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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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To continue to Part IX click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Where the Police Go Part VII

Check out Part VI here

 

We were approaching the city – Ben woke me up and while I was crawling around in the tiny train bed, I was cursing the train for not letting me sleep well. Sometimes, I wish someone would put me in a capsule for hyper sleep and let me be in peace and quite for at least few days! I just had not managed to get proper rest for quite some time back home before the trip, you see.
We packed out stuff and descended onto the platform. It was around 9 a.m. Our first mission was to get find a sim-card, some snacks and get to the address, where we would pick our car and drive off from the city. Our appointment with the car dealer shop was at about 11 a.m. The first sight of the city was… fine, I guess. It did feel a bit like St. Petersburg though, considering that Azerbaijan was a part of USSR – I could sense a familiar architecture. We passed by the train station and found a chain of small shops. A few of them had “Azericell” shops and similar ones – so we were on a right track! Ben, the prime negotiator, started asking about how much a sim card would cost us, what agreements we should sign, etc. Well, one shop told us they were still closed (they started working at 10 a.m.) – what? I guess it was the cleaner. Another shop told us they could not sell it to us for whatever reason – I cannot remember what they told us exactly. We then came across a store that sold used mobile devices and asked them if they could help us. They said that they could get us a sim-card with no contract and at a reasonable price – it was about 50 Manat, which is equivalent to about 25 Euros. Also, we would get loads of internet traffic and unlimited calls with messages. The guys also told us that for that price they would add us additional few gigabytes of internet, which was nice, considering that we would be sharing one sim card between the two of us.

They guys spoke no English at all, so I asked Ben to find out if they knew any other car dealers (just in case) and advise us how to get to the car rental shop. They advised us to rent a car from the airport (that is always a safe bet) and get to our car dealer by car. As I was talking with one of the other shop guys with my hands, I showed him my phone and he seemed to be quite interested in it. He asked me to check it out and I thought for a bit about it – well, since Ben was already inside with another guy, sweet-talking with him for quite some time, I decided to trust. He took my phone and was checking some sim-settings, to help set up Ben’s phone. Plus, he was mesmerised by my phone, so he was curious to check it out. I do not remember last time my eyes were locked on someone with such focus but after five or so minutes, I got my phone back. I was growing quite worried but apparently, it is quite normal to trust strangers in Baku. The guys tried selling us a few other things and Ben took some.
Once we walked out of the store to find a taxi, Ben said “dude, they f***ed us over so well”. I asked him to explain. “So, the sim card is apparently 40 Manat and they told us they would give us some more gigabytes for the internet package if we paid 50, right? I believe there was like 5 gigabytes or so. Anyway, guess what – the sim-package already had 5 gigabytes included by default…


So, we basically lost about 10 Manat (5 Euros) and probably a few more for the “discounted” accessories that Ben took. Great first impression!


“Alright man, forget this – at least we signed no contract, which saved us quite some time. Let us go and find a taxi,” I told Ben. “We’ll just be more careful next time.”
Ben then started telling me that even though Turkish and Azeris were in a “brotherly relationship”, the latter side only had it easier to make more money on tourists because of that established trust. Sadly, Ben’s fear was coming to life but I was hoping that we would see a good side of Azerbaijan yet. Ben and I although agreed that we had to hard negotiate any stuff that we would buy. We started with a taxi driver (although, Ben seemed a bit reluctant to negotiate from 6 to 4 Manat) and after a bit of chit chat, we got the deal. It is not much, though, but considering that we were there for nearly a week, we would have to buy quite a few things.
We arrived close to our location, tried activating the internet on the phone and started walking with our moderately heavy backpacks. We reached the street and started looking for a car rental store but found nothing around us. We asked a few people on the street if they were aware of that shop and everyone told us that there was some other shop way down the street but that was not it. So we came back to the big building on the street and started looking around.

Nothing. We called the guy and he told us to wait there on the street. He said he would be there in a few minutes in a car.
The chap finally arrived in a car that was ours for a good few days and it looked gorgeous. Not exactly the type of car you would take on a mountain trip but then again, we were going to find out how bad the roads would be in comparison with Georgia. Plus, the country was not full of mountains the same way as Georgia was by a long shot. About the car – it was had an automatic gearbox (which Ben fell in love with form our Georgia trip) and in stellar condition. We payed up front, gave the deposit and bade goodbye to our dealer. He told us that his actual shop was out of the town, hence he offered us to meet him in the city. Wish we knew that earlier as we almost started panicking.


Before we were to decide which direction head for, we had to fill the gas tank, buy food/water for the car trip and eat out somewhere. We got the tank filled up and the rest of our time were being terrified by the traffic. It was complete madness and I do not remember seeing Ben being so focused. I, in the meantime, was thinking what talisman we should get for our trip.
In the meantime, I was looking for a supermarket we could drop by and I found an outlet on the edge of the city, which was perfect. We finally arrived at the spot and parked our car. On our way towards the outlet, Ben found a restaurant and wanted to check it out. I told him that it would be better if we headed towards the outlet first and then came back but his empty stomach shut down his hearing ability and he entered the place. We saw the policemen eating out there and Ben immediately told me that it must have been a great place if police ate there. Not sure why that would have been the case though – Ben must probably have picked that up from Hollywood movies. However, I managed to get him to come to the outlet first.
When we entered the outlet, there was no single supermarket. Weird, because in Europe there would normally be a supermarket inside an outlet but there was only a small food store in it. We got a few bottles of water, snacks and headed back to the restaurant.
It was a nice and cozy family restaurant. We were well-greeted by the owners of the place and they gave us a table with a window next to it, which had a nice view on Baku. The owner’s son approached and sat with us. He was a young and very friendly chap. He would put his hands on our shoulders, as if we were friends, asked us where we were heading towards and if we liked the city. We told him about our trip plan and asked if there was any way of getting through to Khinaliq from the North-Eastern side of Azerbaijan. Sadly, he said there was no road, so if we had travelled East, we would have to come back to Baku and then travel up north or vice versa. Actually, that was the guy who told us to visit Sheki in the north east of the country and gave us a few other tips on travelling: we could exceed the speeding limit by about 10 km, use Waze application in the country for car riding (because Google Maps there were absolutely useless – the maps, it felt like, refreshed our location only every 10 seconds and Waze picked it up no problem).
We were offered salad, an Azerbaijani version of Ayran drink and kebab – that was the good stuff, as our new friend said. However, I could not see the menu anywhere and with our recent experience, I asked him what it would cost us. The lad told us not to worry as it would cost us around 4 Manat (about 2 Euros) for a kebab per person.


When they brought us food, we were swimming in the joy and saliva – the food was really great and Ben was comparing every dish to Turkish ones (as Turkey and Azerbaijan share one cuisine but each has a different interpretation of the dishes) and said that he enjoyed the food more in Baku, thus far, than in Turkey. Nonetheless, it made all the sense why the police spotted that place for lunch.
In the end, we payed about 17 Manat (about 9 Euros) for two full sets of meals and drinks for us. That seemed reasonable – however, the hospitality we were given was amazing! So amazing, in fact, that Ben wanted to tip the owner but they politely refused to take his tip…like five times. Make sure to give some love to “Evim restaurant” if you ever visit Baku!
We left the place, feeling quite happy and decided to head for Sheki first, explore it and then head back for Baku and then Khinaliq. Trip with a plan is always a fun trip, considering that it always adds a bunch of unexpected side quests! Onwards to Sheki we were.

