Ballbags On The Road (Edition II) – Part III: “Later…later…”

Check out Part II here

Mike and I woke up quite early in the morning in anticipation to get moving and see more of the great land of Kyrgyzstan.
Our host, Jacky, stayed chatting with us while we waited for the driver and told us a story of living in Bishkek. Some time ago, he had a bit too much alcohol in his system, fell over and hurt his leg. He said that he was too drunk to even realise that he actually broke the leg bone. The next day he woke up and felt his leg only swollen. So he brushed it off, thinking it was a mere bruise and was limping for a few weeks until he got fed up with the fact that it was not getting better. So he went to see a doctor about it in a local hospital.
The doctor told him that the bone began growing in the wrong way (this is when Jacky found out it was broken), so they had to break the bone again and perform an operation. Considering that was the only option, Jacky asked about the price and it was way beyond this imagination. He asked the doctor if there was anything else that could be done and he was sent to a military doctor, who offered a more appealing offer. Of course, this was only a recommendation rather than an official transfer…Considering Jacky’s desperation at the time and lack of money, he headed out to see the doctor about the leg.
Good news was that the operation could be done. The issue, however was that the doctor only had local anesthesia…yep, that was the price that Jacky had to pay. Literally, The whole operation started with a few injections of local anesthesia.

It was already ten minutes past 8 a.m. and our driver, Chi, was still not around & he did not tell me that he would be late. Jacky told me that it was very typical of Kyrgyz people to be late and postpone things. Jacky lived in Bishkek for a few months then and said that their favourite catch phrase he learnt from locals was: “Let’s do it later” (“potom, potom” in Russian). It was top trending among everyone, especially in the business.
After a few more minutes I dialed in Chi and asked him whether he would come and meet us and he said he was on his way.
With a glorious delay of about 30-40 minutes he finally showed up in a neat car and we loaded our rucksacks into the boot & got in.
For a little bit of a context here – Chi is a friend of Mike’s friend. Mike asked that friend if she could put us in touch with any locals in Kyrgyzstan to sort out the car situation and this is how we met Chi. He was the man to be our driver (initially it was supposed to have been Chi’s uncle but when he (the uncle) heard that he had to get up at 8 a.m., he changed his mind and asked if Chi could do it instead). And it was not a cheap job – Mike and I paid around 200 USD for about 3 days worth of driving plus we had to pay for his food and accommodation on top of that. Yeah, can you imagine someone waking up and saying “F**k no, I am not going to wake up this early and drive for 3 days to earn that much money. Who would do that”? Well, I can. Chi’s bloody uncle.

I would probably risk driving without a driver’s license for three days myself to earn that much money. Oh and by the way, before you ask – average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is around 250 USD! And very similar attitude of locals came up many…many more times throughout our journey and absolutely messed with my mind.
Chi suggested that before we took off to the festival (which was happening south from Issyk-Kul lake), we should go and eat first. You see, Chi did not intend to be our driver for the whole ride so he said he would call his friends around and ask them if they would be willing to drive us around the country for a few days for 200 USD. Spoiler alert: no one agreed to take us.
Chi suggested we tried a local delicacy – horse meat. Mike and I were very curious to test our taste buds and stomachs so we dug in. It was surprisingly… not that bad – very similar to beef but more tender! Just imagine a big chunk of boiled horse meat on an enormous plate with noodles under it.

We had yet to try horse milk and we could not wait at that point.

And on our way to Birds of Prey festival we went! Chi was quite shy in the beginning and it took a while to get the ball rolling but after a few hours he loosened up and was chatting more with us.
It took a few hours to get to the place, which was on the South shore of Issyk-Kul lake. We arrived a few hours later though, got our tickets (which were around 5-10 USD per person) and headed straight towards a huge field, where we could already see locals playing national football.

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Basically, there were two teams who rode horses and one had to lift up a carcass of a sheep from the ground, one-handed and place it onto the gates (which were put together from a few tires). And I got to tell you that carcass was really heavy – about 20-25 kg!

