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

Check out Part II here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Kyrgyzstan

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In Tajikistan

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In Uzbekistan

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In Kazakhstan

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

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

 

To continue to Part II click here

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

Check out Part XIV here

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Roads That Cross Part XIV

Check out part XIII here

 

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Val and I had quite a few topics to cover while on the road and he was not shy tell anything. We talked about Armenia, people, their relationship towards the neighbouring countries, and their best (political) friends. Strangely enough, and from what I got from the conversation, Armenia did not really have close allies. I mean, the people or country that they can call their best buddy. It felt like they were, may be even deliberately, completely on their own, with a heavy burden of their past on the shoulders. But yet they did not want to isolate themselves. It was more of being unable to find someone who would really understand their struggle and look in the face of their old ghost, and say: “This looks familiar to me too”. Nevertheless, Armenians came across as a friendly folk and unlike in Azerbaijan, we were being treated like friends that time around. I simply told Val that Ben and I were looking forward to having fun and exploring the country and he said that he would be happy to make our time memorable. He sure did.
Our next stop was Areni and the nearby cave, where the wine was born. We dropped by a small shop, which had dozens of wines and home-made spirits for tourists to try. First four wine bottles were free of charge for anyone to try but for 1 Euro, one could taste a dozen of them, as well as cognac and other spirits. Before Ben and I were told anything else about the small exhibition, I put the money on the table and we proceeded to try our first wine, accompanied with some snacks, like lavash and cheese. As the drinks were being poured, the girls were telling us how each wine was made and what it was made from. It was pure joy! We both tried about a dozen of different wines, two kinds of cognac and vodka. All made in Armenia. After the tour, we had complementary tea and coffee.
I asked Val if it would be possible to do horse riding around the winery and he told me that it would be a bit of a challenge to find one around. Luckily though, Val spotted a passer-by and asked them for a contact number of a person, who would be able to help out. He called him, and said that there would be two people who would be interested in horse riding in Areni. The stranger gladly agreed and said that there would only be one horse. It would cost us about 15-20 Euros for the two of us for one hour. It was quite pricy, agree, but I had never ridden a horse, so I persuaded Ben to go for it. We waited for the guy to show up with a mighty horse and I was already envisioning myself sitting atop its muscular, strong back and riding against the wind in the wilderness of a small village of Armenia.

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By the time we had to meet the guy, I had built so much excitement that I was ready to pay him anything he’d ask for. After all, it would have been my first time riding the horse! We walked up one of the hills and stood there waiting for him. After a few or so minutes, two figures emerged from the distance and they were walking our direction. As they were approaching closer, I could see it was a middle-aged man with a huge belly, which was bigger than the horse itself. The man approached us and I could clearly see that it was not a horse…

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A f***ing pony! Come on! Well, it was too late to back down, so I told Ben to get on first. So he did. After cruising for about ten or so minutes, I approached him and got on the pony. I was still excited to ride a…pony, but unfortunately, it was too young, too slow. It felt like riding on an elephant. So yeah, lesson learnt – ask for a horse and say it if would be anything but the horse, there would not be a deal.
After that disappointing ride, we drove towards one of the caves. It was sadly going to close shortly but Val spoke to the staff and told that we’d be quick. One of the staff members reluctantly let us go up with him but after a few minutes, he brightened up and was giving us a small tour inside the cave. Yes, Ben and I are nice and friendly folk!
Our guide showed us the pots, where the wine was kept under the ground and sand for years and also the remains of people who were sacrificed (to the god of wine, of course). Hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, the wine was treated as the holy drink and not everyone was allowed to drink it – only those from wealthy, or known families. And one would not drink the whole litre bottle in a few hours (like I tend to do on Fridays) – it was one or few sips only.

