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!

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

Check out Part X here 

 

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

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

Whatever. After about 20 or so minutes, we could see the seeds turn into nice, juicy plumps. Luckily, I took a photo of the car before the journey – we compared and could not tell the difference. We were overjoyed, to say the least. The guys went on polishing the car, while Ben and I were celebrating outside.
Our plan for the evening and the next day was to spend time in Baku and walk around. I was going to meet a friend of a friend, Mike, who would pick both of us up and show local beauties. Unfortunately, Mike lived too far away from the city centre, about 10-20 km, and said that he would be busy the whole next day, so he only had the time for us that night when we were supposed to arrive. Ben and I were fine with getting a hostel (even though Mike said that he would be happy to host us) as it was more convenient for us that way.
We messaged the inspector Gadget and told him that we would arrive at his car rental shop soon. Ben and I were thinking of what to say in case the conversation would go sour. After all, we were not sure how it happened to the car. Thanks to the mechanic, we were more certain that someone may have hit us, and considering that around 80% of the people we had met, tried to screw us over, I did not feel bad for the guy at all. The front bumper was already replaced in the past (according to the mechanic) and the car was scuffed a bit anyway, so it was not new. Plus, we broke it, we fixed it and we did not do the job badly – the car did look like new, so I doubt that anyone could have done it better anyway and I suspect the owner would not have been bothered by it as much as we were.


After heavy evening’s traffic on our way to Baku, we finally arrived. I reached for cigarettes and began chain-smoking, awaiting for the car owner to arrive. I was surprised how Ben kept his cool as I am not sure how I would have – we still had to give the car back and hope that we could walk away like nothing happened. So the owner came out and asked us if everything was alright and how we enjoyed the trip. We told him that everything was great and that the car drove like new. After a few moments, he started inspecting the car and pulled his flashlight out. I could feel that something would happen and he surely noticed the polish done (although the dent was not there), so he took it for scratches. Ben broke into a chat in a language I could not understand, so I lit up yet another cigarette. I waited, and lit up another one. As I was thinking of going for the third one, they stopped talking, shook hands and 75% of our deposit landed onto my hand. Phew.
We took our belongings and headed for a rendezvous point to meet Mike. Ben and I were overjoyed, despite the owner noticing the polish, and we spent the whole time talking about the car while waiting for yet another car to appear and pick us up.
Mike was a fun lad and with a lot of stories to tell, so we did not hesitate to share all of our recent life events in a restaurant in the centre of the city, which was really good and quite cheap. We filled our bellies and went around the old city and pass the Maiden Tower, towards the boulevard, with the view on the sea, and the Flame Towers, with an awesome panoramic view on the city.

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Baku was an interesting city indeed – it was a curious mixture of the soviet and muslim spirit, yet neither dominated over another. And it is not a bad thing by any means – it was something unique that you don’t get to see much at all. Ben and Mike went on to talk politics. As I got a good chunk of politics at the university already, I was more thrilled to lit up yet another cigarette and enjoy the night view.
It was already past midnight and it felt like we got our fair share of night lifestyle in Baku, so Ben and I decided to look out for a hostel to stay for the night. However, it was hard to find any place (for a reasonable price) at 1 a.m. in Baku, for some reason. Finally, we managed and got a room for the two of us in the centre of the city. We bade Mike goodbye and started settling down. The owner of the hotel was a young, friendly guy so we talked to him for a while and later on got under the blankets.


The next day, we had about till 7 p.m. to entertain ourselves in the city and get on the train, back to Tbilisi. Ben really wanted to try out local water pipe with tobacco inside the melon. So we headed into the city and found the place that Ben spoke of. That place was also a restaurant, so we got our menus to select some fine dishes from and Ben asked for the water pipe. Surprisingly though, the price for it was not included anywhere on the menu. I think we made the same rookie mistake as before – we ordered something without knowing the price. Obviously, that pipe cost us 50 Manat, which is roughly 25 Euros. Ben immediately wrote Mike about it and, clearly, we were screwed over, according to him. The normal price for a water pipe was around half of what we had paid. Luckily, Ben volunteered to pay for hookah while I paid for the food. At that point, I was really upset that wherever we went in the country, we were continuously being tested with: we had to bargain all the time, ask price for everything in advance (because people over there did not like including the prices in the menus) and be dummy targets for people to make money off of us. By far, I can say that Azerbaijan was the worst tourist experience out of all countries I have travelled to. But those mountains up north though – they were still worth going to.
After we had finished the meal and tea, the owner of the place offered us another portion of complementary tea (wow) because he, like Ben, was also from Turkey. So he was happy to have Turkish people dining at his place.

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

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

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To continue to Part XII click here

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

Check out Part IX here

 

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

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

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

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

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

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To continue to Part XI click here

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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To continue to Part X click here

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