We then were witnesses to “eagle championship”. Basically, one of the locals let their bird fly to a certain point on the field and the eagle that got there the fastest would win. Fortunately, it did not last long as it was not really entertaining to look at, so we headed to another field for a great feast.
And by Jove was the rice at the buffet fantastic! It was so good that not only did I fill my stomach to the brim with it but I also harassed a few locals for a recipe but none of them spilt it out. One of the locals there got a bit too touchy around my shoulder blades and kept asking me to join him for a dance (yep, there was a small disco party there) and it took about 10-20 minutes to shake my friend off. Because he did not tell me the recipe for the rice, I did not feel like I would owe him a dance. Funnily enough, they were playing anything but local / traditional Kyrgyz music, which was hilarious.
We stayed for about an hour longer and got quite bored (speaking for myself here), so we agreed to head to our next location on the Eastern shore of Issyk-Kul lake – Karakol. There was really nothing specifically outstanding about the place – it was just halfway for our journey and we did not want to tire Chi too much. After all, we had three full days to spare.
We reached Karakol and first thing that came to Chi’s mind was to eat.

And why not – we were growing a bit hungry as well. Apparently, Karakol (and its region) was famous for its cold Laghman. It was essentially regular & corn-based noodles in slightly spiced broth. It tasted fine but I was expecting the tip of my tongue to catch fire. So far, nowhere where we had travelled did we get “spice-jacked” and it was a shame. I was really looking to bite that hot pepper but it started becoming clearer and clearer that no such hot spice was going to be found on our plates.
I usually don’t do a research on food before I go abroad as there usually is little point to it – I will be talking loads with locals and ask them all those questions anyway. Furthermore, they will gladly tell us of the best place to go and eat out.

After we had eaten, Chi concluded that there was nothing else for us to do in Karakol, really, and that we could drive farther up north. Conveniently, Chi’s partner was staying there for summer & there was a hotel in Bosteri (the town we’d be staying). Chi had told us that he would get us some discount to stay for the night and we ended up paying about 20 USD per person for the entire room, which was not big and literally had only two beds. Yeah, it was expensive. But hey – the place had two jacuzzis outside, so that was worth the price for us in the end.
As usual, we agreed with Chi to meet as early as possible so we could see as much as possible during the day and knowing that he’d most likely be late, I asked him to be on the spot at 8:00 a.m. exactly. And I stressed that he had to be there on time and not a minute later as Mike and I would not want to be waiting for 40 minutes again…

Ballbags On The Road (Edition II) – Part II: The History Repeats Itself

Check out Part I here

I’m joking – we landed just fine! Though both Mike and I slept very little, as we had a flight during the night, we were ready to get moving once we had landed in Kazakhstan, Almaty. It was 9 August 2019 that we made an appearance in Central Asia.
We originally planned to stay in the city for a few days and then head out to Bishkek but we had already booked a car trip with two other fellow travellers and they could not make it later than 14 August. Furthermore, since we had to go back to Almaty at the end of the trip for our flight back anyway, we figured we might as well spend time there later. So from 9 till 14 August we would just breathe fresh Kyrgyzstani air and enjoy picturesque sceneries. And it all fit into our plan anyway – first Almaty; then we travel to Bishkek and see other places and cities in the country; then we have a long stay in Tajikistan – drive down Pamir highway for around a week and then stay in the capital; and from there, we would head straight to Uzbekistan, see things there; and then conveniently take a train towards Almaty and spend the remainder of our time there.

A great plan, isn’t it?

And there we were – early morning, Almaty airport. We quickly picked up our belongings and started going towards the exit, where we were greeted by a few taxi drivers who offered us a ride. I told all of them not to bug us and we went our merry way towards an ATM to withdraw some cash and see them pretty foreign banknotes. Once we got some money on our hands, I started chatting with a taxi driver. I asked how much it would cost us to get to the bus station and he said it would only be 1,000 KZT (around 3 USD). Mike and I were astonished – we quickly got into the car and got moving. The driver had shown me his phone and repeated that it would be 1,000 KZT (this is what some app showed). I said that I had trusted him and we went on chatting about the usual – where are you from, what do you do, etc. Once all the simple questions had been covered, our driver and his work mate (who was in the passenger’s seat) started talking about the politics. The usual. At that point it felt like the time froze and I could hear my facial hair grow…
Once we had hit the breaks, the driver pulled out his phone and shown me the figure of 20,000 KZT on his phone app. Obviously, lack of sleep and coffee prevented me from pulling a face of a shock. The bastard charged us 1,000 KZT PER kilometer.

Bloody hell. BLOODY HELL! And there were two of those fat bastards sitting in front of us – I really doubted (at that time) that arguing would get us anywhere. We just simply got served – oh, the sweet moments from my past visit to Azerbaijan! The history repeated itself yet again.

