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) – A Farewell to Georgia Part V

Check out Part IV here

 

If you could only wake up to the mountain fresh air every day, you would do it forever. It was yet another joyful day and we were all looking forward to visiting Tbilisi (besides Manuel as he had lived there) and eating some local food on our way. We stopped by at a place that everyone spoke about in Ambrolauri. Apparently, that place offered some top-notch Lobiani and it was “the-place-to-go” for the locals. Naturally, when we arrived at the place to offer our Lobiani, it was already packed with orders – so we were told to wait for at least good 30 minutes before they would be ready.
We walked around the small town, killing time. I was longing for a cup of coffee while Ben & Manuel cared about looking for some attractions. To their disappointment of not stumbling upon anything interesting & growing hungry, we headed back to our car that was parked next to the bistro. We were eagerly waiting for the food to be prepared and a small pack of stray dogs began to surround us. We finally got our order – two giant Lobianis with loads of meat in them. By Jove were they tasty! Reluctantly, we shared some with the dogs as well.

We managed to get lost while trying to understand how to get on a road to get out of the town. On our way to Tblisi, we dropped by at Gori (town) for a stroll, visited Uplistsikhe cave (I highly recommend you to check it out) and we also at some sweet bread, called Nazuki, which was sold on a road by local grannies. As we were passing through a small village, Manuel immediately exploded, sounding angry: “Oh, I f***ing hate this place!”

We were dumbstruck as Manuel was the calmest of the three of us on the trip. We asked him why all the passion and he said that he just had something against that place he did not know what it was. He passed it by quite a few times and always hated it. Fair dinkum, as they say in in Australia.
Nonetheless, I could feel that our company was growing hungry for some more fine spirits and we continued onwards to Tbilisi. Still, during our whole trip we had not been pulled over by the police even once – that was a relief & Ben did not have to worry much about losing the focus on the driving. However, all of our focus was lying in that ABS flashing up on the car’s dashboard. Blast! We had to return the car the same evening when we arrived to Tblisi and we all started thinking of what to say. Initially, Manuel said that we had to come clean. My point of view was that it may not have been our fault that ABS started acting up – after all, it was a rented car and we did not know what maniacs could have driven it before us. Ben seemed to have been in between Ben’s and my idea. Later on, I managed to persuade Ben to tell them nothing of ABS until they had found out about it themselves. Otherwise, the car was tip top.
We finally met the owners of the car in Tblisi, who examined it and asked us about the smudge in bumper – yes, we forgot (a.k.a. did not have time) to clean the car and that smudge was from the time when Ben nearly overthrew the banner in Mestia. We explained that some cleaning would undo it & then the owner sat in the car and drove away. We never heard back from him ever since.
We headed to Manuel’s place in Tbilisi, where he owned a flat and prepared for the night out!

Another Georgian friend of mine, who I had not seen in years, joined us and we started pub-crawling in a hipster place called Fabrika. It was an old factory building that had a bunch of bars and bistros in it, where people got together to have fun. I quite liked the atmosphere of the place – people talked, laughed, smoked, drank & were quite open to talking to strangers. Georgia felt like heaven to me after having lived in Baltics for so long.
Ben, Manuel and I got ourselves “Metro” drinks, which was a cocktail with chacha in it – it was only three Euros and damn was it strong! Everything seemed to have good value for the money in Georgia. My friend (Mary) finally arrived at Fabrika & we started chatting away. We were four then & started thinking of discovering new places around the city. We headed to a small park where there was an open-air party with a few bars. It felt like that American kind of a party where people listened to music loudly and drank beer in the back of their house. We all enjoyed it but had to part our ways soon – Mary had to go to work the next day (since we met on Tuesday). However, I told her that I would be back after Armenia for a little longer, so we would meet again.
We marched onwards to a few other bars and then decided to take a taxi back home. All three of us had had plenty of drinks, so we were fast asleep the moment that we had entered the taxi. We were suddenly awoken by a loud noise that came form a car – it turned out that the car’s tire burst. Once the tyre has been changed, we all went back to sleep until we had arrived at Manuel’s place.
The next day we strolled around the city and drove about to see the sights of Tbilisi, such as Monastery Jugari, the oldest cathedral of Georgia – Svetitskhoveli cathedal & the old town. That took us almost the whole day to get to see those places and we had a few hours left before our train to Baku that same evening. We finished our day with dining at a fine Georgia restaurant and set off to collect our bags.
Overall, a week of travelling in Georgia was a blast and I sure am eager to visit the country again for another week. We did not manage to see Batumi, Borjomi & other places in the North. I am sure that it would take good two-three weeks to see everything in Georgia – but note that to manage to do that you’d need to be one crazy driver.
For the record, here is the map of our journey – just in case that you’d like to plan a journey to Georgia yourself one day – it will definitely be worth it!

