doubt that anyone could have done it better anyway and I suspect the owner would not have been bothered by it as much as we were.
After heavy evening’s traffic on our way to Baku, we finally arrived. I reached for cigarettes and began chain-smoking, awaiting for the car owner to arrive. I was surprised how Ben kept his cool as I am not sure how I would have – we still had to give the car back and hope that we could walk away like nothing happened. So the owner came out and asked us if everything was alright and how we enjoyed the trip. We told him that everything was great and that the car drove like new. After a few moments, he started inspecting the car and pulled his flashlight out. I could feel that something would happen and he surely noticed the polish done (although the dent was not there), so he took it for scratches. Ben broke into a chat in a language I could not understand, so I lit up yet another cigarette. I waited, and lit up another one. As I was thinking of going for the third one, they stopped talking, shook hands and 75% of our deposit landed onto my hand. Phew.
We took our belongings and headed for a rendezvous point to meet Mike. Ben and I were overjoyed, despite the owner noticing the polish, and we spent the whole time talking about the car while waiting for yet another car to appear and pick us up.
Mike was a fun lad and with a lot of stories to tell, so we did not hesitate to share all of our recent life events in a restaurant in the centre of the city, which was really good and quite cheap. We filled our bellies and went around the old city and pass the Maiden Tower, towards the boulevard, with the view on the sea, and the Flame Towers, with an awesome panoramic view on the city.

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Baku was an interesting city indeed – it was a curious mixture of the soviet and muslim spirit, yet neither dominated over another. And it is not a bad thing by any means – it was something unique that you don’t get to see much at all. Ben and Mike went on to talk politics. As I got a good chunk of politics at the university already, I was more thrilled to lit up yet another cigarette and enjoy the night view.
It was already past midnight and it felt like we got our fair share of night lifestyle in Baku, so Ben and I decided to look out for a hostel to stay for the night. However, it was hard to find any place (for a reasonable price) at 1 a.m. in Baku, for some reason. Finally, we managed and got a room for the two of us in the centre of the city. We bade Mike goodbye and started settling down. The owner of the hotel was a young, friendly guy so we talked to him for a while and got under the blankets.
The next day, we had about till 7 p.m. to entertain ourselves in the city and get on the train, back to Tbilisi. Ben really wanted to try out local water pipe with tobacco inside the melon. So we headed into the city and found the place that Ben spoke of. That place was also a restaurant, so we got our menus to select some fine dishes from and Ben asked for the water pipe. Surprisingly though, the price for it was not included anywhere on the menu. I think we made the same rookie mistake as before – we ordered something without knowing the price. Obviously, that pipe cost us 50 Manat, which is roughly 25 Euros. Ben immediately wrote Mike about it and, clearly, we were screwed over, according to him. The normal price for a water pipe was around half of what we had paid. Luckily, Ben volunteered to pay for hookah while I paid for the food. At that point, I was really upset that wherever we went in the country, we were continuously being tested with: we had to bargain all the time, ask price for everything in advance (because people over there did not like including the prices in the menus) and be dummy targets for people to make money off of us. By far, I can say that Azerbaijan was the worst tourist experience out of all countries I have travelled to. But those mountains up north though – they were still worth going to.
After we had finished the meal and tea, the owner of the place offered us another portion of complementary tea (wow) because he, like Ben, was also from Turkey. So he was happy to have Turkish people dining at his place.

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We then headed to the national museum and spent some more time there. Honestly, it was nothing impressive – just imagine any other country being developed from V century up until XX and input Azerbaijan in there. But you probably knew that Azerbaijan is the world’s oldest country where the oil was extracted from (used in military and illumination) during VII and VIII centuries, and that mosques were built there to disseminate Islam when the religion was introduced there. However, prior to that Sufism was practiced. So yeah…not much else, really, which quite described our whole trip – lot of meh with an exception of seeing mountains. We also went to visit a mosque in the town – it was my first time there – Ben taught me to take the shoes off when entering the mosque.
Our time was nearing and we started heading towards the train station to go back to the good old Tbilisi and then take the minibus towards Yerevan, our next destination.
For those of you wondering, here is what our trip looked like:

Untitled-Artwork.jpgWe were a bit in a rush in the end but then again if we had managed to get to the lake Göygöl on time, we would not have needed to drive 500 km the next day to get to Quba. That being said, would I recommend one go to Azerbaijan? Well, if you are a huge fan of nature and mountains, like I am, sure – visit only the northern part of the country, that is Xinaliq. That is definitely worth visiting and there are quite cheap flights from Tbilisi to Baku that you can take and stay in the country for two days or so – that is plenty. And make sure you look up average prices for food and tickets, for instance, on the internet so you know that you are not being screwed over. Other than that, there is not much else to see.
And onto the train we got back to Tbilisi. We had a company there as well – our wagon was packed with Georgian teens that were coming from some sports championship. Generally, sleeping on the train was quite inconvenient and I would wake up every hour or so because of loud noises coming from train riding along the rails.

