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) – 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 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) – What Do You Call This Chapter? Part IV

Check out Part III here

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

To continue to Part V click here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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F***ing amateurs.

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

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

 

That was magnificent, to say the least.

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

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To continue to Part II click here

0.17 (Trip to Poland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bittersweet

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

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

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