 

To continue to Part VIII click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Midnight rails to Azerbaijan VI

Check out part V here

 

We finally boarded the train towards Baku in Tbilisi early in October and were looking forward towards a new adventure. We were planning to stay for about four-five days in the country. That time around, though, it was only Ben and me as Manuel had to take care of a few things at home and then resume with work.
Honestly, we somewhat prepared for our trip – my friend from Azerbaijan advised us on places that we had to visit and what things we could do. He also offered that we met his friend in Baku to show us around. I gladly accepted the offer.
My priorities were straight simple – see the mountains, landscapes & the nature as I had visited way too many cities on my previous adventures and they could never beat the nature. Ben was happy with my plan – he had also wanted to visit national museums in the country and see some local city sights – that is a good balance for a long trip.
The boarding started at about 8.00 p.m. and we were supposed to arrive to Baku at 9.00 a.m. next day. Another option to travel to Baku from Tbilisi was by plane but there were two downsides to it – taking any luggage with you would cost you extra 20-30 Euros or so (per bag of 10kg) and the plane would arrive at 1-2 a.m. – not the best idea to wander around a big city that late at night, really. Surprisingly though, the flights were quite cheap – about 30-40 Euros one way, which is pretty much what the train cost us.


We were greeted by the staff on the train and after we had boarded, one of the train conductors asked me to translate a letter to her from English – it was from a guy who complained that the person in the wagon, who walked into his room while being drunk and misbehaved (luckily, everyone was alright). Fortunately, the person who wrote that letter very much liked the staff. We were given the blankets and Ben and I started discussing what we would do in Azerbaijan. After reviewing the map, it was quite straightforward but inconvenient at the same time. Let me show you why:

Capture1.PNGSee the yellow lines? Yep, those are the only two main roads that would get us to the places that we wanted to see (and arguably those were the only places worth checking out as people told us), which were Khinaliq, where the mountains were, Sheki and up north from there as well as Ganja (south from Sheki), which was close to the lake Göygöl. We could not see how we could possible reach Khinaliq from, say, Gebele (that was close to it) as there were no roads. Google came in handy to us same way when we were planning our route for Georgia. So, that being said, we basically had to travel from Baku to Sheki and north (that was about 300 km +) then down to Ganja (that was another 140 km +), then from Ganja back to Baku (that was about 360 km +) and then from Baku to Khinaliq (yet, another 200 + km) and then back to Baku, since we would rent a car from there and we had to return it. If we wanted to leave our car, say, in Ganja and then travel from Ganja back to Georgia, that would cost us around 50 + Euros. Does not sound great either.


You may be thinking: well, guys, why would you simply not just take a train to Armenia then (which was our third and last destination) or a flight? Why do you need to go back to Georgia? And those would be great questions. Well, long story short, Armenia and Azerbaijan aren’t exactly good friends because of the ongoing territorial conflict. The borders between those two countries are closed.
Tip! If you would like to visit both Azerbaijan and Armenia, go to Azerbaijan first and then to Armenia. It is still possible to go to Armenia first though but you may not have a fun time crossing Azerbaijani border afterwards. There still is a possibility that they would not let you in. Best case scenario, you’ll be asked a lot of questions by the border police and then let into the country.
To us it did not make much of difference whether we’d firstly go to Armenia or Azerbaijan, so we took the safest route and headed for Azerbaijan.


We were asked to fill out the cross-border papers, which was quite simple to do – we just had to write down what goods we were carrying with us and who we were. Passing Georgian border was a peace of cake and we waited for about 30-40 minutes while the rest of the train was being checked. Ben then told me about the similarities of Turkish and Azeri languages and how some differences were fun – I don’t remember them from top of my head but if you ask either of the people from those countries, you’ll have a good laugh. Basically, both Turkish and Azeris could speak to one another in their languages and still understand one another. That felt like a weight off of our shoulders in establishing “a diplomatic connection” with the people.
We had finally reached the Azerbaijani border and were anticipating to get it over with. The boarder guards came in, collected our passports and shortly afterwards, asked us to go to the consuctor’s room. I have to admit that I got a bit scared but I was greeted with a few questions, such as where I was from, what I was planning to do in Azerbaijan and whether my last name was related to my home country (obviously, it was). Same fate befell Ben and we released a deep breath when we came back to our room.


Upon our arrival to Baku, we were supposed to come and meet a guy, who would rent us a car for the whole trip. Luckily, my friend connected me with him so we did not have to go to a random car rental shop. But you may want to hear what had happened later to the car, in this blog series. Nonetheless, we were prepared to meet up with the guy, figure out our route and go on driving out of the city. I suggested to Ben that it would be best if we deove off from Baku right away rather than spending our time there first – visiting other places in Azerbaijan seemed more fun.
Tip! Make sure you bring the earplugs with you on a train – I kept on waking up every hour to the train driving – the sound isolation in the wagon was not great at all. And onwards was Baku and yet more adventures!

 

To continue to Part VII click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – A Farewell to Georgia Part V

Check out Part IV here

 

If you could only wake up to the mountain fresh air every day, you would do it forever. It was yet another joyful day and we were all looking forward to visiting Tbilisi (besides Manuel as he had lived there) and eating some local food on our way. We stopped by at a place that everyone spoke about in Ambrolauri. Apparently, that place offered some top-notch Lobiani and it was “the-place-to-go” for the locals. Naturally, when we arrived at the place to offer our Lobiani, it was already packed with orders – so we were told to wait for at least good 30 minutes before they would be ready.
We walked around the small town, killing time. I was longing for a cup of coffee while Ben & Manuel cared about looking for some attractions. To their disappointment of not stumbling upon anything interesting & growing hungry, we headed back to our car that was parked next to the bistro. We were eagerly waiting for the food to be prepared and a small pack of stray dogs began to surround us. We finally got our order – two giant Lobianis with loads of meat in them. By Jove were they tasty! Reluctantly, we shared some with the dogs as well.

We managed to get lost while trying to understand how to get on a road to get out of the town. On our way to Tblisi, we dropped by at Gori (town) for a stroll, visited Uplistsikhe cave (I highly recommend you to check it out) and we also at some sweet bread, called Nazuki, which was sold on a road by local grannies. As we were passing through a small village, Manuel immediately exploded, sounding angry: “Oh, I f***ing hate this place!”

We were dumbstruck as Manuel was the calmest of the three of us on the trip. We asked him why all the passion and he said that he just had something against that place he did not know what it was. He passed it by quite a few times and always hated it. Fair dinkum, as they say in in Australia.
Nonetheless, I could feel that our company was growing hungry for some more fine spirits and we continued onwards to Tbilisi. Still, during our whole trip we had not been pulled over by the police even once – that was a relief & Ben did not have to worry much about losing the focus on the driving. However, all of our focus was lying in that ABS flashing up on the car’s dashboard. Blast! We had to return the car the same evening when we arrived to Tblisi and we all started thinking of what to say. Initially, Manuel said that we had to come clean. My point of view was that it may not have been our fault that ABS started acting up – after all, it was a rented car and we did not know what maniacs could have driven it before us. Ben seemed to have been in between Ben’s and my idea. Later on, I managed to persuade Ben to tell them nothing of ABS until they had found out about it themselves. Otherwise, the car was tip top.
We finally met the owners of the car in Tblisi, who examined it and asked us about the smudge in bumper – yes, we forgot (a.k.a. did not have time) to clean the car and that smudge was from the time when Ben nearly overthrew the banner in Mestia. We explained that some cleaning would undo it & then the owner sat in the car and drove away. We never heard back from him ever since.
We headed to Manuel’s place in Tbilisi, where he owned a flat and prepared for the night out!