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Back to the mountains Part X

Check out Part IX here

 

Ben was indeed serious about driving 500 + km towards Xinaliq and he was itching to get to see the mountains and stay in the small town for the night. We were speeding through the highways of Azerbaijan as fast as we could (of course, courtesy of the police, we were following the speed limit without exceeding it even by 1 km). Other things that were going at 90 km/h speed were our thoughts about what on earth we would do about the dent on the front side of the car. I was mainly concerned about the deposit that we were going to lose. Then again, we were also through with all the previous fines as well, so we did not have to worry about that at least.
As we were driving, we kept on fighting with one another as to whose track would play next. Ben insisted that we listened to his tracks as he was the driver and needed to relax while I insisted on playing newer, and some of my, tracks. You see, Ben only had one playlist and listening to the same songs over and over again was getting on my nerves. By the time we had put my song to play, we were nearing Baku. Ben suggested we stepped out of the car for a little while and feasted our eyes at the view on Caspian sea. It was so windy that we could barely managed to open the car doors. Ben also quickly checked the engine and sniffed around the breaking pads…just to be safe, you know.
Thanks to an uneventful visit of Göygöl lake, the sun was already reaching the horizon and we were still quite far away from Xinaliq. I set our next destination to Quba, just to be more optimistic about how far we would drive and started looking for hostels in the meantime. As usual, I was able to find a place for two people for as cheap as 10-15 Euros. And we knew that the good-old “we are only going to stay for the night” would reduce the pricing for us by 10-20% no problem.
By the time we had reached Quba, it was evening and we knew that we would have to stay there for the night for sure. We phoned up the host and budged in for a discount while parking to a nearby bar/restaurant to get some snacks. It looked like the only meal that was on the menu was an Azeri version of Turkish pizza, Lahmajoun. We both enjoyed it with a cup of tea (with some Russian sweets), cleaned our plates and walked out.
We met the our host and his hostel reminded me of those Hollywood type of motels – it felt like I travelled back in time and straight into an Eastern version of Pulp Fiction movie. We had a room on a second floor with an exit right onto the balcony and a walkthrough to other hostel rooms. Sadly, it was quite chilly in the room and it did not get better even after a few hours of us warming up the room with our warm breaths. So, we celebrated the fact that we paid so little for the hostel room while deep-diving into fat blankets. Yeah, I was glad that we did end up getting discount because it felt like we should have got paid for sleeping there. So cold it was!
Waking up was easy though – the moment we opened our eyes, we sprang from our beds, packed right away and got into car and set the course towards Xinaliq!

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About time – we had about 50 km to cover and the distance seemed to be a joke in comparison to how much Ben drove the day before. However, Waze app indicated that it would take us roughly two hours to get there…suspicious. We bade goodbye to a nice and little town of Quba and took off towards the mountains. About 20-30 km in, we understood the pessimistic arrival estimate of our digital navigation friend – the road was pure madness. Up and down, down and up, curvy and broken. But by Jove! What a view we were witnesses of.

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After driving past deserted wastelands for a couple of days, a friendly and familiar-looking mountain giants brought a delightful change of pace to our journey. Had we known how beautiful the sights were up north in the country, we would have forgotten about driving past Ganja and the lake in a heartbeat. We just could not take enough pictures, honestly. The fresh air and mist filled us with joy – we were in front of something magnificent, something bigger than ourselves. It was a tremendous feeling.
As soon as the magic dust settled in our heads, we sat back in the car and continued driving. We then realised how happy we were that we decided to stay in Quba for the evening the day before. The roads to Xinaliq still felt as if though the main architect of the road was a kid drawing for the first time with acrylics – we then realised why the maps told us it would take more than an hour to get from Quba to Khinaliq. Furthermore, going up the hill in our car, with automatic gearbox, was also a bit of a struggle or we simply did not know how to drive it well. And the roads were also narrow – when we saw another car driving back, we were terrified.
We made a few more stops to take photos and met a herd of sheep on our way too!