I left the car and withdrew the money…50 bucks! Man, oh man. Much later I found out that once could pay 1,300 KZT to get to the airport from the city.
However, we learnt our lesson and became much more diligent until the end of our trip. Luckily, that was the only time we got properly served during the whole three weeks or our trip.
While we hurried towards the bus station random drivers offered us to take us anywhere we wanted. I told them to sod off and headed towards more affordable, giant cars.
On a brighter side of the moon, had we stayed and argued with the taxi drivers, we may have needed to wait for another 30-60 minutes until the next bus…or rather minibus. We paid for our tickets, went to the potty and caged ourselves into the minibus.

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Despite our unfortunate loss of Mr Ulysses S. Grant, we were lucky to get the last row of seats. There was an interesting looking gent, sitting right next to Mike. The guy’s name was Hugo and he was from Mexico. Mike and I were taken aback by that and started asking him what on earth he was doing in Kazakhstan (as he did not look like he was a traveller).
Hugo moved to Almaty together with his partner years ago and they were overjoyed with the country so much that they had decided to stay for a long while. Hugo even learnt Kazakh (instead of Russian, which was spoken by more people in the country) and was on his way to cross the border, so he could renew his entry visa to Kazakhstan (I believe he would be granted 30 days if he had crossed the border). He had to do that for some time as I believe that he was about to get visa from a new job (in another city in Kazakhstan) some weeks later.
We had a lovely chat with Hugo throughout the trip (our story with the taxi shocked him too by the way) and at the end, we exchanged our phone numbers to stay in touch.
Going through the border was a piece of cake – and quick too! Once we had crossed the border, I told a few more taxi drivers to sod off and got back into our (then, much lighter) minibus and continued towards Bishkek.
It started to get quite pretty past the border and I already started seeing the mighty hills of Kyrgyzstan.

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And soon enough we were in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek. We started feverishly looking for our taxi driver friends and soon enough, found one. That time though, we bombarded him with questions, like: what’s the full price for the ride from here to X? Is it the price per person or for the both of us? What will be the final price for the ride? Will we be the only passengers or will anyone else squeeze in on the way? Yep, those two taxi bastards taught us a lesson, so we had to think of them dearly till the end. We negotiated the price and took off. The driver started off a very familiar game of “where are you from, what do you do” and then told us that he did not really like the city and that there was not much to do. It used to be a desert about 30-40 years ago according to him and so seemed to be quite upset about the fact that people wanted to build buildings to have somewhere to live…
Anyway, we headed straight to the hostel, where one of our mates, Jacky, worked (he owned the place). The hostel was very simple and cheap – we literally had carpets, which we slept on, with a pillow with blanket. It was quite hot in Bishkek, so we did not really need more.
Mike already had his visa sorted for Pamir Highway (in Tajikistan) online. I could not so I had to go to a Tajikistani embassy in person to do so. I know, it is quite dumb. Those who don’t need a visa to visit Tajikistan, have to go to the embassy to apply for the visa for Pamir Highway (which is done separately), while those who needed a visa to Tajikistan, could apply for both visas online.

Something for you to bear in mind should you decide to visit the country.
I took my passport, money and we headed towards Tajik embassy, which was conveniently located about one kilometer from the hostel.
Mike and I started strolling towards the place when I suddenly realised it was…Friday. Right around 3:00 p.m. Friday…which meant that the embassy would not be open during the weekend and we weren’t sure when and if we’d be back in Bishkek again, before heading out to Pamir Highway…

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Good job, Tim – great planner. Honestly, if we ended up arguing with those sneaky taxi drivers back in Almaty, our trip would not have been so smooth because I did not know how soon the visa would be ready (forums on the internet said it could take up to one day) and I did not want to stay around in Bishkek, waiting to get that visa.
Soon later I had arrived and was greeted by a form, which I promptly filled out on the spot. I handed it over, went for my wallet to take out shiny, crispy and elegant Euros, when the consular officer looked at me and said: “We only accept dollars and I’d need your printed-out photo”. I moved my finger towards USD bank note and pulled out a familiar 50-dollar banknote and asked if he was able to scan my passport photo or whether it was possible to take a photo right in the embassy. The officer said that he did not have a change (the visa cost about 20 USD) and that I had to take a photo of myself elsewhere.

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Fine…I asked for directions and the lad had explained to me how to get to the market to get a photo taken and exchange the money to smaller bills. I had roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes until the embassy would close, so, I had to rush again.