Another Georgian friend of mine, who I had not seen in years, joined us and we started pub-crawling in a hipster place called Fabrika. It was an old factory building that had a bunch of bars and bistros in it, where people got together to have fun. I quite liked the atmosphere of the place – people talked, laughed, smoked, drank & were quite open to talking to strangers. Georgia felt like heaven to me after having lived in Baltics for so long.
Ben, Manuel and I got ourselves “Metro” drinks, which was a cocktail with chacha in it – it was only three Euros and damn was it strong! Everything seemed to have good value for the money in Georgia. My friend (Mary) finally arrived at Fabrika & we started chatting away. We were four then & started thinking of discovering new places around the city. We headed to a small park where there was an open-air party with a few bars. It felt like that American kind of a party where people listened to music loudly and drank beer in the back of their house. We all enjoyed it but had to part our ways soon – Mary had to go to work the next day (since we met on Tuesday). However, I told her that I would be back after Armenia for a little longer, so we would meet again.
We marched onwards to a few other bars and then decided to take a taxi back home. All three of us had had plenty of drinks, so we were fast asleep the moment that we had entered the taxi. We were suddenly awoken by a loud noise that came form a car – it turned out that the car’s tire burst. Once the tyre has been changed, we all went back to sleep until we had arrived at Manuel’s place.
The next day we strolled around the city and drove about to see the sights of Tbilisi, such as Monastery Jugari, the oldest cathedral of Georgia – Svetitskhoveli cathedal & the old town. That took us almost the whole day to get to see those places and we had a few hours left before our train to Baku that same evening. We finished our day with dining at a fine Georgia restaurant and set off to collect our bags.
Overall, a week of travelling in Georgia was a blast and I sure am eager to visit the country again for another week. We did not manage to see Batumi, Borjomi & other places in the North. I am sure that it would take good two-three weeks to see everything in Georgia – but note that to manage to do that you’d need to be one crazy driver.
For the record, here is the map of our journey – just in case that you’d like to plan a journey to Georgia yourself one day – it will definitely be worth it!

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To continue to Part VI click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – What Do You Call This Chapter? Part IV

Check out Part III here

 

You probably got a pretty good idea of how my friends and I had come to enjoy driving around in Georgia but the pain of some roads still resides in my bottom but boy did the views astound us all. Every time we would see something beautiful, we would immediately forget all the pain and feel grateful for coming over to see the country. While Ben did the lion’s share of work, Manuel and I still had to keep him company and show the way (thanks, Google maps).
We knew our destiny as we had to take the same curvy, broken, mountain road back – down towards Kutaisi, stopping by at Martvili and Okatse canyons. Manuel had already visited both of the places before, so he left Ben and me have fun there all on our own, while he was chatting away with some local girls (I bet). Out of both of the places though, I enjoyed Martivili the most. Just look how gorgeous it is!

 

We got on a small boat and went on a quick tour around the canyon and then walked around the area to enjoy the humming noises of the water and sweaty tourists.
Okatse canyon was definitely more enormous and grand, however, it felt like looking down at a desert, with some hills popping up in the view as we raised our heads. I mean, it was still nice but I wish that Martvili canyon was as large and as Okatse.

 

We also passed by a small town of Surami in Georgia and we saw a camera crew there filming us – we thought that we’d be in the local news. Manuel found out later that The Grand Tour was filming one of their episodes there. I’m a huge fan of the show and the presenters – Jeremy, James & Richard. Fingers crossed that we’ll appear on their episode, smiling at the cameras as we drove by.
Needless to say, we were an ambitious trio – we wanted to visit Kazbegi as well, after our stop in Tblisi, but found out that we were constrained by the time as well as the country’s borders. That border closed us off from driving there directly from where we were at the time – thanks, South Ossetia! There was no chance that we could enter South Ossetia from Georgia (because of them not being the best of friends) and going to Kazbegi from Kutaisi was a very long journey to do in a day, considering that Ben was the only driver.
So, in the typical ballbag fashion, we wasted quite a bit of our day at stopping by at a lot of places, walking around canyons and understood that we would not make it on time to Tblisi. The nearest place for a sleepover was Ambrolauri. It took me weeks to memorise the name of the bloody town though.
We found ourselves driving late in the evening and could barely see what was ahead of us, even with the long lights. Other drivers had their long lights when driving towards us and Ben was progressively turning into a rage mode because the light flash made his eyes tired. To add to the frustration, the road was as curvy as if we were driving inside someone’s intestines – actually, that is a very good metaphor now that I come to think of it. However, that was a great practice for Ben and long tiring trip for all of us. Lesson learnt: wake up at the sunrise to travel as early as you can, so you won’t have to be like us. Ideally, it would and should have been an “active vacation” rather than a “passive” one but it ended up being a mix – we would get more sleep than we should have and drive out late but when it came to seeing places or doing anything, we would always rush a bit. Not the best mix but there we are.
We arrived to the town of Ambrolauri, being greeted by yet more long lights and dark hills. I even felt a bit of joy entering the town – it looked quite neat and lovely and I was longing for the morning, to see the hills looking down at the small buildings around them. However, our main goal was to get some local wine and try it out as we had not been able to get tipsy for quite some time!
Firstly though, we had to get to a guesthouse. Manuel called the local and negotiated the price. Once done, we headed towards the place & unpacked our things. Our room felt like it used to be a prison cell or torture room – it was about 8 m2 with four beds in there, which were old and rusty. At least it was not cold.
The owner of the place was so kind that he offered us some home-made Chacha (strong Georgian brandy), which was kept in plastic bottle (very promising) and was 60% strong, if not more. Last time I drank something out of the plastic bottle, I had a really hard time. However, before we had committed to it, we went into the city to get some food and local wine.
We met a tourist and his driver in the shop, who told us that they drove all the way from Ushgvili, through the mountains, towards Ambrolauri.

This is wicked! Just have a look at the map and imagine going all the way through the mountains there.

It must have been a whole new journey for the tourist’s bottom as the driver had done that before, obviously. And he was Georgian – no surprise there. We left the shop and Manuel and I started thinking of taking the same journey next time as them, and try to climb up one of the mountains there.
Once we have arrived at the guesthouse, we opened Chacha and took our first shot. It felt great and strong but that joy was mixed with fear of going South either in my stomach or head. It felt like taking drugs for the first time – exciting but scary, as you do not know what the consequences are going to be like. So we cautiously drank it, shot by shot, and chatted away about our trip, what places we’d be visiting the next day and how early we should wake up. We all agreed at waking up as early as possible to visit a few other places on our way to Tblisi. We had to give the car back and we were quite nervous about it – we almost destroyed the break, nearly crashed and ABS kept on coming up on the dashboard, which normally is the sign that the breaks need to be changed (even though the ABS warning would disappear on some occasions). Ballbags on vacation, what else can I say?

 

To continue to Part V click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Frakked-up Roads & Back Again Part III

Check out Part II here

 

I was strongly advised not go to Georgia in summer as it was normally around 30 degrees there and I hate “sweat hiking”. Not sure who really enjoys it even. However, while tenting is permitted (at least I have not heard about any restrictions), it was certainly the worst idea to do it in the mountains or close to bodies of water (especially in the evening). Although, I would definitely say that travelling to Georgia during first half of September would have been best (and it was – I did not even have to take a coat with me). However, it was hard to carry on with my thoughts on those broken roads, mate!

We were on our way to Koruldi lakes and I kept on wondering why it took an hour to just get up there (I believe it was about 1km or so up hill from Mestia). When we saw the tall hill and how steep the roads (rather, paths carved with stones) were, I wondered no longer. Furthermore, the roads were so narrow that we could clearly see our death down the hill – if the driver turned even slightly to the side, we would have rolled down the hill like drunk Santa on the sled. The best part about the ride was that that road was a two-way road.

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As we were going up the hill and shaking around the van like pickles in the bottle, Ben started telling the driver about our “talismans” that we had in our car – the icon of Lady of St. Theodore and Jesus. Ben said that we found it in the car and used it for good luck to stay safe on the road (all three of us are atheists – we still respect other people beliefs though) and the driver felt very uncomfortable about it and almost got angry at us. “How dare you even?” he started. “Religion is my life, do not talk bad about it and telling me you were using icons as talismans”. That gave us a very clear idea how deeply routed the Orthodox Christianity was in the country. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, we went on talking all like good old mates  – Georgians are emotional people but they do not hold grudges against you.

After about 20-30 minutes of uncomfortable and painful ascendance up the hill, we got closer to the lakes. The driver told us that he went up there already three times before us (on the same day!) – he should either have a strong butt or a good doctor. Kuraldi lakes were very close to the Russian border and it was a spectacular view on the mountains. We came there at the right time as well – right before the sunset.