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It was time for us to head back to our hostel. Ben and I found another one, close to the city centre. It was a Thai hostel, which was interesting. We picked it up because it was the cheapest that we could find, so we were looking forward to checking in.
I asked Val if he could take us down to Tsaghkadzor for a ropeway tour (the place that was closed on our first day) and even though Val did not have to do it, as our agreement was only for a two-day trip, he agreed nonetheless. We also wanted to visit Hankavan, a small village where one could go on a summer resort to but we decided to spend more time in the city instead. So our plan for the third day was to visit Tsaghkadzor, genocide memorial and see the city. On the fourth day, Ben would travel to Belarus for a few days before heading back home and I would head back to Georgia for a few days to go to Kazbegi and catch a flight back.
Val drove us back and just like with any cheap hostels, it took us about 10 minutes to find the door…or rather manage to call the owner and ask him to find us because we could not find the door. He was quite friendly and relaxed – he took us into a big hall and there we saw our room. The rooms were separated by, what looked like, plywood and the boards were about 2.5 meters tall, so they did not even touch the ceiling. Naturally, this was a recipe for a disastrous night sleep and boy was I right. I could easily hear someone whispering a few meters away from us, let alone snoring (that was loud and clear). Ben and I went grocery shopping and drank some peach vodka that we got on our first day. It still tasted amazing.
We were offered a Thai massage by an employee in the hostel and we politely rejected the offer. Mainly because it would cost about 15 Euros for an hour. I found it a bit too much in my books. After some more reasonable drinking we both went to sleep. Well, that’s Ben and I would wake up every few hours because of someone snoring. And I would wake up very early in the morning because our neighbours decided to have a chat in the hall.

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Val met us by the hostel and we drove towards Tsaghkadzor, which was not that far off the city. There were plenty of people there too, who wanted to go on a ropeway tour. We got in line and waited for our turn.
The tour was amazing. In about ten minutes we got on top of the hill and spent some time walking around. Naturally, we were approached by locals, who asked us if we wanted to get a ride on a barbie jeep. We learnt our lesson (the hard way) from Azerbaijan and asked how much it would cost. We were told that it would be around 40 Euros, which was the same as renting the car from Val for a day. Clearly, were being ripped off, so I told him to get lost. We resumed the walk and spent about an hour or so walking around, enjoying the view.

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And here is what the saw while going down on the ropeway.

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It looked stellar! Val was kind enough to also take us to the genocide memorial, where we spent a considerable amount of time in the museum. Val said that it would take us quite a while to see everything there, so we asked him what the average taxi fare was and went our merry way.
We spent about two hours in the museum and I am sure that one could spend there way more time if they read everything there was to read there. Ben and I took a taxi back to the city and went to a small restaurant, which served amazing falafel sandwiches for just 1.50 Euros. Once we’d filled our stomachs up with amazing lunch, we went to explore the city. We took a ride on the metro and went to the centre. I unfortunately did not take names of places we visited, as we were just simply walking where the road would lead us, but I did take some photos.

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And there was our trip to Armenia. Ben and I went back to hostel to get a good night sleep and look back at the fun we had had, and the places that we got to see.

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(red – 1st day, green – 2nd day)

We covered quite a few places in Armenia within three days and I would say that it was a good amount of time to spend in the country and more would have been an “overstay”, in my opinion.
The next day, as agreed, Val met to pick us up at the hostel. While we were driving towards the airport, I asked Val what on earth “jan” stood for and why Arthur called me “Timjan”, and not just Tim. Apparently, “jan” meant “sweet” in Armenian. It was a friendly way of adding that at the end of one’s name. How nice!
Ben got on the airplane, and I got on a minibus at the bus station and headed towards Tblisi for a few days. Ben was heading to Belarus, Minsk via Moscow and he texted me after a few hours to say that he was stuck in the airport. Apparently, he needed some sort of a transit visa for Russia, which was news to both of us. Neither of us would even think of such a thing and I don’t think that Ben was even given a proper explanation at the airport as to what kind of visa he actually needed. So Ben had to buy the flight tickets directly to his home instead, and cancel a short trip to Belarus. Sad that he did not decide to join me in Georgia. I was very much looking forward to coming back to Tblisi to meet Manuel and visit Khazbegi, before heading home. Once again I would see the mighty, tall mountains, before the trip would come to a conclusion.

