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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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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. Motherf…”
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.

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 followed 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!

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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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?

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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