We saw a few tents close to the lake as well and some tourists. I hope they did not freeze to death at night.

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We breathed in enough cold and fresh air and decided to start going back to Mestia before it went pitch dark. Meow, our Chinese new friend, enjoyed the trip very much and before I realised that we had parted our ways in Mestia, I forgot to invite him to join us to Ushguli the next day. I was sure that we would meet him the next day.

We reached the hostel and decided to have some drinks and smokes on our way to a restaurant for dinner. We had a little bit too much of everything and decided to head back to the guest house to rest before our trip. Once we had arrived to the guest house, we went downstairs for some complementary tea, bread and jam from the house owner and talked about our work lives, a bit about philosophy, IT hacking and our life values. We had done enough bonding and decided to head back to our room to get some sleep.

It was about midnight. We were fast asleep and then I woke up to the scratching noises coming from the roof. Ben and Manuel were woken up by the noise as well. We heard a bit longer into it and understood that it must have been a mouse. We went back to sleep and woke up to the scratching again. Jesus… Manuel took a bottle and hit it against the ceiling to scare the mouse off. We went back to sleep… or so we thought. Manuel and I woke up startled to the loud noise (as if someone hit hammer against the ceiling) and Ben suddenly waking up and shouting. “Ahhhhhhh!” We thought that Ben had seen Casper the ghost. He actually thought that the roof was coming down on him! We laughed. A lot. Manuel then hit the ceiling once again to scare the mouse away and it apparently crawled over to scratch the ceiling under someone else’s room. Poor neighbours.

The first thing that was on our minds was that scratching noise from the night. Manuel went to speak with the house owner, while Ben and I were packing for the trip to Ushguli.

Manuel came back to use with one of the best stories I had heard in a while. So check this out – apparently, there was a walnut tree right next to our window and there was a squirrel. It knew how to get to the roof of the house and it would bring the walnuts there and the crack them open against the ceiling. Our room was the luckiest one as this is where the squirrel did its job under. That sneaky squirrel…

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We arrived to get our minibus, grabbed a Shoti and mentally prepared ourselves for a two-hour road to Ushguli, a community of small villages, surrounded by the mountains.

To our anticipation, the road was way worse than we thought. I could barely take any pictures during the ride and was nearly thrown out of my seat a dozen of times. I do not reckon that it would have been possible to even walk on those roads! However, the views that my eyes captured were breathtaking.

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We had arrived to the farthest village and were given about five-six hours to walk about and explore. We decided to order some food in the nearby restaurant. Clearly, it was not meant for locals because the price tag on food there was pretty high (about three-four Euros for Kubdar – meat pie) but by Jove was it the tastiest Kubdar we had ever had. Again, because it always took time for food to be prepared in Georgia, we nearly stopped our count at 2,000 Mississippi. The moment we got two pies, we stormed out of the place and Ben, who was the pie carrier and supervisor, immediately attracted a pack of stray dogs, who were our companions all the way to the observation point. And it was gorgeous.

The rest of the time, we walked around and enjoyed the view of the hills, sheep pasturing and locals riding horses around the village. Staying in the village is quite cheap – only about 10-20 Euros per night per person, which is quite reasonable. So if you decide to go hiking in the mountains, it is a good idea to stay for a few good days in Ushguli – this is something that we may well do in the future.

Once the scent of Kubdar had disappeared from our mouths, and we got to see the whole village, we went back to the car in anticipation of another couple of hours of riding down the roads that should be put up on display in a museum.

We still had a bit of time when we were back in Mestia (and it was our last day), so we decided to go visit Chalaadi glacier that was close nearby. We had to go through the forest there for about half an hour – so we had to rush before the sunset. We got into the car and drove off towards the woods – Manuel sprinted towards the forest and we tried to follow him as fast as we could but it felt like he put on magic boots of speed, and we lost him on a split-road.

We decided to take the left path and the further we walked, the angrier we were growing – why would he leave us? Is he in trouble? Do they even have wild animals in the forest? May be he is fighting for his life against a fat bear or sucking the poison out of the open wound. And with more anger, came more concern as we hit the dead-end. We realised that we lost the bet and should have taken the other road. As we came back to the split path, it grew darker. Ben, being the wisest, told me to come back to the car before it got darker, while I insisted on going and finding Manuel. As we were deciding what to do, it got yet darker, so we agreed to go back to the car and wait for our fellow ballbag. By the time we had reached the way out of the woods, I could barely see the ground under me (and the flashlight did not help much). Ben and I agreed to call the emergency in case Manuel would not come back to the car within the next hour or so. We were not able to reach him on a phone.

Finally, Manuel sent a message to Ben, telling him that he was on his way to the car.

I was not very happy with Manuel’s need for speed while Ben was more comforting towards him. We went towards our guest house to spend the last night in Mestia with the lovely squirrel above us.

We woke up to a cold morning and decided to drive as early as we could so we could get to see more and rush less on our way. Our plan was to visit Matvili and Okatse canyons and ideally make it to Tblisi by the night. However, in a typical “ballbag fashion” we did not make that happen. But that’s a story for another time. In the meantime, we started our Japanese car, greeted the icons and continued driving to feed our eyes to some more treasures of Georgia.

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To continue to Part IV click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Big Bread Part II

Check out Part I here

 

Driving in Georgia had been a pure entertainment and crazy at the same time. I had heard of the mighty cows and pigs being the holy servants of the roads in the country but I was even more dumbfounded at the tricks that the police pulled off there. Off the record though, we barely saw any speed cameras and had not been pulled over by the police throughout our trip – that was great. I was pondering over and over again as to why they had not though – everyone was driving over the limit and changed lanes at random, made turns without any signals (alright, fine, I understand that it gets tiring for a driver to do (who enjoys the routine, right?) but that was terrifying to us and I cannot say that Ben could have a relaxing drive) and the police had a perfect opportunity to pull anyone over and give a meaty fine. Well, I did not have to put my mind to the test as the answer to my question found me quicker than I anticipated.
We were driving on a two-lane road outside of Kutaisi (we were heading towards Mestia) and there was a car ahead of us. Another car appeared behind and overtook us. It tried to overtake the car that was ahead of us and as it was catching up to it, the police car drove past us and tried overtaking both of them. I had to say that “the trick” looked great and we were impressed by it but when we saw that the turn was coming up on the right side and the three cars remained in one lane on the two-lane road, we started growing worried as to what would happen next. Luckily, the police car managed to overtake both cars and drove further. Once we caught our breaths, we carried on discussing what we would eat at our next stop.

Just before we had reached a small town, Zugdidi, we decided to pull over and smell the breaking pads (that was our new fetish). While Ben was taking pictures of grape fields, Manuel & I caught the familiar smell. Although it was not as strong as yesterday. Manuel insisted that we stop by in Zugdidi for the night to let the pads cool down. Ben stepped in and said that the breaks worked as good as before and because Google images of Zugdidi could not impress us all, we decided to get some food there and keep on driving.
I have to tell you that Georgian food met our expectations: it was reach in flavour, meaty, cheesy and cheap. It was quite common to wait for the food for at least 10-20 minutes but the wait had always paid off – I knew that the food was not heated up in microwave. We pulled over at the restaurant in Zugdidi and buried our faces into the menus in no time. We ordered Khachapuri, cheese balls, some more cheese that was mashed in flour & roasted eggplants. Fun fact: most of the times that we went out for food, we overestimated our stomachs’ capacity and had a takeaway – that is not to say that food was not great. It was finger-licking and oh so different. Georgia would be a bit of a tough nut for vegans but as a vegetarian you can do fine (that is if you cannot live without eating out regularly). We could fill our stomachs up for about five – ten Euros per person. All the food we ate, felt as if though it was home-made by our mothers, who wishes you nothing less than falling in love with her food and always coming back home for some more.
We visited Dadiani castle and walked around the town to stir up the food in our stomachs. We then went to get some more food for the road and continued driving.
Ben and I really wanted to get to Mestia and stay there for our second night. However, we forgot about the concept of time and very soon it started growing dark and the road was only getting worse. Apparently, there were some road constructions happening ahead of us (or may be that was how the road had always been). To add to the experience, the road was also growing narrow and when another car was coming towards us, we would either be blinded by its long lights (very few drivers knew how to turn them off, apparently) or could not see where we could pull over to give a fellow driver a way. Manuel started looking some places to stay in the nearest village, which happened to be Khaishi. We had no idea what the place was and it took me hours to memorise the name. So we decided to stay there.
It also took us a while to get to the location. When we arrived to the house, we thought we would stay in, Manuel, after speaking with the owner, told us that we had to take the road up the hill. When we saw the road up, we got terrified (mainly because we could not see it clearly) and driving up felt something like this:

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But ten times worse and in complete darkness. Clearly, we could not have picked a better place. Our (mainly, Ben’s) hard work was rewarded when we arrived at the guest house – a very hospitable lady greeted us, showed us the places and offered us some food – bread, honey and fruit jam. It was a delightful and heart-warming welcoming. Then her husband came over and showed us the pictures of the places he visited in the north of Georgia and places that where we were heading to.

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We woke up quite early in the morning to get ready and take a shower. I could not tell from Ben’s face whether he was looking forward to driving the mountain roads again but there was not much of a choice after all.
Remember when I said it was fun crazy and entertaining to drive around Georgia? It sort of made us feel more alive and appreciate the little things more. However, we had no little things around us – we were surrounded by the picturesque cut-outs from the paintings drawn by the best artists. We could not but stop every now and then to take a few pictures and admire the view.

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We all started dreaming about buying a house somewhere around the mountains. Surely, it would not be more expensive that a house somewhere in the south of France. However, I found out that while foreigners could purchase a property, they were not allowed to purchase land for farming (not that it was my dream to start my farm in Georgia) but it would still be a nice-to-have.
After a few hours of driving, we finally reached Mestia – a small town surrounded by the mountains. Before we reached another guest house, we needed to a) fill the tank and b) get some food. We were tempted to go with the latter option first but decided to pull by the gas station.
When we entered the gas station, Ben forgot which side of the car the tank was on. Great. So we thought that we would reverse and get into another line. While Ben was thinking of how to turn around (the station was not very spacious, you see), another car came behind us. The space was shrinking and so was Ben’s clear vision. He was making the ritual of turning the wheel here and there, looking around and about, and started the execution of his plan. After a few turns, he added a bit too much speed and we heard a lot of noise coming starting to come from the workers. We also felt that we touched something ahead of us and stopped the car. That “something” was a f***king billboard. We reversed and decided to drive through the line we were in and then change from there.
We really thought that we did smash the front of the car and went out to inspect the damage. To our relief, we only touched the billboard, which left a smudge of black paint on the car.

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After that magic trick, the workers at the station gave Ben a nickname – “Schumacher”.
Once we have caught our breaths, we went on driving and arrived at the local restaurant to re-fill our stomachs. We had yet another course of finger-licking food. To entertain ourselves, while waiting for the food, we were reading the menu in English that had a lot of funny typos. For instance, they called “beer” a “bear” and mineral water “Borjomi” as “Borjomo”.

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F***king Borjomo. Oh man.
We headed towards the guest house and got a pretty neat-looking room and comfy beds. Without hesitation, we went out to start looking for things to do, where and how to get to places. We visited a tourist centre and I asked Manuel to check where we could go horse-riding. The girl at the table gave us some numbers and told us how to get to the observation point, Hatsvali, Koruldi lakes, Ushguli and what we could do in the town.
Once we got out of the tourist centre, a driver approached us and offered us a drive to Ushguli for around 50 Euros (for the whole car) there and back. We politely rejected his offer and continued walking to search for a better offer.
We stopped by the mini-bus centre and got three return tickets to Ushguli for 10 Euros each. Not too shabby. The only downside to that was that it only went there once a day at 10 a.m. Apparently, 50 Euros for a car was a fixed price there. I would only suggest taking a taxi if you do not have much time or arrived to Mestia a bit too late (just like us). However, we had a few other places to visit around the town and so, we decided to stay in Mestia for two days (although, we originally thought it would be a one-day trip). We were fine with that.
We started walking towards the ski lifts that would take us up to Hatsvali – turned out that the first line, out of two, was closed.That meant that we had to get to the second point ourselves. We came across a car that stood at the turn to the ski lifts and saw an Asian guy approach us, asking if we were going up top as well. Manuel used his power of negotiations on the drivers and got a bit of a discount for us to go up top. We got in the car and the driver was a bit taken aback and annoyed that we were pondering over his offer for too long. “You will not get a better price anywhere else, anyway!” he said.
And onwards to the ski lifts we went.

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Our new companion was from China and his name was “Meow”. Not even joking. He was passionate about tourism and said that one day he would really like to work in that industry. He would certainly be entertaining to the foreign tourists.
Going up the Hatsvali was awesome. I took a few pictures for your eye-gasm. Enjoy!

After taking a stroll around Hatsvali and loads of gasping, we went down together (the view was even better coming from top) and met our driver. We asked him how much he would take us to the Koruldi lakes for and he offered us the popular flat fee of 50 Euros for everyone. We did some quick maths and agreed to go there as we were four…so each of us would pay less…well, you get the point.
We pulled over in Mestia and got some bread before going. Manuel brought us three huge breads, called “Shoti”, and we started wolfing them down (one peace was somewhere around 20 Euro cents). I was falling in love with the country yet more and more but could not tell it to the others about it as my mouth was full of bread – it was enormous and delicious.

 

To continue to Part III click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Self-Titled Part I

Ballbag is a term that was coined back in 2003, primarily referring to a gentleman’s dignity. However, the word had accumulated another meaning (by a small portion of people) where I live, which was commonly referring to “lad”. That was back in 2015. Afterwards, that word took an interesting direction and found itself in a sweet spot between a “what-on-earth-is-this-guy-doing”, “this-lad-does-not-think-straight” and “this-lad-is-a-really-kind-lad”. Throughout the course of this adventure, the “ballbag” term has been altered slightly again. No, actually, it has been perfected. So much, in fact, that it was crystal clear to us. We were true ballbags – very kind and polite chaps, who were looking for an adventure in any place (whether it is for fun or glory), [intentionally] get into trouble and make stupid mistakes (to the point that we collectively feel sorry for ourselves and everyone around us).

Originally, the trip was supposed to include a visit to South Ossetia and Karabakh but I discovered the will to live and postponed visiting those places until some other time (furthermore, we had very little time to spare and visiting those two places in addition to the ones we’d been to, would have proven to be challenging). And so, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia were on the table. Luckily, we had a local guide in Georgia, who volunteered to travel with us. Let’s call my friend, Manuel (I have known him back from the university times). He was not really keen on visiting other two countries with us, so he politely declined the offer. However, my Turkish friend (let’s call him Ben) was with me all the way until Armenia, our last destination. We started putting the places down on paper that we wanted to visit in each country and discussing our route – what places we visit first, how long we would stay in every place, how much it would cost us, etc. My heart desired to visit mountains, Ben wanted to see more forests in addition, and Manuel was cool with whatever we decided to do.

I decided to give Manuel one last call before our trip to confirm the route towards mountains from Kutaisi and back. Manuel confessed to us that our route would be long because there was no asphalt road from mountains and back. What that meant was that we had to travel all the way from the mountains back to Kutaisi – that was bad news as that shrinked our possibilities of visiting other places that we originally planned to see. Ah balls. Months upon months worth of planning went all the way from the production cycle into “what on earth do we do with this now and how?” We had to improvise quickly and re-map our small adventure. Ballbagging phase number one officially kicked off.