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Having squeezed a few more times on the side road to let the car pass through, we finally reached the destination. A small, historical town of Xinaliq. We wasted no time and parked our car in an open area, and started sniffing about for a nearby place to eat as we did not have time for breakfast in Quba. Apparently, the town had a population of 2,000 people (even though it felt more like 100 people) and only one shop/place to eat out. We headed there and asked for something cheap to snack on. The locals showed us to our dining room with a beautiful view on the mountains and we sat and waited. It was chilly, I have to admit, but the anticipation for locals’ fine cuisine easily overweighed the feeling of hunger. We were told that we would be served very tasty sausage and eggs with tea.
It took about 20 or so minutes until we had been served just the tea, which was followed up with breakfast after a few minutes or so. I don’t want to sound harsh but the breakfast was underwhelming at best. It was the most basic scrambled eggs, sausage and the veggies package we had ever had (even the veggies did not taste fresh). Bread was not straight out of the oven either and we started guessing how much we would be charged for it. Well, we thought back on our stop after we left Göygöl lake, where each one of us had two small kebabs and a drink for about seven manat per person. So, fourteen in total for the two of us for a satisfying meal – we we full. So, for a small portion of eggs and sausages, we would probably pay ten manat – max.
We finished the meal and jumped off our seats to pay. Ben started chatting with the cashier and after a few seconds, his face froze and turned to me. We had to pay 25 manat for the meal and the cigarettes I had bought (which were roughly six or seven manat).

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We were both shocked. Unfortunately, we were quickly surrounded by two other guys in the shop, so we had nowhere else to go but pay what we were asked. I immediately told Ben to give him 20 and leave the place at once. So we did. Lesson learned – ask for the price first and foremost before ordering anything in Azerbaijan. Clearly, that was not the first time we were screwed over like dumb, virgin teenagers.
As more money had left out pockets, we started going up the hill and past small huts to the top of the town. It almost felt and looked like “Rohan” from Lord of the Rings. The villagers were giving us tense looks and we could feel how weird it felt when dozens of tourists were passing by their front doors regularly (although, I am not sure how many tourists the place normally has) but even if it is a few per week, it would still feel weird. We got to highest point in the town and took a few more shots of the wonderful scenery that was right before our eyes. Ben started chatting with a local, who had a few tourists he was showing the place around. The local complemented Ben on getting it up to Xinaliq in a car as even Azeris themselves have hard time getting up there because of the roads. He sure may be right but we did not know what cost we had paid to drive up there (we may have messed up a few internal car parts doing that).
Having stayed for a few more minutes and chatted to the local, who seemed to have been dressed pretty stylish (he sure was paid quite well for being a local tour guide in the town) we descended back to our car and started driving back to Baku. We had about a day and a half left to be spent in Baku before our final destination – Armenia. We were excited to change the scene and even more terrified about giving the car back. Nonetheless, onwards we continued driving!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Will Of Sultan IX

Check out part VIII here.

Obviously, we overstayed our welcome in Sheki – our friend Mr R definitely knew how to PR the sh*t out of his hometown and got us intrigued to check it out with him the next day. It was already about 3-4 p.m. when we left Sheki towards lake Göygöl. Our plan was to visit the lake and stay at Shirvan town, which was about 100 km away from Baku – there was a national zoo/park, which looked appealing from the photos. We pressed the pedal firmly and stormed towards the lake.
Unfortunately, the view only changed a few times to hilly areas but in general, it did not look at all impressive and we had to listen to music and talk the whole trip to keep ourselves entertained.
We pulled over at a random spot to freshen ourselves up and take a few photos. We both went separate directions and after about five minutes, as I was still taking photos, Ben approached the car and froze. I looked back at him and asked what was up. He then started going through all of his pockets nervously and looking through the car’s window. We lost the car key.