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To continue to Part VI 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) – Frakked-up Roads & Back Again Part III

Check out Part II here

 

I was strongly advised not go to Georgia in summer as it was normally around 30 degrees there and I hate “sweat hiking”. Not sure who really enjoys it even. However, while tenting is permitted (at least I have not heard about any restrictions), it was certainly the worst idea to do it in the mountains or close to bodies of water (especially in the evening). Although, I would definitely say that travelling to Georgia during first half of September would have been best (and it was – I did not even have to take a coat with me). However, it was hard to carry on with my thoughts on those broken roads, mate!

We were on our way to Koruldi lakes and I kept on wondering why it took an hour to just get up there (I believe it was about 1km or so up hill from Mestia). When we saw the tall hill and how steep the roads (rather, paths carved with stones) were, I wondered no longer. Furthermore, the roads were so narrow that we could clearly see our death down the hill – if the driver turned even slightly to the side, we would have rolled down the hill like drunk Santa on the sled. The best part about the ride was that that road was a two-way road.

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As we were going up the hill and shaking around the van like pickles in the bottle, Ben started telling the driver about our “talismans” that we had in our car – the icon of Lady of St. Theodore and Jesus. Ben said that we found it in the car and used it for good luck to stay safe on the road (all three of us are atheists – we still respect other people beliefs though) and the driver felt very uncomfortable about it and almost got angry at us. “How dare you even?” he started. “Religion is my life, do not talk bad about it and telling me you were using icons as talismans”. That gave us a very clear idea how deeply routed the Orthodox Christianity was in the country. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, we went on talking all like good old mates  – Georgians are emotional people but they do not hold grudges against you.

After about 20-30 minutes of uncomfortable and painful ascendance up the hill, we got closer to the lakes. The driver told us that he went up there already three times before us (on the same day!) – he should either have a strong butt or a good doctor. Kuraldi lakes were very close to the Russian border and it was a spectacular view on the mountains. We came there at the right time as well – right before the sunset.

We saw a few tents close to the lake as well and some tourists. I hope they did not freeze to death at night.

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We breathed in enough cold and fresh air and decided to start going back to Mestia before it went pitch dark. Meow, our Chinese new friend, enjoyed the trip very much and before I realised that we had parted our ways in Mestia, I forgot to invite him to join us to Ushguli the next day. I was sure that we would meet him the next day.

We reached the hostel and decided to have some drinks and smokes on our way to a restaurant for dinner. We had a little bit too much of everything and decided to head back to the guest house to rest before our trip. Once we had arrived to the guest house, we went downstairs for some complementary tea, bread and jam from the house owner and talked about our work lives, a bit about philosophy, IT hacking and our life values. We had done enough bonding and decided to head back to our room to get some sleep.

It was about midnight. We were fast asleep and then I woke up to the scratching noises coming from the roof. Ben and Manuel were woken up by the noise as well. We heard a bit longer into it and understood that it must have been a mouse. We went back to sleep and woke up to the scratching again. Jesus… Manuel took a bottle and hit it against the ceiling to scare the mouse off. We went back to sleep… or so we thought. Manuel and I woke up startled to the loud noise (as if someone hit hammer against the ceiling) and Ben suddenly waking up and shouting. “Ahhhhhhh!” We thought that Ben had seen Casper the ghost. He actually thought that the roof was coming down on him! We laughed. A lot. Manuel then hit the ceiling once again to scare the mouse away and it apparently crawled over to scratch the ceiling under someone else’s room. Poor neighbours.