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To continue to Part XV click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – One More To Go Part XIII

Check out Part XII here

 

One more country to go – that’s right! I could not believe how fast the time flew. A few more days and Ben and I had to leave hack home. All the great food, fun people and beautiful nature surrounded my hills and mountains – poof. Gone. Wicked!
Our next destination was Garni – one of the oldest temples in the country. It was used to worship the god of sun/fire back in the day. The views surrounding the temple were as interesting to look at.

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And that’s about it – we did not have anything else to explore there, so we came back to Val and proceeded to Geghard, a medieval monastery.
While on the road, Val asked Ben and me if we wanted to try out some local, home-made vodka and before I could say “yes”, I saw a few stands a few hundred metres away from us, which were surrounded by the baskets of fruits and vegetables. We stopped by one of the stands and Val asked for a few shots to taste. It was vodka made from peaches and it tasted great! We grabbed the bottle and went our way.
Geghard was most famous for housing ancient relics, such as the spear that pierced Jesus on the cross. I very much liked how raw and dark the churches and monasteries of Armenia were – a sight to behold!

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It looked somewhat gothic to me, in the form and share that the insides of the monastery were preserved. We explored the monastery, walked a bit more around the premises and got back to the car. The next destination was another monastery, Haghartsin Monastery.
We were lucky enough to witness a wedding there. Val told us that weddings in Armenia stretch for days, where family members and friends of both bride and groom bring tons of meat and alcohol and go wild. At that point I was thinking how amazing it would be to marry an Armenian woman!
We also saw old Armenian scripts and asked Val if he was still able to understand them but he unfortunately could not, as the writing of the language had changed so much over time. So we left that mystery, and happy young couple behind us for Dilijan, a small neat-looking town in the north of Armenia.
And next on our list was the Sevan lake – we were excited! Also, we met Arthur by the lake, who was taking care of his group of tourists. One guy got so hammered on the trip that he went swimming naked – his wife, to say the least, was embarrassed and had to calm him down (he would get a bit shouty every now and then). Ben and I found a few small boats by the coast and we approached the guy, who threw the rope over to park the boat. We asked him if he could get us onboard and for the mere 10-15 or so Euros for all three of us, he agreed to take us around. It was quite windy but the scenery was great!

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The only thing that was missing on board was alcohol but luckily, the boat trip was short so we did not feel too bad for too long. We got back to the shore and went up the hill to get another view over the land and the lake. It was beautiful.

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There were a few small churches up the hill – the country is plentiful of them. Similarly to Georgia, Armenia was also deeply religious and you would not want to joke about that over there either (unfortunately for Ben).
We descended the hill and told Val that we would not mind snacking some local food. He drove us to the restaurant nearby, called Collette It was quite popular and Val said that we would love it and we certainly did. They even had crayfish kebab on the menu! Wow – I really wanted to try it out.

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But unfortunately it was out of season so they could not serve it to us. Good to know they did not cook frozen food. We ordered some kebab, bread and local cognac, Ararat, which tasted wonderful. Since Ararat was, literally, everything to Armenians, they named a lot of thing after the great mountain. Man’s name, cigarette, food & alcohol brand and many more were things were called and branded as Ararat.
Val, in the meantime, grabbed a cup of coffee and waited for us in the car. The food and drinks were so great that we wanted to stay for longer, have some more and go party but we had one more place to visit for the day, which was Tsaghkadzor.
And we were too late! We arrived there at about 5.00 p.m. and the ropeway tours were unfortunately closed. I asked Val to take us there the next day and he politely nodded and said that if we had time, we would certainly go there.
He dropped us off at our hostel, where we did manage to keep the room for ourselves, so we stayed there another night. Ben and I armed ourselves with some cognac and spent the rest of the evening chatting and relaxing.