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There we were – in the middle of nowhere of Azerbaijan with a car we could not open. We then started walking around the hill he was on in search of the lost treasure. I gave him an idea to look at the photos he took and go to that area and after about 10-15 minutes of sneaking about, we finally retrieved the key. Phew – what a relief.
Already running out of time, we continued driving and were so thankful that the roads were a joy to ride. If only not for the police that felt attracted to us like a magnet to metal. We saw them quite often and had to drive like saints – in Georgia it felt like police were from a mythical book while in Azerbaijan they were like Zeus – overseeing us at every corner from high above and striking us with lightning whenever they saw us. Ugh.
The evening was nearing and we knew that we had to hurry up if we wanted to make it to the lake and take pretty pictures of it before the sundown. We found ourselves on a big four-lane highway, where we started overtaking cars by changing to the left lane and going back to the right one. And a few other drivers behind us did the same. So, we were overtaking the car in front of us by switching to the left lane, and the bastard to our right only sped up and did not let us overtake him. So we were stuck on the opposite side for good ten or so seconds when we saw familiar faces in familiar-looking cars.

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Oh…my…cracking…nuts. It felt as if we woke up right into a nightmare…again. Naturally, we were pulled over by the police and the negotiations in the mystic (to me) language began once again. Ben was asked to step out of the car shortly and I was left all by myself for good 10-15 minutes, thinking how deep we would have to bend over. Finally, Ben came back and explained that the police did not buy his story of “I was about to switch to the right lane but I could not” and furthermore, they told us that we had about € 30 worth of speeding tickets collected.

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How is that possible? Well, I’m glad you asked. Turns out that we were only allowed to go over the speed limit by 9 km while we were normally 10 km above it. Thank you guy from that restaurant in Baku who told us we could drive up to 10 km on the roads! So, we collected a pretty sum on our heads but luckily, Ben was able to resolve everything and we went on driving.
If you thought that our adventures came to an end, then you were oh so wrong.
After an hour or so of driving, we pulled over at the petrol station to get some snacks and drinks and I discovered that we had a dent on the front of our car.

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I immediately bade goodbye to my deposit that I put down for that car and started preparing myself for slow and painful penetration in Baku. Ben was so shocked that he lost his mind and started cleaning up the scratches around the dent in hopes that the dent would disappear. Poor man. I knew that we could do nothing about it (what happened had happened) and went to buy some goodies from the store. When I came back, Ben was still standing by the car. I told him to not bother about it and buy himself some sweets, relax and go on driving. So he did.
The thing was that we were not driving up the mountains or broken roads, so we were almost sure that someone just drove into us and left the scene – but of course, we could not certain. We thought that it would have been a bad idea to tell the renter about it right then as we would only piss him off and he would demand to take the car back and spank us hard. We were short on time and had to visit the rest of the places as soon as possible. Plus, we did not know what hit the car, so…we might just as well have ignored it completely.
The evening was nearing and unfortunately the road towards the lake was only getting worse and being pulled over the by police, looking for car keys and ballbagging too long in Sheki did the 69 position (but upside down) to our plan. We had to drive slowly because of the poor roads and by the time we stopped by a hill, we already had to turn our lights on and we were still 15 or so km away from the lake. Bugger. We pulled over and started thinking what to do next. Ben suggested we stay in Ganja, wake up early to drive to the lake and head over to Khinaliq the next day. I thought that Ben took the wrong vitamins that day as the distance was 600 km to the final destination from Ganja. Ben said that he would manage to drive that long and that certainly looked like a challenge, considering that our longest ride in a single day was probably around 300 – 400 km tops. I took his word for it and we started looking for a hostel in Ganja. We stumbled upon a cheap guest house and Ben phoned up the owner with a price offer. We went on saying the usual that we wanted to stay for one night only and take off the next early morning – the owner agreed and we started driving towards Ganja, which was something that I absolutely wanted to avoid – I mean, there was nothing to see there, really.
On our way to Ganja we noticed a few small wooden houses that had smoke coming out of them. We pulled over and saw that those were small bistros, so we decided to eat something. We approached one of the huts and asked them what was on the menu and they told us that they could serve us some Qutab (local dish) and tea. We sat inside a small shed and waited for the food to arrive. We got about 3 or 4 Qutabs and they were finger licking and filling. They also brought us desert (they said it was on the house), which was simply jam. The tea was served with some Russian sweets (not sure why Azeris always put some Russian sweets for tea). Ben actually preferred Azeri tea to Turkish as it was served in larger glasses and the tea was not as strong. So, we then went to ask for a bill and it was somewhere around 10 or 12 Manat (about € 5-6) and we felt that were ripped off again as you normally would pay 1 Manat (or less, considering we were in the middle of a forest) for Qutab and tea was normally dirty cheap too. So, the normal price for that should have been somewhere about 5-6 Manat instead. Yeah.
By the time we had reached Ganja it was almost pitch black and again, the booking website gave us the wrong bloody address! I am not sure if it was the house owners who did not know how to use the website or the website did not allow the owner to enter their exact address…luckily, some kind locals helped us find our friend from the guest house and we finally laid our bags and arses to rest. The owner was an elder, jolly and happy chap, who showed us everything around his house and prepared tea for us. However, once we had entered our room, he turned on the TV and left to bring us tea. I am not sure why he did that but I guess it had something to do with local tradition…I guess. We turned off the TV shortly after and continued our chat. When the owner entered our room again with tea, he turned on the TV shortly after and wished us good evening. We turned off the TV once again and went to sleep in an hour.
The morning was pretty chilly and we did wake up as early as we could to make it on time to Khinaliq. Our Ganja friend allowed us to do the laundry the day before and we packed our stuff, brushed our teeth and set off towards lake Göygöl.
When we reached the area, where the lake was located, we were greeted by the guards, who, obviously, asked us for some money to enter the lake – no surprise there (although it was only a few Euros per person). I was although unsure if people had to pay to go and look at a bloody pool of water! Anyway, we proceeded and reached our destination. We parked the car in an open field and went up to admire the lake.