The first thing that was on our minds was that scratching noise from the night. Manuel went to speak with the house owner, while Ben and I were packing for the trip to Ushguli.

Manuel came back to use with one of the best stories I had heard in a while. So check this out – apparently, there was a walnut tree right next to our window and there was a squirrel. It knew how to get to the roof of the house and it would bring the walnuts there and the crack them open against the ceiling. Our room was the luckiest one as this is where the squirrel did its job under. That sneaky squirrel…

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We arrived to get our minibus, grabbed a Shoti and mentally prepared ourselves for a two-hour road to Ushguli, a community of small villages, surrounded by the mountains.

To our anticipation, the road was way worse than we thought. I could barely take any pictures during the ride and was nearly thrown out of my seat a dozen of times. I do not reckon that it would have been possible to even walk on those roads! However, the views that my eyes captured were breathtaking.

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We had arrived to the farthest village and were given about five-six hours to walk about and explore. We decided to order some food in the nearby restaurant. Clearly, it was not meant for locals because the price tag on food there was pretty high (about three-four Euros for Kubdar – meat pie) but by Jove was it the tastiest Kubdar we had ever had. Again, because it always took time for food to be prepared in Georgia, we nearly stopped our count at 2,000 Mississippi. The moment we got two pies, we stormed out of the place and Ben, who was the pie carrier and supervisor, immediately attracted a pack of stray dogs, who were our companions all the way to the observation point. And it was gorgeous.

The rest of the time, we walked around and enjoyed the view of the hills, sheep pasturing and locals riding horses around the village. Staying in the village is quite cheap – only about 10-20 Euros per night per person, which is quite reasonable. So if you decide to go hiking in the mountains, it is a good idea to stay for a few good days in Ushguli – this is something that we may well do in the future.

Once the scent of Kubdar had disappeared from our mouths, and we got to see the whole village, we went back to the car in anticipation of another couple of hours of riding down the roads that should be put up on display in a museum.

We still had a bit of time when we were back in Mestia (and it was our last day), so we decided to go visit Chalaadi glacier that was close nearby. We had to go through the forest there for about half an hour – so we had to rush before the sunset. We got into the car and drove off towards the woods – Manuel sprinted towards the forest and we tried to follow him as fast as we could but it felt like he put on magic boots of speed, and we lost him on a split-road.

We decided to take the left path and the further we walked, the angrier we were growing – why would he leave us? Is he in trouble? Do they even have wild animals in the forest? May be he is fighting for his life against a fat bear or sucking the poison out of the open wound. And with more anger, came more concern as we hit the dead-end. We realised that we lost the bet and should have taken the other road. As we came back to the split path, it grew darker. Ben, being the wisest, told me to come back to the car before it got darker, while I insisted on going and finding Manuel. As we were deciding what to do, it got yet darker, so we agreed to go back to the car and wait for our fellow ballbag. By the time we had reached the way out of the woods, I could barely see the ground under me (and the flashlight did not help much). Ben and I agreed to call the emergency in case Manuel would not come back to the car within the next hour or so. We were not able to reach him on a phone.

Finally, Manuel sent a message to Ben, telling him that he was on his way to the car.

I was not very happy with Manuel’s need for speed while Ben was more comforting towards him. We went towards our guest house to spend the last night in Mestia with the lovely squirrel above us.

We woke up to a cold morning and decided to drive as early as we could so we could get to see more and rush less on our way. Our plan was to visit Matvili and Okatse canyons and ideally make it to Tblisi by the night. However, in a typical “ballbag fashion” we did not make that happen. But that’s a story for another time. In the meantime, we started our Japanese car, greeted the icons and continued driving to feed our eyes to some more treasures of Georgia.