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I made it back on time, though, and once I handed in the money and photos, the consular officer put a stamp in my passport right away and said I was all gucci. So much work and bureaucracy for a single stamp. Anyboom – I was glad it was over with.
Mike and I headed back to hostel to leave my documents, and we then went for a stroll around the city, and to get some food and liqueur for the night.
The city was not a looker but we liked its humbleness nonetheless.

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We returned to the hostel and met new people, who would be staying with us for the night. I ended up spending the whole evening drinking Screwdriver with a Japanese girl, who was travelling for about one year non-stop. So I sat on the edge of the chair, listening to her trips and new places she was planning to visit next. She saved enough money back home so she could travel the world for as long as she could. I would really love to do the same one day!
Mike came up to me soon later to say that there was some national festival taking place on 10 August, called Birds of Prey, which was taking place at Issyk-Kul lake. Mike really wanted to go there, while I was not really interested in it, and we did not plan it. Furthermore, I had to call our driver (who we booked for three days) to tell him that he had to come to pick us up earlier, so that we could make it to the festival. Mike insisted and I made a call.
The driver was provided to us by a friend of Mike’s friend, so I called him (Chin) and asked him if he could come and pick us up at 8:00 a.m. instead of the agreed 12:00 p.m. He said he could make it but I could sense that he was not quite happy with such request.
Sure it was a long and tiring day but I was glad that the visa situation was out of the way. More adventures were on the way…

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To continue to Part III click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition II) – Part I: As The Prophecy Foretold

And we’re back with our regular program where a couple of ballbags venture out into the wilderness and occasionally concrete jungles. I do have to admit that while last time’s trip to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan was heaps of fun, I certainly could not have stopped just there – I wanted to taste more foreign food, look at more mountains and get farther out of my comfort zone. While Ben, sadly, could not join me to take a leap of faith with me this time (we were initially thinking of spending a few weeks travelling through North and East of Turkey, and the remainder of the time in Iran), my other mate, Mike, put his name on the line. Just like me he was fearless and ready to become one with the nature and get to know new folks.
I had plenty of time for the trip – six weeks, in fact. The choice of where to go was actually pretty easy and straightforward – just keep going East until you have reached one of the many seas! The idea was to see Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan (this took a while to memorise the spelling of), Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, while Mike was not as flexible with time as me, we agreed that we’d spend about 3 weeks or so on the road. Mike would then head out back home and I’d go back to Europe – I really wanted to visit Mongolia and South Korea too but I did not want to have instant noodles on my lunch menu for the next six months. What I am trying to say is – it was really expensive.

Mike and I had been thinking for quite a while to agree on what countries it would be worth visiting besides those other four. Turkmenistan was also considered but we waived it off as both of us had to apply for visa to be eligible for a visit and considering a slightly complicated political tension there in summer/autumn of 2019, it was a wise choice to skip it. Travelling to Mongolia was very pricy – we would either have to take a bus (which would take us two or three days to reach the capital from Kazakhstan) or get on a plane/train. The prices for the latter options were roughly 300 Euros for one way trip only – and no matter what month I would choose, the prices would remain fixed. As for the bus prices – well, even if it was cheaper than the alternative, we did not feel like wasting time as it was more precious than money. We would not know because you could find barely any information about bus tickets online about any of the countries (we had a very similar experience when travelling in Caucasus). I do have to say that I am all in favour for mystery factor and all but when it comes to planning trips in advance, then that thrill for the unknown grows into an uncomfortable tension of “what if this ends up costing us too much?”. As for South Korea – same story. Same prices to get there on a flight and even more to spend when there.
And so – it was decided. We sticked to the four countries where we would set our feet on for the very first time: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan (I misspelled this country way too many times by now), Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Three weeks and we better have fun there!
While all our other friends and colleagues would travel to South America and other EU countries during the summer, I kept on hearing from them:

Indeed – why? My sarcastic answer “because” did not help, unfortunately (same mystery factor). Well, ok, if you search for the photos of the nature in those countries online, you would be amazed. In fact, I’ll drop a few photos of mine here so you can see what’s about to come and what more of you’re about to see later in this blog!

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In Kyrgyzstan

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In Tajikistan

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In Uzbekistan

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In Kazakhstan

And you know me by now – if I know that there will be mountain ranges, lakes and nature, then I would be there in no time. Furthermore, since I lived in the EU, the flight tickets would not break the bank for me and Mike. So yeah, we were genuinely excited for what was about to come!