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Well, it was nice…and that was it, really. Was it worth it? Mmmm, nah. After visiting Georgia, neither Ben nor I had been impressed. The view was certainly great but…meh.
Without spending any more time, we loaded ourselves back into the car, set our destination to Khinaliq, dropped our jaws, having seen how much distance we had to cover, put seat belts on and continued driving. We had about two or so days remaining before we had to go back to Georgia and we still wanted to walk around Baku at night and spend some time in the city. I was really looking forward to seeing the mountains again and Ben was all in to drive as far as he could!

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Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Salty Treat VIII

Check out Part VII here

This is what it felt like after driving for about 30 minutes on the highway towards Sheki. Our excitement of leaving packed Baku quickly wore off as we were surrounded by dry, small hills and desert – it was a total contrast to driving around in Georgia, which was covered in green and had greater hills and mountain views. Luckily, Sheki was not that far away so we were going to get there the same day and rest up. However, the roads were smoother and better than in Georgia, so we could safely drive within the speed limit and a little bit over (as we were advised, we could go + 10 km over the speed limit, which was nice) and not be afraid. We had snacks and water with us, so we planned on driving without any stops.
Ben seemed to have fallen in love with the automatic gearbox and was already driving like a pro. However, after a few hours, the police car showed up behind us and we were requested to pull over.

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Ah, bollocks. What did we do wrong? Nothing, it turned out – the police just did a regular check and let us go. What the hell – not even once were we pulled over by the police in Georgia for the entire week that we were there!
We then took a turn to the right, on a narrow two-lane street. Ben sped up and took over the car in front of us, as it was too slow and boom – another police car flashed behind us, giving us a signal us to pull over.

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Balls – what now? Ben presented the documents and chatted with the police guy for quite some time. Then both of them went silent for a short while and continued talking. I could not make out a single thing they were talking about, besides when Ben mentioned where two of us were from. The police guy then smiled, Ben thanked him and he went away. So, what happened was that Ben overtook a car on the road where we were not allowed to overtake the car and was fined for about 30 Euros (we agreed that we would split all the fines between the two of us). Ben explained the police officer that he was not aware of it, was a newbie and understood his mistake. We were then let go. At least that was nice.
I found some notes on the language differences between Turkish and Aziri and they are quite fun! Check this out.
For example, in Turkish, to translate it literally, “cigarettes are something you drink” (I know that sounds quite stupid) but in Azeri, “you can inhale the cigarettes”. In Turkish, a shop would be “closed” but in Azeri “tightened”. Also, the way how Azerbajani people say “money’ means “stamp” in Turkish.
Here are some funny words that mean different things in both languages:
Yarak : gentleman’s sausage (in Turkish), Weapon (Azeri).
Kerhane : Brothel (in Turkish), Company/Firm (Azeri).
It was evening when we reached Sheki – I already found a hostel for us while we were driving, so we decided to phone them up. Ben did the talking, agreed on a small discount (since we were staying there only for one night) and we put the address on the map. Funny thing was that hostels/hotels would normally not accept local unmarried couples in (according to their religion, they would not accept that) – but if you are a tourist, you’ve got nothing to worry about – just make sure you say that (but I guess you won’t have to if you speak English with them).
We followed the map and arrived at, what it seemed like, the middle of nowhere and we could not find the place.