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We had great suggestions for places to see in Azerbaijan too – my other friend suggested us a couple of places to see there and helped us find a car to rent. Armenia was last on our list, so we decided to leave it be there like milk in the fridge – you know that it is there but you’re afraid of drinking it now because you’re not entirely sure if it went sour. Also, my ex-colleague lived in Yerevan and gave a few tips for places to visit. I jotted her ideas down and let them be there. Clearly, both Ben’s and my highlight was Georgia – plus, we had so much more time ahead of us to plan our other two trips anyway, so we were not too worried.

Manuel met Ben and me in Kutaisi airport on 26 September 2018. Manuel came there with our car that Ben had the fortune of driving (since he was the only one with the driver license). It was Mistubishi Pajero IO from 2014. Unfortunately, we forgot to ask our car renter what kind of gearbox the car had and to Ben’s surprise it was automatic, which he did not have any experience of using. While Manuel and I were exchanging our life stories (we had not met each other for a couple of years), Ben was checking out youtube to see how to use automatic gearbox. That clearly made Manuel raise his eyebrow and question Ben’s driving experience. I told Manuel that he had nothing to worry about and that Ben would do just great – he just needed some time to adjust and he would pick up automatic without any problem. I mean, it was a peace of cake after all. After about an hour, we started moving and Ben began his ritual of summoning his inner beast (it was hungry, I could tell) and dedicating 100% of his attention on the road towards Kutaisi, which was our first place to stay in.

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Our place looked pretty authentic in Kutaisi (and no wonder, it was one of the cheapest options to rent) – it was quite an old place that threw me back into the late 80s – right in those times where people had carpets on their walls, old and squeaky wooden floors & furniture. I cannot say that all of us felt like home but we were fine with our choice. Our stomachs directed us to go and find a place to eat out in the town and get some tourist information. You see, we wanted to visit the canyons (Martvili and Okatse) that were close to Kutaisi but we found out that they were closed because of the rainy weather. So we let our stomachs feast upon some kebab, bread and beer. We exchanged some money & enjoyed seeing how locals drove down the roads in the town. Ben was, to say the least, not impressed with their attitude on the road and started wondering together with us when we would crash first & how bad it would get. After walking around, we got back to the car and headed out of the town.

Google Maps was our least favourite man on the mission – it very much enjoyed deceiving us by showing weird turns and corners that actually weren’t there. We ended up pulling over every ten or so minutes to ask locals for directions. Eventually, Ben had his first taste for curvy and narrow roads towards Sataplia cave & Gelati monastery – both of the places were close to Kutaisi. My friend told me that it was a normal occurrence to see pigs and cows on the roads in Georgia and he was totally right. The more cows and pigs we had seen, the hungrier we were getting, so we made our way back to Kutaisi to get some more food, rest and head onwards the next day.

On our way back to the guest house, we stopped at the traffic lights (I can still clearly see that night clear in my head) and we continued driving. Ben was still getting used to the automatic gearbox and that was when the car headlights met an innocent-looking elderly lady crossing the street in the middle of the road. In addition to pigs and cows, it was totally normal for pedestrians to jump in the middle of the road and scare the living s**t out of you as well. Ben did not hesitate and switched the gear all the way to “P” (parking) and stopped the car. Clearly, he panicked and switched the gears to break (which does not need to be done). Manuel and I were probably envisioning something terrible to happen to that lady right then and there. We released a deep breath and went on driving, complaining about people being so lazy to get to a zebra crossing. Unacceptable.

We found a parking spot, pulled over, and a smell travelled right into our nostrils. This was the smell of something burnt and got us thinking…

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Upon a closer inspection and some sniffing around, we found out that the smell was coming from the wheels. Clearly, those were the breaks.

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Great, now we had a car with broken pads on the first day of travelling. The owners of the car were 200 km away from us in Tblisi and we had limited amount of time to deal with that issue (we barely had time to find places to eat out in). To fight with our stress and suppressed bouts of anger, we decided to go out and eat something local fatty foods and drown our sorrow with beer. Obviously, Manuel was far north from “OK” and was grim about me not telling him in advance that Ben did not have enough experience to conquer them mountain roads. The only thing on Ben’s mind was long face of Manuel and big calculator (in his mind) that was summing up the expenses to fix the breaks. Everyone’s concern was the time, of which we had very little.

The atmosphere during our dinner was tense, to say the least, so we headed home with full stomachs and empty heads, still questioning what was real and what was not. While I was telling Manuel not to call the owners of the car to tell what had happened and convincing him to go on driving (because Ben said that the breaks just became “softer” and not broken), Ben gave us the best news of the day: “hey guys, so my friend has just told me that the breaking pads should be totally fine. If we did destroy the breaking pads, we would not be able to use the automatic gearbox. So we should be all good!”

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F***ing amateurs.

That was a weight off of our minds – we later found out that replacing the breaking pads was an enormous amount of work for a car repairman – he had to disassemble the whole gearbox (which would take him one hour and more), get the breaking pads (I bet they had to match our car’s breaking pads), it would cost us a lot (because insurance did not cover them), we definitely then had to ring up the owner’s of the car about it, etc. The whole process did not sound as great as eating khachapuri – so we were glad about the fact that the car was in order. We agreed to keep a close eye and strong nose on the car wheels over the next coming days before we entered the mountain roads.

Next morning began with smelling the breaking pads, which still had the scent of panicked driving from the day before. We continued to drive and agreed that if the breaks were to really affect our driving that we would give the car back to the owners. We visited Bagrati cathedral in Kutaisi to enjoy the panorama view on the town and headed towards Prometheus caves. Manuel said that it would be exciting. The cave was close to Kutaisi. We took the tour guide through the cave and a short boat ride as well. It took us about an hour to go through the cave and the view was mesmerising. I heard that it took about 100 years for the crystals to form by a centimetre. Some halls in the cave were used for weddings as well. Just look at this:

 

That was magnificent, to say the least.

After feeding upon some cave air, we headed back to the car and moved direction Mestia to look at the mountains, more sheep and cows.

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To continue to Part II click here

0.17 (Trip to Poland)

Best moments of your life start with “You know what? F**k it. Let’s do it” and this is where you start feeling that you’ve got nothing to lose and everything else to embrace. Ironically, following that expression is when you start planning that “f**k it” moment. I mean, you have to plan these kind of moments so you can get the best out of them. “Only planning” moments won’t bring you any further without doing something about them. So if you feel like learning a new language or creating an event, make sure you end up doing it.

Disclaimer: this does not apply to all of the situations and you are the one taking the risk of taking the aforementioned paragraph seriously. Think wisely and just do it. You have been warned.

Back in February last year I thought of travelling to Poland. You know, cheap, quality beer, stunning-looking girls, friendly people and good weather. You know, Poland! My friend invited me over to come visit her in Krakow and my colleague and friend from work was from Poland too. Boom. It all matched. Thank you, destiny.

My other friend, Pavel (a.k.a. Pablo) went with me as well. When I told him about my idea of travelling to Poland for two weeks to see the country, his only question to me was: “When?” I liked his spirit from the very start. And so we went to Warsaw together with my colleague and Pablo arrived later that night. Our plan was pretty simple: drink magic liquid, see places, meet new people, repeat. However, walking about the city with a hangover was not a good idea I can tell you. Luckily, magic beer “Lomza” saved my day and no matter how many bottles I’d had, I would never get a hangover the next day. Sacred liquid. And apart from all that, we had a plan to visit as many cities/towns as we could – we were ready for anything.

Krakow. I had been told that quite a number of Krakow people (to be precise 90%, according to my friend’s calculations) did not like Warsaw. Why? Because half of Warsaw had been rebuilt and the other half of the buildings were old? Well, I liked it anyway but Krakow people had something against Warsaw. The old town of Krakow was marvellous – huge, old…you know, just like any other Old Town in Europe. However, not far away from Krakow Old Town there was a Jewish district full of bars and fast food places with Zapiekankas. That national dish has since become my new religion.