Mike and I refilled our cups with coffee and went to ask our friends for advice as to what to see and do in those countries. Mike had some friends from Kyrgyzstan, while I knew a few people from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Sadly though, none of us knew anyone from Tajikistan. On top of that, we used the help of uncle Google to see what places would be worth visiting and discovered many other blogs and forums to find out the best ways of moving around. I will do my best to sum up all the useful websites that I came across and share them here for those of you who are either curious about or are planning to travel to Central Asia. A brief disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the websites that I will be listing throughout the blog. Also, by the time you have read this, it may be worthwhile to refresh Google search results and see if any other helpful websites and forums were created to help you with planning your trip. However, there were quite a lot of things that we could not book or plan in advance, and in a typical fashion we had to improvise on the spot and go with the wind.
Overall though, the trip was a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to sharing our journey over the course of the next few months!

 

To continue to Part II click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Ending On An Odd Number Part XV

Check out Part XIV here

 

So was the trip worth it? Absolutely. It was also worth the whole two and a half weeks, and I was a bit sad by the fact that I had to travel back home. Another week of adventures would have certainly been more satisfactory but one can take only so much time off.
The last visit in the mountains, namely in Khazbegi was spectacular and I got to hang out for the last time with Manuel and a few other mates of mine. One-day trip to the North of Georgia was certainly more than enough (that is, of course, excluding all the hiking as the cars there can take you up to the viewpoint already for extra). Just see for yourself how picturesque it can get from up and down there.

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After the trip, I had spent another day hanging out with Manuel. He felt in the party mood on our second last day and we went back to the same “party houses” in the park in Tbilisi. I had met new people there too and they were all nudging me to go and party with them. However, I fell ill then and could not join along, so I was sipping water in the back. The next day Manuel saw me to the bus, which took me straight to the airport.
I could not help but think of those three countries as part of a family. Georgia felt like the mother – it was warm, inviting, caring and wanted to give you the most comforting welcome. Azerbaijan felt like the older brother – he wanted you to have a great deal of fun but not without the tricks that he had up its sleeves, and charge the unbeknownst tourists like us with a “surprise welcome tax”, and giggle at us. Armenia felt like the father – it was strict but fair, and made sure that no surprises from the older brother would come up again to ruin the hospitality. Visiting all of those three countries was definitely heaps of fun and loaded with adventure. We loved it.

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However, if you were to ask me, which of the three countries I would like to come back to, I would certainly tell that it would be Georgia. In fact, if you are considering to visit all three countries as well, I would do the following (and I’ve advised so to many of my friends): firstly, visit Georgia and follow the same route as we had, and add Botomi on your list as well. I heard it is a lovely place to visit in summer. Then, take a flight to Baku from Tbilisi, and travel north to see Quba and Khinaliq. Spend another day in Baku, and take the flight back to Tbilisi. Those flights operate daily (and can be easily found online) and are reasonably cheap (if you travel without checked-in luggage), in summer – last time we checked, they were about € 35 one way per person. Or else you can take an overnight train to Baku. From Tbilisi, take the minibus to Yerevan, and visit the same places as we had (you can even rent a car, or a car with a driver like we did). Then you can take the flight back home directly from Yerevan. If you like being active on the trip (without long stops), then this whole travel affair should easily squeeze into 14 – 20 days.

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I believe that if you consider to go on a serious hike and are not sure if that would be your piece of cake, then visiting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are great places to start. That should give you a good idea whether you want to invest more money and time to go hiking elsewhere. Just bear in mind that a lot of things during the trip cannot be arranged in advance (e.g. bus tickets from Tbilisi to Armenia, car from Tbilisi to canyons, etc.), so you would need to play by ear and improvise quite a bit. Look at it as another fun part of your adventure and, potential, learning curve in managing another long trip. If you are an experienced driver, renting a car while in Georgia and Azerbaijan would be a great decision. In Armenia you can relax and entrust the wheel to a driver who would take you places and it should actually be even cheaper for you than renting a car on your own. As for other general costs – I would say that you can aim at roughly 10-15 Euros per stay and 5-10 Euros per meal per person, as it is quite inexpensive to travel in those three countries, so you won’t need to break the bank.

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Thanks for reading our adventures and hope that it has been a fun read, and that my tips have or will become useful to you. Next, my friend and I are travelling through the great Stans, namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and I cannot wait to share our adventures soon! Until then!