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To continue to Part IV click here

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Big Bread Part II

Check out Part I here

 

Driving in Georgia had been a pure entertainment and crazy at the same time. I had heard of the mighty cows and pigs being the holy servants of the roads in the country but I was even more dumbfounded at the tricks that the police pulled off there. Off the record though, we barely saw any speed cameras and had not been pulled over by the police throughout our trip – that was great. I was pondering over and over again as to why they had not though – everyone was driving over the limit and changed lanes at random, made turns without any signals (alright, fine, I understand that it gets tiring for a driver to do (who enjoys the routine, right?) but that was terrifying to us and I cannot say that Ben could have a relaxing drive) and the police had a perfect opportunity to pull anyone over and give a meaty fine. Well, I did not have to put my mind to the test as the answer to my question found me quicker than I anticipated.
We were driving on a two-lane road outside of Kutaisi (we were heading towards Mestia) and there was a car ahead of us. Another car appeared behind and overtook us. It tried to overtake the car that was ahead of us and as it was catching up to it, the police car drove past us and tried overtaking both of them. I had to say that “the trick” looked great and we were impressed by it but when we saw that the turn was coming up on the right side and the three cars remained in one lane on the two-lane road, we started growing worried as to what would happen next. Luckily, the police car managed to overtake both cars and drove further. Once we caught our breaths, we carried on discussing what we would eat at our next stop.

Just before we had reached a small town, Zugdidi, we decided to pull over and smell the breaking pads (that was our new fetish). While Ben was taking pictures of grape fields, Manuel & I caught the familiar smell. Although it was not as strong as yesterday. Manuel insisted that we stop by in Zugdidi for the night to let the pads cool down. Ben stepped in and said that the breaks worked as good as before and because Google images of Zugdidi could not impress us all, we decided to get some food there and keep on driving.
I have to tell you that Georgian food met our expectations: it was reach in flavour, meaty, cheesy and cheap. It was quite common to wait for the food for at least 10-20 minutes but the wait had always paid off – I knew that the food was not heated up in microwave. We pulled over at the restaurant in Zugdidi and buried our faces into the menus in no time. We ordered Khachapuri, cheese balls, some more cheese that was mashed in flour & roasted eggplants. Fun fact: most of the times that we went out for food, we overestimated our stomachs’ capacity and had a takeaway – that is not to say that food was not great. It was finger-licking and oh so different. Georgia would be a bit of a tough nut for vegans but as a vegetarian you can do fine (that is if you cannot live without eating out regularly). We could fill our stomachs up for about five – ten Euros per person. All the food we ate, felt as if though it was home-made by our mothers, who wishes you nothing less than falling in love with her food and always coming back home for some more.
We visited Dadiani castle and walked around the town to stir up the food in our stomachs. We then went to get some more food for the road and continued driving.
Ben and I really wanted to get to Mestia and stay there for our second night. However, we forgot about the concept of time and very soon it started growing dark and the road was only getting worse. Apparently, there were some road constructions happening ahead of us (or may be that was how the road had always been). To add to the experience, the road was also growing narrow and when another car was coming towards us, we would either be blinded by its long lights (very few drivers knew how to turn them off, apparently) or could not see where we could pull over to give a fellow driver a way. Manuel started looking some places to stay in the nearest village, which happened to be Khaishi. We had no idea what the place was and it took me hours to memorise the name. So we decided to stay there.
It also took us a while to get to the location. When we arrived to the house, we thought we would stay in, Manuel, after speaking with the owner, told us that we had to take the road up the hill. When we saw the road up, we got terrified (mainly because we could not see it clearly) and driving up felt something like this:

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But ten times worse and in complete darkness. Clearly, we could not have picked a better place. Our (mainly, Ben’s) hard work was rewarded when we arrived at the guest house – a very hospitable lady greeted us, showed us the places and offered us some food – bread, honey and fruit jam. It was a delightful and heart-warming welcoming. Then her husband came over and showed us the pictures of the places he visited in the north of Georgia and places that where we were heading to.

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We woke up quite early in the morning to get ready and take a shower. I could not tell from Ben’s face whether he was looking forward to driving the mountain roads again but there was not much of a choice after all.
Remember when I said it was fun crazy and entertaining to drive around Georgia? It sort of made us feel more alive and appreciate the little things more. However, we had no little things around us – we were surrounded by the picturesque cut-outs from the paintings drawn by the best artists. We could not but stop every now and then to take a few pictures and admire the view.