Krakow had lovely spots to visit and cool tattoo culture going on there. If you wanted to get tattooed in Poland, then go anywhere but Warsaw. If you would like to visit “salty mines” and be salty there – you are more than welcome to do so. Although make sure that you plan this because the mines are 20 minutes away from the city and the tour would cost you about € 20. But I’d been told that the salt there was too salty.

One other thing I’d noticed about Poland‘s night life were bars and pubs – they were usually small and comfy and each place that you went to had its own atmosphere unlike in other places in Europe. If you got bored of one pub and wanted to visit another one, you would not be able to tell the places apart (especially under the influence of alcohol). It was a genuine pleasure to explore new pubs and see Pablo being asked for his ID every time he ordered alcohol. They also had a bar called “Pijalnia”, which you can find in any Polish city. They sell beer/shots for 4 zloty (~1 €) and food/snacks for 8 zloty (~2 €)heaven on earth.

Katowice was the next on the list and considering the size and feedback about the place, we did not have much to look forward to there. Pablo and I ate some more Zapiekankas and got our stomachs ready for evening liquid. We stayed at a couple’s place, who we found through “couchsurfing” and Sara showed us around the place, cooked with us and treated us with stories about her and her partner’s adventures. They also had two cats that behaved more like dogs. Reincarnation went wrong.

If you would like to visit Auschwitz, then you can do so from Katowice. Buses usually leave every 1-2 hours and you can enter the place without paying for a guided tour. Or else you can head to a place called “Zakopane” to do a bit of hiking and see some Polish mountains. Although make sure that you go there after April/May when it’s warm and tourist season has not started. It would also be cool to head to Slovakia after Zakopane but since it was still snowing there in March, we decided to stick to the map and head out for…

Wroclaw that had more German influence on it unlike other places we’d seen in Poland. Old town was lovely and that was where I tried “Tartar”, a.k.a. “Steak tartare”. It was a crazy idea at first but after two beers, I could eat a pony. I saw the raw meat with a yolk on top of it, chopped vegetables and bread on the side but was still hesitant as my reflexes kept on telling me to cook that meat. Nevertheless, I was told to mix it all together with the fork and spread it over the bread like a sandwich…I felt quite tense but then something else happened. A smile emerged on my face and I felt like something holy entered my rows of teeth and tongue. Tartar…it was blissful. The more time I spent in Poland, the more I ate and drank, the happier I felt there. It was, simply put, godlike. We were also hosted by awesome Sir, called Kuba, who took days off to show us around and spend time together with us. Polish people are really nice.

If you consider the expenses in Poland, I can tell you that most things are twice cheaper there than, say, in Baltics. If you feel like buying some clothes, then do not – prices are similar to the ones in the Baltic states. But not only did food taste good there, it was also much cheaper. Eating out is cheaper and the service is better. That being said, you are looking at having great food and cheap booze! However, the rent in Warsaw is not that cheap than you think but would you care if you could have litres of that amazing beer everyday? Exactly. I doubt so.

Poznan looked unlike any other place that we’ve seen in Poland. It came across as “foreign” to me and something felt pleasingly wrong about the place. I enjoyed its atmosphere and it was definitely worth seeing and exploring. We’d also been told that Poznan had the best Irish pub (evarrr) that had the tastiest Guinness served in Poland. They lied.

Although we could not find a couch host to stay at, we had to book hostel. Here is the pro tip for y’all – if you do think that you may need to book a hostel, do so in advance (caps-lock this in your mind) and make sure that you either do so via “booking.com” or “airbnb”. You’ll save yourself so much more time and relieve yourselves from hassle. You’re welcome.

Also, you’ll be able to find bicycles to rent out around Poland. For just € 1, you have the whole hour to cycle around and if you would like to travel more, just top up your temporary account that you open and you’re good to go. You can ask locals how to do that when you’re there. Revolut pre-paid card came in pretty handy when I had to buy anything in Poland.

Torun was next on our list and by Jove how many people had told us that it was much better than Bydgoszcz (a.k.a. Bydgozzjhgzxchhzh). And I would neither disagree nor agree. The only place you want to see there is the Old Town and munch on Torun’s gingerbreads. Literally, there is nothing else to see.

Bydgozzjhgzxchhzh was not so bad as people said it would be. I was told that it had changed throughout years and the Old Town area with old and picturesque buildings was worth going taking multiple pictures of. And that’s about it. Nothing else to see besides “Zabka” shops that are literally 10 m distance away and a few old but neat-looking buildings here and there. Also, you can buy beer 24/7 but are not allowed to drink outside in public.

Gdansk was coming up and as expected, it felt like it was missing from the Baltic trinity. Like Poznan, it felt quite different to me and Pablo and we quite liked it for this. We also thought about travelling to Gdynia and Sopot, which were close to Gdansk to enjoy some panorama views but since we were short of time and there was not that much to see there anyway, we had to enjoy the rest of the day and head out for…

Lodz, which was an exceptional city. By “exceptional” I mean that it did not have an Old Town (mind=blown for a European) but instead it had this Piotrkowska street that stretched for up to 5 km in length and was known as a tourist area, full of pubs, shops and Zapiekanka temple. Best Zapiekanka was eaten by me there. I still dream about it even up till now. But since Lodz was quite an industrial city and there was nothing else but old factories to see, we headed back to…

Warsaw. If you ask me what places I’d recommend you to live in, it would definitely be Warsaw and/or Krakow. However, considering the fact that moving by bus between cities is quick and cheap, you can always move around the country if you get bored or feel adventurous. But those two places are the ones I could imagine myself live in. Both cities have an amazing and colourful night life, foreigners, great vibe and of course…the Old Town. Ta-daaaa. They’re lovely.

Am I trying to say that Poland is amazing and I would not mind moving there to live? Why not? However, travelling feels more like this “move-in” to me and I can tell you that from the start, it was a bit inconvenient but after a week, I fell out from my “comfort zone” and felt like travelling through the whole world. Travelling engulfs and sucks you in. When you stop travelling, you just freeze within a wall, waiting for it to fall to set you free. When I’m writing this, I feel like going back and exploring more places, getting to know more people and feelings. It does sound cheesy but try it yourself. Go out and travel for a couple of weeks to a place that you’ve wanted to or thought of and trust me, you’ll not come back home the same person. Get the f**k out of your comfort zone, mate.

