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!

Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – The Midnight rails to Azerbaijan VI

Check out part V here

 

We finally boarded the train towards Baku in Tbilisi early in October and were looking forward towards a new adventure. We were planning to stay for about four-five days in the country. That time around, though, it was only Ben and me as Manuel had to take care of a few things at home and then resume with work.
Honestly, we somewhat prepared for our trip – my friend from Azerbaijan advised us on places that we had to visit and what things we could do. He also offered that we met his friend in Baku to show us around. I gladly accepted the offer.
My priorities were straight simple – see the mountains, landscapes & the nature as I had visited way too many cities on my previous adventures and they could never beat the nature. Ben was happy with my plan – he had also wanted to visit national museums in the country and see some local city sights – that is a good balance for a long trip.
The boarding started at about 8.00 p.m. and we were supposed to arrive to Baku at 9.00 a.m. next day. Another option to travel to Baku from Tbilisi was by plane but there were two downsides to it – taking any luggage with you would cost you extra 20-30 Euros or so (per bag of 10kg) and the plane would arrive at 1-2 a.m. – not the best idea to wander around a big city that late at night, really. Surprisingly though, the flights were quite cheap – about 30-40 Euros one way, which is pretty much what the train cost us.
We were greeted by the staff on the train and after we had boarded, one of the train conductors asked me to translate a letter to her from English – it was from a guy who complained that the person in the wagon, who walked into his room while being drunk and misbehaved (luckily, everyone was alright). Fortunately, the person who wrote that letter very much liked the staff. We were given the blankets and Ben and I started discussing what we would do in Azerbaijan. After reviewing the map, it was quite straightforward but inconvenient at the same time. Let me show you why:

Capture1.PNGSee the yellow lines? Yep, those are the only two main roads that would get us to the places that we wanted to see (and arguably those were the only places worth checking out as people told us), which were Khinaliq, where the mountains were, Sheki and up north from there as well as Ganja (south from Sheki), which was close to the lake Göygöl. We could not see how we could possible reach Khinaliq from, say, Gebele (that was close to it) as there were no roads. Google came in handy to us same way when we were planning our route for Georgia. So, that being said, we basically had to travel from Baku to Sheki and north (that was about 300 km +) then down to Ganja (that was another 140 km +), then from Ganja back to Baku (that was about 360 km +) and then from Baku to Khinaliq (yet, another 200 + km) and then back to Baku, since we would rent a car from there and we had to return it. If we wanted to leave our car, say, in Ganja and then travel from Ganja back to Georgia, that would cost us around 50 + Euros. Does not sound great either.
You may be thinking: well, guys, why would you simply not just take a train to Armenia then (which was our third and last destination) or a flight? Why do you need to go back to Georgia? And those would be great questions. Well, long story short, Armenia and Azerbaijan aren’t exactly good friends because of the ongoing territorial conflict. The borders between those two countries are closed.
Tip! If you would like to visit both Azerbaijan and Armenia, go to Azerbaijan first and then to Armenia. It is still possible to go to Armenia first though but you may not have a fun time crossing Azerbaijani border afterwards. There still is a possibility that they would not let you in. Best case scenario, you’ll be asked a lot of questions by the border police and then let into the country.
To us it did not make much of difference whether we’d firstly go to Armenia or Azerbaijan, so we took the safest route and headed for Azerbaijan.
We were asked to fill out the cross-border papers, which was quite simple to do – we just had to write down what goods we were carrying with us and who we were. Passing Georgian border was a peace of cake and we waited for about 30-40 minutes while the rest of the train was being checked. Ben then told me about the similarities of Turkish and Azeri languages and how some differences were fun – I don’t remember them from top of my head but if you ask either of the people from those countries, you’ll have a good laugh. Basically, both Turkish and Azeris could speak to one another in their languages and still understand one another. That felt like a weight off of our shoulders in establishing “a diplomatic connection” with the people.
We had finally reached the Azerbaijani border and were anticipating to get it over with. The boarder guards came in, collected our passports and shortly afterwards, asked us to go to the consuctor’s room. I have to admit that I got a bit scared but I was greeted with a few questions, such as where I was from, what I was planning to do in Azerbaijan and whether my last name was related to my home country (obviously, it was). Same fate followed Ben and we released a deep breath when we came back to our room.
Upon our arrival to Baku, we were supposed to come and meet a guy, who would rent us a car for the whole trip. Luckily, my friend connected me with him so we did not have to go to a random car rental shop. But you may want to hear what had happened later to the car, in this blog series. Nonetheless, we were prepared to meet up with the guy, figure out our route and go on driving out of the city. I suggested to Ben that it would be best if we deove off from Baku right away rather than spending our time there first – visiting other places in Azerbaijan seemed more fun.
Tip! Make sure you bring the earplugs with you on a train – I kept on waking up every hour to the train driving – the sound isolation in the wagon was not great at all. And onwards was Baku and yet more adventures!

Bittersweet

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

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

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