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We all started dreaming about buying a house somewhere around the mountains. Surely, it would not be more expensive that a house somewhere in the south of France. However, I found out that while foreigners could purchase a property, they were not allowed to purchase land for farming (not that it was my dream to start my farm in Georgia) but it would still be a nice-to-have.
After a few hours of driving, we finally reached Mestia – a small town surrounded by the mountains. Before we reached another guest house, we needed to a) fill the tank and b) get some food. We were tempted to go with the latter option first but decided to pull by the gas station.
When we entered the gas station, Ben forgot which side of the car the tank was on. Great. So we thought that we would reverse and get into another line. While Ben was thinking of how to turn around (the station was not very spacious, you see), another car came behind us. The space was shrinking and so was Ben’s clear vision. He was making the ritual of turning the wheel here and there, looking around and about, and started the execution of his plan. After a few turns, he added a bit too much speed and we heard a lot of noise coming starting to come from the workers. We also felt that we touched something ahead of us and stopped the car. That “something” was a f***king billboard. We reversed and decided to drive through the line we were in and then change from there.
We really thought that we did smash the front of the car and went out to inspect the damage. To our relief, we only touched the billboard, which left a smudge of black paint on the car.

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After that magic trick, the workers at the station gave Ben a nickname – “Schumacher”.
Once we have caught our breaths, we went on driving and arrived at the local restaurant to re-fill our stomachs. We had yet another course of finger-licking food. To entertain ourselves, while waiting for the food, we were reading the menu in English that had a lot of funny typos. For instance, they called “beer” a “bear” and mineral water “Borjomi” as “Borjomo”.

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F***king Borjomo. Oh man.
We headed towards the guest house and got a pretty neat-looking room and comfy beds. Without hesitation, we went out to start looking for things to do, where and how to get to places. We visited a tourist centre and I asked Manuel to check where we could go horse-riding. The girl at the table gave us some numbers and told us how to get to the observation point, Hatsvali, Koruldi lakes, Ushguli and what we could do in the town.
Once we got out of the tourist centre, a driver approached us and offered us a drive to Ushguli for around 50 Euros (for the whole car) there and back. We politely rejected his offer and continued walking to search for a better offer.
We stopped by the mini-bus centre and got three return tickets to Ushguli for 10 Euros each. Not too shabby. The only downside to that was that it only went there once a day at 10 a.m. Apparently, 50 Euros for a car was a fixed price there. I would only suggest taking a taxi if you do not have much time or arrived to Mestia a bit too late (just like us). However, we had a few other places to visit around the town and so, we decided to stay in Mestia for two days (although, we originally thought it would be a one-day trip). We were fine with that.
We started walking towards the ski lifts that would take us up to Hatsvali – turned out that the first line, out of two, was closed.That meant that we had to get to the second point ourselves. We came across a car that stood at the turn to the ski lifts and saw an Asian guy approach us, asking if we were going up top as well. Manuel used his power of negotiations on the drivers and got a bit of a discount for us to go up top. We got in the car and the driver was a bit taken aback and annoyed that we were pondering over his offer for too long. “You will not get a better price anywhere else, anyway!” he said.
And onwards to the ski lifts we went.

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Our new companion was from China and his name was “Meow”. Not even joking. He was passionate about tourism and said that one day he would really like to work in that industry. He would certainly be entertaining to the foreign tourists.
Going up the Hatsvali was awesome. I took a few pictures for your eye-gasm. Enjoy!

After taking a stroll around Hatsvali and loads of gasping, we went down together (the view was even better coming from top) and met our driver. We asked him how much he would take us to the Koruldi lakes for and he offered us the popular flat fee of 50 Euros for everyone. We did some quick maths and agreed to go there as we were four…so each of us would pay less…well, you get the point.
We pulled over in Mestia and got some bread before going. Manuel brought us three huge breads, called “Shoti”, and we started wolfing them down (one peace was somewhere around 20 Euro cents). I was falling in love with the country yet more and more but could not tell it to the others about it as my mouth was full of bread – it was enormous and delicious.

 

To continue to Part III 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