Bittersweet

“Some people die at 25 and are only buried at 75” –
Benjamin Franklin

My American friend, Michael, accompanied me for the trip to “warm places” back in August 2016. I initially was supposed to go there on a business trip in the wake of September but the company I worked for allowed me to run away from “the sacred beauties” of the Baltics three weeks prior to the business trip (i.e. instead of purchasing the flight tickets only for the business trip, I booked a ticket to fly over to Ukraine for a vacation first). As Mike had only one week of holidays, he suggested me to visit Odessa, Tiraspol (in Transnistria) and Chisinau (Moldova) together with him. He was really stoked to see Transnistria, while I wanted to enjoy Moldavian wine and see dozens (literally) of my relatives in Ukraine.
I flew with Turkish Airlines (they treat you with good food and smiles) and was chatting with a lovely Estonian girl through the whole trip to Istanbul – she was on the way to her relatives in Georgia. I hope I could go there one day too (boom – already planned this trip for 2018). She was travelling alone though – but her heart was already taken by someone else (awww) so my compliments already started wearing off pretty quickly after that (girls mention their boyfriends out of the blue in the middle of the conversation – or may be it is there strategy) and we just continued talking over “friendship barricade”. She was an interesting person nonetheless.
I arrived to Istanbul to wait for the connecting flight and had quite some time to waste. So I was walking around in search of the Wi-Fi to entertain myself with memes from 9Gag. All networks were password protected and a local cafe shop wanted me to buy some food/drinks from them if I wanted to connect to their Wi-Fi. That’s how you make a business! I then approached a stranger, who was sitting close nearby that same cafe and asked her if she knew the password by any chance. She gladly shared it with me and that stroke a conversation. She was from Sweden (finally it was time to practice my Swedish!), and was going to Africa for a week to give some inspirational speeches to the people in need (she is working for some NGO) for a week or so. By the time we got around to talking about Swedish FinTech, my flight was approaching, so I bade a warm farewell to her.
I arrived to Kiev to get on the bus to Odessa right away. When I got to Odessa, I then took a taxi (I absolutely forgot to bargain with the taxi driver, so I overpaid a few Euros) to get to the hostel to meet up with Mike, who had a flight from Tallinn to Odessa. He although said that he was deeply unimpressed by the Ukrainian airport. We were hanging out with his two other female friends around the city for the next couple of days (I assure you that it was a pure coincidence that we were mingling so much with the girls on the trip), eating, drinking, staying at the beach – having fun, basically. Odessa felt like sauna packed with oceans of shops in August – it felt like every second person living there felt that it was time to do some business and sell something.
Ukrainians are very honest people, I can tell you that. If a girl does not want to dance with you, she will say “no” before you take another breath. If they like you – you will know. Easiest “women manual” I have ever come across thus far. It is quite easy to strike a conversation with them and chat away but I barely met anyone who would speak English there and if you ever go to Ukraine, it is a good idea to arm yourself with a local or Russian speaker (otherwise, you may be ripped off when buying something – obviously, not in the stores – or get lost in the city).
After a couple of days in Odessa, midnight “English breakfast” from a local restaurant close to our hotel and late night beach parties, we were finally ready to set off to another location. We got on an intercity bus – this was when Mike and I felt that real adventure was about to come – we were on our way to Tiraspol from Odessa. Not even joking – it was a regular intercity bus about to cross borders in an hour or two! Nevertheless, Prendnistrovje (a.k.a. Transnistria) is an unrecognised country within Moldova. As they wanted to be a part of neither Ukraine nor Moldova, they had remained that way for over 20 years. However, they still want to be a part of Russia (more than a half of people living there hold a Russian passport).
Apparently, anyone can visit Transnistria for up to 24 hours (on the border, a chap with “KGB” sticker on his shirt will ask you the purpose of your visit, your occupation, address you are staying at and give you a migration card – as far as I can recall, they do not stamp your passport at all). If you leave the border later than 24 hours, you will be fined. If you want to stay longer (which I believe you can up to anywhere between 1-3 months, depending on your citizenship), you need to ask the host to extend your visit for acceptable X amount of time with the help of local “KGB” or superman, whoever they have there. On another note, definitely make sure you get yourself a Russian speaker as barely anyone speaks English there.
We rented an apartment in Tiraspol through booking.com and our host, Eugene, gave us a tour around the town. He told us about the organisation, called “Sheriff” – known by all people in Transnistria. They had their gas stations, infrastructure, football club – basically, they were a huge monopoly in the country. Despite that, people still appreciated “Sheriff” and what they had done for the country.
Tiraspol looked like a frozen city – it felt like it time-travelled back to Soviet Union and was looking up to Russia (still) for a better future. Locals seemed to be fine with that. For Mike and me the trip was a totally new experience. But the highlight of the trip there was seeing plastic Transnistrian coins – I would not be surprised if people played poker with that money (they do look like poker chips) and the nightlife. We went out to a local club and met quite a few folks who had travelled through Europe, Asia and heaps of different countries but came back either because of their families or of something that did not work out for them there. The locals were distantly friendly to us but even Mike could not impress them with the fact that he came all the way from the US to Tiraspol (apparently, the locals had travelled quite extensively!) and the fact that I was from Ukraine, living abroad, raised no eyebrows either. What the locals were, however, impressed by was Mike’s Russian (as it was pretty good at the time) and our “afterparty” was basically others teaching him all sort of expressions in Russian.
After our active one-day trip in Tiraspol and breathing in the spirit of “I-want-to-be-in-Russia-someday”, it was time to move on. We boarded the bus to Moldova. That was when where proper Turkish sauna began – starting in Chisinau. Bear in mind I was already sweating the whole 4 days before arriving to Chisinau but there I felt that my forehead was like a lamp and I was so desperate to summon a genie that I kept on rubbing it (from the sweat) every two minutes. So hot it was there – above 30 degrees, in fact.
What was interesting about Chisianu was that half of the city looked modern (somewhat close to your “regular Baltic capital”) and the other half was swarming with street markets and cheap prices like in a small town. We met up with two locals there (through Couchsurfing) and went to a place to eat. The food I ate was so rich in taste and every piece of that beautifully executed chicken in the soup (zjama), mamaliga and plăcintă made me feel closer to Jesus (not that I was dying or anything). When they asked me if I preferred Moldavian women to food, I could not talk – my mouth was full all the time. And home-made wine was something out of the barrel (literally)! It felt so light, tasty and bittersweet. I would not be able to drink any other wine any more but Moldavian (may be Georgia will change my mind this year).
I also got a tip from one of the locals – if you ever want to see Moldova, rent a car (€ 15 per day) and go around the North of the country. Locals say it is worth it, if you want to see what Moldova really is made of. Eat here as much as you can as well and go wild on grapes too!
After a few days, Mike headed to Bucharest, to see some more Roma folks and I got on the bus back to Ukraine (it was a sweaty and humiliating bus trip for me) to visit my relatives. I travelled around some more Ukrainian cities and then went to the village close to Kremenchug where my relatives lived. I sadly could not learn how to ride a motorcycle or fish with a bamboo fishing rod just like in good old times (the motorcycle was broken and my uncle did not have time to fix it, sadly, and fish in the lakes were a size of a quarter and the owners of those lakes were greedy bastards, who charged you unreasonable prices to go and fish there). My uncle often dreamt of fishing like in good old times too, he confessed. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant stay with my relatives for a week before taking off to the business trip in the town nearby.
Cherkasy. Spelled with one “s” as I learned when I entered the office the first day. I had side-by-sides with the IT dudes – I showed them what I did in another office and talked more about products that I worked with and they showed me their witchcraft. Some of the things on their screens looked really scary – almost enough to summon the Satan himself, it felt like. Cherkasy was a small but cute town. If you have work and family or bunch of friends there – it was alright. The place was really small and stagnant though. Folks were at a loss of suggesting what I could see here after recommending me to visit a park and a monument, close to the beach. Conclusion – fine with beer for a day or two there!
I had passed Kiev it by so many times but never had a chance to walk about and explore that magnificent city. I am so glad that I had done that on that trip. It was miraculous at night time and there were more pretty women – I do recommend you to spend at least a week here. There is a ton of places to visit and things to do. Although, bear in mind that getting somewhere for an hour within the city is considered normal. Chatting up with someone out of the blue is considered sane though (unlike in Baltics and Scandinavia) and I had missed that so much – you can start a chat with literally anyone in Kiev and people were always glad to help out. Kiev ticked in all the boxes for me and I cannot wait to come there again to stay longer.

To be honest with you – that trip woke me up and pushed me out of my comfort zone quite a bit and I had been craving to see more places after that. Getting out of your comfort zone is always the way to go! Staying at hotels, getting a tour guide and all the other trivial and typical tourist crap – do you really need it? Use Couchsurfing to meet up with new people or ask your friends around for some more friends who live in the place you are planning to visit. Easy trip is never a fun and educating one. Yes, there were a few hoops and uncomfortable travels (like me sweating the whole bus trip back to Ukraine) and so forth but I broke shackles of comfort and “a new little me” was born at that time – I noticed that I changed and that was the change I anticipated to experience the most. I learned new things, talked to new people, tried different food and drinks – I felt alive. There were hoops and ladders to cross and climb and challenges to face but by the end of the day I still could feel the bitter-sweet taste of this trip in my mouth. After the cup of tea, of course. No sugar.