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The next day, it was finally time to visit the great mountain Ararat or rather, look at it from a distance, since it was on the Turkish border. The place that we started heading towards was Khor Virap, where a monastery lay with an outstanding view on the tall mountain.
When we arrived, Val nodded and said that he would wait us by the car as we proceeded to towards the stairs up the hill. As we were walking, a couple of locals approached Ben and me with four pigeons in their hands. They both literally shuffled pigeons into our hands and told us to hold them tight. “There, make a wish and then let them go!” they said. Ok, Ben and I wished of something irrelevant and let the birds go. Before we could make another move, the guys told us that it would cost us 10 Euros each.

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Naturally, we broke into an argument. “But oh well, you know, we raised the pigeons, fed them and now they will never come back!” was their argument and they would not let us go. Val stepped in and they started speaking Armenian. Ben and I exchanged angry stares. “Ok, Tim, Ben, just give those charlatans 6 Euros each and let’s go.” And we did. At least I felt good about the pigeons being released from those scammers for good, so it was worth paying in the end. Val interrupted my thought by saying that those guys trained pigeons to come back to them when released, so the poor birds could not escape their fate.

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We got to top of the hill to admire the scenery and take some great photos.

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We walked around some more and went back to Val to drive to one of the oldest wineries in the world and drink some in the village of Areni. Exciting!

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To continue to Part XIV click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Seat Belts Are Optional Part XII

Check out Part XI here

 

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We made it back to Tbilisi in one peace. Crossing and leaving Azerbaijani was a peace of cake – we were asked a few friendly questions and went our merry way back to the rocking beds of the train. As you can imagine, I did not get to sleep that much on the train, so I was looking forward to getting on a minibus, reaching Yerevan and burying myself in a bed. Luckily, our friend Manuel did help us with booking two seats on the minibus – our only other choice to get to Yerevan was on a train but it was much more expensive. Since Tblisi was far from being “digital”, Manuel made a few calls and reserved two places for us. If you do visit Georgia, you either need to call people to book bus tickets or go directly to where they sell them, and buy them on the spot. Yeah, I really missed Europe then and how easy it was to buy pretty much anything online.

When we arrived at the bus station, we still had around one hour to wander about. We got to a shop to buy some snacks and a giant shoti bread (I could not get enough of it in Mestia) and found a small, cozy restaurant close to the bus station. The prices, however, were not as welcoming but we decided to eat something anyway. When we were approached by the waiter, she immediately proceeded by telling me to take my hat off (it was rude) and I barked back at her to serve us something that could be prepared quickly. We waited…and waited…and were finally presented with some food, at long last. The longer I had to wait, the angrier I was growing – I did not want to miss the minibus. I picked up my hat and we rushed to get on the minibus.

Fortunately, getting to Yerevan was quick – about four-five hours, including the border check. Ben was most nervous about it as Turkey did not get along with Armenia and vice versa. We reached the border and Ben asked me if he could go in front of me in the queue. So he did and he crossed it sooner than I could take a third breath. I passed the passport control soon after him.

We still had no plan for Armenia and what places we wanted to see. We figured that since we would arrive to Yerevan later in the evening, we would sit down and explore at the map.

As we were driving towards the capital, I was admiring the country: it had heaps of hills, forests, some lakes and neat-looking villages. I liked it – much more than I did Azerbaijan. Yes, it was not as green and pristine (to an extent) as Georgia but it was good. Here, I managed to take a few photos while we were on the road.

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The city was…ok. Although, there was no interesting architecture – it looked kind of dull…It felt like it was one of the uninteresting districts of Berlin that you have to go through to get to some club to have fun, only that there were no clubs around for miles. Alright, it was not bad but it was certainly quite (even during other days when we stayed in the city).