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We asked a local for help and they walked together with us in search for a place (how nice of them) but we still were unable to find it – the booking website must have displayed a wrong address. The local then advised us to approach local taxi drivers and ask for help – Ben talked to them and they told him that we indeed got a wrong address but they would gladly help us out and drive with us there. We said that we would get our car and drive together with them. Perfect – both of us were longing to park the car, get back to town to get some food and relax, at long last.
After walking around in the dark, we finally got to our car and drove to the spot where we re-united with our new friends. They got in their own car and we followed them towards the hostel. I’ve got to say, they drove as if they were chased by the police but Ben managed to keep up with them. We were greeted by a nice-looking house and the receptionist, who opened the gate for us. To be correct, this was a villa house with a few rooms and we were the only guests there. Smashing – booking a room in that place was the best decision. We drove in, parked our car and when I got out of the car to get our things, Ben stayed in. Once I had got our stuff, I asked him why on earth he was still in and he said that the key would not get out of the keyhole in the car. He said it was a common problem and no matter how he tweaked the key and tried pulling it towards himself, nothing worked. The key was stuck.

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The receptionist, Mr R, approached us and asked what was up. Sadly, he did not speak English, so Ben was interpreting what I wanted to tell him. Ben tried a few ways of getting the key out – turning the wheel left and right, putting the hand break up – whatever we did, nothing worked and Ben did not want to give up – he was in the car for about 30 minutes before we had given up and called the car owner. He gave us a few tips (which we already tried but with no success) and then told us that if nothing worked, then we should call a local taxi driver as they would be more helpful and experienced. Ben tried getting the key out again and after about 10 more minutes, we got a call from a local repairman that he would drive to us to help fix the problem (the car owner called him). While we put out things inside the house, gave our passports and chatted with Mr R, we heard that the guy arrive. He sat in the car, moved the wheel and hand-break about and pulled out the key – he simply pushed the key slightly into the keyhole and pulled it out with a bit of force. Ben then replicated exactly that method a few times and we were happy again. Phew! Worst case scenario, if we had not managed to pull the key out, we would have to go to a repair shop where they would have to disassemble the car wheel from the dashboard – it would have taken us the time that we could not spare.
Mr R took pity on us and offered to cook something for us. We told him that we had some left-over food and he offered to warm it up for us and prepare some tea. We then fired up a conversation and shared our plans with Mr R and he gave us a few tips. I wanted to go further north from Sheki to the mountains but Mr R advised that we would need to have a 4×4 to get around to get a great view from the mountains and generally drive around (our friend insisted that there was not much to see there). Mr R then told us that he could show us around Sheki the next day (as there were quite a few interesting sights) and that we could then head over to lake Göygöl and then onwards to Khinaliq (we still had to drive to Baku first though to get north). Ben continued chatting with Mr R about politics and I went upstairs to take a shower and then I crashed my head into the pillow.
We woke about about 8 a.m. the next day and walked to the castle that was next to the villa and the view from there was pretty nice:

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We headed towards Palace of Shaki Khans, walked about and got our talisman for the road from a granny on the street – it was basically beads made out of dried fruit. We headed to eat some Piti (this is traditional food in Sheki and you should try it if you ever get a chance as just eating the thing is an experience) at Çelebi Xan restaurant (price was quite reasonable for a full meal for three people). We then headed towards an Albanian church of Kish, took nice pictures on the way and headed towards a hotel, which was built for the wife of the president.
We then dropped Mr R to his place, thanked him for his immense hospitality and drove onwards to Ganja. I initially wanted to drop it off our list but since our friend strongly recommended us to go there, we fired up the engine.
Also, earlier in Sheki, we dropped by a place, which used to be a marketplace centuries ago and a place for traders to stay in (it is now a hotel/museum) and when we were about to leave it, one of the owners approached us and started talking to us. She found out that Ben was was from Turkey and offered him a free stay at a hotel whenever he wanted.

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Good lord, it felt like Ben was treated like saint there! Well, Azeri and Turks do love one another after all but I did not know it was that extreme. Wow. Some folks, however, were not kind towards Russians – in some cases, they were quite negative about them – this is just something that always came up in conversation when they mentioned their president and Russia working together. The political situation in the country was, to say the least, quite tense.
Anyway, it was already growing late and we still had to make it to Ganja and the lake as we had to drive back to Baku the next day and the time was pressing.

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