Ben was particularly reluctant to rent a car in Armenia, even though he was getting better at driving in Azerbaijan.

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OK, just kidding. But he was indeed improving. Last thing that Ben wanted for him to happen was to sign a car rental contract and be pulled over by the police. Considering the political complications between the two countries, it was a wise decision to use 60 km/h guidance of the local buss network. However, if I had the driver’s license, I would have signed the car rental document. We kept on strolling around the city and it was actually looking much nicer in Northern Avenue and around the area. While we were casually looking around and taking photos, we noticed quite a few cars parked around and saw that some of them had banners or photos of the local sights attached to them. We walked closer to take a look at what it was and we were approached by a friendly-looking, elderly chap. He asked if we were tourists and wanted to have him drive us around the country. It looked, firstly, suspicious but then he gave us a neat price and Ben went with the flow of the conversation, so I knew it was a good sign. Basically, the offer was that he would take us around about 6-8 places during the next two days and on the third day, he would give us both a free lift to the airport and/or bus station. The price was around 45 Euros for the two of us and we would leave in the early morning and come back by the sunset, and spend as much time as we wanted at the sights. I took his phone number (let’s call him, Andy) and he bade me farewell. “Hope to hear back from you, Timjan!” Timjan? I just told him a few minutes ago I was Tim – why the “jan” (pronounced as “John”) at the end of my name? Weird.

I talked to Ben and we immediately checked the prices of renting a car in Yerevan and the cheapest that we could find was around 30 or so Euros. Considering that we also had to pay for the gas, put the deposit down, etc., it was a no-brainer that we would call Andy back to agree on the car trip. Still, we walked around and asked how much others charged for the comfort of being driven around. Unfortunately, there were only minibuses that would normally take about four-six people, so it made no sense to pay the price of the six while we were two, even though the drivers told us that they would be happy to take us.

Ben and I started heading back to the hostel and bought some wine and cheese on the way. We were rejoiced, to say the least, and once we had come back to the hostel (where the lights were back on!), we called Andy and said that we were down for the trip for two days and I tried to negotiate on the discount. “Timjan, unfortunately no, this is the lowest that we can ask for. We will take you to the bus station or airport after the trip, so that will save you quite a bit on the taxi!” Where on bloody earth was that “jan” coming from and why, I still could not get my head around. “Fine”, I said. “Let’s do it! Looking forward to our trip tomorrow”. “And also, Timjan, there will be one of my friends who will pick you up, as I sadly won’t be able to be there for two days with you. His name is Val – he is a really kind and friendly lad. You’ll have a blast with him!”

And so Ben and I opened a bottle of a fine local pomegranate wine and a box of cheese, pieces of which were individually wrapped in and sealed like a small money pouch bag. It was delightful. We were happy that we had to spend no time in organising the bus to drive us places, and think of what places to see during the next three days that we would spend in the country. Brilliant. We still looked up the sights that we would see in the next few days with Val and were excited about the trip.

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We woke up quite early the next day. We went down to the reception and asked if we could stay in the same room for another day. The lady told us that there could be reservation coming in soon, so she told us to wait a bit longer and give her a call back. Strange.

Val was waiting for us outside, sitting in a shiny sedan. We greeted him and put our rucksacks in the trunk. Val was a calm, middle-aged man (and quite friendly indeed), so right from the start I could feel that the trip would be fun and we would not get sick of him. He told us that the first place we would go to would be Garni, a small village with an ancient temple (as I am writing this, I am looking up pictures of the temple taken during a rainy autumn day and does it look gorgeous!). I put the seat belt on and Val said that I did not have to. “Timjan, just sit back and relax. Feel like you’re in the couch – the car has a lot of space”. He did not put his seat belt on either and we started driving through early morning’s traffic jam and onwards to our first sightseeing of Armenia. I could sense that it would be an awesome trip!

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To continue to Part XIII click here

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